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19th Apr 2020

The Biblical Practice of Holy Communion

In recent times, it has been asked repeatedly, “Can I take Holy Communion at home by myself? Can Holy Communion be observed with my family at home, or in private?” These questions are raised because some famous charismatic pastors encourage the private partaking of Holy Communion at home by individuals.

Baptism and Holy Communion are two ordinances that Christ has instituted. When He first instituted those ordinances, it was the apostles (and not all the believers) whom Christ commissioned to administer them. According to Matt 28:16-20, Jesus commissioned the apostles to baptise. While Christ called people to baptism, it was the disciples whom the Lord designated to baptise (see John 4:2); not all who believed on Him were given the prerogative to baptise themselves or one another. Likewise, He instituted the Holy Communion when only the apostles were with Him in the upper room (Matt. 26:20-30; Mk. 14:16-26; Lk. 22:14-20). Upon Christ’s ascension, the apostles were the chief leaders of the church who led in the ministry of the Word and sacraments. The Lord also gave the church evangelists and pastors to work along with the apostles, as the ministers of the Word and sacraments in the churches. (This is evident from the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles – cf. Ephesians 4:11.)

After the Lord Jesus called Paul to be an apostle (to the Gentiles), he received instruction concerning the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Concerning which he wrote, “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread…” (1 Cor. 11:23). Now, Paul’s words regarding baptism, “For Christ sent me not to baptise, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17a), should not be thought of as dismissive of his ministerial duty concerning baptism. Instead, he was emphasising that when he was in Corinth, preaching the Gospel was his primary duty, and then baptising. Paul did baptise those who turn to Christ with their household (cf. Acts 16:28-33; 1 Cor. 1:14-16). So, even Paul who joined the apostolic team, as “one born out of due time” (1 Cor. 15:8), was involved in the administering of the sacraments in the early church.

The New Testament shows that baptism and the Lord’s Supper were done in the presence of the apostles or by men appointed as leaders of the churches by the apostles. (Acts 2:42; Acts 20:7, 10-11). In all those records of Lord’s Supper, the presence of the apostles is mentioned.

Even when it is recorded in Acts 2:46 concerning the Jerusalem church “breaking bread from house to house,” when taken in its context, it is not a reference to individual families or individuals breaking bread on their own, but the believers coming together in houses and, as a church, breaking bread. Moreover, the immediate context of this record (v. 42 – “they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship”) demands that we should recognise those ’house to house’ gatherings as including the apostles. So, if need be, believers may get together with their ministers of the Word in their homes and break bread.

But there is no evidence that believers were permitted in the New Testament era to take Holy Communion on their own in their homes. The practice of the New Testament churches was to come together to break bread, and not breaking bread at home by each family or each individual. Consider the following biblical evidence.

Acts 20:7 – “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” The norm was for believers to come together on the Lord’s day (the first day of the week) to break bread. The apostle Paul was in their midst, ministering to them the Word. (See also Acts 20:11). The record of Acts 20 is an emphatic witness against the private breaking of bread in one’s home!

The church in Corinth, according to the apostle Paul, gathered together in one place to break bread. However, Paul severely rebuked them when each of the church members started to eat on his own (ignoring the order that was instituted by the apostles and practised by the early church). While admonishing them for such frivolous conduct, he said, “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken” (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). In Corinth, the issue of the private partaking of Lord’s supper was further worsened due to their selfishness, insubordination, divisions, lack of forbearance and love for one another.

So Paul continued his rebuke in 1 Corinthians 11:22, “What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.” These words of the apostle show that he certainly did not regard eating at home individually as the proper manner of partaking in the Lord’s Supper. Later, he insisted that the coming together in Christian unity and in love for one another is the way to participate in the Holy Communion. Otherwise, he advised that “if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. And the rest will I set in order when I come” (1 Corinthians 11:34). Eating at home as an individual family or as individuals – and not as part of a fellowship of the church, as well as without a minister of the Word – was not regarded as manner worthy of the Lord’s Supper. In other words, the partaking of Holy Communion by oneself or by families was against the divinely taught pattern of its practice in the early church.

