We have come to the fifth article in the series entitled, “The Lord’s Supper is a Meal.” Below are the links to all the articles written so far. I am also going to add Part VI in order to answer questions that have come to me during the writing of these articles or that seem appropriate for me to set forward in order to clarify.
Part I The Lord’s Supper is a Weekly Meal
Part II The Lord’s Supper is a Meal for Intentional Fellowship
Part III The Lord’s Supper is a Meal to Proclaim Christ’s Death
Part IV The Lord’s Supper is a Meal that May Bring Judgment
Part V How We May Eat the Lord’s Supper in Our Day
Part VI Answers to Questions on The Lord’s Supper (the next article)
This article is “Part V, How We May Eat the Lord’s Supper in our Day.” I will attempt to share some of my experience, and some variations for churches that are traditional, to help us all to implement what we have been learning.
How We May Eat the Lord’s Supper in Our Day
It may seem as if returning to the Apostolic practice of eating the Lord’s Supper together weekly is impossible for your church. Yet, with careful leadership and commitment to following the New Testament order established by the Apostles, I am convinced it can be done. We will talk about the weight of apostolic tradition in a moment, but first let me describe three models of church life and how the Lord’s Supper may become part of each: the house church, the building-based church without small groups, the building-based church with small groups.
The House Church
In the beginning of these articles I mentioned that members of our church from its inception have shared over 800 meals together which were called the Lord’s Supper. Our model of church life, though normative in the first and second century, is hardly so now, at least in the West. We are a network of congregations meeting in homes and do not own a church building. But in noting what is normative, it should be mentioned that there are huge numbers of churches in the world as a whole meeting in homes and apartments. We do not believe that meeting in homes is a biblical requirement, but it is our choice for intimacy, participatory church life, and pastoral care. It also provides the most natural context for eating the Lord’s Supper weekly, which is a priority to us. I want to explain how we eat the Lord’s Supper each week in this context first of all, especially since churches meeting in homes is a growing pattern of church life even in the West.
Our main meetings in the home are in the late afternoon and evening on Sundays. We are usually together for about four and a half hours before we separate. We eat a meal together usually in the last hour and a half or two hours of the evening. It includes lots of unplanned relaxed time to talk and enjoy each other following our opening period designed for sharing, praying and singing, followed by a serious, often interactive, teaching time which might be combined in one long session, or two shorter ones. Time is not much of an issue.
The elders in our church use various ways to connect the special juice and bread to the meal in each of our home congregations. Even within the congregations, there may be variations week by week. One pattern is to begin by standing in the kitchen together in sight of the food, which is provided by all the people without planning (except occasionally, like when we barbecue). One of the men in the congregation will speak to us from the Bible about Christ for perhaps five minutes or so. These are devotional thoughts. We purposefully do not repeatedly use the same texts from Jesus’ last Passover supper each week (nor the 1 Corinthians 11 passage) since we are not commanded to do so and there is so much more in the Bible about the death of Christ and our fellowship through that death to be enjoyed.
The juice and bread made special by our grateful recognition of its symbolic representation of Christ’s death (“the cup of blessing which we bless,” “the bread which we break,” 1 Cor 16:16) will often be placed at the end of the food line. Our ladies provide a simple unleavened flat bread for this. As people come through the line, they break off a portion of this bread, whatever size they wish, and pour the juice from a pitcher or container into a normal-sized cup, as much as they want.
If there are unbelievers present who are not aware of our practice, we mentioned that this special bread and juice is the symbol of Christ’s death which is the sole basis for our unity with him and with other believers. We say that this cup and bread specially denoted is therefore for true believers to share. Our children also, if unbelievers, do not take this specially blessed and emphasized bread and juice. In this approach, the bread is eaten along with the rest of the meal without further acknowledgment. However, at times the bread and juice is placed on the table, rather than the end of the food line, to be poured and passed at the beginning of the meal, with appropriate words, singing, or prayer. Sometimes a portion of our cup and bread is eaten together in the middle of the meal with some important word or song. We do not believe the order is to be indexed in any way to the Passover meal that Jesus ate, which had several ceremonial and symbolic aspects, but that Christ’s point for future believers in that special moment was principally to give unique meaning to the bread and cup related to him and his death. That’s the important thing to note when the Lord’s Supper is eaten.
