Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Lord's table (5)

This morning I read yesterday's daily update from Charisma Online, with a message from J. Lee Grady. He wrote about how he needed a haircut and 'accidentally' ventured into a shop that catered for African-Americans. He realised he had two options;
"I had an awkward choice to make. I could turn and walk out, and risk sending the message that I didn’t want to be in a black hair salon. Or I could do what Jesus would do. I quickly decided that He had led me to this place."
After describing his experience (he titled his message "A White Guy In a Black Hair Salon") he ends with a comment which is relevant to this thread about the Lord's table:
"Jesus went out of His way to break social barriers. He even went to Samaria—a place no other kosher Jewish rabbi would dare visit. After He ministered to the divorced woman at the well, He stayed there two days—eating Samaritan food, living in a Samaritan house and soaking in Samaritan culture (see John 4: 40). Who knows—maybe He even got a Samaritan-style haircut."
It's time for Christadelphians to break through the barriers that divide them from other Christadelphians, and then the barriers that separate them from the Lord's people in other denominations. As J. Lee Grady says, "I hope you will venture outside your safety zone and start crashing through the cultural blockades that separate people in your community."

By the way, you can subscribe to Charisma Online here.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Lord's table (4) - restoring the inclusiveness of early Christianity

Christadelphians have been a divided community since at least 1884 when the Birmingham ecclesia split sending shockwaves throughout the Christadelphian world. Several splinter groups have formed during that period. Some have eventually disappeared; others have dropped the Christadelphian name entirely and formed new denominations, or groups of independent churches; and some have maintained their differences for over 100 years.

Why is it that reunion efforts have failed so often? The recent failure of the North American reunion discussions, after 30 years or more of trying, and the failure of the Unity Agreement in Australia to bring opposing sides together in a lasting or meaningful way, have clearly demonstrated that the current methods for achieving reunion do not work. There are several factors for this, including:
  1. An insistence that the Birmingham amended Statement of Faith must be the basis of fellowship. Considering it was the Birmingham ecclesia's insistence on their Statement of Faith as the basis of fellowship which created the 1884 division it seems strange that many people are still insisting that the very document which produced division must be the basis of a reunion. It will not happen.
  2. Explanatory statements which rely on the BaSF are doomed to failure for the same reason that the BaSF can never be the basis for the reunion. The day after the Australian Unity Agreement was signed, with its Cooper-Carter addendum as an explanation of certain parts of the BaSF, some Australian Christadelphians began accusing others of signing a document they did not agree with. Reunion didn't last a day.
  3. Attempts at reunion have relied too heavily on elaborating the BaSF and trying to find unity by adding a set of words which will bring together all the conflicting parties. The only way to find common ground is through simplification, rather than elaboration.
  4. Just a quick look at several Christadelphian websites will easily demonstrate that for preaching purposes the brotherhood usually relies on a number of simple summaries of 'core' doctrines. The vast majority of Christadelphians over the last 100 years have been baptised without even seeing the Birmingham Statement of Faith. Christadelphians throughout the world already have common ground in these 'core' doctrines without the need for a detailed Statement of Faith, especially when there is so much disagreement about several details in the BaSF. Most of the disagreeement in the Christadelphian community which has led to division have been about matters which go beyond the 'core' doctrines. All Christadelphians know what the distinctive core doctrines are - they probably don't even need to be written down, because everyone knows what they are.
The biggest obstacle to reunion, in my opinion, is a sacramental view of the 'Breaking of Bread' which is based on the unScriptural idea that a believer will somehow be 'contaminated' or 'defiled' or held guilty if they break bread with someone whose ideas are not correct in every detail. It is thought by some that breaking bread with someone who has different views on some matters is somehow an endorsement of their views.

The New Testament is clear that our Lord had table-fellowship with sinners and with people who had all sorts of wrong ideas , yet He was not 'contaminated' by the association. On the contrary, His holiness reached out to them and brought about their healing and sanctification. The practice of the early church was to maintain the same inclusiveness in their table-fellowship. The various groups within Christadelphia should realise that the only way they will be able to influence others is to associate with them, not to 'withdraw fellowship'.

I propose a 'strategy' for Christadelphian unity which includes the following:
  1. Brethren should accept each other at their word. If someone says they are a Christadelphian because they believe in the core Christadelphian doctrines, then we should accept their word.
  2. Every ecclesia is entitled to adopt a Statement of Faith if they want one, as a condition of membership in that ecclesia, but no one is entitled to impose their Statement of Faith on others or insist that a 'true' Christadelphian is only someone who accepts their SoF. No ecclesia has the right to insist that other ecclesias must accept their SoF before any fellowship or association can take place.
  3. An ecclesia can make decisions only for its own members. No ecclesia has the right to decide who another ecclesia should or should not fellowship.
  4. The guiding principle for who should be able to take communion ("break bread") at the Lord's table should be "Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat ..."

