Corporate Features of the Lord's Supper
With those who rightly appreciate it, the Lord's supper occupies a place absolutely unique. Its holy, tender memories recalling the Person and work of our blessed Lord; its reminder of the fulness of blessing that is ours, and the place of nearness that we occupy through His death; the bright outlook into eternity that is opened up in connection with it: — these and much more make its celebration, an expression of the fullest communion, the most absorbing love, the most triumphant worship. Words fail to convey, to those who do not understand these things, the precious privilege of remembering the Lord in the breaking of bread. There is a charm, an attractiveness about it that is divine. It is dependent upon no externals, of place or form, these would but mar its simple perfections for its proper observance. Ministry, no matter how gifted, is not necessary. The Lord's people come together, in dependence upon Himself alone, to meet and to remember Him. If gifted ministry be present, its place is in the back-ground. Officialism of any kind would be an intrusion, and a check upon the free, gracious ministry of the Holy Ghost, whose delight it is to occupy us with Christ alone. But let us for a little examine the character of this feast, so wondrous in its simplicity.
Rome has laid her unholy hands upon it, divided it in twain, and turned an unrecognizable half into a blasphemous piece of idolatry — the perpetual sacrifice of the mass, in which the "body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ" are formed by a few words from the priest. The soul shrinks with horror from such blasphemy, and burns with indignation against a system which professes to give salvation through such a perversion of truth.
In Protestantism, through the mercy of God, all this has been changed, and much of the simplicity that marked the institution of the supper has been restored. And yet, while it is not regarded as a means of salvation, it is still disfigured in some most important particulars. It is regarded as a "means of grace;" and is first "consecrated" and then "administered" by some ordained man. We would affectionately inquire, Where is there in the New Testament a hint that this supper should be in the hands of an individual, no matter how gifted, to act as host or dispenser? The giving of thanks and breaking the bread, require nothing more than the worthily partaking also requires.
Again, so far from the supper being a means of grace, that thought would be a hindrance to its proper observance. We are, alas, so selfish that we would make all things, spiritual and temporal, minister to us, and value them as they did. But the Lord's Supper is a memorial of Him, and He is the object of worship in it. True, we can never be occupied with Him without receiving blessing in our souls; but that must never be the object, it is only a result.
We come then to get a simple definition of the Lord's supper, and what is required that it should be worthily partaken of. It is a memorial feast instituted by our Lord, "the same night in which He was betrayed," where the bread and wine recall His body given and His blood shed for us. Not only did He then give directions for its observance, but these are repeated to the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 11) from His place in the glory. Thus we have fittingly linked together Christ in His humiliation and His glory, which suggests the words: "Ye show the Lord's death, till He come."
For partaking worthily of the supper there must be, first of all, in the recipient, the assurance of salvation. We say assurance, for if there remain in the mind questions still unanswered as to one's personal interest in the work of Christ, these intrude into the place He alone should occupy, and the supper becomes either a meaningless form, deadening to conscience and heart, or a torture to the sensitive soul, rather than a joyous act of worship. It is the greatest unkindness to press the unestablished soul to "break bread."
Next, after assurance, there must be a state of communion in the partaker, which is produced by the judgment of self, and of the walk. Where this is lacking, the very knowledge of grace will but harden the heart and grieve the Holy Spirit. Sin is judged, self is abhorred, and then in the sweet assurance of grace, the feast is kept.
We have thus, in barest outline, reached that which is the subject before us — the corporate features of the Lord's supper. We cannot emphasize too strongly the need of being right individually, as the indispensable basis of being right ecclesiastically. What could be more repulsive to a spiritual mind than to make the memorial of dying love, which stands alone through all eternity, a question of theological and ecclesiastical views? We would challenge ourselves and our readers to preserve ever fresh in our souls the memory of that love, which ever melts us into tenderest worship.
