Celebration of the Lord's Supper - How often? - Rev. P. Aasman

Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 46, No. 4, and 5 (1997)
Rev. P. Aasman is currently (2001), the minister of the Canadian Reformed Church in Grand Valley Ontario.

The early church through the Middle Ages

1. Introduction

Colloquy at MarburgOnly one generation ago, it was the case with nearly every church that the Lord's supper was celebrated quarterly. This is the minimum requirement of the Church Order. It states that the Lord's supper should be celebrated "at least once every three months. "(Article 60) Many churches in our federation have reviewed this matter and have concluded that it would be better to have Communion more frequently. Usually, the decision is then made to celebrating this sacrament every other month.

But is that enough? Is this the best for the congregation? Would it perhaps not be better to have it every month? What is really the difference between every two months and every three months? It becomes apparent that the decision as to how frequent the Lord's supper should be enjoyed is a rather subjective matter. Once a consistory has decided to have it more frequently than the minimum required by the Church Order, it become difficult to determine how frequently is best. It is becoming increasingly so that people would like to see this sacrament enjoyed more often than it is presently the case in any of our churches.[1]

There are good doctrinal grounds for arguing that the Lord's supper should be celebrated more often than four times per year, but no less persuasive are the historical reasons. This paper will be limited to the direct biblical and historical data related to the frequency of the celebration of the Lord's supper. Doctrinal considerations will only be touched on as they have arisen in the historical discussions. It is hoped that this study will engender some concern over our infrequent enjoyment of this gift of Christ, and further, that it might provide some objectivity to the discussion as to what should be done about it.

2. Biblical data

On the eve of His resurrection, the Lord Jesus travelled to Emmaus with two other men, and upon arriving there, He "took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them "(Lk. 24:30). Because the expressions here are similar to the words Jesus used in the last supper, many have supposed that Jesus was celebrating Lord's supper with these men.[2] Similarly, it is often supposed that Luke refers to the Lord's supper when on Pentecost day the believers "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer"; and as well when Luke tells us a few verses later, "They broke bread in their homes" (Acts 2:42,46). [3]

If these suppositions are accurate, then the NT data would support the notion that the Lord's Supper should be celebrated many times- not just weekly but even daily. However, it is more likely that in none of these instances does Luke have the Lord's supper in mind. This is quite certain in Luke 24 :30. The two men with whom Jesus came to Emmaus had not witnessed the last supper, so the giving of thanks, the breaking and distribution of bread would have had no special meaning for them. They had never heard of this sacrament nor seen it administered.

The situation in Acts 2:42, however is not as simple. Does the expression, "Devoted themselves to . . . the breaking of bread," refer to the sacrament or simply to eating a meal? There are many commentators who feel that the reference here is to the sacrament. S.J. Kistemaker feels that the context points to the Lord's supper. [4] F.F. Bruce says that this passage cannot describe a simple common meal: "The 'breaking of bread' probably denotes more than the regular taking of food together: the regular observance of what came to be called the Lord's supper seems to be in view." [5] Guthrie is less convinced: "It is not, of course, certain that this act of the risen Christ is here definitely connected with the Lord's supper." [6]

Others, however, feel quite certain that Acts 2:42 does not describe the Lord's supper. In the early part of this century, H. Leitzmann had examined the roots of the Lord's supper in primitive Christianity and concluded that the breaking of bread, celebrated joyfully by the first Christians, was no more than a continuation of the daily meals which Jesus shared with His disciples throughout the course of His ministry. [7] A decade later, O. Cullmann carried this idea further, arguing that these joyful meals of the first Christians became the origin for the love-feasts of the early church. [8] The love-feasts have their origin in the fellowship meals which people enjoyed with Jesus before and after His resurrection. Cullmann writes:

The Lord's presence was re-experienced during these love-feasts both as a recollection of the historical fact of the Resurrection and as an experience of the contemporary fact of His invisible coming in the gathering of the Christians assembled "to break bread." [9]

G.F. Hawthorne continues in this line, saying that the "breaking of bread" of the early chapters in Acts was not a celebration of the Lord's supper but the enjoyment of a religious meal that was common in Judaism:

