How often should the Lord’s Supper be?

Dec 13, 2017 by

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The issue on the table today is how often we should celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Whether we call it Mass, Communion, Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, how often?

Here’s a reality: Some today are weekly communicants (Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Plymouth Brethren, Restoration movement churches) while others are monthly, quarterly or annually.

A second reality: Some in monthly or quarterly tradition — low church evangelical types — are moving into the weekly churches because they believe the Lord’s Supper ought to be central to worship and because they think the church history pedigree for weekly communication is deeper.

Such is the topic of a chapter in Kenneth Stewart’s In Search of Ancient Roots.

Excellent chapter. His argument is not that evangelicals used to do weekly communion but neither is his argument that Catholics and Anglicans have always done weekly communion. If I get him right, his argument is that it was evangelical scholars — John Erskine and John Mitchell Mason — who probed the question and pressed both the Bible and church history into the discussion.

Thus far, Erskine had sketched a trajectory depicting a weekly administration of the Lords Supper from apostolic times to the year 450, yet with a steadily diminishing regular participation of the bulk of professed Christians. In reliance on the early Christian historian Socrates (b. AD 380), he took the view that the first church to abandon this weekly standard was Rome, followed by Alexandria. By the year 506, he found that in the West the stated expectation for a professed Christians participation in the Lord’s Supper had been lowered to three times per year. For a further two centuries the principle of weekly Communion was upheld in the churches of the East. The process of decline had gone on, almost unchecked, so that by the time of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Church of Rome had stipulated that once-annual participation in the Supper was sufficient

But what about the NT? Here are the major texts used:

Acts 2:42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,

1 Cor. 11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Acts 20:7 On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.

Acts 20:11 Then Paul went upstairs, and after he had broken bread and eaten, he continued to converse with them until dawn; then he left.

It was Erskine and Mason who pressed the history and the NT into the discussion, and they did so both academically and pastorally.

What were their conclusions? I quote six of Stewart’s conclusions:

  1. Each writer granted, from the outset, that neither Jesus nor his apostles left to the church any actual pronouncement on the subject of frequency of Communion. At best, there are inferences that may be drawn from the New Testament.
  2. Each agreed that a primitive high frequency of Communion in the first Christian centuries had gradually given way in medieval Catholicism to a minimalist expectation of once-annual participation.
  3. Each accepted that the now-hallowed Presbyterian practice of annual or semiannual Communion festivals represented an innovation of the early seventeenth century and as such represented a departure from the original Reformation expectation of an at least quarterly administration.
  4. The annual or semiannual Communion festival — whatever might be said about its evangelistic potentialities for preaching the gospel to the mixed multitudes that gathered — was inadequate to the spiritual needs of ordinary Christians and provided insufficient opportunities for communing with their Lord.
  5. While each writer was personally convinced that the primitive church had enjoyed the Lord’s Supper weekly and knew that the restoration of that primitive frequency had been the desire of John Calvin, they also accepted that from the time of Constantine the church had declined from its original purity and cohesiveness.
  6. The common position of Erskine and Mason, therefore, was that evangelical churches and believers needed to resort to the Lord’s Supper more frequently than the Communion-festival practice had allowed — while not attempting to recover precisely the practices they believed were characteristic of apostolic times. A quarterly, six-times-yearly, or monthly Communion all represented a giant step in the desired direction, and they asked for no more at that time.

Scot McKnight is a professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lisle, Ill., and the author of The Jesus Creed. He blogs at Jesus Creed, where this post originally appeared.

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  • Charlie Kraybill

    In the Mennonite churches of my youth, communion was held once in the spring and once in the fall. And that was two times too many for me. The whole somber affair always made me queasy, even before I had thought the thing through — it’s basically symbolic cannibalism. And something Jesus, an observant Jew, would never approve. (Jews do not drink blood, even symbolically.) If Jesus actually uttered the words “Do this in my memory,” it was not his intention thereby to institute a ceremony to be observed for centuries to come, as he believed he was living at the end of the age. Rather, he would have spoken those words for the benefit specifically of the several friends in the room on that particular occasion. And that’s it. Communion is a man-made ritual, invented in the Greek culture of the early church. And like all man-made rituals it can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences. I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).

    • Joel David Bender

      Hi Charlie,
      While I agree that Communion is ritualistic and an unnecessary component of salvation, it is to remember the importance of Jesus’ sacrifice and atonement of our sins. I don’t know what you mean by “If Jesus actually uttered the words,” since scripture clearly tells us that he did. Maybe you are questioning what he meant by them? Jesus spoke in metaphor often. Take the parables for example. Many teachings were not revealed to the disciples until after Jesus death and resurrection. The body and blood metaphor is in line with everything that Jesus says about this death and resurrection beforehand. Jesus teaches far before this that he is the Bread of Life. To the Jews, this is clearly, without a doubt referencing the manna that God gave his children in the wilderness. The Masaic law is also a huge component here — blood sacrifices. Jesus isn’t inviting symbolic anabolism. He is inviting symbolic atonement. A reminder of what has been done for us. Remembering the this somber act can be very healing. Thankfully, joy comes in the morning! In fact, this remembrance of sorrow leads us to greater joy when we can grasp a bit of the understanding of grace. While I do not see Communion as necessary, I do see it as a beautiful act of remembrance, whether done in a symbolic way or as a way of life (love feasts, etc.).

      • Charlie Kraybill

        Joel, thank you for affirming that communion is an unnecessary component of salvation, which means that people of good will can eliminate it from their practice and not be at risk.

        You bring up the subject of blood sacrifices. Let’s remember that Yahweh not only doesn’t like them, he never asked for them. Hosea 6:6: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” In the Psalms, the writer affirms this by saying: “You don’t delight in sacrifices or I would bring it. You don’t take pleasure in burnt offerings.” (Psalm 51:16) Jesus echoed this sentiment in Matthew 9:13: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” The anonymous author of Hebrews says: “It is impossible for animal blood to take away sins.” (10:4) The reason Jews conducted animal sacrifices was because all the ancient cultures were doing it — it was the way religion was done back then. Humans needed scapegoats to assuage their guilt over their wrongdoings, so they literally killed goats to get rid of their sins. Of course it did no such thing. Scapegoating doesn’t work now, didn’t work then either. If Yahweh disapproved of sacrificing animals, doesn’t it follow that Yahweh would disapprove of sacrificing humans? That’s why the notion of Yahweh sending his son as a some kind of cosmic “child sacrifice” is mistaken, and should be rejected. How does Yahweh forgive sins, then? Well, Jesus went around telling people they were forgiven, freely and generously, without blood sacrifices. Surely he was doing that with the approval of his father.

    • Brad Burkholder

      The words of Jesus about communion have been offending disciples (John 6:61) and causing them to leave Him (John 6:66) for awhile now. He can be tough to swallow- no pun intended.