Nearly all who consider themselves Christians partake of communion. When and how often? It seems nearly every religious group has their own method for scheduling the memorial. Does the Bible tell us how often to observe the memorial or specify a certain day? When Jesus instituted the Supper, all He said was, "do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19) with no reference as to how often. When the apostle Paul was discussing the matter in his letter to the Corinthians he quotes Jesus as saying, "...This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me" (1 Corinthians 11:25). The words "as often as" imply nothing about a proper day or frequency of observance. There are no other direct statements nor necessary inferences in the New Testament which would shed any light on the question of the day or frequency of partaking of the Lord's Supper.
Only Sunday, every Sunday?
Most in the churches of Christ insist that communion may only be taken on Sundays and must be taken every Sunday. Lacking a direct statement or necessary inference about the day and frequency, how have they arrived at this conclusion? It is affirmed that Acts 20:7 provides the information necessary to arrive at this conclusion.
On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight.
This is the only passage in the New Testament which is said to reveal which day of the week the early church observed the communion memorial. Therefore, by approved example, it is concluded that Sunday (the first day of the week) is the day which Christians are to eat the Lord's Supper. In addition, since the Bible is silent about eating it on any other day of the week, Sunday is the only day that God has authorized. Furthermore, since each week has a first day then we must partake every Sunday. This is the reasoning upon which the churches of Christ base their conclusion. Are these conclusions valid? Will they hold up to scrutiny? Let's analyze.
Hermeneutic is a fancy word which refers to the rules of interpreting the Scriptures. The conclusion that Christians are only authorized to partake of the Lord's Supper on Sunday and that it must be observed every Sunday is based on two flawed methods of interpretation. The first is that the silence (i.e. where God has given no instruction) of the Scriptures is prohibitive. Therefore it is concluded that since Sunday is mentioned in connection with communion, but no other days are mentioned, all other days are unauthorized. The second flawed method of interpretation is the notion that we are required to imitate New Testament examples which had God's approval. In this context, it is reasoned that there was no condemnation of the actions of Acts 20:7. There was also an apostle who was present and engaged in these activities. Therefore, these actions were approved by God and we must imitate them exactly.
There is considerable evidence that both of these methods of Bible interpretation are flawed. For more information regarding the silence of the Scriptures, please refer the the article "Bible Silence: Permissive or Prohibitive?". The articles "Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 1)" , "Are Approved Examples Binding? (Part 2)" and "Pattern Theology" explain why Biblical accounts of action are not a valid method of determining what Christians must or must not do.
Since the methods used to arrive at these conclusions are flawed, it is highly probable that the conclusions are flawed as well. However, we must be thorough when examining any spiritual matter. Lets dig deeper into this subject.
There is quite a bit of information in Acts 20:1-16 which is relevant to this subject. The traditional view of this passage is that it documents a worship assembly of the church at Troas. A number of assumptions are made in order to arrive at this conclusion. Are they reasonable assumptions? Are there other possible conclusions we can draw from the text?
Conjecture: Verse 7 records a meeting of the church in the city of Troas.
Fact: There is nothing in the passage which says this was a meeting of the church in Troas. Who was present? We can factually state that it was Paul and his traveling companions who are named in verse 4; Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Timothy, Tychicus, Trophimus and Luke (vs 5 & 6 says “us” and “we” so we know that Luke, who was the author of the book of Acts, was with Paul as well). These were all traveling on their way to Jerusalem (vs 16) and had arrived in Troas a week earlier. The only other person named is Eutychus. We know little, if anything, about him. It is certainly reasonable to assume he was a resident of Troas. There was at least one other person present which we shall prove later. Beyond this, we can prove nothing about who else might have been in the upper room that night. If we can't prove who was there, we can't factually claim this was a meeting of the church.
Conjecture: The purpose of the assembly was to eat the Lord's Supper.
