The Frequency of the Celebration of the
Lord’s Supper in the Church
It is the intent of this paper to set forth both the Scriptural considerations and historical understanding of what the Church’s position and practice has been and should be regarding how frequent the Lord’s Supper is celebrated among us. The research presented will accomplish this objective beginning with a historical survey, that will extend from the time of the early church fathers and conclude with the 20th century church practices. Along with the modern practices, the Scriptural witness will be addressed to see if our modern Church practices are in the right or the wrong regarding the frequency the Lord’s Supper is offered to the Lord’s people. It will be with great caution that this writer approaches this most serious subject. For being a man remaining confined to his human nature I often am tempted to address such issues through the Law, but for one to speak of our Lord’s gift in any other way than a Gospel gifting way is serious error.
II. Early Church Witness to Frequency
It appears that one of the earliest clear Christian witnesses to how often the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the early church comes down to us through the Didache.(1) Although, there seems to be some confusion to exactly what chapters 9 and 10 of the Didache might be referring to concerning the eating and drinking going on, but there is no mistaking the referent of chapter 14 being the Lord’s Supper. Also, in 14 there is clear identification that the Eucharist celebration was taking place weekly on the Lord’s Day.
On every Lord’s Day – His special day – come together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sins sacrifice may be pure. Anyone at variance with his neighbor must not join you, until they are reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled. For it was of this sacrifice that the Lord said, “Always and everywhere offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, say the Lord, and my name is marveled at by the nations.”(2)
The confusion just mentioned above is in reference to the difficulty in understanding whether the author in the Didache was referring specially to the Eucharist, or the Agape meal.
The Agape, an ordinary meal of semi-religious character, preceded the Eucharist. This fellowship meal was a continuation in Christian circles of the custom of Jewish fellowships which regularly partook of a meal of social and religious character in connection with their assemblies. As Christian thinking gradually grasped the sacrificial significance of our Lord’s death and its redemptive purpose, emphasis shifted from recollections of the Last Supper to observance of the Lord’s Supper as na institution of formal and ceremonial character and universal import.(3)
Therefore, whenever we read about the early church practices regarding the eating and drinking going on among them it should be with great discernment in order to be sure of the referent.
Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue with Trypho, c. 135, clearly identifies the Eucharist as having superseded the former Jewish sacrifices, and in his First Apology,c.150, he defends the Christian Church against the false charges of the cannibalism, that was said to take place in the Eucharist. Jasper and Cumings wrote that, “In the Apology Justin described two eucharists, one following a baptism, and the other the ordinary Sunday morning service.”(4) Once again it is
apparent the early church practice was not to neglect the celebrating of the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day.
Another consideration argued in the frequency issue is the worthiness of the communicant. There have been many who have contended, and still do, that it is irreverent to approach such a holy thing so often, and make it into something common, draining it of its import. The pietism manifested during the age of enlightenment put also put forth such ideas. The negative effects of pietism and the rationalism that shortly followed it, had devastating effects on the practice of the Lord’s Super. Effects that we are still recovering from today. This pietistic idea of irreverency is due to the lack of understanding of what the Lord’s Supper truly is, and what our Lord has given it for. This will be addressed in more detail in the section on the Lord’s Supper in the Scriptures. However, already in the 4th century the patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysotom, addressed the frequency issue and its tie to worthiness is his Homily on First Timothy 5:5,
For whenever diseases and injuries, whenever sorrows and calamities, and the like occur, it is for this reason that they come about. This is shown by Paul, saying “for this reason many are weak and sickly among you, and many have fallen asleep” (1 Cor.11:30). ‘But how,` you say ‘when we approach the mysteries only once a year?` this is indeed the terrible thing, that you determine the worthiness of your communion not by the purity of your minds, but by the interval of time. You think it reverence not to communicate often, not knowing that you are stained by partaking unworthily, though only once, and that to receive often, but it is presumptuous to receive unworthily, even though only once in an entire lifetime.
. . . . . . . . . .
