Re-Thinking the Communion Service: What are the Biblical Roots?

I was raised in and came to faith in a tradition that one would call “primitivist” – in that it had sprung up as a separatist movement whose major thrust was to identify and imitate how the early Christians “did church.”  I think that this is a valid endeavor, as long as one is appreciative of two cautions:

(1) very often, little in the New Testament is communicated concerning the “how” of church practice,

(2) care must be taken to differentiate between the prescriptive and the merely descriptive in interpreting the New Testament (i.e. is God telling us to follow a certain example or is it merely part of the unique historical account that has limited transferability to the present?).

A central foundational aspect to the so-called “Plymouth Brethren” tradition from which I come is the weekly observance of the Breaking of Bread, or the Lord’s Supper.  How does your church observe Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper?  The Brethren tradition is for the church to come together weekly for an hour devoted solely to the remembrance of Christ and his redemptive work.  Through song, exhortation, Scripture teaching, and prayer, the congregation focuses like a laser beam on the person and work of Jesus in his death.  Near the close of the hour, thanksgiving is offered for the bread and, after the distribution and partaking of bread, thanksgiving is offered for the cup, with its distribution following thereupon.  Key distinctives of the Supper as practiced by the Brethren include:

  • A single thematic focus on Christ and his redemptive work should pervade the singing, praying, devotional thoughts, and exhortation of those present
  • An unscripted approach with no official presider of the meeting (there is naturally an unwritten order to the meeting, but containing within it a great deal of latitude concerning how individual contributions from believers can be made)
  • The understanding of the Breaking of Bread as the worship service for the assembly (a second meeting in the morning would be considered a “ministry” meeting, in which there can be more of a manward, application-oriented focus)

Other principles of my local Brethren meeting that are not exclusive to Plymouth Brethren include:

(a) the Supper is for believers only,

(b) the Supper is open for participation from all believers (participation is not limited to members of the local assembly or to believers from other Brethren assemblies),

(c) the Supper was observed in traditional pews that all face the same direction (I have been to other assemblies where there was a circular configuration with believers facing one another),

(d) the frequency of the meeting was weekly.

I would like to examine several conclusions to which I have come concerning the observance of the Lord’s Supper, some of which differ from the Brethren tradition.  However, my investigation of the topic from a biblical perspective flows from a desire to identify, to the best of my ability, what Scripture actually teaches concerning the “how” of the meeting.  With an appreciation of tradition in mind, I nevertheless want to separate church tradition, where valid, from biblical principle, precept, and practice.  At the same time, I will try to move past a critique of common church practices to actually propose an affirmative, workable approach to observance of the Lord’s Supper.  As an organizing framework, I propose to answer the following questions:

  • What are the primary actions of the Lord’s Supper?
  • Is there a central purpose to the Lord’s Supper?
  • Is there a biblical model for the Supper?  If so, what is it?
  • Who is to participate in the Supper?
  • What should be the frequency of the Supper?
  • Does location of the Supper matter?
  • How should the Supper relate to other ministries of the church (e.g. worship services, teaching, etc.)?
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