The Manner of Celebrating the Lord's Supper Then and Now - Dr. R. Faber

Last Updated: February 10, 2013
Taken with permission from Clarion Vol. 49, No, 8 (April 14, 2000)

Dr. Riemer Faber is professor of Classics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

In the middle of the sixteenth century, the first Dutch Reformed churches were established beyond the borders of the Netherlands because believers there were being persecuted. The centres of Dutch-speaking Reformed life were Emden (Germany) to the east, and London (England) to the west. The churches in these cities provided both refuge to protestants fleeing their native country and guidance to those who remained in the lowlands. When the religious oppression was relaxed in the last decades of the century, many returned and helped establish Reformed churches on their native soil. Not only were the confessions, ordinances, and catechisms of the Dutch Reformed churches abroad adopted by the ones in the Netherlands, but so too the manner of administering the Word and the sacraments.

In this article I wish to describe the way in which the Lord's Supper was celebrated in these earliest Dutch Reformed churches. Fortunately, there is considerable evidence: minutes of relevant meetings, some treatises devoted to the topic, and a complete church order. There are several reasons why this evidence deserves consideration. First, the expatriate churches promoted a non-partisan, moderate position regarding the Supper celebration. Not wishing to be associated with the Lutheran teaching of transubstantiation, nor with the sacramentarian position of the Zwinglians, church leaders championed the biblical and apostolic basis for the sacrament, and desired that all Reformed churches would celebrate the Lord's Supper sola Scriptura. Second, as pastors seeking to unify the young, diverse congregations, and to provide leadership to believers living 'under the cross', they formulated clear, unbiased teaching. In fact, they were among the first to develop a complete Reformed expression of the manner in which the Lord's Supper may be celebrated. Third, these writings and the practices described in them became models for the Reformed churches later established in the Netherlands. The manner of celebration may be traced from that time to the present, including Reformed churches of Dutch background in Australia, North America, and elsewhere. An examination of the practice in the Reformation, then, will serve to explain some features of the rite as it is performed today.

From the time he began his career as Superintendent of the Dutch Reformed churches in East-Friesland, and especially while he guided the refugee churches in London, John á Lasco wanted believers to understand the differences between the Romanist and Reformed teachings and practices of the Lord's Supper. He also viewed the differences of interpretation among some of the Reformers themselves as unfortunate hindrances to the unification of protestants, and prayed that union would not be prevented by the undue emphases of individual teachers. Repeatedly he sought to bring the continental Reformers together in a colloquium to devise a general statement on the matter. Together with the other ministers serving the refugee congregations, he treated the subject in several writings, most notably the Church Order (Forma ac Ratio, 1555) and the Brief but Clear Treatise on the Sacraments (1552). These works reveal the direct influence of John Calvin especially, and in turn became influential in Holland, after they were translated into Dutch by Marten Micronius and Jan Utenhove.
"The early Dutch Reformed churches focused more on the meaning of the sacrament than on the details of the ritual."

It is clear from these and other sources that the Supper celebrations in Emden and London focused more upon the meaning of the sacrament than upon the details of the ritual. They stressed especially the distinction between the visible, external signs and the invisible, internal mystery of communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. Contrary to the Romanist practice, in which the elements themselves are worshiped elaborately, the Reformed liturgy points simply to the ascended Lord Jesus Christ, who by his death has freed his people from condemnation and obtained for them eternal life. When the broken bread and poured wine are received, the mystery of the communion with the Lord is illustrated, for by the power of his Holy Spirit the Saviour imparts spiritual benefits to those who partake in faith. And, contrary to the Lutheran emphasis upon the physical presence of the Lord in the elements, the Reformed celebration draws attention not so much to the outward symbols of bread and wine, but to the participation in the body and blood of the Lord, that is, to the significance of the breaking, distributing, and consuming. And so, because the form of the celebration serves its meaning, no detailed commands are given concerning the bread, cups, table, etc. The Lord's Supper was to be used according to its institution by the Lord himself and as revealed further through his apostles.

