Foundations: No.68 Spring 2015

Not Reformed Enough: Critiquing Contemporary Practice of the Lord’s Supper

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is central to the life and worship of most evangelical churches. However contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper is far removed from that described in the New Testament. Whilst the magisterial reformers overturned the theology of the Roman Catholic Mass they retained its essential shape and failed to introduce a truly biblical pattern to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The contention of this article is that we need to recover the New Testament practice of the Lord’s Supper as a community celebration meal of the New Covenant, eaten in the presence of the Lord Jesus as he dwells with his people by his Spirit in the new temple that is his church. A carefully reading of the key New Testament texts demands a reform that goes beyond resolving the well-trodden differences between a Calvinist and Zwinglian understanding of the Lord’s Supper to a practice that embeds the identity- shaping, assurance-building and community-forming functions of the Lord’s Supper.

I suspect that if any members of the earliest Christian communities, say from the first two centuries after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, were to visit a contemporary Protestant church, the area of church life they would find most surprising compared to their experience would be the way we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. This would be so whether they visited a highly liturgical and ritualised Anglican service, a strongly sacramental High Presbyterian service, a low church Baptist service, or even a traditional Brethren “Breaking of Bread” service. They would be astonished to find us sharing mere token pieces of bread (or wafers) and drinking tiny sips (or tiny cups) of wine (or grape juice). They would be surprised by the solemnity of the occasion, the degree of morbid introspection that is expected and encouraged, and by the apparent individualism whereby the participants commune personally with the Lord but not with each other. They would find it astonishing that there are believers present who fail to participate in the Lord’s Supper (despite the fact that they have shared in the rest of the worship service) because they do not feel worthy to partake of this celebration of grace. They would probably be shocked that there were unbelievers present at the Lord’s Supper, let alone taking part in it. They would, I suspect, find it surprising that participation in this symbolic ritual is thought to be the moment at which believers will experience the felt presence of Jesus to the greatest extent.

The reason why they would be so surprised by our contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper is because it bears so little resemblance to anything we find described or mandated in the New Testament. This ought, at the very least, to make us pause for thought, if not pause for concern. If we are those who take the Bible seriously, we should be disturbed if our praxis is fundamentally different to that which we find in the pages of God’s full, final and sufficient revelation[1] to us as to how we are to live as his people.

The aim of this article is to reconsider the New Testament teaching about the practice of the Lord’s Supper, and to urge that we have the faith and confidence to obey it. It is understandable that the Reformers were consumed largely by the need to challenge the Roman Catholic theology and practice of the Mass, but whilst they rightly eliminated the false dogmas of transubstantiation and the re-crucifixion of Christ, the basic shape of the practice of the Lord’s Supper remained unchanged. It was modified by Protestant convictions, and infused with Protestant theology, but not brought back into conformity with the biblical teaching.

The difficulty of constructing a theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper[2]

The single greatest obstacle to establishing a theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper is the relative paucity of material in the New Testament. This in itself ought to be a cause for some reflection given the central place it occupies in many churches. The high importance that has been placed on the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace in the life of the church may be disproportionate to the significance it warrants in the New Testament. The Lord’s Supper is only mentioned explicitly in 1 Corinthians, and there only because Paul is correcting abuses in the practices of the church – and specifically its worship gatherings. It is mentioned in the three Synoptic Gospels, but only Luke gives any indication that the actions of Jesus in his final meal with his disciples before his crucifixion are to be repeated by the church. Mark and Matthew make no mention of the command to “do this in remembrance of me”,[3] and taken alone they would naturally be read as describing an enacted prophetic parable whereby Jesus explained the nature and meaning of his imminent death to his disciples. John makes no mention of the Lord’s Supper in his Gospel, although subsequent commentators have tended to construct their theology from Jesus’s teaching in the “bread of life” discourse in John 6.[4] It is a moot point as to whether this chapter has any relevance at all to the practice and purpose of the Lord’s Supper, and commentators’ exegesis is more often driven by their pre-determined systematic or confessional position regarding the nature of the Lord’s Supper than by the text itself properly understood in its own specific context.[5] John 13-16 records a final meal between Jesus and his disciples but he does not specifically identify it as the Lord’s Supper.[6] John’s purpose is to highlight Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about his coming death, resurrection and ascension to the Father, and to prepare them for their ongoing mission as his witnesses in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit he will send to them. John’s account is not in conflict with that of the Synoptics; rather, he chooses to emphasise a different aspect of the ministry of Jesus to his disciples that night, which may well have been more relevant to the churches that he was addressing because they were experiencing growing hostility and persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities.    

The net result is that we are left with very little in the way of direct description or theological explanation of the Lord’s Supper. We are largely dependent upon the witness of Luke-Acts and the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians. The relatively paucity of material regarding the Lord’s Supper may well be because it was such a well-established and ordinary aspect of the life of the early church that it was non-contentious and did not require explicit mention. It seems likely that the many reference in Acts to the early disciples “breaking bread together” are references to the common practice of the Lord’s Supper, and that this is also in view in the much greater quantity of material in the New Testament addressing the difficulty of Jewish and Gentile believers eating together. Whether this is the case or not, the fact remains that the primary text from which we have to construct a theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper for the post-Pentecost church, living after the New Covenant has been inaugurated by the death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus, are the two key passages in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and 11:17-34. At the very least, we can say that if our contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper is substantially different to what we find in these passages then we are no longer reflecting the apostolic teaching, which is itself the Spirit-inspired word of the Lord Jesus to his church.

Context of 1 Corinthians          

Paul’s instructions and teaching regarding the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians are given in response to problems in the church, concerning both their relationships with unbelievers outside the church and with each other within the church. In the first place some of the Corinthian believers from a pagan background were seeking to maintain their social connections by participating in the life of the city temples.[7] These were the centre of social, civic and business life, and functioned rather like restaurants and private dining clubs. The Corinthians reasoned that, since the pagan gods did not exist, they were free to take part in meals at the temple where meat would be served that had been sacrificed to idols. In the second place, the rich and socially superior members of the Corinthian church were mistreating the poor and socially inferior members of the church by failing to honour them as equal brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus. The class and social hierarchy that was part and parcel of Corinthian culture was being carried over into the church rather than being transformed by the gospel and lordship of Jesus.[8] This social hierarchy was especially relevant to customs of hospitality, so pagan attitudes were being imported into the practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Paul’s answer to both of these problems, external and internal respectively, is to point to the nature and practice of the Lord’s Supper. In 10:14-22 he shows that those who join in the Lord’s Supper, and thereby express their union with the Lord Jesus, cannot at the same time join with pagans who worship false idols, which are in fact a cover for demonic spiritual beings. Disciples of Jesus can only participate in one of these meals, and to participate in pagan feasts is to compromise or deny their union with Christ. In 11:17-34 he shows that the perpetuation of class and social hierarchies within the church is incompatible with their unity as the body of Christ. The fundamental equality of believers in Christ is to be expressed by the way that they eat together. The Lord’s Supper thus embodies and enacts fundamental truths about the believer and his or her relationship with Christ, and also with fellow believers. The proper practice of the Lord’s Supper will reinforce these truths whereas violations of the Lord’s Supper will undermine them and the identity and unity of the community.

