What follows will be a post, or posts, on the Lord’s Supper in scripture and the early church. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write for awhile but to be honest I’ve found it, as a subject, in many ways much more complicated than baptism. The first ever ‘long’ post I did early on was on baptism and there was an urgency within it that drove me forward in that area that came with the birth of my son. For one reason or another I don’t feel that with the Lord’s Supper partly because I have no influence in this area. With Coronavirus I think I can count on one hand the number of times I had communion after Lockdowns started in the UK. That isn’t a good thing but, again, it is out of my hands from my perspective.

In any case this is a chance for me to work through my thoughts on the Lord’s Supper. Although I find myself much more time and energy poor now that I am a father of two young children. This means at the point of writing I’m unsure whether I will attempt to chart the development of the Lord’s Supper in the West the way I did with Baptism.

My Own Experience

In my original post on baptism I wrote:

Growing up I was conscious of going forward for communion with my parents at a young age, to receive a blessing from our minister. I always remember feeling like it was deeply important, despite the informal setting, and the words the minister spoke I remember even now. Yet I was conscious that I wasn’t participating in communion and came to a place where I wanted to commit myself and follow Christ who commanded us to share in his body and blood.

On Baptism and it’s timing. Part One: Introduction and Scripture

The driver for me being baptised was to be in order to partake communion, to be partake of the Lord’s body fully in every sense of the word. I didn’t have a particularly strong theology of it at that point in my life but I knew that in order to fully belong to the church sharing in this rite, this sacrament, was important.

For a number of years from my late teens to my mid-twenties communion didn’t feature prominently to me. The Church of England (CoE) churches I knew when I moved to my university town were declining progressive parishes and I wanted to explore greener pastures, the churches I subsequently attended didn’t have a strong emphasis on the sacrament.

That changed when I started attending my current parish and part of the motivation for me even attending there was I wanted to feel like my faith wasn’t just ‘inside-outside’ in the sense that it was largely internal and I then looked at ways to live in accordance with that. Sacraments tend to have a lower priority when viewed in that way. Yet I had a growing realisation that grace is fundamentally ‘outside-inside’ and that the instigating action in it’s administration doesn’t originate in you but in God who administers it to us. That doesn’t mean it’s totally passive: the word sacrament, sacramentum, has an etymology related to (but not limited to) ancient Roman oath swearing in religious and military contexts and we see that quite clearly in baptism when the subject confesses their faith in the Holy Trinity and renounces the devil and his works.

As I’ve gotten older I also realise how much I’ve been shaped by outside influences in my life, being a parent only compounds that awareness of it in yourself and witnessing it on your child. Institutions matter, habits matter, practices matter, as the Psalmist says of the idolaters:

Those who make them are like them;

So is everyone who trusts in them.

Psalm 115:8

We are shaped by one another and the environments we create. As a result I’ve tried to consciously move aware from being, in the words of Charles Taylor, a ‘buffered’ individual and develop my awareness of the fact that I am, inescapably, ‘porous’. He writes:

These two descriptions get at, respectively, the two important facets of this contrast. First, the porous self is vulnerable: to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear. … absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but becomes an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

The Immanent Frame: Buffered and porous selves, by Charles Taylor, September 2, 2008. The Social Science Research Council

I was buffered because the culture I live in shaped me in large part to be so and I am the metaphorical fish who continues to swim in those waters that make this the default position for so many of us. Yet I think my faith and a deliberate choice to expose myself to certain ideas, people, and experiences have given me the context to see that ‘buffered’ isn’t really the default state of humanity. Personal loss has taught me that in a way no measure of book reading can. In the midst of all this the sacraments do and have become much larger and central to my internal landscape. 

So, for the remainder of this entry I’ll have a look at communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist in scripture situated amongst its broader context. In the next entry I’ll look at what we have from the words of the early church on a century by century basis for the duration of the Ante-Nicene period. How I proceed from there I do not know but I will likely do an abbreviated charting of my own thinking on developments since that period and my own views. In particular I’ll consider the question of what happens when your own views don’t necessarily line up with that of the tradition you find yourself in.

The Lord’s Supper in Scripture

It’s impossible to hope to do justice to everything said in scripture about the Lord’s Supper but it’s useful too to try and place it in a broader context. Meal’s were an important part of religious life for Pagans, Christians, and Jews. Andrew McGowan comments on this:

The Christians were also not unique or peculiar in the ancient world in having common meals as a central event. In fact it would have been strange had they not shared food together in both a festive and a formal way, since most other definable social groups in the ancient Mediterranean world did the same. In 1 Corinthians, Paul compares and contrasts a “Lord’s supper” with the private suppers” his readers celebrated at other times. The Greek word usually translated “supper” is deipnon, which would be better rendered as “banquet.” A deipnon (or in Latin, a cena or convivium) was an evening meal with certain expected formalities and a tradition of proper conduct, as an institution, the ancient Greco-Roman banquet includes and defies modern categories of secular and sacred, familial and public, celebratory and solemn. 

