On the Frequency of the Lord’s Supper

There are a variety of practices regarding the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. Some celebrate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday and others only once a year. The Westminster Directory of Public Worship says “The communion, or supper of the Lord, is frequently to be celebrated; but how often, may be considered and determined by the ministers… of each congregation, as they shall find most convenient for their charge.” I agree that the Lord’s Supper is to be frequently celebrated and I appreciate the leeway that the Directory acknowledges.

With that being said, I think it’s ideal that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated every Sunday.[1] There is no command in Scripture for this but it seems from my reading of Scripture to be the practice of the early church (see Act 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:14ff; 11). It is also a vital element of the gathered worship of the church and is a picture of the gospel so I think we would be wise to include it in the gathered worship of the church every Lord’s Day.

Notice that in Acts 2:42, it says “the bread” (the definite article in Greek precedes the noun bread) and so this seems to refer to more than just eating together. It should also be noted that “breaking of the bread” is listed along with other practices that were common or characteristic of the early church.[2] Also, upon studying 1 Corinthians 11 my understanding of the text is that Paul expected that the Corinthians were and should partake of the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day. But they should do it in a worthy manner.

If it was the common practice of the early church to eat and fellowship together on the Lord’s Day, as seems to be the case, then it should also have been their practice to celebrate the Lord’s Supper because the Apostle Paul said, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” Paul tells the church that in the context of talking about the Lord’s Supper. Further, Paul says, “maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor. 11:2). So what Paul says here does not seem to be something that can be disregarded lightly. “When you come together, wait for one another” (v. 33), is a command. And it is a command that when practiced rightly means they will be sharing the Lord’s Supper.[3]

In 1 Corinthians chapter 11, we see that Paul is assuming that when they come together to eat they are also celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Or, rather, if they eat together in the right way, they are celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Paul is saying wait for one another and don’t eat all the food or get drunk because otherwise what you are doing is not celebrating the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor 11:20-21). What Paul desires for the church, it seems, is that they partake of the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner whenever they gather together.

Thus, we see that eating a meal and celebrating the Lord’s Supper when the church comes together (1 Cor. 11:18) seems to be the common practice of the early church. Other literature of the early church also attests to the early churches practice of weekly communion.

The Didache is an early (likely first century) Christian manual and it says “On the Lord’s Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure.”[4]

Justin Martyr in his First Apology explains that when the “brethren are assembled” on Sunday[5] then the one leading the meeting has “bread and a cup of wine mixed with water” brought to Him and then he “gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.” Then after giving thanks, each of those present partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent the deacons take a portion.[6]

I, thus, conclude that it was the early churches practice to have communion every Lord’s Day.[7] The “wine,” however, was not in a tiny plastic “shot glass” like some of us are used to and it wasn’t a mini saltine cracker either. They had an actual meal. This makes sense with what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11.

Some say that if we have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday it will become meaningless and ritualistic. I don’t doubt that could be the case. That, however, could be the case with any part of the gathered worship of the church; whether prayer, preaching, singing or anything else. That is no argument against the continued practice of those elements though. We must combat meaningless ritual not by the absence of the meaningful things the Lord has given us to do, but by striving for a Spirit kindled delight in those things.

I agree that it is not essential to salvation that we practice the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis since one is saved by hearing and believing the gospel (Rom. 10:17) and not through merit that is extended through partaking of communion.[8] But I would still like to “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26) through the sign that Jesus our Lord gave us on a weekly basis.[9] I believe it is good to celebrate the Lord’s Supper weekly because it is another chance to proclaim through tangible picture the good news of Jesus. If the preaching and singing of the word somehow fail to proclaim the good news of Jesus we still have the Lord’s Supper.

So, even though it is not commanded, I believe it is best to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis because that seems to be the practice of the early church, there is no reason not to when approached rightly, and there are many benefits to placing the tangible sign of God’s goodness in Christ before the church each week.

____________

[1] It is interesting to note that John Calvin himself supported weekly communion but was never able to implement it in Geneva (see Give Praise to God, 220).

[2] It is also interesting to note that Acts 20:7 says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread.” So, on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, they gathered together for the purpose of “breaking bread.” This seems to be more than just eating together.

[3] This is true because it was when they did not partake correctly, that Paul says, “It is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For [this Paul says to explain why it was not the Lord’s Supper]… each one goes ahead with his own meal…” (1 Cor. 11:20-21ff see also Didache 14.2). As Hal Taussig says, there is a “link between broken koinonia and disruption of the meal” (Taussig, In the Beginning was the Meal, 51).

[4] Didache 14.1. There are, of course, different translations and in some translations this meaning does not come out as clearly. For example, J.B. Lightfoot’s translation says, “And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.” Since it refers to the “sacrifice” I believe that “break bread” should be understood as referring to the Lord’s Supper and the eucharist or giving of thanks refers to the prayer that is offered in thanksgiving afterwards. Also, first confessing transgressions is an application of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11.

[5] “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together… when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings,… and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, ch. 67 see also ch. 66).

[6] Ibid., ch. 65.

[7] Note that Hughes Oliphant Old says, “By the end of the New Testament period” the Lord’s Supper was “a weekly celebration held every Lord’s Day morning in celebration of Christ’s resurrection” (Old, Worship: Reformed according to Scripture, 120).

[8] “The sacrament itself is not necessary to salvation, but obedience to Christ’s command with regard to the Lord’s Supper is, and in this limited sense we rightly think of the sacrament as necessary and are thus obliged to celebrate it regularly and faithfully” (Give Praise to God, 209).

[9] As Calvin himself says in the Institutes, our faith is strengthened and sustained by remembering through the Lord’s Supper. So it’s not surprising that he promotes the practice of at least weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see Give Praise to God, 220).

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

One response to “On the Frequency of the Lord’s Supper”

  1. Paul O'Brien says :

    Someone asked: “Would you see it necessary or desirable that every service of public worship have the observance of the Supper? If a church met morning and evening, for instance, should the Supper be observed twice each day? Why or why not?”

    I appreciate that question.

    I realize this is not the question, but first, because it’s applicable, it’s not my preference that churches meet two times on Sunday. This is for at least three reasons.
    1. I believe Sabbath rest is important so I prefer that people not be busy running back and forth from church.
    2. Hebrews talks about encouraging each other “every day” and so I would rather designate another day other than Sunday as a for Christian gathering.
    3. I agree that “Ideally the church leadership will be checking very carefully that church activities do not grow and grow so as to invade and monopolize the leisure time of the congregation member and thus remove them from all normal social intercourse with the non-Christian world” (Mark Ashton with C.J. Davis, “Following in Cranmer’s Footsteps,” p. 97 in Worship by the Book).

    Second, as I said above, we are not given a command as to the frequency of communion. The frequency is up to the discretion of the pastoral leadership. Taking into account three factors leads me to the conclusion that if a church gathers twice on Sunday it would be wise to celebrate the Lord’s Supper at only one of the services (in my opinion the preferred service would be the morning service).This is because celebrating the Lord’s Supper is 1) an administrative burden, 2) there is time factor to consider, and 3) there is high likelihood that the same people would be at both services. 

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