If 1 Corinthians is taken as the fullest explanation of the meaning and significance of the Lord’s Supper, and as the most complete, explicit record of its practice, then it ought to have the dominant role in determining our understanding and practice. The fact that Paul wrote to correct abuses does not prevent us discerning a relatively clear picture of what he believed the ideal should be. More generally, 1 Corinthians 11-14 gives us the fullest insight we have in the New Testament into the worship practices of the early church at their gatherings. Other references to the habits, practices and rituals of the early church in Acts and the other Epistles confirm what we find described in 1 Corinthians 11-14. Although some might question whether the practices described in 1 Corinthians are intended to be normative for the church, the context indicates that they are. 1 Corinthians 11:2-14:40 forms a coherent unit in which Paul addresses the conduct of the weekly church gathering in Corinth. He addresses issues as diverse as the role of women[9] and the use of spiritual gifts in public worship.[10] In both cases he makes clear that his instructions reflect the practice of the whole church and not merely its local expression in Corinth. They are applicable precisely because they reflect universal church practice[11] and derive from apostolic authority.[12] It is inconceivable that Paul would not have critiqued the Corinthians’ practice of the Lord’s Supper if it had deviated from that of both the Gentile and Jewish churches across the Empire at that time.    

1 Corinthians 10:14-22 and 11:17-34 contain four key terms that must shape a genuinely Biblical understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper. These are: “Supper”, “body”, “remembrance” and “participation.” I will examine each of these terms and consider its implications for our contemporary practice.

(i) “Supper” – The Lord’s Supper ought to be a meal

1 Corinthians 11:1-34 names the meeting of the church at which bread and wine are shared in remembrance of Jesus’ death, in obedience to his command on the night he was betrayed, the “Lord’s Supper”.[13] This terminology is highly significant, and the common use of alternative language for the ritual such as “Mass”, “Communion” or “Eucharist”, and indeed the non-Biblical terminology of “sacrament”, only serves to distract attention from a crucial aspect of the celebration.

The word “Supper” is not a technical, theological or religious term, but is simply the designation of the ordinary evening meal.[14] In the culture of the time this would have been the main meal of the day, not just a light snack before bedtime, which is how we are culturally attuned to hear the term. The “Lord’s Dinner” might be a more accurate rendition of what is meant. The language itself makes clear not merely that the context for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a meal, but that the Lord’s Supper was a meal. Although the familiar words of institution refer to the “elements” of the bread and the wine it is clear from 1 Corinthians 11:20 that the terminology of “Lord’s Supper” refers to the meal as a whole. Paul directly equates the “Lord’s Supper” with “private suppers”, which unquestionable refers to meals. Coupled with this there is no evidence anywhere that the early church celebrated the Lord’s Supper outside of the context of a meal, nor that it was something other than the meal as a whole.[15] As Ben Witherington points out, the Didache refers to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a meal.[16] He goes on to assert that the transition of the Lord’s Supper from a meal to the sacrifice of the Mass only happened after Christianity went public and “worship moved from the house to the basilica”.[17] The conversion of Constantine, replacement of Jewish thinking by Greek philosophical categories and the rise of clericalism all contributed to this process. I. Howard Marshall also states that “it should scarcely need saying that the Lord’s Supper is the church’s meal”.[18] This only highlights the dissonance between the practice of the early church and the contemporary church. Do many participants, let alone any outside observers, understand that the Lord’s Supper is a “meal”?                      

The fact that the Lord’s Supper is a meal should not be surprising. Jesus inaugurated the sharing of bread and wine in his memory in the context of a Passover Meal with his disciples on the night that he was betrayed. The Passover involved more than just the sharing of the elements of bread and wine, but was a full meal enjoyed by the participants, recreating and re-enacting the meal that the Israelites had shared before their redemption from slavery in Egypt. Every possible implicit reference to the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament involves a full meal, and there is no evidence that would indicate any ritual sharing of bread and wine outside of the context of a meal as a means of honouring and obeying the commands of the Lord Jesus.[19] 1 Corinthians suggests an evening meal on the first day of the week, with slaves and others joining the meal as soon as they were able after finishing work, but the richer members of the church gathering ahead of their delayed arrival.

Eating a meal together was a central, if not the central, gathering of the early church.[20] This makes it highly likely that all the references to the disciples “breaking bread” in Acts are references to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.[21] Bread and wine were daily staples, enjoyed at almost every meal. The basic gathering of the church was in the form of a meal in a home, and this remained the case for much of the first century or two of the church’s existence. The great concern of Paul to ensure that Jewish and Gentile Christians are able to eat together, despite their different convictions about the continued relevance of the Old Testament dietary laws to believers, is therefore vitally relevant to their ability to meet together for worship and teaching, and to express their unity and mutual acceptance.[22] This is the reason why the dispute between Paul and Peter in Antioch, recorded in Galatians 2, is of such significance. If Peter refused to eat with uncircumcised Gentile Christians then there could be no united church, but rather distinct Jewish and Gentile churches. They would be unable to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together.

1 Corinthians 11:17-34 indicates not just that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated in the context of a meal. Rather, it appears that the entire meal constituted the Lord’s Supper. Jesus words of institution are recorded in such a way that they bracket the entire meal enjoyed by the congregation. The bread is shared at the beginning of the meal, and the cup is then shared “after supper”.[23] Participation in the Lord’s Supper provides opportunity for the physically hungry to be satiated,[24] and for the over-indulgent to get drunk.[25]

By the time of the Reformation the celebration of the Lord’s Supper had long since ceased to be a proper meal in a home. The false doctrine of the Mass meant that the Reformers inevitably focused their attention on the elements of the bread and the wine, and whether these became, in any sense, the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. However, they retained the fundamental assumption that it is the bread and the wine that constitute the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. A more faithful reading of 1 Corinthians and the New Testament would surely conclude that it is the meal as a whole, incorporating the sharing of the bread and the cup, that constitutes the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. To put it more sharply, the Lord’s Supper is never truly celebrated when there is no real presence of a supper!

As has already been noted, the fact that the Lord’s Supper is a meal finds its primary background in the Old Covenant ritual of the Passover, something to which Paul also refers in 1 Corinthians 5:7, where he states that “Christ, our Passover lamb has been sacrificed”.[26] More generally, the law mandated communal meals from sacrifices and for the major festivals celebrating God’s great acts of redemption on behalf of this people. The Passover was a celebratory meal at which the lamb was shared by the family as a reminder of God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt. Within the multiple sacrifices required by the sacrificial system an animal offered as a fellowship offering was to be eaten as a meal by the worshipper and his family in celebration and thanks to God.[27]                

It is striking that most contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper does not involve a meal. In contrast we have taken the biblical sign of a communal meal, bracketed by the sharing of bread and cup in memory of Jesus death, and turned it into a mere token “sign of the sign”. It is deeply ironic that the Reformers, and those who have followed them, speak of the Lord’s Supper as a “meal” even when in reality it is nothing more than a tiny portion of bread and a merest sip of wine. Given Calvin’s linkage of the Lord’s Supper with Jesus’ teaching in John 6 it is somewhat paradoxical that our contemporary celebration is almost a reversal of the feeding of the five thousand, in which God’s abundant gracious provision for his people, evidenced in the corporate meal at which both rich and poor are fed, is reduced to a tiny morsel that would not feed anyone. The twelve baskets of scraps are symbolically reduced to even less than five loaves!

