So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. — 1 Corinthians 10:31
My purpose in this essay is to sketch an argument against the practice of the Lord’s Supper in private settings, outside of the normal corporate meetings of the local church. I present this in the broader context of framing the purpose and typology of the Lord’s Supper, and of corporate worship. Most of my argument is suggestive and typological; this is not a matter of absolute right and wrong but of wisdom and the maturing of the church, Jesus’s bride.
Regardless of whether you agree with my conclusions I hope you will find the discussion edifying.
I am part of a family of churches where the local church is held in high esteem, and likewise the office and authority of elders. In this particular context I do not have to establish that something unique happens on Sunday morning compared to a small-group meeting, or that elders are charged by God with a unique role in the church and are given real spiritual authority. The question for us is not whether anything unique happens in the corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day, but whether the Lord’s Supper is an essential part of that uniqueness.
Additionally, my family of churches has briefly addressed the question of appropriate venue for the sacraments. During the 2007 Sovereign Grace Ministries pastor’s conference, Jeff Purswell spoke on sacraments. At a couple of points Jeff briefly addresses the question of appropriate venue. This is part of an overall charge to pastors to help their churches grow in their practice and understanding of the sacraments, and to take more seriously their responsibility to lead and guard the church in and through the sacraments. While there are portions of his message that I disagree with significantly, it is an important point of reference for someone in the Sovereign Grace family of churches.
I want to establish in advance some fences for discussion. While arguing against the private practice of the Lord’s Supper, there are a number of things I want to make clear that I affirm:
First, it is important for the people of the church to gather together in table fellowship regularly outside of church (as in Acts 2). It is not an indifferent add-on to the Christian life, but a fundamental part of fellowship, with the potential to proclaim or even to deny the gospel (Galatians 2). In one sense, just like every marriage ought to symbolize and anticipate Jesus’s union with his bride, every meal we share with one another — not just the Lord’s Supper — has an aspect of symbolizing and anticipating Jesus’s marriage supper. Furthermore, wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name, he is among them (Matt 18). More generally, Jesus is always immediately present with us through his Spirit, through one another and through his word.
Second, there is a tremendous expansion and flattening in the new covenant, so that we can speak of all of God’s church as being priests, without regard to their office, calling, nationality, age, station, etc. More than that, we are not priests unto ourselves, but we are priests to one another and to the world. We all have priestly privileges of serving one another on behalf of God: praying for one another, inviting one another to worship and proclaiming the forgiveness and love of God to one another. It is no longer the case that one nation of priests serves God-fearers from all nations; now all God-fearers constitute a nation of priests to the world.
Finally, we are in one sense already seated with Jesus in heavenly places (Eph 2). In fact, this is a greater privilege than the priesthood of all believers — to be counted as sons rather than household servants, and to be given authority and rule as well as responsibility.
Similarly, there are a number of cultural blind spots and temptations that the church needs to guard against. While these issues do not directly relate to the private practice of the Lord’s Supper, they contribute to the background.
First, there is a Western and even evangelical tendency to individualism that can discount the centrality of the church. In particular, evangelicalism can situate the family before the church in God’s plan. But the church is the one family that will endure into eternity; and while there are ways in which both the church and family are vital, the church does have a kind of priority and ultimacy over the family. Moreover, Jesus and his under-shepherds in the church have real, if limited, responsibility for and spiritual authority over families.
Second, there is an evangelical tendency towards gnosticism that plays out in several ways. We often give lesser attention to the Old Testament, and tend to discount believers’ real experience of grace, salvation and the work of the Spirit under the old covenants. Also, we tend to think in terms of an over-developed natural-spiritual dichotomy. We wrongly identify the natural with the physical, so that we strive for purely spiritual experience apart from not only the natural but even the physical. We thus devalue the many physical gifts of God, including the physical rituals and ceremonies that he gives to us. All this further tends to erode the significance of the church and her weekly gathering.
Finally, while we rightly love the gift of fellowship, it is easy for us to seek fellowship as an end in itself, rather than seeing it as a means to God’s glorifying himself by maturing his bride and advancing his kingdom. Thus, the Lord’s Supper is not a means to fellowship (“hey, we should get together for the Lord’s Supper sometime”), but is a kind of fellowship that, like all fellowship, is a means of building up the church and bringing glory to God.
