April 15, 2003
One of the most moving moments in our worship as the family of God is when we surround the table of our Lord and partake together of the elements of the Lord's Supper. This is a commemorative feast filled with purpose and promise. It lies at the very core of our Christian experience. It symbolizes our unity and oneness, as well as the basis of our being. We are enriched and enlivened each time we engage in this eucharistic event.
One of the genuine tragedies of history, however, is that this precious time together has too frequently been the focus of fierce feuding within the family of God. Brethren have fussed, fought and fragmented over virtually every aspect of the Lord's Supper, thus turning this celebration of unity into an occasion for division. The saints in the city of Corinth had so lost sight of the spiritual significance of this event that Paul had to rebuke them, saying, "You come together not for the better but for the worse" (1 Corinthians 11:17). "Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper" (vs. 20). Their focus was so far afield that what they were doing could not properly even be referred to as the Lord's Supper. It had devolved from the profound to the profane.
In the centuries since the establishment of the Lord's Supper various issues have arisen which not only challenge our thinking, but at times our unity as well. Each generation has faced the specter of theological debate, and even the formation of factions, over matters pertaining to this "feast divine." Is the fruit of the vine to be fermented or unfermented? Should it be drunk from one cup or may multiple cups be used? Are we to practice open or closed communion? May it be taken to the sick and homebound who were unable to commune with the congregation? Is white grape juice acceptable, or is red the only approved color? Do the elements actually become the literal body and blood of Jesus? And on and on it goes, ad infinitum .... ad nauseam.
One of the major areas of contention in more recent generations, especially among the more fundamentalist sects, regards frequency of observance. Some suggest the Scriptures specify the day the Lord's Supper is to be observed, and that day is Sunday. This is perceived as a matter of faith, and those who have embraced this perception will actually go so far as to question the very salvation of those who would suggest any other day as acceptable to God. They further declare it must be observed every Sunday, without fail. To do otherwise is declared soul-damning SIN. They will refuse fellowship with all who differ with them on this issue. Those who do not observe the Lord's Supper every Sunday, and only on Sunday, are "godless apostates bound for hell" .... or so they will readily declare to any who will listen.
This is the epitome of legalistic misunderstanding and misapplication of Scripture, and reflects a woeful ignorance of biblical Truth pertaining to the purpose and practice of the Lord's Supper. Simply stated, it is an elevation of tradition over Truth, with a heaping helping of the hermeneutics of dogmatism thrown in. I completely agree with Dr. Grant Osborne, who observes, "The basic evangelical fallacy of our generation is proof-texting" (The Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 7). Dr. Milton S. Terry, in his classic work Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, wrote that the dogmatic methodology "sets out with the ostensible purpose of maintaining a preconceived hypothesis. The whole Bible is ransacked and treated as if it were an atomical collection of dogmatic proof-texts. Such procedures are not exposition, but imposition" (p. 171-172).
Dr. D. R. Dungan characterized this "conservative methodology" as one "bent upon retaining the opinions of the past, and preventing any further search for truth. It is pinning our faith to the sleeves of the fathers" (Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, p. 65). When one is ready to stop all search for Truth, and to bind the world to the perceptions, preferences, and practices of one's religious forefathers, this approach to Scripture will find a place in biblical interpretation. "Dogmatism first determines what it is willing shall be found in the Scriptures, and then goes to work at once to find nothing else there, and even to refuse that anything else shall be found" (ibid, p. 78). This methodology has a tendency to exalt the traditions and speculations of mere men, or of factions, to a level equal in authority with Scripture, and anything found within the text of the Bible, no matter how out of context or misapplied or misinterpreted it may be, will be accepted as proof positive of the validity of their position or practice from which they are determined never to withdraw.
Hermeneutically speaking, I believe Ron Halbrook and his fellow ultra-conservatives are dogmatists. They have a tradition to promote and protect. It is the tradition of Sunday ONLY observance of the Lord's Supper. Scripture has been ransacked and a paltry pack of passages lifted out of context in an effort to support an untenable position. Discerning disciples are increasingly perceiving the fallacy of such narrow-minded, factional thinking. Increasingly, they are turning to a reasoned review of Scripture on the matter, rather than parroting the partyists of the past.