Fact: There is nothing in the passage which proves the purpose for the assembly was communion. What the text says is that "we were gathered together to break bread". Who is the "we" that Luke writes about? Backing up and noting the context, it is Paul and his eight traveling companions. There is no disputing why they had gathered. They were gathered together in order to break bread. What does it mean to break bread? "Breaking bread" is a figure of speech which means to eat food.
It should be noted that some Bible translations of Acts 20:7 don't use the word “we” but rather say “the disciples”. After consulting 20 different translations of the New Testament I discovered that 14 translations use “we”, 5 use “the disciples” and 1 seemed to indicate both. Either way, it doesn't appear to change the conclusions.
Conjecture: "Break bread" in verse 7 refers to the Lord's Supper.
Fact: Breaking bread is a figure of speech which means eating a meal. Please see the article "Breaking Bread" for a study of this idiom.
Conjecture: A worship service of the church is taking place because Paul was preaching.
Fact: The KJV uses the word "preach" but nearly all other translations use the words "talked", "spoke", or "discoursed". The Greek word is "dialegomai" (Strong's #1256) which means to converse, discourse with one, argue, discuss. Based on the definition of this word, Paul wasn't preaching to them and it wasn't a lecture. It was a dialog! This assumption is made because many interpret the events of Acts 20:7 in light of our modern practices.
Conjecture: A worship service of the church is taking place because they ate the Lord's Supper.
Fact: Again, one cannot prove that breaking bread refers to communion. Even if it could be proven, there would still be insufficient evidence to conclude that the entire church at Troas had assembled for worship.
Conjecture: A meeting of the church took place because there was worship.
Fact: This assumes that Paul was preaching and that the Lord's Supper took place. It also assumes that the church gathers for the purpose of worship which the New Testament nowhere teaches. This is simply the reverse of the prior two assumptions.
Conjecture: Verse 7 records a meeting of the church in the city of Troas because Paul waited 7 days (vs 6) for the assembly of the saints. In spite of the fact that Paul was in a hurry to reach Jerusalem (vs 16) he prolonged his stay to be in compliance with divinely appointed first day of the week church assembly.
Fact: While this may be a reasonable assumption, there are other reasons why Paul might have stayed in the city 7 days. It has already been noted that Paul was on his way to Jerusalem. It should also be noted that his traveling companions were leaving by ship the next day and Paul, going by land, had arranged to later board the ship with them at Assos (vs 11, 13-14). Understanding this, is it not possible that the travelers arrived in Troas 7 days before their ship to Assos was scheduled to depart? Could simple scheduling of transportation be the reason they waited in Troas 7 days? Of course it could, for even today one can't just catch a cruise any old time. Passengers on a ship depart based upon a predetermined schedule.
In addition, there is no place in the New Testament which commands a Sunday assembly! Believe it or not, God has not specified what day nor how often Christians are supposed to assemble.
There is a good deal of circular logic that takes place among those who advocate these points of conjecture. For example, many say that Acts 20:7 is speaking of the Lord's Supper because a meeting of the church is recorded. If asked how they know it was a meeting of the church, the response is because they were eating the Lord's Supper. Amazing!
Having said all this, is it possible that it was a meeting of the church for the purpose of taking communion? It is possible, but based on my objections above I do not think it is likely nor do I think this is the most reasonable explanation of the events recorded in this passage. What other possible explanation is there? Before suggesting an alternative view, let's review the facts.
Facts which aren't in dispute
- The travelers gathered on the first day of the week
- They came together for the purpose of breaking bread
- Paul talked to “them” (not us) which implies others were assembled in addition to the travelers. This would be Eutychus and at least one other person, perhaps more.
- The travelers were going to leave the next day (second day of the week)
- Paul talked until midnight.
In vs 8 – 9 we learn they were in a 3rd story upper room and a young man named Eutychus fell from a window because he went to sleep. It would seem that Eutychus' untimely departure from the meeting interrupted Paul's discourse at midnight. The exact time probably can't be determined; but since Paul talked to them up until this time, and then afterwards he continued talking until daybreak, it isn't an unreasonable assumption.
