Historical Precedent for Regular Observance of the Lord’s Supper

What is the proper frequency with which to partake of the Lord’s Supper? Weekly? Monthly? Quarterly? Despite the common misconception the Scripture prescribes weekly, the Bible actually does not command how regularly it should be done (Jesus does not say “as often as you come together,” but rather “as often as you drink…”). Though the Bible does not prescribe frequency, there are indications, both from Scripture and from other early Christian writings, that the common practice of the church was once no less frequent than weekly. Why then, at least in evangelical circles, is communion often performed quite infrequently (monthly, quarterly, etc.), and why is frequent participation sometimes even frowned upon? Here I will survey the Scriptural and historical evidence that weekly (or more frequent) observance was once the norm and offer some considerations for regular observance. 

Evidence from Scripture

We will begin by looking at references from Scripture:

Acts 2:42, 46: And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers… And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.

While the frequency of “breaking bread,” a reference to partaking of the Lord’s Supper, is not explicitly stated in verse 42, it is worth noting that it is placed right alongside teaching, fellowship, and prayers in terms of regularity. Verse 46 actually indicates that this first congregation, at least in the early days, likely partook more often than weekly if we are to understand day by day in such a manner.

Acts 20:7: On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.

I would infer from this statement that breaking bread constituted a regular practice on the first day of the week.

1 Corinthians 11:17-21, 33: 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. 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, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk… So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.

In this criticism of the Corinthians, there is the statement“when you come together.” Paul’s criticism of the Corinthian church and the manner in which they were taking part in the Lord’s Supper (or not truly partaking) is rooted in the “when you come together,” indicating that, although not done properly, it occurred as a regular part of the gathering. Paul makes no statement about issues with their frequency, but seems to simply accept it as normative. Rather, he reminds the Corinthians what they are actually doing each time they gather together to eat: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).

Evidence from Early Christian Practice

Writings from Christians in the first several centuries after the apostles can also give us an idea of how often communion was practiced:

The Didache 14:1: On the Lord’s own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, having first confessed your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure.

The Didache is essentially an early manual of church order from the early 2nd century. It provides moral teaching and how to conduct church practice, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Here, it prescribes weekly communion on the Lord’s own day, that is, the first day of the week.

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Ephesians 20:2: All of you, individually and collectively, gather together in grace, by name, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who physically was a descendant of David, who is Son of Man and Son of God, in order that you may obey the bishop and council of presbyters with an undisturbed mind, breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but to live forever in Christ.

This letter from Ignatius was written around the year 108 while he was on his way to martyrdom. His description of their breaking of bread seems to assume that this was the regular occurrence when the Ephesian church gathered. 

Justin Martyr, First Apology 67: And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen.

This statement from Justin Martyr comes from around the 160s. In addition to Scripture reading, teaching, and praying, he also portrays partaking of the bread and wine as part of the regular weekly gathering. 

Tertullian, Apology 39: Our feast explains itself by its name.  The Greeks call it agapè, i.e., affection… As it is an act of religious service, it permits no vileness or immodesty. The participants, before reclining, taste first of prayer to God. As much is eaten as satisfies the cravings of hunger; as much is drunk as befits the chaste.  They say it is enough, as those who remember that even during the night they have to worship God; they talk as those who know that the Lord is one of their auditors. After manual ablution, and the bringing in of lights, each is asked to stand forth and sing, as he can, a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing,—a proof of the measure of our drinking. As the feast commenced with prayer, so with prayer it is closed. We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of vagabonds, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have as much care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet. Give the congregation of the Christians its due, and hold it unlawful, if it is like assemblies of the illicit sort: by all means let it be condemned, if any complaint can be validly laid against it, such as lies against secret factions. But who has ever suffered harm from our assemblies? We are in our congregations just what we are when separated from each other; we are as a community what we are individuals; we injure nobody, we trouble nobody. When the upright, when the virtuous meet together, when the pious, when the pure assemble in congregation, you ought not to call that a faction, but a curia—[i.e., the court of God.]