Ron Halbrook suggests in his article, "The faith and practice recorded in Acts 20:7 and 1 Corinthians 16:2 is the same faith and practice taught by the early Apostles in those daily meetings in Acts 2:46. No, they did not eat the Lord's supper every day, but in those daily sessions the Apostles taught all things commanded by Christ, including the proper observance of the Lord's supper on the Lord's day. What one Apostle taught, all Apostles of Christ taught." It should be obvious to any student of the Word that brother Halbrook has made some gigantic assumptions here in order to try and validate his tradition of Sunday only observance.
The reality is that there has been much scholarly debate throughout the history of Christendom as to how best to interpret the historical references in Acts 2. On the day of Pentecost, after 3000 precious souls were added to the Lord, Acts 2:42 declares, "they were continually devoting themselves to ("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. Even Halbrook admits that "obviously, in Acts 2:42, Luke is discussing worship because he described a regular practice of Christians gathered to do specific things." Thus, this is an obvious reference to the regular observance of the Lord's Supper by the disciples in Jerusalem.
From the context of the chapter we know the regularity of their meetings at this time was daily. The legalists promoting their restrictive tradition will declare that all the other items in verse 42 (teaching, prayer, fellowship) were experienced daily, but the Lord's Supper was not. "Regularity" meant weekly in this one case, whereas the steadfastness of the others was daily. Is there anything in the context that even remotely suggests this interpretation? Of course not. This is a case of eisegesis, not exegesis.
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, Acts 2:42 itself really does not speak to the particulars of frequency. It merely points out that the observance was regular, steadfast, or continual. Dr. Thomas B. Warren observed, "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!" (The Spiritual Sword, July, 1982, p. 4). Or, one could also do it daily. The verse simply does not specify.
A possible reference to frequency and methodology 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 "breaking bread" in verse 46 "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," when used in this verse, refers only to a common meal shared among 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 just as strongly that it is a reference to the Lord's Supper (as in the similar phrase just four verses earlier). Many scholars view it as a common meal, but hasten to point out that the Lord's Supper was frequently celebrated (at least in the early years) in connection with such a meal. Thus, even if this was a reference to a meal shared in homes, that does not necessarily exclude the Lord's Supper which for many, many years was associated with an Agape meal.
For many centuries, and in many different parts of the world, the Lord's Supper continued to be celebrated with great frequency and great thanksgiving. "In many places and by many Christians it was celebrated even daily, after apostolic precedent, and according to the very common mystical interpretation of the 4th petition of the Lord's prayer -- 'Give us this day our daily bread'" (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church -- Ante-Nicene Christianity, vol. 2, p. 236). Cyprian, a church leader in Carthage, North Africa, who was beheaded for his faith in 258 A.D. during the bloody persecution of Emperor Valerian, spoke in his writings of the "daily sacrifice" of the Lord's Supper. So also did Ambrose (d. 397 A.D.), who was one of the most distinguished of the 4th century Church Fathers and a leader of the church in Italy.
Chrysostom (345-407 A.D.), the most popular and celebrated of the Greek Church Fathers, complained of the small number of people who showed up for the "daily sacrifice" of the Lord's Supper. Augustine (354-430 A.D.), who lived at Hippo, North Africa, and who became one of the most influential leaders of the Western Church, indicated that the observance of the Lord's Supper varied from place to place. In the early years of the church there was no set pattern; some observed it daily, some weekly, some at other times. Basil (d. 379 A.D.), one of the most respected church leaders in Asia Minor, wrote, "We commune four times in the week, on the Lord's Day, the fourth day, the preparation day, and the Sabbath."
These few references (and a great many more could be cited) indicate sufficiently that in the early years of the church's existence the frequency of observance was varied, and it was not considered a point of contention. Never were such diverse practices made into tests of fellowship or conditions of salvation. It was not until much later in history that a specific time was ordained by various legalistic groups as the only acceptable time to observe the Lord's Supper, and thus the preferences of these dogmatists were made precepts to be bound upon all humanity as tests of faith and conditions of salvation.
The doctrine of Sunday ONLY observance is derived from deductions made from a singular text by those who perceive the New Covenant writings as being a Law Book filled with proof texts. "And on the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread..." (Acts 20:7). Well, there you have it. Based on these few words an entire theology has been built. Ron Halbrook comments, "With the presence, the participation, and the approval of an inspired Apostle of Christ, the early saints ate the Lord's supper every Sunday." It doesn't take a rocket scientist to perceive that numerous assumptions must be made for one to arrive at the position that this passage commands Sunday only, and every Sunday, observance of the Lord's Supper.
