Reformed Baptist Fellowship

Some thoughts on the frequency of the Lord’s Supper

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on January 25, 2013 at 6:45 am

Rich Barcellos

(This piece is adapted from The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Grace: More than a Memory, Richard C. Barcellos, forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications.)

 If the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit brings to the souls of believers the benefits of Christ’s body and blood and, as a result, souls are nourished, then we ought to think seriously about its frequency.

The frequency of the Supper is a question worth pursuing in light of its status as a means of grace. The Supper is a sacred, covenantal meal. It is a means of grace. But how often should churches take the Supper? Some are re-thinking this issue in our day and are celebrating communion more frequently than in the past. Others, out of concern not to trivialize the sacred (a concern I share), are content with a monthly or less-frequent celebration. But prayer is sacred, and the reading and preaching of the word are sacred and no one (as far as I know) argues from that to less frequent public prayer and less frequent public reading and preaching of the word of God. These words by John Brown of Haddington make this point well.

…I fear it will be no easy task to prove that our way of administering the Supper is agreeable to the Word of God…. That its infrequency tends to make it solemn I do not see, for if it so why not administer baptism but once a year also, as it, in its own nature, is as solemn as the Supper? Why not pray seldom, preach seldom, read God’s Word seldom, that they may become more solemn too?[1]

Michael Horton suggests that a diminished interest in frequent communion is the product of an inordinate emphasis upon “the individual’s inner piety.” He says:

The problem with the pietistic version of the Lord’s Supper, therefore, is that in its obsession with the individual’s inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other. Instead of viewing it first as God’s saving action toward us and then our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion, we are still trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion.[2]

Whether Horton is right or not, I do not think the trivializing of the sacred by a too frequent celebration of the Supper argument is valid.

It is clear that the New Testament nowhere commands weekly communion, but neither does it command weekly singing or weekly prayer or weekly preaching, at least not explicitly. We believe in weekly corporate singing (and prayer and preaching) by the church because we believe it is necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture, and rightly so.[3] Singing is an element of public worship and is a means of grace of a sort but only if and when we sing the truths of the word of God. Singing can be conducted more than once, and it ought to be done at least on the Lord’s Day when the church gathers. But we also believe that the Supper is an element of public worship and repeatable, unlike baptism (though we can be reminded of our baptism), and ought to be conducted on the Lord’s Day, at least ordinarily. But how many Lord’s Days per year? How many Lord’s Days per month? These are questions pastors and churches must wrestle with.

The early church apparently celebrated the Supper weekly. The Didache 14:1 says, “On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks.”[4] It appears that the Supper was so important to the early church that the early believers took it weekly.[5] It could be that they made a theological connection between a weekly Lord’s Day and a weekly Lord’s Supper.  Whatever the case, it is important to think through the issue of frequency with the fact that the Lord’s Supper, like the word of God and prayer, is a means of grace.

Richard C. Barcellos, pastor
Grace Reformed Baptist Church
Palmdale, CA
www.grbcav.org

[1] Cited in Maclean, The Lord’s Supper, 235.

[2] Horton, God of Promise, 160-61.

[3] Cf. Ryan M. McGraw, By Good and Necessary Consequence (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012) for a very helpful discussion on the biblical, theological, and historical issues related to WCF I.6, “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.” He suggests that “necessarily contained in Scripture” (2ndLCF 1:6) and “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” are functionally equivalent.

[4] Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 365. Interestingly, the Greek text reads Κατὰ κυριακὴν δὲ κυρίου (literally, “And according to the Lord’s of the Lord”). Κυριακὴν (“the Lord’s”) is the same word (an adjective) used in 1 Cor. 11:20 of the Lord’s Supper and Rev. 1:10 of the Lord’s Day. Holmes’ translation assumes an ellipsis, supplying “day” to complete the thought. It appears that The Didache is connecting the Lord’s Day with the Lord’s Supper.

[5] Maclean says weekly communion was the practice of the church until the fifth century. Cf. Maclean, The Lord’s Supper, 101.

  1. This is awesome and timely. I grew up in a Baptist tradition that observed the Lord’s Supper quarterly. Though the service was always solemn and respectfuI it wasn’t made much of for the three months in between. feel like much of our Baptist traditions are “reactionary” to the Catholic tradition; theology loses it force when it’s focused on another sect and not God’s word.

    I

  2. I’m REALLY looking forward to this book!

    Dr. Barcellos,

    I wonder how much you interact with Zwingli’s view of the Supper in your studies for the book. I had been under the impression (due largely to Hodge’s systematic) that Zwingli did NOT see the Supper as a means of grace, but I have recently been “corrected” by some reformed brethren that claim that Zwingli himself wrote about it in such a way. They actually see Calvin as being too “mystical” in his explanation that the body of Christ does not come down from Heaven (as Luther held), but rather we are, by faith, lifted up, in spirit, to His body in heaven. They claim that Zwingli DID see the Supper as a means of grace and had the most solid and least “mystical” view of the Supper.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts since you have endeavored to study and write on this marvelous topic. I do intend to get the book, so if this is a topic of discussion therein, feel free to hold the thunder ;)

  3. Do you have a date of release as yet.
    Thank you.

  4. AJ, I think you are right about Zwingli. I discuss Calvin’s view a bit in the book, though it concentrates on exegesis of texts, theological synthesis of the exegetical results, comparing the results with Reformed confessions and catechisms, then some practical, pastoral considerations. It has endorsements by Carl Trueman, Robert Oliver, Richard Daniels, Steve Marquedant, and D. Scott Meadows. The foreword is by James Renihan.

  5. no release date yet

  6. Dr. Barcellos – This was a most timely post. A brother at my church and myself have been in prayer concerning our church and the desire to lovingly and patiently make some much needed changes in the reformed direction. There are quite a few now who also see this need. We have begun, with our pastor’s approval, to begin with Sunday School. Our class has stopped using the Southern Baptist format and we have begun to go in depth to understand the context of the passages being studied. It has been a huge success. Many more are now attending since this change has taken place. My friend and I were recently talking about the fact that we have monthly business, but only quarterly observance of the Lord’s Supper. We were not sure how to approach our pastor with this subject. Then I received your post, so I immediately jumped on the opportunity! I forwarded it to my friend and our pastor. My friend replied the same day, but we have not heard from our pastor so far. Please pray for us in this matter, and thank you so much for sharing this!

  7. We do it weekly, usually following the preaching. It can become formal traditionalism but be have not found that to be the case. It is important that the Elder conducting it is prepared and can tie it into the Word just preached. It has become a natural and anticipated time of reflection, conviction and response as the Spirit labors in our hearts.

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