In some ways, change is a dirty word among some churches. The mere mention of change jolts some church members so much that extra Lipitor is needed. Yet change is necessary and will happen, whether we are aware of it or even whether we agree with it. Some may disagree that change is necessary but this is just denying reality.

As we grow in faith, our understanding of scripture and how as a church we participate in the mission of God changes too. As our perspectives shift, so comes the need for actual change that can accommodate our new understandings. And for the sake of clarity, I am talking about change that is born out of biblical and theological conviction and a pragmatic need for how our churches live out such conviction.

However, as necessary as change is, it is never easy. The bigger the change, the more stressful and difficult it is. So how can our churches manage the process of change?

I want to suggest that churches need more grace. That is, churches must learn to practice more grace with each other.

Disembodied Gospel

Come with me to the Corinthian church for a few moments. The Corinthians are a pretty messed up church as we meet them in scripture. From what Paul tells us about them, they’re definitely not a model for how to do church.

For the sake of brevity, the main issue with the Corinthians is that they have failed to embody the gospel as their way of life. This has resulted in numerous problems, including selfish behavior as they gather for partaking in the Lord’s Supper together. While they should be gathering for this communion meal where everybody eats and drinks together, there are some who are eating and drinking while leaving others out. The problem is so egregious that some are even getting drunk while others are left hungry.

Paul’s remedy for this problem is reminding them of what the Lord’s Supper is about. In doing so, Paul does a little theology with them so that they might not only understand what they are doing as they partake of the Lord’s Supper but also understand how that shapes their practice with each other.

The Lords Supper and the Social-Practice of Grace

1 Corinthians 11:23-26 is a well known passage in many churches. Here is what Paul says:

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which he was betrayed took bread, and after he had given thanks he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, he also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, every time you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.[1]

Our familiarity with this passage may cause us to overlook the deepness of what we are doing and saying when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. According to Paul, we are both remembering and proclaiming.

This act of remembering the body and blood of our Lord is rooted in Israel’s own observance of the Passover in which they would remember the grace God acted with in delivering them from Egyptian bondage.[2] So in partaking of the body and blood of our Lord, we are remembering the act of grace − his death upon the cross − by which God has delivered us from the bondage of sin and death. Yet, as we remember this act of grace, we are also proclaiming this act of grace as our only means of salvation. This proclamation of “the Lord’s death until he comes” looks to the past, present, and future.[3] In making this proclamation, we acknowledge that we continually receive this act of grace as our means of deliverance form sin and death − past, present, and future.

That sounds wonderful. It is very encouraging to know that in all of our struggles, we received this grace of God that assures us of our salvation until the Lord comes again. But then Paul begins in v. 27 saying, “For this reason…” and with those three words, we are reminded that the grace we have received must shape our social-practices as the church.

As Christ, So We

This is where our belief and practice converge. Such convergence involves what Miroslav Volf describes as an as-so structure so that “as God has received us in Christ, so we too are to receive our fellow human beings.”[4] Every Sunday as we gather and partake of the Lord’s Supper together, we are remembering and proclaiming the grace of God that we have received in Christ. So then, we must also extend the same grace towards each other. That is why Paul insisted that the Corinthians must wait for each other when they come together (v. 33).

When I think of church and change, I know it is difficult. There are miscommunications, misunderstandings, and sometimes just some unpleasant ways of treating each other. We come for a meeting tired from the day’s work, sometime bringing a lot of stress and personal struggle with us. Then someone says something but we hear something completely different or someone says something that does not sit right with us. So we are tempted to respond in our own negative way… perhaps saying something we’ll regret ten minutes later or perhaps saying nothing but instead letting a very minor matter fester with anger and resentment.

We need more grace for one another. We must learn to embody an assumption of grace with each other whereby we automatically grant the grace of forgiveness to each other for being less than perfect. This is not to suggest that we ignore those character issues where a Christian is repeatedly abusive towards others, trying to control and manipulate others to his or her own selfish desires. That is an entirely different issue. What I am talking about are the bad days that everyone of us have where we fail to put our best foot forward. It is then, in those moments and times, that we need to know that we are forgiven, that nobody is going to hold it against us. Why? Because we are a family who receives each other with the same grace we receive in “the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Change is never an easy process for any church but it is much easier for when we learn live with an assumption of grace towards each other. May it be so among us just as it is in the Lord, Jesus Christ!

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[1] Taken from the NET Bible (New English Translation), 2005.

[2] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), 199.

[3] Ben Witherington III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 251.

[4] Miroslav Volf, Captive to the Word of God: Engaging the Scriptures for Contemporary Theological Reflection (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 46.