Nothing is said in the passage about the practice of Troas either before or after this particular weekend. Was the first day of the week the ONLY day these disciples observed the Lord's Supper? We don't know. Did they observe it every first day of the week without fail? We don't know. Was this the practice in every other congregation on the face of the earth at this time? We don't know from the biblical text, although history reveals it was not. But there is even more that needs to be considered here. Where in the NT writings does it state that the way Troas observed the Lord's Supper with regard to the matter of frequency (assuming we even truly know conclusively the exact nature of their regular practice) is the way ALL disciples the world over MUST observe the Lord's Supper until the end of time? Where does it ever state in the sacred Scriptures that our salvation today, and even our fellowship with one another, is dependent upon US observing this memorial feast in exactly the same manner as THEY did in ancient Troas? In other words, is the singular example of Troas forever binding upon all disciples the world over until the end of time? If the answer is "yes," then where in Scripture is such a demand ever specifically stated by our Lord?
Let me ask an even deeper hermeneutical question (one the legalists have never yet been able to answer for me) -- Can a singular example override or restrict a command given by Jesus Christ and repeated by an inspired apostle? In other words, which bears more weight -- a command of our Lord or an example of mere men (about which many assumptions must be made)? Which has more authority -- a precept of deity or a practice of men?
What many rigid religionists have seemingly forgotten in their quest to bind their practice upon others (and true to form, Halbrook not even once referred to the following fact in his article) is that Jesus has already spoken to the matter of frequency with regard to the observance of the Lord's Supper. We do not have to resort to examples for our authority, for the authority lies in the words of the Master Himself. Further, a singular example does NOT have the power to forever override, restrict, limit and regulate a direct command of the Lord. In 1 Corinthians 11:25-26 Jesus issues the command, "Do this!" He then tells us the purpose and significance of the observance -- it is in remembrance of Him. And, of course, Paul elaborates on the spiritual significance in other passages, as well. Then, with regard to frequency, Jesus said, "As often as" you do it. Paul then repeats the same phrase -- "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes." The matter of frequency has forever been addressed in the phrase "as often as."
"As often as" is the Greek relative adverb "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). Other than the 1 Corinthians 11:25-26 passage, this word is used only one other time in the NT writings. This is in Revelation 11:6 where the "two witnesses" are said to have the power to perform certain actions "as often as they desire." The passage in Revelation not only leaves the action in the realm of that which is indefinite with regard to frequency, but actually leaves the matter of determination of specific practice in the hands of those performing the action -- "as often as they desire." Thus, neither Jesus, nor any of the NT writers, directly regulate or restrict the observance of the Lord's Supper with respect to time or frequency. It is left completely in the realm of "whenever."
The relative adverb "hosakis," translated "whenever" or "as often as," is nonspecific with regard to time. Daily, weekly, monthly are ALL equally in accord with the statement by both Jesus and Paul. Again, we must raise the vital hermeneutical question -- Which has the greater weight when it comes to determining our own practice today with regard to frequency of observance of the Lord's Supper? A specific command or declaration of Jesus Christ, repeated by an inspired apostle? Or a singular example about which fallible men have made countless assumptions? Unto which of these will we give "authority" to determine our practice?
Was the practice of Troas, as best we understand it, in accord with the teaching of Jesus and Paul? Of course it was! Even if the disciples in Troas did in fact observe the Lord's Supper every first day of the week, and only on the first day of the week, that would still be in complete compliance with the directive of Jesus and Paul -- "as often as" you do it. "Whenever" you do it. However, a daily observance would also be in compliance. So also would a monthly observance, or a bi-weekly observance. ALL would fall under the gracious umbrella of "as often as." True, the latter examples given would not be according to the pattern of Troas, but they would be according to the precept of Jesus and Paul. Thus, again, the question -- to which do we give preference in the establishment of practice: precept or pattern? Unto which will we bow in submission -- the direction of the Lord or the practice of a group of disciples in a single city on a single weekend?
