by Max Aplin
At the last meal the Lord Jesus ate before His crucifixion, He took some bread, broke it and gave it to His disciples to share. He also took a cup of wine and gave it to them to share. The bread and wine referred to His forthcoming death, the bread symbolising His body and the wine symbolising His blood (Matt 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20).
In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:17-34, the apostle Paul makes it clear that Christians should periodically continue to re-enact this sharing of bread and wine to remember Jesus’ death. Luke also implies that it should be a repeated act (Luke 22:19). And, although Matthew and Mark say nothing about re-enactment, we can be sure that they and their first readers were well aware too that it was meant to be repeated.
But how often should we do this? Should it be a frequent occurrence or something that is done no more than very occasionally?
As it happens, churches vary enormously in their answer to this question. Some Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper every day if possible. Others do so every week, while others do so monthly or even more infrequently than that. There are even churches that celebrate it only once a year.
No New Testament passage plainly spells out how often we should eat the Supper. Because of this, some argue that it is just a matter of subjective opinion as to how often we do so. If a church, or a Christian, is happy to celebrate the Supper with a certain frequency, it is claimed, then there can be nothing wrong with that.
It is quite right to take account of the fact that the Bible doesn’t spell out explicitly how often we should eat the Lord’s Supper. But it is going much too far to say that this means we can simply do as we please. God teaches us in Scripture not only through specific instructions but also by giving us the example of the early church to follow. If the early church did something in a certain way, unless there are compelling reasons for acting differently today, we should always aim to follow suit.
It is true that sometimes we find variety in the way the early church did things. When that is the case, we can reasonably expect there to be variety in how we do things today too. However, in some matters there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that the early Christians varied in their practice, and in such cases we would not ordinarily expect God to want us to act differently today. Furthermore, even when the early church did vary in its practice, there was often a limit to how much variety there was between different congregations, and we would not ordinarily expect God to want us to act outside the range of variety that we find among the first Christians.
So, in order to discover how often we should celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we need to turn to the Bible to see what the early church did. If we can find some relevant passages, we might be able to draw some useful conclusions.
There are in fact not many passages of Scripture that speak about the Supper, and only a few of those that exist imply anything about how often we should eat it. The accounts of the institution of the Supper in Matthew, Mark and Luke do not really teach us how often it should be celebrated. And John doesn’t even have an account of the institution.
The most important passage for our purposes is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, where Paul gives the Corinthian church some instruction on the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians were celebrating the Supper in a very disorderly way, and Paul rebukes and corrects them. Reading between the lines, we are able to gain some information with a fair degree of probability regarding how often the Corinthian church celebrated the Supper.
In verses 17-21, Paul states:
’17 . . . I do not praise you, because you meet together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, firstly, when you meet together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 For, of course, there must be factions among you, so that those who are ‘approved’ can be recognised as such! 20 So, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For everyone eats their own meal first, and one is hungry and another gets drunk.’
Note in v. 18 the clause, ‘when you meet together as a church’. Paul seems clearly to have in mind the normal occasions on which all the Corinthian Christians would gather together. Then in v. 20, when he says, ‘So, when you meet together’, he is doubtless referring back to what he has just mentioned in v. 18, i.e., the occasions on which all the believers would gather. So v. 20 concerns typical church gatherings at which all would be present.
When, in v. 20 Paul rebukes the Corinthians by saying ‘when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper’, he must mean that when they gather to eat the Supper, their conduct is so poor that it is as if they are not really eating the Supper at all. But his words most naturally imply too that the typical gatherings of the Corinthian Christians would involve celebrating the Supper. Reading between the lines, then, it is probable that when the Corinthians came together as a church, they always, or at least usually, celebrated the Supper.
In v. 25 Paul refers to part of what Jesus did and said at the last supper:
‘In the same way, after supper He also took the cup, saying, ‘This is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in memory of Me.”
And then in v. 26 Paul states:
‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.’
It is sometimes claimed that the clauses ‘as often as you drink it’ in v. 25 and ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup’ in v. 26 show that we have no idea how frequently the Corinthians ate the Supper.
