For the past several days, I’ve been engaged in a discussion about the frequency of the Lord’s Supper over at Post Tenebras Lux (Why Weekly Communion Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). If you’d like to interact with our conversation, you are cordially invited. The homework I’ve been doing in preparation for my comments over there has been very enlightening. I’ve learned that the “proof texts” which I continually use to support the notion that Christian churches should always celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday following the sermon do not miss the mark when considered in the light of postapostolic practice and the Reformation’s purification of the corruptions which crept in during the medieval era of the church.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread . . . ” (Acts 20:7).
It seems to be difficult for many to see that the church is to engage each time they gather in all of the items listed in the first verses cited above, and have a hard time accepting that one statement like the one in the second verse above actually reflects the weekly practice, rather than merely recording a one-time event with little to no prescriptive significance for the life of the church today. But the more I read from Calvin and others about how the church has historically interpreted verses like these and a few others from 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, the more convinced I am that we do an injustice to our worship of the Lord by our setting the Supper aside so often to focus on other things, fearing some Roman Catholic spirit of ritualism to overcome us, dared we to partake too frequently.
Consider the following passages from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (Battles translation, pages 1422, 1424):
44. The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated frequently
What we have so far said of the Sacrament abundantly shows that it was not ordained to be received only once a year –and that, too, perfunctorily, as now is the usual custom. Rather, it was ordained to be frequently used among all Christians in order that they might frequently return in memory to Christ’s Passion, by such remembrance to sustain and strengthen their faith, and urge themselves to sing thanksgiving to God and to proclaim his goodness; finally, by it to nourish mutual love, and among themselves give witness to this love, and discern its bond in the unity of Christ’s body. For as often as we partake of the symbol of the Lord’s body, as a token given and received, we reciprocally bind ourselves to all the duties of love in order that none of us may permit anything that can harm our brother, or overlook anything that can help him, where necessity demands and ability suffices.
Luke relates in The Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers ” . . . continued in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving. That this was the established order among the Corinthians also, we can safely infer from Paul (cf. 1 Cor. 11:20). And it remained in use for many centuries after.
46. Communicating only once a year condemned
Plainly this custom which enjoins us to take communion once a year is a veritable invention of the devil, whoever was instrumental in introducing it. They say that Zephyrinus was the author of this decree, although it is not believable that it was in the form in which we now have it. For perhaps by his ordinance he did not provide too badly for the church, as times were then. For there is not the least doubt that the Sacred Supper was in that era set before the believers every time they met together; and there is no doubt that a majority of them took communion; but since all scarcely ever happened to take communion at once, and since it was necessary for those who were mingled with profane and idolatrous men to attest their faith by some outward sign–the holy man, for the sake of order and polity, appointed that day on which all Christian people should, by partaking of the Lord’s Supper, make a confession of faith. Posterity wickedly distorted Zephyrinus’ otherwise good ordinance, when a definite law was made to have communion once a year. (Fourth Lateran Council, canon 21). By this it has come about that almost all, when they have taken communion once, as though they have beautifully done their duty for the rest of the year, go about unconcerned. It should have been done far differently: the Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually. None is indeed to be forcibly compelled, but all are to be urged and aroused; also the inertia of indolent people is to be rebuked. All, like hungry men, should flock to such a bounteous repast. Not unjustly, then, did I complain at the outset that this custom was thrust in by the devil’s artifice, which, in prescribing one day a year, renders men slothful all the rest of the year. Indeed, we see that already in Chrysostom’s day this degrading abuse had crept in; but we can see at the same time how much it displeased him. For in the passage which I just quoted he sadly complains of great inequality in this matter; at some times of the year they often did not come even when they were clean, but came at Easter, even when they were unclean. Then he exclaims: “O custom, O presumption! In vain, therefore, is a daily offering made; in vain we stand before the altar; there is no one who will partake along with us.” So far is Chrysostom from having approved this by lending it his authority!
It appears to me that the work of Reformation is not done. Begin a conversation with your pastor about this topic, and encourage him to examine the Scriptures in the light of the history of the issue of the frequency of the Supper and see what the Lord may work in the life of your church!