In this particular case, when we have both -- a precept from the Lord and an observed practice of a group of disciples -- it is my conviction that one must give the weight of authority to what Jesus decreed above what a handful of disciples did. In the absence of any passage of Scripture which declares that a practice of MEN overrules, redefines, limits, restricts, and regulates a precept of the MESSIAH, I must regard the practice of men as more narrative in nature than normative. In other words, Acts 20:7 gives us some limited, and admittedly subjective, historical insight into the practice of the church at Troas at that point in its history, but it in no way is our authority for overriding, limiting, restricting, or regulating a command of Christ Jesus so as to establish a new "forever LAW" for all peoples on the planet until the end of time. I have found NO teaching of my God in Scripture which gives such power and authority to a singular example in the face of two clear declarations (one from deity, one from an apostle) to the contrary.
There is no question but what examples given in the biblical text, and inferences logically and necessarily drawn from the text, DO provide us today with greater insight into the hearts and minds of the early disciples as they set out to obey their Lord's principles and precepts. Yes, these examples do help us to better understand how these early disciples may have perceived precepts and principles, and they enlighten us as to how they might have chosen to implement them given their particular circumstances (social, cultural, political, economic, etc.). This is a valid principle of historical research and hermeneutics. However, my question remains -- Is the methodology of implementation adopted by one small group of disciples to be elevated to the level of universal, divine LAW which forever governs the practice of all disciples in all locations for all time?!
We need to keep in mind that often the methods of implementation chosen are greatly affected by the unique circumstances of one's environment. A practice or method which suited them, may be completely unsuited to us. Yes, the examples of these disciples are enlightening to us, but they are not regulatory in nature. And our inferences, assumptions and deductions concerning these examples are most certainly not regulatory, as we are fallible men and thus subject to false assumptions. This truth was stated eloquently in 1809 by Thomas Campbell in his Declaration and Address:
In summation, Jesus never restricted the observance of this memorial with regard to frequency. Paul, in restating this command, did not restrict it either. Indeed, there is no place in the NT writings that restricts, limits, or regulates this momentous event. The emphasis is always on the spiritual significance of this feast, not the timing of it. The matter of frequency has been forever addressed when the Lord Himself left it in the realm of the indefinite, the undefined, the unrestricted, and the unregulated. The Lord made the event important .... it is man who has made the day important! Unless there is some compelling reason to limit or restrict a direct command or directive, a singular example from which inferences are drawn does NOT have that power. There is no principle of biblical hermeneutics (much less of common sense) which affords such power and authority to a solitary example and inferences of fallible men over a directive of deity.
My personal tradition is weekly observance of the Lord's Supper. That is the practice I was raised with in the Churches of Christ. I have no problem with weekly observance. This is my tradition, and I have no particular desire to change it just for the sake of change. Where I have changed, however, is in my perception as to why I observe the Lord's Supper with this frequency. It is not because that is the only "Scriptural" time to observe it. Rather, it is because that is the preference of my religious heritage. Yes, this tradition of weekly observance is in full compliance with our Lord's directive "as often as." Thus, our practice is approved.
What I will never do, however, is condemn those who differ with this traditional practice. On what possible grounds could I do so?! What law of God have they violated? If a group of devoted disciples choose to remember the Lord's death in a communion service twice in one week, do we serve a God who would actually send them to hell for this "affront to His holiness?" Would our loving, gracious Father actually "torture in fire forever" one of His children who remembered the death of His Son by taking the Lord's Supper on a Wednesday? According to some, He would. Frankly, I regard such a caricature of our God as bordering on blasphemy!
There is nothing wrong with most of the traditions of our faith heritage. It is when we begin to elevate them to the status of universal LAW, and seek to bind them upon all others as salvation and fellowship issues, that we have overstepped our bounds. When we seek to force others to live by our convictions (and withdraw from them and condemn them if they refuse), we have assumed for ourselves an authority that our Lord has not bestowed upon us, and we are evidencing an attitude of which He does not approve. Daily, weekly, monthly, etc. observance of the Lord's Supper each fall under the umbrella of acceptance. It is now time for God's children to begin accepting one another, rather than perpetuating the pernicious divisions that have far too long surrounded the promotion of the preferences of mere men.
If you would like to be removed from or added to this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. I would also welcome
any questions or comments from the readers.
The Archives for past issues of Reflections is: