How often should we receive the Lord’s Supper? In his sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion,” John Wesley answers, “constantly.” Do not say “frequently,” Wesley insists, since “that indeterminate, unmeaning way of speaking ought to be laid aside by all men of understanding.” Like the church fathers before him, this meant nothing less than weekly communion. They did not hold this as a mere opinion or preference. They believed that it was the biblical, apostolic, and classic Christian practice. Were they right?
In this article, I defend my conviction that Scripture and Tradition provide overwhelming support for at least weekly communion. It is commonly claimed that Scripture has nothing to say on the frequency of communion, but this is a myth. My goal in this article is not to scold anyone, although I believe that we should repent of our sacramental neglect. In an overreaction to Roman Catholicism, many low church traditions have relied on poor excuses to neglect this central act of Christian worship, depriving their churches of a primary means of grace. My desire is to call hungry hearts to hasten to the gospel feast with joy and thanksgiving. This sacramental feast has been given to us, says Wesley, for our holiness and happiness. “This is the food of our souls.”
The Biblical Practice: At Least Weekly Communion
Scripture indicates that weekly communion was the apostolic practice and that it should therefore be a central act of worship for all subsequent generations.
In Paul’s longest exposition on communion in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, he repeats five times that the church received the Lord’s Supper when they came together (1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). And according to 1 Corinthians 16:2, the church came together “on the first day of every week.” In fact, participating in the Lord’s Supper was basic to what it meant for the scattered members to come together as a body. The shared meal enacted their visible unity as one body: “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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:16–17).
Acts 2:24 also refers to the church’s constant, even daily celebration of the Eucharist after Pentecost: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). John Armstrong comments, “Biblical scholars have no doubt that this reference to ‘the breaking of bread’ is a reference to the Lord’s Supper.’” This is the way it has been understood throughout church history. “Breaking bread” is a common way to refer to the eucharistic meal: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16; cf. Mt. 26:26; cf. Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19). John Wesley comments on Acts 2:42, “their daily Church communion consisted in these four particulars: Hearing the word; Having all things common; Receiving the Lord’s Supper; Prayer.”
Acts 2:46 adds, “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). Again, Wesley comments, “Continuing daily – breaking the bread – in the Lord’s Supper, as did many Churches for some ages. They partook of their food with gladness and singleness of heart – They carried the same happy and holy temper through all their common actions: eating and working with the same spirit wherewith they prayed and received the Lord’s Supper.”
Acts 20:7 likewise indicates that the church met every week for communion: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them.”
It is commonly claimed that Scripture has nothing to say on the frequency of communion, but this is a myth.
In light of these verses, consider the Lord’s Prayer, in which we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Wesley recognized, “we are here to understand the sacramental bread also; daily received in the beginning by the whole Church of Christ, and highly esteemed, till the love of many waxed cold, as the grand channel whereby the grace of his Spirit was conveyed to the souls of all the children of God.” This is one of the reasons why I am so passionate about communion today. While praying the Lord’s Prayer, I found myself thinking of the Lord’s Supper and longing to feast on the “spiritual food” and “spiritual bread” of the sacrament (1 Cor. 10:3, 4, 16).
Many other passages are charged with sacramental meaning. Even Romans 12, a favorite passage for preaching on full consecration, was associated with weekly table communion by the first Christians. Michael Svigel comments,
Many in the early church associated coming to the Table with Romans 12 and offering our bodies as living sacrifices … reaffirming our commitment to discipleship, and to the Christian life, and to one another. … So in a sense in the early church, there was an altar call every week at the end of the service. There was a Table call to rededicate.
The Historical Practice: At Least Weekly Communion
Tradition confirms that weekly communion was the apostolic practice. Justin Martyr, born just a few decades after the apostles, provides one of the earliest summaries of the “Weekly worship of the Christians.” Each week, the Christians gathered “on the day called Sunday” to read the writings of the apostles, receive instruction on their meaning, pray, and share in the Eucharist:
Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water [to dilute the wine] are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given.
Above, I expounded Acts 20:7: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread….” This is one of a few verses used to support Sunday worship instead of Saturday Sabbath worship. Christians take Sunday worship to be binding even though Scripture does not command it. Why? Because these verses hold it to be self-evident, and this interpretation is confirmed as the apostolic practice by subsequent church Tradition, especially the chapter from Justin Martyr cited above. The same reasoning used to support Sunday worship should lead us to embrace weekly communion.
Other early summaries of the apostolic practice such as the Didache and On The Apostolic Tradition (Hippolytus) confirm weekly communion as a central act of Christian worship. In his letter to Januarius, Augustine mentions that the controversy in the early church was not whether communion should be taken quarterly or monthly, but whether it should be taken weekly or daily! “Some partake daily of the body and blood of Christ, others receive it on stated days: in some places no day passes without the sacrifice being offered; in others it is only on Saturday and the Lord’s day, or it may be only on the Lord’s day” (Letter 54).
The same reasoning used to support Sunday worship should lead us to embrace weekly communion.
Again, John Wesley is clear and forceful on this subject. His sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion” insists that those who love God should receive communion constantly,
like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord’s-day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint’s day beside. Accordingly, those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the blessed sacrament. What opinion they had of any who turned his back upon it, we may learn from that ancient canon: “If any believer join in the prayers of the faithful, and go away without receiving the Lord’s Supper, let him be excommunicated, as bringing confusion into the church of God.”
