Recently, a church in a neighboring town, did the unthinkable. After the worship service ended, families in the church were able to pick up a small bag that contained the elements of the Lord’s Supper so they could take it home and observe the ordinance with their family. According to the church, it was a special time for a Christmas observance—intended to be a special time of observance with their individual families. The problem with this view is simple—the Lord’s Supper is primarily about the church’s fellowship with God and it’s not a private devotional.
The Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance—one of only two of such church ordinances given to God’s people by Jesus. How we approach God in worship matters greatly, and as we read the Bible it becomes apparent that God takes seriously the methods of our worship. For instance, when the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, offered up unauthorized fire to the LORD, God struck them down (see Leviticus 10). As we move on to the New Testament, we find similar language in 1 Corinthians 11, as Paul pointedly explained the deaths and sicknesses of the people in their local church and how it had been directly connected to their abuse of the Lord’s Supper.
Neither of the two ordinances are private or personal. They are corporate and public. In other words, we don’t baptize children who believe in the bathtub at home and simply report it to the church. There is a process by which the elders of the church oversee and care for the souls of the church—and in doing so they properly oversee the process of baptism. This is why beach baptisms at summer youth camp might seem like a cool thing, but it’s simply not biblical. Where is the gathered church? It’s likewise the same reason Christians should not be getting rebaptized at the Jordan River upon their visit to the Holy Land. It’s also the same reason why football players shouldn’t be dunked in a tank on the football field after a short presentation of the gospel. It’s not an ordinance of the football team—it’s an ordinance of the church. Baptism is to be practiced publicly—and it’s not something to be done at the beach or the Jordan River when the church is not gathered for corporate worship.
In the same way, the Lord’s Supper must be administered properly and carefully to avoid heresy and abuse. As the pastor fences the table, he will explain the church’s position (close, closed, or open communion). He will likewise explain who is invited to partake and who is not invited to the Lord’s Supper table. This time of explanation serves well for both discipleship and evangelism. However, it’s at this point that we must recall the fact that Jonathan Edwards, one of the towering figures in church history, was fired from his church for his position on the Lord’s Supper. It was during the reign of Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) that some 300 Protestants were burned at the stake for their refusal to partake in the Catholic mass, thereby embracing transubstantiation—a Roman Catholic heresy. How we approach God at the Lord’s Supper table matters (remember 1 Cor. 11)! To play fast and loose with the elements of the Lord’s Supper table dishonors God and fails to shepherd the souls of the church.
If a church distributes little bags filled with the elements of the Lord’s Supper at the back door, who is going to oversee that process in each individual home? Are unbaptized children going to partake? Will unconverted and unbaptized spouses partake? Will ESPN and the afternoon football game be playing in the background as the family eats the bread and drinks from the cup in Jesus’ name? What purpose would sending little bags with the Lord’s Supper elements home with church members serve? We must never treat the Lord’s Supper as if it’s an afternoon snack or a common meal for the church to enjoy—privately. Not only is this dangerous, it’s simply an unbiblical practice that should be avoided.
All throughout history, theologians have sought to summarize what main building blocks are mandatory for a group who gathers in Jesus’ name to be considered a true church. What then constitutes a true church? The response to this question, although varied to some degree among different theologians, resulted in three essential marks of a true church. Those marks are:
- The right preaching of the Word of God.
- The right administration of the ordinances (note that some believers refer to the ordinances as the sacraments).
- The practice of biblical church discipline.
This is such a vitally important truth to consider, especially when evaluating your own church’s worship or when moving out of state and looking for a new church. When it comes to worship, we must evaluate the “what” and the “how” of worship which is centered on what has been called the elements and circumstances of worship.
The elements will consist of the following for a weekly worship gathering. It must be noted that while public church discipline may not show up in a weekly service and isn’t required to be a weekly occurrence, it might be a part of a worship service at some point as needed. It should also be noted that even in the practice of the Lord’s Supper, some churches will observe it every week while others once per month, or some other respectable routine.
Elements as directed and commanded in Scripture:
- The public reading of Scripture (Acts 15:21, Rev. 1:3)
- The preaching of Scripture (2 Timothy 4:2)
- The hearing of the Word of God (James 1:19)
- The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, James 5:13)
- The baptism of new believers (Matthew 28:19)
- The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23, Acts 2:42)
- The Collection of Offerings (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 9:3-12)
The circumstances will consist of various ways in which the church practices the worship of God as a corporate gathering. In some cases, churches may decided to use screens for the display of the words of the hymns and songs to aid in better singing. The church may choose to use microphones, although I’ve preached in settings in other countries where there was no modern lighting or amplification. In other words, we have freedom in some respects to the “how” of our worship, but we must be clear that it’s still regulated by God’s Word. The Bible provides the boundaries by which we are governed.
How we approach the Lord’s Supper matters! This is why John Calvin once upon a time threw himself over the table and sternly warned the church. A controversy had arisen among Calvin and the Council of the city of Geneva who overturned a ruling of the church to prevent a man from observing the Lord’s Supper. He was known to be living in open sexual sin, and this grieved Calvin’s heart. He protested the Council’s decision, but went on to preach on the Lord’s Day. When the sermon was finished and following a time of prayer, he descended from his lofty pulpit to the Lord’s table. The man who was under discipline was in the church on that particular day with his friends.
After Calvin fenced the table, a sudden rush came from the sinful rebels, with swords clinging from their belts, towards the Lord’s table. They insisted that they would partake of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin protested as he flung himself over the vessels containing the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin’s voice echoed through the congregation, “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.” According to Theodore Beza, Calvin’s first biographer, after this protest by Calvin, “the sacred ordinance was celebrated with a profound silence, and under solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity Himself had been visible among them.”
If I was to give counsel to a family (as I’ve done on many occasions) who is looking to unite with a new church in another city as a result of a job transfer, I would encourage them to find a church that has a high view of church membership (guarding the front door and back door), a church that preaches the Bible in a verse-by-verse methodology, a church that properly and carefully practices baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and lastly a church that practices loving and biblical church discipline.
If the church seems friendly and the music is a delight to the ear, but the church has a loose approach to fencing the Lord’s Supper or sends it home in a little bag for private observance—it would not be one that I would lead my family to join, nor would I recommend it to others.
The Lord’s Supper is not a common meal or a private devotional before the Lord. It’s a corporate piece of the overall elements of the worship service of the gathered church. The Lord’s Supper is not a private ordinance for family devotion, it’s a church ordinance for public worship. The Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628-1680), said the following about the Lord’s Supper:
There is in this action more communion with God….than in any other religious act….We have not so near a communion with a person, either by petitioning for something we want, or returning him thanks for a favour received, as we have by sitting with him at his table, partaking of the same bread and the same cup. 
- Stephen Charnock, “A Discourse of the End of the Lord’s Supper,” The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (1864-1866; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 4:407.