On Frequent Communicating: Objections Against Frequent Communicating
14 min read
14 min read
Now proceed to consider some of the principal objections against frequent communicating. And:
It is alleged that “The primitive Christians were so eminent in religion, and so well prepared for the sacrament, that weekly communions might, in their time, be highly expedient; but that in our degenerate times, the case is altered, and our frequently partaking, considering our low attainments in grace, would be highly dangerous.”
But, if our attainments are so low, is there not a cause? And what cause more probable, than our seldom attendance on that ordinance, which our Lord intended as the principal means of keeping up a lively sense of his dying love? Besides, as Calvin well observes (Tract. Theol. Genev. 1617. fol. p. 5), the weaker our graces are, the greater is our need of frequent attendance on this ordinance, to strengthen and increase them. It ought also to be remembered, that even the primitive church had spots in their feats of charity, St. Paul does not describe a Christian deportment in the church meetings of the Corinthians: but he nowhere advises them to communicate seldomer, but only enjoins them to do it in a more becoming manner.
The Jewish Passover was celebrated only once a year, therefore, say some, the Lord’s Supper, which comes in its place, should be dispensed no oftener. To this I reply, in the words of Mr Charnock (Charnock’s works, vol. II. p. 756), the Passover indeed was annual. God fixed it to that time; but they had their daily sacrifices in the temple, which were types of Christ, and remembrances to them of what was in time to be exhibited. We have no ordinance fettled by Christ in commemoration of his death but this only.
But the argument on which most stress is laid is, that frequency will lessen the solemnity of the ordinance, and bring it into contempt. They argue thus:
“Affections are wound up to a higher pitch by the novelty and rarity of any thing, whereas the commonness of a thing, however excellent it may be, causes them to flag and cool. Scarcity advances, plenty abateth, the value of everything. Those acts of worship, which are frequently, are also slightly performed: and since we cannot preserve both, we had better part with frequency than reverence. For we shall more honour our Lord, by partaking of his supper more reverently, tho’ less frequently, than more frequently with less reverence. Accordingly, how poor are the fruits of the ordinance in the Church of England, where it is so frequently dispensed?”
To this I reply:
(1.) If frequent communicating is a duty, then the danger of doing it with less advantage does not lessen our obligations to that duty. For whatever danger there is, God foresaw it, but yet did not see meet to guard against it, by enjoining us to communicate seldom. Shall we then pretend to be wiser than God? Have we found out better means for securing the honour of his institutions, than the means prescribed and practised by those who were under the infallible guidance of his spirit? Have not attempts of this kind proved the source of the worst corruptions in popery? Reason has no power to dispense with or to derogate from the positive laws of God, on the pretence of doing them a service. It is a blasphemous presumption, tho’ it may put on a cloak of humility, to judge that a sufficient reason to hinder thee from frequent communicating, which our Lord did not judge a sufficient reason to hinder him from commanding it. If thou thus judge the law, thou art not a doer of the law, but a judge. Is there in the whole Bible, any express or tacit dispensation from frequent communicating, if we happen to imagine, that frequency will lessen our reverence? Disobedience to Christ is no part of the respect: we owe to the Lord’s table. To obey is better than sacrifice. Our Lord did not say, honour the sacrament, or dread it, or admire it, or adore it, but partake of it. We are not therefore at liberty to substitute any other mark of respect to this ordinance, in room of partaking of it. How singularly unfortunate is the command, Do this in remembrance of me to be disobeyed from too much regard?
(2.) Conjecture is lighter than experience. Let us then see, whether the objection is verified or disproved by a matter of fact. And here on the one side, the history of the primitive church, for more than three hundred years, proves, that constancy and reverence happily conspired together to God’s glory and his churches benefit. But on the other hand, when succeeding ages attempted, by lessening the frequency to increase the reverence, the consequence was, that, by degrees, the very being of the ordinance was in danger of being loft, and a multitude of the most terrible mischiefs, and particularly a general decay of the power of godliness, overspread the Christian world. Was there not more religion in Scotland, at the reformation and covenanting periods, when communions were more frequent? Since that ordinance began to be seldom dispensed amongst us, has religion been a gainer? Does not the gospel thrive as well, and are not communions as much honoured with the Redeemer’s presence in New-England (where, in some places, the communion is dispensed once every month, and in all at least once in the two months) as it does with us? — As to the church of England, I can prove from the writings of some of their divines that tho’ they absurdly enough read the communion service almost every Sabbath and holiday yet that, in most parish churches, it is only dispensed thrice a year, and even then the communicants few. Nay, as I remarked in the preceding section, so early as the time of Cartwright and Calderwood, infrequency in communicating was objected to the church of England. So that whatever contempt may be poured on the Lord’s table by any in that church, will never prove the objection well grounded.