These daily meals were joyful fellowships which celebrated His resurrection and continued presence in the Church, and which also anticipated the eschatological kingdom. They, thus, may not have originated in or been connected with the Last Supper, but may have had their source and meaning in the post-resurrection meals that Jesus had with His disciples. [10]

Luke is especially interested in the fellowship meals which the Lord enjoyed during His ministry on earth, for he records no less than nine such meals. [11] There are in addition five separate references to Christ enjoying a meal with disciples after His resurrection. [12] C.F.D. Moule has added to this discussion the fact that "breaking bread" does elsewhere in Scripture mean a simple meal. In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the OT), this expression is used in Isaiah 58:7 and Lamentations 4:4 with the meaning of sharing bread with the needy, and in Jeremiah 16:7 it refers to a funeral feast. [13]

The expression "breaking of bread," then, is best understood as meaning: "to have a fellowship meal." Believers often enjoyed such fellowship meals with Jesus Christ, both before and after His resurrection. When in Acts 2:42 and 46 we read that believers were breaking bread again, then it is most logical to connect this with the fellowship meals which believers enjoyed with one another and with Jesus before His ascension. They still enjoyed fellowship with the Lord, but now not physically but spiritually. This is the meal which would later become the love feast, so characteristic of early Christianity. But the point here is that when we read in Acts 2:42 and 46 that believers broke bread with the Apostles and in each other's homes, there is no need to suppose that they celebrated the sacrament.

Thus Acts 2:42 and 46 as well as Luke 24:30 are not relevant biblical data. for the subject we are investigating. This is significant because these passages are often cited (and usually in a very casual way) by those who would teach that the Lord's supper ought to be enjoyed by the church more often than every Sunday.

As the church moved beyond the direct influence of Jewish culture into a variety of Gentile cultures. the fellowship meal which went by the name "breaking of bread," underwent modification. One such modification was that this meal became attached to the celebration of the Lord's supper in what is called the agape feast. It is this agape or love-feast which Paul has in mind when he rebuked the Corinthians in his first letter to them. He wrote, "When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anyone else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk" (11:20,21).

Already Chrysostum (A.D. 347-407) saw here a similarity with what had happened on Pentecost when believers had eaten their meals in common and had all things in common. According to him, this passage shows that Christian fellowship expressed itself in the very same way in Corinth as it did in the beginning in Jerusalem. He describes what would happen in Corinth after a worship service: [14]

And when the solemn service was completed, after the communion of the Mysteries, they all went to a common entertainment, the rich bringing their provisions with them, and the poor and destitute being invited by them, and all feasting in common.

Commentators today mostly agree that the reference here is to a feast which was enjoyed by the earliest Christians. For instance, Kistemaker writes:

Even though the information Paul provides is scanty, we infer that the Corinthians had displayed inconsistent behaviour at their love feasts. What precisely do we know about love feast? Luke tells us that after Pentecost the early Christians came together in their homes and shared their food as they enjoyed common meals (Acts 2:46). [15]

Thus, the love feast became closely connected to the celebration of the Lord's supper.

It turns out that in 1 Corinthians 11 we have the only direct datum relating to the frequency of communion, for Paul says, "When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper you eat" (v. 20). It is clear that Paul was rebuking them that this is not the case-they should be celebrating the Lord's supper when they come together. But because they were conducting their "love feasts" so wickedly, the Lord's supper which was joined to it, ceased to be a blessing and instead became a judgment on them (v. 34). Paul could hardly regard it as a valid celebration of the sacrament any longer.

The significant point here for our study is that Paul assumes that they would celebrate the Lord's supper every time they "come together as church" (v. 18). In this very letter, Paul indicates that the people of God come together as church once each week, for in chapter 16 he encourages the Corinthians to set money aside for the poor in Jerusalem "on the first day of every week"(v. 2). When the church comes together, then her liturgy must include at least these two items: collections for the needy and celebration of the Lord's supper.

