Most Protestants consider the Lord’s Supper to be a sacrament. The Churches of Christ do not. Rather, we follow the view of Zwingli that the communion is purely symbolic. In fact, it’s routine in many congregations to precede the Lord’s Supper with a declaration that the emblems are merely symbolic of Christ’s flesh and blood — specifically denying any transubstantiation or consubstantiation.
Alexander Campbell advocated a celebrative service. Hicks summarizes Campbell’s views. He rejected a —
“morose piety … expressed in … sad countenances.” … We assemble to “eat and drink with him” at his table. The table is a moment when disciples are “honored with a seat at the King’s table,” where they “eat in his presence” and “in honor of his love.”
Hicks summarizes 20th Century Church of Christ communion teaching as “anthropocentric.” “We remember and we proclaim.” However, he notes that some of our preachers taught differently.
James A. Harding taught that the Lord’s Supper “transform[s] poor, frail, sinful humans being[s] into the likeness of Christ.” Hicks notes that such language is very much a minority position, however.
My own observation is that we see communion as an ordinance, rather than sacrament. We take the meal because we’ve been commanded to do so. As a result, we tend to do so as a matter of rote — it’s strictly pro forma. We eat a crumb and sip a drop, but the real emphasis is on the sermon and the singing. We hire professionals to preach and lead singing, and get upset when these are done poorly. But when the Lord’s Supper is poorly led, well, it’s just no big deal. There has to be some room for amateurs in the service!
This is hugely ironic as our doctrine is that the service centers on the communion — as it’s the one act that can only be done on Sundays while we’re together. The disciples in Troas gathered “to break bread,” (Acts 20:6), not to sing and hear a sermon, we argue. And yet despite the importance of communion in our doctrine, we typically do it poorly. In fact, we’re so used to weak communion services that we aren’t even sure what doing it right would be like.
The early church centered their gatherings around the Lord’s Supper — often combining it with the Love Feast (agape) , at which the poor were fed and food shared. Many historians credit the Love Feast/Lord’s Supper with much of the early vitality of Christianity, sustaining Christians who were forced to meet in homes while risking persecution.
The Medieval Catholic Church and the Orthodox emphasized the “mystery” of the Lord’s Supper. Hicks points out the Orthodox refused to give a concrete definition of the mystery, but the Catholic Church came to consider the elements literal flesh and blood of Christ — a literal miracle taking place each Sunday.
The Reformation churches struggled to define a new meaning for communion, with the Calvinist churches hotly disputing the meaning with the Lutherans. The result was an end to the mystery and a reduction of the Supper to a symbol and a teaching moment.
Many modern evangelicals are trying to recapture some of the transcendence of the event. Meanwhile, in the Churches of Christ, the tendency is more and more toward a anthropocentric understanding. Many hold that it’s not even properly considered “worship.” Rather, it’s simply a time to proclaim Jesus’ death and to be together as family.
And maybe that’s right. If so, I’ll be disappointed. I think we could stand a little more mystery — a little more transcendence. We’ll see what the Bible says in the next post.