Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Lord’s Supper: A Historical Context

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 At this site you can read scores of articles and essays that articulate various perspectives on this issue.


John Carlson said...

Good post Scott to foster further conversation.

Beyond biblical commandment, and historical practice. in such a case as this, does God not give us freedom of choice to celebrate communion when we desire/as we are lead, or as a church feels it appropriate for it's own practice/schedule? I do agree with the notion that having it every week can be cause for it becoming a meaningless ritual, as you stated here. The argument could be made of course that we do "worship, arts, and teaching every week, and it doesn't become meaningless. I beg to differ however in that teaching and worship are our two known service "norms" based on our historical practice (which I feel is every bit as valid as any historical church practice - we create our own history!) and while not meaningless by having them every week, they do "change" in content from week to week (not that communion can't be done creatively in different ways of course.) As well, imagine if worship or teaching was done only once a month - the attention brought to it would make it VERY special and stand out from the rest of the month. Just like I feel communion right now, celebrated monthly and on special occasions, is given MORE attention and better effect than doing it every week. Just as we encourage people to look for ways in their every day life to worship all throughout their day/life, and look for teachable moments from God in every day life, I think I'd rather see us encourage people to make communion more of a practice of every day life with family, small groups, in homes etc. - rather than it have to always be a "church service only" event. I also think of the neat story of Apollo 11 Commander Buzz Aldrin, who shortly after the first touch done of the lunar lander on the moon, asked all that were listening to "pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way." And then he privately took communion on his own without mention of it, and did not mention it for some years after. (NASA was in the middle of a lawsuit by atheists for reading of Genesis from space on a past mission, which is why he chose to keep it personal.) But how many of us have ever held our own personal communion in the same in any personal situation worth remembering and giving thanks to our Lord? (Not that any of us have landed on the moon that I'm aware of! :-) But I'm sure we can all attest to great memorable events in our lives when communion would have been very appropriate.

First Theology said...

Good summary Scott - really glad you keep digging in deeper. I'll amen your disclaimer and add mine... This is my synthesis and not official PV doctrine/teaching. This is just how I understand the biblical & historical data and put it all together.

You are right Calvin made a similar historical/biblical argument (which I really like and is close to what I followed) and then added his "Supper theory" (that Christ is spiritually present and that we are ushered into heaven during the Supper) to support weekly observance; if I remember his view was not approved by Geneva and it was never officially adopted. Luther likewise used his "Supper theory" (Consubstantiation) to support a weekly observance. So two of the big-dog reformers called for a weekly supper - Zwingli being the odd-duck on that one... To me this brings into question whether the shift was reformation thing. However you are right, we are more Zwinglian in our practice today, but I believe we owe less to Zwingli and more to the Enlightenment. Again, if I remember correctly this shift came more out of the Enlightenment (1700ish) and the focus on reason (this is when the Table moved from front & center and the pulpit took it's place... previously the pulpit had been off to the side) than a change that came directly from Zwingli (altho he would approve, just for different reasons).

I have some sympathy for the "less frequent is more special" argument that used so often... however on another level it seems a bit of a non sequitur to me. As John alluded to in his comment, when he mentioned this objection to me offline my response was... "My question is following that rationale is preaching and worshiping thru song less special since we do that every week?" As John said, most would say that "the content is different each week" to which I would ask maybe we could show some creativity in how we remember the Lord's Table?

Further, what if I followed that same logic and told my wife: "When I tell you 'I love you', I want it to be really special. So instead of doing it regularly, I'm only going to do it monthly... or quarterly." There might be other things that would only happen monthly or quarterly... All humor aside, altho some might think that to be an unfair comparison, I'd argue since the Table is the way the God ordained we remember the Son's death/resurrection and anticipate His return it's not that different than an "I love you" to my wife. This is another way to state my understanding that more frequent might make more sense.

So at least to me I'm not sure the "more often = less special" rationale makes sense to me. It seems to be another way of saying "that's not my preference." [FYI - I'll probably post a bit more about some of the imagery behind the Supper that I think is meaningful and significant to my blog.]

Thanks for the continued conversation & hoping for more good ones to come.

scooterpastor said...

I do really appreciate both of your comments and based on your excellent responses, do think the conclusion of my post is where the rubber meets the road on this issue. I think it would be responsible for church leaders to grapple with this and have personally moved the Lord’s Supper from my back burner throughout the course of this discussion. Those of us who lead in the church MUST know why we practice what we practice, otherwise we risk leading the church under the influence of traditionalism, legalism, fad, false teaching, etc…

Josh, regarding Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli’s spiritual views of the sacraments I do think this would be an interesting study/discussion some time. I know early in this discussion I was throwing around terms like “means of grace” which can confuse the issue and appear to advocate an unbiblical view of the sacraments. Anyhow, for another time…

Regarding the exact roots of when the frequency issue came to a climax, I did read this quote from an article by D.G. Hart and John R. Muether that seems to show that the church leadership during the reformation were the ones who “put their foot down” in rejection of arguments for weekly observance.