The biblical data recommends, then, that when the church gathers together for official worship, then there would also be the celebration of the Lord's supper. But since the expressions, "breaking of bread" in Luke 24 and in Acts 2 (and Acts 20) do not refer to the Lord's supper, there is no direct biblical data to support the notion that the church should celebrate the Lord's supper daily or more frequently than at the weekly gathering for worship.

3. The early church

The earliest writing after the NT period relevant to this point comes from the Didache or The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles. The date when this was written ranges somewhere between A.D. 90 - 120. Chapter XIV of the Didache (entitled "Christian Assembly on the Lord's Day") states, "But every Lord's day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure." The Lord's supper is now known by the name, "the breaking of bread," not after the Jewish opening ritual for a meal (blessing, breaking and distribution of bread) but after the institution of Jesus Christ (He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and distributed it). What is significant for our purpose, however, is that Didache states clearly that the Lord's supper was celebrated weekly, on the Lord's day. ..

There were few exceptions to the principle of weekly celebrations of the Lord's supper in this period. There were some who held that since the Lord's Supper was instituted in the place of the Passover, it should be celebrated only once per year as the Passover was, on the 14th-15th of Nisan. This was the position of the Ebionites, an early Jewish-Christian sect. [16] Christians in Asia Minor in the second century held a special Eucharist as a parallel to Passover. [17] We might expect such ideas when the Christian church was so close to its Judaic roots, but within a century, the notion that the Lord's supper should be coordinated with the Passover had disappeared completely. [18]

The early church fathers repeat what the Didache had stated. Ignatius (A.D. 30107) exhorts the church to "come together in common . . . breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote which prevents us from dying" (Epistle to the Ephesians chap xx). For Ignatius, to come together to worship is to come together for the Lord's supper. The same is true for Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165), for he writes, "on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read . . . and when our prayers are ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and . . . there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given" (First Apology of Justin, chap. LXVII - "Weekly worship of the Christians"). Irenaeus (120 - 202) speaks about the Lord's supper as an offering of ourselves to God through Jesus Christ, and he says, "thus it is, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission" (Against Heresies, 4.18.6). Irenaeus would surely be appalled at an intermission of several months between one celebration and the next. Without intermission would mean: every week.

In the early church, there is overwhelming and unequivocal testimony that from the time of the Apostles onward, the Lord's supper was celebrated every Lord's day. This strongly suggests that the apostolic example which the Apostle Paul, for instance, established in the Church of Corinth became the pattern throughout the churches.

4. From the early church to the Reformation

Many unbiblical ideas concerning the Lord's supper began to find currency in the church in the centuries following the earliest period of Christianity. First of all, the worship service became sharply divided between the administration of Word and sacrament. The whole church gathered for the ministry of the Word, but before the Lord's supper could begin, three groups were dismissed from the church: the children, the catechumens and those under discipline. The bread and the wine of the Lord's supper were regarded as things so holy that not only must noncommunicant members and visitors be excluded from eating and drinking the bread and wine, but also from witnessing the breaking of bread and the distribution of both elements. The theological motive for this exclusion was that the bread and wine were increasingly thought of as a propitiatory sacrifice that had to be laid on an altar, and the minister of the Word was seen more and more as a priest officiating at the altar. The high point of the Lord's supper was no longer the communion which believers have with Jesus through faith when they eat and drink; the high point became the moment of consecration, when the common bread and wine became holy bread and wine, that is, when the bread and wine was transubstantiated into the real body and blood of Christ. The liturgy became more elaborate as censors, chants, set formulas, formal gestures and so on were introduced. The people were taught to be content with the privilege of witnessing what the priest was doing at the altar on their behalf. The focus of blessing in the Lord's supper shifted from the act of personally eating and drinking bread and wine, to witnessing the bread and wine manipulated by priests at the front of the church building. In fact, people began to regard the work of the priests as being the only means of grace so that it became quite unnecessary and irrelevant to personally eat or drink.