The mystery at Pascha [the Passover] has nothing more than that which is now celebrated, It is one and the same. There is the same grace of the Spirit. It is always Pascha! You who are initiated understand what I am saying. On the day of preparation [friday], on the sabbath [Saturday], on the Lord’s Day, and on the days of martyrs the same sacrifice is celebrated, “For as often,” he says, “as you
eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord too” (1 Cor.11:26). He does not circumscribe the sacrifice with a temporal limit. Why is that time called Pascha? Because Christ suffered [paschein] for us then.Let no one, therefore, communicate one way then, and in another way now. There is at all times the same power, the same dignity, the same grace one and the same body; nor is it more holy at one time, and less holy at another.(5)
A contemporary of Chrysotom, who addressed the same issue, was St. Augustine, and provides a great deal of direction for the later conclusion of this paper. Augustine, one of the greatest of the Latin Church Fathers, was no doubt gifted in his ability to settle disputes in truly a Gospel giving way, as seen here in his First Letter to Januarius:
Someone will say that the eucharist is not to be received every day. You ask why. “Because,” he says, “those days are to be selected on which a man lives with greater purity and self-restraint, so that he may approach so great a sacrament worthily, for he who eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks judgement to himself” (1 Cor. 11:29). Another, on the contrary, says: “Not at all. If the wound of sin and the onset of disease are so great that such remedies must be postponed, then an individual should be debarred from the altar by the authority of the bishop, in order to do penance and be reconciled by the same authority. For this is to receive unworthily, if one receives at a time when he ought to do penance. But he should not deprive himself of communion or restore himself to it by his own judgement, when it suits him. Otherwise, if a man’s sins are not so great that he judged fit for excommunication, then he ought not to separate himself from the daily medicine of the Lord’s body.”
. . . . . . . . .
One person honors it by not daring to receive daily, another by not daring to let a day go by without receiving: but this food is not to be despised . . .(6)
This previous quote of Augustine is arguing more regarding the personal reception and frequency of the Lord’s Supper, but one of the underlying presuppositions is that the church should have it there to be offered for the sinner in need.
The question of how often the Lord’s Supper should be available, or must be available, causes the inquisitor to be guilty of placing one of God’s most holy gifts under the bondage of the law. It is for this reason that we do not have any specific dogma dealing with a mandated practice of the divine institution. The answer to the question lies in the understanding of what the Lord’s Supper is and does. When this understanding is clear, what to do with it is also clear.
III. The Reformation and the Confessions
Having freed the church from the shackles of the law, the reformers and the confessions they put forth had no intention of placing limits or mandates regarding the frequency of the Lord’s Supper. However, in the confessions and the writings of the confessors it is clear, as it was in the early church, that the divine service always included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This is made clear in the Augustana art. XXIV. of the Lutheran confessions.
Inasmuch, then, as the Mass is not a sacrifice to remove the sins of others, whether living or dead, but should be a Communion in which the priest and others receive the sacrament for themselves it is observed among us in the following manner: On holy days, and at other times when communicants are present, Mass is held and those who desire it are communicated. Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul’s statement in I Cor. 11:20ff. and by many statements of the Fathers. For Chrysostom reports how the priest stood every day, inviting some to Communion and forbidding others to approach.(7)
There are actually very few references in the confessions or the writings of the confessors that deals directly with the frequency issue. The adage, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, somewhat applies here. It was an issue that just did not need addressed at the time, for the church had maintained the correct practice regarding frequency throughout its history, and had no need to change its position.
In the Large Catechism Luther after having briefly explained the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper writes:
In conclusion, now that we have the right interpretation and doctrine of the sacrament, there is great need also of an admonition and entreaty that so great a treasure, which is daily administered and distributed among Christians, may not be heedlessly passed by. What I mean is that those who claim to be Christians should prepare themselves to receive this blessed sacrament frequently.(8)
In these last two quotes from the confessions we have a pretty good idea of what our Lutheran position should be regarding how frequent the Lord’s Supper should be offered. Luther teaches, that the treasure the Christian Church possess is to be distributed among God’s people. It is true, Luther here concludes his admonition lawfully, but it is directed to those who are in definite need of the law. We rejoice in the law that brings those in error back to where God can grant them His gifts.
Unfortunately, since the time of the reformation Christendom no longer maintains any sort of agreement on the frequency issue. The reformation having freed the Gospel from its bondage to Roman law, also opened a Pandora’s box of heresy regarding our Lord’s Holy Supper that has never been closed since. Never before that time had there been contrary teaching to the body
and blood of Jesus being truly present in the Supper. But as Satan lost one struggle, when the Gospel was set free, he immediately took the offensive and began his attempt to destroy one of
God’s most precious life preserving gifts. No doubt, Satan had his hand in on all of the false
doctrines being set forth on the Lord’s Supper. The evil doubt created by these false teachings, robbed the people of the assurance that God’s gift of body and blood freely give. This could have only been accomplished with the help of the devil, for he is the father of all lies. (Jn. 8:44)
IV. The Age of Enlightenment
