Sunday, April 22, 2012

Frequency of the Lord's Supper

The Lord's Supper, also known as the Lord's Table and communion, is a supper meal instituted by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to be repeated in remembrance of His death on our behalf. Because this is a continuing observance, the frequency of repetition is a source of discussion and debate. The Bible should be both the source of that discussion and the final arbiter of our decision.

The relevant texts are those on the origin of the Supper, those which discuss the theology of it (some of which are the same), as well as a few others which relate to the Lord's Supper in some way. The texts that I find related to the observance are the following:
Origin: Matt 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26, Luke 22:14-30; 1 Cor 11:17-34
Related texts: Acts 2:42,46; Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 10:16-21
Other texts: John 13:1-18; 1 Cor 5:7,11; Heb 13:10; 2 Pet 2:13; Jude 12

Some texts are straightforward and unquestionably foundational to the biblical doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Others are traditionally accepted, but may be questioned as to their relevance -- such as certain "breaking of bread" texts in Acts. Those I have listed as "other texts" are or may be related to the Lord's Supper, but seem to offer little or no detail (yet John 13 is related to the time of the institution of the Supper). Old Testament verses on the Passover are not listed, but are brought to bear by those who support annual observance at the Lord's table.

The Lord's Supper is commanded. An inspection of the texts reveal imperatives such as: "Eat." "Drink." "This do." The synoptic accounts of the institution of the Lord's Supper contain and emphasize the Lord Jesus Christ's command to continue to observe this rite. Paul repeats it and expands on it, with teaching on the matter flowing from its observance in the Corinthian church.

The bread represents Christ's body, and the wine His blood. The observance is a  remembrance of the Lord's death until He returns. Contained within the precept itself is the idea of a continuing observance -- "till He comes." Unlike immersion, which is a one-time event, the repetitive nature of the Lord's Supper insures it will have a "frequency", whether or not this is connected to a specific frequency such as weekly, quarterly or annual. It will be observed "till He comes". How frequently is the question, which has been given numerous answers.

There are few examples of observing the Lord's table in the New Testament. It was instituted by our Lord at the time of the Passover, and that record in the gospels gives us a look into what was practiced. Paul's instructions to the Corinthians gives some insight into what was taking place. Unless the "breaking of bread" passages refer to the Lord's Supper, there is no example of it in the book of Acts.

The institution of the Supper by our Lord at the time of the Passover may (and is used to) support the annual observance of the Lord's Supper. The Passover was observed annually by the Jews on 14 Nisan. Based on one's theory of the "three days and three nights", the founding of the Supper was on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Regardless, Jesus' institution of the Supper occurred in the middle of the week, and not on the first day of the week -- the most common time of observance in modern churches.

Acts 2 & Acts 20
"Breaking of bread" is possibly a reference to the Lord's Supper, and it is commonly viewed that way. I was taught that Acts 2:46 and Acts 20:7 meant the Lord's Supper. It is hard to become "unattached" to that way of thinking. Certainly bread was broken in the institution of the Lord's Supper and will be broken in its continued observance. Yet the communion consists not of bread alone, but the cup as well. No obvious communion passage mentions only the bread to the exclusion of the cup. "Breaking of bread" often means a common meal and not the Lord's Supper. Cf. Luke 24:30,35 and Acts 27:35, for example. I have trouble leaving the past teaching behind, but the context in Acts 2 and Acts 20 seems to be meal sharing.

Whatever happened in Acts 20:7 occurred on the first day of the week. This is the most cited reference for observing the Lord's Supper weekly. The Acts 2:46 reference, on the other hand, was to a daily occurrence.  If the Acts passages are not communion events, the case for annual communion around the time of Passover becomes stronger. If these are communion events, combined with institution midweek we find either the examples are contradictory or they need to be reconsidered and understood in a way that reaches agreement of the source material.

Reconciling the facts
If the Lord's Supper under Christ and His apostles was observed on a Tuesday evening, on the first day of the week, and daily, then what might that tell us? One way these various events might agree is that we should observe the Lord's Supper every time we meet. A comparison of the totality of gatherings of God's people recorded in the New Testament doesn't seem to support that conclusion. Several meetings have no evidence of the observance. Another way they might agree is that the Lord is telling us not to observe the Lord's Supper on a certain day, but that it  was a central part of the worship of the early church and that they thrilled to observe it frequently!

Unless and until I receive further light on the matter, I conclude that there is neither command, precept nor example that requires the Lord's Supper to be observed every time a church meets, weekly, monthly or annually -- that is, with any such exacting level of repetition. The command, precept and example, though, supports it being observed more rather than less. Jesus' words exude the imperative of command. Paul's word "often" cries out for frequent observance.

"as oft as ye drink it...For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord..." May we, by God's help, often "shew the Lord's death till He come."


Chad Whiteley said...

This is good stuff, brother. I have been praying about this particular issue myself.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks, Brother Whiteley. I've been thinking, studying and praying about the issue as regards our church practice, and also ran across some recent blog posts about it. My thought is that though there may not be a set time of recurrence we (speaking for our church) don't observe the Lord's Supper often enough. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Chad Whiteley said...

I have recently been studying this with an open mind. In the past, I have concluded that the word "feast" used by Paul and the Passover connection made it an annual celebration, since all Old Testament feasts are annual feasts. To further bolster my argument, I contended that the word "oft" could be connected with the Hebrews 9:25. In this particular passage, the word "often" relates to annual sacrifice.

With respect to the feasts discussed in Acts, I could not conclude that this was the Lord's Supper for two reasons. First of all, the word "cup" is not used. Secondly, the meeting at Troas in Acts 20 would imply close instead of closed communion. Paul's words in I Corinthians 5 would challenge that understanding of the feast since he is arguing for a closed communion. This, of course, leaves us with a challenge. If the Lord's Supper is not mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, then it is only mentioned in the New Testament in one epistle outside of the gospels.

Finally, the words that Paul is using in I Corinthians 5 seem to indicate that this is a feast that is scheduled ahead of time. They would prepare for the feast by ridding the church of the leaven of sin, just as Jewish children would search houses with candles to rid the Jewish homes of bread crumbs.

The main focus of my argument was on the connection of Hebrews with I Corinthians. For some bizarre reason, I never actually looked at the Greek words. The word in Hebrews from which we get often is "pollakis" and the word in I Corinthians is "osakis." The Hebrews word mean "regularly, often," and in this case the writer qualifies how often. The word in I Corinthians literally means "whenever." A church is at liberty to celebrate this feast whenever they feel the Holy Spirit is leading them to, so far as I can understand it. This is perfectly within the spirit of grace give to the church.

My objection that the church needs preparation to discipline it members is a weak one at best. A church should always be overseeing its disciplinary program. Each week, when the church gathers, it should be ready for the possibility of the Lord's Supper. In the secular world, we no longer get ready for bosses to come by, we are ready all the time.

I suppose that at the present time, my preference is moving from contending to an annual observance to a weekly observance. There are a number of reasons for this. Suffice it to say that this is a preference and if a church does not do it my way, I will always leave it up to them.