The Bishop: Useful Forms and Deadly Formality

“Yet all this time there is no heart in their religion. Anyone who knows them intimately can see with half an eye that their affections are set on things below, and not on things above: and that they are trying to make up for the want of inward Christianity by an excessive quantity of outward form. And this formal religion does them no real good. They are not satisfied. Beginning at the wrong end, by making the outward things first, they know nothing of inward joy and peace, and pass their lives in a constant struggle, secretly conscious that there is something wrong, and yet not knowing why. Well, after all, if they do not go on from one stage of formality to another, until in despair they take a fatal plunge, and fall into Popery! When professing Christians of this kind are so painfully numerous, no one need wonder if I press upon him the paramount importance of close self-examination. If you love life, do not be content with the husk, and shell, and scaffolding of religion. Remember our Saviour’s words about the Jewish formalists of his day: ‘This people draweth nigh with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain do they worship’ (Matt. 15:9). It needs something more than going diligently to church, and receiving the Lord’s supper to take our souls to heaven. Means of grace and forms of religion are useful in their way, and God seldom does anything for his church without them. But let us beware of making shipwreck on the very lighthouse which helps to show the channel into the harbour. Once more I ask, ‘How do we do about our souls?’” —J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion

Excessively Infrequent (1 Corinthians 11:17–34)

One of the frequent contentions concerning the Lord’s Supper is frequency. Corinth appears to have attempted the Eucharist every time she gathered (1 Corinthians 11:17–18, 20). When the early church in Jerusalem met, she broke bread (Acts 2:42, 46). Clearly the “breaking of bread,” intends more than the Supper, but I’m certain it doesn’t mean less. This is bolstered by Acts 20:7, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” Surely when the church gathered for the express purpose of breaking bread it denotes more than their being a supper club. Saying they gathered to break bread is shorthand for saying they gathered for the Supper, which is then shorthand for saying they gathered to worship.

A frequent argument for infrequency is that absence makes the heart grow fonder. “Observe it less so that it means more.” Try using this logic with your spouse. “Honey, I’m not going to kiss you as much any more, so that it will mean more when I do. Perhaps I’ll only kiss you once a quarter, when we observe the Supper, that way, it’ll be as meaningful as communion.” When we neglect the Lord’s Supper, we neglect the Lord’s physical touch. Not that the bread and wine are His literal body and blood, but they are physical things He gives to us to express spiritual truth. There is such a thing as excess, and excess destroys, but I hardly think weekly communion qualifies.

The Supper is a means of grace for the saints, but the Word is the primary means of grace. A far greater danger than the Supper becoming common to us is that of the Word becoming common. Shall we relegate the preaching of the Word to once a quarter so that it will mean more to us? Wouldn’t we be more eager listeners? No, our ears would grow dull and our hearts hard. What about corporate singing? Wouldn’t we sing with more gusto if we only did so twice a year? We wouldn’t be better singers in any way. We’d be pathetic. We’d be out of tune to the core of our chests. Our souls would grow colder than our voices grew weak. If the Lord’s Table is a means of grace, why would we want to limit the nourishment the sheep can receive from the Good Shepherd? “One’s view of the nature of the Supper plays no small part in determining frequency,” says Michael Horton. If this is just a memorial, just something we do, then less is no big deal. But, if this is a sacrament, if this is something Jesus does, then less means less.

There is freedom here. There is no explicit command from our Lord. But if I am free to come to the Lord’s Table whenever the church gathers, I want to come every time we gather. If Bethany tells me I’m free to kiss her, I had better, and if I don’t leap at that freedom, something is wrong. If the Supper means little to you because of familiarity, it’s a symptom of a much larger problem than frequency. If the Supper means little to us, it is because Jesus’ death means little to us. Regular observance is a way of knowing our hearts. Loving little cannot be solved by observing less, but observing more might be a means of loving more, because in the Supper, Jesus declares His love to us, and we love because He first loved us. Our love is born out of His, and at the table, we, by faith, have opportunity to feast on His love.