The following is a shortened and edited transcript from a sermon preached on Sunday April 9, 2017:
“Why does your church not have the Lord’s Supper?”
That is probably the most frequently asked question about the Limerick Reformed Fellowship.
That is the question we address in this sermon.
“WHY NO LORD’S SUPPER ON THE MISSION FIELD?”
I. The Need for Organisation
II. The Need for Supervision
III. The Need for Patience
I. THE NEED FOR ORGANISATION
The Limerick Reformed Fellowship is not a church, but a fellowship. Our website states, “We are a group of Reformed Christians who meet together to worship the Lord according to the biblical and Reformed Faith.”
That leads to the question—What is the difference between a Fellowship and a Church?
A “mission group” or a “fellowship” is a group of Christians with something in common, which is the idea of the word “fellowship.” As a “fellowship,” we have the Reformed Faith in common. A “fellowship” is a group of Christians committed to the faith and who gather with the goal of organizing into a church, an established or an instituted church.
A “fellowship,” therefore, is a “church in-forming” or a church in principle, or a church at the embryonic stage. A church is a group of Christians organized under their own officebearers or elders and deacons.
For a mission work to develop into a church, it needs several things.
First, it needs the preaching of the gospel, which is the chief means of grace. By the preaching, the Holy Spirit calls unbelievers to faith, and strengthens the faith of believers.
Second, it needs a group with which the missionary can work. Sometimes a missionary begins with nothing and must through contacts create a field of labor. Usually, the missionary has a core group, which grows over time as God blesses the missionary’s labors with fruit. A viable mission group should consist of families and individuals, who are either fully committed to the Reformed Faith, or at least are willing to learn the doctrines and life of the Reformed Faith with a teachable spirit. For that reason, membership on the mission field is somewhat fluid. The people have not officially subscribed to a set of beliefs, but most of them agree with the Three Forms of Unity, which constitutes our doctrinal basis.
Third, it needs baptism. Baptism is the work of the missionary who is called to “teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matt. 28:19). The missionary will baptize adult converts and believers’ children with the view to organizing the church. Baptism is administered for the organization of the church.
Fourth, it needs spiritual growth and development. The members of a mission group are ordinarily new to the Reformed faith. Therefore, they need to learn what the Reformed faith is, and crucially, they need to learn how Reformed Christians must live. Through the patient instruction and godly example of the missionary, the members should learn how to live in single life, in marriage, as parents, in the home, in the school, in the workplace, and in society. It is not enough simply to hold to the Five Points of Calvinism, but to embrace the entire body of doctrine, and the world and life view of the Reformed Faith. The members need to mature in the Reformed Faith before the group is ready for organization.
Fifth, it needs numerical growth. I place this last because it is, in a way, the least important. There are no rules concerning the size of a group, but there must be at the very least a reasonable expectation of growth. There needs to be both internal growth through the birth, baptism, and catechizing of children, and external growth through families and individuals joining from outside. Much of the blame for the delayed organisation of mission groups is the reluctance of professing Christians to join the group—there are people who are somewhat Reformed in their theology, but who are not willing to change their beliefs and lifestyle to become active members of a Fellowship such as this one. People need to sacrifice convenience and comfort for the sake of the establishment of a Reformed church. If all the people who profess to be Reformed on-line joined local Reformed groups or moved to join them, Reformed churches would organize much more quickly.
The apostle Paul makes this distinction between a fellowship and an established church, although he does not use the same terminology that I have used. Titus 1 makes reference to mission work on the Mediterranean island of Crete. Evidently, Paul had begun to do missionary work there, but he had been called away. Therefore, he left Titus there to continue the work.
In verse 5, Paul writes, “For this cause left I thee in Crete that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting.” The work in Crete, therefore, was unfinished. Titus must bring order there and finish what Paul has started.
To express it somewhat anachronistically, Titus was the missionary of “The Crete Reformed Fellowship.” Paul wanted Titus to work towards organization (by preaching and baptism) so that the “Crete Reformed Fellowship” might become the “Crete Reformed Church” or even a presbytery or classis of “Crete Reformed Churches.”
We see from this that Paul was not satisfied with half-finished mission work. He recognized that something was lacking. A group of unorganized house fellowships or a group of informal Bible studies is not a church, because it lacks something. When that is set in order, then there will be a church, a church institute organized in Crete.
What was lacking? The answer is officebearers. That is Paul’s concern in verse 5, “and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.”
A fellowship is unorganized and is not a church institute when it does not have elders. Paul requires for organization, in order to set in order the things that are wanting, a plurality of elders—“ordain elders [plural] in every city [singular]” (v. 5). It is not biblical church polity to have only one elder in a congregation. For proper oversight and for accountability there must be at least two. This, too, was the apostles’ practice in the book of Acts.
Consider Acts 14:23: “And when they had ordained them elders [plural] in every church [singular], and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.” That had not yet happened in Crete—that was left wanting or lacking. That has not yet happened here—that has been left wanting or lacking. Therefore, if a mission group is to be organized, elders are required—if we are to be organized, elders are required in our midst.
Therefore, we need to pray to God to give us men who are qualified to be elders, godly men, mature men, wise men, and men for whom the members of the group could in good conscience vote. We need to pray to God to make the men here such men or to bring such men to us. You men must seek to become such men. You women must encourage the men to become such men. Without such men, the group could quadruple in size and still not be organized into a church.