But we would, for this very reason, approach our subject with confidence. It is because of the preciousness of the theme, the holiness of the act, that it should be hedged about by those divine barriers which, in blessed contrast with those of Sinai to exclude the people, serve as a place of shelter for them from all that would defile, or hinder the freest exercise of worship, without the raising of disturbing questions. This at once shows the importance of the matter, and we might say furnishes the distinguishing mark of difference between the observance of the Lord's supper scripturally and unscripturally.
We will begin by quoting a scripture which we believe shows the place the Lord's supper holds in the order of the Church. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread (loaf) and one body: for we are all partakers of that one loaf. . . . Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils" (1 Cor. 10:16, 17, 21). There are three prominent features in these verses: communion in the body and blood of Christ (His work), the recognition of His Lordship and the unity of the Church. We could not omit one of these features and retain a scriptural observance of the Lord's supper. Let us not be misunderstood. We have not quoted the latter portion of this scripture to intimate that an unscriptural observance of the Lord's supper makes a "table of devils." There may be much, very much, that is unscriptural, and yet if Christ be confessed, and His death shown in the bread and cup, we would not dare to apply such a term. The "table of devils," is the idol altar, where sacrifices to devils are offered, and those who partake of these are linked with the devils.
But while disavowing the applicability of the term to any Christian table, we would call attention to the other expression "table of the Lord," and press that it suggests obedience and subjection to Him in all things. Most inconsistent is it therefore that aught should be connected with that table, not according to His will. With this we trust all will agree.
Equally essential, impossible to be severed from His Lordship, is the exhibition of the atoning work of Christ. That which fails to emphasize His death, not merely His life, and His death as an atoning sacrifice for sins — His blood "shed for many, for the remission of sins" — would fail to exhibit what is truly the Lord's supper.
Less clear perhaps to many will be the third point, that the Lord's supper exhibits the unity of the Church. And yet who that reads the passage we have quoted, can fail to see that this is prominent? The loaf symbolizes the body of Christ. But we believe there is divine fitness in its being but one loaf. In the twelve loaves of show-bread, we have Christ also, presented before God, but the number reminds us of Israel's unity — the twelve tribes presented in Christ before God. In like manner the one loaf on the Lord's table suggests not merely Christ, but the unity of His Church, His body.
Even those who question this will at once admit that another clause distinctly links the unity of the Church with the one loaf — "for we are all partakers of that one loaf." Here we have a solemn fact to face. Any celebration of the Lord's supper which ignores the unity of the body of Christ, is so far unscriptural. The divisions at Corinth are given as a reason why it was impossible to celebrate it (1 Cor. 11:18-21).
We turn next to another familiar passage in the same epistle: "For even Christ, our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth." "Do not ye judge them that are within?" (1 Cor. 5:6-13).
It may be said that partaking of the Lord's supper is not alluded to in this passage; but it gives us really a most important feature of the whole subject. Here it is Christian fellowship, and an evil doer is to be put away from the company of the Lord's people. But the supper is the highest expression of fellowship; there is nothing in Christianity so expressive of communion. To put away from their company would include, first of all, exclusion from the Lord's table; unquestionably that would be followed by exclusion from the company of the saints until repentance was manifest. But it would be impossible to think of one put away from among the saints and still permitted to break bread. Thus the passage we have quoted emphasizes the need of holiness in those partaking of the Lord's supper.
This holiness, we must remember is not left to the judgment of the individual, but is here put in the hands of the assembly, which is corporately responsible for the walk, so far as manifest, of all those received at the Lord's table. Cain might ask in defiance, "Am I my brother's keeper?" but for the Lord's people there is but one answer, We are members one of another, and should have the same care one for another. We are as responsible to judge evil in our brother as in ourselves, and this not alone for his sake, but for the honour of our Lord. The entire Assembly, and the testimony for Christ in it, are linked with what is allowed in the individuals composing it. Necessarily this does not refer to what has received the censure of the Assembly, but which does not warrant the extreme of discipline. But it is a solemn thought that Christ's holy name is linked with all worldliness, disobedience, unholy alliance with false doctrine and practice which the Assembly permits. "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump," becomes thus not an abstract doctrine, but a pungent and practical truth.