The synoptic gospels (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22) don’t offer a lot of evidence concerning venue and administration of the Supper. Only Luke records the command to “do this,” but without much detail. John 13 describes the circumstances of the first Supper but not the meal itself.
Acts 2:42ff is inconclusive. At best, we bring our presuppositions to the passage and read it in those terms. As an example, Calvin considers 2:42 to be referring to the Lord’s Supper, but 2:46 to be referring only to table fellowship. Yet even if 2:46 refers to the Lord’s Supper, it is not clear that this is not a temporary arrangement as the church and her worship were being formed (just like the first Passover). So we must search elsewhere for confirmation.
Paul’s speaking of body and Supper in 1 Corinthians 10-11 is very relevant. Importantly, he associates the bread with the totus Christus, the “whole Christ,” by identifying it both with Jesus’s human body and also with Jesus’s body the church. Paul’s concern throughout this book is for the Corinthians to live rightly as the body of Christ, and this remains his concern regarding the Lord’s Supper. He speaks of the Supper in the specific context of “com[ing] together as a church” and goes on to contrast Lord’s-day communion with eating and drinking in houses. He specifically condemns a factional or familistic practice of the Supper. Paul is very concerned that their practice of the Supper be consistent with the gospel in including the whole body. With Grudem, I believe that even Paul’s warnings echo this concern, so that “unworthy,” “examine” and “discern” must all be read in terms of ensuring that we eat the Supper with love and consideration for the whole body. We must not practice the Supper in such a way that we are denying the gospel and saying “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12).
John 6:25-59 seems to allude to the Supper, especially considering that John wrote this after Jesus’s death, to a church that was very conscious of the Supper. However, it doesn’t offer significant evidence, except that, with Paul, John associates the Supper with participation in Jesus’s body. If, as with Paul, we take the body in the totus Christus sense, this again means that the Supper is a participation in Jesus and in his church.
We now venture a little farther afield to see what implications we can draw from typology.
First: the church and her worship. God’s covenants take on a consistent pattern. Each of God’s covenants establishes a new covenant head and a new covenant people, and many of God’s covenants establish a house for himself. The final covenant head is Jesus, and the ekklesia (assembly, congregation) that God has established for himself is the church. God’s house today is not a tabernacle or temple, but has reached its fulfillment in God’s people. Because of this, the church is much more the typological fulfillment of the tabernacle and temple than it is the pragmatic continuation of the synagogue. This, in turn, has profound implications for understanding the church’s worship. Please consider reading my essay on the typology of worship. Briefly, the Lord’s-day gathering of the local church is not a local event; it is a sacrificial ascension into heaven together with the universal church to meet with Jesus. The Lord’s-day gathering is a fulfillment of sacrificial tabernacle and temple worship, of the old-covenant “assembly” of God’s people; and it is an anticipation of and preliminary entrance into heavenly worship.
We confess that Jesus is right now “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” While he is present with us through his word, his Spirit and one another, the Lord’s-day worship is in a sense the one time that we are said to go up to be with him. While the tables in our homes are our own tables, the Lord’s-day meal is the one time we can be said to eat at Jesus’s table with him. In a sense, we can no more eat the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s Table in Scott’s house than we can eat the President’s supper at the President’s table in Scott’s house.
Second: Passover and the peace offering. There is actually some dispute whether the first Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal. At issue is whether Jesus ate the Passover lamb, or was himself put to death at the same time the lambs were slaughtered (1 Cor 5:7). Jesus also seems to suggest that he will not eat the Passover (Luke 22:16), and the day after the Supper is called the day of preparation of the Passover (John 19:14). Regardless, we are clearly meant to associate the Supper with Passover. More than that, the Supper is the new covenant’s only covenant meal, and it is thus the typological fulfillment of all of the the old covenant’s meals. Passover was the chief covenant meal, and it was a kind of peace offering, the only offering that the worshipper was allowed to eat.
You might think that the connection to Passover could be used to argue for the practice of private communion — a covenant meal celebrated by families in homes. But that is not the full picture. The first Passover took place in homes, but it was not much of a celebration since it was eaten in haste and the victory was yet to be won. And even at this point in history, there was a subtle emphasis on congregation over family: Israel was specifically instructed to eat with their neighbor rather than seeking out extended family (Exodus 12:4).