This, however, is a misinterpretation. ‘As often as’ just means ‘every time’. Jesus is simply saying that every time His followers celebrate the Supper they should share as one in drinking the cup of wine in His memory. And Paul is telling the Corinthians that every time they celebrate the Supper they are proclaiming the Lord’s death. Verses 25-26 therefore do not count against the conclusion above, that it is probable that when the Corinthians came together as a church, they always, or at least usually, celebrated the Supper.
Now, it seems extremely unlikely that the Corinthian church would have met less than once a week. Nothing in the New Testament leads us to believe that any Christian church in the first century met less often than this except perhaps in unusual circumstances, and there is no reason to think that the Corinthians would have been any different in this respect.
Summing up, then, it seems almost certain that the Corinthians would have met as a church at least once a week. And it seems probable that, when they met, they always or usually ate the Lord’s Supper.
The book of Acts is also relevant for our inquiry. The four most important verses are 2:42; 2:46; 20:7 and 20:11.
In 2:42 Luke says the following about the Christians in the early days and weeks after Pentecost:
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.’
Then in 2:46 he continues his description of the first believers:
‘Daily with one accord they continued in the temple, and, breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart.’
In 20:7 Luke tells us about Paul’s visit to the church in Troas:
‘On the first day of the week, when we had gathered together to break bread, Paul talked to them, intending to leave the next day, and he kept speaking until midnight.’
Finally, in Acts 20:11 we are told:
‘When he [Paul] had gone up, and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them for a long time until dawn, and then he left.’
Each of these verses refers to ‘breaking (of) bread’. This description is relevant for the question we are asking in this article.
To begin with, it seems highly likely that breaking (of) bread in each of these four verses is referring to the same thing or at least basically the same thing.
Firstly, having been told in 2:42 that breaking of bread was one major activity of the early church, when 2:46 refers to Christians breaking bread, it is very doubtful that something fundamentally different is in view. Instead, it seems that, having simply mentioned breaking of bread in 2:42, Luke then expands a little in 2:46 by referring to the joy and sincerity that the early believers had when they broke bread.
Similarly, in the light of the importance attached to breaking of bread in 2:42, when in 20:7 we are told that the church in Troas had gathered to break bread, it seems very unlikely that this verse is referring to something fundamentally different from what has been referred to in 2:42.
And breaking bread in 20:7 clearly refers to the same thing as it does in 20:11.
It is therefore highly probable that breaking (of) bread in each of these four verses is referring to at least basically the same thing (and 20:7 and 20:11 have to be referring to exactly the same thing).
But what does breaking bread in these verses refer to? There are three basic options: (1) It refers specifically to the Lord’s Supper; (2) It refers to meals eaten together by Christians, which would typically have included the Lord’s Supper; (3) It refers to meals eaten together by Christians, which would typically not have included the Lord’s Supper.
In my view it is very difficult to decide whether or not (1) is correct, i.e., whether or not breaking bread in these verses refers specifically to the Lord’s Supper. There are various arguments for and against that I find to be of about equal weight. Because I am undecided, I will not bother to list any of these arguments.
However, it does seem more likely that (1) or (2) is correct than that (3) is correct. In other words, it seems more probable than not that breaking bread in these verses contains either a direct (as in option (1)) or indirect (as in option (2)) reference to the Lord’s Supper. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, in his first volume, in Luke 22:14-23, Luke had given an account of the sharing of bread and wine at the last supper, and he surely believed that the early church was supposed to re-enact this periodically in the Lord’s Supper. If breaking (of) bread in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11 refers simply to meals at which no Lord’s Supper was celebrated, that would mean there are no direct or even indirect references in Acts to the Lord’s Supper. That seems rather unexpected.
Secondly, in Acts 2:42 fellowship is listed alongside the breaking of bread. But meals without the Lord’s Supper were really just occasions on which Christians shared fellowship. So, if breaking of bread in this verse refers simply to meals without the Supper, it seems rather strange that both fellowship and breaking of bread are listed. Instead, it makes more sense to think that breaking of bread in this verse contains either a direct or an indirect reference to the Supper. Given that the meaning of breaking (of) bread in all the above four verses is very probably the same, this means that the fact that fellowship and breaking of bread are both listed in Acts 2:42 counts against option (3) in the other three verses too.