The transformation of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper from a genuine meal to a mere token of a meal has been driven by erroneous theology, but also by practicality. In the early church the believers met in the homes of the wealthy women, like Lydia,[28] and they provided the food. Hospitality by patrons to their clients was already expected and established, and the practice was continued, albeit with a redefined relationship, as brothers in Christ rather than benefactors and clients. However the real question is whether this failure to reflect the biblical pattern, established by Jesus and repeated by the apostles, matters. In my view the failure to recognise that the “Lord’s Supper” is the meal-as-a-whole, and not just the elements, leads to a distortion of the Supper so that the sacramental sign does not achieve the full purpose for which it was given. The lack of a meal, which involves social interaction and mutual service and acceptance,[29] exacerbates the tendency to regard the Lord’s Supper as a primarily personal and private spiritual encounter with Jesus and individualistic experience of his presence. It encodes an unduly solipsistic understanding of the faith. Attempts to express unity through, for example, the exchange of the “sign of the peace”,[30] cannot come close to the corporate unity required to eat together. The failure to eat and share prevents the Lord’s Supper serving as a social leveller within the church community between people of different classes. The fact that the congregation can share token bread and wine in church but then return to their homes and continue their socially stratified lives, often signified by the kind, quantity and quality of food they eat, undermines a key purpose of the Supper.

The lack of a meal also contributed to the assumption that the Supper should be a time of deep solemnity and experienced presence of Jesus. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper is often accompanied by high ritual, solemn liturgy and periods of silence. An atmosphere is created for the Lord’s Supper in which it is expected that Jesus will make his presence known. It is rarely a time of joyful exuberance and celebration. In essence this creation of a solemn atmosphere is no different in kind to the way that a charismatic worship band might use music and lighting to try to create a sense of the presence of Jesus. If the Supper is a meal, this ought to fundamentally change the dynamic and experience. Although there will be a place for minimal liturgy and prayer as thanks is given for the bread and cup and their significance explained using the words of institution,[31] and also for singing in praise and thanks,[32] it will also be a time for fellowship with each other over the meal. It will be a time of joyful celebration and enjoyment, especially for those whose social circumstances mean that they would otherwise go hungry or enjoy only basic subsistence food. One can imagine how the slaves and working classes amongst the congregation at Corinth might feel sharing a meal with the upper-class members of the church, who have provided the food for them. Where there is a meal the dynamic of communion and fellowship will be at least as much, if not primarily, horizontal rather than vertical. If the pattern in 1 Corinthians is observed, then the Lord’s Supper will be at the very heart of the gathering of the local church. It will take place at the start of the gathering, and then will be followed by worship and teaching as the gifts that Christ has given to his church are exercised for the edification of the body.[33]

1 Corinthians, together with the rest of the New Testament, would also suggest that the Lord’s Supper was celebrated regularly. Calvin advocated weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the church.[34] The Corinthian church gathered on the first day of the week[35] and their meeting took the form of the Lord’s Supper. The earliest disciples devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread”.[36]

If we were to recapture the true New Testament understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a meal, and not just the elements, and as the basic meeting of the church, then this would render many of the disputes about the nature of the Supper, the presence of the Lord Jesus and the purpose of the sign redundant. They only come into play because of the way we celebrate the Supper in the first place. The Supper is a sacrament given to reinforce the identity of the church as the people who belong to Christ and who have been redeemed by his death for them, and to sustain them in their faith as they await his return. Churches find other ways to achieve this precisely because they have not followed the New Testament practice of the Lord’s Supper. It would be better if they followed the pattern of the New Testament, in full recognition that this will require them to entirely reshape the nature and purpose of church gatherings. The reduction of the Lord’s Supper to a sign of a meal rather than a meal as a sign has the same effect, therefore, of reducing true baptism by immersion (or at least effusion) to mere sprinkling. It ceases to point clearly to the thing that is signified.

(ii) “Body” – Christ is present with his people as they celebrate the Supper                    

A second key term that appears in 1 Corinthians as crucial to the Lord’s Supper is “body”. It is clear from 1 Corinthians 11:29 that in some sense the body of Jesus is present at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and that it is incumbent on the participants to ensure that they “discern” it so as not to fall subject to the judgment of God.

It would be superficially natural to assume that the reference to the “body” of Christ here is connected with the bread that is broken and shared at the beginning of the meal. After all, Jesus himself said of the bread, “This is my body, which is for you.”[37] Much of the debate at the time of the Reformation concerned the question as to exactly what it means that the bread shared at the Lord’s Supper is the body of Jesus. For Roman Catholics the doctrine of transubstantiation meant that the bread that is consecrated quite literally becomes the physical flesh of the Lord Jesus.[38] For Lutherans the doctrine of consubstantiation meant that, whilst the bread remains physically bread, Christ is literally “in, with, under and around” the bread. Both these interpretations are predicated on a literalistic significance to Jesus’ words of institution. In contrast Zwingli and Calvin insisted that the bread itself remained nothing but ordinary bread. The element was not changed in any way by the act of consecration. They regarded Jesus’ words as symbolic or figurative, and pointing to the fact that the physical body of Jesus was now glorified and located in heaven, where he has dwelt since his ascension, and where it will remain until he returns. However Calvin continued to regard the reference to the “body” in 11:29 as in some way related to the element of bread utilised in the Supper, so that to eat and drink unworthily was primarily to eat and drink without faith and love for Christ. This in turn leads him to an inwardly introspective understanding of what it means for participants to “examine themselves” so that they do not eat or drink unworthily:

By this he means that each man descend into himself, and ponder with himself whether he rests with inward assurance of heart upon the salvation purchased by Christ; whether he acknowledged it by confession of mouth; then whether he aspires to the imitation of Christ with the zeal of innocence and holiness; whether after Christ’s example he is prepared to give himself for his brethren and to communicate himself to those with whom he shares Christ in common.[39]

However the context of 1 Corinthians would suggest that the relationship between bread and body is less straightforward than this, and that the body of Christ that is present at the Lord’s Supper, and which must be recognised by those who share in the meal, is the church itself. As Richard B. Hays succinctly summarises:

the problem that Paul is addressing at Corinth is not (overtly) a problem of sacramental theology; rather it is a problem of social relations in the community.[40]

It is clear from 1 Corinthians 10:17 that the bread that is shared in the Lord’s Supper is symbolic not just of the physical human flesh of the Lord Jesus, but also of the church as the people of Jesus. Paul writes, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.”[41]                      

The identification of the church as the body of Christ is a thoroughly Pauline concept, and is present throughout 1 Corinthians. In 6:12-20 Paul is horrified at the idea that Christians could engage in sexual immorality with prostitutes, pointing to the union between Christ and believers which results in their bodies being the limbs of his body:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never![42]

The body analogy is then more fully developed in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30, where all those who are united to Christ by means of Spirit-baptism are said to “form one body” and the church is expressly told “now you are the body of Christ”.[43] The analogy is most fully stated in Ephesians 5:25-33, where Christ is described as “the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour”.

The meaning of eating and drinking “in an unworthy manner” and of “discerning the body of Christ” in 1 Corinthians 11:27 & 29 must therefore be determined in the specific context, and the majority of recent commentators agree that Paul is referring to the social sin that the rich Corinthians are committing because they are not sharing their meal with the poorer believers as equal brothers and sisters in Christ.[44] The warnings are bracketed by references to the mis-practice of some members of the Corinthian church. In 11:21-22 Paul condemns the fact that the richer members of the church are going ahead and eating before the poorer members have arrived. It may be that they are eating all the food that has been prepared, so that the latecomers are left with nothing, or that they are keeping themselves separate from the poorer members of the church and eating better food at a private table.[45] Either way, the result is that the poorer members of the church are demeaned, excluded and left to go hungry. Paul’s response is that those who cannot wait to eat with the latecomers should eat before they come out to church so that they do not need to discriminate against them. In 11:33-34 he applies the principles he has set out about discerning the body and self-examination to this problem, and his solution is that the church “should all eat together”.[46] Once again those who are too hungry to wait for the arrival of the poorer brethren are urged to eat at home before they come out.

