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The Primacy of the Lord’s Supper in the Local Church

Posted by M.Ferris on

“As often as you eat this bread” should not mean as seldom.

The subject of the Lord’s Supper, (or Communion) is a large topic, and has engendered controversy and differing views through many centuries. In what follows, I do not propose any sort of exhaustive look at the subject, but rather to look at the Lord’s Supper with the specific question of how often it should be celebrated, and why. Within evangelical congregations, either “low-church” or even in those where worship is more formal, it is common that the Lord’s Supper is held at the most monthly, and in some cases, quarterly. In a few places it may be as infrequently as once a year. Some discussion of what the Lord’s Supper means will be necessary, but it is not my intention to examine all the many views on what it signifies, and how various Christian traditions have interpreted it. We can, however, say that the frequency or infrequency of its celebration does say something about the meaning of the Supper, or at least how Christians regard its importance in their worship lives.

Liturgical historian James F. White says, “The eucharist is usually not the most important service for most Protestants, at least not in terms of frequency. Most Protestant worship, historically and at present, has not made the eucharist its central service. When the eurcharist is celebrated, it is often tacked on to the end (or beginning) of the usual Sunday service.”[1] I am looking at it from an evangelical Protestant perspective, and while I will look at history to see how the Lord’s Supper was regarded in various ages, and how the evangelical church has arrived at the current state, what previous generations believed is not any sort of binding authority on how the Christian now views the Lord’s Supper. The New Testament itself is the sole authority for the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament

The New Testament puts forth two ordinances; baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The first is a one-time event, and not to be repeated, as it symbolizes something that itself happens but once – the new birth. The second, the Lord’s Supper, is to be celebrated repeatedly, but with what frequency should it be done? My purpose is to show that having the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day is the pattern set forth in the New Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, the teaching on the Lord’s Supper falls into two categories: narrative and didactic. In the synoptic gospels Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper in the upper room, during the Passover meal with his disciples. Matthew 26:26-30 records the scene in the upper room.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Mark’s gospels records substantially the same thing:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25).

Luke’s gospel follows the same basic outline, but with the additional detail of Jesus telling the disciples this is to be done in remembrance of him.

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.  And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.  For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

John’s gospel contains no parallel institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus. Some have assigned Eucharistic meaning to Jesus’ discourse in chapter 6, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”   (John 6:53-54). But it is by no means clear that Jesus is hear speaking of what would later be known as the Lord’s Supper. Donald Guthrie comments on the “difficulties in treating the words as an allusion to the Lord’s Supper.”[2] “The word sarx (flesh) is used instead of sōma (body), and this must be regarded as a significant difference. There is no mention of the eating of Jesus’s flesh in the synoptic accounts of institution (or in Paul’s). The words must bear a symbolic meaning, since they are connected with heavenly bread. (6:58). The difference in wording between sarx and sōma should introduce a caution against too readily assuming that John is simply giving his own version of the words of institution.”[3] Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells his hearers, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He thus links coming to him with eating, and believing in him to drinking. Eating and drinking are presented as metaphors of receiving Jesus by faith. John’s gospel is replete with such metaphors. Jesus likens himself to a door and a vine as well, but no one assumes these to be other than pictures of spiritual truth.

The synoptic gospels, then, are the only narrative passages that present the Lord’s Supper to us. They contain but few details on the how or why of the ordinance, and nothing explicit on the when. One other passage from Acts provides some insight at least into the nascent practices of the earliest Jerusalem community. The apostle Peter preaches with boldness to his Jewish brethren in Acts 2, resulting in three thousand being saved on that single day. Following this, we see some of what they did.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47).

Most scholars view the term “breaking of bread” to include a common fellowship meal, which culminated in the Lord’s Supper. Alford says “The Holy Communion was at first, and for some time, till abuses put an end to the practice, inseparably connected with the ἀγάπαι, or love-feasts, of the Christians and unknown as a separate ordinance.”[4] Whatever it says about the joining of a fellowship meal with the Lord’s Supper, Acts 2 speaks of the frequency of the practice. Indeed, verse 46 indicates this was a daily custom. We should also note the transitional nature of the book of Acts. At many points, the apostle’s expectations had to catch up with what God was doing – extending the gospel offer to Gentiles is the plainest evidence of an unforeseen direction by Holy Spirit. Moreover, the identity of these first disciples as Jews is also plain. Their attendance at the Temple as well as keeping the Jewish hours of prayers indicates they viewed their faith in Jesus as in no way a repudiation of their Jewish faith or ancestry. Rather, as Peter said to his fellow Israelites:  “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36).

