Common Practice - on Weekly Communion
By Jim Rogers
One of the most significant liturgical practices reintroduced to the Church by the protestant Reformers was their insistence on frequent celebration of the Lord's Supper by the laity. Calvin suggested the Church observe the Lord's Supper whenever the church gathered together for worship. Calvin wrote that this means most Christians would observe the Lord's Supper each week.
Luther commended "frequent" communion, and noted that the protestant churches of his time offered the sacrament "daily." While Luther was loathe to set down an actual requirement regarding the frequency of communing, he nonetheless wrote that it is "to be feared that anyone who does not desire to receive the sacrament at least three or four times a year despises the sacrament and is no Christian." (See Calvin's and Luther's views on the Lord's Supper in side-bars on pages 2 and 4).
The Reformers' insistance on the frequent observance stood in contrast to the practice then prevalent among the laity of the Roman communion, of reception of the Lord's Supper only annually. That the Reformers would highlight frequent communion as a Reformation distinctive only serves to underscore the irony of neglect in today's protestant churches.
The irony is that today, particularly after Vatican II, the Roman Catholic laity are offered and partake of the Lord's Supper as often as they attend a worship service. Congregations of the Reformation churches -- and evangelical churches in general -- typically celebrate the Lord's Supper only a few times a year. In fact, many protestant churches celebrate the Supper so rarely that they approach Luther's low standard of celebration of three or four times a year. Recall that Luther taught that if you received communion only three or four times a year, then you were treading the line of unbelieving neglect.
So how often should a church celebrate communion?
Calvin makes what seems to me to be a biblically reasonable suggestion: "[W]e ought always to provide that no meeting of the Church is held without the word, prayer, the dispensation of the Supper, and alms." Calvin's suggested rule permits celebration of the Lord's Supper more than once a week. Nonetheless, at the very least Calvin commends that churches should observe the Lord's supper at least weekly, because that is typically as often as they assemble together for worship. This is his explicit suggestion, as can be seen in the quotation from Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, on page 2.
I will argue that this rule -- that as often as the church assembles together for worship, so the Lord's Supper should be celebrated -- is suggested in the Scriptures. Furthermore, that the very earliest Christian churches followed this practice is suggested by early Christian writings describing the typical worship service of the early Church. Although even the earliest extra-biblical writings do not present the Church with conclusive proof of a practice being biblical, they do provide an important witness of a practice being biblical. Finally, I will present a simple theological argument as to why a local church should celebrate communion whenever it gathers together for worship.
First we look at some of the biblical evidence. In his letter to the Corinthians, the subtext of Paul's instructions on the proper celebration of communion is the assumption that the church observes the Supper when it gets together. That this is the subtext of the passage requires some careful attention to the passage and how Paul describes what the Corinthians are doing. What Paul seems to do is to write of gathering for church and gathering to celebrate the Lord's Supper as though to say one is to say the other. That is, Paul interchanges phrases speaking of the church and communion as though they were speaking of the same thing.
Paul writes of Christians coming together "in church" as though that were the same thing as Christians coming together to celebrate the Supper. Look carefully at how Paul describes the same event in 1 Corinthians 11:
17: "you come together"
18: "when you come together in church"
33: "when you come together to eat"
20: "when you meet together it is not to eat the Lord's supper."
34: "eat at home, so that you may not come together for judgment."
Each description of the purpose for which the Corinthians "come together" refers to the same object -- the gathering together of the church for worship. So close is the identification between coming together for church and celebrating the Lord's Supper, that Paul calls the coming together for worship the coming together "to eat." And he chastizes the church at Corinth, rebuking them because when they do come together, so corrupt is their practice, that "it is not to eat the Lord's Supper." The implication being, of course, that one of the main points of meeting together is, in fact, to eat the Lord's supper: to say one is to mean the other.
Elsewhere Luke uses a phrase implying the same interchangability of purpose. In describing a gathering at Troas, Luke writes that "on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread..." (Acts 20:7). The reference to "breaking bread" would seem to be a reference to the celebration of the Lord's Supper (Mat 26:26, 1Co 11:24, Acts 2:41-42 46).
Note, then, how Luke describes the purpose of the Sunday meeting: they were "gathered together to break bread." Of course other events were also present -- Paul preached a lengthy sermon at the service. Yet the noted purpose of the church gathering together here is to celebrate the Lord's Supper. Just as Paul used phrases interchangeably in his letter to the Corinthians, so Luke seems to use the same phrases: To say that the Church gathers together on Sunday for a service is to say that the church gathers together to celebrate the Supper.
