Communion and Tertullian
I love taking communion.
You know what I mean? Communion is a sacred act of worship. More than that, it’s a sacramental act of worship, meaning that it’s something we do in the church because Jesus did it, and then commanded his followers to mirror his example.
Because of this, when it’s done, communion has to be well-pastored. You know, the instructions given have to be clear and compelling. Put simply, in order to glean maximum spiritual impact, the congregation should know what it’s getting itself into.
We took communion in church recently. And one part of the officiant’s instructions landed with a thud in my ears and in my heart. He said something like this:
“And after you get the bread and juice, feel free to take communion as a family. Husbands, fathers, you can lead your family in this…or anyone else can lead.”
If you ask me, a little bit of Tertullian there in those instructions…
As I’ve sat with our recent communion experience, I think there are three primary reasons why the meshing of a theology of male headship in the family with the act of communion sits wrong with me.
First, when Jesus inaugurated the institution of communion, he didn’t have anything to say about male headship in the home. For that matter, he didn’t have anything to say about male leadership in the church. Instead, here’s how Jesus framed the first communion instructions, from Matthew 26:26-29:
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
See, nothing in there about male leadership of the communion process.
The second reason why I think those particular instructions are unhelpful is that they presume a common theological understanding that male headship is the way of the Kingdom. And, obviously, if someone like me is sitting in the crowd, that understanding is anything but common or universal.
There are robust arguments to be had about male headship in the home, and, no doubt, Bible-loving, Jesus-pursuing Christians search the Scriptures and disagree. Because of this, it would be best to not just assume a baseline, default theology around headship.
If you do, you risk alienating, or distracting, someone like me, right at the critical and sacramental moment of communion.
Third, and finally, the instructions for husbands, or fathers, to lead in the communion-taking process is problematic because there is inevitably a good chunk of the congregation for whom those instructions will be either painful or irrelevant.
Because, of course, not everyone has a husband or father present on a given Sunday. Maybe the family has been broken apart by separation or divorce. Or maybe mom packs up the kids and brings them to church by herself every Sunday. Or, for the single folks in the room, where do those instructions leave them? Who will lead them into communion? And while I give the officiant props for tacking the “or anyone can lead” phrasing onto his instructions, I worry that the damage had already been done.
It’s not a book specifically about communion, but in her book Blood and Wine, Shauna Niequist talks about the Christian’s approach to table fellowship. Consider these words in the context of communion:
“We don’t come to the table to fight or to defend. We don’t come to prove or to conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble. We come to the table because our hunger brings us there. We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed, and we allow ourselves to be nourished, like children. We allow someone else to meet our need. In a world that prides people on not having needs, on going longer and faster, on going without, on powering through, the table is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel.”
“The table is the great equalizer.” What a grand vision!
Now let’s not taint the sacrament by making it another place where power is unevenly distributed.