Two contrary notions concerning the Lord's supper reigned at this time. On the one hand, it was held that Jesus Christ is corporally present at the Mass. The result of this teaching was that people were afraid to eat the bread or drink the wine for they were filled with awe and dread at the presence of the Great King. On the other hand, the church taught that the sacraments were a necessary means of grace, that is, an adult could not be saved without the sacrament of Mass.

Ingeniously, people harmonized the two principles together in a way that twisted medieval worship still further. People discovered that they could receive grace without actually touching the body of Christ by transferring the liturgical high moment from the eating of the host to the elevation of the host, that is, to the moment when Christ became present according to the doctrine of transubstantiation. The 'elevation of the host' refers to the lifting up of the bread just at the moment when the bread had been transubstantiated so that adoring eyes might be lifted up to look upon the body of Christ, and so that everyone might fall in worship before their Lord. A spiritual communion by gazing upon the body of Christ, gained in medieval doctrine a quasisacramental value. In practical terms, it meant that many people would come running to church when the bell rang to indicate that the host was being elevated during the celebration of the mass, so that the people might receive the sacramental grace which can be had by viewing it. Soon thereafter, they could return home, having "refreshed their souls" and having received the grace which the church claimed was necessary for the salvation of adults. [19]

After a period of renewal in the church during the fourth century, communion became less frequent despite the protests of church councils. By the sixth century it was declared that churches must celebrate Eucharist at least three times per year (Christmas, Easter and Pentecost). By 1215, the minimum requirement was reduced to one (Easter), at which time the cup was withheld from the "laity" by church law. [20] A theologian of that time, James of Vitry, explains the decline in frequency thus: "Since sins have so multiplied in the land, it is permitted that communion be received by the laity only one time per year, that is, at Easter. [21]

After the period of the early church, the whole celebration of the Lord's supper began to change. It was detached from the preaching of the gospel, and exalted as a mystery fit only for the few. The sacrament was emphasized as a necessary means of grace for adults, while at the same time, it was shrouded under mysterious liturgical actions. As the doctrine of transubstantiation took firm hold in the church, the congregation became afraid to personally participate in the sacrament, and consequently, they were satisfied to merely witness the sacrament rather than personally participate in it. Consequently, over a period of 1200 years, the frequency with which one actually participated in the Lord's supper declined from every Sunday (52 times each year) to every Easter (1 time each year), although the church leaders tried at times to prevent this decline.

From the Reformation to today

5. The Period of the Reformation
5.1 Martin Luther

Martin LutherFor Luther, the Lord's supper was an integral element in official worship. In the Lord's supper, the congregation enjoys fellowship in and with Jesus Christ. No gathering for worship could possibly be complete without this celebration. In 1520, Luther said that the Lord's supper should be celebrated daily. Three years later he changed his mind and announced that it should be celebrated only on Sundays. [22] Luther's desire to see the Lord's supper celebrated weekly is remarkable since Luther is well-known for being conservative when he introduced reforms. He maintained whatever parts of the medieval cultus he considered theologically neutral, such as images, altars, and vestments. But by teaching the people that they should receive the bread and wine frequently, Luther made a clean break from that part of the medieval cultus which restricted personal participation in the Eucharist to one time per year.

5.2 Ulrich Zwingli

Ulrich ZwingliZwingli did not favour frequent communion. When Zwingli prepared a preface for the German rite for the Lord's supper in 1525, he recommended that this sacrament be celebrated four times per year: Easter, Whitsun, autumn and Christmas. [23] Although four times per year was more frequent than the medieval church in which the people received the bread only annually, yet by confining the church calendar to only four celebrations per year, Zwingli stood alone among the continental Reformers.

