Let’s admit it: as much as we Southern Baptists like to talk about the Bible being our sole guide for faith and practice, we sometimes have some strange practices. The Lord’s Supper for example—4 of the 5 Southern Baptist churches I’ve been involved in do the Lord’s Supper once a quarter (and maybe another time or two around special occasions—usually the Christmas and Easter holidays), put the little piece of something that I think is supposed to be bread and the little cups of juice in shiny containers, and then cover it all with a white sheet. And, of course, when it comes time to serve you have the deacons come forward, many of whom are wearing suits though they don’t on any other occasion even funerals, and they slowly (and the new deacons nervously) fold that sheet with care like it’s a sacred veil.
Uh… where’d all that come from?
We put a lot of time and effort into our practice when our guide says nothing about the Lord’s Supper in connection to quarters, white sheets, and deacons in suits.
Now, okay: I know not all traditions are bad, and that the Bible does seem to give us a good deal of freedom in different aspects of our “church service” since God didn’t hand us a bulletin or order of service with the Bible. And I know the arguments about the once a quarter thing: we want to do it often, but not too often so it doesn’t lose its meaning and become a ritual…okay.
But what if in the case of our traditions here, we’re missing something bigger about the Lord’s Supper and our gatherings as church? And let me preface this: what I’m about to say I’m still thinking through…
We tend to put the emphasis of our church gatherings on worship through the proclamation of the Gospel (sermons), prayer, song, giving, and fellowship. But what if the emphasis of our gatherings is instead supposed to be on the proclamation of the Gospel and fellowship through the partaking of the Lord’s Supper?
In Acts 20:7-12 we have a passage that seems most famous for Eutychus falling out a window, but let’s consider some other things that are said. Paul and Luke were gathered in a house with a group at Troas, and Luke says, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…” The breaking of bread is often understood as a reference to the Lord’s Supper and the act of breaking the bread in each other’s presence (which, as a side note, seems to be an argument against our pre-broken bread!). Luke seems to be indicating that was the main purpose of their Sunday gathering here. Before it occurred, Paul taught, got long winded, and we know the story with Eutychus. Then after the boy was raised from the dead, they went back up, broke their bread and Paul talked more. Paul’s talk could be compared to a sermon—but Luke didn’t say they were gathered to hear Paul preach, but to break bread—the Lord’s Supper.
Then we have Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. I won’t do much verse quoting (for space), but I’ll reference my verses. Of course, with this letter, a major theme is division and unity within the church—it takes up a good deal of chapters one and two. Then in 11:16, Paul ends his teaching on men and women praying by again talking about responding to contentious people. Afterwards, in 11:17-18 he chastises them further for divisions related to their “coming together as a church.”
But this division surrounds their practice of the Lord’s Supper. In 11:20 Paul says, “Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” Contextually, of course, Paul is not making a prescription here but a description of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper—some show up at the meeting place, and start feasting on the bread and wine before the whole church is there. Therefore, you have some getting drunk off the wine and others going hungry because there’s nothing left of the Supper. By doing so, they despise the church and the Supper (11:21-22, 27).
In 11:23-26, Paul reminds them of the purpose of the Supper: remembrance, participation in the covenant, and Gospel proclamation.
With that in mind when they come together to partake, they must examine themselves and the body—not a reference to searching their heart for unrepentant sin as we often hear people say, but a consideration of our actions and motives in partaking together as a body as opposed to selfishly (though I don’t think we’re in any modern day danger of gorging ourselves or getting drunk with little pieces of “bread” and grape juice—still our motives can be completely wrong).
In all of this, Paul seems to be telling them—what you’re doing is not meeting to eat the Lord’s Supper but instead some profane dinner using the elements of the Supper, but you should be meeting to eat the Lord’s Supper properly. And this is, in Paul’s words, the “coming together as a church.”
So what if “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup” is not about quarterly, monthly, or weekly participation but rather, is telling us every time we come together and call it “church” our focus is to be the Lord’s Supper and the Gospel proclaimed through it.
Then what we do in our teaching/sermons, singing, prayers, and giving are supplements to the Lord’s Supper for Gospel proclamation.
So first: what are your thoughts? And second: if those two previous paragraphs are true, then what does that mean in terms of how we traditionally “do” church?
Would love to hear thoughts and sound biblical reasoning!