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No. 30: The Peril of Weekly Communion

Rite Reasons, Studies in Worship, No. 30
Copyright (c) 1993 Biblical Horizons
December, 1993

A while back a friend told me that his church had finally introduced weekly communion. He told me that they were having an 8:00 a.m. service on Sundays for anyone who wanted to have communion. At present only about five people were coming to this service, but he was hopeful that more would come eventually.

I didn’t say anything at the time, but my friend’s comment caused me to begin to think: Is this really communion? Is communion an exercise of private devotion between an individual and God, which can be served to part of the congregation on a voluntary basis? I don’t think so. I have to question whether what is going on at my friend’s 8:00 a.m. service is really communion at all.

When I am asked if I believe in having weekly communion, I reply, “Not quite. What I believe is that worship is covenant renewal, and the communion meal is always the climax of God’s renewing covenant with His community.” This way of putting it takes the focus off of what is “extra” about communion, and puts the focus on God’s renewing of the covenant in the whole service. It also takes the focus off of any notion of an individual’s getting some kind of "fix" from communion, and puts the emphasis on the community.

When the church I formerly co-pastored, Westminster Presbyterian Church of Tyler, Texas, finally left the orbit of “Reconstructionism,” the only places we found that would allow paedocommunion were in Episcopal circles. For a year, the church sustained an unofficial relationship with the American Episcopal Church, which proved to be very problematic, before finding a good home in the Reformed Episcopal Church. During that AEC year we would sometimes have visitors from other Episcopal churches. They would sometimes come rather late, and after they had gone forward for communion, would just go to the back door, bow, and leave. Sometimes they missed the confession of sins and absolution, and also the dismissal and benediction.

What was in these people’s minds? Clearly they thought of communion as some kind of religious drug, a “Jesus fix" that they could come and get at the communion rail, and then go on their way. They did not consider the worship service a corporate event, or they would have been with the community from start to finish. They did not view communion as part of the covenant renewal, or they would have participated in the entire service. Instead, they viewed the bread and wine magically: Jesus had been charmed down into the bread and wine by the “consecration,” and they had received some kind of spiritual dope by eating communion.

The instant you remove communion from the covenant renewal as a whole, you raise a question about its meaning that the Bible cannot answer. The Biblical answer to the meaning of communion is that it is the climax of the covenant renewal, the point at which the renewal is sealed by a common meal. If you don’t have communion in your worship service, you have not had covenant renewal. By the same token, if you don’t have the Word first, you have not had covenant renewal either, because there is no covenant to seal!

By removing communion from the sequence of covenant renewal, we introduce the question of what “extra” benefit comes from “having” communion. When a church does not “have” communion every week, people begin to ask what is the “extra” blessing of communion. Then they may begin to want to “have” that “extra” blessing every week. But this entire process of reasoning is wrong. There is no “extra” blessing in communion. The Lord’s Supper is simply the sealing climax of the covenant renewal that takes place on the Day of the Lord (the Lord’s Day).

The notion of some “extra” blessing receives strength from the individualistic piety of the Western churches. Nowhere is this more evident than in Anglican and Lutheran churches, because each individual comes forward and gets the bread and wine by himself or herself. There is no corporate action visible at all. Naturally such churches wind up with voluntary communion services, such as my friend put at 8:00 a.m., because communion is only something between me and Jesus, overseen by the minister.

The more consistently Reformed churches eliminated the extreme individualism and privatization of the communion rail by serving people seated. Even here, however, the focus in the traditional Reformed services is on individual self-examination and individual participation. People close in upon themselves and shut their eyes as they eat. I wonder if this is Biblical. Perhaps we should eat the bread and drink the wine the same way we share any other meal, looking around at one another and participating together.

Pews and rows of chairs are unfortunate in this regard. When we receive the Lord’s Supper in pews it is easier to be very private and individualistic. It is good that we are seated (an improvement over kneeling), but it is not good that we are seated in rows. If we sat at tables, looking across the table at other people, the experience of the Lord’s Supper would take on a far more communal atmosphere. Or if you have pews or chairs, arrange them in the round, so that people face one another.