The reason why Zwingli took this position is not easy to discern. Perhaps he felt that it was quite generous, as indeed it was in comparison to the medieval church. But more significantly, quarterly celebrations is in keeping with Zwingli's reformational principles. In Zurich, all ceremonies and rituals were reduced to their barest form. He even had congregational singing abolished! It is well known that Zwingli had at one point taught that the Lord's supper was not a means of grace at all. Perhaps this explains why he did not regard it as essential to the weekly worship. It should be noted, however, that Zwingli later modified his statement about the Lord's supper, and agreed with Calvin and Bucer that it is a means of grace in which Christ is offered to the believer. Maxwell brings forward the point that Zwingli was distinct, in this matter, largely because while Luther and Calvin were scholastics, Zwingli was a humanist, and consequently "more rationalistic in his theological outlook, less mystical, and more subjective and analytical." [24]

Another possible reason why Zwingli took this position regarding the frequency of celebrating this sacrament is more speculative, yet it is characteristic of the time. Perhaps Zwingli took this position simply in reaction against Luther. It is well-known that Zwingli and Luther were spiritually at war over the manner in which Christ is present in the bread and wine. Their conflict over this point was so intense that both men came to hold intemperate positions. Calvin observed that Zwingli's doctrine concerning the Lord's supper was ruled, at certain points, by a passion to oppose Luther rather than to provide a reasoned and balanced doctrine. [25] Perhaps Luther's initial position that the Lord's supper should be celebrated even daily, reeked so much of Romish doctrine that Zwingli reacted and said: No, not daily but four times per year.

We have examined the roots for Zwingli's position in some detail here because even though he was the only continental Reformer to go in this direction, his influence appears to be determinative for all of Protestantism. Maxwell concludes his discussion of the Zwinglian rite for the Lord's supper thus, "Its most tragic influence, however, was the beginning of the separation of the Lord's Supper from the Lord's Day, making it no longer the norm of Sunday worship, but a memorial feast infrequently celebrated." [26] This is probably overstating the case, for it was an ancient practice to celebrate the Mass only three times per year, reaching back at least to A.D. 600, as we have already seen. But it is true that nearly all Reformed churches followed Zwingli's position from the very start, and the Lutheran churches followed it as well in subsequent generations.

5.3 John Calvin

John CalvinCalvin agreed with Luther that the church should celebrate the Lord's supper at least once a week. He longed for a return to the manner in which the early Christian church commemorated Christ's death, and to be rid of all the accumulated rubbish of the medieval period. He regarded infrequent celebration of the Lord's supper to be part of that rubbish. For instance, in his Institutes, he observed that soon after the apostolic age, the celebration of the Lord's supper was "corrupted by rust," and he says:

Now, to get rid of this great pile of ceremonies, the Supper could have been administered most becomingly if it were set before the church very often, and at least once a week. 4.17.43

An earlier version of his Institutes states this point even more forcefully. He wrote that "this custom that enjoins that men should communicate only once a year is certainly an invention of the devil. The Lord's Supper should be celebrated in the Christian congregation once a week at the very least." [27]

In the next section of the Institutes ("44. The Lord's Supper should be celebrated frequently"), he gives doctrinal reasons why he feels that this sacrament should be set before the church very often. He writes:

[I]t was ordained to be frequently used among all Christians in order that they might frequently return in memory to Christ's Passion, by such remembrances to sustain and strengthen their faith, and urge themselves to bring thanksgiving to God and to proclaim His goodness; finally, by it to nourish mutual love, and among themselves give witness to this love, and discern its bond in the unity of Christ's body.

He goes on to point out that such frequent celebration will more effectively bind on all members the duties of love toward one another. He then states the biblical support for this teaching:

Luke relates in The Acts that this was the practice of the apostolic church, when he says that believers '. . . continued in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in prayers"[Acts 2:42, cf. Vg.]. Thus it became the unvarying rule that no meeting of the church should take place without the Word, prayers, partaking of the Supper, and almsgiving. That this was the established order among the Corinthians also, we can safely infer from Paul (cf. I Cor. 11 :20).

As we have noted before already, we might not agree with Calvin when he supposes that Luke is referring to the sacrament in Acts 2:42, but the same point is made in 1 Corinthians 11 :20, as Calvin also points out here. So biblical grounds indeed exist to form the unvarying rule found in the early Christian church that no meeting of the church should take place without including the sacrament of Lord's supper.