The refugee churches in London (and presumably Emden) celebrated the Lord's supper every two months, but marked several services in the preceding fortnight with words and deeds of anticipation. It started with the admonition that members of the body be reconciled to one another, and the reminder that the meal expresses the unity that distinguishes the body of Christ from the world. Non-members who wished to join the church and submit to the oversight of the consistory were encouraged to undergo the public examination of forty-five questions. In another public worship service preceding the celebration, the minister exhorted the congregation in the meaning and benefits of the Supper. Only those who were present at this time were permitted to attend the celebration, and their names were duly recorded. And, on the Saturday immediately preceding the Lord's Supper Sunday, the congregation worshiped yet again. On this occasion, the London Church Order reveals, believers' self-examination was stressed, with the comforting reminder that although they are children of wrath, the elect have been redeemed by God through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Attention was drawn also to the hypocrisy of those who celebrate the sacrament without true faith. The names of those barred from the celebration were announced publicly, so that members could exhort one another at this time when corporate unity is manifested.

On the Sunday morning when the sacrament is to be used, the congregation gathers at the calling of the council. The minister first reads the names of those who may not participate in the celebration, as they have not professed the faith and submitted themselves to the discipline of the church. Similarly, the names of those who have not presented themselves before the council in the preceding two weeks, and those who have despised the sacraments by absenting themselves from celebrations in recent months, are read. Thereupon the minister leads the congregation in prayer, and then in reading the well-known passage in1 Corinthians 11. He also admonishes the congregation of worthy participation in the supper, and encourages it to focus upon the central mystery, namely the communion with the Lord Jesus. Then, with the words "Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival..." (1 Cor. 5:7), he invites eligible members to come forward to the table. The meal proper begins with the familiar words, "the bread which we break is the communion of the body of Christ." When the bread is broken, the communicants are encouraged "to take eat and remember that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was handed over to death for us upon the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins." The cup is blessed in a similar fashion.

As participants move to the table, the intervening time is spent reading selections from the gospel of John. Communion while seated at table differs markedly from the Romanist custom, in which the priest distributes the elements to people as they come forward individually and kneel before the host before receiving it from his hand. The London ministers prefer seated communion to standing, for hereby the exalted place of the priest is discarded, the adoration of the elements rejected, the sacrificial quality of the mass replaced with the expression of a communal meal, and the oneness of the flock is demonstrated. No special vestments are worn, and there are no gesticulations or magical pronouncements. As much as is possible within reason, the supper is celebrated in the manner shown by the Lord in Matthew 26.
"Those who exaggerate the importance of the ceremony's outer form 'have wrongly understood wherein the true unity of Christians lies'."


There was no insistence, however, upon a strict imitation of the first Supper among the earliest Dutch Reformed churches. In fact, as in the relevant section of Calvin's Institutes (4.17.43), so in most early Reformed treatises the liturgy is not described in detail. Those features of the Supper not depicted in the Bible, or not directly relevant, were considered of secondary importance, and therefore deemed subject to the norms established in each congregation. In London, for example, believers were not commanded to recline at table, as the Lord Jesus and his disciplines evidently had done. In the Palatinate, from which early Dutch practices also derived, the apparent custom was for participants to file past the table and receive the elements from the hand of an office-bearer (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, A. 75: "... receive from the hand of the minister"). When discussion about the outward aspects of the Supper arose at the synod of Emden in 1571, it was declared that "...we consider it a matter of indifference whether the Lord's Supper is taken standing or sitting." Synod also decided that "congregations should use the form which seems most apt to them. Churches are free to sing psalms or to read from the Holy Scripture while the Lord's Supper is administered. Likewise, the churches are free to use the words of Christ or Paul during the distribution of the bread and wine. But care should be taken to avoid giving the impression that any consecration has occurred because these words are spoken (art. 21)." (1) Calvin would have agreed, for when members of the French congregation in London complained to him in 1552 that they were expected to celebrate the Supper in the manner of the Dutch and not Genevan churches, he criticized them. Geneva should not be considered Jerusalem, he wrote, and those who exaggerate the importance of the ceremony's outer form "have wrongly understood wherein the true unity of Christians lies, and that each member should conform to the body of the church in which he is member." (2)

When the meal is completed, the minister encourages the communicants in the London refugee church to "believe and not doubt all of you who have participated in this Lord's Supper in memory of Christ's death ... that you have a definite and saving union with Christ in his body and blood, to life eternal." Then, unlike the Zwinglian ceremony, which emphasizes the remembrance of Christ's death long past, the service also anticipates the immediate and future benefits of Christ's promises. The minister comforts communicants by saying that one day they will sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And then, upon singing a Psalm, the congregation is dismissed. The unconsumed wine and bread are distributed to the poor in the congregation by deacons positioned at the doors; after all, contrary to Romanist belief, the elements themselves are not holy.