It would be my contention that the doubt created, was actually a faith destroying doubt that helped usher in the age of rationalism. This is stated well by Gunther Stiller in the following quote:
Although even in the earliest Christian times as well as in the Reformation era we occasionally find something we might call “neglect of Holy Communion,” yet it cannot even remotely be compared with the neglect of Holy Communion that appeared so obviously when rationalism invaded the liturgical life of the Lutheran Church, a neglect that has not been overcome decisively down to our own time.(9)
This rationalism that brought in what historians refer to as, The Age of Enlightenment, delivered more severe blows to Christ’s Church than this paper can even begin to mention under the guidelines of its topic. However, it is pertinent to note that this new and critical way of thought infiltrated every church and had various effects. One effect is that for the first time in Lutheranism we begin seeing the separation of the Lord’s Supper from the divine service. This is noted most clearly by Fred Lindemann when he writes,
This procedure should be followed in regard to the amputation most frequently perpetrated, the elimination of the Holy Communion. In the days of Rationalism and Pietism the concession was made that if there were no communicants, the service might be brought to a close after the sermon. This was reasonable, especially when small towns and parishes were concerned. The enlightened Rationalist would condescend to hear an intellectual discourse but had only contempt for the mystery of the Lord’s Supper and proclaimed his intellectual enlightenment by leaving the church before the Communion. . . . A concession made in the darkest days of Lutheran history need not determine the practice of modern Lutheran congregation in America.(10)
Rationalism and the enlightenment had numerous negative effects on the celebration of
Communion, as Stiller writes,
And the celebration of Holy Communion, except in the case of Communion of the sick, occurred on principle only in the public worship of the congregation, Especially after the inroads of rationalism on the worship life everywhere, there was evidence of a tendency to separate the celebration of Holy Communion from the actual main service of the congregation and to conduct it in an attached separate service for communicants only. But in Leipzig this did not make its appearance until the beginning of the 19th century. Throughout the 18th century, however, the regular main service in Leipzig, in agreement with the old Lutheran order of service with its two high points, the Sermon and celebration of Holy Communion, was incontestably the center of worship life on all Sundays and festival days, and this fact applies not only to the two main churches of the city but also to New Church.(11)
We should rejoice that the church in Leipzig flourished during these difficult times, for that just was not the case elsewhere. It is interesting to note wherever God’s Word was maintained in its truth and purity, and the liturgical practice was not allowed to be corrupted, the church flourished. Before moving on to the current one more quick reflection of the so called dead orthodoxy is in order. There is no doubt that the orthodoxy being taught and supported during Bach’s day was of great influence in the worship life of the people and their communion piety.
This active participation in Holy Communion was in the final analysis a palpable fruit of that genuine Lutheran realization still alive and effective in late orthodoxy that knows that the sacraments in a peculiar way transmit the presence of Christ. We may even say that this vigorous use of Holy Communion is a clear indication that there was still a close connection between theological reflection and practical application, for the Lutheran dogmaticians were in the habit of treating especially the theology of Holy Communion very thoroughly in their dogmatical systems. land this was completely in accord with their high regard for the sacraments.(12)
Even though orthodoxy has often been frowned upon, it is this orthodoxy that maintains the practice of ongoing theological reflection and practical application of it, that will help today’s church to overcome its problems involving the Lord’s Supper.
Two other men who were contemporaries of J. S. Bach, that effected our modern day Lutheran practice of the Lord’s Supper, were Philip Jacob Spener and August Franke. They were two of the dominant leaders of German Pietism. Hermann Sasse states:
The 18th century, the period of Pietism, Enlightenment, and Rationalism, witnessed a complete decline in the understanding of the Sacraments. Baptism and Holy Communion were no longer understood. Even the Roman church experience the decay of the mass. Divine worship was understood more or less as a means of instruction, of imparting knowledge and moral education.(13)
I am confident that these two leaders had a great influence on the previously mentioned problem by Sasse, but further research will be necessary to uncover the fullness of the effect they actually had. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor space to develop their ideas any further. Hopefully another day.
V. 20th Century Practice and Scripture on the Issue of Frequency
Among us today, it becomes apparent that there is a wide range of practices going on concerning how frequent the Lord’s Supper is offered to sinners in need. It is true that at some churches Communion is celebrated in every worship service, as it was in the early church, but unfortunately these churches are few and far between. The majority offer it once a month, or every other week, or in churches with more than 1 service some offer it every other service, which does allow an individual to commune weekly by alternating the service they attend. Is not the question of frequency as simple as asking someone if they are a sinner? The answer should always be, yes, placing the sinner in need of forgiveness. Forgiveness is dished out in abundance in the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, when we gather in worship why should we ever be refused such a glorious gift as the Body and Blood of our Lord that grants forgiveness? The answer to the question is so simple, yet not so simple. The improper understanding of the Lord’s Supper is at the heart of the problem. As mentioned earlier in the paper, what something is should determine what is done with it. It appears that Hermann Sasse conquers that ignorance is the problem when the Lord’s Supper is separated from worship.