This concern to have the Lord's supper celebrated every week was not a passing fancy that Calvin had. It was an matter of great importance to him. Although he was continually frustrated from implementing it in Geneva, he never ceased to press for it. As Maxwell states it, Calvin's aim was to restore the Eucharist "as the central weekly service, and, within this service, to give the Holy Scriptures their authoritative place. The Lord's Supper, in all its completeness, was the norm he wished to establish." [28] In his Institutes, he stated the position which he strived during his whole time in Geneva to implement. When the magistrates in Geneva consistently prevented him from realizing this ideal, he was forced to modify his position, although it always remains clear that Calvin was not content with anything less than weekly celebration. [29] In an essay he wrote later on during his ministry in Geneva, entitled, "Treatise on the Lord's Supper," he says:

With reference to the number of times that the Lord's Supper is to be partaken of, no fixed regulation can be adopted. For in the case of every one there are frequent special hindrances, which excuse him if he absents himself. Besides, we have no express command which obligates all Christians to partake of it every time when it is offered. In all cases, if we keep its object rightly in view, we will recognize that its use ought to be more frequent than is commonly the practice. For the more our weakness makes itself felt in us, the more frequently must we practice that which may and will serve for the confirmation of our faith and our furtherance in a holy life. Therefore in all well regulated churches the custom is to be insisted on that the supper should be celebrated as frequently as the circumstances of the congregation may allow . . . [I]t is within the purpose of the Lord that we should partake of it often, otherwise we lose the benefit which arises from it.

Calvin then considers three different excuses why people might object to more frequent celebration of the Lord's supper, of which the third is relevant to this study. He writes, "Still others consider frequent communion superfluous on the ground that having once accepted Christ, communion with Him does not require repeated renewal." He responds to this position thus:

In behalf of the third objection not even the shadow of a reason can be given. For it is not possible to be surfeited by this spiritual bread, which was given us in order that after having tasted its sweetness, we might desire it more and more, and enjoy it as often as it is offered to us. For as long as we tarry in this mortal life, Christ is never imparted to us in such a manner that our souls are satisfied once for all by Him, but He will be our constant support.

To sum up, Calvin was, on one hand, rather forceful, especially earlier on, in his insistence that the Lord's supper should be celebrated weekly. To the end, he never missed an occasion to press upon his readers that the Scriptures demands that this sacrament should be enjoyed frequently, and that it was "the abomination of the mass set up by Satan, who caused it that people received communion only once or twice a year." [30] But while Calvin could be fiery in pressing his point, he was capable of assuming an intelligently and genuinely irenic tone, as indicated when he writes, "the supper should be celebrated as frequently as the circumstances of the congregation may allow it."

It is indeed a tragedy that the views of Zwingli should have triumphed in Geneva over the position of Calvin, for the next four centuries would pass with almost no questions raised among Protestant churches on this point, either in England, the Continent, or in North America. It seems that in the moment when the Church was so magnificently restored to her original purity, the celebration of the Lord's Supper was separated from the Sunday worship service in Geneva and remained an extraordinary addition reserved for only four or six Sundays in the year.

Calvin's close friend and colleague, Bucer in Strasbourg was able to lead his congregation into the pattern of weekly celebrations, but within a generation; this too had fallen into the pattern established by Zwingli and followed by Geneva. The only other figure in subsequent history who is well known for protesting this pattern was John Wesley. Wesley also favoured frequent and weekly communion, but Methodism frustrated also its leader when it practised monthly or quarterly communion. [31]

6. The World Council of Churches

Churches in every country have, during the twentieth Century, been experimenting with new liturgical forms for worship. One of the most significant forces for liturgical change is the World Council of Churches, with over 300 member churches worldwide. One of the stated aims of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council is "to call the churches to the goal of visible unity in one faith and one eucharistic fellowship, expressed in worship and common life in Christ." The Faith and Order Commission has served this purpose by creating a document in which the central doctrinal peculiarities of the member churches have been blended together to form one accepted pattern which all the member churches can accept. This document is called, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. [32] Naturally, this document promotes liturgical uniformity as well. Its recommendation on the frequency of the Lord's supper is candid. It states:

Christian faith is deepened by the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Hence the Eucharist should be celebrated frequently. (. . . ) As the Eucharist celebrates the resurrection of Christ, it is appropriate that it should take place at least every Sunday. As it is the new sacramental meal of the people of God, every Christian should be encouraged to receive communion frequently. [33]

These recommendations of the World Council are well-grounded in Scripture, in the churches' early history and in the express desires of the first great reformers.

