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Our Churches Are Either Sacramental or Charismatic

The Early Church didn't make a distinction. So why do we?
Our Churches Are Either Sacramental or Charismatic
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Envato

It is an oddity of contemporary Christianity, at least in the West, that the churches that emphasize the sacraments generally do not emphasize spiritual gifts, and vice versa.

This Sunday, thousands of believers will enter a sanctuary in which all eyes are drawn to the table near the front. They will brush past a baptismal font as they find a seat, sing hymns and recite prayers that have sustained believers for centuries, confess that they believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and receive bread and wine. Spiritual gifts, however—with the exception of teaching—are unlikely to make an appearance. An occurrence of prophecy or healing would be very surprising, if not unprecedented. Tongue-speaking would result in either a baffled silence or an embarrassed cough.

Thousands of other believers will enter a very different worship space, in which all eyes are drawn to the stage. They will expect, and frequently experience, a meeting in which people practice the laying on of hands, spontaneous prayer, anointing with oil, prophecy, languages, healing, and any number of the other spiritual gifts described in the New Testament. But there will probably be no corporate confession, no creed, no psalms, and no shared liturgy. If the Lord’s Supper is celebrated at all, it will appear on collapsible tables, transition quickly into the next part of the service, and take no more time than the announcements.

There are, in other words, churches that are eucharistic and churches that are charismatic (as well as a good many churches that are neither). So it is interesting that the New Testament church about whose corporate worship we know the most, namely the church in Corinth, was both. The Corinthians were apparently unaware that those two strands of Christian worship were incompatible, and they happily (if somewhat erratically) pursued sacramental and spiritual gifts at the same time. Neither did Paul regard this as strange or problematic; in fact, he encouraged them to continue celebrating Communion together (1 Cor. 11:23–6) and to eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy (14:1). Paul, in that sense, wanted the church to be “eucharismatic”—and that invitation extends to us as well.

Charismatic with Bells on

The Corinthians were certainly eucharistic. Pretty much everything we know about the practice of the Lord’s Supper in the early church comes from this letter (1 Corinthians). The various names we use for it all originate here: “Communion” (10:16, KJV), “breaking bread” (10:16), “the Lord’s Table” (10:21), “the Lord’s Supper” (11:20) and “Eucharist” (from the Greek word eucharisteō, meaning “I thank,” 11:24). Admittedly it was a mess, to the extent that Paul thinks it did more harm than good—greed, division, drunkenness, and the rest—but it was central. It seems likely that the Eucharist was celebrated each time the church met: Paul begins his correction of their corporate gatherings with a detailed section on it, and of the seven times he says “when you come together,” five of them are in the context of sharing Communion. Whether the meeting took place around the table, as some suggest, or whether it simply included the Supper as a central feature of the liturgy, it is clear that breaking bread was central.

It was also, famously, highly charismatic. The remaining two references to “when you come together” occur in the context of spiritual gifts, with the first distinguishing between the effects of prophecy and languages on unbelievers and the second referring to a wider range of gifts: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up” (1 Cor. 14:26). This provides a fascinating window into Corinthian corporate worship, both in form and content. In form, because it shows that a large number of people were contributing, not just the recognized leaders. In content, because it includes singing, teaching, prophesying, language-speaking, and interpreting. (In light of chapter 12, in which distinguishing spirits, miracles, healings, and words of knowledge and wisdom are also mentioned, this list is probably not exhaustive). Then there are the references to not lacking any of the spiritual gifts and to all having been baptized in one Spirit into one body. Despite their many failings, the Corinthians were charismatic with bells on.

It would be possible, in fact, to construct a fairly comprehensive Christian liturgy on the basis of references in 1 Corinthians alone. As well as providing the most extensive biblical material we have on both the Lord’s Supper (chapters 10–11) and the charismata (12–14), 1 Corinthians also has more to say about preaching (1–2, 9, 15), baptism (1, 10), Christian leadership (3–4), and church discipline (5) than any other letter. We have clear teaching on taking a weekly financial offering (16:1–4), a reference to the church calendar (16:8), and the closest things the New Testament provides to a creed (8:6; 15:3–8). Abuses of both sacraments—chaos at the Table (11:17–34) and baptism for the dead (15:29–34)—are identified and corrected.