Thus as Ben Witherington concludes, the language of “the body” in 1 Corinthians 1:29 is most likely, in the larger context, to “refer to the body of believers”.[47] It follows from this that the failure to “discern the body” in 1 Corinthians 11:29 refers to the rich Corinthians’ failure to recognise their unity and equality with their poorer brothers and sisters. They are still in the grip of the prevailing cultural attitudes of social hierarchy, considering themselves to be superior and more important. This was endemic in the Corinthian church as it had failed to grasp the character of God and the implications of the foolishness of the cross.[48] Paul calls these rich believers to examine themselves, to confirm to themselves that they are indeed members of the body of Christ, and to understand their equal standing in Christ with the other members of the body.

The social sin of the rich Corinthian Christians is no small matter, as their failure has attracted the direct judgment of God. Christ is so identified with his people that to persecute them is to persecute him, [49] and to refuse to accept and honour them is to reject him.[50] A number of the members of the church are sick, or have died, and Paul declares that this is a result of God’s judgment on them.[51] If they continue to eat and drink unworthily, failing to eat together and share a meal in equality of social status in Christ, then they will experience judgment rather than blessing.

It is striking that it is the social sins of Christians towards each other that attracts the direct judgment of God in the New Testament, and this must surely mean that we ought to take this more seriously in our churches and our practice of the Lord’s Supper. The Corinthians were not struck sick or dead because of their sexual immorality or charismatic excess in the gathering; they were disciplined by God because they behaved as snobs who would not accept one another on equal terms as members of Christ. The theme of judgment for social sin recurs in the life of the early church. In Acts 5 Ananias and Sapphira are quite literally slain in the Sprit because they have hypocritically pretended to be generous to the poor members of the church community.[52] It seems highly likely that the sin-caused sicknesses in James 5:13-16 and the “sin that leads to death” in 1 John 5:16-18 also refer to social sins, since both letters emphasise the wickedness of rich believers ignoring the needs of their poor brothers and sisters in Christ.[53]                                      

The language about the “body” in 1 Corinthians 11 therefore demands that we place greater emphasis on the social and communal dimension of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It expresses not just our relationship with the Lord Jesus but also our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Eating “together” and sharing the same food are an enactment of our acceptance of one another and of our equality before Christ. We share the same table, invited by the same host, and eat the same food. There is to be no private dining. We lose this dimension when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in an atomised and individualistic way. It is not a time for mere personal spiritual refreshment and experience, but for actively expressing our union with each other. The sacrament is given to strengthen and maintain our unity and equality in Christ.

The fact that “the body” that needs to be discerned at the Lord’s Supper is the congregation rather than the elements has implications for the way that we understand the Lord’s presence with his people at the Supper. The Lord is present, but his presence is not mediated by the bread and the wine as such. He is present with his people because they are his body, gathered together as his temple, connected with him as their vital life-source and utterly dependent upon him. He is present with them because they are the temple of the Holy Spirit, both individually and collectively.[54] Christ is never absent from his people, and he is spiritually present with them whenever they gather. He dwells in their hearts by faith through the power of the Spirit.[55] In 1 Corinthians 5:54 the Lord Jesus is expected to be present with them when they gather to exercise church discipline against an unrepentant sinner. In 1 Corinthians 14:25 God is expected to be amongst them as they pray and prophesy, using the gifts that he has sovereignly distributed amongst them. The Lord Jesus is present with his church as it gathers to eat together just as much as the demonic spirits are present with the pagans as they gather to celebrate their idol feast in their temples. Jesus has promised his people that whenever two or three are gathered together then he is present with them,[56] and the gift of his Spirit means that he is present with them always until the very end of the age,[57] when he will return to be with them in his glorious physical person. It follows that we see the glory of the Lord Jesus present amongst us when we look to our brothers and sisters and see those who “are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, his Spirit”.[58]

The Lord’s Supper is therefore best understood as the equivalent of a covenant meal under the Mosaic dispensation, which was eaten in the presence of the LORD in the precincts of the Temple. Such Old Covenant meals were consumed in the presence of God, but they were not the means by which the presence of God was experienced or made known.[59] God was already present because he had chosen to make his dwelling amongst his people. The Lord’s Supper is similarly celebrated in the presence of the Lord Jesus, but it is not itself the means by which his presence is manifested, experienced or magnified in intensity.            

It follows from this that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper can never be a “bare memorial” because Christ has promised to be present with his people by his Spirit. There is never a “bare gathering” of believers from which Christ is absent. However this does not mean that it is the fact of the meal, still less of consecrated elements, that mediates the presence of Christ to his people. Zwingli rightly argued against Papist and Lutheran doctrines that insisted that the consecrated bread and wine were somehow the means by which Jesus was present amongst his people. When properly understood he did not advocate a “real absence” of the Lord Jesus from his Supper. Towards the end of his life he wrote to King Francis I of France:

We believe that Christ is truly present in the Lord’s Supper; yea, we believe that there is no communion without the presence of Christ. This is the proof: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt 18:20). How much more is he present where the whole congregation is assembled to his honour! But that his body is literally eaten is far from the truth and the nature of faith. It is contrary to the truth, because he himself says: “I am no more in the world” (John 17:11), and “The flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63), that is to eat, as the Jews then believed and the Papists still believe. It is contrary to the nature of faith (I mean the holy and true faith), because faith embraces love, fear of God, and reverence, which abhor such carnal and gross eating, as much as any one would shrink from eating his beloved son… We believe that the true body of Christ is eaten in the communion in a sacramental and spiritual manner by the religious, believing, and pious heart (as also St. Chrysostom taught). And this is in brief the substance of what we maintain in this controversy, and what not we, but the truth itself teaches.”[60]

However this does not mean that Jesus is more present, or especially present, or present in a qualitatively different way, in the Lord’s Supper than he is when the church is gathered for prayer, praise and to hear the word of God. To put it in Anglican terms, Jesus is not less present with his people at Morning or Evening Prayer, or the Service of the Word, than he is at the Eucharist. Nor is Jesus less present with the members of the Salvation Army because they choose not to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, albeit that this is disobedient to his command. Jesus is present with his people whenever they gather because he has made his dwelling with them by his Spirit. The New Testament gives no unequivocal indication that it is intended to be understood as a mystery, and the Lord’s Supper contributed virtually nothing to the development of a wider doctrine of the presence of God.[61] The New Testament says surprisingly little about the Lord’s Supper precisely because it affirms that Jesus is present with his people whenever they gather. As Paul writes in Colossians 3:15-16:

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell amongst you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

The search for the “real presence” of Christ, whether physical or spiritual, in and through the elements of the bread and wine, sadly distracts us from discerning Christ’s body and experiencing Jesus where he has promised to be. He is in and with his people, dwelling with them by his Spirit. We should not expect the celebration of the Lord’s Supper to be a hyper-realised personal encounter with Jesus. We trust and believe that Jesus is present with us whenever we are gathered with his people. Whilst this might seem to make the Lord’s Supper more ordinary or mundane, what it should do is heighten our expectation and appreciation of every gathering that we might have as “church”. We need to “discern the body” every time, whether we are sharing bread and wine or not.