Ancient banquets were relatively formal and purposeful events, held often but nonetheless distinguished from merely incidental eating. They could be large or small, ostentatious or austere, civic or familial. They were also an integral part of Greco-Roman (including Jewish) sacrifices, since the flesh of animal victims was often consumed straight after ritual slaughter in a festive atmosphere. Groups bound by kinship and by professional, social, religious, or ethnic ties celebrated such meals together to create and express their identity and their beliefs when need or opportunity for celebration arose.

Andrew McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship. Chapter 2. Meal: Banquet and Eucharist. P20

Examples of practice and belief concerning the Lord’s Supper from 1 Corinthians

Whilst an obvious passage to start with might be something like Matthew 26:26-28 McGowan points to 1 Corinthians as an example of how the earliest Christians actually practiced the Lord’s Supper in contrast to other meals going in the culture:

Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.

1 Corinthians 11:21-22

To the Church of Corinth and Paul the Lord’s Supper bears a resemblance in key ways to private meals familiar to the audience, yet there’s a sense of order and a consideration of others that Paul wishes to instill in order to distinguish it. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-21 we also see Paul draw distinctions between the table of the Lord and that of the demons:

16 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? 17 For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.

18 Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? 19 What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? 20 Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons.

1 Corinthians 10:16-21

The distinctions being required because there is an implication that there are aspects of the meal, the table, the sacrifice, the cup, which may otherwise seem familiar. They are both sacrifices. The question is a sacrifice to whom? The answer changes everything. The nature of the sacrifice in question for the Christian, we learn elsewhere from scripture, being that of praise (Hebrews 13:15) and the conduct of the body (Romans 12:1). The distinction between the Table of the Lord and that of Demons also echoes what Paul writes in Romans 6:16 that we are either slaves to righteousness or slaves to sin. You cannot partake of both tables, you cannot serve two masters.

1 Corinthians 10:16-21 also gives us a snapshot of Paul’s beliefs concerning the Lord’s Supper itself. The bread, the wine, the consumption of these elements being participation or union (koinōnia) in the body of Christ itself (v16-17). Yet that he evidently refers to the elements as bread and wine doesn’t lend itself to a view they cease to exist in any ontological sense. The body of Christ being the Church proper, as Paul points out later in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

When we parallel this passage with Paul’s writing from earlier in the same book “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17) we see is a continuation of a theme. In light of this the reception of the body and blood of Christ is the remembering, consolidation and continuation of what begins at baptism. Baptism whereby we die to ourselves and rise in Christ. A communal expression, oath and repetition, of their trust and faith in Christ, his death, and most importantly his resurrection. We can say, based on this passage in 1 Corinthians, that through the sacraments believers experience union with Christ and with one another. This is why Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-34 wrote:

27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world.

1 Corinthians 11:27-34

Paul is imploring the believers to recognise what it is they are doing when they eat the bread and drink the cup is not just limited to that act but that they are participating in something much grander. That this sign of unity with believers and Christ himself involves a dimension in which the individual is offering himself up for judgement according to how he receives the bread and wine. Does he rush through it in ignorance and without due weight and regard for the body (of Christ and the Church)? Then God will hold that against him.

Examples of practice and belief concerning the Lord’s Supper from Luke’s Gospel and Acts:

We also know from the book of Acts that the Lord’s Supper formed a central component of Christian life early on:

42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.

Acts 2:42

It is also significant that after his resurrection Christ made himself known to his disciples firstly by the breaking of bread. Occuring at the conclusion to his journey with two of them along the road to Emmaus:

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:30-32

The breaking of bread in this context could be seen to be precisely that, conducted in a manner closer to the Last Supper than what someone might be familiar with in a communion service or mass today. That this occurs on the first day of the week (Luke 24:1, 29), however, is worth noting. This is a pattern we see later adopted by the apostles themselves (Acts 20:7) and becomes the established precedent for the day the Church would go on to gather, not the Sabbath preceding it. For our purposes it’s important to note, however, that the breaking of bread is being repeatedly associated with this weekly gathering of Christians. If we go back on ourselves slightly this is something we see implied by Paul himself in the earlier quoted passage of 1 Corinthians 11:20-21. A passage in which he’s critical of the conduct of the Corinthian church during the breaking of bread. Let’s see it again:

Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. 21 For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk.

1 Corinthians 11:20-21

The implication being the Lord’s Supper was being consumed whenever they gathered in Corinth, albeit in this instance in a manner unbecoming of what was expected. This is confirmed by the final verse in the Chapter which simply states: “Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” (v33). Paul could be talking specifically about sharing the Lord’s Supper but I think when we hold that together with Acts 20:7 we can say this happened the majority, if not all the time they formally gathered. That doesn’t mean the church was limited to meeting once a week, we see some accounts of them meeting daily (Acts 2:46) but that this weekly pattern, on the first day, does seem linked to Christ’s resurrection and that in turn with the breaking of bed.