The same suggestion appears present in earlier passages in Acts, when Luke records the practice in the first days of the Church: "And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. ... [A]nd they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart..." (Acts 2:42,45-46).
Note the presence in these passages of what Calvin taught should be present at every "meeting of the Church," namely, "the word ['the Apostle's teaching], prayer ['prayer'], the dispensation of the Supper ['the breaking of bread'], and alms ['sharing...as anyone might have need']."
As noted above, the references here to "breaking bread" would seem to refer to the Lord's Supper, and they would exemplify Calvin's rule-of-thumb: Whenever the church comes together, the Lord's Supper should be celebrated. In the case of the earliest Church, they met "continually" (v.42) and "day by day" (v.46), therefore they celebrated the Lord's supper "continually" and "day by day."
The earliest Christian sources outside of the New Testament confirm that the Church followed Calvin's rule-of-thumb, and celebrated communion whenever the church gathered together. According to the Didache, a very early text written for Christian instruction probably between 60 and 80 A.D.: "On the Lord's own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure" (ch 14). The Didache also contains a description of how the sacrament should be administered in a worship service.
So, too, Justin Martyr, writing sometime around 150 A.D., describes the worship routine of the early Christian church, a routine which habitually included celebration of the Lord's Supper: "And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the presiding officer verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
"Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the presiding officer in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by deacons.
"And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the presiding officer, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly..." (First Apology, ch 67).
So, too, the many records of the early worship services of the Church all include the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Again while this is not compelling, it does provide evidence indicating an apostolic practice, and later Christians are obligated at least to consider such testimony. Because the Supper was written into every early liturgy (at least that I know of) it indicates that the early Church followed the practice of celebrating the Eucharist whenever the church assembled to worship God, typically on Sunday. Calvin and Luther recovered the same emphasis in their desire to renew worship along more scriptural lines.
The records of post-Apostolic Christians -- whether they be Calvin and Luther, or Ignatius and Justin -- are not binding in the same way as are the records of the Apostles. But let's summarize the evidence on the matter so far: Paul intimates the practice, Luke also suggests the practice, and the earliest extra-biblical records of Christian worship provide direct evidence of celebrating the Lord's supper as frequently as the local churches gathered together. Furthermore, in their desire to reform the Church and recover for her a purer worship, the pillars of the Reformation taught that the practice of celebrating the Supper at every worship service should be renewed.
The above argument is calculated to persuade the reader of the fact of weekly -- or frequently regular -- celebrations of the Lord's Supper. The arguments, however, do not explain why the Church should celebrate communion at least as often as every week. To be sure, these reasons can be as complicated or as simple as one might like.
For example, Jim Jordan holds that the church's weekly worship is properly understood as a covenant renewal ceremony, and because eating in the presence of God is a regular part of covenant making and covenant renewing, and because the Lord's Supper is aimed at being this sort of covenant renewal meal, that therefore the Eucharist has a necessary and obvious place in every Sunday worship service. (See, e.g., Nehemiah 8:9-12,8.18; Exo 24:11; 1Co 5:7-8; Rev 3:20; Deu 12:6-7; Deu 14:26; Joh 6:53-58; Rev 19:9; 1Co 11:25-26.) I refer you to Jordan's stuff for further argument along these lines.
My reasoning for weekly (or worship-related) communion is related in a way to Jordan's, but proceeds at a lower level of argument. My claim is this: Whatever it is that the Church is supposed to do in worship, this worship occurs par excellence in celebrating the Lord's Supper. The Supper seems to be the logical completion of every theme proper to Christian worship. To be sure, it does not exhaust worship, not by a long shot. But when Christians intend to worship God, it seems that everything they intend to do also occurs in celebrating the Lord's Supper.
Thus, are Christians supposed to "proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9)? That proclamation occurs in the Eucharist (1Co 11:26). Does the Church come together as Christ's body (Eph 1:23, Col 1:18,24)? We share share in His body by eating the bread (1Co 10:16).
Do we need to drink the blood of Christ, in which there is life, in order to live eternally (Joh 6:54, Lev 17:11)? We drink Christ's blood in His Supper (1Co 10:16). Is the Church the creature of a New Covenant (Jer 31:31, Heb 8:8, Heb 9:15)? Jesus introduced the New Covenant at the last Supper (Mat 26:26-29).
