May 29, 2012

To those who esteem communion above communication

by Jesse Johnson

I had only been a Christian for a few years when a friend of mine told me that he was leaving our church for the Episcopal Church. His reasoning was simple: “they elevate the Eucharist to the center of the worship, while Protestant churches elevate preaching.” 

He went on: “Throughout church history, Christians have worshiped the body and blood of Jesus, not the words of men as they talk about the Bible.”

The charge kind of surprised me, and as a somewhat new believer I didn’t know how to respond. It actually provoked me to start reading church history books, where I discovered (lo and behold) that preaching was actually an important part of the early church worship, and not an invention of the enlightenment.

In the Gospel of Mark, we are told that in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry he healed countless people from Peter’s house in Capernaum. As the crowds increased, Jesus desired to sneak away and go to smaller towns, where he could preach. In fact, he told Peter that preaching “is why I have come” (Mark 1:38).

This purpose statement provoked J. C. Ryle (himself an Anglican) to decry the tendency to attribute more importance to the Euchrsit than the sermon:

Let us never be moved by those who cry down the preacher’s office, and tell us that sacraments and other ordinances are of more importance than sermons. Let us give to every part of God’s public worship its proper place and honour, but let us beware of placing any part of it above preaching.

By preaching, the Church of Christ was first gathered together and founded, and by preaching, it has ever been maintained in health and prosperity. By preaching, sinners are awakened. By preaching, inquirers are led on. By preaching, saints are built up. By preaching, Christianity is being carried to the heathen world.—There are many now who sneer at missionaries, and mock at those who go out into the high-ways of our own land, to preach to crowds in the open air. But such persons would do well to pause, and consider calmly what they are doing. The very work which they ridicule is the work which turned the world upside down, and cast heathenism to the ground. Above all, it is the very work which Christ Himself undertook. The King of kings and Lord of lords Himself was once a preacher. For three long years He went to and fro proclaiming the Gospel. Sometimes we see Him in a house, sometimes on the mountain side, sometimes in a Jewish synagogue, sometimes in a boat on the sea. But the great work He took up was always one and the same. He came always preaching and teaching. “Therefore,” He says, “came I forth.”

Let us leave the passage with a solemn resolution never to “despise prophesying.” (1 Thess. 5:20.) The minister we hear may not be highly gifted. The sermons that we listen to may be weak and poor. But after all, preaching is God’s grand ordinance for converting and saving souls. The faithful preacher of the Gospel is handling the very weapon which the Son of God was not ashamed to employ. This is the work of which Christ has said, “Therefore came I forth.”

(J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark (London: William Hunt, Steam Press, 1859), 20-21.)

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA.
  • Lynda O

    Thanks for sharing.  A great quote from J.C. Ryle, as always with his writings.

    • Jesse Johnson

      The more I read Ryle, the more I’m growing in my appreciation of him. 

  • Trent

    These people somehow are ignorant of consequence of ‘abandoning Biblical preaching,’ I mean, how else do we learn about the Lord’s Supper and it’s proper place?

    • Jesse Johnson

      Exactly. There is a certain irony in those kind of statements that is apparently lost on the person making them. I recently read a rather popular book that made the point that singing has elevated importance over doctrine, because the early church sang hymns before they composed Scripture. How do we know that? The author cites hymns in 2 Timothy and 1 John. 

      • Trent

         Just like the article here about Driscoll who basically said, “don’t elevate what the Holy Spirit says over what he says.”

  • Heather

    Wait…so what exactly are you saying here Jesse? That preaching is just as important, if not more, as the act of breaking bread and drinking the wine in remembrance of Jesus’ death? J.C. Ryle is a Godly man and all, but just because he says this, makes it right? Where are the verses to back this up?

    I could be reading into this the wrong way in your post, but I’m picking up the thought that you think remembering the Lord’s death in the breaking of bread isn’t really that important. As in, you esteem communication above communion?

    • Jesse Johnson

      You get my point on the first paragraph, but not the second. The first point is that preaching is the means God established for the propagation of the faith, instruction and building up of the saints, and strengthening of the church. Preach the word, in season/out of season. Do you best to show yourself a workman approved by God, rightly handling the word of truth. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing the words about Christ. The apostles were devoted to prayer and the ministry of the word. Etc.

      But the second paragraph is where I disagree. I’m not saying the remembering the Lord’s death is not really that important. It is important. Even in the Anglican world, both communion and the ministry of the word are both sacraments. 

      I am saying that the desire to elevate communion above communication comes from a relentless desire in much of the Anglican world to assault the integrity and sufficiency of Scripture, and to denigrate the role of the pastor. And JC Ryle saw the same thing.

      Thanks for your comment Heather.

      • Heather

        Hi Jesse,
        thank you for the clarification!

        I didn’t
        understand what you were saying because it never even crossed my mind that,
        “the desire to elevate communion above communication comes from a
        relentless desire in much of the Anglican world to assault the integrity and
        sufficiency of Scripture, and to denigrate the role of the pastor.” I read and re-read your post and didn’t understand
        what was so wrong with your friends desire to want to be a part of a church
        where the breaking of bread was the focal part of worship (IMHO, even with this
        said, I don’t believe the breaking of bread in the NT looked anything like the
        Eucharist in the Episcopal Church. I was just giving your friend the benefit of
        the doubt that his desire was to remember Christ and perhaps didn’t know where
        else to turn. I’ve known believers who have left the evangelical church to go
        to a Catholic church just because they couldn’t find an evangelical church that
        showed reverence to God). I didn’t realize that his intention (and those alike)
        was to assault the intergrity of Scripture and denigrate the role of the
        pastor. I understand, now, where you and J.C. Ryle are coming from and agree
        that both the sufficiency of Scripture and the role of preachers should have
        its good and rightful place in the Church.


        Do you think
        that, perhaps, the breaking of bread has no great significance in the
        evangelical church today? It seems that a major focus of the early church was
        actually to gather together to remember the Lord’s death in the breaking of
        bread, and of course, preach, pray and have fellowship. Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1
        Cor 11:20, 26. It seems the Lord’s supper should have its rightful place, and
        time set aside, in the Church today. Of course there will still be preaching!
        Who would want to miss out on great preaching on Sunday!? :)

        • Jesse Johnson

          Ha. Thanks Heather. I laughed about the missing great preaching part :)

          I like that Ryle brought out in his quote that even inferior sermons and poor delivery should not eclipse the mandate that the church has to preach.

          I also agree with you that what many churches do for communion is probably missing the mark too. We do have freedom though in how we practice communion. Some churches use a common table, other pass elements, others do a good old-fashioned potluck and literally break bread together at a park. I think we have freedom to do that anyway the church leadership lead, as long as the focus is on remembering Jesus.

          Thanks Heather,


          • Heather

            Right – I absolutely agree that each local church has the liberty to do what they feel the Holy Spirit is instructing them to do!

            In our church we have a worship service every Sunday where we are all gathered around a table with bread and wine. The focus is purely on the Lord Jesus Christ, and at the end we “break the bread” in remembrance of Him. Afterwards we have that great preaching :)

            I wouldn’t miss that sweet hour of worship for anything. It’s my Bread to keep me living through the week

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  • Rhea Flanery

    Am I the only one who found it funny that ‘communication’ is misspelled in the title of this article? At first I thought that ‘communciation’ actually was some fancy theology word that I had never heard of.