This portion of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry caused quite a stir among the member churches since the vast majority of them do not celebrate the Eucharist weekly. Their protests are striking because they very likely parallel the kinds of protests that would arise from our own midst. The Lutheran Church of Australia protested, saying that the uniqueness of the Lord's supper is lost if celebrated weekly. [34] The Presbyterian Church of Canada objected by saying that because faith is deepened by celebrating, it should not be celebrated too often lest frequency breed a ritualistic approach of overfamiliarity, thereby weakening faith. [35] The Methodist Church (UK) observed that some would argue that "the infrequency of celebration actually heightens the sense of the Eucharist's presence." [36] The United Church of Christ [USA] stated that familiarity will diminish the meaning of the sacrament, and the preaching of the word may be subordinated to the sacramental action. [37] Many more similar positions could be quoted from other churches which are members of the World Council.

According to these churches, infrequent communion protects the sacrament from ritualism and over-familiarity, and preserves the sacrament's highly sacred nature. But this position becomes completely empty when it is shown that the Scripture expects frequent communion, and that in the early part of the church's history, it was enjoyed frequently with great profit. As Calvin pointed out, it is infrequent communion that is tandem to spiritual decline. The desire to "protect" the sanctity of the sacrament by celebrating it only occasionally is nothing more than a human invention, and as such, is suspect.

As to the notion that weekly Eucharist would subordinate the word to the sacrament, one wonders if this has not been in theory what has happened ever since Zwingli set the pattern of quarterly celebrations. What is being suggested by this pattern is that the preaching of the Gospel is so common that the church can receive it twice on Sundays, but the Lord's supper is sõ sacred that people need to prepare themselves for it for at least one week and then be satisfied for two or three months with the superabundant benefit that has been received there before receiving such spiritual renewal again. Bringing the word and sacrament together into the weekly worship will not subordinate one to the other but will compliment the one with the other, as Reformed doctrine so urgently teaches that it should.

7. Final Conclusion

Colloquy at MarburgCalvin had written, "I have taken care to record publicly that our custom is defective, so that those who come after me may be able to correct it the more freely and easily." From a Biblical and a church historical point of view, Calvin is certainly correct in labelling our practice as being defective. Many have taken up Calvin's challenge to work in the church, to correct this defect which has oversadowed the reformed churches for nearly 500 years, but with little observable success. With the passage of time, this defect has become so firmly entrenched that people cannot conceive of celebrating the Lord's supper every week. The form for the celebration for the Lord's supper has become so lengthy because it has become customary to devote nearly a whole service to its celebration. The shorter form has been mislabelled in the Book of Praise as being for "the afternoon service." The intention of this shorter form was to make it more feasible for a church to celebrate Communion more frequently, however, since this notion is so foreign to our circles, it has been recast for a second celebration on the "Lord's Supper Sunday." [38] The manner in which the congregation receives the bread and wine (people come forward to sit round a table) necessarily consumes a great deal of time. Both of these things (the length of the form and the manner of celebration) support infrequent communion and, therefore, need to be adjusted before positive change can be made.

The Reformers of the 16th Century saw themselves as returning to the purity of the early church. With regard to the sacraments, the exodus from gross corruption was magnificently begun, but strangely left unfinished when it came to bringing the Lord's supper into the weekly worship service. Though he struggled to complete the reformation of the Lord's supper, Calvin had to accept that it would not happen in his life time, so he conceded that the church should celebrate the Lord's supper at least as frequently as circumstance might allow it. May this study serve to make more favourable the present circumstances so that the complete reformation of the Lord's supper may yet be realized.


[1] The opinion expressed by J. Van Bruggen is fairly wide-spread when he says, "Our infrequent celebration of the Lord's supper is evidence of a low level of spiritual life," in Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism ET (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1991), 189.