We have thus found four distinguishing features of a scriptural celebration of the Lord's supper:
- His atoning death,
- His Lordship,
- Holiness, and
- the unity of His Church,
and all these are centred in His own blessed Person. Our responsibility is to judge both ourselves and those whom we receive by these divine principles. Let us apply them.
The basis of all our peace is the atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Anyone denying that in any way, whether as to the value of the work or the nature of the Person who performed it, would be unfit to partake, and it would be disloyalty to our Lord to receive such. Closely connected with this, anyone personally clear, who yet maintained fellowship with one holding unsound views as to these fundamental points, would be equally, if not more, unworthy to remember the Lord. In the one case it might be ignorance, or a heart blinded by Satan, but in the other it would be open and deliberate condoning that which dishonoured our Lord. We would earnestly press this upon those to whom the name of our Lord is dear, who are identified with congregations where unscriptural views of the atonement and other fundamental truths are taught. How can they go on where our Lord is wounded afresh in the house of His professed friends? We greatly fear that the number of false teachers is increasing, and more and more is there need of exercise as to this.
Passing to the next feature, how wide a field for self-examination is opened by that word, "Lord." Is He indeed Lord and Master, and is His will absolute? How, then, can a disobedient walk be connected with His table? We make amplest allowance for weakness and ignorance, but we feel the great importance of this matter. The Lord's table is surely to be marked by subjection to Him, and while patience may be had for ignorance in individual cases, obedience to Him is surely to be expected from all. In moral questions, none would dispute this, but many would probably interpose serious objections to what follows.
Each time the Lord's supper is scripturally celebrated, the unity of the Church is also set forth. There can be no question that the divided state of Christendom is a blot on our Lord's honour here. To be indifferent to this state of ruin shows most assuredly either a sad lack of heart for Christ, or dense ignorance of what is due to Him. So for persons to exhibit this indifference as to what so nearly concerns Him would, on its face, argue an incapacity for truly keeping the feast. Here, however, we must carefully guard against a narrowness that would make mere intelligence the exclusive test. There will always be some who, while they have ardent love to the Lord, fail to realize their responsibilities as to testimony. Surely, grace would meet such according to their light. But these cases are exceptional, and it is not for these we speak. We refer to those capable of understanding the importance of maintaining a testimony for Christ and here we believe there should be the greatest care in reception. The whole character of a meeting may be altered by the reception of one or two not clear as to their responsibility in this matter.
To remember the Lord, then, in the breaking of bread is a corporate act, involving gravest responsibilities as to Church discipline and order. The very fact that it is not done by one individual, but always by "two or three" at least, would show this. There must be a clean place, spiritually speaking, where we meet, according to the holiness of God's house there must be the recognition of Christ's Lordship, and an endeavour to maintain the principles of the unity of the Church of God. This involves exercise and care in reception, and the maintenance of godly order in the local gathering, and a recognition only of such other gatherings, as we may be clear, exercise similar care. How much prayerfulness, firmness and patience all this requires — only those who have endeavoured to carry it out can appreciate. Often may the question arise, Is it worth the care and trouble? And as often can the answer be given, "Hold fast that which thou hast that no man take thy crown."
If it were a question of personal ease, we would advise any one to avoid this path of lonely and often misunderstood faithfulness; but if to please Christ be our object, to seek to carry out His will, to exhibit, even in the midst of the ruins of the professing Church, a little testimony to what His Church should be, we can only seek to pray for and encourage one another.
Returning now to the individual side of our subject, we can enjoy all the sweet fellowship with our Lord implied in the feast, coupled with a sense of His approval of our weak efforts to honour Him, and intensified by the "fellowship of kindred minds," who, like ourselves, have sought to keep His word and not deny His name.
May He, the Lord of His Church, awaken in us all more love and devotedness to Himself, more true love to His people, shown in obeying His will (2 John 6), and greater humility in seeking to carry out that will!
 Better: ‘Head’ of His Church [Eds.].