How often should a Reformed congregation observe holy communion? This question has occasionally troubled Reformed churches. Most of the evidence suggests that the ancient church observed communion weekly. John Calvin wanted to celebrate communion weekly but the Genevan city council refused him for fear that it might lead people back toward Rome—even though most people did not receive communion weekly in the Medieval church. The Synod of Herbon (1586), where Caspar Olevianus was a leading figure, ruled that communion should be observed weekly. In Scotland and in other places, ministers were scarce, which made it difficult to administer communion regularly let alone weekly. Generally, in principle, however, the Reformed churches sought to administer communion frequently. The Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619), the churches ruled,
The Lord’s Supper shall be administered once every two months, as much as possible. It is also edifying, wherever the circumstances of the churches allow, that the same be done on Easter, Pentecost and Christmas. But in places where as yet there is no organized congregation, elders and deacons shall first be provisionally installed (art. 63).
So, the pattern established at Dort was that communion should be every other month or six times a year. The clause “as much as possible” signals perhaps the persistent problem of a shortage of ministers, but Geneva and Herborn also signal that there was another impulse in Reformed piety: weekly communion. In this essay I will argue for that option.
There are two major obstacles. In the Pietist and Revivalist evangelical traditions, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the importance of the Supper faded and was replaced by revivals and altar calls, small groups (conventicles), and personal (private) spiritual experience (e.g., the quiet time). In Modern Reformed piety, there has often been strenuous resistance to frequent (and especially to weekly communion) and most often on the grounds that the church observes communion weekly, the Lord’s Supper will lose its significance.
The Biblical Pattern
Calvin was correct. The evidence does lead us to conclude that the pattern in the Apostolic church was to observe the Lord’s Supper weekly. There are two tantalizing passages that push us in this direction: Acts 2:42 and 1 Corinthians 11:20.
Acts 2:42 says, “…they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In context, Peter has just preached his famous sermon at Pentecost. He has indicted thousands of Jews gathered there for the feast for the crucifixion and death of Jesus, announced the good news that Jesus is the hoped-for Messiah, that he has been raised from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He is the one greater than David, since the latter has yet to be raised from the dead. He has invoked the Abrahamic promise (Acts 2:39) and promised free salvation to all who believe in Jesus. Three thousand souls were added to the visible church that day (Acts 2:41).
What does the Christian church do with baptized persons? They are instructed (“make disciples;” Matt 28:18–20). What then? They are nourished. Where? At the Lord’s Table. This is the pattern we see reflected in Acts 2:42. The pronoun “they” in v. 42 looks back to those who “were added” to the visible church by baptism. What did “they” do? They were “devoting” (προσκαρτεροῦντες) themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. The verb used signals “sticking closely to” and “persisting” and “busied themselves.” This is a basic act of discipleship.
How, by the way, did they do that since virtually none of them would have had direct access to written copies of the Apostles’ teaching (the printing press was not invented until until AD 1439)? Handmade copies of the letters of the apostles would not exist for several years and, even then, they would be relatively scarce and expensive to make. This means that they listened to the Apostles. In our visual age, it is easy for us to forget that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Titus 1:1; Cf. Rom 10:14). Hearing God’s Word read, preached, and explained was the first act of discipleship that Luke mentions.
This means that their spiritual life began in the communion of the saints (communio sanctorum; the 10th article of the Apostles’ Creed). This is a different way of thinking about the Christian faith and life from the way Modern Christians usually think about it. We typically begin with the individual, which is the Modern way. We are children of our age in ways that we do not always recognize. In this regard, Scripture is an invaluable mirror. When we see the contrast between the biblical way and our way of doing things, we know which one we must follow, whatever Modernity might say.
We know that the Apostolic Church gathered on the first day of the week, the day on which Jesus was raised, which John calls “the Lord’s Day” (Matt 28:1; John 20:19; Acts 20:7; Rev 1:10). It seems most reasonable to think that the apostolic church was gathering weekly on the first day of the week (Sunday) to hear the Apostolic teaching (διδαχῇ). It was on that day that they enjoyed fellowship (κοινωνίᾳ). When Luke wrote “the breaking of the bread” (τῇ κλάσει τοῦ ἄρτου) and “the prayers” (ταῖς προσευχαῖς), it is difficult to resist the conclusion that Luke was describing early Christian worship and that “the breaking of the bread” refers not merely to a common meal but to the Lord’s Supper.
Paul’s passing comment in 1 Corinthians 11:20 helps to clarify things. Paul writes, “whenever you gather together, therefore” (συνερχομένων οὖν ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ) “it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (οὐκ ἔστιν κυριακὸν δεῖπνον φαγεῖν). He was not complaining that they were not attempting the celebrate or observe the Lord’s Supper but that, whenever they gathered, they attempted to observe it in a way that was shameful. Paul’s problem was not how often the Corinthians were celebrating the Supper but rather their abuse of it. They so corrupted the it that, according to Paul, it was no longer the Supper.
In context, beginning in v. 17, we see that Paul is referring to the weekly assembly for public, corporate worship. He complains about what they did when they “come together as a church” (v. 18, συνερχομένων ὑμῶν ἐν ἐκκλησίᾳ). This is the same language he used below to describe their gathering in which they abused the Lord’s Supper. The use of the noun ekklesia, which is the LXX translation for the Hebrew Qahal or “covenant assembly” (see the resources below on the church as Christ-confessing covenant community) tells us that this was not an informal gathering but the opposite.