It seems unlikely that Israel celebrated the Passover in the wilderness, other than the first year by Sinai. We know they did not practice circumcision (Joshua 5:5), which was a requirement for celebrating Passover (Exodus 12:48). In any case, if they did celebrate Passover, there would have been a congregational emphasis since they were celebrating it together in God’s holy war camp, gathered around his tabernacle.
After entering into the land, we know from Deuteronomy 16 that the Passover was not to be celebrated in homes and towns. Instead, it was celebrated only in the place of the tabernacle and temple, in connection with an assembly of all God’s people before him. All the lambs were slaughtered at the altar.
It’s not clear what happened during the time the tabernacle and ark were separated, nor after the destruction of Solomon’s temple. We do know that peace offerings were made at David’s tent (1 Chron 16:1), which was not the tabernacle but which housed the ark, so it may be the case that Passover was celebrated where the ark was located, at the taberancle, or both. In any case, these were exceptional circumstances. When temple worship resumed, so did Passover celebration at the temple. Jesus and his family celebrated the Passover in Jerusalem “every year” (Luke 2:41). It is not until the destruction of Herod’s temple in AD 70 that the Jewish system of offerings is brought to a complete end, and the Passover is disconnected from the temple and Jerusalem. Only when the old covenant is completely unraveled is the Passover celebrated in homes.
Likewise, not just Passover but all peace offerings were to be celebrated at God’s house (Leviticus 3). Again, God’s house is today the corporate Lord’s-day gathering of the church.
Third: the tribute offering. While the Supper is strongly connected to the peace offering, there are typological connections to the tribute (or grain) offering (Lev 2). The tribute offering consisted of bread, oil, frankincense, and once Israel had entered the promised land, wine. It is the only offering described as a memorial to God. Thus, when Jesus speaks of the Supper as a memorial (Luke 22, 1 Cor 11, etc.), he is purposely invoking the tribute offering. The Supper is much more a pleasing reminder to God of the work of his Son than it is a reminder to us. As with the peace offerings, the tribute offering was made only at God’s house (Lev 2).
Interestingly, the tribute offering itself is typologically linked to the tabernacle and temple’s holy place, because it is a miniature replica of everything in the holy place (oil, bread, wine, incense). These things in the tabernacle and temple are symbolic of Israel and the work of their hands. Likewise the tribute offering was brought as a way of the worshipper offering himself and the fruit of his hands to God. The worshipper was brought into God’s presence, and the work of his hands was incorporated into God’s house. Once again we have very corporate imagery with connections to God’s house.
In the old covenant, priests set a meal for God in the holy place but did not eat in God’s house. They could eat portions of the tribute offering, but could do so only as household servants. In the new covenant, while we are all priests, we are actually invited into God’s house every Lord’s day as sons, to eat at his table.
Fourth: bread. We eat bread in the Lord’s Supper. Bread may be part of a covenant meal (Gen 14:18). It is symbolic of our works offered to God (as in the tribute offering). It is symbolic of the entire people of God, as in the twelve loaves of bread in the sanctuary (Lev 24:5), or as in the Supper itself (1 Cor 10:17). And it is symbolic of Jesus’s human body (John 6). While there is a lot of layered imagery, it is clear that the bread is symbolic of the unity of the entire church-body.
Fifth: wine. The use of wine in the supper is also suggestive. As with bread, wine is a product of man’s labor, the transformation and glorification of raw creation under the creation mandate. Wine and bread are both therefore a Sabbath and eschatological picture. Wine is doubly so: it is not only the finished product of the week’s labor, but it also symbolizes the relaxation and joy and rest that are fitting for when our labor is finished. This picture of festive rest in God’s presence after the completion of labor is very clear in the case of Abraham’s meal with Melchizedek. It is also interesting that God’s people are not permitted to partake of wine in worship (Lev. 10:9) until true rest comes with the new covenant. (Wine is such a pregnant Biblical symbol that, in a sense, refusing to use wine in the supper is to prefer the childhood and guardianship of the old covenant to the maturity and rest of the new covenant.) All of this Sabbath and eschatological imagery points to the fact that the Supper is a Sabbath meal; we are in a sense jumping the gun if we seize this festive rest before the labors of our week are done, before our king has lifted us up to his weekly feast and rest.
