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An argument for weekly Table observance

We are having some enjoyable discussions this week about the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Table in Christian worship. I have been suggesting that part of what the Table pictures is the communion we have, not only with Christ, but also with other believers because of our unity in Christ. This is why I believe some sort of public expression of that fellowship should be part of Christian corporate worship.

As a tangential point, I have also suggested that the Table is the climax of Christian worship, and therefore I believe it best to observe the Table weekly.

Allow me to briefly summarize my primary argument here. I believe that Christian worship and the gospel are intricately linked since drawing near to God in worship is possible only through faith in Jesus Christ. Therefore, I believe that the structure of Christian worship should–and traditionally has–reflect the shape of the gospel. We begin with God’s invitation to draw near to him (Call to Worship) followed by a recognition of his majesty and worthiness to be worshiped (Adoration). This leads us to recognize our guilt and unworthiness to draw near to him (Confession), but we are then assured of pardon through the sacrifice of Christ (Expiation). Thus we have complete access to God through Christ, resulting in expression of Thanksgiving and a willingness to hear from him (Scripture Reading and Sermon) and obey (Dedication).

This is how most evangelical services today end,1 but I think this is biblically, theologically, and traditionally incomplete. Throughout Scripture (and, indeed, history), the ultimate expression of free and open access is being invited to sit at the table. This is illustrated throughout the Old Testament, it is pictured with the Table of Showbread in the Temple, and it is one of the beautiful pictures painted by the Lord’s Supper. The Christian worship service has already pictured that we are accepted through Christ, and now sitting around his table both commemorates the sacrifice that made that possible and expresses our unity with him and with one another. It does not accomplish peace with God, as Rome would have us believe; rather, it is a beautiful expression of peace already achieved through the sacrifice of Christ.

READ
An important upcoming book on the Lord's Supper

Now, as Greg rightly noted in a comment, there is no explicitly clear command in the New Testament that we must observe the Table weekly. So I will not go so far as to say that this is an absolute necessity. No church I’ve ever been part of has observed the Table weekly, and I certainly do not think any less of those churches because of it. However, I’d like to offer several arguments in favor of the practice.

  1. The Table is the God-ordained picture of full and complete access to God through Christ, as explained above.
  2. The New Testament at least implies that the Table was observed at every public meeting, for example, 1 Corinthians 11:20, and almost every example in the NT of a public meeting of Christians involves the Table. Indeed, most scholars are in agreement that Christians observed the Table weekly (or even more frequently) from the beginning, as seen in the New Testament, the Didache, and other early Christian writings.
  3. It is one of four practices to which the first church devoted itself in Acts 2:42, along with the apostles’ doctrine, the fellowship, and the prayers, each of which are always a part of our weekly worship.
  4. From the earliest times, the Table was the act that differentiated Christian worship from Jewish worship. Early Christian worship was a combination of Synagogue worship plus the Table, and thus the Table was what identified a Christian service as such. Even unbelievers identified Christian worship as that which included eating together a sacred meal, as seen in the letter of Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan.
  5. There is no more warrant to sing weekly, pray weekly, or even preach weekly than there is to observe the Table weekly. And yet very few evangelicals (including myself!) would be willing to eliminate any one of these elements from every service.
  6. Greg’s comparison with the ordinance of Baptism doesn’t work since Baptism is an initiation rite performed on individual believers only once, while the Table is a perpetual act enjoyed by all baptized believers. It is notable, however, that in the early church orders (such as the Didache and Apostolic Traditions), once believers were baptized, they immediately joined the rest of the congregation in observing the Table as a way to express their union with Christ and with one another.
  7. While the Reformers were right to reject the sacerdotal theology underlying the Roman observance of the Table and the progressive minimizing of preaching in favor of a mystical observance of the mass, they did not reject the significance of the Table nor its frequent observance. Zwingli was the only of the initial Reformers who argued for less frequent observance. Even Calvin wanted to observe it weekly, although the Zwingli-influenced leaders of Geneva would not allow it. It was only later that the Table fell out of weekly practice in much of evangelicalism, largely due to the influence of Revivalism and the minimization of worship itself. So while Chuck rightly noted  the common understanding that Roman Catholics place an emphasis on the Table while Protestants place an emphasis on the Word, I don’t believe this to be entirely correct. It is correct that Rome minimized the Word, but the early Protestants did not emphasize the Word to the neglect of the Table; rather, they emphasized the Word and the Table.2
  8. Some argue that weekly observance of the Table will make it less special. Yet this logic, applied to other elements of the service, would mean that we should limit them as well lest they because mundane.
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A Modest Proposal: One Loaf in Communion

Again, I don’t want to imply that observance of the Table any less than weekly is disobedience to God’s clear commands. I cannot say that.

