The major topic that prompted me to delve into a series on the Sacraments was wondering why Evangelical Protestants* don’t celebrate them. How can a people who profess to base their faith on Scripture alone ignore the very things — in fact, some of the only things — that Jesus told us explicitly to do? Baptism and the Eucharist are the only two of the Seven Sacraments that Evangelical Protestants have preserved in any form — but even these are relegated to the status of marginal, symbolic acts in very many cases. I’ve already written a bit about Evangelicals and Baptism.
Now, in considering the Eucharist, the perfectionist and scholar in me wants to offer a thoroughly researched and documented treatise on the theology of the different Protestant interpretations of the Eucharist, but this topic is now pressing and I thought I would give you instead a few preliminary thoughts. The Wiki provides a decent overview if you like that kind of thing. (And good Lord I had no idea it was this complicated and fragmented and daunting.)
* I am going to start capitalizing “Evangelical Protestant” as a proper noun (even though it’s incorrect! incorrect! by the Chicago Manual of Style) to distinguish Evangelical Protestants, the ones I grew up with and complain about from time to time, from other kinds of Protestants to whom my criticisms might not apply, such as Lutherans. I do this for the sake of not confusing or alarming my dear friend.
Compared to the rest of His teaching in the Gospels, Jesus gave us few direct, unambiguous commands. Among them are some of the last words he gave us before departing this earth: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mark 28:19) — an explicit imperative to baptize — and His words at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). One would think that the Apostles and the Early Church would place great emphasis on these things. And in fact they did: they were the very basis of early Christian worship, as St. Justin testifies.
The Witness of the Apostolic Church in Scripture
One would also think that Evangelical Protestants, professing to live and worship by the Word of God in Scripture, would place great emphasis on celebrating these essential Christian sacraments. For coming to faith in Christ is always, as a rule, followed immediately by baptism in Scripture. Likewise for the Eucharist: for it is clear from Scripture that the Apostolic Church celebrated it frequently, if not at every gathering:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts. (Acts 2:42,46)
On the first day of the week [i.e. Sunday, the Lord's Day], when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7)
The word translated “as often as” in 1 Corinthians 11:25–26 is simply ἐὰν (eàn), most literally if — if you take the cup, do this — whenever you take the cup — but implying that it is something that will be done. It only makes sense in the context as an implication that it will be done frequently:
“Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:25–26)
Most crucially, Jesus tells us that He is the Bread of Life (pun intended):
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst . . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:35,55–56)
The gyrations to which Evangelical commentators must go in order to evade a sacramental interpretation of Baptism and the Eucharist in these passages is rather uncomfortable to see.
The Reality in Many Evangelical Churches
But as my new Protestant friends have just recently attested, and as I myself saw in my wanderings, many Evangelical churches seldom celebrate the Eucharist at all — as infrequently as once a month or even once a quarter. Some have even dispensed with it altogether. It blows my mind how the celebration that Scripture plainly indicates was the central act of early Christian worship can have become so irrelevant, to people claiming to follow in the same tradition — how far down and far away the acorn has fallen.
I struggle to understand it. I would be happy if the leadership of one of these churches stopped by and explained the reasoning. But the very idea of dispensing with the Eucharist must rest on the assumption that Baptism and the Eucharist aren’t sacraments at all, but merely symbols or “ordinances.” This idea certainly wasn’t present in the theology of the better-known and revered Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, who both fully affirmed the sacramentality of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the Presence (however that Presence is understood) of Christ in the Eucharist. It was Huldrych Zwingli who first rejected the idea of the Sacraments, though it’s unclear to me (as yet) how this idea made it into modern Evangelicalism, which largely flowed out of the Second Great Awakening. The rejection of sacramentality seems to have followed in the death of any sense of the sacred at all.
These modern Evangelicals want to avoid any suggestion of doing something “religious” or “liturgical” or “ritualistic” or — God forbid — Catholic. The idea of “sacraments,” in the Evangelical mindset, suggests that some “works” other than mere belief in Christ is necessary for salvation. The notion that “faith alone” saves, taken in this sense, rejects any idea of sacramentality before it can even begin. If we assume from the get-go that nothing else is necessary for salvation — something Scripture never shows — then any other idea, even if plainly stated in Scripture, is short-circuited.
These churches make a token of practicing Baptism and the Eucharist occasionally, just because they are plainly commanded by Christ. But they have no real meaning or efficacy. If something is merely symbolic, it must be unimportant and unnecessary. It becomes a mere “symbolic act of obedience” — read, “We do this just because He said to do it.” If it doesn’t do anything — if it in itself isn’t necessary for salvation, and doesn’t further the Kingdom of God — then why should we bother doing it? I often get the feeling that these churches feel that the Eucharist is merely gets in the way of the more important work of the church, preaching and teaching and evangelizing.
Not that those things aren’t important. For how are the lost to hear the Gospel without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? But the Early Church, and the Church throughout history, has understood that, as St. Paul says, the Bread and the Cup are a participation — a communion — in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). Through the eating of His Body and the drinking of His Blood, we abide in Him and He in us (John 6:56). It is a “remembrance,” but it is a remembrance in the same way the Passover was a remembrance of the Old Covenant: a re-presentation, “as often as you take it,” of the salvific sacrifice of Christ, our Passover Lamb — the New Covenant that saves us and sets us free. How can anyone shuffle that off as merely a quarterly “symbolic act of obedience”?