Have Protestants Turned Communion into 'Cheap Grace?'
In a provocative essay, author and pastor G. Jeffrey MacDonald explores how attitudes toward communion have changed and how those changes hurt the church.
Christians regularly share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion as nourishment for the challenging road of discipleship.
But in a bid to keep fickle churchgoers happy, Protestant churches increasingly downplay what's expected of Communion's partakers. Consequently, the ritual fails to shape character, as it's supposed to do. Instead, like other religious habits of our time, it merely soothes.
For the past four decades, mainline Protestant denominations with ever-shrinking membership rolls have been widening access to Communion tables by systematically lowering standards. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), for example, no longer expects partakers to make conscious commitments to a life of faith, as the denomination did 40 years ago. Instead, the ELCA joins the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in welcoming all the baptized, regardless of age or commitment to Christ's ways.
Many congregations of the United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ go even further. In these settings, anyone who professes a broadly defined faith in Jesus Christ is welcome to partake. None of this table-widening has stemmed the hemorrhaging of members across mainline Protestantism. All it's done is divorce high expectations from the meaning of discipleship – and leave Christians hungry for more than platitudes.
Denominations and local churches have theological rationales for all this table-widening. They emphasize the lavishness of God's grace in welcoming every last soul – regardless of race, class or other distinctions – to a divine banquet. They insist no one must pass a moral or creedal litmus test before partaking of God's gifts. In symbolically affirming God's love for all humankind, they bear witness to one aspect of God's nature – an aspect that is a particularly easy sell in an age of therapeutic spirituality.
But Protestant churches, mainline and evangelical alike, fall short of their missions when they imply that nothing is expected of those who receive Communion. By making grace so cheap that it belongs on a bargain rack, churches fail to challenge their people to hone habits that would make them holy, distinct and a blessing to the world. Instead, Christians are made to feel good about themselves even as they cling unrepentant to materialistic and egocentric habits of the heart.
Expectations matter because the church relies on Communion to shape virtue among its people. Scripture summons committed followers of Christ to examine themselves before they partake and make sure there are no “divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 11). In other words, work through your conflicts in preparation for the holy meal.
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Check out Thieves in the Temple by G. Jeffrey MacDonald