(iii) “Remembrance” – The Lord’s Supper is a covenant celebration

The key term that unpacks for us the essential nature of the Lord’s Supper, explaining both why we are commanded to observe it and what we are to expect from it, is “remembrance.” In 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 Paul repeats Jesus’ words of institution, which emphasise his command to share bread and wine, before and after the supper respectively, “in remembrance of me”. As has already been noted, if it were not for the record of Luke-Acts we would not be aware that the Lord’s Supper was anything other than a one-off event, although this might have been discerned from the fact that it was a reworking of the Passover Meal. However, the analogy with the Passover on its own might have suggested an annual festival, rather than the regular, probably weekly, gathering of the church.

The primary function of the Lord’s Supper, and the way in which it strengthens the faith, unity and identity of believers, is to bring to their memories the fact of the once-for-all-time, unrepeatable, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Lord’s Supper is, like other biblical signs, a visible enactment of the gospel word.[62] In essence it reminds those who participate of the foundational truths of the faith and their connection to them. It is a drama that declares the very gospel truths that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 Paul describes as “of first importance”:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

Paul’s assertion that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes is an inevitable concomitant of the fact that it is an enacted gospel word. Christians who celebrate the Lord’s Supper together preach the gospel to each other.

Given that the Lord’s Supper is a visible enacted gospel word we should not expect that it will operate differently amongst the people of God than a preached gospel word. At the very least the idea that the Lord’s Supper is a mystical meeting with Christ that feeds the faith of believers in a different way to the hearing of the word of God, which is equally said to be a way in which the Lord “feeds” his people, cannot be supported from the words of institution themselves, and such claims must be exegetically rooted elsewhere.

The Lord’s Supper is not merely a remembrance of the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also a reminder that these events have inaugurated the New Covenant between God and his people. Both 1 Corinthians and Luke 22 highlight the way in which Jesus defined the cup in reference to the “new covenant in my blood”.[63] Once again the other Synoptic Gospels are not as specific. Mark makes no mention of the covenant, whereas in the most reliable manuscripts Matthew refers to the “covenant” but not the new covenant.[64] Celebration of the Lord’s Supper is therefore a reminder to God’s people that he has kept all his promises to them in and through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. It is not that the Lord’s Supper is a pledge of God’s promises, reminding us that he will keep them. Rather it is a reminder that he has kept them and that consequently we live under grace and truth.[65] The package of blessings promised under the New Covenant include the forgiveness of sins, personal knowledge of God, the gift and presence of the Spirit of God, spiritual gifting to serve God and new hearts of flesh on which the law of God is written.[66]

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper would thus have been a means for the first Christians to remember “redemption accomplished and applied”. It was a reminder to the church that they no longer lived under the old dispensation of the law, but that they were living in the new age of the Spirit, which is also the final era of salvation history before the consummation of the Kingdom of God.[67] It would be a weekly reminder to them that the “fulfilment of the ages”[68] had come upon them, and that the blessings that they enjoyed in Christ and by the Spirit were better and more substantial than the apparently tangible ongoing temple worship of Judaism. The Lord’s Supper would have been an especially important reminder of the reality of the New Covenant in the context of mixed churches following the Gentile mission. It is clear from the majority of the New Testament letters that the predominant issue facing the churches was the relationship between the church and Judaism, between believers in Christ and the Old Testament Law. Remembering that the New Covenant had been inaugurated, that the Law had been rendered obsolete by the coming of the Spirit, and that Gentiles were welcome to the Lord’s feast without circumcision, would have been an important bulwark against the teaching and practices of the circumcision party. It is clear from the Corinthian correspondence as a whole that at least part of the problem in the church was a result of the influence of Judaising “super-apostles” who looked to Moses, the Law and the Old Covenant for their spiritual authority.[69]

The Lord instituted the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as a regular reminder to his people of what he had done for them. The reason that he did this is because he was aware that the greatest spiritual danger they faced would be to forget these foundational truths. The Bible is replete with signs and rituals that were given to remind and teach God’s people what he had done for them, so that their identity as his people might be formed and their loyalty maintained. Again and again they strayed from him to worship other gods because they forgot what he had done for them.[70] The New Testament letters similarly underline the repeated dangers that Christians will forget the gospel, and either assume it or move on from it. Paul’s letters, for example, usually begin with an indicative reminder of the gospel before moving to an imperative command to live out the gospel. The gospel word at the start of his letters functions in much the same way as the visible word of the Lord’s Supper in the church gathering, establishing a clear gospel foundation for the community before it proceeds to teaching and mutual edification. Faith is not sustained by daily personal experience, even spiritual experience in celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but rather by remembering the great acts of God in history on our behalf for our salvation, and then living faithfully in the light of them.

It follows that the Lord’s Supper operates to strengthen and sustain our faith mentally rather than mystically. The way in which we benefit from participating in the Lord’s Supper is by being reminded of these great truths. Calvin rightly emphasises that the benefit of the Lord’s Supper is something beyond the mere intellectual receipt of information when he writes, “…no one should think that the life that we receive from him is received by mere knowledge”.[71]

In order to avoid this danger he couches his understanding of the way in which the Lord’s Supper benefits and blesses believers in the language of “spiritual feeding” drawn from John 6. This lends itself to a more mystical interpretation of the operation of the Lord’s Supper. However, the proper antithesis to be drawn is not between “mere knowledge” and “spiritual feeding”, but rather the distinction between “mere knowledge” and “faith”. Faith is more than mere intellectual assent to truth, but an appropriation, believing and trusting of that truth.[72] Justification is not received merely by intellectual assent to the truth about justification, but by means of faith in Christ. Faith is essentially a mental act, which requires understanding of specific truths, but it is more than a mere act of knowing those facts to be true.

Calvin’s own description of the way in which the benefits of the Lord’s Supper are appropriated by the believer sometimes suggests that it is not the act of eating itself, but the mental reflection that takes place as a result of eating which strengthens faith:

When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden. For if we sufficiently consider what value we have received from the giving of that most holy body and the shedding of that blood, we shall clearly perceive that those qualities of bread and wine are, according to such an analogy, excellently adapted to express those things when they are communicated to us.[73]

His language here makes clear that it is the “mental action” of “reflecting”, “considering” and “perceiving” prompted by the eating and drinking, rather than the eating and drinking itself, that result in the strengthening of faith. However this is not exhaustive of his understanding, and elsewhere he insists that the benefit derived from the Lord’s Supper is not appropriated mentally but in some mysterious way by the act of eating with faith. Having exposed the errors of both Roman Catholic transubstantiation and Lutheran consubstantiation he goes on to write:

But when these absurdities have been set aside, I freely accept whatever can be made to express the true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, which is shown to believers under the sacred symbols of the Supper – and so to express it that they may be understood not to receive it solely by imagination or understanding of the mind, but to enjoy the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life.[74]      

Zwingli, in contrast, rejects Jesus’ teaching in John 6 as determinative of the nature of the Lord’s Supper. He summarises:

The primitive Fathers, and we ourselves in the Commentarius and Subsidium, have shown quite clearly that in the teaching brought before us in John 6, when Christ referred to eating his flesh and drinking his blood he simply meant believing in him as the one who has given his flesh and blood for our redemption and the cleansing of our sins. In this passage he is not speaking of the sacrament, but preaching the Gospel under the figure of eating and drinking his flesh and blood.[75]

As G. W. Bromiley summarises, Zwingli’s main point was that “a proper exegesis of John 6 makes plain that faith is the true feeding on Christ”,[76] not that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper has no spiritual benefit to confer because it is a “bare memorial”.

