If you follow certain Christian blogs, or have Christian friends on Social Media, then you may have seen a short video clip being shared which has been taken from a recent sermon by popular Evangelical pastor/speaker and author, Francis Chan of Crazy Love ministries.
Depending on who shared the clip will depend on which reaction you have seen; some are praising his words, others fearing for his future calling it a “red flag”.
And all of this over a short statement he made about communion!
I recommend you watch this 3 minute clip below before continuing, if you haven’t seen it already. I would also recommend watching the whole 47 minute sermon for some better context, where he talks about his struggles and journey to this point in his faith around the topic of communion — something he was wrestling with even back in his BASIC series teaching on Communion from around 2012, views which have clearly moved on since then towards a more historical view.
Chan says he isn’t making any sort of “grand statement” here, and goes on to give a brief, if little distorted, overview of church history:
“I didn’t know that for the first 1,500 years of church history, everyone saw it as the literal body and blood of Christ … And it wasn’t until 500 years ago that someone popularised the thought that it’s just a symbol and nothing more. I didn’t know that. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s something to consider.’”
This part isn’t too far from reality, really, though a little over-simplified. But I understand his zeal and excitement about this discovery of his, as I went through the exact same mind-blowing realisation around five or so years ago when I first delved into the writings of the Early Church Fathers and was forced to come to the same conclusion that there was something there to seriously consider. If the Church had always understood Jesus’ words and the interpretation of Scripture in a fairly singular and unified way for nearly two millennia, then who was I to come along and say my understanding exceeds the wisdom of everyone before me?
It was actually one of the earliest texts, from a second century bishop called Ignatius, that really tipped me over the edge from a “memorialist” view (that the bread and wine are purely symbolic, nothing more), to a sacramental view (that the bread and wine are a means of grace that God uses). Ignatius was writing against a heretical group who were teaching a false doctrine about Jesus not really coming in the flesh, and uses communion as an example to prove the opposite, which also gives us an interesting and early view on the sacraments:
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.”
— Ignatius Of Antioch: Letter To The Smyrnaeans (c.108 AD)
At first reading I was stuck by the literal nature in which Ignatius spoke of the Eucharist (communion), and as I read more of the Early Church Fathers, that same, common thread kept appearing: they all held to a view of Communion which was definitely more than simply a symbol or memorial (you can read some more quotes on the topic here).
Chan later talks about unity in the early church and how he longs to see that type of unity again in the Church globally, explaining that making communion more central to worship would help with that. Chan then laments about the apparent disunity within Protestantism, citing the dramatic statistics of there being “30,000 denominations” in the Protestant world.
It’s a common claim, often from Roman Catholic apologists, but it’s not exactly accurate; there’s really only about six general umbrellas if you boil it all down: Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal/Charismatic. Most “non-denominational” churches are still largely Baptist in their theology, despite avoiding any overarching labels. You could also possibly argue for maybe 20-ish denominational groups, if you accept some of the sub-sects of the six listed above as different enough to warrant being counted separately. But I digress.
Chan then continues his sermon, making some more generalised historical claims:
“…for 1500 years it was never one guy and his pulpit being the centre of the church, it was the body and blood of Christ…”
Another area he touches on is the centrality of the Eucharist to the ancient church compared to many modern, Evangelical church services today, where it’s the speaker or sermon which is the focus and communion sometimes gets sidelined. The effect of the Reformation in the 16th century on theology as a whole was when the position of the pulpit really started to shift its focus from off-center to the central positioning common today.
I agree with him here, and that point is definitely part of my own journey in why I’ve recently joined the Anglican church, as I enjoy the fact that the whole of the liturgy leads up to the celebration of Christ’s presence with us as the high point of the service. This isn’t to say or diminish the importance of preaching, but that it too should be a stepping stone into the presence of God; and if you believe in the Real Presence in communion, then that is where we meet with Christ in a very real way as the crescendo of the whole service.
Despite what some bloggers and YouTubers are claiming, I don’t think we can say from this video and short clip alone that Francis Chan is “swimming the Tiber” and becoming a Roman Catholic. His statements are too broad and vague to say he is specifically talking about transubstantiation, and he could just as easily be expressing the Anglican or Lutheran view of Communion, which would make him just as much, if not more, Protestant than he already is.
But overall, I think he’s just experienced that first time realisation that the early church wasn’t what he thought/was taught and it’s blown his mind, and until he refines his views and reads more of the Early Church Fathers, his statements are just a bit over-simplified and fuelled by an excitable zeal. I had the exact same reaction a number of years ago when I first discovered these early writings weren’t what I was taught, and said what I didn’t expect (and I even took a Church History class at Bible College)!
We would all be wise to reserve judgement on the matter until Chan comes out and gives a proper statement about his new views and says one way or the other if he’s going towards Rome fully, or towards one of the other more historically rooted Protestant denominations, if anything actually comes from this.
Further Reading / Sources:
- Full Francis Chan sermon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUUbXzb2atM
- Short 3 minute Clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QP9roQQwzsA
- “BASIC series” on communion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4k5qHuDmEM
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