After Paul revived Eutychus and went back upstairs note that it was only Paul (“he” in vs 11) that broke bread and ate. As previously noted, they continued talking until daybreak when they departed to the ship. I believe the above are the facts and probably aren't disputed.
A more likely scenario
The traveling companions assembled to eat a meal (break bread in vs 7) on the evening before their departure. Some of the locals (presumably other Christians) gathered with them. Why is Paul the only one mentioned as actually eating (vs 11)? It is possible that as Paul was speaking during the time leading up to Eutychus' fall, the others were both eating and participating in Paul's discourse. Since Paul was the one doing most of the talking, he wasn't taking the time to eat. At midnight Eutychus' fall disrupts the discussion while they rush down to check on him. They all come back upstairs where Paul finally takes the time to eat and they continue talking with one another until it was time to depart for the ship. No one else eats because they had already eaten previously. At daybreak the group breaks up and the travelers continue their journey leaving on the second day of the week according to their plans.
Some have objected saying that if Paul knew they were going to be waiting in Troas for 7 days for the boat to depart, why did they wait until the last day of the trip to gather together and do all that is recorded in Acts 20:7-16? Paul had an entire week to discuss, talk and preach with the brethren in Troas, so why did they wait until late Sunday evening to do these things?
This objection assumes that they were not meeting together all week long. The activities of the other 6 days aren't recorded so all we can do is guess. Perhaps they were keeping company with the Christians in Troas all week. We simply don't know. Is it so far fetched to think that they would spend their last hours together before departing? Don't we do the same today when a loved one or friend is about to leave on a long trip? Today we might call it a "going away party". We want to spend as much time as possible with them before their departure and enjoy their company and wish them well. It is certainly possible that this is what was taking place in Acts 20.
I think the scenario described above is a plausible interpretation of the passage. The traditional interpretation may also be considered plausible. However, here is a critical point - If my non-traditional interpretation is plausible, then we are forced to conclude that there isn't just one “right” way to interpret the passage. If there is more than one possible explanation of the passage, we can't bind the traditional "only Sunday, every Sunday" doctrine! Is there anything wrong with taking communion every Sunday or only on Sunday? No, but it is wrong to accuse others of sinning if they don't keep the same day and frequency that you do.
Why do I think this is a more reasonable explanation than the traditional interpretation? Because the traditional approach is a more complex interpretation that creates some difficulties. The simplest explanation is most often the right one
Problems with the traditional interpretation
One dilemma is that the traditional explanation forces the unnatural conclusion that “breaking bread” in verses 7 and 11 means two different things in the same context.
The text says that they gathered on the first day of the week for the purpose of breaking bread. Did they actually break bread on the first day? We don't know because the passage doesn't record what time they broke bread. The only thing the text positively says they did on the first day was (1) gather together and (2) Paul began talking to them. They gathered on Sunday but does this necessarily infer that they ate on Sunday? No, the inference is not necessary. Could they not have gathered on Sunday but not eat until after midnight? It is indeed possible! The text does not actually record that they broke bread at all (except for Paul in vs. 11) so no one can prove they broke bread on the first day. Since the time of day when they actually broke bread isn't mentioned, the most we can prove is that they gathered on the first day. Those who insist that the Lord's Supper was taking place have piled assumption on top of assumption. It simply can't be proven.
Others say that Paul is the only one recorded as eating the Lord's Supper in vs 11 but that this doesn't exclude the possibility that the others observed it with him. So which is it, Sunday or Monday? If Paul was observing the Lord's Supper in vs 11, then he did so on Monday morning because he ate it after midnight. Some try to get around this by saying that they were using Jewish time (day = sunset to sunset) instead of Roman time (day = midnight to midnight) but this doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Lets walk through both scenarios using the diagram below to help visualize the time frames.