I’m making a big deal out of the communal atmosphere of the Lord’s Supper because it is very important. For one thing, you never see any kind of covenant renewal meal in the Bible celebrated privately, or in a highly privatized manner. The parables picture people seated at tables at feasts. At the Last Supper, the disciples reclined at a table around Jesus, clearly able to look at one another. If we are going to be careful about how we worship, we need to come to grips with these examples of how covenant renewal meals are done Biblically.

Second, covenant renewals in the Bible are always corporate, except where they symbolize the central covenant renewal that God the Father made with Jesus, and into which we are incorporated. The Bible makes it plain that there are such things as local churches, with elders over them, and such elders obviously have a list of people they are accountable for (the church roll). These are genuine covenant communities. When God comes to renew covenant on the Lord’s Day, it is the day of blowing trumpets, the day of assembly. God renews covenant with the assembled congregation. Thus, the covenant meal is something God gives to the assembled congregation, not to individuals. The Lord’s Supper is only properly served to the assembled congregation, not to five people coming out at 8:00 a.m. who want the “extra” of “having” weekly communion.

Third, if there is anything stressed in the epistles, and particularly in 1 Corinthians, it is the need for the people in a local church to be at peace with one another. The fact is that we don’t want to sit down and eat with people we don’t like. That is why the Bible tells us we need to become reconciled to the other people in the church before we come to the Lord’s Table. I believe one of the main reasons communion became so privatized is that the churches are full of people who don’t get along with one another, who have offended one another. If communion is just “me and Jesus,” then we can ignore the need to become reconciled. If, however, we are sitting at tables looking at one another and participating in communion as at a meal, then it is much harder to ignore the command to be reconciled first.

Finally, to put it another way, we just need to bear in mind that the Lord’s Supper is a meal. It is not something else cleverly disguised as a meal. It is a meal with God and with the other members of the covenant communion. Every time the Bible pictures such meals they are pictured as ordinary meals with God. When we have meals at home we sit at table, looking at one another, and discussing things in an edifying manner. This should be the model for how the Lord’s Supper is conducted.

Other Implications

There are two kinds of special worship: covenant renewal worship and general (or “outer court”) worship. General worship events include private devotions, family devotions, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Christmas Eve services, and so forth. Attendance at such things should be voluntary.

But there is also the special, appointed kind of worship that we are calling covenant renewal worship. This kind of worship requires the presence of the local assembly. This is an assembly covenanted together under some kind of body of elders. As Hebrews 13 says, those elders watch over the people, and so they clearly know who they are. In other words, the elders have a roll or list of people in the local assembly (whether it is written down or not).

This assembling takes place on the Day of the Lord. In a sense, every day is a potential Lord’s Day, and if the Church is in a season of distress and can only meet late at night on Thursdays, then that occasion becomes the Lord’s Day. The normal thing, however, is for the Church to meet according to the sabbath pattern laid out in the Bible: each Sunday.

Thus, the Lord’s Day is the time of covenant renewal. Every member of the congregation is required by God to be present, unless providentially hindered. To stay away for any light reason is to show contempt for God. And, since worship is covenant renewal with God’s people, unbelievers should not normally be present, though Christian visitors should be welcome.

When we see this, it becomes clear that the Lord’s Supper belongs in each covenant renewal, and only in covenant renewals. There are plenty of other kinds of meals, “outer court” meals, that we can have at other times. It shows a lack of understanding of communion to have it on Christmas Eve, at some kind of mid-week service, or at any time other than when the covenant community is assembled for covenant renewal. I think it is a mistake to have it on Maundy Thursday, unless you require the whole congregation to be present. The Bible does not teach us to commemorate Maundy Thursday, though we are free to do so if we wish. The time to commemorate the Last Supper of Maundy Thursday is on the Lord’s Day.

