Three Resources on Weekly Communion
Here are three papers on this topic written by evangelical scholars from the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, Michael Horton, Kim Riddlebarger, and David Gordon:
Michael S Horton , “At least Weekly: The Reformed Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and its Frequent Celebration “
Kim Riddlebarger, “The Reformation of the Supper”
T David Gordon, “Weekly Communion”
I found that Horton raised a number of interesting questions that stimulated my thinking. Firstly, the question of preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper. In both the Scottish and Dutch traditions we have had preparatory services before our infrequently celebrated communion services. Often these have encouraged a kind of inquisitorial frenzy of self-doubt where Christians have been berated for their lack of true spirituality and progress in sanctification. Are they really holy enough to come to the Table?
Horton quotes Calvin in opposition to this:
“Certain ones, when they would prepare men to eat worthily, have tortured and harassed pitiable consciences in dire ways; yet they have not brought forth a particle of what would be to the purpose. They said that those who were in the state of grace ate worthily. They interpreted ‘in the state of grace’ to mean to be pure and purged from all sin. Such dogma would debar all the men who ever were or are on earth from the use of this Sacrament [of the Supper]. For if it is a question of our seeking our worthiness in ourselves, we are undone; only ruin and confusion remain to us”
The duty of self-examination, suggests Horton, is more to do with the reality of our faith than the maturity of that faith – do we truly know Christ as Saviour? He declares, “It is inspection, not introspection, for which the Apostle calls in 1 Corinthians 11:27-34.”
Furthermore, “Once more, Holy Communion (like baptism and the preaching) is chiefly an objective affair and it is something that God does for us, not something that we do for God. He does not need our resolution or our memorializing of his Son’s death, but we need to hear again and not only hear but see his resolve and his remembering of his own promise to us individually as his covenant children.”
What is the sin condemned by Paul in 1 Corinthians, and to what does the self-examination refer? Is self-examination specific, regarding a particular fault found in the celebration of the Supper in Corinth (division and social separation), or is it general, an introspective inquiry regarding our own personal worthiness to come to the Table? By taking it as the latter “the table of grace became more a table of self-condemnation which has been an obstacle for many to come and experience the fullness of the Lord’s Supper” (Lanuwabang Jamir, “Exclusion and Judgment in Fellowship Meals: The Socio-historical Background of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, 2016)
Jamir, in his book length in depth study of the context of the call to self examination, forcefully states:
“In the passage "anazios" (unworthy) beyond all doubt refers to the attitudes and actions of some of the members that has created a party spirit and division .”
The self-examination, therefore, was primarily of “one’s attitude and motive at the Supper, and then one’s actions towards fellow members in the community.” (Jamir)
Spiritual self-examination is a Christian duty, and no doubt coming to the Lord’s Table does focus that examination, but the context of 1 Corinthians does not suggest that it is a major part of our preparation that we judge of our worthiness and sanctification. We come to the Table because we need grace; we do not stay away because we are deficient in our Christian growth.
Weekly communion, therefore, does not need to be preceded by a service of preparation and introspective self-examination. We always need the grace signed and sealed by Christ at the Table and therefore we need to come to enjoy the rich provision Christ makes for us at his table.
A second practical point that Horton makes is “Care should be taken here, as throughout the service, not to be overly didactic and wordy. This is a time for God to act according to his promise, not primarily an opportunity for us to teach.”
Although he makes this point with reference to the call to self-examination it has a wider application. It is sometimes objected that we cannot have regular or weekly communion because it takes too long. I generally use the excellent introduction found in the OPC directory of worship which gives a clear explanation of the meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. However, is it always necessary to give such a protracted explanation?
We do not precede our preaching with a lengthy explanatory statement concerning the meaning and purpose of preaching – we just preach and let the Word do its work. There is an argument to be made for a shorter form of Communion, without the full explanatory preface. Perhaps the longer form could be used occasionally to make sure that we know what we are doing and why, but a shorter form be used more often – just administer the sacrament and let grace do its work.
An alternative suggestion is to include a regular explanatory word in the bulletin – quotations from our confessional documents, (the Larger Catechism!), and the confessional statements of Reformed orthodoxy throughout the ages, and the writings of Reformed theologians. A steady flow of such didactic material would do much to educate our congregations on the true biblical and Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper, while enabling the service to flow naturally from Word to Sacrament.
I do encourage a thoughtful and prayerful reading of these three papers and welcome any suggestions stimulated by them.