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Rethinking Weekly Communion

Todd Bordow

Introduction

Depending on your point of view, the recent movement among Reformed and Presbyterian churches toward weekly communion is either a long-awaited breath of fresh air or a dangerous turn in the wrong direction. The profusion of recent literature and Internet discussion on a weekly partaking of the Lord's Supper suggests that this movement is no passing fad, but a permanent alteration in the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition of quarterly or monthly communion. It is my position that we should not so quickly eschew the tradition and wisdom of our forefathers who saw the possible dangers in weekly communion and practiced quarterly or monthly communion.

Biblical Overview

The Protestant church has always left the frequency of the Supper to the discretion of each church. This is because neither the Lord Jesus nor the apostles addressed the issue of frequency of communion, or commanded how often the church should partake of the Supper. Let us briefly consider the relevant passages proponents of weekly communion use to support their conviction.

Acts 2:42

Proponents of weekly communion argue that Acts 2:42 implies weekly communion, for since the central elements of new covenant worship are listed in this verse, it seems the "breaking of bread" was observed as regularly as hearing the Word and prayer. Most expositors have been careful not to follow that line of reasoning for at least two reasons. For one, there is ambiguity whether the term "breaking bread" in Acts 2:42 refers to the Lord's Supper (as in Acts 20:7), or to simply sharing meals (as in Luke 24:30, Acts 27:35). Also, even if this term refers to the Lord's Supper, expositors have been careful to note the unique redemptive-historical circumstances occurring in the Book of Acts, thus cautioning against seeing certain practices as prescriptive examples of how the church later on was to worship. For example, because it was the Festival of Pentecost, and because first Christians were all gathered in Jerusalem for the occasion, the new believers could gather daily at the Jerusalem temple to worship. We should not presume from this that the church should always seek to meet daily for worship instead of weekly, or worship at the Jerusalem Temple for that matter. It is simply asking too much of Acts 2:42 to provide us with answers concerning the exact frequency of these worship activities.

Acts 20:7

In Acts 20:7 we read of a worship service described as a gathering together to break bread. Here the breaking of bread clearly refers to communion. Pro-weekly advocates assume that because this particular service included the Supper, and the service is even summarized as "breaking bread," the practice of the early church must have been to partake weekly of the Supper. But again, this conclusion assumes too much. It is just as likely that the Supper was celebrated on that Sunday because of the special occasion of Paul being present, as well as the date's nearness to the Festival of Unleavened Bread (v. 6). Even John Calvin, himself a pro-weekly advocate, sees the possibility of a special occasion for the Supper when he writes on verse 7, "Therefore, I come to the conclusion that a solemn day, that was going to be more convenient for all, was appointed among them for celebrating the Holy Supper of the Lord" (commentary on Acts).

I Corinthians 11:26

Here the Apostle Paul, in addressing the proper understanding of the Supper, writes that these principles apply "as often as" you eat this bread and drink this cup. Historically, the church has understood this phrase, "as often as," as evidence that each church is free to discern how often the Supper should be celebrated, as long as there is some regularity to its frequency. The church has recognized the exegetical force of this phrase as referring to a regular frequency for the Supper without stipulating the exact frequency of the custom. The phrase "as often as" is simply too ambiguous to use as an argument for any exact level of frequency, and the church has historically showed wise restraint in not using this text for such a purpose.

It is important to remember when dealing with particular texts regarding the Supper that, besides Paul's correction of the abuse of the Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, not a word is devoted to the Lord's Supper in the twenty other epistles (general and pastoral). Clearly there is a primacy in the New Testament of the preached Word compared to the Lord's Supper. The church historically has seen that the preaching of the gospel is the primary means of grace, and there is no worship without it. But the Supper is a secondary means of grace; it is subject to the preached Word and is only effectual when it is fenced and explained by the Word. The Supper is not necessary to every worship service, nor does its absence make the preaching of the gospel any less effectual to save and sanctify God's people. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament of sermons without any mention of the Supper.

Historical Overview

When one scans the recent literature proposing weekly communion, one cannot help be surprised at how confident the supporters of the position are that the Bible clearly teaches their view. In their thinking the New Testament clearly sets the pattern for weekly communion. But one cannot help wonder: If the Bible is that clear on the matter, why did our spiritual forefathers miss this for hundreds, even thousands of years?