It seems more probable than not, therefore, that breaking (of) bread in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11 refers, either directly or indirectly, to the Lord’s Supper.
As for how frequently this breaking bread occurred in the early church, Acts 2:46 and 20:7 are both relevant.
To refresh the reader’s memory, here are the texts again:
2:46: ‘Daily with one accord they continued in the temple, and, breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart.’
20:7: ‘On the first day of the week, when we had gathered together to break bread, Paul talked to them, intending to leave the next day, and he kept speaking until midnight.’
Acts 2:46 is explicit that the early Christians met together daily in the temple, and there is quite a strong impression given too that the breaking of bread from house to house happened on a daily basis or at least something almost as frequent as that.
If the early believers broke bread daily or almost daily, it is true that that doesn’t have to mean that each individual Christian did so as often as this. Nevertheless, the passage most naturally suggests that each Christian would have been in the temple every day or at least most days, and it looks most natural too if each believer typically broke bread more than once a week.
As far as 20:7 is concerned, firstly, when Luke says that the church in Troas met on the first day of the week, it seems likely that he is referring to a custom of that church. If this was a one-off meeting that just happened to be on the first day of the week, there would seem to be no reason to mention what day of the week it was. And secondly, the most natural impression seems to be that it was not just customary for the church to meet on that day of the week, but also that when it did so it would normally have broken bread.
Given, then, that breaking (of) bread in Acts 2:46 and 20:7 more probably than not refers to the Lord’s Supper, these verses provide evidence that some early Christians celebrated the Supper at least once a week. There are admittedly a few real uncertainties in this discussion of Acts. Nevertheless, we do have some evidence for at least weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper by some early Christians.
1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11 are the best pieces of evidence we have regarding the frequency with which the early church observed the Supper. The former passage provides significant evidence for early Christians celebrating the Supper at least once a week. And the Acts passages provide a somewhat weaker piece of evidence for early believers eating the Supper at least weekly.
It is true that this does not amount to much evidence. Importantly, however, there is no concrete biblical evidence that conflicts with what we have found. Nothing in the New Testament leads us to believe that any early Christians ate the Lord’s Supper less frequently than once a week.
Churches today obviously have to decide how often they celebrate the Supper. Although there is not much evidence on this issue in Scripture, we do have enough to enable us to make a decision. We can trust God that He will not have allowed the evidence available to us in the Bible to be misleading.
As Christians who are serious about living out biblical Christianity instead of church traditions, therefore, let us use what influence we have to encourage our churches to copy the early believers in celebrating the Supper at least weekly. And let us be deeply discontented when church traditions are followed that conflict with scriptural examples.
Despite what I have just said, it must be conceded that sometimes exceptional situations of various sorts arise when it is better for churches to act outside the standard biblical pattern. So I think it is possible that in some circumstances it may be God’s will for churches, exceptionally, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper less than once a week. But unless we are convinced that He is leading us to act outside the biblical pattern, we should always follow it.
I think one reason why so many churches are reluctant to celebrate the Supper every week is because they misunderstand what goes on when believers eat it. Whereas Roman Catholics and some others go wrong in saying that Christians actually eat the literal body and blood of Christ in the Supper, large numbers of evangelicals seem to go too far the other way. Often there seems to be the idea that the Lord’s Supper is just a symbolic way for us to focus our minds on the death of Jesus and nothing really more than that.
I think this is a mistake. I think there is something profound and spiritual that goes on in the Supper that acts as a means of God giving His grace to Christians. On this issue I side with Methodist and Reformed churches (and some others too). They seem, in my view, to have a good understanding of what the Lord’s Supper is, and I think they get the balance about right.
If the Lord’s Supper is just about focusing our attention on Jesus, it would seem strange that anyone in the early church would have celebrated it every week, since it would probably have lost its impact through so much repetition. If, however, it is an act in which we gain grace from God in a more or less unique way, then I think it makes sense that we would eat it at least once a week. I don’t pretend to understand how this grace operates or exactly what happens when Christians eat the Supper. But I think it is spiritually extremely good for us when we celebrate it in humility and sincerity.
I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com
Article Source: http://www.faithwriters.com
by Max Aplin