Friday, September 13, 2013

"As oft as ye drink it": How Often Should Communion be Celebrated?

Churches vary widely as to how often they celebrate the Lords Supper. Often, there are differences even within the same denominations and affiliations. There are churches that have a communion service at every meeting, some just once per year, and just about everything in between. I was asked what frequency I thought was best and why? My answer was that weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper is preferred. In this post, I hope to give some insight into why I think that.

Before I do that, I want to point out that there is so much variation regarding how often churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper because the Bible does not give an explicit command about how often we are to do it. As a result, each church must decide based upon the examples and instructions found in the Bible, their understanding of the purpose of the celebration, and the needs of their congregations. As a result, we need to be careful about becoming too dogmatic. In fact, I hold a minority view among the elders of my own church where we celebrate monthly.

Although we do not have an explicit command in the Bible, we should nevertheless attempt to base our view on what scripture does reveal. Probably the most important verse on the matter is Acts 20:7 which says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” The reason they were gathered together was to “break bread”. If gathering on the first day of the week to break bread is a reference to a celebration of the Lord’s Table then this is a clear indication that at least one of the congregations in the early church met weekly to celebrate communion. We know that the early church used the phrase “break bread” to refer to devotional meals. For example, in Acts 2:42 we learn the apostles devoted themselves to teaching, the fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers. All four things were associated with the worship of the church. The problem is that the Bible also uses the phrase “break bread” for the sharing of regular meals.

Even so, I do not think Luke is talking about common meals in Acts 20:7. First, Luke tells us it is the first day of the week. The only specific day of the week mentioned in relation to Christians gathering for worship in the New Testament is the first day of the week. In the context of this verse, we learn that Paul was with them for 7 days and surely he spoke to them throughout that time but only the first day of the week receives special mention. The day described obviously involved a meeting for fellowship and worship. Since they gathered to break bread, we assume that occurred. We also see them receiving the ministry of the Word from Paul. The apostle makes it clear in his letter that when the church gathers it is not for a common meal but rather for a fraternal meal (1 Cor. 11:33-34). It seems unlikely then that the church would gather on the first day simply to eat.

While I find the evidence from Acts 20:7 compelling, it is not definitive. Acts is a narrative. As such, it describes what happened but we cannot assume that this is what always happened or was always supposed to happen. Still, I think it is significant that the one New Testament reference we might have regarding the frequency of communion indicates that at least some apostolic congregations celebrated weekly.

Another passage that is important to the discussion is 1 Corinthians 11:25-26 where Paul says “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” and “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup…”  Many use these verses to support the idea that the frequency of the celebration is up to the discretion of the church. Indeed, this entire section (1 Corinthians 11:17-34) is Paul teaching on the Lord’s Supper and nowhere does he give a command that it should be done on a particular day. The phrases “as often as you drink it” and “as often as you eat this” seem to leave it open for the church to decide.

The context of the passage, however, places the emphasis on the fact that they should not use the fellowship meal as an occasion to make fleshly distinctions within the church. The point is that every time they must celebrate the meal in light of their relationship to one another in Christ. The point is how, not how often they had the meal. Although it is not specific, the context indicates that the celebration was frequent. In verses 17 and 18 we see that Paul uses the phrase “when you come together” in reference to their gathering as a church to worship. This same phrase appears in verse 20 when he says, “when you come together it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat”. It is reasonable to assume that the communion meal was therefore something they did whenever they met together as the church to worship.  The phrase appears again in verse 33 where Paul instructs them, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” These commands make more sense if the coming together is related to gathering for worship and is frequent. At the very least, the Corinthian passage shows that we should not neglect the celebration of the Lord’s Table and should make it a frequent part of our worship.

Another reason I think “frequent” should be “weekly” is liturgical rather than exegetical. The communion is to be an anamnesis. The word comes from the Greek word Jesus used when He instituted the Lord’s Supper. He said, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in [anamnesis] of me.” The word means to remember or memorialize and it seems Jesus intends a specific type of remembrance. The situation surrounding His institution of the communion provides a clue that Jesus is commanding more than the simple recollection of a past event.

Jesus is drawing upon the context of the Passover celebration. Most of us are familiar enough with the Passover Seder to know that at a particular point the youngest person asks the father the famous question “why is this night different from all other nights”. The father then shares the mighty works God has performed to save His people. This recounting of salvation history is the “remembrance” or “memorial” but it is not simply a list of historical events. The Seder itself is a celebration of those events and faithful celebrants are identifying with them not as mere historical facts but as participants through their identity in the group. God’s actions were therefore acts of salvation for them as well as their ancestors. The Lord’s Supper is the culmination of the Passover meal because His sacrifice is the greatest of all redemptive acts. When he calls us to “do this in remembrance” of Him, he is asking us to celebrate Him as the mighty work of God in redeeming His people and keeping His promises. Through our identification with Him and His people, we are not only recalling what He did as a historical fact but are also testifying to our participation in it. God, through the sacrifice of Christ has saved us.

I believe a similar memorial & celebration should accompany the preaching of the Word, which is the proclamation of God’s mighty acts to redeem His people and keep His promises. Understood this way, the communion is not a somber meal but is truly both a celebration and a memorial. Combining the preaching of the Word with a time of personal identification of believers with the sacred history provides a liturgical coherence to the worship service. The elements of preaching, prayer, praise, and the Table compliment one another to provide an unmistakable Christ-centered focus to the service.

Some argue that celebrating too frequently can cause a loss of reverence for the ordinance and it may degenerate into empty ritual. Empty ritualism, however, is a matter of the heart rather than the schedule. Most who make this argument would never suggest that we should not have weekly prayer, praise, or sermons for the same reason. I believe the pattern we see in the Bible is that a celebration of the Lord’s Supper was part of the regular worship services in the apostolic church. Although not explicitly commanded, this practice provides a depth and unity to the weekly worship service reminding us that Christ stands at the center of the promises and it is through our union with Christ that we become partakers in them.