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Do Memorialists Have A Low View Of Communion?

by Josh Stilwell | Published November 12, 2022


Francis Chan is a little hard to keep up with. The author of the popular book Crazy Love was a megachurch pastor who became a conference speaker who became a house church planter in San Francisco who became a missionary to Asia. Each of these transitions represents not only a change in ministry but a change of philosophy of ministry.Chan’s very public theological and philosophical migration appears to have taken a hard turn Eastward.

In early 2020, Chan, a mainstream evangelical, made waves with a video that many critics said sounded more like something you’d hear from a Roman Catholic. In the clip, Chan said that he was rethinking his views on the Lord’s Supper. He appeared to be rejecting the view that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial and considering the idea that the bread and wine are literally the body and blood of Jesus. A recent article on ChurchLeaders.com states, “And after years of viewing the meal as only a symbol, [Chan] now leans toward the Eastern Orthodox view on communion.”

This is in opposition to something called the memorialist view of Communion. This view states that the elements of the Lord’s Supper are not inherent means of grace or the literal body and blood of Christ but are rather a divinely ordained memorial designed to point us to our Lord as we participate in it with faith.

An accusation that Francis Chan and many others have thrown at memorialists is that we have a low view of Communion. Kevin Bauder notes, “Some Christians describe the Baptist understanding as a ‘mere’ memorial or a ‘low’ view of the Lord’s Supper.” This is certainly Chan’s position and given his influence within evangelicalism his views have the potential to confuse many who currently hold the memorialist viewpoint.

As a memorialist myself, I want to take this opportunity to push back on that accusation. I will argue that biblically-informed memorialists do have a high view of everything they should have a high view of.

Memorialists have a high view of Scripture

First of all, this accusation misses the point. The goal is not to have a high view of Communion. It’s to have a correct view of Communion. Christians often get themselves into trouble by trying to outdo each other by having the highest possible view of the sacraments, or the clergy, or Mary, or divine sovereignty, or human free will. We should let the Bible guide our priorities and affections. If that leads us to places high or low, so be it. 

The advantage of the memorialist view is that it is based on the express teachings of Scripture. Jesus’ purpose statement for Communion is, “this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). “Do in remembrance” is another way of saying, “do this as a memorial”. For the apostle Paul the purpose of the Lord’s Supper was to “proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26) Again, the emphasis is not one on what the bread and juice are but on what they show. 

Some creative interpretations notwithstanding, there is no passage of Scripture that clearly states that the Communion elements literally become the body and blood of Christ. Interestingly, Francis Chan does not seem to appeal to Scripture to defend his new position. He largely cites church tradition, precedent, and history. 

In the now infamous clip, Chan said, “I didn’t know that for the first 1500 years of Church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ. And it wasn’t until 500 years ago that someone popularized the thought that it’s just a symbol and nothing more. I didn’t know that. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something to consider.’” It is something to consider. As long as we remember that church tradition is not inspired, inerrant, infallabable, sufficient, and authoritative. The Bible is. Functionally, Chan has accepted the Roman and Eastern premise that the church (e.g. the clerical hierarchy) outranks the Word of God.

In their rush to exalt Communion, Chan and other believers are sidelining the Bible. Chan expressly says that he wants to reverse the Reformation emphasis on the preaching of God’s Word and revert to the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox emphasis on the sacraments. It’s significant that he defends his new position on the Lord’s Supper, not with Scripture, but with church tradition and pragmatism. 

But this is very dangerous. Communion is not God-breathed. The Lord’s Table is not profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. It is not Communion that makes us thoroughly furnished unto all good works. The Lord’s Supper cannot make us wise unto salvation. It is not through the washing of wine that Jesus may present to Himself a glorious church without spot and wrinkle. The Bible’s own teachings demand that it be central to our lives and churches. 

The Reformers made some mistakes. Putting the Bible at the center of worship was not one of them.

