Monday, May 23, 2005

Where Did We Ever Get the Notion that the Lord's Supper Would Become "Too Common" if Celebrated More Often than Once a Month? (Part 1)

It is a common practice in evangelical churches today to hold the Lord's Supper once per quarter, or at the very most, once per month. The rationale for this frequency (truly, infrequency according to New Testament standards) goes something like this: "If we partake of the Lord's Supper too often, then it will become too common. And since we wouldn't want the Supper to become too common, we should limit the participation of the Supper to once a quarter." As noble as this rationale at first sounds, it stands in contradiction to the mindset of the early church in its practice of the Supper.

The Intended Frequency and Centrality of the Lord’s Supper
Since the primary focus of the Lord’s Supper is an eschatological plea for the parousia (the coming of Christ), one might gather that its practice should be frequent. After all, if it is true that our Lord left his church with the means to remind him to bring his covenant promises to fulfillment then it would seem that those who “love his appearing” (2 Tim 4:8) would want to take advantage of this means of reminding him as often as possible. Does the New Testament give us any indication as to the frequency with which the Lord’s Supper was—or, is to be—practiced?

Some have looked to Paul’s words in 1 Cor 11:25 for the answer: “do this, as often as (hosakis) you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Many interpreters see in this phrase a command of sorts to partake of the Lord’s Supper often. But this is to go beyond Paul’s intent. The command is in the words touto poieite (“do this [into my remembrance]”), and not in hosakis ean pinēte (“as often as you drink”). Put another way, there is no injunction to “do this often” here, nor in Luke, nor anywhere else in the New Testament. The most that can be gleaned from these words is that Paul assumed there would be regular repetition of the Lord’s Supper. Just how frequent this repetition was or should be is not told us here.

But to ask whether there is an injunction that shows the frequency of the Lord’s Supper is perhaps to ask the wrong question. It seems evident that the early church partook of the Lord’s Supper on either a daily basis or a weekly basis. Luke records of the church: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). This verse traditionally has been understood to mean that the early church partook of the Lord’s Supper on a daily basis, at least at the beginning and at least in Jerusalem. There is an alternative way of taking this verse, however, according to which “daily” is not seen as applying to the verse as a whole but only to “meeting in the temple.” Indeed, the Greek woodenly reads:

According to day, they were continuing with one mind in the temple.”

According to house, breaking bread they were taking their meals with gladness and sincerity of heart.”

The dual use of the word kata (“according to”) acts to coordinate the two parts of this verse, making it likely that “daily” (“according to day”) applies only to the first part of the verse and not the second. We must therefore look elsewhere to ascertain how frequently the early church partook of the Supper.

Perhaps the best place to look is Acts 20:7: “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.” Several observations can be made about this passage. First, Luke likely intends to record more than mere historical narrative here. While it is true that Luke is recording the history of the church, he certainly does not include all the church did. Instead, he is selective about what he records, including only those events that would best meet his theological need of instructing the early churches in the apostolic teaching. He makes a point to mention that it was on the “first day of the week” that they came together and that the activity included “breaking bread.” It is not so much the mere mention of this early-church practice that is significant here; rather, it is the manner in which it is presented. True, Luke mentions the practice only once; but his one mention betrays an assumption that this was an ongoing practice.

The Greek reads this way: “On the first day of the week, our having assembled to break bread, Paul began to lead a discussion with them.” Luke’s point here is not simply that the church met together, and incidentally this week it happened to be on Sunday. Rather, Luke’s statement is more accurately rendered as, “On the first day of the week, when [as normal] we assembled.” More to the point, Luke does not tell us merely that the normal practice of the church is to meet on the first day of the week; he also tells us the purpose of that meeting—“to break bread” (klasai arton). The infinitive here is telic and is more accurately rendered, “in order to break bread.” In other words, Luke is here telling us that the very purpose of the church meeting is to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Since that is the purpose of the meeting, it follows that the Supper would be an integral part of the meeting any time the church gathered as a church. That expresses both the centrality and the frequency of the Supper in unequivocal terms.

This is not the only instance in the New Testament that tells us the purpose for the church gathering together. Tomorrow we will examine another passage that states the same thing.