[2] For example, Leon Morris says, "Some have seen here a reference to the breaking of bread in the communion service," in Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Luke (Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1974), 340.

[3] In his commentary on Acts, Calvin writes that 2:42 refers to the Lord's Supper, but 2:46 does not, even though "some do think that in this place, by breaking of bread is meant the Holy Supper."

[4] S.J. Kistemaker, in New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990) 111, points to the fact that in Greek, Luke wrote about "the bread," i.e., the bread that was set aside for the sacrament of communion. However, the Greek definite article cannot be treated like the English definite article. It often means very little. Furthermore, the word "bread" is also definite in Lk. 24:35, and we have just concluded that here "the bread" cannot be the bread consecrated for the sacrament.

[5] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 73.

[6] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), 720.

[7] Especially important in the following discussions was his work, Messe and Herrendmalh (1926).

[8] See his essay, "The Meaning of the Lord's Supper in Primitive Christianity," ET (1936), published in Essays on the Lord's Supper (Virginia: John Knox Press, 1958).

[9] Ibid., 13.

[10] See the article "Lord's Supper" in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible Volume 3 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975/76), 982-983.

[11] See E.E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, NCBC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 193.

[12] Cullmann refers to Lk. 24:42, Jn 21 :12, Ac 10:41 and Ac 1 :3-4. One might add Lk. 24:30.

[13] In Worship in the New Testament, Ecumenical Studies in Worship # 9 (Virginia: John Knox Press, 1961), 19.

[14] Chyrsostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers Volume 12 (Peabody: Hendrikson Publishers, 1995) 157.

[15] S.J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 390

[16] A..J.B. Higgins, The Lord's Supper in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1952), 56 n.1 .

[17] See on this, T. Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament, Volume iii ( Minnesota: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, nd), 274. Higgins refers to Zahn. Zahn does not make it clear whether the Christians of Asia Minor celebrated the Lord's supper only once per year, or if they had a holier celebration of the weekly Eucharist at Easter.

[18] J.N.D. Kelly wrote that Jewish Christianity was a powerful force in the apostolic age of the church, but the rapid expansion of Gentile Christianity eclipsed their influence, and "the dispersal of their main community in Jerusalem after the outbreak of the Jewish war (A.D. 66) completed their isolation." See his Early Christian Doctrines (London: Harper & Row, 1960),139.

[19] Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 155.

[20] W.D. Maxwell, A History of Christian Worship: An Outline of Its Development and Form (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982), 65.

[21] Miri Rubin, op. cit., 148.

[22] Maxwell, op. cit., 74.

[23] Ibid., 81.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See Calvin's "A Short Treatise on the Lord's Supper," ¶ 56, where Calvin writes that Zwingli and his colleague Oecolompadius tried to defend that Christ ascended into heaven and is there locally present as to his humanity, but adds: "Meantime, while en grossed with this point, they forgot to show what presence of Jesus Christ ought to be believed in the Supper, and what communion of his body and blood is there received."

[26] Maxwell, op. cit., 87.

[27] Ibid., 117.

[28] Ibid., 112.

[29] Maxwell adds the following interesting detail: "He [Calvin] thought to mitigate the stringency of these decrees [the city council had decreed that Eucharist be celebrated quarterly] by arranging that the dates of communion should vary in each church in the city, thus providing opportunity for more frequent communion for the people, who might communicate in a neighbouring parish." in Maxwell, op. cit., 117.

[30] This quote is from his letter to the Magistrates of Berne, 1555.

[31] Maxwell, op. cit., 144.

[32] Faith and Order Paper no. 111 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982)

[33] Ibid., 16.

[34] Response to BEM: Official Responses to the "Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry Text, volume II, Faith and Order Paper 132 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986), 90.

[35] Ibid., 156.

[36] Ibid., 224.

[37] Ibid., 308.

[38] For more information about this, see G. van Rongen, Our Reformed Church Service Book (Neerlandia: Inheritance Publications, 1995), 217-218.