            This has led some to conclude that because of the disciple’s Jewish identity, the origins of the Lord’s Supper are found in the Jewish Passover feast, and that Jewish custom plays a very large part in a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Much research and scholarship has been devoted to this question, but it is beyond my purview to enter into that enquiry in detail. Liturgical historian Paul Bradshaw comments, “Whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal has been a topic of great debate. Some scholars accept as genuine the claim made in the synoptic gospels that it was indeed a Passover meal, and regard the different chronology of the Fourth Gospel (which situates the Supper on the day before the Passover) as an adjustment made by the Evangelist for a theological purpose – so that the death of Jesus would coincide with the very time that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple.”[5] Closely identifying the Lord’s Supper with the Passover means that some draw conclusions about its frequency. James D.G. Dunn says “In the absence of any firmer data probably the best explanation is that the Lord’s Supper was initially an annual celebration – the Christian equivalent of the Passover: the first Christians were Jews after all.”[6] (I will have more to say about whether this connection and timing is warranted by the scriptural record.)

Turning to the didactic passages, we have only 1 Corinthians 10 and 11.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is keen to correct the many problems he has learned the local congregation is suffering from. In chapter 10, he admonishes the believers about their responsibility to flee from idolatry, and to eschew any actions that would cause others to stumble. An important, abiding principle in the chapter is that the Lord’s Supper is a statement of our membership in and participation in the body of Christ. “The Lord’s Supper brings Christians into fellowship with one another on the highest plane of their lives. The communion is communion with one another in Christ. So that great scholar, W.G. Rutherford, translates I Cor.x. 16, 17, thus: ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not thereby we have communion with each other in the blood of Christ? The loaf which we break, is it not that whereby we have communion with each other in the body of Christ? As the loaf is one loaf, so we the many partakers are one body; for we share, all of us, in the one loaf, from which the portion of each is broken.’”[7]

In other words, our commonality in the body of Christ is declared when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Our participation together as members of Christ, our membership in the one body is proclaimed when we celebrate it. Ralph Martin expands on this. “The fellowship has a horizontal as well as a vertical reference. As we are knit with an unseen yet present Lord at His Table, so we are united with His people. This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians x, 17 (R.V. marg.): ‘Seeing that there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf.’ There is one loaf (Paul is saying) which is broken so that all who are present may have a share. But, he goes on, this common participation in a single loaf now joins you together as the spiritual counterpart of the one loaf. You are the body of Christ, the Church…”[8] We again find no mention of the frequency of the Supper, but it seems that the vehemence of Paul’s words indicate this was not a rarity within the congregation.

When we turn to chapter 11, we find the only full-scale teaching in the epistles on how the Lord’s Supper is practiced. Yet it too comes in the midst of corrective teaching by the apostle. Paul begins by chastening them.

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. (1 Cor. 11:17).

He is clearly displeased with the reports he has received about their disorderly worship. But he goes on to say,

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. (1 Cor. 11:18-20).

Paul ascribes their disorder to those times when they come together as a church. Here, then, is an indication that the Christians of Corinth were gathering regularly, and as we know from Acts 20:7, (“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread”), this was the first day of the week, Sunday. Concerning this, F.F. Bruce notes “The reference to the meeting for the breaking of bread on ‘the first day of the week’ is the earliest text we have from which it may be inferred with reasonable certainty that Christians regularly came together for worship on that day.”[9] It makes sense as well that the Acts 20 meeting occurs in the evening, for “the first day was a regular work day for Romans: Christians met together that day as work allowed, either early or late.”[10] If Dunn’s contention that the Lord’s Supper was only an annual celebration initially has any merit, it clearly did not remain so for long.

It is evident that the reason Paul writes as he does to the church is precisely because this was not uncommon or only annual behavior, but rather every time they came together as a gathering of believers. From the Acts 2 passage as well, where the sharing of meals was occurring daily, it makes no sense that these earliest disciples began with a daily celebration but moved to an annual one because of their Jewish heritage. Bradshaw believes the wrangling over how closely the Lord’s Supper should be associated with the Passover is to be immaterial. “The question of whether the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal is not particularly crucial. Even if it were a Passover meal, no exclusively paschal practices seem to have been retained in the primitive Church’s Eucharistic celebrations; and even if it were not a Passover meal, it still took place within a Passover atmosphere and context.”[11]

Ralph Martin agrees that with Jesus’ institution of the Supper, “it does seem clear that Paschal ideas were in His mind as He sat with the Twelve. The early Church looked back to this meal and its symbolism as portraying Him as the true Passover (1 Corinthians v, 7,8).[12] All manner of symbolism comes with the identification of Christ as our Passover. The Israelites were saved by being “under the blood”, as Christians are redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Passover lamb had to be without blemish, as was Jesus himself. We are redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:19). In other words, the sign of the Passover lamb is that it pictures Christ himself and his sacrifice on our behalf. It is unnecessary, and adds nothing, to insist that the Lord’s Supper is a continuation of the Passover, because for the believer the Passover is not an end in itself, but rather a marker of the person and work of Christ. It is symbol, but Christ is the substance.

