Observance in the Apostolic Church

by Al Maxey

The Gospel records reveal very little about the future practice of the Lord's Supper. Their focus is primarily its establishment rather than its observance. Jesus Himself, when He established the Lord's Supper, did not even specify when it was to be observed (which day, what time of day, or even frequency: Daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly). The only statements made by Jesus in the Gospel records command its observance ("do this..."), specify its motivation (" remembrance of Me"), and discuss its spiritual significance ("this is My body.....this is My blood.....the new covenant"). Jesus makes absolutely no statement at all with regard to regulatory matters. If one were to point to His example as being in any way regulatory (or a "pattern"), then the Lord's Supper would be observed in the evening and on a Thursday. Such patternistic thinking, however, is unwarranted by Scripture!

Paul quotes Jesus as saying (although this appears nowhere in the Gospel records), "Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me" (I Corinthians 11:25). Paul himself then writes, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (I Corinthians 11:26). "As often as" is a relative adverb in the original Greek. It is the word hosakis, and it "is only used with the notion of indefinite repetition" (Dr. A.T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, p. 973). Besides the above passages by Paul, the only other place this word appears in the New Testament documents is Revelation 11:6 where the "two witnesses" are said to have the power to perform certain actions "as often as they desire." Thus, neither Jesus, nor any of the NT writers, directly regulate the observance of the Lord's Supper with respect to time or frequency.

In the absence of any direct or specific command from God on the matter, the next hermeneutical step has generally been to appeal to the example of the early disciples as revealed in Scripture. On the day of Pentecost, after 3000 precious souls were added to the Lord, Acts 2:42 declares, "they were continually devoting themselves to (or "they continued steadfastly in" -- KJV) the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." It is almost unanimously agreed that this is a reference to the observance of the Lord's Supper. From the very beginning of the church's formation, this memorial feast was considered to be one of the key elements of their spiritual life and worship. Nevertheless, we see nothing specifically taught in their example as to HOW it was to be observed, or even HOW OFTEN; only that it WAS observed, and that it was observed steadfastly by devoted disciples. "'The breaking of bread' in this passage no doubt refers to the Lord's Supper. But what does that prove?! It doesn't tell you when (or how often) they did it. One can do a thing 'steadfastly' and do it every ten years!" (Dr. Thomas B. Warren, The Spiritual Sword, July, 1982, p. 4).

A possible reference to frequency and methodology, as perceived in an example of the early church in Jerusalem, might be found in Acts 2:46. "And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart." The phrase in this verse "'breaking bread' is problematic" (Dr. Anthony Lee Ash, The Living Word Commentary: The Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 1, p. 59). Some scholars feel the phrase "breaking bread," as used in this verse, refers only to a common meal shared by the early disciples. Others attach a spiritual significance to the meal, but feel it may be similar to the Jewish Chaburah = a coming together of like-minded believers during which a fellowship meal was shared. Others feel strongly it is a reference to the Lord's Supper (as in the similar phrase just 4 verses earlier). Still others view it as a common meal, but point out that the Lord's Supper was frequently celebrated (at least in the early years) in connection with such a meal, so the Lord's Supper is not necessarily excluded by interpreting the phrase as referring to a common meal. As one can see, there is little agreement as to how best to interpret this particular phrase, thus any practice or precept formulated upon this text alone will be immediately characterized as "questionable" at best. However, this has not prevented people from doing just that.

"Day by day, then, in the weeks that followed the first Christian Pentecost, the believers met regularly in the temple precincts for public worship and public witness, while they took their fellowship meals in each other's homes and 'broke the bread' in accordance with their Master's ordinance" (F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 81). Many feel this may very well "refer to observing the Lord's Supper in private residences" (The People's New Testament with Notes, Vol. 1, p. 425). If indeed this is an example of the Lord's Supper being observed by the early church, as many believe, then there is evidence that it was observed, at least initially, on a daily basis, and that it was observed in private homes, and that it was observed in connection with a fellowship meal of some kind.

Three Decades Later

Some three decades pass by before there is another reference to the Lord's Supper in the book of Acts. The year is 58 A.D., near the end of Paul's 3rd missionary journey. The place is the city of Troas (on the west coast of Asia Minor, about 1000 miles by land and 750 miles by sea from Jerusalem). Paul spends a week with these brethren, "And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to depart the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight" (Acts 20:7).

