Communion, individualism and your relationship with God

Bread and wine
“that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3)

One of the problems in the church – dare I say, especially within Evangelical circles – is that of rampant individualism which has, in turn, given rise to church consumerism. This individualism starts at our view of salvation (it’s a personal thing between me and God) and soon works its way out into our church life and everyday Christian walk. On this view, church becomes very “me-centric”. It is about what the church can do for me, how it makes me feel, whether it serves my particular desires and whether it helps to improve or impede my personal relationship with God.

I am always struck by the order of John’s words in 1 John 1:3. He does not say – as many of us would expect – get yourself into a right relationship with God and then we may begin to have fellowship. Rather, he says we have come to you “so that you too may have fellowship with us”. Only then does John tell us that such fellowship entails being right with the Father and his Son. In other words, John’s view is first corporate and then individual, not the other way round.

John also says in v4 “we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete”. If John is writing in order to have fellowship, it follows that his joy would be complete in having such proper Christian fellowship with those to whom he writes. So whilst he is calling the readers into a relationship with God, he is calling them into corporate fellowship with the church which they cannot have without a relationship with God.

On this reading, our approach to church takes on a different edge. It is less about what the church can do for me and more about how I can build up the church. If this actually becomes the modus operandi of every individual member, each of us would be working to build up the others and each of us would find our own needs met by a series of people who are looking to build up people other than themselves. Our fellowship is primarily corporate, not individual, but we cannot have such corporate fellowship without an individual relationship with God.

All of that is by way of a long introduction to the issue at hand. Communion can be one of the places where church individualism is expressed at its worst. There is a mysticism that says communion is primarily about me and my relationship with God. It is the place where I reflect upon all that the Lord has done for me. Whilst that is certainly involved, I think this approach is to fundamentally misunderstand what we are doing at the communion table.

Communion is the family meal. It is the place where we come together to express our unity with one another in Christ and our ongoing association with this particular church. Communion is not primarily about your personal relationship with God. It is primarily about your corporate relationship with God’s people which you cannot have apart from an individual relationship with Christ. By taking communion, we are saying we are unified with this church and united to them through our personal union with Christ. Communion is primarily corporate not an act of personal individualism.

That means if we seek to take communion outside of the corporate gathering of the church, we are really missing the point of the communion service. It is not a mystic act between us and God but a corporate act between us and the church with whom we are only unified in Christ. Anything that detracts from the corporate element of communion – regardless of how well-intentioned – will miss the point. The bread and wine are memorials of Jesus’ body and blood but those symbols bear witness to the ongoing association of God’s people in Christ. We do not take the emblems so they will impart grace, we take them to symbolise our corporate unity in Jesus, which we cannot have unless he is our personal Lord and saviour.

It is true that we are expressing our standing as believers in communion. It is true that we claim an ongoing association with Jesus when we take the emblems. But that is not all we are doing. In fact, it is not necessarily primarily what we are doing. We are associating with Jesus’ church, claiming to be fully unified with them in Christ.

If that is what we are doing, then individual communions – or communion apart from the corporate body – miss the point altogether. Of course, we cannot be unified to the body without a personal, individual relationship with Christ and we affirm this in communion. But, we affirm our unity to one another which only exists in Christ. It is Christ who bought our unity, it is the work of Christ on the cross and the ongoing work of the Spirit that actually unifies us, but it is our unity with one another in Him that takes centre stage. We can’t affirm our unity without affirming our standing in Christ but we absolutely shouldn’t make communion yet another means of pressing individualism in the church.