I took a seminary class in world religions that was taught by a Lutheran minister. He specialized in Islamic studies but was well versed in all major religions. What was most impactful to me was not the differences in religions but their many similarities. Most people focus on the key theological disagreements, but I searched for commonalities to build consensus and community with non-Christians.
One day in class, my professor made a remarkable statement: “Why am I not allowed to serve communion at this seminary? I preach here and serving communion is much simpler than constructing a theologically sound sermon.” The more I thought about his statement, the more I questioned denominational rules surrounding the sacraments. Having witnessed many communions and baptisms, I know that sacramental liturgies are easily read. Why is a Lutheran minister not allowed to preside over the Lord’s Supper in a Presbyterian seminary? The answer lies in the historical development of the sacraments.
The early church did not have professional clergy performing the sacraments. Non-ministerial Christians, perhaps a leader in the community, performed the Lord’s Supper using the words Jesus spoke during his Passover meal the night before he was crucified. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:17–34), admonished the Corinthian Christians because the wealthy members were not sharing their food with the poor Christians, were getting drunk, and then departed quickly after they finished. It seems that the Corinthian social cliques did not follow basic Christian practices, such as community sharing. The Lord’s Supper took place during a common meal, like Jewish Shabbat meals. Paul taught the Corinthians Christ’s simple liturgy spoken during his last meal. The early Church performed this solemn sacrament without the need for a seminary education or long-winded liturgy.
Baptisms recorded in the New Testament did not state the liturgy except “in the name the name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 2:38) This sacrament was a simple act of confessing faith in Jesus Christ and a person placing cleansing water on the faithful. Again, it did not require three years of seminary study to perform this sacrament.
Dr. Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), in his book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Volume I, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992, pages 231–234), wrote about the development of sacramental doctrine during the medieval period (Chapter II, Mediaeval Catholicism). He stated that the nature of the Church is rooted in sacramentalism which established the foundations of the priesthood. It was through a Christian’s need for grace, the deliverance from original sin and purgatory, that the priesthood consolidated their power. “Sacramental grace is the life of the organism, and is the most essential element in the miraculous power which circulates through the Church; in it the presence of the redeeming, sanctifying, empowering, and saving mystical Christ is poured into the souls of men.” This power remains today.
The medieval Church’s most powerful weapon was exclusion from the sacraments — excommunication. The early Church, a very low percentage of the Roman empire population, desired inclusion and welcomed the faithful who would adhere to the Christian life. “In sharp contrast with the period of the Primitive Church, excommunication brings with it at the same time the civil consequences of exclusion from Society and the complete loss of legal rights, this only shows that in the intervening period ecclesiastical and social conditions have become very closely interpenetrated and entangled.” In the medieval society where State and Church are one, the power of the Church over the spiritual realm is concentrated through the sacraments dispensed by Church professionals. Dogma was developed to place boundaries on the conduct of the masses, and it was the State who inflicted punishment on citizens who veered from Church teachings.
“This [Penance] sacrament became the great support of the spiritual domination of the world. Out of it there develops the whole Christian ethic of the Church—as self-examination and direction of conscience, as absolution, and as the key to the whole system of satisfactions and merits, as the unification of all ethical problems and inconsistencies by the authority of the Church, which removes the responsibility for the unification of the duties of life from the individual, and takes it on to its [the Church’s] own shoulders.” Theology moved from theory into “practical power, which punishes, counsels, and purifies consciences great and small, noble and mean, and which, above all, leads towards the realization of the true value of life, the rescuing of the soul out of the sinful world.”
The reason that my Lutheran minister professor could not preside over the Lord’s Supper in a Presbyterian seminary is that Lutherans believe in consubstantiation: the substance of the bread and wine are not changed into the body and blood of Christ during the sacrament, but they coexist or are conjoined in union with each other. Presbyterians follow John Calvin’s theology that the substance does not change but the Spirit is present. These theological differences keep Lutherans from presiding over the Lord’s Supper within a Presbyterian chapel. It seems that early Church ‘cliques’ have continued into our post-modern world. A simple community gathering to remember Jesus Christ’s sacrifice and grace to all the faithful has been sadly splintered into theological and bureaucratic divisions. I wonder what the Apostle Paul would say to the Christian denominations today.
When I attend my sister-in-law’s Catholic mass, I cannot partake of the bread and wine because I am not Catholic. Christ’s gift of grace is withheld because I am Protestant and do not believe that the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ. It is thought-provoking to study the historical development of the early Church into the Medieval Church, from the simplistic faithful into the dogmatically powerful Church-State. It is even more thought-provoking to contemplate returning to the first century sacramental roots. Perhaps the time is ripe.