Augustine reported that in his day the frequency of communion was different in different places. Augustine saw there was no Scriptural rule for the frequency of communion and urged his people to "conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the church to which it may be his lot to come" (Epistles 54.2). Martin Luther, in his Preface to the Small Catechism, wrote:

We are to force no one to believe, or to receive the Sacrament, nor fix any law, nor time, nor place for it, but are to preach in such a manner that of their own accord, without our law, they will urge themselves and, as it were, compel us pastors to administer the Sacrament.

The Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645) leaves the frequency of communion a matter of freedom left to each session to decide. Louis Berkhof in his Systematic Theology devotes fourteen pages to the Lord's Supper and never even mentions weekly communion. Berkhof only writes that the Supper should be celebrated regularly; he seems fine with his own non-weekly tradition. Charles Hodge devotes eighty-one pages in his Systematic Theology to the Lord's Supper and never once mentions the need for a weekly celebration of the Supper.

The question begs to be asked, If the Bible is clear that the pattern left to us is weekly communion, why did Augustine, Luther, the Westminster Divines, and the vast majority of our best Reformed theologians fail to see in the Scriptures what the weekly communion proponents see so clearly?

A common response in the pro-weekly literature is that the Reformed churches and theologians overreacted to Rome, and that overreaction has continued to the present time. I do not believe this is a very satisfying explanation. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church offered the people the Lord's Supper once or twice a year (Calvin's Institutes IV.17.44). Would not an overreaction to the Roman practice be a more frequent partaking of the Supper than the monthly or quarterly practice of the Reformers? Also, have men like Berkhof and Hodge not proven that they are driven by proper exegesis, regardless of a possible misuse of the doctrine? A view of the Westminster divines, Berkhof, and Hodge which suggests that they failed to see a clear truth of Scripture because they were simply overreacting to Rome, fails to do justice to these men, their proven character, and their exegetical commitments. It is fairer to say that these men simply did not see the Bible teaching weekly communion. This in itself should cause weekly proponents to pause before suggesting that weekly communion is clearly implied by either the Acts or I Corinthians passages.

D. G. Hart and John Muether, in their pro-weekly communion article in an issue of Ordained Servant, wrote,

While the OPC in her confessional standards officially rejects a Zwinglian view of the sacraments, we would do well to ask if we have become Zwinglians in practice, when the supper becomes an infrequent addition to the ministry of the Word. As Donald MacLeod has suggested, "there are more Zwinglians among Presbyterians today than one would hazard to guess."[1]

One wonders if such a negative view of our past and present Presbyterian brothers is warranted, simply because they did not practice weekly communion. If one is to argue that the majority of our forefathers overreacted to Rome by refusing to celebrate communion weekly, could one just as well argue that the pro-weekly advocates are overreacting to Baptists? These types of arguments simply fail to advance the cause. Have our OPC brothers for the last seventy years failed to see the Supper as a means of grace simply because they have not practiced weekly communion?

This brings us to John Calvin. Weekly communion proponents almost uniformly cite John Calvin as the one who was correct on this issue. A few comments on Calvin's position are warranted. First, it is true that Calvin believed communion should be celebrated weekly. The literature is clear on this. But Calvin did not believe the preached Word was less effectual without the Supper, or more effectual because of the Supper. There is no evidence to suggest Calvin believed the church was violating a Scriptural command by not practicing weekly communion, for Calvin was willing to practice monthly communion, knowing his own position was the minority position.

Hart and Muether write in that same article,

Infrequent communion, Calvin claimed, was a superstitious horror, "a most evident contrivance of the devil," and he considered it among the worst of the many abuses of worship in medieval Catholicism. For Calvin, weekly communion was no less important than other reforms he sought, such as the use of the cup by the laity and worship in the language of the vernacular.[2]

One might come to the conclusion from the above paragraph that Calvin was horrified by the Protestant practice of quarterly or monthly communion in his day. But actually, it was the Roman Catholic practice of once a year communion and withholding the cup from the laity that caused Calvin to write those words. It was the Roman Catholic practice Calvin labeled a "superstitious horror" (Institutes IV.17.46).