Sixth: man’s covenant meals. There are also typological connections to human meals, such as Abraham’s meal with Melchizedek and Mephibosheth’s eating at David’s table. In each of these cases there are types of Jesus that reinforce the idea that the meal rightly takes place in Jesus’s presence, at his table and in his house.
Much of this Biblical symbolism is layered or multifaceted. Thus, the supper is a meal that God sets out for us, but it is also a memorial that we hold up before God. The bread symbolizes the savior, but also the bride, and the firstfruits of our labors. The wine symbolizes the savior, but also God’s gifts of rest and joy to us, and the firstfruits of our labors offered to him. We ascend to God’s house on the Lord’s day to eat with him, but we are ourselves God’s house. We take Jesus’s body and life into ourselves, but in a sense he takes us into his mouth to incorporate us into his body (Rev 3:16): we eat and are eaten. All this complex layering of symbolism should not surprise us; God’s world is musical, poetical, Trinitarian. But this underscores the fact that not just the Supper, but the whole Lord’s-day service, is a real covenantal-liturgical dance between Jesus and his bride. The Supper is a bridal meal and the corporate worship of the church on the Lord’s day is when Jesus meets with his bride.
We have considered typological reasons for excluding private practice of the Lord’s Supper. But there are a few things we can add to the argument from our systematic and sacramental theology.
We have already identified the Supper as a covenant meal. This is important because it means that the Supper exists in a covenantal context. The corporate assembly of the church is the unique expression in history of the covenant people, the bride; we wouldn’t say this of a small group meeting. The corporate worship of the church is the appropriate context for the covenant meal.
Evangelicals tend to think of sacraments as actions we perform towards or before God: baptism is a public expression of faith and obedience; the Supper is a mutual reminder of Jesus’s work. But covenant signs are equally things that God gives and does to us. In covenant signs, God is speaking to us. Baptism is God’s public declaration of our justification, adoption, and ordination into the priesthood of all believers. The Supper is God’s publicly bringing us to his table to continue in fellowship with him. It is true that under the priesthood of all believers, we all have the privilege and responsibility to declare to one another, “brother, God has forgiven you!” and “sister, God loves you!” But, in the absence of extenuating circumstances, the public covenantal expressions of God’s justifying, adopting and keeping us should come to us through his church and its servant-officers.
The sacraments are also a double-edged sword: there is a confirming grace in them but also a threat of greater judgment. The baptisms in the flood and the Red Sea carried both life and death. Those who have been named by baptism as belonging to Jesus bear a stricter punishment (Heb 10:29). Those who eat at Jesus’s table while despising his mercy are equally under threat of judgment (1 Cor 10:14ff). The sacraments carry a threat of judgment. Related to this, there is a disciplinary aspect to the church’s administration of the sacraments. Jesus gives the keys of his kingdom to the church (Matt 16:19). Jesus has overcome Adam’s sin and curse, and his kingdom is no longer under the guardianship of the cherubim; instead the church holds the keys. God has thus given his church and her officers the authority and responsibility to guard the boundaries of the covenant people. This is fundamentally expressed in terms of the covenant signs: it is the church and her officers that have final responsibility to admit people through baptism, to sustain people through the Supper, and to “bind” and put out the unrepentant through exclusion from the body and the Supper. God intends for the sacraments to express that “this is my body, my bride.” Private gatherings do not constitute the bride, and they are not occasions for guarding the boundaries of the covenant people. Furthermore, pastors and elders should be involved in the administration of the sacraments, not because they have a unique priestly responsibility, but because they have a covenantal administration responsibility. Guarding boundaries has a priestly aspect, and is a responsibility that all believers share to an extent. But it is also a Levitical, shepherdly (pastor), presbyterial (elder) and episcopal (overseer) responsibility, a responsibility that the church’s officers particularly exercise in the context of the covenant gathering and the covenant signs.
What I have sketched is a suggestive and typological argument against the private practice of the Lord’s Supper. This is based on a particular typological understanding of what the church is, what worship is, and what the Lord’s Supper is. In light of these, I suggest that a communion meal outside of the church’s corporate worship is simply not the Lord’s Supper. More than that, I suggest that attempting to practice the Lord’s Supper in this way ultimately dishonors our Lord, his bride, his table and his house. This is more a matter of the church’s growing in wisdom and maturity than it is a matter of sin. Jesus is very understanding of our feebleness and imperfection. However, we should seek to grow in honoring him appropriately.