Remember, the bread and juice is not the Lord’s Supper per se. There is no special name used in Scripture for the taking of the bread and cup by itself, though some have given names to it later, such as “communion” (koinonia), or “eucharist.” These are important words to tell us about what we seek in this meal, but not the nouns used to describe this meal in the New Testament. Together with the whole meal, however, it is called the “Lord’s Supper” or the “Agape Feast.”
The meal continues with joy and love for each other, as we share our food and our lives and insights into life and Scripture, or just enjoy each other as believers until we have to say our good-byes and leave for home.
I have to say, there is nothing here to dislike. It is one of our best joys to eat with each other week by week, going deeper into our lives and into our love for Christ. Everyone looks forward to it.
The Building-based Church Without Small Groups
Normal church life for most western Christians makes use of a building and a larger meeting in an auditorium or sanctuary. The Lord’s Supper is offered in those settings on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and sometimes yearly cycle. Yet, as we have been considering, some of the criteria for this being the Lord’s Supper is missing, in particular the meal or supper itself. What can be done?
Here are a few suggestions.
A pleasing possibility is to eat the Lord’s Supper following the larger meeting. For several years in one church where I was on the elder team, we had a weekly meal following the service, in a more traditional church context. This was before we considered eating the Lord’s Supper as a meal in this way. Though it was a meal alone, it was a welcomed part of our church life and literally everyone participated. I have been in other churches that have done the same, some occasionally, some weekly, but most do not designate this as the Lord’s Supper by adding the special bread and cup and emphasis on proclaiming Christ’s death. In my view, the Apostolic tradition was to eat the meal weekly, so this should be the goal.
As a suggestion, leaders may wish to eat a weekly meal including the cup and bread short-term at first, then evaluate. For instance, after carefully teaching about the subject to prepare the people, leaders may wish to arrange for a shared meal regularly for three months either connected to the morning service, or the evening one if you have such, then evaluate with the hopeful anticipation of continuing. It is usually helpful when introducing something new to the people to start with a short-term experience so that the people can relate better to what the leaders are proposing.
You may wish to arrange your service times a bit earlier and to help people see that this is one continuous experience on the Lord’s Day. Some churches may wish to meet first in the auditorium, followed by the meal, and then a Bible study period or prayer time. In other words, the church should think of this as one event with various parts which in this case will include Bible study in classes, singing and main teaching in the auditorium, and the Lord’s Supper where you normally eat together. Changing our schedule in order to be a more biblical church is not too much to consider.
A pitcher and cups could be on each table, with the bread, depending on the size of the group or preference. The leader of the whole, or a man designated at each table, can share an inspiring thought about Christ’s death and then the group as a whole can eat the special bread and juice simultaneously, if you wish. Or, if you desire, you may ask the believers to break off bread and pour their cup in order to incorporate those elements into their meal throughout as a way of indicating that this is a unique meal built upon Christ’s death. Remember, this should not be a sad time but a joyful feast with special symbols and emphases. That being said, there might be times to be more sober if you wish. Yet, as one friend explains, this is a rehearsal for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb!
Sanctuary-style Church with Small Groups
Many churches who employ an auditorium for its main meetings also have small groups of one type or another. In my view, it is permissible to eat the Lord’s Supper in these groups as a way to provide this important meal for everyone more conveniently. I would say that there is reason to believe that doing this should be thought of as a whole church action. In other words, you are not eating the Lord’s Supper just because some believers get together and eat, but this is a decisive practice of the whole church, though in different locales. Because your small groups may gather on different nights, the church will have to decide if eating the Lord’s Supper on other evenings besides the Lord’s Day was the intention of the Apostles. The statement in Romans 14:5-8 will come into play in this discussion, though the eating described in that passage is concerning meat offered to idols. It does indicate that differences concerning the Lord’s Day were found in the early church:
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6)
In some of the large churches of the New Testament era it is likely, though not provable, that congregations meeting in homes throughout the city would have their meals together in these smaller home groups. At least it seems logical to say that the Jerusalem church, as a church of many thousands, would have had difficulty without such a plan. I doubt that Jewish leaders would have appreciated the courtyard of the Temple being used for a meal. Church buildings did not come into play until sometime in the middle of the second century, and more fully from Constantine who was Emperor from A.D. 306 to 337. Remember in the first days of the Jerusalem church the people got used to eating their meals together from house to house (Acts 2:46), which may have been about the Lord’s Supper or a precursor to it.
