It’s no secret that voices within American evangelicalism are clamoring for institutional change. Political and theological divisions, high profile moral failings, hemorrhaging attendance, and theological slippage have many people wondering how to revive evangelical and Reformed churches. American evangelicalism is like a man beset by multiple complex ailments, with a host of doctors offering competing diagnoses and cures. I’m no doctor, but I’d like to suggest what might seem like a pseudo-scientific holistic approach to move the church toward greater life: practicing the Lord’s Supper frequently and in the right spirit.
When someone tells me he’s struggling with his faith, I often ask him about the nature and frequency of his prayers, his private reading of the Scriptures, his church attendance, and any possible besetting sins. It is not usually the case that God is mysteriously absent or the person’s faith is mysteriously hibernating, but often he is not participating in the means made available to him, means that lead to felt union with God and greater spiritual vibrancy. At other times, the person may be experiencing what Christian mystics called “the dark night of the soul,” a time when God withdraws His felt presence and spiritual benefits from the believer—not because of things the believer is failing to do, but in order to goad him into more fervent pursuit. As Luther says, “God often, as it were, hides himself, and will not hear; yea, will not suffer himself to be found. Then we must seek him; that is, we must continue in prayer.” In either case, I goad those struggling spiritually on to greater fervency in prayer and practice, trusting in faith that the Lord will return and reward those who diligently seek Him.
If we apply this principle to the church as an organic body, we could identify many failings—lack of church discipline, a shocking de-emphasis on sanctification, cultural capitulation, and failures in cultivating true church unity, to name a few. It may also be the case that God is withdrawing His felt presence and existential spiritual benefits so that through a corporate “dark night of the soul” we may learn to seek Him more purposefully. But in either case, the one practice that by its nature brings these other facets of life together is the Lord’s Supper—a practice many churches observe infrequently and without much thought or intentionality. So, like a sickly man at the end of his rope who looks back to a time before modern medicine to find a cure, perhaps we should do the unthinkable and look at the early church’s understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper. It might not heal all our diseases, but it might alleviate more than we realize and reveal to us needs we didn’t know were there.
Frequency and Unity
While there are not many early sources precisely outlining the patristic theology and practice of the Lord’s Table, early sermons, along with the Didache and other early liturgical writings, reveal general patterns and perspectives regarding how the Supper was practiced in the early church. Little is known about communion liturgy in the first century, but it seems evident that it was “at the heart of the life of the Church.” At minimum, it was celebrated weekly on Sunday, while other sources indicate that some received it four times a week and others daily. While frequency varied from place to place, all acknowledged the importance of the Supper as an integral part of the community’s life and faith. It was at the center of the ecclesial body.
For the early church, the Lord’s Supper was a defining marker of the church’s identity, for through it the church formed and maintained its unity as the body of Christ. Many understood the Church as formed—at least in part—through participation in the Supper. Bernard of Clairvaux even posited that those weak in faith could participate in the faith of the stronger members through the Supper. They viewed it as the primary sacrament of church unity and “the definitive mark of grace upon a church that had been graced with the presence of the Spirit.” Within this ecclesiastical context, many of the Fathers placed a heavy emphasis on the Supper’s connection with creating, maintaining, and celebrating the unity of the body of Christ. In his “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans,” Ignatius of Antioch charges his flock to “avoid divisions as the beginnings of evil,” defining such divisiveness as the polar opposite of participation in the unifying act of the Supper. Thus, the Lord’s Supper was not only a means of creating unity, but a means of chastening and convicting the church about her disunity.
An early communion prayer calls for the Holy Spirit to bring unity among the members, and according to the Didache, before coming to break bread and give thanks, church members were supposed to reconcile with one another. During the passing of the bread, the bishop would beseech the Spirit to bring together His flock from the corners of the earth and unite them as broken bread gathered and made one in Christ. John Chrysostom asserts that in partaking of the Supper, the church becomes the Body of Christ, being united vertically with Christ and horizontally with the family of God.
Augustine, of all the Fathers, places the greatest emphasis on the unifying function of the Supper, addressing it in most of his sermons on the topic. The Supper is intended to unify the congregation “so that by being digested into his body and turned into his members we may be what we receive.” In his theology of totus Christus (“the whole Christ”), he emphasizes Christ’s presence within his church: by partaking of Christ, we are partaking of ourselves, and by uniting with Christ, we are becoming united as His body. And because of its unifying function, the Supper was both a shield from divisions and a possible cure for them.
Reception and Sanctification
Alongside the early church’s emphasis on ecclesial unity stood its conviction that communicants must approach the table in a worthy manner—but this did not look like most contemporary “fencing of the table,” in which the minister is primarily concerned with keeping unworthy people from the table, rather than in helping people becoming worthy to partake. Augustine’s church said the Lord’s Prayer right before the Eucharist so that if they sinned during worship, they asked forgiveness before coming to the table; thus, “we can approach the sacrament in the assurance that we do not eat and drink to our condemnation.” He states:
Approach with fear and trembling as you partake of this altar, keeping in mind this grace and working out your salvation, “For it is God who worketh in you.” Here in the form of bread you must acknowledge the body which hung on the Cross, and here in the contents of the chalice the blood which flowed from His side.
