This week we continue on in our mini-series of short articles called “Why We Observe the Lord’s Supper Weekly?” Our hope has been to spark deeper-thought and conversation regarding our newer practice of celebrating the Supper weekly.
This week we will transition from the “practical benefits” to two “historical arguments” for weekly observance. It is our plan to conclude this series of articles in a few weeks by addressing frequently asked questions about weekly observance. But, before that, let’s consider two arguments from history.
1. The ordinances are central, formative practices of the local church.
Christians have long discussed the marks of a “true church.” When does a group become a church? What distinguishes a Christian church from other religious gatherings? What is the irreducible, ecclesiological minimum? Although these may sound like “boring theological debates” our answers have a widespread effect.
On this topic of the marks of a “true church” a few quotes from church history should be considered:
- In 1530 the Augsburg Confession was formed. Article VII states, “this Church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered. And for that true unity of the Church it is enough to have unity of belief concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.”
- In 1553 Thomas Cranmer produced the Forty-Two Articles of the Church of England in which he wrote that “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments be duly administered.”
- In John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion section IV, Calvin states, that “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”
- The Belgic Confession (1561), Article 29, states, “The marks by which the true Church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.”
It is easy to see the repetition within this historic church writings. These two marks, the right preaching of the gospel and the observance of the ordinances (sacraments) are central to what makes a church – a true church. Both the creation and the preservation of a local church are built upon these marks. The gospel heard and received creates and forms the people of God. The right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper distinguishes, guards, and preserves the church.
But, what does this have to do with the frequency of communion? Well, nothing … directly. However, by implication, it could be easily argued that the formative marks of the church should be given a more prominent place within the weekly gatherings of the church. As was said this past weekend, the church does not have the ability to plan and program a regular rhythm of baptism. Baptism is a blessed act of obedience that comes as a fruit of the Lord’s redemptive work in an individual’s heart. So, we pray for God to save. We offer classes to answer questions and promote baptism as a matter of Christian obedience. And, when one comes forth for baptism, we will make a big deal of it! That said, we still cannot plan or control its regularity. Conversely, it is completely within our power to plan the preaching of the gospel and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. So, we believe that by submitting to the preached Word and observing the Lord’s Supper weekly we do our part to continue in the stream of blessing the Lord has set out for His local churches.
2.A glimpse of frequency in church history.
Although the vast majority of consideration throughout church history has been given to the essence of the elements and the theological significance of the act, a few quotes regarding the frequency of observation are as follows:
- In his description of a typical Sunday worship service in the early church, Justin Martyr (early church writer) noted: “When our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president (pastor/presider) in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying ‘Amen!’ Then the Eucharist is distributed to each one, and each one participates in that over which thanks has been given.” (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 67, in ANF, 1:186)
- During the Reformation, Martin Luther composed a liturgy as an example for churches to imitate in their weekly gatherings. His suggestion is as follows: (a) Singing a hymn or a German psalm, (b) Kyrie eleison (‘Lord have mercy’), three times, (c) A Collect (d) Reading of the Epistle, followed by the singing of a German hymn, (e) Reading of the Gospel, followed by the congregation singing the Creed, (f) The sermon, on the Gospel for the Sunday, (g) A public paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer and admonition about the Lord’s Supper (h) Administration of the Lord’s Supper, accompanied by the singing of the Sanctus and other hymns or the Agnus Dei (i) The Collect and the Benediction. (Martin Luther, German Mass and Order of Divine Service, LW, 6:178-86)
- In his Institutes of Christian Religion, chapter XVII, John Calvin writes, “We ought always to provide that no meeting of the Church is held without the word, prayer, the dispensation of the Supper, and alms. We may gather from Paul that this was the order observed by the Corinthians, and it is certain that this was the practice many ages after.”
Although history is not authoritative, these two points, in combination with those arguments from Scripture make a fairly strong case for the benefit of observing communion with great regularity and consistency. Add in the practical benefits that have been outlined and we believe we stand on solid ground as we pursue a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper.
So, as you prepare your hearts for our Sunday gathering, take time to consider these two points (a) the Lord’s Supper is not a second-tier element within the gatherings of the local church. It is an essential part of what it even means to be a church. Also, (b) consider the reality that brothers and sisters, for thousands of years of church history, have done this same symbolic act. So, prepare your hearts to take, feast, and celebrate the Lord’s finished and future work.