Lord’s Supper Logic
By Rick Owen
The March 2012 issue of Christianity Today includes an article by Leslie Leyland Fields, entitled Why Are Our Communion Meals So Paltry? She writes, "We have overspiritualized the Lord's Supper. We've turned an actual meal into a pantomine of a meal, and the church is hungry because of it."
The New Testament tells us the reason the early church met was to share the Lord's Supper as a meal. How do we know this?
Two "purpose clauses" are used in the Greek New Testament which explain the purpose or reason the church met. They are found only in these two passages in reference to why the church met:
Acts 20:7: "On the first day of the week when we were gathered together to break bread"
1 Cor. 11:20, 33: “When you come together as a church, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper"—it should have been the reason, but some people were leaving others out, and gluttonously eating their 'own supper,' which Paul corrects—"Therefore, when you meet to eat, wait for one another.”
People often wonder if “breaking bread” and “the Lord’s supper” were the same thing. Basic logic shows they were. It also shows that both were a real meal.
If A = C, and B = C, then A = B.
If "breaking bread" = why the church met (Acts 20:7);
and eating "the Lord's Supper" = why the church met (1 Cor. 11:20, 33);
then "breaking bread" = eating "the Lord's Supper."
Likewise . . .
If A = C, and A = B, then B = C.
If "breaking bread" = eating a meal (Acts 2:46; 20:11);
and “breaking bread” = eating "the Lord's Supper;”
then eating "the Lord's Supper" = eating a meal.
Or . . . combining the two equations . . .
If A = C, and B = C, and A = D, then A = B = D.
If “breaking bread” = why the church met (Acts 20:7);
and eating “the Lord’s Supper” = why the church met (1 Cor. 11:20,33);
and “breaking bread” = eating a meal (Acts 2:46; 20:11);
then “breaking bread” = eating “the Lord’s Supper” = eating a meal.
In addition to this, the Greek word deipnon is used to describe the Lord's Supper. It always means "dinner" or "supper," usually the largest meal of the day, and often a "banquet" or "feast." (See all 16 uses of this word in the NT: Mt 23:6; Mk 6:21; 12:39; Lk 14:12, 16, 17, 24; 20:46; Jn 12:2; 13:2, 4; 21:20; 1 Cor 11:20, 21; Rev 19:9, 17.)
Christian author and pastor, Doug Wilson, uses another kind of logic for understanding the Lord's Supper.
Our practice of weekly communion comes out of our understanding of covenant renewal worship. The natural progression moves from confession to consecration, and from consecration to communion. We want this progression to occur every time we worship God.
The heart of biblical worship is organized around Word and sacrament. But we do not understand this as a fortuitous “pairing,” as though Word and sacrament were like salt and pepper, or ham and eggs. Rather, we see it as one thing leading naturally to another—it is more like cooking and eating. With this understanding, we would see a liturgical service without a sermon as an example of an ecclesiastical “raw foods” movement. The food is not prepared as it ought to be. And traditions that have robust preaching, but no opportunity to commune with the Lord in His Supper, are akin to watching cooking shows with a master chef. You learn things, but don’t get to eat anything.
And so it is that our services culminate every week with an observance of the Supper. Understood the right way, this does not in any way minimize the importance of biblically-grounded exegetical sermons. A worship service is not a zero sum game, where more time for the Supper is less time for the sermon. They are not in competition any more than cooking or eating are in a competition. We are seeking to structure our services in such a way as to honor the sermons, which we do by eating and drinking them.
Some in our Reformed tradition have wondered about weekly communion because to them it “seems Catholic.” But at the time of the Reformation, it was the Reformers who were pressing for much more frequent communion, which they accomplished with varying degrees of success. For example, John Calvin strongly urged weekly communion, and we are finally in a position to honor and follow his counsel. [What to Expect at a CREC Church - Weekly Communion]
Jim Rogers adds to Doug Wilson's logic:
My claim is this: Whatever it is that the Church is supposed to do in worship, this worship occurs par excellence in celebrating the Lord's Supper. The Supper seems to be the logical completion of every theme proper to Christian worship. To be sure, it does not exhaust worship, not by a long shot. But when Christians intend to worship God, it seems that everything they intend to do also occurs in celebrating the Lord's Supper.
Thus, are Christians supposed to "proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9)? That proclamation occurs in the Eucharist (1Co 11:26). Does the Church come together as Christ's body (Eph 1:23, Col 1:18,24)? We share in His body by eating the bread (1Co 10:16).