It is the will of Christ that this Gospel be Proclaimed to all peoples. But this proclamation is not only to be the message of what God has done in the past and what He will do in the future. The proclamation of this “eternal Gospel” (Rev. 14:6) is always to be accompanied by the celebration of the Sacrament that our Lord instituted, by which His death is proclaimed until He comes. Without the celebration of this Sacrament the proclamation of the Gospel could be understood as just one of the many religious messages in the world. This does indeed happen where people are ignorant of the Sacrament. . . . But the Gospel is more than a
religious message, the Sacrament of the Altar more than a religious ceremony. Both the Gospel that is preached and the Gospel that occurs in the Sacrament contain one and the same gift, though in different forms: the forgiveness of sins.(14)
The human need to be made right with God through the forgiveness of their sins directs us toward the one and only conclusion. For I ask you, is there anyone who can get to much forgiveness? Christ instituted His Holy Supper for we poor sinners. Who in the world do we think we are by not celebrating and receiving the gifts He has given in His Body and Blood? Sasse states a deep note of concern for the Lord’s Supper being separated from the proclamation of the Gospel.
“If a Protestant goes to church, he finds a preacher; if a Catholic goes to church, he finds Christ.” Preaching can only decline, can only lose its essence as the proclamation of the Gospel, if the Sacrament of the Altar no longer gives us the objective presence of the incarnate Christ, if we no longer receive His true body and His true blood.(15)
As Sasse makes clear it is the essence of the Gospel itself that is at stake if we do not maintain the objective presence of the incarnate Christ. To separate the Lord’s Supper from the church is to cut off the church’s head. Since most congregations at least celebrate it intermittently we might consider it as only a loss of an arm or leg. But I for one would contend that we maintain the fullness of the body by not separating the physical Gospel from the proclamation of it. Jesus having said, “This is My Body . . . and this is My Blood . . . for the forgiveness of sins,”(16)
we are left in absolutely no doubt what it is that we receive in the Lord’s Supper. In the eating and drinking we not only receive the Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins, but by the eating and drinking of them we celebrate the death of the Lord until He comes. This, our Lord
has bid us to do, as the Apostle Paul plainly states in 1 Corinthians 11 verse 26. Why are there
still so many among us who refuse to listen and receive the gift that is to sustain us until we see our Lord face to face? The answer again must be ignorance, for no believer in their right mind
would despise the Word of the Lord.
The Apostolic Church did not despise the proclaiming of the Lord’s death and nor should we. Luke reveals to us how the church would assemble daily in order to praise and glorify the God who had accomplished their salvation. Before this time they had gathered with an anticipation of the Lord’s coming, but now it was to praise God for having come to dwell among men, and to sacrifice Himself for the forgiveness of their sins. In the following verse we can see Luke communicating the peace and unity of the early church as they continue to receive in abundance the gifts of God.
“And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place though the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.(17)
This manifestation of joy that we see here is the result of a church celebrating and receiving in faith all the gifts the Lord so graciously gives out to His Holy Church. This joy of Holy things for holy people, was mentioned by Elert when he wrote, “Before the distribution at every Eucharist every early Eastern Christian heard the call and knew exactly what was meant.”(18) These holy people continually worshiped their Lord and shared Him with the world, as Luke writes, “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”(19) Again I say, what it is determines what we do with it. The Word is to be preached and the Sacrament of the Altar is to be rightly administered to the people. Right administration does not happen when the Sacrament is separated from proclamation.
This paper had no intention to discuss individual piety regarding the Lord’s Supper, but was intended to provide guidance to how often the Body and Blood of our Lord should be offered to those in need of forgiveness. The answer to the question is, yes. Yes, meaning that this writer believes that where the church gathers and the proclamation of the Gospel is heard, it is there where Christ’s holy ones should receive His gift of forgiveness with thanksgiving, and continually proclaim His death until He comes. Amen!
Elert, Werner, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, trans. Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia, 1966)
Jasper, R.C.D. and Cuming, G.J. Prayers of the Eucharist, 3rd ed. (New York: Pueblo, 1987)
Lindemann, Fred H. The Sermon and The Propers (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958)
Petry, Ray C. ed. The Early and Medieval Church, vol 1 of A History of Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962)
Reed, Luther D. The Lutheran Liturgy, (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947)
Sasse, Hermann, This is My Body (Adelaide, South Australia: Lutheran Publishing House, 1959)
Sasse, Hermann, We Confess the Sacraments, trans. Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia, 1985)
Sheerin, Daniel J. The Eucharist, vol. 7 of Message of the Fathers of the Church, Gen. Ed. Thomas Halton Wilmington, (Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc. 1986).
Stiller, Gunther, Johann Sebastian Bach and Liturgical Life in Leipzig, ed. Robin A. Leaver, trans. Herbert J. A. Bouman, Daniel F. Poellot and Hilton C. Oswald (St. Louis: Concordia, 1984)
Tappert, Theodore G., trans. and ed. The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959)
1. The Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles). Contains the earliest known example of Church Order. Discovered in 1875 by Archbishop Bryennios and at first thought to date second century, but is now thought to have been written first century in Syria.
[Jasper an Cuming, Prayers of the Eucharist, 3rd ed. (New York: Pueblo, 1987) 20.]