But I do believe, with Bryan Chapel, that “the apparent practice of Scripture, the precedent of the ancient church, and appreciation for the ways Christ ministers the gospel to his people through the Lord’s Supper persuade me of the efficacy of weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper” ((Christ-Centered Worship, 292).

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you practice the Table weekly, how do you go about it? If not, why not?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.



Endnotes:

  1. actually, most end with an invitation, but that’s a topic for another day! []
  2. Of course, I should note that I do not agree with Calvin and especially Luther in the matter of Real Presence, which was certainly influencing their view of the Table. Nevertheless, I believe it was short-sighted of Zwingli to limit the Table as he did. []

17 Responses to An argument for weekly Table observance

  1. The act of baptism is performed on individual believers, but is administered by the church, so in that sense, it is an ongoing ordinance. My only point was that its relative infrequency does not diminish its significance.

    While the parallel is not a tight one, in OT worship, there were worship occasions that were observed intermittently, such as the different feasts. The fact that they were not observed more often did not diminish their significance- in fact, one could argue that the significance of the experience was enhanced through the process of preparation, anticipation, and so on.

    While there is no warrant to have the other elements weekly, there would be more emphasis and urgency accompanying their prescription- Paul does not charge Timothy to "observe the table!" but to "preach the word" and attaches much to what that entails and should be connected to (4:1-5).

    The delivery of singing, preaching, and so on is much more easily varied than communion observance, too. It is not at all challenging to emphasize a different text of Scripture weekly, pray for different needs (or confess different sins), or sing different hymns. Communion observance may allow for some adaptation in how it is administered, but much less when compared to most of the other prescriptions. The repetition is what concerns some- it is more prone to deteriorate into empty ritual because of the tighter parameters we see in Scripture for how it is to be observed (Clown communions aside).

    One more thing (just to be obnoxious ;) )… If we are going to appeal to "apparent practice of the early church" in this area, in addition to weekly observance, would we not need to consider 1. A single cup passed (not much better picture of the unity of the body than that!), and 2. Wine rather than Welch's?

  2. Perhaps I'm overstating the matter, but IMO, we have just as clear a Scriptural basis for "one cup" as we do for "by immersion." And we should seriously consider how we should go about incorporating the "one cup" in our observance of communion.

  3. Greg:

    As to wine and Welch's, I note (as you did) that Scripture connects the "one cup" with unity in the church, and "by immersion" with the death and resurrection of Jesus; but are we losing any such sort of meaning-laden connection if we use non-alcoholic "fruit of the vine" instead of alcoholic "fruit of the vine"? Maybe so, and I can think of a possibility, but I wondered what you thought. If not, then might we have the possibility of a helpful criterion for judging whether to insist upon a particular form as we observe ordinances in our services?

  4. Re: Welch's vs. wine– early church practice aside, I wonder what the predominant present day practice is globally.

  5. Chuck said: "might we have the possibility of a helpful criterion for judging whether to insist upon a particular form as we observe ordinances in our services?"

    I propose the criterion: "if it touches baptism, we insist on a form, if not, we do not."

    Only kidding. ;)

  6. I, too, am quite in favor of a single cup, as well as physically pouring and breaking during the words of institution. These are all symbols built in to the observance, and we lose something if we eliminate them.

    As for wine vs Welch's, I don't see any explicit biblical or symbolic reason the cup HAS to be wine; I think that is an issue of a different order. If memory serves, the process for creating grape juice was actually invented by a Christian who was a former alcoholic and wanted to provide an alternative to alcohol for the table that was still part of the fruit of the vine.

    All your other points, Greg, are certainly valid.

    This continues to be a helpful conversation! Thanks for the comments!

