“Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup…” If you've visited a Karis Church worship Gathering, you've noticed that we gather around the Lord's Supper weekly. This is becoming more common in the church in America today, but it's not exactly widespread in gospel-proclaiming churches. What are some advantages and disadvantages of this rhythm?
First, weekly observance of the Lord’s supper seems biblical. True, there is not a command given in Scripture regarding the frequency of the ordinance. But it could be argued that weekly observance is biblically normative. Key texts in Acts regarding early church practice seem to indicate that early Christians partook of the Supper weekly, if not daily (Acts 2:42-47; 20:7-12). In addition, early Christian writings such as the Didache and the words of Justin (see WQOTW, 5-6-03) indicate that early fellowships of believers partook of the ordinance more regularly than modern churches. Calvin, as is well known, was convinced that weekly communion was to be preferred, but he was never allowed to fully practice it. True, none of this really proves anything apart from clear biblical injunction, but it does indicate that weekly observance is permissible and perhaps advisable.
Second, the practice is a weekly time of participation. It is an expression of unity with Christ and with one another (1 Cor 10:16-17). We who are of the body of Christ partake of the body of Christ. This weekly time of participation gives us an opportunity for us to renew our covenant vows with God and his people. In addition, the table serves to separate believers from those not a part of the fellowship, marking the church off as those redeemed by what the elements represent. Gathering weekly around the table reminds us of this unity we have in Christ.
Third, weekly observance gives us a regular time of commemoration. Christ has told us to partake of the cup and the bread in remembrance of him (1 Corinthians 11:25-26). In our hurried lives, a reminder each week of Christ and his work for us is much needed. A personal and corporate reminder each Sunday of Christ’s sacrifice would go far in helping believers and their churches regain focus and purpose.
Fourth, partaking of the ordinance more regularly serves as a much-needed proclamation. Typically we think of proclamation as being tied to the sermon, but in 1 Corinthians 11:26, Paul states that the Lord’s supper serves to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (NASB). Here I think we can learn much from those who've come before us. Historically, the Protestant church has seen a strong connection between the preached word and the sacraments. It seems helpful, as so many have, to see the Lord’s supper as a sign and seal of God’s grace, as complementing the truth of the preached gospel. As Frame puts it, the fellowship around the table is a “visible word,” a sign that serves as a weekly visual for us, proclaiming Christ’s death and his coming return (Frame, 96). In our television highlight, radio sound-byte culture, such a “sign” is sorely needed.
As a “seal” of God’s grace, the celebration at the Lord’s table grants us assurance that the truths preached are real and apply to us. In addition, weekly observance of communion would serve to focus the singing, preaching, and praying on what is ultimately important. And this would benefit not only believers, but seekers as well; Hustad rightly notes that a benefit of the ordinance is that “it can present the core of the gospel in less than five minutes” (Hustad, 240). Believers and certainly unbelievers need to hear this proclamation.
Fifth, our churches need a weekly time for examination. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 speaks of the necessity for us to personally examine ourselves for sins against God and our brothers and sisters before communion, so that we will partake of the ordinance in a worthy manner. God desires that we confess those sins before participating. The ordinance itself then displays visually the forgiveness for those sins by the objective work of Christ on the cross. In addition, Paul also speaks in the same passage of the discipline of the Lord against those not “discerning the body” (1 Cor 11:29, 32). The regular observance of the Supper presents an opportunity for church leadership to execute discipline in order to prevent unrepentant sinners from eating and drinking judgment upon themselves. The Lord’s Table has historically been associated with church discipline and it provides a way to call members to repentance and to protect the purity of the church for the glory of God. We need such a weekly opportunity for examination.
Sixth, weekly fellowship around the Lord’s table gives his people nourishment (John 6:48-59). Although I can’t begin to explain it, I do tend to agree with the Reformed understanding of the “spiritual presence.” In some way, I believe that we do eat and drink of Christ gathered around the table—not in a literal way as the Catholics and Lutherans teach—but in a spiritual way. If we truly feast on Jesus when we partake of the body and blood, why would we not do it as often as possible?
Let me turn now to examining some potential disadvantages. First, some maintain that the ordinance, through weekly practice, can become routine, or perhaps become an empty ritual. That is, of course, a valid concern. But, when examining the other regularly repeatable aspects of a worship service delineated in Scripture (in other words, omitting baptism), why is the Lord’s Supper singled out in this manner? Why do we not pray and sing and preach weekly due to similar fears? In addition, why was this not a concern of the early church that likely practiced the ordinance daily? And why doesn’t Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 present monthly or quarterly observance as a solution to the problem? It seems that the problem is not with the ordinance. It’s with us, the church.
Second, others state that weekly observance is dangerous in that many might partake in an “unworthy manner,” not “discerning the body” (1 Cor 11:27, 29). Again the gravity of such a possibility should alarm us. However, that seems like a problem with our hearts. It seems like a problem of poor teaching, of poor “fencing of the table.” We must examine ourselves carefully each Sunday. Our elders must encourage each of us to properly partake. They must exclude people from the table if necessary.
Third, some argue that such a practice would be impractical. We must, however, if we desire to benefit from some of the advantages delineated above, choose to change our priorities. Many large churches partake of the Supper weekly. Thousands of churches do so across America each Sunday. Machines are available today to speed up the process, if help is absolutely necessary, but most churches seem to have an excess of unutilized human resources ready to perform such a ministry.
Let me close with four short words of advice to a new church beginning with weekly observance of the Lord’s supper. First, consider putting the celebration of the table at the end of the gathering, as the climax of worship and as a response to the preached word. The service can serve to focus and ready the hearts of the congregation, seizing the advantages and preventing the disadvantages presented above.
Second, consider “shaking things up” regularly to avoid ritualism. Sing songs during the distribution of the elements some weeks. Have silence on others. Simply put, be creative in how you celebrate communion. Keep your people guessing, and perhaps some of the dangers of a “routine” can be avoided. In most cases, this probably isn't needed, but it certainly can help if you find yourselves in a rut.
Third, teach regularly on the meaning and significance of the Lord’s supper from the pulpit to impart understanding and remove misconceptions regarding the ordinance.
Fourth, and finally, carefully explain the ordinance and “fence the table” each week. Don’t assume people already know what you’ll say. Don’t fear being repetitive. It is the Lord’s table. In view of the advantages listed above, I advocate weekly observance of this beautiful visual picture of Christ’s work. It has been a blessing in Karis Church. Join us this Sunday to celebrate the gospel through the preached word and the sacrament.