In his defense of Christianity from around the year 197, Tertullian describes what he calls the agape, which is one of the regular practices of Christians. During this time period, the Lord’s Supper seems to have also gone by the name the agape, or “the love feast,” and, in Tertullian’s experience, to have been a true meal that took place in the evening.[1] Likely due to such a name, various rumors of illicit activity in Christian gatherings arose, which Tertullian here dispels by describing what it is Christians actually do in their congregations (this is similar to what Justin Martyr also did). 

Augustine, Letter 54, To Janarius: There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries: e.g., some fast on Saturday, others do not; some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day. In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live.

Augustine describes what Christian practice looked like around the year 400. Apparently, partaking of the Lord’s Supper occurred more often than weekly, but the most infrequent example he notes is weekly. It is, however, interesting to note that he considers this to be a liberty issue and that the individual believers should follow the pattern of their congregation for the sake of unity.

In addition to the regularity, it is also worth noting that, during these first few centuries (and really up until the time of the Reformation, though the Medieval practice is another story), the Lord’s supper held a very central place, if not the central place, in Christian worship. In support of this, Justo L. González points to the fact that in early Christian art, the most common scenes and symbols are depictions of communion.[2] This centrality is also seen in the high degree of solemnity and veneration as regards the Lord’s Supper that came to be part of Christian worship by the fourth century. Consider again the words of Justin Martyr:

First Apology 66: And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do in remembrance of Me,  this is My body.”

At this point, I make no judgment on the issue of the Real Presence, I merely want to note that the Lord’s Supper was taken very seriously and far more attention was given to it during this time period than is commonly given amongst evangelical Protestants nowadays. If the first several centuries after the apostles saw more significance in the Lord’s Supper than as a mere memorial, it is perhaps worth considering why that was. At a later date, I plan to look more at the historical theology of the Lord’s Supper.

Some Thoughts

Since I am arguing for increased observance, I would like to briefly offer a rebuttal to the most common reason I have heard argued against weekly observance, namely the notion that if we observe the Lord’s Supper weekly, then that diminishes its importance in the eyes of the congregation by making it a mere matter of routine. We keep it more infrequent, as the reasoning goes, so the congregation can better appreciate the significance of the Lord’s Supper. All I have to say on this point is, we do not take such reasoning (or I sure hope we don’t!) with the reading of Scripture, preaching, or prayer. Imagine someone arguing that we should limit our Scripture reading to once a month because we need to guard against the reading becoming a rote ritual; the reasoning is fairly self-evidently absurd if applied to any other church practice.

I think it is also worth noting that the Lord’s Supper is one of the unique regular observances given to the church that only believers may participate in. While Baptism is for believers only, it is not something we regularly observe, for it is intended to be performed once for each believer. Outsiders may listen to the reading and preaching of the Word; we do not restrict that in any way (or shouldn’t if we are). They may participate, at least outwardly, in the worship activities. They may be present with the congregation and ostensibly join in the prayers. The Lord’s Supper, however, is explicitly to be something only believers take part in; it is something that we believers share in common with each other, as we all participate in the institution that Christ commanded us to observe as we proclaim his death until he comes.

As a corollary to the previous point, I would also argue that regular observance of the Lord’s Supper helps the church draw clear lines around who is and is not a true member of the church. Whereas baptism serves as the visible point of entry into the church, the Lord’s Supper functions as its fence. Regular observance gives frequent opportunities to clarify who it is that is allowed to partake, namely believers who have put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and who have been baptized in accordance with their declaration of faith. Those who do not meet this criteria are clearly marked as outside the fold of faith and cannot therefore be truly affirmed as within the body of Christ.

Conclusion

As I said at the outset, there is no biblical mandate on how frequently the church is to observe the Lord’s Supper. Even so, historic practice very strongly indicates that a minimum of weekly participation was the norm and that it was an essential part of the regular gathering of the saints. This precedent and what I believe are the congregational benefits of participation in the Lord’s Supper should urge us to strongly consider regular rather than occasional observance.


[1] Valeriy A. Alikin, The Earliest History of the Christian Gathering: Origin, Development and Content of the Christian Gathering in the First to Third Centuries, (Brill, 2010), 143.

[2] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: Volume I (HarperOne: 2016), 117.

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