It is commonly claimed that the Bible has nothing to say about the frequency of communion, but this is a myth. For 1,500 years, the consensus of the church was that Scripture requires at least weekly communion. Many churches even met daily for the Lord’s Supper. Protestant Reformers from Martin Luther to John Calvin to Thomas Cranmer continued to practice and teach at least weekly communion. John Wesley argued for nothing less than “constant” communion and took the Lord’s Supper most days of his life.
John Armstrong writes, “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.” Today, some churches have neglected the Table of Jesus due to a poor understanding of what communion is, or a sad misconception that weekly communion is a Roman Catholic practice. Even worse, they have relied on poor excuses to justify this neglect. In this article, I argue that Scripture and historic Christian practice provide overwhelming support for at least weekly communion.
The Biblical Practice: At Least Weekly Communion
Scripture records that at least weekly communion was the practice of the apostles and that it should therefore be a central act of worship for all generations.
In 1 Corinthians 11:17–34, Paul repeats five times that the church received the Lord’s Supper when they came together (1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34), and 1 Corinthians 16:2 says that the church came together “on the first day of every week.” In fact, sharing the Lord’s Supper was basic to what it meant for the church to “come together.” As members of a body—hands, feet, eyes, and ears—they were scattered throughout the week, like pieces of a Mr. Potato Head scattered across the house. The way that they came together to form one body on the Lord’s Day was through participation in the same bread: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Paul does not say, “We eat one bread because we are one body.” Rather, he says, “We are one body because we eat one bread.” The order matters. Jesus said of the bread, “This is my body” (Mt. 26:26). The body (the church) becomes one body by eating the body (the bread).
This helps to explain why Acts 20:7 says 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.” This is an extraordinary verse: from the beginning of the church, the Sunday gathering could be characterized as the time when we break bread, which is just another way to refer to the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 10:16; cf. Mt. 26:26; cf. Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19). Armstrong notes, “Biblical scholars have no doubt that this reference to ‘the breaking of bread’ is a reference to the Lord’s Supper.” In fact, one of the first marks of the church after Pentecost was a devotion to communion: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). John Wesley comments on this Scripture, “their daily Church communion consisted in these four particulars: Hearing the word; Having all things common; Receiving the Lord’s Supper; Prayer.”
The church also often gathered in houses throughout the week, and Acts 2:46 notes that “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 on this Scripture, “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.”
It is commonly claimed that the Bible has nothing to say about the frequency of communion, but this is a myth.
In light of these verses, early Christians saw a reference to the Lord’s Supper in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Wesley commented, “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.” In other words, the “bread” that God provides for his people is not just physical food and drink. Paul teaches that the Lord’s Supper is our “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” (1 Cor. 10:3–4) because it is “a participation in the blood of Christ” and “a participation in the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16), who is the Bread of Life.
In this early sacramental context, many other verses were associated with weekly table communion. Michael Svigel gives a beautiful example:
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.
Of all the verses in the New Testament, Acts 20:7 may be the most important, since it is one of a few texts that is also used to support Sunday worship instead of Saturday Sabbath worship. Apostolic practice is binding for the church (2 Thess. 2:15), the apostles gathered “on the first day of the week,” and subsequent church tradition confirms this. The same reasoning used to support Sunday worship was historically used for at least weekly communion, and ought to lead every church to recover this practice today.
The Historical Practice: At Least Weekly Communion
Early church history confirms that at least 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.” It is difficult to overstate the importance of this document for understanding early Christianity. Justin explains that every week, churches throughout the whole world gathered “on the day called Sunday” to read the Scriptures, hear a sermon, pray, and share in the Lord’s Supper:
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place,
and the memoirs of the apostles [New Testament] or the writings of the prophets [Old Testament] are read, as long as time permits;
then, when the reader has ceased, the president [the presiding elder] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.
Then we all rise together and pray,
and, as we before said [in Justin’s previous chapter on the Lord’s Supper], when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water 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,
and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
The Didache, a summary of the apostolic teaching that may date back as early as the first century, includes two chapters on the Lord’s Supper and a beautiful prayer for use at the Table: “You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You freely gave spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your Servant.”
The famous third-century work On The Apostolic Tradition testifies to the fact that at least weekly communion had been consistently practiced from the apostles to the present day.
Especially fascinating is Augustine’s letter to Januarius around the year 400. Augustine writes, “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). In the early church, the main debate was not over weekly or quarterly communion but over weekly or daily communion! (Recall Wesley’s comments above on Acts 2:46 and the Lord’s Prayer, which note that many churches continued in daily communion for centuries.)
In the early church, the main debate was not over weekly or quarterly communion but over weekly or daily communion.
In the Middle Ages, there is no doubt that some superstitions began to creep in and pervert the practice of the Lord’s Supper. A few Protestants overreacted against Roman Catholicism and even abandoned weekly communion (e.g., Zwingli began the practice of quarterly communion). However, most of the Reformers confronted the abuses without abandoning proper use (abusus non tollit usum). In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin confronts sacramental neglect and argues that less frequent communion is an aberration:
The custom which prescribes communion once a-year is an invention of the devil, …. For there cannot be a doubt that at that time [in the early church] 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.
In his sermon on “The Duty of Constant Communion,” Wesley also urges every lover of God to commune 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 instructed every Methodist elder to administer communion weekly and agreed with the Church of England that someone who partook of the Lord’s Supper less than three times a year should be “cast out of the Church” (excommunicated)—though Wesley did not believe that three times was sufficient or excusable. The first Wesleyan/Methodist denomination in America stated that one of two reasons for its existence was to administer the sacrament. The Table of Jesus was so dear to them that the Wesley brothers even published an entire hymnal with nothing but hymns for use at the Lord’s Supper.
A Lame Excuse
The previous section dispels the myth that weekly communion is a Roman Catholic practice. Another common excuse is that if we have it weekly, communion will become ordinary and lose its significance. In fact, the exact opposite is true. William Willimon (cited by Scott McKnight) hits the nail on the head:
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.
Tim Chester observes that, in some churches, if you skipped congregational singing for one week there would be an outcry, but if you skipped communion for a year, few would notice. Singing is dear to us precisely because it is such an integral part of our worship.
In an essay on the Lord’s Supper as “an identity-shaping proclamation of the gospel” in Paul’s writings, Jim Hamilton makes a similar point:
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!
Even in Wesley’s day, this lame excuse was proposed. Wesley dismisses it as completely misplaced, then gets to the heart of the issue, which is our hearts:
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.
In other words, if someone gets more out of communion because it’s rarely practiced, they are like a child who likes a toy because it’s new. A mature Christian will grow in love for the sacrament the more that they participate in it, as they grow in love for the Bible as they read it daily over many years.
If weekly communion doesn’t “feel” right to some Christians, it’s no surprise. Feelings are a product of a person’s experience and don’t change overnight. But as Christians, we don’t base our beliefs or practices on feelings; we base them on Scripture, read and interpreted in community with the church of all ages.
In summary, there is overwhelming support for at least weekly communion in both Scripture and in the church’s historic understanding of Scripture. In an overreaction to Roman Catholics, some churches have relied on poor excuses to neglect the apostolic and historic practice. As William Burt Pope observed, “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.”
Sadly, the indifference and ignorance of most laypeople are due to their pastors, who are in turn a product of their environment. 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.” Sacramental neglect is a symptom of impoverished theology. Elders, the church’s teaching officers, must take responsibility for studying the sacraments and leading change in their congregations.
The Lord’s Supper, along with prayer and the preaching of God’s word, is a central act of Christian worship. Christ invites hungry hearts to hasten to the gospel feast with joy and thanksgiving. 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.