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Lord's table (3)

John Thomas is usually attributed with being the founder of Christadelphianism, as it was he who coined the name in 1864. Many of the churches in the United States and Britain which adopted the name had been in existence since around 1848 or 1850 and had held the same principle beliefs during that time. During this period they were known by various names, including simply "Believers" and "Baptised Believers". Some of the churches in this association or movement joined other groups such as the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith, the Christian Connexion, the Advent Christian Church, and the Churches/Disciples of Christ from which John Thomas had come, rather than the group which adopted the name "Christadelphian". To this day people in all these denominations share many of the same doctrinal distinctives which characterise Christadelphianism.

In 1854 John Thomas was a member of a church in New York known as the Royal Association of Believers. In that year he published the Constitution of the Association in his magazine, The Herald of the Kingdom and the Age to Come.

The Constitution included these clauses on membership and "the Lord's table":


"The wisdom from above being first pure, and then peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy" - we cordially invite all immersed believers of the gospel preached to Abraham, Israel, and the Gentiles, by the Angel of Jehovah, Moses, Jesus, and the apostles, who are disposed to illustrate this "wisdom from above" in word and deed, to unite with the undersigned for the purposes set forth in No. 3.


Being the Lord's table, and not the table of the Association, all of good report within the city or without it, who, believing the gospel of the kingdom, have been immersed, are cordially invited to worship with us; the only privileges withheld being a participation in the direction of our affairs, and speech without previous invitation.

We should first note the distinction that is made between membership of the association, and fellowship at the Lord's table. Any association has the prerogative to make rules about its own membership, but John Thomas and his fellow-elders in the Association of Believers rightly recognised that they did not have a prerogative to exclude good Christian men and women from the Lord's table.

In this respect the earliest Christadelphian practices were in line with our Lord's teachings and His table-fellowship practice of inclusiveness.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The Lord's table (2)

The Gospels record at least two incidents when attempts were made by Jesus' disciples to restrict access to Jesus or to withhold recognition from another "because he was not one of us". In both incidents the disciples are rebuked, and these occasions serve as further examples of our Lord's characteristically open fellowship.
  • In Mark 9:38-40 and Luke 9:49-50 we read about an incident when the disciple John said to Jesus "Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." "Do not stop him," Jesus said. "No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us."
  • In Mark 10:13-14 we read that people were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
This openness was highlighted at the meal table. To eat with another was a mark of acceptance of that person, and to eat regularly with them was to forge a special bond of fellowship. By the same token, to refuse table-fellowship was to deny their acceptability. Table-fellowship therefore functioned as a social boundary, indicating both who was inside the boundary and who was outside.

One story in particular highlights the difference between the Pharisees and Jesus. The Pharisees avoided contact with anyone who would make them ritually impure. They insisted on eating only with people who had 'undefiled hands" (Mark 7:2-4), that is, with people in a state of ritual purity. I noted in an earlier post that holiness for Jesus was was not a negative, excluding force, but a positive, including force. This was demonstrated in the healing of a 'defiled' woman who touched Him. Rather than her defilement extending to Jesus when she touched Him "power went out" of Him and she was healed of her defiling condition. This same point is made in the context of a meal, recorded in Mark 2:17. When the teachers of the law and Pharisees observed that Jesus practiced an open table-fellowship they asked His disciples "Why does he eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" Jesus replied "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Jesus likened His practice of eating with sinners to a doctor's role in healing the sick. Rather than being 'defiled' by sharing a meal with them, His fellowship with them at the table was a vital part of their 'healing'. Power went out from Him. It is holiness, rather than sin, which is contagious and this principle is fundamental to the inclusiveness which characterised Jesus' ministry of reconciliation.

The Lord's table (1)

The Christian celebration based on the Last Supper is known by various names: [Holy] Communion, Eucharist, Breaking of Bread, the Lord's Supper, the Lord's table, the Mass, and by a term which is possibly unique to Christadelphians, the Memorial Meeting (although, as with many Christadelphian traditions, this may have its roots in the Restoration movement).

Paul uses the terms communion and eucharist (thanksgiving) in relation to this celebration, but the celebration itself he calls the Lord's supper, and the Lord's table.

The mention of the Lord's table is intended I believe to direct our thinking back to our Lord's pattern of behaviour recorded in the Gospels and not simply to one event (the last supper). Jesus' practice of regularly and frequently eating in company was a feature of his ministry which was highlighted in the Gospels.

Luke in particular makes a point of recording how often Jesus accepted invitations to dine out (5:29; 7:36; 10:38; 11:37; 13:26; 14:1; 19:5-7). A particular criticism by His opponents was that he ate with tax-collectors and sinners (Mark 2:15-16; Matt 11:19; Luke 7:34, 39; 15:1-2; 19:1-10).