This passage indicates that at least one of the purposes of these early disciples gathering together in the city of Troas was to "break bread." Most scholars believe this is a reference to the Lord's Supper. This passage is highly significant in that it is the ONLY place within the New Testament writings where the "breaking of bread" is said to have occurred on a specific day. There are still a lot of questions left unanswered, however: Was this the only day of the week the disciples in Troas met together? Was this the only day of the week that they "broke bread" together? Was this the uniform practice in all congregations of the Lord's church? We're simply not told. Although there is considerable speculation connected with this event (and many have built an entire theology of practice & precept around this singular statement), all one can safely declare is that on that particular day in that particular city a group of disciples met together with Paul and they "broke bread." To go too far beyond that fact is to begin to walk on ever thinning exegetical ice!

The Agape

There is ample evidence that it was the practice of the apostolic church to celebrate the Lord's Supper in connection with a common meal, or a "fellowship meal." "Eating together had been a common religious activity of the Jews for centuries" (Ted H. Waller, Worship That Leads Men Upward, p. 52). The eating of a common meal in connection with a sacred observance was a very familiar activity to the Jewish people. Notice the following examples:

#1 -- The priests eating, as part of their own common meals, portions of the sacrifices brought to God (Leviticus 7:28-36).

#2 -- Melchizedek and Abram sharing bread and wine as the former blessed the latter (Genesis 14:18).

#3 -- The Passover meal was also a family meal in which all the food was to be consumed (Exodus 12).

#4 -- Moses & Aaron, Nadab & Abihu, and 70 of the elders of Israel "ate and drank" as they worshipped God on the mountain (Exodus 24:1-11).

#5 -- Isaiah's prophecy of a feast prepared by the Lord (Isaiah 25:6).

#6 -- See also: The feast prepared by "Wisdom" (Proverbs 9:1-6).

"The covenant meals of the OT are also instructive in the proper understanding of the Christian communion (examples: God and Abraham & Sarah -- Genesis 18; Jacob and Laban -- Genesis 31). In ancient times the sharing of a common meal was a deeply significant act. The fellowship aspect of these meals is of real importance.....they represented what the participants had in common" (Wendell Willis, Worship, p. 38-39).

The fact that the Lord's Supper was apparently eaten in connection with a common meal is seen in I Corinthians 11. The eating of a meal together is recognized in almost all nations as a symbol of unity (Dick Blackford, The Lord's Supper, p. 13). "One of the simplest and the oldest acts of fellowship in the world is that of eating together. To share a common meal, especially if the act of sharing the meal also involves the sharing of a common memory, is one of the basic expressions of human fellowship..... The Lord's Supper began in the Christian Church as a meal in which physical as well as spiritual hunger was satisfied" (William Barclay, The Lord's Supper, p. 56).

The fellowship meal itself was known as The Agape (Love Feast) --- see: Jude 12. Although the "Love Feasts" themselves lasted for several centuries, it was apparently only for the first few decades that the Lord's Supper was connected with this fellowship meal. The reason? These meals were being abused (I Corinthians 11:17f; Jude 12; II Peter 2:13). It was these various abuses that Paul discussed in I Corinthians.

The Agape & The Lord's Supper Abused

Jude 12 speaks of men who are "hidden reefs ("spots; blemishes" -- KJV, NIV) in your love feasts." These were men who cared only for themselves, and fed themselves without fear. II Peter 2:13 (in some manuscripts) speaks of them as "reveling in the love feasts." This is probably describing much the same kind of abuse as was occurring in Corinth.

Christ shed His blood to break down all barriers and make us all into ONE BODY. The Lord's Supper, to a large extent, was a celebration of that one body concept (I Corinthians 10:16-17). The Corinthians had lost sight of that and were dividing over various issues & personalities, and this divisive spirit was being carried over into the "Agape" and the Lord's Supper.

This "ought to have been a fraternal gathering, a bond of unity," but the conduct of some individuals "led to divisions. Groups were formed, and the general spirit of fraternity was broken" (Hasting's Dictionary of the Apostolic Church, Vol. 3, p. 374). Instead of symbolizing the oneness of the Body of which each person was a part, "the fellowship meal at Corinth was the occasion for manifesting the opposite. The freemen despised the slave class, going ahead with the meal before the latter had opportunity to arrive (vs. 21). The wealthy scorned the poor, feasting to the point of gluttony while the latter went hungry (vs. 21-22). Thus, eating and drinking in an 'unworthy manner' (vs. 27), and not discerning the body rightly (vs. 29), may have meant for Paul: Partaking of the Lord's Supper while holding each other in contempt and neither party striving to live up to the unity which took the Lord's death to bring about" (Zondervan's Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 3, p. 985).

These abuses, at least in part, led to the eventual separation of the Agape (Love Feast) and the Lord's Supper into two separate events. Both have continued in various forms throughout the centuries, but were rarely ever again celebrated together.

NOTE: Aside from the above few passages, the New Testament writings are completely silent on the observance of the Lord's Supper in the Apostolic Church. These few references constitute the entirety of the biblical teachings on this subject.

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