Memorialists have a high view of Christ

I once had a congregant complain that the Lord’s Supper was really boring. I don’t remember what I said at the time. If confronted with that statement now, I would say something like, “Amen”. The beauty of our Lord’s design is that it is simple, plain, and minimalistic, precisely so that we don’t get distracted by the symbol and forget what is symbolized. The high church effort to spice up the Lord’s Supper is counterproductive.

Francis Chan states that people with his view are “in awe of the meal”. But that’s a problem. If you’re taking Communion and thinking about how awesome Communion is then you’re missing the point entirely. The emphasis of the Lord’s Supper is not the supper but the Lord. The whole point of the elements is to point us to Christ. If you’re thinking about the ordinance itself, you are negating the purpose of the ordinance. You know you’ve done Communion right when you leave the service thinking about Jesus. 

Ironically, the best way to honor Communion is to not obsess over Communion. It exists to remind us of who Jesus is and what He has done for us. Making too much of the elements themselves, actually degrades the purpose of the elements. Communion is all about Jesus. 

And our Lord is with us always. He is present when I take Communion. He’s also present when I take a nap. I have instant and constant access to my Lord. I don’t need to wait for a priest to chant over dry bread to have communion with Him.

Memorialists have a high view of worship

Francis Chan also cites some practical benefits of the Eastern view. He argues that after the Reformers made preaching, and not the Communion experience, central to church, Christians began “fighting about who’s right.” He argues that replacing the pulpit with the sacramental table will create more unity in the universal church. In other words, the ecuminical vision can be realized if we stop talking about doctrine and just share an experience together. 

This is part of a larger trend that wants to replace objective truth with personal experience. Chan is one of many mainstream evangelicals who are flocking to the Roman and Eastern churches. It’s my opinion that this is the overreaction to the casual, contemporary liturgy of t-shirt clad praise bands. Contemporary American Christians are thirsty for something that feels weighty, religious, and reverent. The problem is, they are just replacing the experientialism of casual worship with the experientialism of formal worship. 

But simply changing the experience does not address the root problem of experience worship. Sacramental music is replaced with sacramental bread. Priests wearing jeans and t-shirts are replaced with priests wearing collars and robes. Smoke and lights are replaced with smells and bells. But in both cases, the goal of corporate worship is to create a certain feeling and mood.

Ironically, though Chan appeals to something ancient and Eastern, the root motive seems to be contemporary and Western. Our postmodern world values “lived experiences” over objective truth. So it’s natural that people want to come to church, not to listen to the truth, but to have a living experience. Both contemporary and sacramental worship services are built around hyped-up experiences. But true worship is to be centered around the objective truth of God’s holy Word.  

Compared to the existentialism of both contemporary American and traditional Eastern liturgies, the biblically regulated worship of churches like mine probably seems boring and dull. But its roots go deep. Traditional memorialist worship is not about creating a sensation, but about orienting our hearts and minds around the truth of God’s Word. The Bible is central because those who worship God must worship Him in Spirit and in truth. And the Spirit wrote a Book and that Book is truth.

Memorialists have a high view of Communion

As memorialists, we honor Communion by honoring its purpose. We don’t look at the bread and juice, but through them to see our Savior. But this doesn’t mean we despise the Supper itself. We revere the Lord’s Table the way patriotic Americans revere the Stars and Stripes; not because there’s something magical about the flag but because it is the symbol of something important to them. Eating the Supper unworthily is like stomping on the flag.

The Lord’s Supper is a reminder of all that Jesus suffered for us, instituted by the Lord Himself to keep His death in the forefront of our minds. It reminds us that we are one loaf, united not through bread and wine, but through blood and Spirit. The Lord’s Supper invites us to give up our body and blood for Christ, just as He gave it up for us.

The memorialist view of Communion is the one that best matches the evidence in Scripture. It is also the view that allows us to focus most on Christ, without the distraction of sacramental experientialism. It is therefore the highest and best view of the Lord’s Supper.

Francis, your view of Communion is not too high. Your view of memorialism is too low.

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