Do we need to drink the blood of Christ, in which there is life, in order to live eternally (Joh 6:54, Lev 17:11)? We drink Christ's blood in His Supper (1Co 10:16). Is the Church the creature of a New Covenant (Jer 31:31, Heb 8:8, Heb 9:15)? Jesus introduced the New Covenant at the last Supper (Mat 26:26-29).
Does God discipline the Christian for our own good (Heb 12:10)? God disciplines us in the eucharist (1Co 11:32). Do we need a sacrifice for sin so that God will pass over our sins (Heb 9:22)? The Eucharist is our Passover feast (1Co 5:8-9). Does Jesus tell us that if we hear His voice and open the door that He will come in and He will dine with us (Rev 3:20)? Do we not dine with Jesus, in His presence, in eating His Supper (Joh 6:56, cf., Joh 6:58, 1Co 10:3-4, Deu 14:26)?
Are Christians told to assemble together (Heb 10:25)? Paul tells us that the many assemble together in one body because we share one loaf (1Co 10:17) and drink of one Spirit (1Co 12:13).
I could go on and on. The point, however, is this: While worship cannot be reduced to the Lord's Supper, everything that we do in worship, or what God does to us, is also expressed in the Lord's Supper. So if we do these other things, why not also do them in the Lord's Supper? It should just be another natural, commonsensical part of our worship to God. If in worship the church proclaims the death of Jesus in reading, preaching, song and prayer, then why not also proclaim it in the bread and cup? (1Co 11:26)
If, because of what God's word teaches us, it would be unnatural to have a worship service without those sorts of proclamations, shouldn't it also seem unnatural to us to not include the proclamation which God's word says is offered in the celebration of the Lord's Supper? If it seems logical for us to remember Jesus in the proclamation of the Gospel, then shouldn't it seem logical to us also to remember Jesus as He told us to, in the doing of His Supper? (Luke 22:20) [Common Practice - On Weekly Communion]
Wilson and Rogers use similar logic in explaining how the Lord's Supper honors Christ as the center, circumference and apex of church gatherings, even though they describe some things a little differently than I would.
- For example, I do not view the Lord's Supper as a 'sacrament' (through which grace is 'necessarily' or 'automatically' transmitted) but a New Covenant fellowship-meal. (A non-sacramental view affirms that our transcendent God bestows His grace by His Spirit the same way He answers prayer: when, where and how He pleases).
- I believe the Lord's Supper is a real meal—not a token meal—although it is not just any meal. It is a special, symbolic, covenant meal of remembrance, proclamation and thanksgiving with both vertical and horizontal dimensions of communion ("koinonia" - fellowship with God and one another). [View parts 1 and 2 of The Lord's Supper: Rehearsal Dinner for the Marriage Banquet of the Lamb.]
- The ministry of the word includes sermons (or preaching and teaching) from elders (pastors) and teachers, but it should also include others in the church as fellow members of God's royal priesthood who are to "proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9). [See A Higher Standard For The Church.]
- While we are to worship at all times (Rom. 12:1ff), the church meets primarily to edify (build up) one another as fellow members of the body of Christ, through mutual ministry (Eph. 4:11-15), "according to the proper working of each individual part" (Eph. 4:16; cf. Rom. 12-15; 1 Cor. 12-14; Heb. 10:24-25).
Of course it is almost impossible for sincere believers to delve into God's word and discuss it and sing it (Col. 3:16), fellowship by sharing material and spiritual God-given gifts with one another, eat the Lord's supper as God's 'family-fellowship meal,' and pray together in adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication (Acts 2:42) without also praising God with joyful hearts (Acts 2:46-47). Worship is inevitable. [See Church As A Meal.]
Doug Wilson writes, "We have more evidence for weekly communion than we have for weekly sermons, or weekly singing. But why choose? Why not do it all?" [Mother Kirk: Essays and Forays into Practical Ecclesiology, p. 109.]
Dr. Eric Svendsen presents a compelling case for understanding the Lord's Supper as a Christ-centered, gospel-rich, covenant meal to be shared as Christ's covenant community when it gathers in His name in this free PDF book, The Table of the Lord. He also has a very good and easier-to-read blog series on this same topic.
May the Lord help us understand and do His will, for His glory and the good of His people!