Returning to 1 Corinthians 11, it is clear that the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper in a way that was both inconsiderate to fellow believers, and incongruous with how those who belong to the one body of Christ should behave. It is likely that some fellowship meal was part of this early celebration of the Supper, “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (v. 21-22). Rich and poor are gathered together, yet in the church these class distinctions should not be emphasized – quite the contrary – and Paul was angry that those who had more were shaming those with less. This was not the way for believers to conduct themselves toward fellow members of the body.

In the following section, Paul rehearses the institution of the Lord’s Supper, saying that he has received it from the Lord. He includes the phrase found only in Luke “This do in remembrance of me.” Since Luke traveled with Paul, one wonders whether Paul is quoting Luke’s gospel here, as he evidently does with Luke 10:7 (“The laborer is worthy of his wages”) in 1 Tim 5:18. The important thing to note is that the apostle is underscoring the Lord’s Supper as remembrance of Jesus; who he is and what he has done. This is one of the chief reasons in favor of a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is an act that is centered on the Lord Jesus. He is the one who has brought us light and life and should we not remember him with greater frequency in this act, rather than less? Do we honor him more by an infrequent remembrance of him through the Supper? There are some acts that grow in importance as we do them more, and honoring the Lord through this remembrance is surely such an act.

The final verse of the paragraph brings out another aspect of the Supper: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (v. 25). Here, too, the word “often” speaks of the frequency rather than the irregularity of the Lord’s Supper. The apostle’s assumption is that whenever they gathered together each Sunday, the Supper was part of the gathering. Whether it is in Acts or here in 1 Corinthians, the testimony of the New Testament is that Christians were gathered on the first day of the week to worship together, and when they did so, partaking of the Supper was a part of that.

The second half of the verse carries a very important purpose in the Lord’s Supper, in that it functions as a kind of gospel preaching; a proclamation of the saving death of Jesus and all that it means. That this preaching is to those who are already born-again in no way lessens the importance of it. On the contrary, David was speaking to his own heart when he said “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” (Ps. 103:2). Believers need to remind themselves of the atonement and all that Jesus suffered in order to bring us to God. This is no secondary doctrine, but is of first priority to the believer. Quite often in the Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper, these verses from 1 Corinthians 11 are read out as an invocation before the bread and wine are distributed. But congregations need not be restricted to these verses alone. These types and pictures just noted from the Old Testament speak to us of Christ’s death, and the book of Psalms and the prophets as well are filled with messianic references that also help to “proclaim the Lord’s death.”

Beginning with Genesis 3:15 and the ‘proto-evangelium’ of the serpent bruising the hell of the woman’s seed, the death of Christ is put forth in the earliest pages of scripture as a prophetic certainty. The Passover lamb, as we have seen, typifies Jesus in his death. He is the burnt offering of Leviticus 1, giving himself wholly and completely to do his father’s will. He is the grain offering, “a pleasing aroma to the Lord”, (Lev. 2) finding its counterpart in Ephesians 5:2, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ” He is the peace offering (Lev 3) who is our peace, having reconciled us through the cross. (Eph. 2:14-15). He is the sin offering (Lev 4), who, for our sake was made to be sin who knew no sin. (2 Cor. 5:21). This is but to scratch the surface of what the scriptures present to us as all that the Lord Jesus suffered and endured on our behalf to accomplish our redemption. As Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “The death of Christ is neither incidental, accidental, nor fortuitous. It is the central truth of the Bible, and the central fact of the universe.”[13] Recalling these truths, and proclaiming them to one another is a primary purpose – indeed privilege – of the Lord’s Supper. Shall we think about these things less by our infrequent celebration of it?