II. THE NEED FOR SUPERVISION
That brings us to the issue of the Lord’s Supper, which is the subject of Heidelberg Catechism, LD 30.
The Heidelberg Catechism views the Lord’s Supper as belonging to the church institute. Therefore, it does not belong to a fellowship prior to organization as a church institute. In Q. 82 the Catechism asks if certain people are to be “admitted” to the Lord’s Supper. In A. 82 the Catechism insists that the “Christian church” must “exclude” such people from the Lord’s Supper by using the “keys of the kingdom.” The “Christian church” is the church institute and the “keys of the kingdom” belong to the church institute. Those who “admit” or “exclude” persons from the Lord’s Supper are the elders.
This position of the Catechism is biblical. Christ instituted the Supper in the Upper Room in the presence of officebearers—He is the chief office bearer, the head of the church, and the apostles were like elders. (In fact, Peter in I Peter 5:1 is called an elder). Interestingly, therefore, the first communicants in the New Testament were office bearers.
The references to the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament are to the church institute. In Acts 2:42, we read, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” and in verse 47, Luke adds, “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” Clearly, then, the Lord’s Supper belonged to the instituted church in Jerusalem. In Acts 20:7, Paul preaches in the church in Troas in which on the first day of the week “the disciples came together to break bread,” which is probably a reference to the Lord’s Supper. The only other reference to the Lord’s Supper is in I Corinthians: in chapter 11, Paul rebukes the Corinthians for failing to distinguish between the Lord’s Supper, which belongs to the church, and their ordinary meals, which belong to their homes (see I Cor. 11:20-22).
Not everyone is permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Most churches would agree with that statement—they would not want heretics or grossly immoral people to “break bread” with them. Sometimes the one administering the Lord’s Supper will issue a warning or make an invitation: “We invite all those who are sincere Christians to join us at the table of the Lord. We warn those who are living in wickedness to stay away.”
The Reformed churches have viewed such an approach to be inadequate, if not reckless. The Catechism asks, “Are they also to be admitted to this supper, who, by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly” (Q. 82)? Notice the word “admitted”—if people are admitted, someone must admit them. Someone with authority must give them permission to come. Notice the word “excluded”—if people are excluded, someone with authority must refuse them permission to come. Those with authority are the elders, and the act on behalf of the whole congregation.
Without elders, no one can admit anyone to the Lord’s Supper. Without elders, no one can exclude anyone from the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, without elders it is not possible or permissible to administer the Lord’s Supper.
That is the Reformed, biblical, and I argue the wise, position.
In addition, to be admitted to the Lord’s Table in a Reformed church requires unity of faith and life. For example, one who disagrees with the church on fundamental doctrines or practices would not be admitted to the table. And one who lives inconsistently with the walk required of Reformed believers would not be admitted to the table—one who is careless in church attendance or who works or pursues recreation on Sundays, for example, would not be admitted to the Lord’s table. That does not necessarily mean that we view such a person as an unbeliever, but it does mean that there is not sufficient doctrinal or practical unity to admit such a person to the table of the Lord. Acts 2:42 says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Individual cases would be decided according to the discretion of the elders.
We call that practice “close communion.” Open communion admits everyone to the table, with little or no restriction. Closed communion admits only the members of the church to the table, with no possibility of visitors partaking. Close communion admits the church members and others from outside when they show unity of faith and life to the satisfaction of the elders.
One more thing in this regard should be mentioned. It is often the people who are most vocal about the Lord’s Supper on the mission field who would not be admitted to the table of the Lord, if we had it here. Often they are lax in their attendance upon the preaching, which is the chief means of grace. If you do not come to the worship services to hear the preaching, how can you say that you want your faith strengthened through the Supper? If you really want your faith strengthened, listen to the sermons twice every Lord’s Day. Often people show little to no commitment to the group, but they want to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes, their life is inconsistent with a worthy partaker of the Supper, but they want to partake.
We take seriously the warning of the Catechism: “By this the covenant of God would be profaned and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation” (A. 82).
In short, there must be supervision of the Lord’s Table, and that is the calling of elders. We have no elders here. Therefore, we lack the proper supervision, without which it would be inappropriate to celebrate the Lord’s Supper here.
III. THE NEED FOR PATIENCE
We are not hasty with the Lord’s Supper because we understand what it is—it is a holy, covenant meal, which must not be profaned or used lightly.
Where there is a low view of the sacrament, there is more haste in observing it.
A low view of the Lord’s Supper explains the practice of “open communion,” where all and sundry are permitted to come to the Lord’s Supper.
But in the Lord’s Supper, as we have seen, Christ is really (although not physically or materially) present. In the Lord’s Supper, we have real communion with Christ, although not carnally, but spiritually. In the Lord’s Supper, we are called to discern the Lord’s body with proper self-examination. In the Lord’s Supper, we really partake of the crucified body and shed blood through the elements of bread and wine by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, we are careful—and patient.
The fact that we do not have the Lord’s Supper does not make us bad or inferior Christians. It simply is a reflection on the development of the group as a whole.
Therefore, we should diligently use the means of grace that we do have. We should diligently attend the preaching of God’s Word. We should diligently pray for capable, qualified men to be officebearers in our midst. And we should diligently witness to the truth while diligently praying for our spiritual and numerical development.
And we should wait upon the Lord.