Mere partaking of the Supper was not, then, necessarily spiritually beneficial; but, says Augustine, “provided you received this sacrament worthily, you are now, in fact, the very thing that you received.” Taken rightly, the Supper becomes a means of receiving Christ into ourselves.
Chrysostom, too, emphasized to his congregation the importance of partaking in a worthy manner, stating that the one who comes to the supper unworthily comes to shed Christ’s blood, not to drink it. “Worthiness” for Chrysostom meant being free of guilt from all sins: “It is fitting for anyone who approaches to empty himself of [money, anger, malice, and other sins of the body] first and then touch that pure sacrifice.” He continues:
in your conscience, where no one is present except God who sees all, there judge yourself, examine your sins. When you reflect upon your whole life, bring your sins to the court of your mind. Correct your mistakes, and in this way, with a clean conscience, touch the sacred table and participate in the holy sacrifice.
Ambrosiaster reiterates this, stating: “Paul teaches that one should come to Communion with a reverent mind and with fear, so that the mind will understand that it must revere the one whose body it is coming to consume.”
From the Fathers’ emphasis on the manner in which one partakes, two conclusions can be discerned. On the one hand, they clearly recognized a certain “subjective” element to communion practice. The importance of the prayers and personal disposition of the communicants indicate that the Supper was not regarded simply as an objective rite that was received equally by all or was universally efficacious as a means of grace. It seems equally clear, however, that it was not an option for an individual to decide not to partake because he deemed himself unworthy of the Supper. On the contrary, for all their emphasis on the manner of partaking, refraining from partaking is never presented as an option. In this way, early “fencing” of the table seemed to be a means of moving communicants to repentance, not keeping them from partaking. This is attested in the Didache: “If anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not holy, let him repent.” The warning for partaking unworthily was a way of adjuring the congregation to become worthy rather than adjuring them to refrain from partaking. Self-excommunication was not an option.
As a means of conviction, forgiveness, and union with Christ and the Church, the Supper was understood to be a means of personal and corporate sanctification. The bread and wine unify the church to itself and to Christ and nourish the church with the “spiritual food of truth and faith.” The Fathers regarded the Supper as a primary means of sanctification in the present, and a hope of perfection in future glory. Discussing the nature of the Supper, Ambrosiaster states: “Paul shows that the Lord’s Supper is not a meal in the normal sense but spiritual medicine, which purifies the recipient if he partakes of it reverently. It is the memorial of our redemption, so that mindful of our Redeemer we might follow him more closely.” Part of the communion prayer in the Didache entreats the Lord to use the Supper to keep the congregation from evil: “Remember, Lord, your church. Deliver it from all evil and make it perfect in your love, and gather it from the four winds sanctified for your kingdom which you have prepared for it. For Yours is the power and the glory forever.”
As a means of sanctification, the Supper was understood to be sustenance for the journey to heaven, manna from heaven to strengthen us on our journey toward the Promised Land. Following the Gospel of John and 1 Corinthians 10, Augustine interprets the manna in the wilderness as an Old Testament sacrament that pointed to the same thing as the Lord’s Supper: “This event, the actual manna, was itself a sacrament that not only pointed to the future sacrament of the Eucharist, but even made present the same spiritual effect (union with Christ).” In this way, the life of the individual and the life of the ecclesia were inextricably linked with the benefits received from the Supper. Through union with Christ at the Table, the church found its nourishment in the wilderness of the world.
Furthermore, inasmuch as the Supper was understood to be a means of union with Christ, it affected a union not merely with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but also with His incarnation and resurrection, thus bringing individuals and the corporate body into Christ’s resurrection life. In this way, the Lord’s Supper became an elegant and polyvalent Gospel rite within the liturgy and life of the church.
From this brief survey of early church’s theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper, several immediate implications and challenges emerge for the life of the contemporary evangelical church. The early church held the conviction that the Lord’s Supper was not merely an element of church liturgy, but a fundamental facet of church life. As both the means for union with Christ and the community, and as a practice that centers the ecclesial life around the principles of grace and gratitude flowing from the person and work of Christ, the Lord’s Supper is integral to the life and health of the church, inside and outside its doors. One wonders if many divisions and besetting sins within a church community could be partially or fully healed by more frequent and rightful participation in communion, joined by explicit admonitions for peace and unity and sanctification, as done in the early church. If the Church Fathers were correct, then frequent practice of the Supper should also bring greater individual and corporate sanctification.