As a concession to the majority, Calvin asked for monthly communion instead of quarterly, but there is no evidence to suggest that weekly communion was as important to Calvin as the other reforms he sought. Since Calvin did not concede any ground to his opponents in matters of fencing the table, or to the Lutherans or Zwinglians on the presence of Christ in the Supper, or to the Anabaptists on the efficacy of the meal, yet he did concede on the frequency issue, it is hardly accurate to suggest that for Calvin weekly communion was as important as the other reforms he sought.

Practical Consequences

Given that the Protestant church historically has seen that the Bible does not regulate the frequency of communion, what then are the practical consequences in a local church that changes its worship to a weekly communion practice? I believe there may be negative consequences (for some, unintentional) in making such a substantial change in worship practice. These negative consequences affect both the unity of the broader church and the outreach of the local church.

First, let us consider the effect of weekly communion on the unity of the broader church. Proponents of weekly communion find themselves in a difficult position. On the one hand, as Presbyterians they serve in bodies where the majority of churches do not practice weekly communion. They do not want to disparage their brothers who practice quarterly or monthly communion, or suggest that the worship in these churches is not biblical. But at the same time, they teach their people that the reason they are making the change to weekly communion is because their position is biblical, and Christians are better fed by both the preached Word and Supper together on a weekly basis. As much as proponents of weekly communion try to avoid disparaging their brothers, the reality is that their people will come to believe that non-weekly churches do not feed their people in a fully biblical manner. Simply put, such a substantial shift from past communion practice will inevitably lead their people to make unhealthy comparisons to other churches, churches even in their own denomination.

I have received a number of phone calls enquiring about our church, and the first question asked is not about the gospel, but the frequency of communion. When they find out we do not practice weekly communion, they resume their search for a church that will, in their minds, more fully feed them. This is unfortunate.

One wonders whether the weekly communion proponents have considered the ramifications of their views on their members who relocate. In our mobile society it is likely a majority of our members will need to change churches at least once in their lives. If these members have been convinced that weekly communion is both biblical and necessary for the feeding of their souls, they will have a difficult time finding a church in an area where the Reformed or conservative Presbyterians do not practice weekly communion. They may feel compelled to worship in unhealthy churches that are harmful to their souls in other areas simply because they are convinced of their need for weekly communion. They will also be tempted to disparage good churches that would greatly benefit them simply because those churches do not share the same frequency conviction. Thus a change in worship to weekly communion can have unfavorable affects on the greater unity of the church, as the justification for such a change will lead to a disparaging view of those who do not follow such practice.

Second, let us consider the possible unfavorable affects of weekly communion on the outreach of the church. The conservative Presbyterian church has many obstacles before her in reaching people in the modern American cultural context. We often do not understand how we are perceived by people visiting our churches from a non-Reformed background. Our worship is reverent, yet some of our people drink, smoke, and see movies. We preach on man's inability to save himself, yet call people to believe in Christ for salvation. We value strong doctrine, yet as covenant theologians we see much symbolism in the Bible. We practice infant baptism while the majority of Protestant churches do not.

For those from a non-Reformed background, there are numerous perceptions and misperceptions one must overcome in order to join our churches. We must maintain certain positions and practices because we cannot compromise the preaching of sovereign grace, infant baptism, or Christian liberty. Because of how strange we appear, we often lose visitors who visit and then look elsewhere for a church.

Knowing this, why would we want unnecessarily to introduce a new practice that makes us even stranger to average people? If our goal is to reach people in the community, as well as attract Christians who are looking for sound teaching, why make matters more difficult by compelling them to change from a well-established practice to one they likely have only seen practiced in Roman Catholic churches? Consider also what impediment arises in the minds of some of our members as they consider inviting friends to worship in our churches.

In conclusion, proponents of weekly communion should be careful not to dismiss the wisdom of our forefathers who did not view weekly communion as required by Scripture, and who for good and wise reasons were not compelled to advance such a practice in their denominations and churches. And weekly communion proponents need to give more thought to the possible adverse consequences of their position on the unity and growth of the church.

Endnotes

[1] Ordained Servant 6, no. 4 (1997): 97.

[2] Ibid.

Todd Bordow, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Worth in Fort Worth, Texas. Ordained Servant, May 2008.

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