(3.) Does not the Bible speak strongly on the solemnity of prayer, and the danger of roughness in speaking to God? And does it not tell us that the word, when heard unworthily, is a savour of death unto death? Shall we then pray seldom, and hear the word seldom, that we may do it with the greater solemnity; and so not expose ourselves to the danger of praying unworthily, and hearing unworthily? Would not this way of reasoning be fallacious, if applied to prayer, and hearing the word? And is it not equally so, when applied to the sacrament? The godly will not quit their reverence to the Lord’s table upon any the greater frequency, as appears by their uniting frequency and reverence in other religious institutions. And the show of reverence the ungodly bring to it is not worth the preserving: and much less is it worth the purchasing at so dear a rate, as the depriving saints of this ordinance.
Prayer, hearing the word, etc. are not less useful by reason of their frequency. Those who abound in them most, find the most benefit in them. The same may be said of meditation, self-examination, and other religious exercises. Why then should it be supposed, that rareness in remembering Christ’s death in the sacrament, should add to the effect: of that ordinance? — Novelty, it must be owned, adds a force to everything. Fullness brings cheapness on the very bread of life: yet who would infer from this, that it ought to be withheld till famine enhance the price? Or that we ought to be seldom in preaching the great and heart-affecting truths of the gospel, left by oftener insisting on them, they should affect, less?
I shall conclude this head with the words of Mr. Charnock:
“To be frequent in communicating is agreeable to the nature of the ordinance, and necessary for the wants of a Christian. By too much fasting we often lose our stomachs. Too much deferring does more hurt than frequent communicating. The oftener we carefully and believingly communicate, the more disposed we shall be for it. If it be worthily received, it increaseth our reverence of God, and affection to him. And that is the best reverence of God which owneth his authority. Christ’s death is to be everyday fixed in our thoughts, and to help our weakness, there should be a frequent representation of it to our senses, in such a way as Christ has instituted, not as men may prescribe.”Charnock, ubi fupia, and p. 747,
But it will still be urged:
“That partaking of the Lord’s Supper is the nearest approach we can make on earth to the great and dreadful Gcd, and therefore requires such awe and reverence, and such degrees of solemn preparation, as would be utterly impossible, were that ordinance frequently dispensed.”
I grant many pious and excellent divines have said this and a great deal more. But where does the Scripture say so? To the law, and to the testimony, if they do not speak according to this word, it is because, in so far, there is no light in them.
We ought never to approach God in any ordinance without a reverent, penitent, humble frame, and a heartbroken for sin. But it would be a strange inference, that therefore there ought to be a fast-day, with three sermons, and a ‘preparation day, with two sermons, before every time the sacrament is dispensed. these dispositions are necessary in every approach to God in other ordinances, and therefore if public fasts and preparations are necessary before the sacrament, they are necessary before them also. We seem to have made a distinction in this matter, beyond what we have a warrant for in the word of God as if this ordinance were placed at a greater distance from others than it really is.
The vast preparations the people of the Jews were obliged to make before the promulgation of the law are urged in support of this notion (Exod. 19-20). And from the misapplication of such passages of scripture, many of the best of Christians approach their reconciled God and father with a slavish awe, like that of the Israelites, that even approaching the mount that burned with fire ; or that of Peter, when he said to our Lord, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man. They sit down at the table of the Lord, with as great terror as the high priest entered the holiest of all on the day of atonement, when, for the very least accidental miscarriage or inadvertency, during his short stay there, he was in danger of being struck dead. Doubtless the seldom dispensing this ordinance has led many of the less judicious into such melancholy superstitious apprehensions, and raised such terrors in their mind, that they could not attend upon God in this institution without distraction, and thus were deprived of much of the comfort and benefit, which otherwise they would have reaped from it. Such I would entreat to consider the differences of the legal and evangelical dispensation, and of the spirit of bondage flowing from the one, and the spirit of adoption which suits the other, as represented to us, Rom 8:15. Gal 4:25, 26. Heb 4:16. Heb 10:19—22. and 12:18—24.
