Today there seems to be a growing crisis over the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. A couple of years ago the author was visiting Britain and was surprised by the casual way it was celebrated in a church he attended.
He knows of one family with young children who were obliged to attend another place of worship, because their church started to distribute the elements to everyone in the meeting, including the children.
If one believes in baptismal regeneration, this could be justified, but hardly in an evangelical church that believes, theoretically anyway, that conversion is through the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul.
Too often, not only is the Lord’s Supper being celebrated in a casual way, it is being treated as an appendage to a Sunday morning or evening service. It is being hurried through, because people have to rush home to get the joint out of the oven before it burns, or so as not to miss some programme on the television.
Mood music during the distribution of the elements has also been introduced — a distraction which can ruin any attempt by the worshipper to meditate on God’s Word in a desire to feed on Christ through faith.
Another abuse that has been observed by the author, when the Lord’s Supper has preceded the morning service, is a hurried distribution of the elements to those who arrive late, a deacon scurrying to the back of the church with the bread and wine. (And should women be distributing the elements?)
Back to Scripture
Perhaps readers have other concerns about the Lord’s Supper and have had similar experiences (the author’s experience is spread over two different countries and two contrasting cultures)? The problem is not so much in these details, but in the attitudes behind them.
When, 50 years ago, pressure built up to tinker with the traditional ‘hymn sandwich’ of worship, no one seemed capable of putting a stop to the process by insisting that we should study Scripture in order to reaffirm the principles of biblical worship. So it became easy for innovators to introduce changes unwarranted by Scripture.
Many churches today seem to be suffering from an alarming theological amnesia. They have forgotten that the Reformers insisted on the five solas, and these have no meaning unless we begin with sola Scriptura. Our only authority must be the Bible.
This, in turn, relates to the often misunderstood or forgotten ‘regulative principle’. Basically, this principle states that the only elements permitted in worship are those positively commanded by the Word of God.
As a consequence, worship in Reformed churches has historically consisted of public prayer, singing psalms and hymns, reading the Scriptures and preaching the Word of God. The Puritans received their name from their insistence that worship should be purged of all unscriptural elements, such as vestments, candles, genuflections and holy water, all of which were not part of New Testament apostolic worship.
Many others, however, have maintained that it is permitted to introduce into the church anything not clearly prohibited by Scripture. They have taken the pragmatic view that anything useful or of long usage is permissible.
In the light of all this, we need to take a fresh look at what the Bible has to say about the Lord’s Supper.
It is to be feared that many congregations have fallen into the Corinthian error. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:27, warns: ‘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’.
In Corinth this error manifested itself in the Lord’s Supper becoming a general meal where everyone took their own food and ate and drank (sometimes in excess), without taking care of their poorer brethren. They thereby despised the true purpose of the Lord’s Supper.
But we can be equally careless in other ways as well. First, we must remember that the Lord’s Supper is worship, not just a ritual. When Jesus initiated the ceremony, he did so with prayer in the context of a Jewish feast that was also an act of worship. The apostles sang a hymn before going with Jesus to Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30).
Then, where there is confusion — that is, where either the leaders of or participators in worship do not know or understand what is happening — the result is not God-honouring. God is not a God of confusion; ‘all things should be done decently and in order’ (1 Corinthians 14:33, 40).
This can happen when, through lack of preparation or through over-informality, the person who leads the congregation in prayer at the Supper forgets that he is praying aloud on behalf of the body of Christ; or even forgets he is meant to be asking a blessing on the bread or the wine, as God-ordained symbols to our hearts. In some cases, one cannot even hear what he says!
And even worse is the situation when the leader has not ‘fenced the table’ with a clear declaration of who can participate in the Supper; or, if he does not give a clear lead on the church’s practice as to whether the congregation take the elements all together or immediately on receiving them. All these things can produce confusion and be inimical to reverent worship.
The second factor to be emphasised is that the Lord’s Supper is Christ-centred. This does not mean the triune God is not the centre of our worship, but, in a special way, the celebration of the Lord’s Table focusses our thoughts on Jesus.
He himself said, ‘This is my body’ and, ‘This is my blood’. The bread and the wine are symbols of his sacrifice on the cross.
What is more, the Lord’s Supper is a looking forward to the marriage feast of the Lamb: ‘I tell you, I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom’ (Matthew 26:29; Revelation 19:9). Not only Christ’s words to his apostles, but also the circumstances of the institution emphasise this.
Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, the great antitype fulfilling the Old Testament type. As the Passover celebrated Israel’s freedom from Egyptian slavery, our participation in the Lord’s Supper celebrates our freedom from the slavery of sin.
The believing Jew ate of the lamb’s meat, understanding that in some way he was participating in the benefits of that historic Exodus event. The bread and the wine remind us of Christ’s death and, partaking of them, we seek to nurture our spiritual lives, knowing that by Christ’s blood shed 2000 years ago we have remission of our sins.
So Paul can write: ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16).
Surely Calvin was right in teaching that in participating in the Supper we feed on Christ by faith? That is why it is so important to give extended time to meeting together around the Lord’s Table, so that we have an opportunity to listen to the Word preached, read Scripture and meditate on what it meant for the Son of God to die on the cross to take away our sin.
To be concluded
The author was sent as a missionary to Argentina by Welwyn Evangelical Church, and is now retired,and still working there.