The early church’s way of fencing the table may also provide a challenge to many churches. On one hand, their seriousness toward examining oneself should challenge many broadly evangelical churches not to take lightly the power inherent within the Supper. On the other hand, the fact that believers were never encouraged to withdraw themselves from the Table should challenge many Reformed churches’ practice of encouraging believers to withhold from partaking if they do not feel they are repentant enough of their sins. Rather, the warnings should serve to drive them to immediate repentance rather than giving them an opportunity to withhold from the benefits of Christ until they deem themselves “worthy.”
There is no single cure to the many ailments of the American evangelical church. But we would do well to consider frequent and faithful celebration of the Lord’s Supper as an essential holistic approach to unity and sanctification, one that many—if not most—American evangelical churches lack. We are a people formed at the Lord’s Table, joined together as one body, under one Lord, with one hope: that Christ will come again and serve us at the marriage supper of the Lamb as “each of us cries, with thankful tongue, ‘Lord, why was I a guest?’”
Nathan Johnson is a Professor of Theology and Moral Philosophy at New College Franklin in Franklin, TN. He has two master’s degrees in Biblical Studies and Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. He is soon to complete a Ph.D. in Humanities from Faulkner University.
Martin Luther, “Of Prayer,” Tabletalk CCCXXXIX, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/tabletalk.v.xii.html. ↑
K. W. Noakes, “From the Apostolic Fathers to Irenaeus,” in The Study of Liturgy, ed. Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, and Edward Yarnold (New York: Oxford, 1978), 170. ↑
Noakes, “Apostolic Fathers,” 170. ↑
Christopher A. Hall, Worshiping with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2009), 74. ↑
Everett Ferguson, “Sacraments in the Pre-Nicene Period,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, ed. Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering (Oxford: Oxford, 2015), 126. Evidence for this can be found in the Didache and Justin. ↑
Thomas J. Davis, “Discerning the Body: The Eucharist and the Christian Social Body in Sixteenth Century Protestant Exegesis,” Fides Et Historia 37–38, no. 2–1 (2005): 68–69. ↑
Ryan M. Reeves, “Patristic and Medieval Theologies of Sacraments,” in Christian Theologies of the Sacraments: A Comparative Introduction, ed. Justin S. Holcomb and David A. Johnson (New York: New York University, 2017), 16. ↑
Ignatius of Antioch, “Epistle to the Smyrnaeans,” in Documents of the Early Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (Oxford: Oxford, 2011), 67. ↑
“Early Eucharistic Canon,” in Documents of the Early Church, 80–81. ↑
Didache, XIV, in Documents of the Early Church, 70. ↑
Didache, IX, 68. ↑
John Chrysostom, “Homily 24 on 1 Corinthians,” New Advent (n.p., n.d). ↑
Augustine, “Sermon 57.7,” qtd. in Allan D. Fitzgerald, Augustine through the Ages (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009). ↑
Lewis Ayers and Thomas Humphries, “Augustine and the West to AD 650,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sacramental Theology, 15–60. ↑
Augustine, “Sermon 12: On the Eucharist—Easter Sunday,” in Selected Easter Sermons of St. Augustine, ed. Philip T. Weller (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1959), 113. He states, “Lest there be division among you, eat of that which binds you together.” ↑
Augustine, “Sermon 11,” in Selected Easter Sermons of St. Augustine, ed. Philip T. Weller (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1959), 111. ↑
Augustine, “On the Eucharist—Easter Sunday,” 113. ↑
Augustine, “Sermon 10,” in Selected Easter Sermons of St. Augustine,104. ↑
John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 27.6,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1–2 Corinthians, ed. Gerald Bray (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1999), 114–15. ↑
John Chrysostom, “Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 28.1,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1–2 Corinthians, 115. ↑
John Chrysostom, “On Fasting, Homily 6.5.22,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1–2 Corinthians, 115. ↑
Ambrosiaster, “Commentary on Paul’s Epistles,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1–2 Corinthians, 115. ↑
Of course, it was recognized that the table was only for believers. As The Apostolic Tradition states, “but let each one take care that no unbeliever taste the eucharist, nor a mouse nor any other animal, and that nothing of it fall or be lost; for the body of Christ is to be eaten by believers and must not be despised.” Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 60. ↑
Didache, 10.6. ↑
Thomas L Humphries, “St. Augustine of Hippo,” in Christian Theologies of the Sacraments: A Comparative Introduction, ed. Justin S. Holcomb and David A. Johnson (New York: New York University, 2017), 54. ↑
Ambrosiaster, “Commentary on Paul’s Epistles,” in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: 1–2 Corinthians, 113. ↑
Didache, 10.5. ↑
Hall, Worshiping, 63. ↑
Thomas L Humphries, “St. Augustine of Hippo,” in Christian Theologies of the Sacraments: A Comparative Introduction, ed. Justin S. Holcomb and David A. Johnson (New York: New York University, 2017), 54–55. ↑
Isaac Watts, “How Sweet and Awful Is the Place.” ↑