Most good elders get this. Where we elders tend to err is in forgetting that this is not a permanent solution. Eventually, freedom should triumph in love. That is, while there are times that freedom and love conflict, the conflict should ultimately resolve. I mean, it should be the nature of love that we don’t want to take away someone else’s freedom and so we’ll make the effort needed to resolve the tension.
Let me explain. A given church has members who disagree over the one-cup question. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 19th Century that any congregation used multiple cups. (Evidently first practiced in 1892 and around 1911 in Churches of Christ.) It was Louis Pasteur and the discovery of germs as the source of diseases that led many churches to adopt multiple cups — that, along with flu epidemic in 1918 and tuberculosis that, together, killed millions in the early 20th Century.
However, many denominations remain one-cup communion takers even today, including the Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopalians. One-cup communion seems archaic and quaint to many of us in the Churches of Christ, but our multi-cup practice remains a minority practice in Christendom.
It is, in fact, very difficult for a congregation to practice both one cup and multiple cups. It really is one of those things where you are one or the other. And it’s a question of doctrine for those who insist on one cup. J. W. McGarvey argued in 1911 that the church had no authority to use multiple cups — the same argument used to oppose instrumental music and, for those in the one-cup camp, obviously not a mere matter of personal preference. This was doctrine to many — and the one-cup advocates have nearly 2,000 years of church history on their side.
Now, let’s suppose that the elders meet, prayerfully study the question, and conclude that multiple cups are the best choice for their congregation. They are concerned about the spread of disease and about the very lives of their members. They realize that their duty to protect the flock is among their highest duties as shepherds. And yet about 20% of the church believes the Bible requires one cup, based on the singular “cup ” in each of the Bible’s descriptions of the Lord’s Supper (but see here).
What should the elders do? Well, Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8-10 teach that those “strong” in faith should not tempt those who are “weak” to sin against their consciences. The text doesn’t say that you may not give offense (that’s a mistranslation in the KJV). Nor does it say that the weak get their way. It just says don’t tempt them to do something they believe to be wrong.
Therefore, for a while, the elders, must accommodate those with weak consciences, that is, who consider one cup a scriptural requirement. They should not surprise the church one Sunday with multiple cups with no preparation or opportunity for instruction.
However, those in the one-cup camp are required to submit to their leaders, and this at least means that they should listen to their teaching with an open mind. They shouldn’t pass around petitions, withhold contributions, spread rumors — and they shouldn’t refuse to cooperate because of what other congregations might think or what their parent back home might think. To expect the church to submit to the will of non-members under different elders is clearly unreasonable and not scriptural.
And so the elders, having lovingly, patiently, and gently taught the scriptures to their members should make the change they believe to be necessary. Those who are weak in the faith are not empowered to run the church or always get their way — obviously. They are entitled to respect, love, kindness, gentleness, and patience. They are entitled to be taught and not talked down to. And they are obligated to listen with an open mind — and to make every effort to be persuaded.
(Heb. 13:17 ESV) Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.
The word translated “obey” can also be “be persuaded.” What the text does not say is “insist on your own views as a matter of pride.” The Greek is stronger than “be persuaded.” In fact,
The first verb means to put one’s trust in someone (2:13; 6:9), while the second, which occurs only here in the New Testament, is stronger and means to ‘give way, yield or submit to someone’ (usually in authority). In response to this exhortation the listeners will adhere to the word of God that their leaders speak and follow their direction rather than revert to Jewish ways of thinking or be influenced by other strange teachings (13:9).
Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Hebrews, Pillar NTC; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 529.
The writer, however, defines the obligatory conduct of his audience with the verb πείθεσθαι, “to be persuaded,” “to obey.” This verb certainly demands obedience. But the specific quality of the obedience for which πείθεσθαι asks is not primarily derived from a respect for constituted structures of authority. It is rather the obedience that is won through persuasive conversation and that follows from it (so Laub SNTU 6–7 [1981–82] 179–80, who points out that πείθεσθαι in the sense of obey is used in connection with persons of authority comparatively rarely: 4 Macc 6:4; 8:17, 26; 10:13; 12:4–5; 15:10; cf Jas 3:3).
The writer carries his injunction a step further with the second verb ὑπείκειν, “to submit to someone’s authority.” Although the verb occurs only here in the NT, it is used frequently in secular Greek in the sense of submission to a person of authority (cf 4 Macc 6:35; Philo, On the Special Laws 2.232; Moses 1.156; On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 105). A cognate term ἑκτικῶς, which denotes a “habitual readiness” to comply, is used in describing military subordination in 1Clem 37:2 (cited by Thurén, Lobopfer, 205). The community is summoned to respect the authority with which the leadership has been invested by God.
William L. Lane, Hebrews 9–13, Word BC 47B; Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 554.
In short, those in disagreement are bound to make every effort to be persuaded and to submit. Obviously, elders can be wrong, but those who disagree have to give them a fair shot to persuade.
So there has to be a transition period during which the elders do what elders are called to do: teach. And they should teach from two angles. First, they can show that there really is authority for multiple cups. Second, they can show that God really isn’t about rules and “positive commands” but much deeper, more significant things, like love and unity and faith. That is, the elders should challenge CENI (the Regulative Principle) at its root. Authority is irrelevant. We should obey those commands that there are, but we aren’t allowed to invent commands from silences or from the church fathers.
