Frequency of Communion
Q: Hello, I am a student in Year 12 and recently went to a Lutheran Church. I’m wondering why they didn't have Communion. It was a Sunday and I was suprised because I know Catholics always partake in the Eucharist. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my question because I am very interested in Lutheranism.
A: I’m delighted to meet a young person with such an interest in the Christian Faith and its practice. It’s also good to meet someone new from Australia. If you don’t mind traveling down Christianity’s “Memory Lane” with me, we can examine a few aspects of our sometimes divergent Communion practices.
First of all, you should know that not all Lutherans avoid every-Sunday Communion. Many congregations around the world follow the ancient tradition of offering the Lord’s Supper each week. On the other side of the coin, while every Roman Catholic parish with which I am familiar celebrates the Mass at least once a week, sometimes a priest serves a multi-point parish and a day other than Sunday becomes the day for the Eucharist at one or more of the congregations he serves. Also, even though the Mass may be celebrated weekly, that doesn’t mean that all Catholic parishioners avail themselves of the Supper each time it’s offered.
In the Church’s earliest days, weekly Communion was the norm. A few early writings indicate that believers in some places actually partook daily of the Eucharist. The pattern for communing each Sunday was set while most of the apostles and other original disciples still lived. When we remember that in a worship context, “breaking of bread” equates with the Lord’s Supper, we see that immediately following Pentecost, Christians were already gathering for regular Communion: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)”
All four elements mentioned by Luke in Acts 2 are parts of Christian worship services to this day. We still gather together (fellowship) to hear Scripture read and proclaimed in the sermon (the apostles’ teaching), to receive Christ’s body and blood (breaking of bread), and to formally and collectively petition God for His blessing (the prayers).
As the Church spread, so did regular Sunday worship, including proclamation and the Supper: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them.... And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while.... (Acts 20:7, 11)” This passage indicates a sermon (“Paul talked with them” and “he conversed with them”) and the Lord’s Supper (he “had broken bread” with them). In 1 Corinthians 11:17-33, Paul also indicated that each and every time believers came together “as a church (v. 18)” included Communion.
The Didache, one of the earliest non-Biblical Christian writings, was written around AD 100, even as the final books of Scripture were being composed or compiled. It directs believers, “Every Lord’s day do ye gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. (Chapter XIV)” This same writing also outlines the basics of the Eucharistic celebration, including praying the prayer of thanksgiving and the Our Father, much as we still do.
Not much later, Justin Martyr wrote, “On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read ... then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs.... Then we all rise together and pray, and ... when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings ... and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each.... Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. (First Apology, LXVII)”
Additional traditions and alternate interpretations of the Lord’s Supper came through the years. Already by the time of Thomas Aquinas in the mid-1200s AD, individuals in much of the Western Church were considered frequent communicants if they received the Sacrament two to four times annually. Bishops, popes, and counsels occasionally responded by demanding a certain frequency of reception of the Mass, making a law out of what should be pure Gospel. Similar requirements were attached to making individual confession of sins. These were among the abuses perceived by Martin Luther and others that the Reformation attempted to address.
However, while individuals were not commanded to commune at any particular frequency, the early Lutherans kept the Biblical pattern of every-Sunday Communion. When Rome accused Wittenberg of innovation in worship, the Lutherans replied, “Among us the Mass is celebrated every Lord’s day and on other festivals, when the sacrament is made available to those who wish to partake of it, after they have been examined and absolved. We also keep traditional liturgical forms, such as the order of readings, prayers, vestments, and other similar things. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XXIV)”
This pattern gradually eroded among many Lutherans and other, subsequent Protestant bodies. Some of the blame belongs to various theological and philosophical movements of the following centuries. Pietism emphasized a holy life and personal thoughts, deeds, and feelings above formal worship and the sacraments. If people didn’t “feel” the need, they wouldn’t commune. Rationalism then eroded much of the Christendom’s confidence in the miraculous and the Lord’s Supper was often considered more of a memorial meal than a true communion, a “participation in the blood” and “in the body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:16)”
Finally, many Lutherans discounted more frequent communing because they misunderstood what Luther said in the introduction to the Small Catechism. Where he addressed a bare minimum by which one might outwardly demonstrate Christian faith, some heard him establishing a norm for receiving (and then for offering) the Sacrament. He wrote, “You have to worry that whoever does not desire or receive the sacrament at the very least around four times a year despises the sacrament and is no Christian, just as anyone who does not listen to or believe the gospel is no Christian.” Because of these, many “good” Lutherans intentionally only communed four times a year and some congregations only offered the Sacrament quarterly or monthly.
Recent years have shown some change from these ideas. More and more Lutherans are desiring and demanding more frequent eating and drinking. In response, many churches are returning to the ancient practice of offering the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day and every feast day. This trend will continue as long as we practice gentle instruction rather than arbitrary enforcement of a mandate.
Didache and Justin Martyr quotes are from public domain sources in the Ante-Nicene Fathers series.
Small Catechism and Apology to the Augsburg Confession quotes are from The Book of Concord, © 2000 by Fortress Press.
Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.
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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.
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