“Students of Calvin also know that he did not have his way on the matter of communion frequency. The Geneva Town Council never approved this element of Calvin’s reform program. Nor have his Presbyterian descendants adopted Calvin’s desire. The blame for this is usually placed upon another Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, and his memorial view of the Supper.”

First Theology said...
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First Theology said...
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First Theology said...

Scott, I think what I said is similar to the Hart and Muether article. The part you quoted said the same thing I did – that Calvin said more frequent and Geneva said no... so Calvin said “yes” and the local government said “no.” At the end of your quote they say: “The blame for this is usually placed upon another Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli, and his memorial view of the Supper.” But then they go on to show that this “usually blame” does not represent the “whole story.” Notice that the first sentence of the very next paragraph says: "But contemporary Presbyterian practice may owe less to the legacy of Zwingli than to generally overlooked developments in Scottish Presbyterianism." At this point they argue that these developments really became common practice in the eighteenth century: "By the eighteenth century, Scottish practice gradually became even less frequent, to the point where communion was generally celebrated annually." So at least tracing the shift through Scottish Presbyterianism they argue that it looks like the wide spread adoption of infrequent communion came about a few hundred years later during the Enlightenment (FYI - I have some other good non-online resources which delve into this further and correlate this shift in practice to a broader societal shift in sources and norms of authority away from revelation & religion and toward reason).

I think that same article is a good illustration of the point that historical shifts are tricky to locate and debatable. The question is: "Where exactly do you locate shifts that were gradual?" I think most things like this were not sudden so our dates and kinda artificial and we usually just tag them to a "big event" (like saying the Reformation can be traced to Wittenberg with Luther).

Of course, this is really only a small nuance in the discussion, but I'm just trying to draw the distinction that it might be reductionistic to place the onus on one reformer when the change can be correlated to some other significant societal changes - like the shift in authority away from church/revelation/religion and toward reason. In my view those kinds of factors are probably closer to what "folks in the pew", and many in the pastorate, are using to think thru the Supper and why it should or shouldn't need a more prominent place – rather than Supper theories. If that is the case, I’d want to move folks toward rethinking about issues of authority and question some of their presuppositions about the place of reason on our grid of “doing theology.” I see this as a significant starting point to challenge people to rethink things. Again, good stuff and I'll definitely keep thinking about it all :)

John Carlson said...

Regarding the "If I tell my wife I love you on a regular basis, does it ever get old or "un-special" argument (I know that's said kind of tongue and cheek) - but - well, of course it comes down to the heart of whom is saying I Love You. If I am obligated by commandment to tell my wife I love you 12 times a day and have no choice in the matter, then I'm sure this can be come a meaningless ritual to both of us. Of course, I should be showing love to my wife and telling her all the time -but as I am lead and from the heart, not by rule. However, and as I said in a past email to Josh, if out of the norm on special occasion I do something EXTRA special for my wife, like clean the house, the bathrooms, do the laundry, make her a bubble bath, make her a wonderful dinner etc - she's going to consider this a VERY special expression of love and assume it's a special occasion - thus it will mean that much more to her than if I did those things every single day by routine. Now doesn't mean I love her less either way. (So really this brings into question just how far our practices and actions/works are truly worth in the end?) Bottom line again, this is why it's clear to me that Christ gives us freedom of choice in this matter and never gave a clear instruction of exaclty how often to do this. (What if he had said "Do this every single week in rememberance of me"?) Unless I'm missing something with the studied translation of "do this often." (?)

- J

John Carlson said...

I have a story to tell in all of this. Keep in mind my 2nd spiritual gift is prophecy.

I was at Subway last week at the Wal Mart here in town. I was waiting in line behind 3 or 4 other people. I started to notice there was some sort of squable happening between an African Amercian woman with two older teen age looking sons, and the young (hispanic I think) girl making sandwhiches. The A/A customer was quite agitated and almost shouting at the subway gal. Then I noticed someone behind the A/A lady said something I couldn't decipher and the A/A lady turned around and in a very sassy loud tone said "Well F*** You! Don't tell me me what I have to do or don't do . . . mother fu****." Then she turned back to the subway gal and said "Get going on my sandwhich before these people behind me get mad . . . bit**!" At that point another lady in line spoke up and said "Now that's enough miss" and again, the A/A lady turned around and gave the same sort of "FU you MF" response again. This started to get real ugly real fast. As I found out later, apparantly a fly had landed on the gal's sandwhich while it was being made. She asked for it to be remade, which I believe is valid. But apparantly she was treating the subway gal quite hostile and innapropriate, meanwhile holding up the line - the customers behind her were getting mad for the line behing held up, and the way she was treating the subway gal. What was ugliest was that it started to turn racial real quick with the customers in line starting to shout back very ugly racial comments (An older teenage looking son of one customer yelled "Go back to Africa where you belong" while the parent was involved in the argument as well. The A/A lady started to get confrontational to the point of approaching the line on her own, fingers waving in the air, while several guys and one woman who was taking more of a lead stand took steps towards her. The A/A gals two sons stepped in FRONT of her as if to protect their Mom as the several people in front of me edged forward in a line as if to draw a line in the sand. Meanwhile FUs and MFs where flying back and forth, as well as other racial insults where being tossed. The lady in front of me turned around and said she was going to get security and ran off. Meanwhile the subway gal was still making this sandwich trying to get rid of the A/A gal, while she was being called "bit**" in every response from the A/A gal.