And here I cannot but take occasion to remark, that the day of atonement was the only anniversary day of fasting, humiliation, and confession of sins which God enjoined the Israelites. All their other annual holidays, except those which they themselves appointed, after their return from the Babylonian captivity, were days of joy and thanksgiving (Universal History, vol. 3. Octavio edition, p. 44. ). If then the Jews had more thanksgivings than fasts, why should not the Christians? Is not our cause of joy greater?
But we are told that “introducing frequent communions is an innovation and that all innovations are dangerous.” – But it is an innovation in no other sense, than the doctrine of justification by faith was in the days of Luther. The truest and purest antiquity is on our side: whereas our present practice is a plain defection from the primitive pattern.
It is further argued, that “the greatest part of well-disposed people in Scotland are averse to this change.”
But in matters of doctrine and worship, we should take our direction only from the word of God, since the best and wisest of Men have erred, and may err; and it is natural to most people, to be prejudiced against anything in religion, to which they have not been accustomed. In the present question, I have met with many of the most solid and experienced Christians, who have declared, that frequent communions in the way proposed, would be highly desirable. But they added that the bulk of good people were so keen against it, that they thought it should not be attempted. Whereas, I have reason to think, that if good men who approve the overture, were but half as honest in telling their sentiments, and half as zealous to make proselytes, as those who disapprove of it, in a very short time, most who have any relish for religion, would drop their opposition, and pray for its success. But generally, those on the wrong side of a question, are most clamorous and noisy.
If great names were of any weight in such a debate, I could easily multiply authorities. But I shall content myself with mentioning the few that follow.
Calvin handles this subject with great accuracy in his institutions, (Book 4, Chapter 17, Sections 44-46). He tells us it was then the practice, to receive the communion but once a year, and that in a formal, superficial manner. And after having urged frequent communicating from the design of the ordinance, and the practice of the apostolic and primitive church, he adds: “And doubtless the custom of communicating only once a year, is the invention of the devil, whoever was the instrument of introducing it.” And a little after. ” Our practice ought to be the very reverse. Every week at least, the Lord’s table should be spread before the assembly of Christians, and the promises upon which they should feed there opened up to them. None indeed should be forced to it, but all should be exhorted and encouraged”
Mr Baxter in his Christian Directory, (part 2. p.101.) having proposed the question, how often should the sacrament be now administered, that it neither grows into contempt nor strangeness? He thus answers it.
“Ordinarily, in well-disciplined churches, it should be still every Lord’s day. For, (1.) We have no reason to prove, that the apostle’s example and appointment, in this case, was proper to those times, any more than that praise and thanksgiving daily is proper to them: and we may as well deny the obligation of other institutions or apostolical orders, as that. (2.) It is a part of the settled order for the Lord’s day’s worship, and omitting it, maimes and alters the worship of the day and occasions the omission of thanksgiving and praise, and lively commemorations of Christ, which should be then most performed; and so Christians, by use, grow habited to sadness, and a mourning melancholy religion, and grow unacquainted with much of the worship and spirit of the gospel. (3.) Hereby the Papists lamentable corruptions of this ordinance have grown up, even by an excess of reverence and fear, which seldom receiving doth increase, till they are come to worship bread as their God. (4.) By seldom communicating, men are seduced to think all proper communion of churches lieth in that sacrament and to be more profanely bold in abusing many other parts of worship. (5.) There are better means, by teaching and discipline, to keep the sacrament from contempt than the omitting or displacing of it. (6.) Every Lord’s day is no oftener than Christians need it. (7.) The frequency will teach them to live prepared, and not only to make much ado once a month, or quarter, when the same work is neglected all the year besides; even as one that liveth in continual expectation of death, will live in continual preparation : when he that experiences it but in some grievous sickness, will then be frighted into some seeming preparations, which are not the habit of his soul, but laid by again when the disease is over.
But yet I must add, that in some undisciplined churches, and upon some occasions, it may be longer omitted, or seldom used. No duty is a duty at all times. And therefore extraordinary cases may raise such impediments, as may hinder us a long time from this, and many other privileges. But the ordinary faultiness of our imperfect hearts, that are apt to grow customary and dull, is no good reason why it should be seldom, any more than why other special duties of worship and church communion should be seldom. Read well the epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, and you will find that they were then as bad as the true Christians are now and that even in the sacrament they were very culpable and yet Paul seeketh not to cure them by their seldom communicating.”Richard Baxter, Christian Directory, Part 2. p. 101
Thus far Mr. Baxter.
