The Frequency of Communion Calmly Considered
Editors' Note: Weekly communion may be standard in Anglican churches, but it's become a badge of honor in a growing number of Presbyterian and Baptist churches. Is this a good trend, and should other churches celebrate the Lord's Supper every time they meet on Sunday? We solicited three perspectives to help you make up your mind. See also:
- Ray Van Neste: Three Arguments for Weekly Communion
- Eric Bancroft: We Celebrate the Lord's Supper Frequently But Not Weekly
This essay maintains that none of the approaches to the question of frequency of communion (daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually) are self-evidently the "right" one, given the fact that the New Testament does not directly address the frequency question. Dogmatism on the subject cannot, therefore, be warranted.
We cannot make direct appeal to the three Gospels, which record Jesus' institution of this meal, for the Synoptics record no statement of Jesus bearing on the frequency question.
One might infer that the connection of this meal with the annual Passover, observed by Jesus with his disciples, implies that we should maintain an annual equivalent to that Passover. Is such an idea hinted at in 1 Corinthians 5:7? Not likely. Again, there is Paul's own seeming elaboration of Jesus' words given at 1 Corinthians 11:25-26: "Whenever you drink it." But what frequency is that?
There is a third Scripture: Acts 20:7, which some claim records the Lord's Supper as a weekly observance. It does say, "we came together to break bread." Is not Acts 20:7 therefore a support for weekly communion? This will depend on the meaning of "break bread," an idiom used more than 20 times in the NT (most notably in Acts 2:42 and 46). About this idiom, there are two concerns.
First, in the vast majority of its NT occurrences, the idiom refers to the sharing of food. It is used in describing Jesus' miraculous feeding of the multitudes in Matthew 14:19. We see it in the account of Paul, eating with fellow survivors after shipwreck in Acts 27:35-36. In Acts 20, it appears twice: in verses 7 and 11. There is no compelling reason for concluding that "breaking of bread" means more than shared food in this episode. After all, a visit from the notable apostle Paul certainly provided an occasion for a shared meal. John Calvin, acknowledging this established meaning of "breaking of bread," tried hard to sidestep that meaning here. After all, a congregation large enough to require "many lamps" (v. 8) and to require a listener to perch on a window ledge (v. 9) was too large to feed at church. Well, perhaps! There is no compelling reason to understand the Acts 2:42 and 46 references to the "breaking of bread" any differently. Especially verse 46 describes rounds of shared meals enjoyed house by house.
Second, we ought to ask more questions about the adequacy of the idiom "breaking of bread" for a ceremony consisting of two elements. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul is discussing the meaning of the broken bread and the cup of thanksgiving. Each represents a "fellowship" or "communion" with Christ (perhaps the "fellowship" referred to in Acts 2:42?). Why should the holy meal---instituted by Christ with bread and wine---be adequately referred to solely as "broken bread"? For example, in Acts 10:41, Peter speaks explicitly of being among those who "ate and drank with Jesus" after Easter.
In sum, Acts 20:7 provides no adequate basis for claims about weekly observance. It may not refer at all to the Holy Meal. In any case, it is a piece of narrative about a single place and single occasion.
Arguments from History
"But wait," some will say, "we have second-century witnesses reporting weekly communion meals." This is true and yet not conclusive. The Didache and Justin Martyr's First Apology indicate that weekly administration of the Lord's Supper existed. But it is unwise to extrapolate from records of isolated places towards some supposed universal practice.
Are we content to rest in the statements of the NT? Thoughtful Protestants do not employ Patristic writings to establish matters about which the Scriptures themselves are reticent.
"Ah, but Calvin favored weekly communion!" This appeal is made by a growing number who like to cite Calvin's opinions as decisive. By 1559, Calvin favored "at least weekly" communion (his views had fluctuated somewhat earlier). He believed that this was an early church practice; yet his preference never prevailed in Geneva. But the vital questions for us are, "What scriptural basis did Calvin provide for his preferred view?" In the Institutes: Acts 2:42; in the Acts commentary: Acts 20:7. "Did Calvin's contemporary co-Reformers agree with him?" Not especially. "Do the common doctrinal confessions of the Reformation era endorse Calvin's view?" In a word, "no."
Doctrinal and Pastoral Questions
Two basic concerns remain. First, what is the proper relationship between the preaching of the Word and the ceremonies Jesus instituted? Historically, Protestants have judged the proclamation of the Word to be absolutely essential to salvation, and the administration of the two ceremonies to be only relatively essential. We make the distinction not to disparage these ceremonies, but in light of such Scriptures as Luke 23:43 and 1 Corinthians 1:17. The Word of the gospel can stand alone; the ceremonies cannot because they "lean on" the Word and derive their meaning from it. Frequent communion is not, therefore, essential, even if we consider this desirable.
Second, Christians today increasingly compress the Lord's Day into one hour. It was not so, formerly, when there were two gatherings: one chiefly focused on believers and another more focused on the not-yet believing. This state of affairs is now almost gone. Increasingly our single services are all-purpose. Calls for more frequent communion must thus balance distinct concerns:
- Does the Word remain central in our services, addressing both believers and unbelievers?
- Are the ceremonies that "lean on" the Word offered with suitable frequency?
An insistence on weekly communion both goes beyond the NT evidence and compels congregations---with multiple bona fide priorities---to attempt too much in that always more compressed hour of the Lord's Day.
In sum, we honor the command of Jesus to remember him with bread and wine by a periodic observance tailored to local church realities.
For Further Reading
C. K. Barrett, Church, Ministry, and Sacraments in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), chap. 3.
John Calvin,Institutes of the Christian Religion. 1559 ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), IV. xvii. 43-44.
Arthur C. Cochrane, ed., Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1966, reprinted 2003).
Didache Sections 9, 10, 14.
I. Howard Marshall, Last Supper and Lord's Supper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 155.
Justin Martyr, First Apology, chaps. xvi, xvii.
Tom Schreiner and Matthew R. Crawford, eds., The Lord's Supper (Nashville: B&H, 2010).