They were defiling the covenant assembly by these factions (αἱρέσεις; this is the root of our word heresies). The second problem he identifies, which is grows out of the first, is their abuse of holy communion when they gathered as the covenant assembly. They were abusing it by treating it as a common feast and behaving, well, boorishly (v. 21). One pushed his way ahead of others. The rich ignored the poor. One goes hungry and the another gets drunk—this tells us something about the elements they used, does it not? He remonstrates with them, “have you not houses in which to eat and drink?” In other words, there is a place for a common, secular meal. Holy communion is a sacred meal, set apart for use by the covenant community. The way the Corinthian congregation behaved was scandalous because they confused the sacred and the secular and abused the Lord’s Table. From there he goes on to recount the institution of the Supper. It seems rather clear that, when the Corinthian church gathered, they observed the Supper, albeit in a grossly disfigured way.
The Ancient Church
This essay is too long already but briefly, again, the evidence suggests that the earliest post-Apostolic pattern was to observe the Supper weekly. The ancient post-apostolic church met twice on the first day of the week, very early in the morning and again at sunset. The Didache, our earliest (before AD 120) post-apostolic indication of Christian practice in worship tells us that, when they gathered, among their practices was “the Eucharist” (9:1). There are written prayers to be said in conjunction with the Supper. The Supper was to be received only by the baptized and it is clear that the Supper was distinct from fellowship meals. Pliny the Younger, his letter to the Emperor Trajan (c. AD 114) had noted the Christian practice of “common and ordinary” fellowship meals among the Christians. The practice of observing the Supper weekly continued through the ancient church.
Answers To Objections
- If we observe the Supper too frequently, it will lose its significance. It is interesting that Christians do not use this objection for preaching. Thus, it seems like special pleading. Certainly sermons would be much more interesting if the minister only preached every other month and even more so were he to preach only quarterly. The objection rests on the assumption that what is truly important about the Supper is how it makes us feel. For many Christians, the Supper is not a feast as much as it is a funeral. For too many Christians, the Supper is much more about our grieving for our sins and our promising to do better than it is about Christ’s grace for sinners and his coming to us and his promising to us. In other words, this objection is not only selectively applied but it is grounded in a misunderstanding of the nature of the Supper, which is a means of grace (unconditional divine favor toward sinners), not, in the first place, our oath to God. It is appropriate to prepare for the Supper by reckoning with our sins, repenting, and making amends, but when the feast arrives, when Christ, as it were, girds himself with a towel, we ought receive his means of grace with joyful reverence. We ought to regard it as a way that he feeds us rather than as an obligation that we must meet.
- Calvin did not seek weekly communion. This objection is spurious. The evidence from Geneva is very clear. I presented it in Recovering the Reformed Confession (2008), 283m n. 206, where I observed that he was “pleased” with monthly communion but wished for weekly (Corpus Reformatorum, 38:213). The evidence is plain from the Institutes as quoted above. See also: “The Evangelical Fall From the Means of Grace” linked below in the resources.
- The Synod of Dort was correct and the Synod of Herborn was wrong. Perhaps, but that case has to be made. On what grounds? We ought to beware of turning practical necessity (infrequent communion due to a shortage of ministers) into a virtue. Why would we willingly deprive ourselves of one of the means of grace instituted by Christ himself?
- It takes too long. There are better and worse ways to administer the Supper. When observed weekly, a brief form may be read and the Supper administered properly to a fairly large congregation in a few minutes. This may be done with a walking communion, where the congregation approaches the table and receives “from the hand of the minister” (Heidelberg Catechism, 75) coming up (as able) row by row. Each row comes up, receives the elements and eats and drinks together. In the slowest administration, it adds 10 minutes to service. This does not seem like a compelling objection. Would one say to the Lord, should he invite one to commune with him, that one has other things to do on the Christian Sabbath? To ask such a question is to answer it.
- It will lead back to Rome. I tried to anticipate this objection above. Medieval Christians did not receive communion weekly. Indeed, it was canon law that one had to receive communion at least once annually. There is no historical evidence that weekly communion leads to the doctrine of transubstantiation or to the Roman doctrine of eucharistic sacrifice. If weekly communion will lead us to Rome, might infrequent communion lead to revivalism and Pietism as Christians seek transcendence and significance? Indeed, there is anecdotal evidence that refusing to administer communion weekly might contribute to people seeking transcendence and eternal things in the Roman communion.
- It will lead to abuse. Some PCA congregations that observe communion weekly practice intinction in order to speed up the administration. It is true that some PCA congregations practice intinction (i.e., dipping the bread in wine; see the resources on the Supper linked below) and that they do so in order to save time. In our congregation of about 500 people, I calculate that intinction might save five minutes. Our intinction-practicing PCA friends are at risk of losing half of communion for the sake of five minutes. This seems a poor trade. It is not, however, evident that the practice of weekly communion has necessarily led to intinction. If use leads to abuse then the proper answer is never to administer communion. Then it cannot be abused. In fact, Reformed churches have administered communion weekly without resorting to intinction. This is more a problem of the influence of the church-growth culture than it is a result of weekly communion.
It is my conviction that weekly communion is not of the essence (esse) of the church but of the well being (bene esse) of the church. Our reluctance to observe the Supper weekly typically reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of the Supper (funeral vs. feast). If we address that problem, I think the other issues are relatively easily addressed.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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