Zwingli’s exegesis and application of John 6 is supported by most modern commentators,[77] and this cuts off the branch on which Calvin’s theology of the Lord’s Supper is perched. It is extraordinary that Calvin’s reliance on this text to construct his systematic theology of the Supper has so dominated the discussion about the nature of the Lord’s Supper. In my opinion Calvin provides no convincing exegetical support for his understanding.[78] His use of John 6 as his controlling paradigm is both exegetically incorrect and pastorally unhelpful because it is liable to misunderstanding of the essential means by which we benefit from partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Our faith is strengthened when we meditate on Christ, remembering what he has done for us and the blessings he has brought to us. We do this whether our meditation is prompted by the preaching of the gospel word, or the enactment of the gospel word made visible in the Supper. The biblical concept of meditation is one of mental appropriation, in contrast to the fundamentally mystical, Eastern understanding of meditation that has come to dominate contemporary Western culture. Biblical meditation is rational rather than ecstatic, word-based rather than experiential.

The fact that the Lord’s Supper is a “remembrance” of what Jesus has done, and of his inauguration of the New Covenant, has important practical and pastoral implications for our contemporary celebration of the Lord’s Supper. In the first place it further suggests, along with the understanding of “the body” outlined above, that the Lord’s Supper is not intended to be an introspective experience of personal self-examination. All too often the practice of the Lord’s Supper seems to suggest that it is meant to be a meditation on ourselves, and especially on our inherent sinfulness and sins. However, it is surely meant to remind us to look not to ourselves, but to Christ. It is not a time to turn inwards, but to be challenged to look outwards once again to what he has done or us. No doubt the intention of many liturgies is to lead participants through a process of self-examination and re-appropriation of gospel truth and assurance, but the balance of time is usually given to preparation and confession, together with the issuing of warnings that misconstrue what it means to be “worthy”. The impression is created, perhaps wrongfully, that it is a celebration of our sanctification rather than of our salvation by grace.

Secondly, and closely related to this, is the fact that the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a joyful celebration of what Christ has done for us. This is suggested by the connection with the Passover. The Passover was commanded to be observed as a “commemoration”[79] of God’s great rescue of his people from their slavery in Egypt. It was meant to be celebrated with “great rejoicing”.[80] It was a feast and not a fast, a time for praising and thanking God for his deliverance, and for passing the story on to the next generations. If, as Ben Witherington observes, “Passover was meant to be the most joyful of meals, not the most sorrowful”,[81] this ought to be even more so for the Lord’s Supper, which commemorates our far greater redemption from our eternal enemies of sin, death and Satan.

Sadly our contemporary re-enactments of the Lord’s Supper often lack this element of “celebration”. This is partly a result of a Calvinistic heritage that equated sobriety with reverence, and had little place for exuberance and expressed joy. However it is also a result of the misconstrual of the worship service of the church as a weekly “covenant renewal” ceremony. This imports the worship patterns of the Old Covenant into the church in much the same way as Roman Catholicism imported the patterns of worship of the Temple into the Mass. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the inauguration of the New Covenant, and unlike the Old Covenant which could be broken and needed to be renewed, the New Covenant does not need to be renewed. Instead we are to celebrate the fact that we live under grace, are justified and adopted, and can enjoy bold access to God our Father. The church gathering is primarily a celebration and enjoyment of the blessings we have in Christ, not a weekly renewal of them. The cup that we share together is a cup of “thanksgiving”.[82] When we leave the Lord’s Supper we ought to be full of joy and assurance in Christ, and spurred on to live for him in thankful gratitude as we await his return. The way that we practice the Supper will significantly contribute to what we remember and how we are transformed by our participation.

(iv) “Participation” – The Lord’s Supper signifies covenant allegiance

The final word that determines our understanding of the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper is also the most controversial and emotive. In 1 Corinthians 10:15 Paul describes the cup we share and the bread we break as “a participation” in the blood and body of Christ. I hope that my explanation of the three words above has made clear that I think that they already bear much of the weight that is placed on the idea of “participation” in traditional Reformed thinking. The Lord is present with his people when they gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As they remember and meditate on what he has done for them through his death and resurrection, and the New Covenant he has inaugurated, their faith is strengthened and they are encouraged to press on in the race until he returns or calls them home. The benefits of the Lord’s Supper are appropriated by faith as we hear the gospel word that is made visible to us by the sharing of the bread and the wine.

However the language of “participation” has been taken to mean that those sharing in the Lord’s Supper thereby experience some kind of special mystical communion with Christ by reason of eating the consecrated bread and drinking the consecrated wine. It has proved, however, more difficult for theologians to explain exactly what this experience might be. Calvin, for example, voiced the impossibility he faced in comprehending or stating the spiritual presence of Christ in the bread and the wine:

Now, if anyone should ask me how this takes place, I shall not be ashamed to confess that it is a secret too lofty for either my mind to comprehend or my words to declare. And to speak more plainly, I rather experience it than understand it. Therefore I here embrace without controversy the truth of God in which I may safely rest. He declares his flesh the food of my soul, his blood its drink. I offer my soul to him to be fed with such food. In his Sacred Supper he bids me take, eat and drink his body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine. I do not doubt that he himself truly presents them, and that I receive them.[83]

Whilst it is indisputable that Paul describes sharing the Lord’s Supper as a “participation” in Christ, it is more questionable whether he means by this that eating the bread and drinking the wine are in themselves the cause of an experienced communion with Christ. That is to confuse the sign of the sacrament with the thing that is signified by the sacrament, in much the same way that it is a confusion to regard baptism as conferring union with Christ rather than as picturing the union with Christ that is already the result of placing faith in Christ Jesus as the risen Lord.[84]

Paul’s primary point in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 is that the Corinthian Christians cannot join in the celebration of idol feasts in the pagan temples. To do so is to “participate” in the worship of demons and incompatible with the exclusive loyalty that they owe to the Lord Jesus. He contrasts the cup of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and the cup of demons in the pagan idol feast, and the table of Christ with the table of demons, and says that it is impossible to have a part in both.

The term “participation”, sometimes rendered “communion”, does not have a uniquely religious meaning that conveys an experiential relationship with God. It is more usually rendered “fellowship” or “sharing”, and describes being a partner with someone in a common venture. It is descriptive of being united with a person or group in a way that suggests a common identity and common purpose.

Paul’s point is not, therefore, that the Lord’s Supper is the mystical means by which Christians are united with Jesus and share in the blessings he brings. Rather, his wider theology would suggest that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper precisely because we are already united with Christ and “have participated”, or have a share, in him and his coming kingdom. Right at the beginning of the letter Paul states that God has called the Corinthians “into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”.[85] This “participation”, for the word is identical to that used in 1 Corinthians 10:14, occurred when they put their faith in Jesus as a result of the preaching of the foolish word of the cross.[86] As a result they already belong to Christ[87] and are, figuratively speaking, the members of his body.[88] They are “in Christ Jesus” who has become for them “wisdom from God – that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.[89] In Christ they have been washed, sanctified and justified.[90] In summary, as a result of their faith in Christ, they have been called and set apart “to be his holy people”.[91] Given Paul’s clear understanding that the Corinthians are already “in Christ” by faith, and thereby possessed of all his benefits, it seems highly unlikely that the purpose of 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 is to teach that the benefits of being in Christ are somehow mediated by means of the Lord’s Supper.

