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How Often Should Christians Eat the Lord's Supper?

by Max Aplin  
4/25/2018 / Church Life


At the last meal the Lord Jesus ate before His crucifixion, He took some bread, broke it and gave it to His followers to share. He also took a cup of wine and gave it to them to share. The bread and wine referred to His imminent death, the bread symbolizing His body and the wine symbolizing His blood (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25). 

In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:17-34 the apostle Paul makes it clear that Christians should periodically continue to re-enact this sharing of bread and wine to remember Jesus’ death. Luke 22:19 also implies that it should be a repeated act. This practice of sharing in bread and wine is described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:20 as “the Lord’s Supper.” 

But how often should we eat the Lord’s Supper? Should this be a frequent event or something we do no more than very occasionally? 

As it happens, churches vary enormously in their answer to this question. Some Christians eat the Supper every day if possible. Many do so every week, while others do so monthly or even less frequently than that. There are even churches that celebrate it only once a year. 

APPROACHING THE BIBLE ON THIS ISSUE 

No biblical passage plainly spells out how often we should eat the Lord’s Supper. Because of this, some claim that it is just a matter of personal opinion. If a church, or a Christian, is happy to celebrate the Supper with a certain frequency, it is claimed, then there can be nothing wrong with that. 

It is quite right to take account of the fact that the Bible isn’t explicit about how often we should eat the Supper. But it is going much too far to say that this means we can simply do as we please. God teaches us in Scripture not only through specific instructions but also by giving us the example of the early Christians to follow. If the early church did something in a certain way, unless there are good reasons for acting differently today, we should aim to follow suit. 

So, in order to discover how often we should celebrate the Supper, we need to turn to the Bible to see what the early church did. If we can find some relevant passages, we might be able to draw some useful conclusions. 

1 CORINTHIANS 11 

There are not many biblical passages that speak about the Lord’s Supper, and even fewer that imply anything about how often we should observe it. 

The most important passage for our purposes is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, where Paul gives the church in Corinth some instruction on the Supper. The Corinthians were celebrating it in a very disorderly way, and Paul rebukes and corrects them. Reading between the lines, we are able to gain some information with a fair degree of probability about how often the Corinthian church ate the Supper. 

The key verses 

In verses 17-21, Paul states: 

“17 . . . I do not praise you, because you meet together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, firstly, when you meet together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. 19 For, of course, there must be factions among you, so that those who are ‘approved’ can be recognized as such! 20 So, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For everyone eats their own meal first, and one is hungry and another gets drunk.” 

(Scripture quotations in this article are my own translations of the Greek text.) 

First of all, note in v. 18 the clause, “when you meet together as a church.” Paul seems clearly to have in mind the normal occasions when all the Corinthian Christians would gather together. Then in v. 20, when he says, “when you meet together,” he is doubtless referring back to what he has just referred to in v. 18, i.e., the occasions on which all the believers would gather. So v. 20 concerns typical church gatherings at which all would be present. 

Next, note in v. 20 how Paul rebukes the Corinthians by saying, “when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” He must mean that when they gather to eat the Supper, their conduct is so poor that it is as if they are not really eating the Supper at all. But his words most naturally imply too that the typical gatherings of the Corinthian Christians would involve eating the Supper. Reading between the lines, then, it is probable that when the Corinthians came together as a church, they always, or at least usually, ate the Supper. 

An objection that fails 

In v. 25 Paul refers to part of what Jesus did and said at the last supper: 

“In the same way, after supper He also took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in memory of Me.’” 

And then in v. 26 Paul states: 

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” 

It is sometimes claimed that the clauses “as often as you drink it” in v. 25 and “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup” in v. 26 show that we have no idea how frequently the Corinthians ate the Supper. 

This, however, is a misinterpretation. “As often as” just means “every time.” Jesus’ words in v. 25 simply mean that every time His followers celebrate the Supper they should share as one in drinking the cup of wine in His memory. And Paul is telling the Corinthians in v. 26 that every time they celebrate the Supper they are proclaiming the Lord’s death. 

Verses 25-26 therefore do not count against the conclusion above, that it is probable that when the Corinthians came together as a church, they always, or at least usually, ate the Supper. 

The frequency of Corinthian gatherings 

But this raises a question. How often did the Corinthians come together as a church? 