The Corinthian church itself, as noted in a previous article, met together as a whole in Gaius’ home (Rom 16:23), so appealing to the phrase, “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor 11:18) to say that churches larger than a single home could host must be all together in order to eat the Lord’s Supper seems unsustainable. We will have to wait for all believers to be all together at the future Marriage Supper of the Lamb, true. In the meantime, we are separated from other Christians in the city and around the world just as they were then. Yet, we share the one bread of Christ’s body. This symbolic meaning of the one bread and cup is not diminished by the fact that we cannot all be in the same place.
Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor 10:17)
It is strongly implied that the Lord’s Supper is a “tradition” in the beginning of 1 Corinthian 11, the chapter we have looked at closely in our discussion on the Lord’s Supper. Note the words “traditions” and “instruction” in the two verses below. The assumption of Paul’s praise is that what they have been doing with these traditions in general has been acceptable, but what lies ahead in his letter are two traditions about which he has concern. Perhaps the first (2-16) about women’s veils came out of a question, or was a needed explanation on Paul’s mind, or a way of warding off a potential problem, but the second is about the actual abuse of the Lord’s Supper which had already brought severe judgment, as we have seen. About the latter, he has no praise at all, but a strong revelation of God’s judgment in the matter.
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But, I want you to understand . . . (1 Cor 11:2)
But in giving this [meaning, this next] instruction, I do not praise you, because you come together not for the better but for the worse. (1 Cor 11:17)
This language leads us to see that “traditions” are apostolic “instructions” about church practice to be fully obeyed.
These traditions are given to the Apostles by the Spirit and sometimes directly by Christ. It is interesting to note that Christ himself said almost nothing about the local church, except in Mathew 18:17 where he addressed the expulsion of unrepentant members, a practice which would only come into play once the first churches were begun at Pentecost.
Christ instructed the Apostles to teach to disciples the things they had received from him (Mt 28:20). Christ leaves it to the Apostles under the tutelage of the Spirit along with the repository of teachings he gave them (which the Spirit will bring to mind) to apply what they have learned to societies called to regularly assemble. How the church is shaped is an apostolic issue that Christ, the Head of the church, did not address directly, but that Apostles spoke of under inspiration of the Spirit for the churches. There are interpretive matters about all of the writings of the Apostles, such as with the first tradition on veils discussed in chapter 11, but the assumption is that traditions are to be obeyed. They are the set of instructions given to churches that are essential for being what Christ wants his church to be. In this way, the Apostles and Christ’s writing prophets became known as the foundation of the church (see Eph 2:19-22).
So, we take the tradition of the Lord’s Supper, in the way he shapes it, to be the tradition our churches must follow today. It is apostolic instruction. Interpretively, we also distinguish between actions of the early churches that are prescriptive as opposed to being merely descriptive. In this case, Paul is commanding the practice to take a certain shape and have a specific purpose and demeanor. It has all the marks of being more than descriptive, but prescriptive.
As we consider ways that the Lord’s Supper might be done among us in the various kinds of meeting configurations mentioned above, I am convinced that the Lord’s Supper is to be eaten in the manner prescribed, but how we work that out in our context while preserving what is prescribed becomes a matter of prayer and discussion. There are areas of freedom while carrying out this tradition.
We should rejoice that this prospect is before us. Just imagine how wonderful it is to eat together with those you love and value and will spend eternity with. The fellowship of the church will grow exponentially and people will be bonded together who only shared passing greetings before. Just two years of such a meal will also raise people’s love and praise for Christ who gave his life for them.
Just two years.
Just 100 meals together.
No doubt you have questions concerning the Lord’s Supper as a meal. I plan to have one final part to this series: “Part VI, Questions and Answers on the Lord’s Supper as a Meal.” Over this series some have sent me questions already, and I’m aware of several questions that have arisen over the years on this subject. If you have others, please send them. I will attempt to answer all that I can reasonably handle and that seem most pertinent.
Thank you for reading and participating in the series so far. As a suggestion for leaders, it would be quite valuable to share these articles among the leadership team for discussion, prayer, and planning to see what the next step should be.