Does God discipline the Christian for our own good (Heb 12:10)? God disciplines us in the eucharist (1Co 11:32). Do we need a sacrifice for sin so that God will pass over our sins (Heb 9:22)? The Eucharist is our Passover feast (1Co 5:8-9). Does Jesus tell us that if we hear His voice and open the door that He will come in and He will dine with us (Rev 3:20)? Do we not dine with Jesus, in His presence, in eating His Supper (Joh 6:56, cf., Joh 6:58, 1Co 10:3-4, Deu 14:26).
Are Christians told to assemble together (Heb 10:25)? Paul tells us that the many assemble together in one body because we share one loaf (1Co 10:17) and drink of one Spirit (1Co 12:13).
I could go on and on. The point, however, is this: While worship cannot be reduced to the Lord's Supper, everything that we do in worship, or what God does to us, is also expressed in the Lord's Supper. So if we do these other things, why not also do them in the Lord's Supper? It should just be another natural, commonsensical part of our worship to God. If in worship the church proclaims the death of Jesus reading, preaching, song and prayer, then why not also proclaim it in the bread and cup? (1Co 11:26)
If, because of what God's word teaches us, it would be unnatural to have a worship service without those sorts of proclamations, shouldn't it also seem unnatural to us to not include the proclamation which God's word says is offered in the celebration of the Lord's Supper? If it seems logical for us to remember Jesus in the proclamation of the Gospel, then shouldn't it seem logical to us also to remember Jesus as He told us to, in the doing of His Supper? (Luke 22:20)
I do not doubt that other reasons could be offered to explain why the Church should celebrate the Lord's Supper during every worship services. I have tried to focus on the simplist arguments, because those seem to me to be persuasive enough: The Scriptures suggest that the first and earliest Church celebrated the Lord's Supper whenever they got together. The testimony of Christian writings and liturgies at the end of and immediately after the apostolic age indicate unequivocally that this was the regular practice of the churches. Recovering this theme, the Reformers urged a return to the practice of celebrating the Lord's Supper whenever the church gathered together.
And it seems as though there are good reasons to do it: Just about everything else that we do in our worship services seems to be included in some fashion when we celebrate the Lord's Supper. Just as it would seem unnatural for us to exclude sacrifices of praise (Heb 13:15), or the proclamation of the scriptures, or a sermon or other offerings, so it would seem that if we were to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, that it should also seem unnatural for us to exclude the worship of God in the celebration of the Lord's Supper whenever we gather together as a Church.
Calvin on Communion
"[T]he sacrament [of the Lord's Supper] might be celebrated in the most becoming manner, if it were dispensed to the Church very frequently, at least once a week. ...
"What we have hitherto said of the sacrament, abundantly shows that it was not instituted to be received once a year and that perfunctorily (as is now commonly the custom); but that all Christians might have it in frequent use, and frequently call to mind the sufferings of Christ, thereby sustaining and confirming their faith: stirring themselves up to sing the praises of God, and proclaim his goodness; cherishing and testifying towards each other that mutual charity, the bond of which they see in the unity of the body of Christ. ... Thus we ought always to provide that no meeting of the Church is held without the word, prayer, the dispensation of the Supper, and alms. ...
"By these enactments, holy men wished to retain and ensure the use of frequent communion, as handed down by the apostles themselves; and which, while it was most salutary to believers, they saw gradually falling into desuetude by the negligence of the people. Of his own age, Augustine testifies: 'The sacrament of the unity of out Lord's body is, in some places, provided daily, and in others at certain intervals, at the Lord's table; and at that table some partake to life, and others to destruction' (August. Tract. 26, in Joann.6). And in the first Epistle to Januarius he says: 'Some communicate daily in the body and blood of the Lord; others receive it on certain days: in some places, not a day intervenes on which it is not offered: in others, it is offered only on the Sabbath and the Lord's day: in others, on the Lord's day only.
"Most assuredly, the custom which prescribes communion once a year is an invention of the devil, by what instrumentality soever it may have been introduced. ... Each week, at least, the table of the Lord ought to have been spread for the company of Christians, and the promises declared on which we might then spiritually feed."
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk IV, ch 17.
Luther on the Lord's Supper
"[N]ow that we have the right interpretation and doctrine of the sacrament, there is great need also of an admonition and entreaty that so great a treasure, which is daily administered and distributed among Christians, may not be heedlessly passed by. What I mean is that those who claim to be Christians should prepare themselves to receive this blessed sacrament frequently. ... Let it be understood that people who abstain and absent themselves from the sacrament over a long period of time are not to be considered Christians."
DECEMBER 1993 -- VOL. II, NO. 2