Some of the 20% will be persuaded. Some will quietly slip out the door and join other churches — even churches with multiple cups. They’ll be mad about not having control, and perhaps their spiritual health will be best helped if they leave so they are no longer under the delusion that the elders serve their preferences. (Some of us would be better Christians if we lost a church battle or two and so had to learn how to submit.)
Of course, some will remain convicted as a matter of conscience that one cup is required by God in the scriptures. They will honestly just disagree with the elders and the rest of their church. Does that mean the church must remain one cup forever? I think not.
First, at this point, the concern has changed. These people aren’t remotely tempted to sin against their consciences. They are just not going to participate in a multiple-cup service. Therefore, we are now outside of Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8 – 10. Rather, now the question is purely one of love and unity. The leaders of the church quite rightly don’t want these members to leave. These are friends and perhaps even family. But if they leave, they aren’t leaving Jesus. They aren’t leaving the church. They’re just choosing a new congregation more aligned with their view of scriptures — which will be sad and unfortunate but hardly reason to risk the lives of the members during an epidemic.
On the other hand, if there were a way to honor the consciences of those weak in the faith while still protecting the health of 90% of the church, the elders might adopt a compromise — such as allowing some members to share a cup while the rest use individual cups — as awkward as that would be. It may be still be better than a split.
Very few churches attempt compromise solutions. You see, our editors and thought leaders often insist that to remain a member of a church that disagrees on a matter of “faith” is to “condone” the sin of the leadership. This is error — indeed, heresy. The whole point of 1 Cor 8 – 10 and Rom 14 is that the weak and the strong should find a way to stay together. These passages require that the strong give up their freedom while the weak are at risk of being tempted to sin against their consciences — but the weak have no right to remain weak in the faith indefinitely or to use their weakness to get their way. Rather, the passages merely say that they should not sin against their consciences and should not be tempted to do so.
Disagreement is ultimately resolved through teaching — which only happens if we’re willing to engage in dialog and work through our differences. The elders are charged to teach — but they aren’t charged to impose. Rather, the teaching that persuades is dialog and conversation. I may be your teacher, but I need to be ready to hear what you have to say and to be as open to persuasion as I expect you to be.
And so we study the text together and try to reach a conclusion together. And some will be childish, refuse to hear the other side out, and leave. The elders cannot let the most immature, weakest members to run the church. (It’s hardly surprising that churches are failing — closing their doors — by the thousands when elders turn control over to those unwilling to open their minds to persuasion.) Then again, there are certainly cases where it’s better to give up freedom for the sake of unity — but not unity built on a foundation of legalism. I mean, the elders are specifically charged to refute legalism —
(Tit. 1:9-11 ESV) 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.
And so, I can’t help but conclude that — long-term — the legalists don’t get their way. They are to be a better, truer, more joyous, freeing gospel. But this requires elders with the courage to tell the church what they believe.
Not all unity is healthy. Unity founded on a false gospel, legalism, contradicts the true gospel and the elders are charged with eradicating this heresy. This is the teaching of Galatians — the entire epistle. But Rom 14 teaches us that we can disagree and still remain together — so long as our members don’t insist on separating themselves to purify themselves or avoid “condoning” the error of others.
And, to me, this is the line. It’s one thing to disagree over multiple cups. It’s quite another to insist on dividing over that issue. Disagreement is the human experience. We are broken, fallen, and all weaker than we should be. We are going to disagree. But we don’t have to divide. The heresy is not in the disagreement but in insisting on dividing over the disagreement, which is the point of Rom 14 — indeed, the entire book of Romans, which is all about Jewish and Gentile unity despite their differences.
- We are going to disagree.
- Our elders should teach the church grace — salvation by grace through faith. Our faith in Jesus should be enough to unite us, even when we disagree on other matters. Faith in Jesus is non-negotiable, of course. And those who elevate other issues, such as one-cup communion, to the level of faith in Jesus are not just legalists, they are idolators. They make our position on one-cup as important to our salvation as Jesus. They make one-cup an idol. Not because they disagree but because they divide over the disagreement.
- Elders and all others have a duty not to tempt the weak to sin against their consciences. But they may not cede control of the church to weak. The elders don’t have to do things their way. We only have to avoid tempting the weak to sin against their understanding.
- We all have a duty to follow our elders as our leaders. We are submit and to be open to persuasion. We must have truly open minds.
- To persuade us, the elders do best to teach, not demand, and to discuss, not scold. The elders are not the only ones with the Spirit and not the only teachers. We should study together, listen to each other, and struggle to find a common path together.
- The elders are not to hide the truth and pretend to believe something they do not. In so doing, they are kowtowing to the weak — and so giving control of the church over to people they are charged to refute and even rebuke.
- Legalism is not a political issue and therefore cannot be dealt with politically. It’s not just error — it’s error that threatens the souls of the weak and leaves the church under threat of division whenever the elders make a misstep. Don’t allow it. Teach grace. Lovingly. Patiently.
- Don’t hide the gospel to build a church. It can’t be done.