Importantly, it seems extremely unlikely that the Corinthian church would have met less than once a week. Nothing in the New Testament leads us to believe that any Christian church in the first century met less often than this except perhaps in unusual circumstances. And there is no reason to think that the Corinthians would have been any different. 

The frequency of Corinthian celebration of the Supper 

It is almost certain, then, that the Corinthians would have met as a church at least once a week. And, as we have seen, it is probable that, when they met, they always or usually ate the Lord’s Supper. 

THE BOOK OF ACTS 

The book of Acts is also relevant for our inquiry. 

The key verses 

The four most important verses are Acts 2:42; 2:46; 20:7 and 20:11. 

In Acts 2:42 Luke refers to what the Christians did in the days and weeks after the Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost: 

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.” 

Then in Acts 2:46 he continues his description of the first believers: 

“Every day with one accord they met in the temple, and, breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart.” 

In Acts 20:7 Luke tells us about Paul’s visit to the church in Troas: 

“On the first day of the week, when we had gathered together to break bread, Paul spoke to them, intending to leave the next day, and he kept speaking until midnight.” 

And in Acts 20:11 Luke says more about what happened that night in Troas: 

“When he [Paul] had gone up and had broken the bread and eaten, he talked with them for a long time until dawn, and then he left.” 

Each of these verses refers to breaking (of) bread. This description is relevant for the question we are asking in this article. 

Highly likely that each verse refers to the same thing 

To begin with, it seems highly likely that breaking (of) bread in each of these four verses is referring to the same thing or at least basically the same thing. 

First, having been told in 2:42 that breaking of bread was one major activity of the early church, when 2:46 refers to Christians breaking bread, it is very doubtful that something fundamentally different is in view. Instead, it seems that, having simply mentioned breaking of bread in 2:42, Luke then expands a little in 2:46 by referring to the joy and sincerity that the early believers had when they broke bread. 

Similarly, in the light of the importance attached to breaking of bread in 2:42, when 20:7 says that the church in Troas had gathered to break bread, it seems very unlikely that this verse is referring to something fundamentally different from what has been referred to in 2:42. 

Finally, breaking bread in 20:7 clearly refers to the same thing as it does in 20:11. 

It is therefore highly probable that breaking (of) bread in each of these four verses is referring to at least basically the same thing (and 20:7 and 20:11 have to be referring to exactly the same thing). 

What does breaking (of) bread refer to? 

But what does breaking (of) bread in these verses refer to? There are three basic options: 

(1) It refers specifically to the Lord’s Supper. 

(2) It refers to meals eaten together by Christians, which would typically have included the Lord’s Supper. 

(3) It refers to meals eaten together by Christians, which would typically not have included the Lord’s Supper. 

In my view it is very difficult to decide whether or not (1) is correct, i.e., whether or not breaking bread in these verses refers specifically to the Lord’s Supper. There are various arguments for and against that I find to be of about equal weight. Because I am undecided, I will not bother to list any of these arguments. 

However, it does seem more likely that (1) or (2) is correct than that (3) is correct. In other words, it seems more probable than not that breaking bread in these verses contains either a direct (as in option (1)) or indirect (as in option (2)) reference to the Lord’s Supper. There are two reasons for this. 

First, we need to take account of what Luke had earlier written in his Gospel. 

In Luke 22:14-20 Luke had quoted Jesus as saying that the church was supposed to periodically celebrate the Lord’s Supper (see especially v. 19). It is true that in this passage Jesus doesn’t use the term “Lord’s Supper,” and He refers explicitly only to a continued practice of eating bread, not drinking wine. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that He is teaching His followers to continue to celebrate the Supper. 

If breaking (of) bread in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11 refers to meals at which no Lord’s Supper was eaten, that would mean that in Acts Luke never mentions the Lord’s Supper being celebrated in the early church. After his earlier reference to continued eating of the Supper in his Gospel, that seems a little unexpected. 

Second and more importantly, in Acts 2:42 fellowship and the breaking of bread are both mentioned as activities of the earliest Christians. But meals without the Lord’s Supper were really just occasions when Christians shared fellowship. So, if breaking of bread in this verse refers simply to meals without the Supper, it seems rather strange that both fellowship and breaking of bread are listed. Instead, it makes more sense to think that breaking of bread in this verse contains either a direct or indirect reference to the Supper. 

And given that the meaning of breaking (of) bread is very probably the same in all the above four verses, the fact that fellowship and breaking of bread are both listed in Acts 2:42 supports a reference to the Supper in the other three verses too. 