If Jewish time was used, then the first day of the week began on Saturday at sunset and ended Sunday at sunset. If they met at sunset on Saturday (#1 on the diagram below) and Paul preached till midnight and then they all partook of communion after midnight (#2 on the diagram) the Supper was still on the first day of the week. At first glance this would be a good explanation, however, there is a problem.
Carefully note that the Bible says they met on the first day of the week and that Paul was leaving the next day. The next day would be the second day of the week which is Monday. After eating, Paul talked with them till day break (#3 on the diagram) and then they all left to catch their ship. Do you see the problem here? If they met Saturday evening (#1), had communion (#2), and then left at daybreak (#3), it is still the first day of the week and the text says they were leaving on the second day, Monday (#4 on the diagram)! This is a huge contradiction because it was not yet the second day! The text says they left at day break and went to the ship. This scenario would have Paul waiting another 24 hours! This simply doesn't gel with the account in Acts.
Some might object and say that “the next day” meant the next daylight portion of a day. I don't agree with such reasoning because verse 7 calls out a specific day of the week that they met, it was the first day. To remain consistent and in context, “the next day” (vs 7) had to be the second day of the week. Had the text said they met in the evening and Paul was leaving the next day, then I could go along with the notion that the context was night/day. But the text is specific in that it isn't talking about the day and night portion of a day, but rather is speaking about the days of the week.
If Roman time was used, then the first day of the week began at midnight Saturday and ended at midnight Sunday. If they met sometime on Sunday, lets assume at letter 'A' on the diagram since lamps were required during their meeting (vs 8). Paul preached till midnight, and then he left at daybreak (letter 'C' on the diagram), he is now leaving on the second day of the week like the text says so no problem so far. But, we traditionally teach that communion can only be observed on the first day of the week. If Paul preached until midnight and then they took communion, they took it in the early hours of Monday morning (letter 'B'). There is no way to have communion taking place on Sunday and Paul's departure on Monday in this passage if vs 11 is speaking of communion. If "breaking bread" in verse 11 is the communion, did Paul not consider it wrong to take communion on a Monday?
As a side note, I think this is strong evidence that Luke was using Roman time in his narrative since this is the only way to keep from forcing a contradiction in the text in regards to the day of their gathering and the day of their departure. In addition, Troas was a Roman colony so it makes sense that Roman time would be observed there.
Not following the pattern
For those who insist on strictly following the New Testament examples, it is worth noting that our practices today aren't consistent with the account set forth in the passage. If “breaking bread” means “The Lord's Supper” and these disciples were assembling together for worship consider that,
- we don't meet in an upper room like they did
- we don't participate after dark like they did
- we don't engage in a discourse (dialegomai, Strong's #1256) like they did but instead listen to a lecture (sermon)
- our meetings don't hold until the wee morning hours like theirs did
- we don't eat a meal (assuming vs 11 is a common meal) immediately after our “services” in the same building where we meet like they did (which by the way creates a contradiction with the traditional interpretation of 1 Cor 11:22, 34)
God is more than capable of expressing Himself. We see in the Old Testament that His instructions for worship, temple construction, every day life, etc. are written in painstaking detail. The Israelites had no doubt about what God wanted. God is certainly capable of making Himself understood! I find it striking then that we place so much importance upon this passage and bind things upon ourselves and others that God has obviously left vague! Surely if God meant to express to us His expectations about the day and frequency of the Lord's Supper, He would have spoken with at least as much clarity as He did in handing down His instructions to the Israelites. Is it really so far fetched to believe that God has left the day and frequency of the memorial up to us?
If “breaking bread” means a meal in both instances in this context and they weren't assembling for worship, we don't have dilemmas of the sorts listed above. I suppose you have to ask yourself which approach is the more reasonable. As I stated earlier, the simpler explanations tend to be the right ones.