This comports with Paul’s teaching elsewhere. It is through faith in Christ that believers come to be united with Christ and to “participate” in the Holy Spirit, who is the presence of Christ with his people.[92] It is by faith in Christ that they receive all spiritual blessings.[93] It is by faith in Christ that they are united with him in his crucifixion and share in his new resurrection life.[94] The sacramentalism that is often derived from the “participation” language in 1 Corinthians 10 lacks discernible support in any other New Testament texts, except John 6, which has already be argued to be irrelevant to the theology of the Lord’s Supper.

The closest parallel text to 1 Corinthians 10:14-22 is 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, where Paul is also dealing with the problem of social engagement with pagans. In 1 Corinthians 10 the issue is joining pagan idol feasts in the temple, whereas in 2 Corinthians 6 it is entering joint business ventures with pagans. In both cases the discussion is framed as a warning against idolatry. 2 Corinthians 6:14 uses the same language of “participation” as 1 Corinthians 10, although this is often concealed by our translations:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship [“participation”] can light have with darkness?

Paul’s point is that to join a joint business venture with a pagan, which would of necessity require involvement with the trade guilds centred on their temples, would be utterly inconsistent with the fact that they are already united with Christ and share in him. They cannot be united to both God and pagan idols. Their fellowship with Christ requires that they separate themselves from social interactions that would compromise their exclusive loyalty to him. They must “come out from them and be separate”.[95]

The belief that eating the Lord’s Supper acts as a means of grace whereby the faithful consumer experiences participation with Christ is ultimately an unjustified reading of the convictions of a systematic theology into 1 Corinthians 10. Most New Testament experts admit that it finds no support in the text itself. Gordon Fee, for example, writes of 1 Corinthians 10:16:

But what the evidence does not seem to allow is a sacramental understanding of the meal itself, as if they were “participating in the Lord” by the actual eating of the food, as though the food were the Lord himself. Neither the language and grammar nor the example of Israel nor the examples from pagan meals allow such a meaning. The “fellowship”, therefore, was most likely a celebration of their common life in Christ, based on the new covenant in his blood that had previously bound them together in union with Christ by his Spirit.[96]

In his opinion this refers to the “fellowship” the participants in the meal have with each other, and not to fellowship with Christ himself, although he is the basis and focus of their worship.[97] He allows no distinction between the use of the participation language in 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 1 Corinthians 10:20. 1 Corinthians 10:16 is thus treated as ecclesiological rather than mystical, and “almost certainly refers to their sharing in the provision and blessings” of the covenant inaugurated through the sacrificial death of Christ.[98] Thiselton, likewise, finds no support for the idea of a participation in Christ himself through the meal:

…to participate or to have a share in the body and blood of Christ is neither merely a self-referring allusion to belonging to the church nor an argument which depends upon a quasi-sacramental theology of the Lord’s Supper. Rather, it places at centre stage (i) the commonality (with concern for “the others”) and (ii) the exclusivity (in the framework of covenant loyalty) of a cruciform lifestyle which witnesses to identification with Christ in the practical stance and lifestyle of witnessing to the practical entailments of Christ’s dying for “others” and being raised by God.[99]

A theology of the Lord’s Supper that, according to the two leading evangelical commentators on the key passage, lacks credible exegetical support, ought to be in serious trouble.

It is therefore highly unlikely that Paul’s purpose in 1 Corinthians 10 is to provide a comprehensive positive explanation of the nature of the Lord’s Supper, still less to suggest that the eating of bread and wine at this meal is in itself a means of experienced communion with Christ. The issues addressed are covenant status, identity and exclusive loyalty. Some of the Corinthian Christians were arguing that there was no obstacle to their joining with their erstwhile pagan friends at idol feasts because the idol has no true reality. This argument would have had no substance in the first place if “participation” in the idol feast involved some kind of experiential communion with the demons behind the pagan gods. Paul does not argue his point on experiential grounds. To share in the meal is to identify with the host and to express loyalty to him. Joining an idol feast is thereby to express union and loyalty with the false god, irrespective of what is personally experienced. Sharing in the Lord’s Supper is, in contrast, to express union and loyalty to Christ. Eating and drinking is an act signifying and confirming union with him and belonging to him. It is constitutive of identity, both individually and corporately.

The participation language of 1 Corinthians 10 is thus properly understood in terms of status, identity and belonging rather than spiritual experience. This is not to say that believers who join the Lord’s Supper do not experience communion with Christ, rather that it is not the partaking of the elements of the bread and wine that effect this communion. It is faith in the truth of the gospel that establishes and maintains participation in Christ. The Christian life is from “faith to faith” not “faith to bread”, albeit that the bread reminds us of the object of that faith.

1 Corinthians 10 is therefore a reminder to us that all meals are in some sense sacramental, in that they signify a unity and identity with those with whom we eat. This is why disputes about sharing meals with others figured so prominently in the ministry of Jesus.[100] Social interactions with others are not neutral. One implication of a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper is that we have to be careful with whom we are prepared to eat. In 1 Corinthians, for example, believers are commanded not to share fellowship with those who profess faith in Christ but are subject to the discipline of the church because of their refusal to repent of their sin.[101] Whether a Christian can eat with unbelievers without compromising their loyalty to Christ will depend upon the context of their eating, and what the meal signifies. Eating at home or in a restaurant with an unbeliever who is a Freemason in a purely social context may be unproblematic. Visiting a guest evening at a Masonic Lodge with a colleague who is a Freemason would be an inappropriate participation. Having a meal with a Hindu colleague at home is not prohibited, but attending a Hindu wedding feast might be more questionable, depending upon what attendance might signify. It is exactly these kinds of difficult distinctions that Paul teases out in 1 Corinthians 9-10. These challenges will become ever more relevant to us as we live in an increasingly multi-ethnic and multi-faith post-Christian society.

However the inverse of the problem that Paul identifies in 1 Corinthians 10 is a far more prevalent issue in many contemporary churches, namely that of whether unbelievers can join in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This is rendered more problematic where we follow the New Testament pattern of a full meal, and not just the tokens of bread and wine, since it seems inhospitable to exclude unbelievers and inconsistent with the teaching and example of Jesus. However the problem is generated not primarily by the Lord’s Supper itself, but by the way that our church gatherings have become open public meetings. In New Testament times the church gathering would have been more akin to a private meeting, which took place in a private home. Evangelistic preaching took place publicly, whether in the Jerusalem Temple precincts, the synagogue or the city marketplace, and sometimes public buildings were hired for the purpose of explaining and proclaiming the gospel. However the family gatherings of the people of God for their own edification and encouragement were primarily private affairs. To some extent they would have been clandestine, because of the risk of persecution or opposition. It is unlikely that most unbelievers would have wanted to take the risk of attending. The fact that public officials thought that the early Christians gathered to practice cannibalism is indicative of the fact that their meetings, incorporating the Lord’s Supper, did not take place in full public view. This would almost certainly have been the case in Corinth where, as has been noted, 1 Corinthians 11-14 describes the church assembly in a private home.

