When one prepares for a communion service there are a few questions that must be answered so as to provide a foundation for the proceedings; how often do we perform communion?, who can participate and who can perform the service?, are there any preparations one must go through before partaking?, how do we understand the bread and the wine in relation to Christ’s physical body?, and what is the meaning of the communion service? These are a few of many important questions one must have an answer to. Often the denomination with which one is involved will have a stance on many of these topics but, even when this is the case, it is advantageous for the one who is going to perform the communion service to know why he does what he does and what the Scriptural foundation is for the specific practices he performs. To ascertain the answer to these various questions I have read and studied Scripture and different viewpoints over the last few years as I have administered communion and have come to a few conclusions.
Jesus when He instituted communion, as recorded in the 3 synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians, set forth a commemorative practice for His disciples to continue regularly. In none of the accounts is a specific frequency given, but in light of the commemorative function and the opportunity for self-examination and edification, once a week is probably not too often. Because of a lack of specific Biblical injunction, each Church will have to determine on the basis of biblical principle and practicality what serves their congregation best.
Though in the middle ages the Catholic Church instituted a practice of only administering the cup to the clergy, there is no Scriptural basis for discrimination in the offering of Communion except with provision of only administering to believers. This would be founded on the fact that participation in communion is remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins and the institution of a new covenant in which only regenerate believers participate. Paul also highlights the strong relationship between the supper and the relationship of Christians to one another as the body of Christ. Paul explanation of God’s corrective against the Corinthians would seem to indicate that believers should, before partaking of communion, examine themselves in relation to the body of Christ and strive for the restoration of disunity. As for who may administer the ordinance, in light of a lack of any specific biblical probation or command on who may or may not perform the service there would seem to be no reason to limit the administration to clergy.
It seems best to not understand Christ’s words about the cup and the bread as His blood and body as literal statements. As Christ in His physically body presented the bread to His disciples they would have concluded that He was referring to the reality of which the bread and blood represented. This fits with Jesus’ common use of figurative language, at various times (namely in the book of John) referring to himself as the “door of the sheep,” the “bread of life,” and the “true vine.” This understanding fits best fits the evidence we have, for the disciples of Jesus would not have been viewing Jesus’ words through complicated metaphysical structures as some traditions would suggest. From Jesus’ words in the various accounts we find in the NT it would seem that communion is meant to look forward to the coming marriage supper of the Lamb in eschatological glory where the disciples, and us with them, will again eat and drink with our Saviour. In it we also remember the entrance of the new eschatological reality in which we now live, we remember Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice on the Cross for many and the institution of a new covenant in His blood whereby we have a personal relationship with God, regenerated hearts, and a covenant community made entirely of regenerate believers. As well as a commemorative service that also looks forward to a future fulfillment, it is also a public proclamation of the death of Christ until His return. Finally, it is a declaration of Christian unity in the body of Christ and time of self-examination as to where we stand in relation to our brothers and sisters who make up Christ’s Church.
There are many more questions that could be asked in regard to the nature of the Communion service, and much more that could be said on the brief answers that have been given, but these suffice to give a doctrinal basis for the performance of a communion.
Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology : an Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press ; Zondervan, 1994.