As mentioned at the outset there’s simply no way to do justice to every instance of communion mentioned in scripture. Instead I’ve tried to briefly summarise examples of practices and conduct we can see from within the New Testament. From what I’ve looked at I believe you can make an argument for the following:

  • The Lord’s Supper was not unfamiliar, in some respects, to Christians from a Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and bore some resemblance to non-Christian cultic ‘banquets’ (deipnon / convivium) of the period.
  • It formed a core part of weekly Christian gatherings on the first day of the week (Sundays).
  • Repeats and reaffirms language pertaining to baptism and its role in relation to the body of Christ, the Church.
  • Only Christians could partake of the Lord’s table as it was bound up with the believers’ union with Christ via their membership of the Church. Unbelievers could not eat from the Lord’s table.
  • Participation was a matter of discipline but also a theological conviction pertaining to the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and the composition of the Church.
  • There’s an understanding inherent in beliefs surrounding participation in the Lord’s Supper that allows for a ‘double reception’ of Christ’s body and blood in addition to the bread and wine.

I’ve purposefully not dived into passages like John 6:51-55 because I’ve tried to focus on conduct in the New Testament and the beliefs that emerge as evident from that. I will look at such passages from the Gospels when we come to see what the Early Church believed about them.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Let me know if you want. In the next entry I’ll attempt to map what I see Christians saying about the rite in the immediate centuries following on from the apostles.

6 thoughts on “The Lord’s Supper. Part One: Introduction and Scripture

  1. Have you ever read any of Tom O’Loughlin’s work on the Eucharist? I came across his work from his book on the Didache and he has a great academia.edu page. While I would obviously have differences with him I believe him to be a very fair commentator.
    I’d love to hear any thoughts you would have on 1 Corinthians 11.20- I feel like I rarely see people deal with the strength of that “it is *not*to eat the Lord’s supper”. What does it mean to be gathered and going through all the motions of the Lord’s supper but not to be in fact eating the lord’s supper, if that’s what the verse means? That there’s something in our deportment as a congregation which makes the lord’s supper, rather than something in what the minister does? I honestly don’t know what to make of it but any helpful commentary or engagement you come across would be very interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My reaction to 1 Corinthians 11:20 is very much based on a reading of Article 29 of the 39 Articles which says:

      “XXIX. Of the Wicked, which eat not the Body of Christ in the use of the Lord’s Supper.
      The Wicked, and such as be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ: but rather, to their condemnation, do eat and drink the sign or Sacrament of so great a thing.”

      The Augustine passage in question reading:

      “Consequently, he that dwells not in Christ, and in whom Christ dwells not, doubtless neither eats His flesh [spiritually] nor drinks His blood [although he may press the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ carnally and visibly with his teeth], but rather does he eat and drink the sacrament of so great a thing to his own judgment, because he, being unclean, has presumed to come to the sacraments of Christ, which no man takes worthily except he that is pure”
      Augustine, Tractate 26 (John 6:41-59) Paragraph 18

      Which would suggest that people whose conduct and faith fall short of what is expected cannot actually participate in the Lord’s Supper even if they outward consume the elements. However that’s perhaps importing things into the specific context of the passage but I do think there’s an implication that the Lord’s Supper should be done a particular way and the fact that some are going hungry or others drunk (v21) are a result of improper manner and conduct of the rite (both at an individual and corporate level).

      John Chrysostom said the Corinthian church had two faults: the first, that they dishonor their supper: the second, that they are greedy and drunken. Just because the Corinthian church called it the Lord’s Supper didn’t make it such because it didn’t match the manner and conduct expected of it by Paul. Which is why Paul goes on to tell them how it should be done (v23-26) and concludes with:

      “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”
      1 Corinthians 11:27‭-‬29

      Which I think is what Augustine is saying in the above quote and it applies at a corporate and individual level.

      I’ll have to check out Tom O’Loughlin’s academia.edu page. I haven’t heard of him before now. Thanks!


  2. That’s an interesting parallel with the Articles… The passage has always made me wonder about Eucharistic debates which centre on who can minister at the Lord’s supper, rather than the conduct of the congregation. I have also wondered if in the context of the letter “discerning the body” may have equally as much to do with discerning the corporate body of Christ, in the rest of the congregation, by treating them with honour? I’m interested to see where the series will go, it’s such a knotty subject. Please do include any recommended reading you come across! And hope you enjoy O’Loughlin’s work, his candour has really endeared him to me!


  3. Do you think Paul’s ‘Koinonia’ language is linked to 2 Peter 1:4’s language of becoming partakers in the divine nature?


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