Now, some will reply that every time we pray we are renewing covenant with God in a smaller way, which is true. Thus, it will be argued, we can have voluntary communions at times other than at the central, core covenant renewal ceremony of the entire assembly. I can see the logic here, but where do we stop? Is it proper for families to have communion by themselves at home, every day? Is it proper for me to have it by myself, when I engage in covenant renewal through daily prayer? If not, why not?

I believe 1 Corinthians 11:17-31 answers these questions. First of all, the commands “do this,” and the statement “given for you” are all plural. The community is being addressed, not individuals.

Secondly, Paul makes it clear that this ritual is given to the assembled church, not to the family. Verse 22 says that we have houses to eat and drink in. Verses 18 & 20 say that he is discussing a ritual done when the church comes together.

Finally, verses 21 & 33 make it clear that no one is to participate in the Supper until everyone has arrived. Paul has no notion of only part of the church taking communion. Communion is something that is only properly served to the entire gathering in a context of covenant renewal.

For this reason, I don’t think it is appropriate to serve communion at a wedding, even to everyone present, unless the wedding takes place during the Lord’s Day covenant renewal service. Now, lots of people do this, and years ago I thought it was a good idea also. What they have in mind is starting their marriage off with Jesus, and that is a wonderful thing. But I have come to believe that having communion is not the proper way to do that. Communion only belongs in covenant renewal worship. Now, I don’t think that God is mad at people for having communion at their weddings! Not at all. What I am doing here is asking the Church to consider advancing and maturing beyond where she has been to this point. I think once we understand communion properly, we will see why it is not really appropriate to do it at weddings. I’ve only recently come to this conclusion myself, and perhaps I am wrong and will change my mind again!

Is it appropriate to have communion at meetings of presbyteries of other kinds of Church courts? At this point, I don’t think so. It seems to me that God renews covenant with His people, not with select groups of them, and not with representatives of them. In the time before Christ, of course, God renewed covenant with the priests as representatives of the people, but that was because the people were not permitted to draw near. Our representatives today do not have that same function. All Christians have equal nearness to God liturgically. It seems to me that 1 Corinthians 11 is teaching that communion is covenant renewal with the congregated local assembly.

Why is communion served at presbytery meetings, or meetings of the general assembly, etc? Is it for theological reasons, say because these groups are considered some kind of church in themselves with which God is renewing covenant? Frankly, I don’t think so. I am inclined to think that communion is served basically for sentimental reasons: because it seems right and appropriate. Following the rule of being very careful about what we do in worship, I think we need to have a good justification for serving communion at such meetings. No mention is made of communion’s being served at the council in Acts 15.

What about taking communion to the sick? Well, the practice of taking communion to the sick seems to arise from the idea that communion is something “extra.” The churches that have a magical view, like the Anglo-Catholic, take communion to the sick as a “Jesus fix." The evangelicals take communion to the sick because they have communion only four times a year and it is a shame for a person to miss out on this “extra” just because he/she is sick.

But if we do worship as covenant renewal, then if a person is sick, he or she misses the entire renewal. We can be sure that God knows all about the sickness, and that the sick person is not missing out on any special blessing by being absent for a Sunday or two.

I have four thoughts. First, James 5 says that if a person is sick, he or she should call for the elders and be anointed. That, rather than taking communion, seems to be the right response in this situation.

Second, a person who is chronically sick can be brought to church, sit or lie in the back, and then be taken home. Worship does not last all that long, and if a person is ill or infirm for weeks on end, it usually possible to transport him for something as short as a church service.

Third, with the miracle of modern electronics, it might be possible to broadcast the service to the home of the sick person over a phone cable, and then bring communion over. That way, the sick person would participate by extension in the whole covenant renewal.

Finally, I don’t see how you take communion to the sick without taking the whole covenant renewal, which would involve taking at least part of the congregation. For this reason, I have come to have strong reservations about taking communion to the sick. (And this obviously supersedes what I have written and said in the past.) Of course, I’m open to other arguments here; but for the present, I’m not comfortable with the practice.

And as a final thought: Why do it? There is nothing magical about communion. When the sick person returns to church, he or she will once again participate in the covenant renewal. Until that time, God will take care of him or her.