Contrary to the mass, the ceremony of the Lord's Supper in the earliest Dutch Reformed churches was subservient to the Gospel and not to the traditions of the church. The sacrament possessed no value apart from the Word. The reader will have noted that before celebrating the Supper, the London church dedicates several and extra services to the proclamation of the promises the Lord imparts with the sacrament. The elements do not take the place of the Word, but make it clear and so confirm the believers' faith in God's promise of the remission of sins. While in the Roman mass the elements themselves are said to bring salvation, in the Lord's Supper God directs the faith of his children to the sacrifice of Christ once offered on the cross. The sacrament is added to the Word to represent better to the outward senses what God declares in his Word and works inwardly by the power of his Spirit. As Calvin puts it, "... whatever benefit may come to us from the Supper requires the Word: whether we are to be confirmed in faith, or exercised in confession, or aroused to duty, there is need of preaching." (3) Anyone who ascribes too much value to the outward ceremony risks devaluing the Gospel. The sacrament is an illustration of the Word, and not a replacement of it.
"Excessive attention to the manner in which the supper is celebrated may distract from its significance and be tantamount to idolatry."

While the Romanist mass mixes pomp and circumstance with the sacraments, the true celebration is done in modesty. For any addition to the ordinance as taught by Christ and his apostles desecrates the celebration. Obviously, the special garments, the magical incantation, and the ritual movements are human inventions which distract from the essential points. Over-emphasis upon the visible features tends also to diminish the role of faith, by which, "as the hand and mouth of the soul," the believer receives "the true body and blood of Christ" into his soul for his spiritual life (Belgic Confession, Art. 35). The real banquet is not a physical, but spiritual table. Surely the table, the bread, and the cup do play an important role in illustrating the purpose of the sacrament; so too the breaking and sharing of the bread which nourishes, and the drinking of the wine which refreshes. But excessive attention to the manner in which the supper is celebrated may distract from its significance and be tantamount to idolatry. The sacrament should be celebrated in simplicity and adherence to the institution by the Lord Jesus Christ.

The elements of bread and wine are not meaningless and void, but apart from Jesus Christ they would be nothing. It is to represent the spiritual bread that He instituted earthly bread and wine as a sacrament of his body and blood. Á Lasco suggests that when the Lord Jesus instituted the new covenant in his blood, He changed the sign to show also that in themselves "the symbols and elements are the least important part" of the sacrament. (4) By fixating upon the external aspects, one risks falling into formalism and negating the deeper meaning of the sacrament. For this reason Calvin writes: "... as for the outward ceremony of the action - whether or not the believers take it in their hands, or divide it among themselves, or severally eat what has been given to each; whether they hand the cup back to the deacon or give it to the next person; whether the bread is leavened or unleavened; the wine red or white - it makes no difference. These things are indifferent, and left at the church's discretion (Institutes 4.17.43)." As was stated earlier, the focus of the sacrament should be upon its meaning. We must not cling to the outward symbols but lift our hearts on high in heaven where Christ is, to be nourished and refreshed in our souls with his true body and blood through the working of his Holy Spirit.

R. Faber

1. Quoted from A. Duke, G. Lewis, A. Pettegree, eds., Calvinism in Europe. 1540-1610. (Manchester, 1992), 160.

2. Corpus Reformatorum 42:363.

3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.39 (tr. F.L. Battles, Philadelphia, 1960, p. 1416). Further citations derive from this edition.

4. Compendium of Doctrine (1551), in A. Kuyper, Joannis a Lasco Opera. Vol. 2 (Amsterdam, 1866), 298.