In the words of Jim Jordan, I do not think this is a final word, but I hope it is a helpful word. In particular, I hope that even if you disagree with my conclusion, you have been prompted to see more depth and significance in the church and her worship.
There are several related issues that I will deal with in closing.
First, my greater desire is not to restrict the practice of the Lord’s Supper, but to encourage it. Seeing the typological richness of the Supper should lead us to savor it more. Wherever possible, I think it is good to practice the Supper weekly, with an emphasis on joy rather than sobriety (consider Deut 14:22ff, Nehemiah 8:9ff), and using real bread and wine.
Second, we should not ignore or brush off whatever might be prompting us to see the need to practice the Supper in private gatherings. Do we need to practice the Supper more often on the Lord’s day? Do we need to practice it with greater joy, or with greater awareness for one another? Do we need to cultivate a greater appreciation for and understanding of the privilege of going up to be with Jesus in worship? Do we need to grow in our practice of hospitality and table fellowship? We should ask these questions.
Third, what should we do about those who cannot be present at church on the Lord’s Day? For the Passover, God made provision for some people to participate a month later (Numbers 9:9ff). This suggests that a larger church with sufficient means could make provision for people to participate in corporate worship and the Supper at an alternate time, such as Saturday or Sunday evening. In general, the church has not seen it as a hardship to limit the Supper and worship to set times and places. This also provides an opportunity for us to serve, the ministry of bringing people to church. Praise God that we are no longer under the laws of uncleanness, so that there are far fewer seasons that we are excluded from corporate worship!
Fourth, I have suggested another corporate service than the Lord’s-day service. Since there was a tribute offering every morning and evening at the tabernacle and temple, there is a possible argument for a church to have morning and evening services throughout the week where the Supper is enjoyed. Yet because of the Sabbath and eschatological imagery of the Supper, the Lord’s day remains the most fitting time for the Lord’s Supper, and would be the time when it is celebrated with the most lavishness and joy.
Fifth, who may administer the Supper? The question is part of a larger set of questions: who may baptize; who may lead worship in the church; who may preach and teach in the church? There is a compelling argument from the priesthood of believers: many of these things were the tasks of God’s household stewards under the old covenant, and now that the new covenant makes priests of every believer, all believers may participate in these tasks.
However, there are scriptural reasons for excluding many believers from some responsibilities in the church (e.g, 1 Tim 3:1ff, Titus 1:5ff, 1 Tim 2:12). And we find that some responsibilities were given to elders and Levites under the old covenant, rather than priests. All this suggests that, while these roles have a priestly aspect of service in God’s household, there is some additional controlling model for their practice. As I suggested earlier, Scripture does not model church officers after priests; rather, God has given officers to the church as administrators of his covenant in much the same way that Jethro arranged Israel (as host, bride, church) under Moses (Ex. 18:19ff). We have already seen that the sacraments in particular are vital to marking the boundaries of the church, and this is a function of administering the covenant. It is most fitting, wherever possible, for church officers to administer baptism and the Supper, to lead corporate worship, and to preach and teach in corporate settings. While we are all privileged to speak as Jesus’s ambassadors to one another, church officers are given the particular responsibility to speak and serve on behalf of the church’s husband when his bride is assembled before him. This is a key reason that church officers must be male and must be exemplary husbands themselves.
Sixth, we have explored a comprehensive typological model of the corporate Lord’s-day worship of the church. What, then, happens in a small group meeting? We see examples in scripture of such meetings for the purpose of fellowship, prayer, singing, discussion. Jesus is certainly present with us at such meetings through his word, his Spirit and one another — often in very powerful ways. The main distinction we can make is that while he is with us in such meetings, it is only on the Lord’s day that we go up to be with him in his own house. Thus, we have much more freedom and much less liturgy or ceremony to our small group meetings, compared to when we enter into the Lord’s presence on the Lord’s day.
In the past I’ve administered sacraments in a small group setting. I wouldn’t do so again, but I most likely wouldn’t refuse to participate if someone else led.
We are often pulled in many directions at once. Especially with secondary matters, there is often more than one thing at stake.
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. — Eph 3:20-21