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.
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.
- The Table is the God-ordained picture of full and complete access to God through Christ, as explained above.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
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?
- actually, most end with an invitation, but that’s a topic for another day! [↩]
- 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. [↩]