The nature of the Lord’s Supper as a “participation” in Christ would make it inappropriate for an unbeliever to take part. Sharing the meal would be a sign of belonging to Christ, of being united with him by faith. It would be just as inconceivable for a pagan to participate in the Lord’s Supper as for a Christian to participate in a pagan idol feast. This was presumably not a problem that the early church had to address because there was no social advantage to pagans attending church gatherings. The rise of Christendom changed this dramatically. All the Reformers were at pains to stress that mere eating of the sacrament without faith would bring no benefit to the participant. Paul would more likely have declared that it was inappropriate for them to eat at all.

The idea of the Lord’s Supper as a participation in Christ therefore has significant implications for the “fencing of the table”. Only those who have put their faith in Christ, evidenced by baptism as the initiation ritual signifying union with Christ, are appropriately qualified to share in this meal. In a context where there are divergent views about the practice of baptism, I would welcome to the table all those who profess personal faith in Christ and who believe in conscience they have been validly baptised, whether as an infant or as a believer. The invitation to the Lord’s table is extended to all those who have been united to him and baptised in his Spirit, and it would be akin to the Galatian heresy to insist that we will not eat with them unless they have conformed to a specific form of baptism as we understand it.

The central problem here is, however, the idea that the gathering of the church for edification and fellowship ought to be an open public meeting. By all means hold church services that are public at which the gospel is preached, but the family meetings of the church ought to be exactly that – family events, not meetings for all-comers. In contemporary church life it might be better to regard our home groups, or a mid-week meeting for church members, as the appropriate context for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The traditional idea of a separate Sunday “Gospel Service” that is open and a “Breaking of Bread” for believers has merit and might be reconsidered. The idea that “Parish Eucharist” is to be the main public service of the church is simply a way of creating unnecessary problems and fails to reflect the New Testament pattern.

However, whilst it seems inappropriate that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated in a way that invites the participation of unbelievers, the traditional understanding has also over-emphasised the spiritual harm that is caused if an unbeliever does participate in the meal. If the body of Christ at the Supper is the church family, not the bread itself, and the dire warnings of judgment in 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 are directed to believers who mistreat each other by failing to honour their social equality in Christ, then the unbeliever does themselves no serious spiritual harm if they eat. They are already under judgment because they are not in Christ,[102] and their participation does not exacerbate that judgment. 1 Corinthians 14:24 anticipates that an unbeliever might come in to a worship meeting of the church, albeit this is not actively encouraged and is presented as an unusual occurrence. It is a possibility rather than a likelihood, and certainly not something the church is actively encouraging as an evangelistic strategy. However, if such a person came in while the church was eating their communal supper it seems unlikely that the church would refuse to allow the outsider to eat. Jesus, for example, permitted Judas to participate in the Last Supper knowing full well that he was not a true disciple.[103] In his fictional account of life in the first century church in Corinth, Ben Witherington imagines that occasional unbelievers may occasionally have come into the Christian gathering and joined in their meal.[104] Perhaps we have over-emphasised the dangers of participation in the Lord’s Supper for unbelievers whilst simultaneously underestimating the danger for believers who are failing to apply the gospel to their social relationships with their brothers and sisters in Christ.                        

A further issue is that of paedo-communion. This is essentially a problem for Paedobaptists rather than Baptists, and I personally find the arguments offered by the Reformers to deny children the right to participate in Lord’s Supper unconvincing. It seems odd to admit the children of believers to baptism, believing that this signifies their union with Christ and membership of the covenant, but then to deny them the right to feed at the covenant meal which is meant to strengthen and sustain their faith and membership of the covenant.[105] The idea that they are unable to participate because they are unable to “discern the body” and “examine themselves” can only exclude the very youngest of children, not the vast majority of baptised infants who are barred from communion in most paedobaptist churches. It also flows from a false interpretation of what Paul means by “discerning the body” as explained above. Young children are perfectly able to understand that the congregation is the people of God to whom they belong and therefore own duties of love and respect. Paedobaptists who insist on confirmation or covenanted church membership before the baptised can join the family meal seem to me to be deeply inconsistent. In practice it means that they function as if they were Baptists in relation to participation in the covenant but have invented another ritual to achieve what Baptism was meant to signify. It is not surprising that there are therefore some who have advocated the adoption of paedo-communion.[106] I don’t agree with this, but it is at least logically consistent.

Summary and suggestions for contemporary practice

The purpose of this article has been to question the contemporary practice of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Despite the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation, in many churches it retains the basic shape and format of the Roman Catholic Mass. It fails to reflect the pattern set out in the New Testament, which was universally followed in the first two centuries of the life of the church. As Ben Witherington explains:

While the Reformation brought change, it was not always or necessarily a change that amounted to a return to a more New Testament model of approaching the Lord’s Supper.[107]

The primary reasons for this failure to observe the Lord’s Supper are practical considerations. As soon as churches ceased to meet in private homes they no longer connected their worship service with a meal together. Churches became public religious venues and took their lead more from the pagan cults of the Empire than the pages of the New Testament. Theology was shaped to justify the tradition, and the idea of the Lord’s Supper as a time of deep and personal communion with God became embedded. To celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a meal inevitably detracts from the solemnity and ritual that seems to convey the special presence of Jesus and the idea that this is a moment of high revelation and spiritual encounter. To celebrate a meal together just seems too ordinary and lacking in spiritual uplift.

However, it needn’t be this way. Churches can be constructed so as to provide adequate kitchens and dining facilities to eat together. If this isn’t possible church members can bring their own lunch and share together. By failing to celebrate a meal, and over-spiritualising the experience of eating bread and drinking wine together, we miss out on major aspects of what the Lord’s Supper in meant to signify. It proclaims that we are one body who accept one another as social equals because we are brothers and sisters in Christ. It proclaims that Christ is present with us by his Spirit because we are a temple in which he has made his dwelling. It proclaims that Jesus has died for our sins, that he has risen in triumph, and that he will return to consummate his kingdom, and that we live under the blessings of the new covenant he has inaugurated. By participating we proclaim that we are in Christ, united to him by faith, that we have fellowship with him and share in the blessings he has brought. It reminds us of the grace we have received and leads us to joyful celebration and thanksgiving. It deepens our faith, identity, unity and love for one another. Many of these aspects are lost, downplayed, or displaced to another aspect of church life if the Lord’s Supper is not faithfully observed.

For a short period of time when I was Pastor of City Evangelical Church, Birmingham we celebrated the Lord’s Supper after our morning service in the context of a church lunch. We met in a school and were able to make use of the kitchens. We began our meal seated around tables with a hymn, a prayer of thanksgiving and the words of institution for the bread. We then shared bread before eating our lunch together. After we had eaten lunch we ended by sharing the cup. We spoke the words of institution and gave a prayer of thanksgiving. After we had all shared the cup we would sing a hymn that gave thanks to God for the salvation that we had received in Christ. In the end a change of venue and a shift towards different congregations in the morning and evening meant that we were unable to sustain this pattern. On reflection I think we lost something significant. I felt that we had come nearer to the practice of the early church, and were blessed in our mutual fellowship as a result. We avoided making too much, or too little, of the Lord’s Supper. It became both more ordinary and more precious. I miss it and would love to be able to recapture something like it again.

As Jesus said, discipleship consists in obeying everything he commanded.[108] Sadly, our contemporary practice of the Lord’s Supper all too often reflects what has been received from the Reformers rather than from the Lord, admittedly with the best of sincere intentions. In the end our contemporary practice owes more to tradition than to Scripture. It is not reformed enough.