The Pharisees and Essenes had very strict rules about the purity of the meal table. This purity was maintained not only by the preparation of the food itself but by who was permitted to share in the meal. For example, the Essenes specified that anyone "paralysed in his feet or hands, or lame, or blind, or deaf, or dumb, or smitten in his flesh with a visible blemish" had to be excluded from the meal table. In contrast Jesus words in Luke 14:13-21 appears to be directed at them when He said "when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed". He follows this with a parable about the kingdom of God in which the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame are invited to the feast in the kingdom of God.

The Pharisees excluded from their meal tables people who were "sinners" and this seems to have been a bone of contention with Jesus who openly dined with people who were outside their boundaries of acceptability. We need to ask "who were the 'sinners'?"

The word translated 'sinner' literally means a law-breaker. To groups like the Pharisees the term came to include people who did not observe their strict interpretation of the Law. The term was used to describe Jews who practiced their Judaism differently from the Pharisees' faction.* The term tax-collector is frequently associated with sinners because they were regarded as typical sinners. Matthew (himself a tax-collector) records two sayings of Jesus which demonstrate that tax-collectors were regarded as being in the same class as Gentiles, outside the covenant people (Matt 5:46-47; 18:17).

By dining with people who were regarded as being impure, or outside Israel - the covenant people - Jesus showed His concern for people who were excluded and marginalised. He challenged the boundaries set up by the religious leaders of His day which excluded even fellow-Jews from their meal tables, and demonstrated an inclusiveness in His table-fellowship which was motivated by His concern for others rather than by rigorous enforcement of a strict interpretation of the law. Unlike the Pharisees Jesus' table-fellowship was not fenced around to mark off the insiders from the outsiders and there was no barrier to be overcome before one could enjoy his company.

Don't forget, you can always email me at if you want to discuss any of these messages.

* James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p530.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Clean and unclean - Jesus' reaction to exclusivism

The religious leaders of Jesus' day considered themselves to be the proud custodians of a rich spiritual heritage. Of all the people of the earth God had called them - Abraham's descendants -to be the light of the world. But their exclusivism went even deeper. Within the chosen people there were people who had to be avoided because contact with them would cause righteous people to become contaminated. For good reason the Law prohibited contact with lepers and people with certain diseases, and by the time of Jesus they would have seen hidden lessons in the rules about which foods could be eaten and which could not ("clean" and "unclean" foods) about avoiding certain kinds of 'unclean' people: sinners, prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors, homosexuals, etc.

They had a theory of contamination by contact which extended to guilt by association, so Jesus Himself, although he was "without sin" (Heb 4:15) was branded a sinner because He ate and socialised with 'sinners' (eg John 9:16).

A powerful example of how Jesus reacted to this contamination belief is in Luke 8 where we read about a woman who had had a disorder for 12 years which would have made her 'unclean'. Under the law she would have to avoid contact with other people. For example, she could not go into a busy street or market because she would contaminate anyone she touched. In a courageous act of faith this woman ventured out into a crowd in order to see Jesus. She tried to go unnoticed and came up behind Jesus and touched the edge of his cloak. Immediately she was healed of her disease. The most amazing thing about this story is not that she was healed by touching Jesus - awesome though that is - but in Jesus' reaction to it. "Who touched me?" He asked. His disciples clearly thought it was a ridiculoius question because they pointed out that He was in a crowd with people pressing and crushing against Him and each other. But Jesus said "someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me" (v. 46).

This event is more than another miracle of many. Through it Jesus challenges an entire worldview. Under the Jewish law this woman would have contaminated anyone she touched, including Jesus. Defilement flowed from the unclean to the clean. But Jesus turned this around when He said power flowed from Him - from the clean to the unclean.

So in Jesus' worldview holiness - not sin - is contagious. He went beyond this and removed the authority of the laws of clean and unclean foods which had become the basis for the guilt-by-association theory (Mark 7:19 - He declared all foods clean). Later, after His ascension, He appeared to Peter in a dream and told him to eat animals which were 'unclean' and Peter thereafter preached the Gospel to a Gentile whom he would previously have considered 'unclean' and used this as the justification for eating and associating with Gentiles (Acts 11:1-18).

For many Christadelphians the guilt-by-association theory is as powerful as it was for the Pharisees of Jesus' day and they have failed to understand Jesus' teachings about this. Their belief prevents them from associating with non-believers, but worse still it is used as the justification for disfellowshipping people who disagree with them on doctrinal details, fail to uphold their 'standards', or who mix with Christadelphians in 'other fellowships'. The theory goes that if they don't expel these people that they too will be contaminated by their 'sin'. If you don't cut out the cancer the disease will spread. However what Jesus taught was the opposite! Holiness spreads, power goes out from Him to all He touches, and from them to all they touch with the Gospel. Paul said that unbelievers could even be sanctified by their believing partners (1 Corinthians 7:14) and uses Jesus' teaching on uncleanness to make his point: "Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy".