Tuesday, September 1, 2015

How Often Should a Church Celebrate Communion?

The answer to the question of how often a Church should celebrate communion is immediately a matter of what authority or authorities a group of Christians believes should govern belief and practice. 

I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian. My church celebrates communion every Sunday out of a belief that this practice was handed down as the correct practice all the way from the apostles, who received the instruction to celebrate communion every Sunday from Jesus himself. 

Other churches, which do not accept the tradition of the church itself as an authority base their beliefs and practices only on what they find in the bible. 

I’ll present what we know about the earliest Christian practice and then what evidence is available in the New Testament itself. 

Earliest Christian Practice 

The oldest record we have concerning christian practice of the Eucharist outside the new testament is the Didache, the Teaching of the Holy Apostles. It is believed to have been written near the end of the 1st century AD, so it was composed while the very last of the apostolic generation may have still been alive, but many Christians still had active memory and experience of that first generation. The Didache teaches the following regarding how often and when to celebrate the Eucharist: 

14:1 And on the Lord's own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. 
14:2 And let no man, having his dispute with his fellow, join your assembly until they have been reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be defiled; 

But it is also very clear that the Didache describes a church that celebrates the communion service every Sunday. Indeed, it seems to be the primary reason for the christian assembly on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. If you study the practice of the Christian church as found in authors dating after the Didache, you discover that the Didache was not unique in this belief. Celebration of the Communion every Sunday was a universal belief and practice in the christian church. It remained so until the period of the reformation, when some christian communities began to celebrate the communion with less frequency. 

Even if the Didache describes a late first century church that celebrates communion every Sunday, for Christians who only follow the authority of the bible, neither the Didache, nor the practice of the universal church after that point matters.  So let’s look at what the new testament might preserve on this point. 

New Testament Teaching 

Saint Paul, in his first epistle to the Corinthians discusses a number of matters that he feels need to be corrected within the church there. In chapter 11, he addresses some irregularities in their practice of communion, such as people not sharing with others and even getting drunk. He even calls into question whether what they are doing can be called the Lord’s Supper or not. Here’s what he writes: 

When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.  (1 Cor 11:20) 

One certainly would interpret from this verse that the Lord’s Supper is something that invariably happens whenever they meet. If that were not the case, he would have had to say something along the lines of “when you celebrate the lord’s supper, it is not the lord’s supper at all. Instead, it’s “when you meet together." And apparently every time you meet together. 

St. Luke also gives us a window into new testament practice on the matter of the the Sunday service. And quite by accident.  We read the following about Paul’s visit at the city of Troas: 

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart in the morning (Acts 20:7) 

Luke goes on to describe an incident in which a young man falls out a window and seemed to have died of his injuries, but St. Paul healed him. But you’ll notice St. Luke tells his readers the context of this story as happening “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread.  St. Luke is undeniably saying here that the reason the Christian community gathers is to break bread. And they gather on the first day of the week. 

Universal christian practice after the New Testament was to celebrate communion every sunday. and now it’s clear why that was the case. Because the New Testament itself also clearly describes that as the practice of the Christian Church during the time of the apostles. 

The protestant denomination which calls itself The Disciples of Christ celebrate communion every Sunday. They were formed in the 1800s out of a movement of protestant Christians who wanted to achieve unity between different denominations by basically starting over and studying the Bible to create what they believed was the original christian practice. And they concluded that the verses I’ve mentioned here teach weekly communion. 

If you are in a Christian church that does not practice communion every Sunday and yet otherwise claims to base its beliefs and practices on the Bible, I would urge you to advocate for the practice of weekly communion. You should advocate for it because that’s what the Bible teaches. It is a source of blessings, intended for our spiritual benefit on a weekly basis.

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