theLordsSupperI’ve been pondering Richard Beck’s excellent post “The Future of Churches of Christ: Table & Baptism.”

Richard writes,

In my opinion, if the (ecumenical) Churches of Christ want to maintain a distinctive and coherent identity going forward they should increasingly focus upon articulating a robust and distinctive theology as it pertains to two specific church practices which I believe, unlike with acapella worship, will continue to characterize the movement for the next few generations.

This is truly a thought provoking observation. And I have a few thoughts.

First, I agree, except I think Richard has it backwards. We should not start with the idea that the more ecumenical Churches of Christ need to maintain a distinctive identity. Distinctiveness is not necessarily a good thing. Rather, we should start with the points on which we are distinctive and then ask whether they merit the price of being in some sense a separate movement.

Now, the distinctiveness he has in mind is not to create a barrier to fellowship or recognition of others as fellow Christians. The goal is not to be sectarian.

However, it’s very tempting to be sectarian, damning those who disagree with us on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and so I believe that, especially at the local level, congregations must intentionally and persistently cooperate with congregations of other denominations, demonstrating both to the world and to their own members that the church’s boundaries are broader than the Churches of Christ. We must be very clear on that point both in teaching and in practice.

Second, I agree that our teachings on baptism and the Lord’s Supper distinguish us from many other denominations, although as Richard points out, we are hardly unique in our practices. And for reasons I’ll try to explain, I do agree that these teachings more than justify our maintaining our distinctive practices and, so, our distinctiveness as a movement.

Third, I think we need to learn to see these sacraments[1] from a different perspective. We have a history of seeing them too narrowly, and so we have trouble seeing them in their fullness — and therefore Richard’s argument is confusing to many. Let me explain.

We tend to think of baptism solely in terms of initial salvation. Our debates on baptism are about what procedures and beliefs are sufficient to have a good baptism and therefore to effectively save the one being immersed.

Just so, most of our teaching on the Lord’s Supper is about how to do it right so that we have an essential “mark of the church” and therefore will be among the saved. Thus, we manage to make the sacraments into a works salvation. And this is plainly wrong, and yet even for those who disagree, it’s hard to shake loose from our culture of salvation by sacrament.

Therefore, when Richard suggests that we should have a “robust theology informing and supporting this practice,” many wonder how we can have a robust theology of baptism and the Lord’s Supper while not damning those who disagree with our robust theology. And this is because we miss what just might be their greatest significance: spiritual formation.

It is my view that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are best thought of as neither “works” nor “faith” — not as something we do but as something we receive. These are gifts from God received in conjunction with salvation for spiritual formation: that is, to shape us into the image of Christ.

Now, I need to clarify the meaning of “spiritual formation,” as we often dilute this powerful, transformative idea into “the guy on staff in charge of small groups and Bible classes.” The word has sunk into insipidity as we’ve very successfully resisted the changes that were supposed to come when this new vocabulary was introduced a couple of decades ago.

The idea of spiritual formation was built on this vital passage —

(Gal 4:18-19 ESV)  18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you,  19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!

What would it mean if Christ were formed in me?! And how might that come about? Well, while Bible classes and small groups are certainly helpful, it takes more. It requires God’s gifts to us: the sacraments.

What does it mean to become like Jesus? Well, Jesus, Paul, and John explain it —

(Luk 9:23-24 ESV) 23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

(Joh 13:34-35 ESV) 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

(Eph 5:1-2 ESV) Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.  2 And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

(1Jo 3:16 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

As John Howard Yoder explains in The Politics of Jesus,

Before drawing any affirmative conclusions let us first note the absence of the concept of imitation as a general pastoral or moral guideline. There is in the New Testament no Franciscan glorification of barefoot itinerancy. Even when Paul argues the case for celibacy, it does not occur to him to appeal to the example of Jesus. Even when Paul explains his own predilection for self-support there is no appeal to Jesus’ years of village artisan. Even when the Apostle argues strongly the case for his teaching authority, there is no appeal to the rabbinic ministry of Jesus. …

That the concept of imitation is not applied by the New Testament at some of those points where Franciscan and romantic devotion has tried most piously to apply it, is all the more demonstration of how fundamental the thought of participation in the suffering of Christ is when the New Testament church sees it as guiding and explaining her attitude to the powers of the world. Only at one point, only on one subject — but then consistently, universally — is Jesus our example: in his cross.

(Paragraph breaks added to ease reading on the Internet). In other words,  in the New Testament, Jesus is only held up as an example to Christians in terms of the cross — in terms of his service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering. In no other way do the scriptures declare him our example.

And these very characteristics of Jesus are re-enacted and received in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is no coincidence: the sacraments are given to form us into the shape of the cross.

For example,

(Rom 6:3-11 ESV) 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Paul’s point is not “We understand baptism better than you, and so we are saved and you are not.” Not at all. His point is that baptism is into the death of Christ so that we might be resurrected with him, so that we might live — not only in eternity — but in “newness of life” during this age. Meaning what?

8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We are “alive to God” not only in being saved but in now living as someone unafraid of death and someone who, like Jesus, “lives to God.” And our new life is “in Christ Jesus.” This not just a bit of eloquent Greek tossed in for effect: we share in Jesus’ death and resurrection so that we can become like Jesus.

Just so, the Lord’s Supper, as an eating and drinking of the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus, is an incorporation of Jesus’ service, submission, sacrifice, and suffering into our very beings. We consume the death of Jesus and so incorporate the cross into ourselves every Sunday.

Thus, baptism and communion both teach in a profoundly visual and deeply visceral way what it means to be a Christian — both the promise of resurrection, because we’ll be resurrected just as Jesus was resurrected, and our transformation into the image of Christ, to live the sacraments in which we participate — to make our baptisms and our communions real and present within us. This is true “spiritual formation.”

So, yes, small groups and Bible classes — and maybe even some prayer mazes and even a little lectio divina — might help form Christ within us. (Emphasis on “might.”) But the core of spiritual formation has to be a deep, rich understanding of and participation in the water, the bread, and the wine.

And if that makes us different, well, it’s a good way to be different. And viewed this way, our understanding of the sacraments will no longer be about feeling superior to other believers, but rather learning to live the stories that they tell and so becoming more like Jesus.

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[1] I use “sacrament” in the dictionary sense: “a Christian rite (as baptism or the Eucharist) that is believed to have been ordained by Christ and that is held to be a means of divine grace or to be a sign or symbol of a spiritual reality.” The etymology is from the Latin, meaning a devoted thing. There is nothing in the word that contradicts Church of Christ theology.