Wesley agreed with the Anglican Church that someone who attended the Lord’s Supper less than three times a year should be “cast out of the Church,” excommunicated, though he did not believe that three times was sufficient or excusable.
Before him, John Calvin had written in his Institutes of the Christian Religion,
The custom which prescribes communion once a-year is an invention of the devil, …. For there cannot be a doubt that at that time the sacred Supper was dispensed to the faithful at every meeting; nor can it be doubted that a great part of them communicated. … Each week, at least, the table of the Lord ought to have been spread for the company of Christians, and the promises declared on which we might then spiritually feed. No one, indeed, ought to be forced, but all ought to be exhorted and stimulated; the torpor of the sluggish, also, ought to be rebuked, that all, like persons famishing, should come to the feast.
Armstrong summarizes: “There is no real doubt about this simple historical fact—through the centuries this meal has been the central and characteristic action of the church at worship. If the church is a community that remembers Jesus as Lord, then the chief way this has been done in public has been through the Supper.” If God has given the Lord’s Supper as a “grand channel” for his grace to flow to our congregations, why would we want anything less than weekly communion?
Most of Wesley’s sermon “The Duty of Constant Communion” focuses on refuting arguments against the constant practice of communion. I’ll address two common excuses here.
Excuse 1. If we take it weekly, it will become ordinary and lose its meaning.
Response: This excuse is as common as it is lame. It flies in the face of experience and reason. Scott McKnight quotes William Willimon as saying, quite rightly,
In my own free church tradition, Zwingli’s practice of quarterly celebrations of Communion have taken hold. That radical reformer from Zurich felt that quarterly celebrations of the Lord’s Supper were sufficient lest the meal become too commonplace, too ritualized. This is an odd point of view. Odd because five hundred years of experience in those churches that adopted the Zwinglian practice shows that churches which commune less frequently value Communion less. Odd because of the biblical and historical testimony of weekly celebrations of the Eucharist. Odd because reformers such as John Calvin and Luther hoped to establish weekly Communion.
In an overreaction to Roman Catholics, we have relied on poor excuses to neglect the biblical and historical practice of weekly communion.
Wesley himself dismissed this objection as totally misplaced:
Reverence for the sacrament may be of two sorts: either such as is owing purely to the newness of the thing, such as men naturally have for anything they are not used to; or such as is owing to our faith, or to the love or fear of God. Now, the former of these is not properly a religious reverence, but purely natural. And this sort of reverence for the Lord’s Supper, the constantly receiving of it must lessen. But it will not lessen the true religious reverence, but rather confirm and increase it.
Jim Hamilton states a succinct and compelling case that weekly observance is the biblical pattern, then concludes,
It is not clear to me why churches that seek to model themselves by the pattern of church life and structure seen in the NT would not also partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. If it is objected that this would diminish its significance, my reply is simply that those who make this argument typically do not claim that weekly observance diminishes the significance of the preaching of the Word, the prayers of God’s people, the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, and I doubt they would be disappointed to have weekly baptisms!
Excuse 2. Weekly communion is a Roman Catholic practice and leads to superstition.
Response: As we have seen, weekly communion is not a Roman Catholic practice; it is a Christian practice. Moreover, abusus non tollit usum. The abuse or misuse of something is no argument against its proper use. If someone doesn’t benefit from constant communion, says Wesley, it’s his own fault; that shouldn’t influence our practice. The problem is not with the means of grace; the problem is with our hearts.
Yes, some have abused the sacraments, but as W. B. Pope warned, “the recoil from one extreme has carried many too far in the opposite direction.” “There is an undervaluation of the sacraments which springs from no theological opposition or scruple, but is the result of indifference or ignorance.” Our impoverished theology of the sacraments is at the root of our sacramental neglect. A pastor friend recently confessed, “I have no theological understanding of the Lord’s supper. I was never taught it. Growing up, we took it once a year, on Palm Sunday. That’s it.”
A Call for Renewed Table Practice
In summary, there is overwhelming support for at least weekly communion in both Scripture and Tradition. In an overreaction to Roman Catholics, low church evangelicals have relied on poor excuses to neglect the biblical and historical practice.
If God has given the Lord’s Supper as a “grand channel” for his grace to flow to our congregations, why would we want anything less than weekly communion?
I appreciate those who are trying to lead change in this vital area. One pastor asked me how to make the change to weekly communion, especially when a church has been accustomed to quarterly or even yearly communion. Simply put, slowly and with much teaching. I suggest a few basic steps:
- Discuss it with your elder board.
- Teach a series on the sacraments.
- Confess to your congregation the need to make the Supper more central to your church’s life.
- Gradually increase the frequency that you observe the Supper. For example: Year 1: Quarterly; Year 2: Bimonthly; Year 3: Monthly; Year 4: Weekly.
The Lord’s Supper, along with prayer and the preaching of God’s word, is a central act of Christian worship. Like Jesus, we should “earnestly desire” to eat this meal (Lk. 22:15). At the center of a holy, happy church are two joys that are ours in Christ: Word and Sacrament.