A worthy minister in the shire of Air, in a letter to me, dated October 10th, argues thus:
“What a reproach is it to the church of Scotland, which boasts of a farther degree of reformation than even some other protestant churches, to fall so far, I had almost said, so scandalously short of them all, in commemorating the dying love of our blessed redeemer? I know it is alleged, frequently communicating will lessen our reverence for the sacrament. But the contrary will, I presume, abundantly appear, by comparing those who do now communicate four times, and oftener, in the year, with those who never think of it above once. And whatever may be the case with respect to those who do not perform religious duties in a serious manner at all, yet as to those who do, I believe it will be found, that the more frequently real Christians are exercised in them, whether praying, reading, hearing, meditating, or communicating, they are apt to acquire still higher degrees of perfection, in these useful exercises.
As to abridging the number of sermons, etc. besides the obvious necessity of this, in order to the greater frequency of that ordinance, I think it seems to be allowed, by most thinking people, that we have got into a rather too mobbish way, I may call it, of administering that serious and solemn ordinance. I dare say, that if a computation were to be made, it would be found, that in some places where there are not above 500 or 600 communicants, there will be at least upon the Lord’s day, near as many thousand people, most of whom must be at least idle and irreverent spectators, or rather disturbers; not only crowding the passages, so as renders it next to impossible for weak and infirm people to go to and from the table with due composure, but in a constant motion to and from ale-houses, yards, and other places, where barrels are kept for the entertainment of successive companies, whose conversation generally gives offence to every serious Christian, that accidentally over-hears it.”
Let none think, says Mr Willison of Dundee, that frequency of the administration would expose to contempt: for I am sure no worthy communicant will undervalue this ordinance because of frequent repetition, but rather prize it the more. Did the primitive Christians bring it into contempt by partaking every Lord’s day? Nay, was not their esteem of it much higher than these who dispense or receive it only once in two years? I wish the words of our dying Saviour, and the acts of our general assembly, relative to this matter, were more adverted to by one and all of us (Willison’s preface to his? Sacramental Catechism, p.9.) — And in another place, he thus answers the question, Are we as much obliged to frequent communicating as the apostles and primitive Christians were? Tho’ they were in a much better frame for it, as having had more recent and warm impressions of the love and death of their redeemer constantly upon their spirits than we have; yet certainly we are under as strong obligations to frequent partaking as the first: Christians were, for we have the same Lord and Saviour that they had, and are under the fame obligations of love and gratitude to him. We have the same need of the application of Christ’s blood, and a confirmed interest in his meritorious death, that they had and consequently the same need of this memorial feast and steeling ordinance (Sacramental Catechism p. 86.). And answering the question. Is not frequency apt to breed formality in this duty he observes? The same thing may be alleged with respect to other duties, which yet is no good argument for the infrequent practice of them. (2.) This fault is now chargeable upon the holy ordinance and institution of Christ, but upon the corruption and carelessness of our hearts, which we ought diligently to watch and strive against; endeavouring, in Christ’s strength, as often as we partake, so often to prepare for it. with all due care and solemnity (Sacramental Catechism, p. 87).
Mr Jonathan Edwards, of Northampton in New-England, in a book, entitled, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion, p. 214. of the Edinburgh edition, says, “It seems plain, by the scripture, that the primitive Christians were wont to celebrate this memorial of the sufferings of their dear Redeemer every Lord’s day; and so, I believe, it will be again in the church of Christ, in the days that are approaching.”
It is alleged, increasing the frequency of communions, especially in the way proposed in the synod’s overture, will occasion a new and formidable secession.
But, as Mr Randal has well observed, in a paper referred to, Section IV. “Most who would leave a church on so frivolous a pretence, are in the secession already: and probably the present way of administering the sacrament may be one cause of it. Too nice a picking of ministers at these times taught the people to despise some, whom now the best amongst us would willingly pull out of their graves if they could. The secession is now less formidable through their division.” And the party of them who befriends the burgess oath, have, of late, expressed so much moderation and charity to the church of Scotland, in some of their printed papers, that I cannot bring myself to think they would condemn an overture so highly reasonable. When people see that it is not laziness, but a subjection to the authority of Christ, and regard to their edification, that makes us desirous of more frequent communions, their prejudices will subside. And should it be otherwise, the affections of our people, valuable as they are, would be too dearly purchased, by disregard to the commands of Jesus.