The issue of Communion or ‘The Lord’s Supper” is needful to examine if it is to be pulled into more frequent usage in the gathering of home-based assemblies called house churches or simple churches. There is the inevitable concern voiced by a churched person over the propriety of conducting Communion out side the confines of a church building or with out members of the clergy officiating.
Let’s dive into this discussion with two ground rules:
1)The commitment to the clear teaching of the scriptures on communion, using biblical context, the grammar of the original text and the historical setting. (hermeneutics)
2)Willingness to set aside traditions if they conflict with the text of the Bible
There are surprising few texts that deal with instructions about communion. There are the initial gospel reports of the Last Supper on the Thursday evening prior to Jesus crucifixion. The only instructional text dealing with the practice of communion is
1 Corinthians 11: 17-34. ESV
The Lord’s Supper
17 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
33 So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come. ESV
Several specifics are readily observable in the text:
1)The act of communion was held, like the Last Supper as part of a meal. Think pot luck, eat till you are satisfied, sitting, munching, talking with others. People came ready to eat.
2)The meal was a dedicated meal. Everyone knew it had a religious/spiritual element.
3)The food was to be shared. The rich brought more, the poor brought little. No one was to leave unsatisfied. (a side note: malnutrition is common with the truly poor, an abundant meal was a great blessing and a great service to them. This is hard for us to wrap our minds around since we are quite insulated from the truly poor.)
4)Cliques and people refusing to share food and affection with other attenders was the central criticism in the text. Failure to model unity appears to be the basis of the rebuke. This brackets the entire text.
5)The unworthy manner of verse 27 is likely defined by:
a) the preceding verses of 17-22 that address people showing division and a lack of love toward one another by cliques and selfishness.
b)Verses 23-26 address the purpose of the bread and the cup as remembrance and proclamation of the Lord’s death.
When people fail to heed either of these two categories then it is considered an unworthy manner.
6)There appears to be a divine, supernatural, safe-guarding of the love feast and sacred meal. The apostle Paul says God has permitted/caused some to grow sick and some to sleep (die prematurely). This is a stretch for those uncomfortable with the supernatural or a God who acts with judgement; to them we can make no apology, it is what it is. (Think the judgement on Ananias and Sapphira, on the installment plan, Acts 5:1-11). The text identifies those who are under this kind of judgement as being Christians, not non-christians who already are under judgement. This appears to be comparable to the supernatural dynamic of a unrepentant believer “being turned over to Satan”, “whose sinful nature may be destroyed, but his spirit saved” 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.
7) The communion meal was integral with the main meeting of the church according to verse 18. The main meeting though is not be be assumed to include every Christian in the city-wide church. The church typically assembled in many homes, in diverse neighborhoods and at diverse times. Some were small gatherings, small enough to fit into a Roman apartment, others could be as large as several hundred if they met in a wealthy persons home.
8)The ancient assembly meeting bore little resemblance to the liturgies of later catholicism or protestantism. The orderly seating and meeting style even among the most relaxed non-denominational church of this modern era has little similarity to the family atmosphere of the first century church.
9)The text seems to have little connection with the modern practice doing an inventory of failure and sins with quiet repentance prior to partaking of communion. The issue of “an unworthy manner” has a more limited scope. This may indeed be a valid act, it, according to the text though, is not automatically tied or a central act of New Testament communion.
10) The focus is on sincere fellowship and commemoration of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.
11) A theology of transubstantiation or consubstantiation can not be established by the text. The idea of this being a reenacted sacrifice (mass) is a much later invention. That represents a sacerdotalism foreign to the New Covenant. The idea of commemoration seems to be central.
12) There is no limitation on who must officiate the Lord’s Supper. To limit who may pray over the elements or who may distribute them is no where defined by the scriptures. To limit that act to professional clergy is foreign to the text. There is no specific requirement that an elder or officer of the church must officiate.
13) The exact methodologies of observing the Lord’s Supper is not stipulated i.e. leaven vs unleavened bread, level of alcohol content, if any, in the grape drink/wine, special serving ware, placement on a special table, handling of unused portions, inclusion or exclusion of children and the inclusion or exclusion the not yet “converted” or the unbaptized.
14) We know that the unconverted and the untrained Christian (not yet catechized, the idiota of 1 Cor. 14) were welcome in assembly meetings based on the cautions regarding the public use of tongues and the encouragement toward personal prophecy 1 Corinthians 14:22-25. There is no scriptural evidence they were escorted out or excluded from the love feast and communion of the church. While this became a later, third century practice there is no evidence that it was an apostolic requirement. The apostles did insist that Christians who knew better yet still remained in obvious sin or heresies were to be excluded. The internal evidence is that the assemblies tended to be too lax toward Christians known to be living in sin. 1 Corinthians 5. This resulted in apostolic rebuke. This observation is compounded in Jude Vs 3-19 and 2 Peter 2:1-21 where each paints a picture of laxness where false teachers with corrupt behaviors were allowed to participate in the public love feasts. The tenor of both Peter and Jude is like “Come on guys, you are too permissive! Draw the line with the immoral false teachers and demonstrate good order and orthodoxy, keep them out of your love feasts!”
15) It appears that communion service as part of the love feast was a way that Christ’s substitutionary atonement was taught and modeled and tasted, when the church gathered. The old testament invitation of” taste and see that the Lord is good” comes alive in a tangible way. This was in many ways “evangelistic” to all on-lookers.
16) The Communion seems to have had a function of covenant renewal as a declaration of choosing to trust Christ for the forgiveness of sins and proclaiming Him the risen Lord. “This cup is the New Covenant in my blood” v 25
17) The Lord’s Supper seemed to be a happy event and not the solemn, even sullen display of piety that it has devolved into.
18) The early love feasts sometimes got too happy: “….and another gets drunk” 1 Cor. 11:21
19) There is no internal evidence these happened on Sunday. Sunday was not a day off in the Roman empire. These were often evening events. It wasn’t until the fourth century that Sunday became a day of rest and of Church attendance.
The theses I am presenting, in the light of the preceding observations is this:
When we gather to “be the church” we can share a meal. This is a bit of a celebration. This meal can include both stalwart saint and new inquirer. The event includes the bread and the cup commemorating Christ’s death. It and us will preach Christ. This becomes a doorway for ministry, proclamation and engagement.
No wonder the early church grew. Everybody loves a party. Everybody wants to be loved and befriended. Everybody loves a great meal. Everybody loves a story full of sacrifice and triumph. Everybody wants their life touched by something amazing.