The final clause of 1 Cor. 11: 25 is also important. We proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes. There is an eschatological element to the Lord’s Supper that we often forget. The promise of the New Testament is that Jesus will return in glory. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not again eat of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. He points forward to that time when he will return. We do indeed proclaim his death during this age of grace, an age when people may call upon him to be saved, but we look ahead to that time when the kingdom will made visible upon the earth. “Until He comes (1 Corinthians xi, 26) unmistakably points to the future. The Gospel ordinance belongs to the Church age which will run its course until the inbreaking of the final Kingdom. The Table bids the Church look to that day when the Kingdom will be fully consummated; and our invocation of Marana tha (Our Lord, come!) as a prayer for the end and the establishment of the Kingdom came naturally to find a place in the Communion services of the Early Church.”[14] The Lord’s Supper is a perennial celebration for the church to observe, but it is also a feast that points forward to the hope of Jesus return, to his manifestation as king. Not only will those who trust him acknowledge his kingship, but every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord.

The Lord’s Supper in History

In the many centuries since the post-apostolic era, the way in which the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper changed profoundly. I will have space to survey only a brief amount of evidence. Even in these early centuries, we see innovation in the way the Supper was regarded. Hippolytus writes

“Frequency of communion among the laity declined after the fourth century, such that the Synod of Agde (506) decreed the minimum communion to be the aforementioned three occasions: Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas.”[15] This decrease in frequency of communion had occurred hand in hand with an increase in the prestige of the clerical class.

In the high middle ages, we witness a divination of the Eucharist itself, and those who serve at the altar are of a separate order entirely from those who hear the mass. “Church authorities determined that a properly ordained priest was the only person who could make Christ present in the Mass. The Eucharistic celebration that emerged form these centuries, then, tended to transform the Mass into a spectacle performed by the priest for the laity whose participation in the sacrament took place through devotions other than those of the liturgy itself.”[16] It is not without significance that a priest says mass, while the laity hear mass.

Prior to the Reformation itself, there were those who called for the people to once again receive the Eucharist in both kinds. The cup was long denied to the laity, and was only allowed to priests. The term utraquist (“in both kinds”) designates the belief that Christians should receive both the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Jan Hus, the Czech priest and martyr was most associated with this view.

When we reach the time of the Reformation, the Mass and the Eucharist had strayed very far afield of the New Testament simplicity. Because of this, some Reformers sought to purge popular belief of any of the practices struck them as superstitious.

“Four walls and a sermon” was all that John Calvin (1509-1564), the paradigmatic Reformed theologian, had required of the worship service. By reading scripture, individuals might receive divine revelation directly, without the intervention of a priest or the sacramental system.”[17] The restoration of the authority of the Bible was doubtless the motivation for the four walls and a sermon. In the liturgical apparatus, built up over long centuries, devoted to relics, veneration of saints, and Eucharistic adoration, the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures had suffered greatly. Yet Calvin himself was not one who diminished the importance of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, he argued with the city fathers of Geneva for a weekly celebration. The conclusion is that due to their wariness over any medieval superstition, and their desire to restore the Scriptures to their rightful place, some of the Reformers diminished the Lord’s Supper to a degree that swung to the other extreme. They were satisfied with an infrequent celebration of the Supper, even if it did not accord with the New Testament pattern.

Evangelicals need to recover the primacy of the Lord’s Supper in its biblical context. Too many view it as an ancillary event in our worship, rather than a proclamation of Jesus death, which is the center of the gospel. Regarding it so need not, and should not lead one into a sacramental view. It is possible to hold to the importance of the Supper without lapsing into mystagogy or falsehood. There is blessing in doing what the Lord commanded us, remembering him as he asked us, and in proclaiming his death until he comes.

[1] James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), p. 14.

[2] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 729.

[3] Guthrie, p. 729-730.

[4] Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1980), p.29.

[5] Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 48.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 2nd ed. (London, SCM Press, 1990), p. 163.

[7] J.W. Hunkin, “The Origin of Eucharist Doctrine” in The Evangelical Doctrine of Holy Communion, A.J. MacDonald, ed. (Cambridge, W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., 1930), p. 23

[8] Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), p. 123.

[9] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988), p. 384.

[10] Craig Harline, Sunday: A History of the Day from Babylon to the Super Bowl (New York, Doubleday, 2007), p. 8.

[11] Bradshaw, p. 51.

[12] Martin, p. 113.

[13] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 4 (Dallas, Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), p. 10.

[14] Martin, p. 128.

[15] Ian Christopher Levy, “The Eucharist and Canon Law in the High Middle Ages,” in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, Ian Christopher Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall , eds. (Leiden, Brill, 2012), p. 407.

[16] Gary Macy, “Theology of the Eucharist in the High Middle Ages”, in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, Ian Christopher Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall , eds. (Leiden, Brill, 2012), p. 365-366.

[17] Conrad L. Donakowski, “The Age of Revolutions” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, Geoffrey Wainright, Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, eds. (Oxford:New York, Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 361-363