More familiarly, we also have greetings from God (1:3) and one another (16:19–21), prayer (1:4–9), ethical teaching (much of chapters 5–10), the preaching of the cross (1:18–2:5) and resurrection (15:1–28), an exhortation based on an Old Testament narrative (10:1–13), liturgical sayings (15:54–55), numerous quotations from Scripture (including the intriguing 4:6) along with one from the Gospels (7:10–11), an anathema and a maranatha (16:22), and a benediction (16:23). Of the 20 or so liturgical practices the church has historically used, 15 appear in this one letter, and two of the remaining five (namely confession and assurance of forgiveness) appear early in 2 Corinthians.

Granted, there are very few of these elements that the Corinthians had not bungled. They were not, in any sense, a model church. Yet the fact that they did these things so badly is ultimately helpful to us. It is the only reason we know about most of them in the first place, and more importantly, it shows us that Paul felt they were important enough to Christian worship that the Corinthians’ practice of each should be corrected rather than abandoned.

Some today, on seeing Communion, tongue-speaking, or church discipline done badly, solve the problem by dispensing with these practices altogether. Paul, by contrast, sees the sacraments and gifts of the Spirit precisely as gifts, given by a good God for our edification, so his response to such abuses is quite different: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues. But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (14:39–40). So if we see the congregation not as it was but as Paul wanted it to be, we have an excellent example of what a “eucharismatic” church could look like.

Depth and Bounce

And that takes us back to the contemporary church. There is no reason, beyond a series of historical accidents, why we cannot have our ecclesiological cake and eat it. Yes, churches that treasure spiritual gifts are often strikingly different, in their traditions and histories, from churches that treasure the sacramental gifts. But if Paul’s pastoral guidance is anything to go by, there is nothing stopping us from worshiping with raised hands and lowered faces, liturgy and levity, set prayers and spontaneous prophecies, dancing in the aisles and angels in the architecture.

The eucharismatic both/and has the potential to increase both the height and the depth of our worship at the same time. Many (if not most) Christians today would be inclined to think in terms of a spectrum when it comes to church practice, with the historical-liturgical-reflective-sacramental at one end and the charismatic-Pentecostal-expressive-celebratory at the other. For various historical reasons, these two forms appear to be in tension with one another: If you want depth, come this way, and if you want bounce, go that way. The truth, however, is quite the opposite. If you want more height, you need more depth. Ask any trampolinist. Or tree, for that matter.

Without depth, height is unsustainable. If we have an anemic liturgy, then inspirational messages, emotive music, and cathartic experiences can only take us so far; whether or not they produce a short-term emotional response, they cannot build the kind of faith that, like Habakkuk, rejoices in God even when there is no fruit on the vine or herds in the stalls (3:17–18). Rather than attempting standing jumps in the center of the trampoline, which is exhausting as well as ineffective, we need to plunge ourselves into the depths of our tradition, so as to spring to new heights. Down, into historic prayers. Up, into spontaneous ones. Down, into confession of sin. Up, into celebration of forgiveness. Down, into the creeds. Up, into the choruses. Down, into knowing God’s presence in the sacraments. Up, into feeling God’s presence in song. Call and response. Friday, then Sunday. Kneel, then jump.

Yet this metaphor cuts both ways. Going deeper also requires going higher. We are embodied and emotional creatures, and people who dance for joy, as opposed to merely singing about it, are more likely to be people who fall on their face, as opposed to leaning forward and putting their head between their knees for a few seconds. This both/and is precisely what we see in Leviticus, when fire comes out from the presence of the Lord as the priesthood is consecrated: “And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell facedown” (Lev. 9:24). Those who laugh in church are more likely to cry there. If you are captivated by the presence and gifts of the Spirit in worship, you will probably find the presence and gifts of the Spirit in the sacraments more wonderful, not less. If you go further up, you go further in.

As such, this is an invitation to be eucharismatic. Worshiping God with both sacramental and spiritual gifts can deepen our joy, enrich our lives, and remind us that there are things we can learn from the worship practices of other church traditions. It will not guarantee our growth, maturity, or spiritual breakthrough; 1 Corinthians proves that. But it will almost certainly broaden our experience of the gifts of God to his people, so that we “do not lack any spiritual gift as [we] eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1 Cor. 1:7). Come and see.

Andrew Wilson is teaching pastor at King’s Church London. He is the author of Spirit and Sacrament: An Invitation to Eucharismatic Worship (Zondervan), from which this article is adapted.

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