Now granted, the A/A gal obviously was way out of line it sounded from the start. But what blew me away and saddened me so quickly, was how a group of every day very normal white middle class people - people that looked like they could go to our church - teenagers included with their parents - turned this VERY racial and VERY ugly real quickly and were equally out of line in my mind as well in their response. I just watched this from the back of the line in dismay and sadness and just prayed - all the while wondering what I should say or do. I felt as if I was in a scene from the movie Crash. I wanted to cry. It was just really, really, really sad to see grown people in Coralville on this day in the year 2006 act this way towards one another. It all ended with the woman leaving after having words with the store manager and others. She left as people continued to shout obscenities and racial slurs towards her. Her sons walked out flipping everyone the middle finger. Again, right here in Coralville/Iowa City - 2006 - the city just voted into the top 100 places to live in Americal.

My point in saying this . . . as pastors, ministers, worship leaders . . . perhaps we should have some equally long discussions, blogs, thoughts, meeting, etc. on how do we reach THIS kind of community and THIS kind of sin and ugliness before we start having all sorts of upper crust discussions on theology, when we do communion, and how the church historically wore it's underwear through the centuries?? Come on - this is where the rubber meets the road. How do we approach this community as it is, where it is, with the Gospel of Christ that speaks to them in a way as never before that grabs their attention, points the way, and that they can UNDERSTAND? Is it through modern worship songs? Is it through communion every week? Is it through Jeff's teaching? Is it through ABFs? Small Groups? Atrium Cafes? Is it standing on our heads in clown suits singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb"??? I don't know, but if it takes that to reach a fallen community and society, (all virtually on the verge of World War III if you've watched the news overnight of the latest bombing and death of children in Lebanon) then I'll do that or whatever the heck else it takes. We hold in our hand the ability to communicate the hope of the world to people and the message of the greatest Love in the Universe. But I fear, as committed already reached believers, that we spend so much time getting caught up in this stuff of the "church" . . . that we don't look at the true mission to the community we're trying to reach for Christ. And I don't know what that is, but with this much brain power put together that can have theological dicussions on this level (which I can't!) - I'm certain we should be able to figure something out. If not, we're just scholars and theologians in the name of God, possibly doing good for the already convinced or ourselves to understand the mysteries of scripture and the historical church, all the while having virtually no effect on our unreached community. What good does that do?

Do any of the people in that line at Subway EVEN KNOW of Parkview Church and any ministry that it may offer for them? What would it have taken for me to be able to somehow share the love and wisdom of Christ with any of these people in this situation, and invite each and every one of them to PV - or any church for that matter - and for them to come and KEEP COMING? I confess my falleness and lack of faith that I didn't do that right then and there. Somehow, I guess I didn't feel confident that it would do all that much good I guess or that I had that much to offer them. What does that say about me? Yuck. What does that say about us?

OK . . . enough rant!

- John

scooterpastor said...

John, that story was almost too painful to read. How tragic and revealing. The sentiment of your comment is a great reminder. It is too easy to fortress ourselves as believers and forget the purpose of “going” that Christ left us with in the great commission (Mt 28:18-20). I was deeply convicted by Nate’s comment on my post on “Missional vs. Attractional” which said “I think as a Pastor, whether it be a worship pastor or another is it is important to model and talk about the various encounters you have among the lost.”
Of course, his point being that I of all people should be in the lives of the lost and broken and should be talking about it every chance I get. I mean how can we as leaders preach being missional if we aren’t living missionally!!!!

Of course, we must “keep a close watch” on the doctrinal issues of faith in our teaching (1 Tim 4:16), but remember that Paul’s closing statement in this passage was to “persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

Whether it be through seeker movements, missional movements, or just “love the lost” movements we need to merge our passion to “teach right doctrine” with “reaching the lost” so that we can faithfully fulfill what Christ taught us about God in John 4, namely God is seeking worshipers (new believers) who will worship Him in spirit and in truth!