Over the last few weeks a lot of very interesting dialogue has taken place on the role of “The Lord’s Supper” in Christian worship. The perspectives brought by my colleague and friend Josh Malone in his post “Distinctly Christian Worship” and following posts have encouraged me to dig more deeply into my understanding of the Biblical and historical context in which the Lord’s Table was instituted by Christ and lived out in the early church. Further more it has raised questions for me regarding the historical motivation that lead many churches post-reformation to no longer observe this institution on a weekly basis. I started my research with the desire to clarify these specific questions…
Where was the Lord’s Supper observed in the early Church?
The Lord’s Supper was primarily observed within the context of the home. Believers would often gather around the meal table for this purpose. In Acts 20:7-12 we see an example of a large group of believers who also gathered in a home the first day of the week to be taught by the Apostle Paul and to break bread.
Who participated in the Lord’s Supper in the early Church?
The Bible clearly teaches that the Lord’s Supper is reserved for believers alone. This standard was mostly upheld within the early church; however, there is historical evidence that some deviated from this teaching by practicing paedobaptism and paedocommunion (paedo meaning infant/child). Though paedocommunion was practiced in the early church, it is not believed that this was a widely accepted practice.
How often did the early church observe the Lord’s Supper?
Early on in the history of the church believers would break bread on an almost daily basis. In Acts 2:42 we see the church observing the “breaking of the bread” in accompaniment to fellowship and the apostles teaching. Acts 2:46-48 implies that this happened within the homes on a daily basis. As time passed, the church evolved into the practice of breaking bread on a weekly basis. This is referenced in Acts 20:7 where the believers gathered on the “first day of the week” to break bread.
When did the weekly tradition of observing the Lord’s Supper discontinue?
The daily and/or weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper discontinued in most protestant churches following the reformation. Though reformers like Luther and Calvin were proponents of the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, most leaders within the church (like Zwingli) proposed regular but less frequent observation of this ordinance.
Why did leaders in the reformation period discourage weekly observance?
Most proponents of monthly or quarterly observance of the Lord’s Supper claimed that daily or weekly observance caused the partaking of the ordinances to become a mundane ritual. Many of these reformers were raised in the Roman Catholic tradition where the Lord’s Supper had become meaningless to the average parishioner, thus they felt that a less frequent observance would restore a “special” meaning to this institution. In response to the abuses within the Roman Catholic tradition the reformed church also put a greater emphasis on the central role of Biblical teaching, which was virtually nonexistent within the church before that time. This shift in priority likely also contributed to less emphasis being put upon the Lord’s Supper.
Why do we call the Lord’s Supper communion and distribute elements while seated?
The word communion represents the communal experience one has with the body of Christ (church) and Christ himself while partaking in the Lord’s Supper. In Roman Catholic tradition the parishioner always comes to the front of the church to receive the Eucharist from the priest. This method of partaking tends to emphasize a mystical and individualistic perspective in the taking of the elements. When some reformed congregations started distributing elements while people remained seated, they were de-emphasizing the mystical/individualistic and emphasizing the communal aspect of the Lord’s Supper by celebrating in the context of the community. In the same way as the reformation put the Word of God back in the hands of the people, it united believers with Christ through the individual handling of the elements and united believers with community through the unified partaking of the elements.
How often should we observe the Lord’s Supper in today’s church?
To start, most all evangelicals agree that Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper as a continuing practice within the church. That being established, the issue we’ve been wrestling with in recent posts is in regard to frequency. It is generally accepted that the scriptures do model differing levels of frequency. As previously mentioned, within the book of Acts we can see an evolution from almost daily observance (Acts 2:46-48) into a weekly observance (Acts 20:7). As Josh pointed out in a recent post, if there is no “thou shall” command of frequency from Christ or the apostles, we are left to use descriptive/historical evidence to try and discern a practice that would faithfully fulfill Christ’s intention for observance within the church. From the scriptures and early church historical record it would be safe to conclude that since the primary gathering within our churches are weekly, we would be “safe” to align ourselves with the practice highlighted in Acts 20 by weekly observing the Lord’s Supper; however, before we come to that conclusion I believe there is one more issue to consider.
From the reformation to present day, the majority of evangelical churches have chosen to maintain a less frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper. As some would suggest, this may be because church leaders have given preaching and artistic programming inappropriate priority within the worship service. Though there may be some supportive evidence for this argument, there is one other consideration that has been verbalized as the source of greatest concern by those objecting to a weekly observance. Namely, they believe that the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper causes the ordinance to loose significance and possibly even fuel inappropriate views about the ordinance within the congregation of believers. This leads us to the question, is it appropriate for church leaders to reduce frequency for the sake of maintaining a healthy appreciation and view of the Lord’s Supper, despite the fact that this deviates from early church practice? To me, this is the more difficult question, and the one that must be convincingly answered before the church (Parkview or any other) would consider that a change in practice is warranted.
As you ponder this question feel free to leave comments in contribution to this conversation.
In conclusion I want to clarify that this post does not necessarily reflect Parkview’s views on the Lord’s Supper, but will hopefully provide an opportunity for us all to wrestle with the scriptures for further edification. If you would like to review differing opinions on the Lord’s Supper a great resource is monergism.com. At this site you can read scores of articles and essays that articulate various perspectives on this issue.