  7. By the way, our current church has often used one cup. We each break a portion of bread off of the one loaf, dip it into the one cup (intinction), and consume it. Maintains the one cup while satisfying our modernist fear of germs!

  8. I attended a church a few times here in Wake Forest, Hope Baptist Church, a Reformed Baptist, "family-integrated" ministry, that observes the Supper weekly. They have a single, long, combined service on Sunday morning from about 10-12. Quite a few aspects of the service are noteworthy, but as to the Supper, they simply observe it at the end of each service, close the service pretty much directly thereafter, and everyone quickly completes final preparations for the afternoon meal which all partake of at that point. The whole time — service and meal — lasts from about 10-2.

  9. I've never given much thought to the theological significance of wine vs Welch's, Chuck. Have to think through that a little more.

    Something else to consider in the weekly observance idea- how does the "closed communion" discussion relate to it? The NT assumes that unbelievers may be present in a worship service, and whether or not the primary purpose is evangelism, we are to be displaying God's glory.

    Finally, I would be much more in favor of a weekly observance if we did it in the evening, and focused more directly on the ordinance itself. I've always liked an evening Communion- the parallel to the Last Supper is one I appreciate- and in our current format here, we generally have an extended time of dedicated prayer each week, and Communion would fit in nicely with that emphasis. Our problem is that, at least at this point, that service is the most sparsely attended of any- and I do think the ideal is to lead the gathered saints, and it is difficult when they aren't all there (many don't come in the evening for somewhat legitimate reasons- age/vision, distance, work…).

  10. The closed communion issue is another great discussion that needs to be had. I agree that unbelievers are present in NT worship, although we don't know whether or not they were dismissed prior to the Table. We do know that at least by early second century, unbelievers and unbaptized Christians WERE dismissed prior to the Table. The Didache and Justin Martyr make this clear (I think Ignatius' letter to the Ephesians as well, if memory serves). That's why the Service of the Word was also called the Service of the Catecumens, and the Service of the Table was also called the Service of the Faithful. It's also why the Table came to be called "Mass," taken from the Latin for "dismissal."

    So at very least it is clear that unbelievers should not participate in the Table. Whether or not they are allowed to be present is debatable. I personally think they should be allowed to stay, since part of the purpose of the Table is to proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

    Greg, I understand what you're saying about evening observance, but you're still thinking of the Table as a special service on its own. What I am arguing, and I think biblical and historical precedent bears this out, is that the Table is not some special separate observance but rather the climax of worship itself. Thus it should be part of the full service, a combination of Word and Table.

  11. I'm enjoying this discussion, and I wish I had time to participate in it. I'll just throw in that at our church we partake of the Lord's Supper every week following the preaching of the Word in the morning service. We practice "close" communion. It's been great for our church, and I commend it.

  12. Thanks, Jason. I was hoping you would chime in. Perhaps at some point, when you have time, you could write a short account of your reasons and practice in weekly observance. I think it would be a great help to all of us.

    By the way, Greg, even Mark Driscoll practices weekly observance of the Table, so it's time to get with the program!!! ;)

  13. Ha! Yeah, Driscoll has always been a personal trendsetter for me… (I don't think I've ever listened to even one entire sermon from him, actually).

    Well, I would see an evening observance as being little different than dismissing some and then having Communion- especially in our setting, which if we did it this way, would include extended prayer.You are still building on what has taken place throughout the Lord's Day (as opposed to, say, the Lord's Pre-Kickoff special).

  14. Chuck, I do not see a direct connection between the table of showbread and the Lord's Supper, per se. But I do see a connection between the idea of "table." A Table symbolizes communion since in ancient near eastern culture, no one would eat together who did not enjoy communion. Thus, part of what the Table symbolizes in the Tabernacle is communion with God, and this is also part of what the Lord's Table symbolizes as well.

  15. I've been reading old minutes from my church's archives. It's a Baptist church that was founded in 1856. Back in the 1870s the church had communion once a month, following a regular service. The people who were participating in communion "retired to the vestibule" (quote from the minutes) where the pastor would lead the Lord's Supper. In the 1880s the church voted to have communion every 3 months. I don't know why, because the minutes don't give a reason for the change.

    Just thought I'd throw in a 19th century historical perspective to the discussion.

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