It seems more probable than not, then, that breaking (of) bread in Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11 refers, either directly or indirectly, to the Lord’s Supper. 

The frequency of breaking (of) bread 

As for how often this breaking bread occurred in the early church, Acts 2:46 and 20:7 are both relevant. 

To refresh the reader’s memory, here are the texts again: 

Acts 2:46: 

“Every day with one accord they met in the temple, and, breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart.” 

Acts 20:7: 

“On the first day of the week, when we had gathered together to break bread, Paul spoke to them, intending to leave the next day, and he kept speaking until midnight.” 

Acts 2:46 is explicit that the early Christians met together every day in the temple. There is quite a strong impression given too that the breaking bread from house to house happened on a daily basis or at least something almost as frequent as that. 

If the early believers broke bread every day or almost every day, it is true that this doesn’t have to mean that each individual Christian did so as often as this. Nevertheless, the verse most naturally seems to suggest that each believer typically broke bread more than once a week. 

As far as Acts 20:7 is concerned, firstly, when Luke says that the church in Troas met on the first day of the week, he is probably referring to a custom of that church. If this was a one-off meeting that just happened to be on the first day of the week, there would appear to be no reason to mention what day of the week it was. And secondly, the most natural impression seems to be that it was not just customary for the church to meet on that day of the week, but also that when it did so it would normally have broken bread. 

The frequency of eating the Supper 

Given, then, that breaking bread in Acts 2:46 and 20:7 more probably than not refers to the Lord’s Supper, these verses provide evidence that some early Christians ate the Supper at least once a week. 

There are admittedly a few real uncertainties in this discussion of Acts. Nevertheless, this book does give some evidence for at least weekly celebration of the Supper by some early Christians. 

SUMMING UP 

We have seen, then, that 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 provides a significant piece of evidence for early Christians eating the Supper at least once a week. And we have also seen that Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11 together provide some (weaker) evidence for this. 

It is true that this doesn’t amount to much evidence. Importantly, however, there is no concrete biblical evidence that conflicts with what we have found. Nothing in the New Testament leads us to believe that any early Christians typically ate the Supper less than once a week. 

MAKING DECISIONS TODAY 

Churches today obviously have to decide how often they eat the Lord’s Supper. Although there is not much biblical evidence to go on, we do have enough to make a decision. We can trust God that He will not have allowed the evidence available to us to be misleading. 

As Christians who are serious about living out a biblical Christian faith instead of church traditions, therefore, let us use what influence we have to encourage our churches to copy the early believers in celebrating the Supper at least weekly. And let us be deeply unhappy when church traditions are followed that conflict with scriptural examples. 

Despite what I have just said, I do admit that sometimes exceptional situations arise when it is better for churches to act outside the usual biblical pattern. So I think it is possible that in some circumstances it could be God’s will for churches, exceptionally, to eat the Supper less than once a week. But unless we are convinced that He is leading us to act outside the biblical pattern, we should always follow it. 

WHAT HAPPENS AT THE SUPPER? 

I think one reason why so many churches are reluctant to celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week is because they misunderstand what happens when Christians eat it. Whereas Roman Catholics and some others go wrong in saying that believers actually eat the literal body and blood of Christ, I think large numbers of evangelicals go too far the other way. Many take the very doubtful view that the Supper is just a symbolic way for us to focus our minds on the death of Jesus and nothing really more than that. 

I would suggest that this is a mistake. I think there is something profound and spiritual that happens in the Supper, that it is a special means through which God gives Christians grace, i.e., some sort of undeserved blessing and benefit. On this issue I side with Reformed and Methodist churches (and some others too). They seem to me to have a good understanding of what the Supper is, and I think they get the balance about right. 

If the Lord’s Supper is just about focusing our attention on Jesus, it seems strange that anyone in the early church would have celebrated it every week, since it would probably have lost its impact through so much repetition. If, however, it is an act in which God gives us grace in a more or less unique way, it makes sense that we would eat it at least once a week. 

I don’t pretend to understand how this grace operates or exactly what happens when Christians eat the Supper. But I think it is spiritually extremely good for us when we celebrate it in humility and sincerity.

 

See also: 

Should Christians Treat One Day of the Week as a Special Day? 

Beware of Becoming Attached to Church Traditions 

Is It Wrong for Women to Be Church Leaders?

I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com

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