The exhortation that the apostle gave to the church in 1 Corinthians 11:33 – “Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another” – is instructive. Earlier in 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul had reminded the Corinthian church of the partaking of the Lord’s Supper as a communion of the body of Christ (not an individual affair) – “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?” Undoubtedly, the fellowship of the brethren as a church was an essential part of the Lord’s Supper.

The clear teaching of the New Testament is that the Lord’s Supper ought to be administered when believers gather together as a group, with their ordained minister of the Word – for the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, for worship, for the teaching of the Word of God, for prayer, for fellowship. It was never practised, according to the Scriptures, individually at home. Holy Communion is to be observed with the church family.
That’s not all. The Bible also warns us of the great dangers of partaking the Lord’s Supper against the definite counsels of the Word.

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians clearly show that the individual partaking of Holy Communion, apart from the communion of the church, was against the order, discipline and unity that the Lord expects within His church. Such individualistic partaking of the Lord’s Supper will destroy the church’s cohesion, submission to the divine order concerning worship and ordinances.

Another danger is that careless and unbiblical partaking of the holy ordinances would provoke God to wrath. According to 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, such behaviour invites His chastisement, even sickness and death – “27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. 29 For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. 31 For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. 32 But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world.”

Moreover, the private partaking of the Holy Communion is a dangerous trend that will lead to more flippant and irreverent practices which are unbiblical. For instance, if fathers and families will serve Holy Communion at home on their own, what would prevent them from baptising themselves or other family members? Since the Bible does not warrant commemorating the Holy Communion at home on one’s own or observing it with one’s family at home, or in private, such self-appointed role speaks of careless and presumptuous behaviour. Partaking of Holy Communion at home without the fellowship and the oversight of the ministers of God ignores the clear Biblical records and instruction on this matter. It not only portrays ignorance of and irreverence to the biblical guidelines, it also breaches biblical unity and order within the church. Such is not the practice of the ordinances that we see in the Bible.
It is also crucial for us to note that such private partaking of Holy Communion has not been the practice of Reformed, Presbyterian churches. Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter 27 – Of the Sacraments – Section 4) states, “There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained” (cf. Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 4:1; 1 Cor 11:20, 23; Heb 5:4).

Well, things are changing for the worse in these days of apostates, self-lovers, insubordinate people who infiltrate the church, even persuading some of the very elect, who have not been thorough in their study of the Scriptures. Lamentably, more and more churchgoers want to do things their way! In these days, many so-called Christians prefer the ease of turning on the television/you-tube to watch a preacher and commemorate the Lord’s Supper. Such a practice is irresponsible as it flouts the biblical instructions on the matters of administration of sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper), church unity, and submission and accountability to the leadership of the church (cf. Hebrews 13:7, 17).
In situations when a believer is sick at home and unable to attend church, the minister of the Word, together with some of the leaders and members, may visit the sick for fellowship and break bread. But can the believers take Holy Communion on their own in times of national crisis (like war and pandemic) or natural calamities that prevent them from gathering together as a church? The Scriptural examples show that believers should wait in prayer for the Lord to change the circumstances that prevent them from gathering together and partaking the Holy Communion. When the God-ordained sacraments were precluded during the 70 years of exile in Babylon, the saints of the Old Testament waited in prayer until God once again made them possible. During their captivity, they offered no sacrifices or sacraments like the Patriarchal times (before Moses). Hence, in rare times when the sacraments are disrupted, we should not hurry to practise them in ways not prescribed in the Scriptures. Instead, we should humbly search our lives, repent of our ungodly attitude and actions, and pray for God’s merciful restoration of church fellowship gatherings (whether it be in the church building or homes of believers) and the biblical practice of sacraments.

Posted under 'Pastoral Exhortation'