Some churches celebrate the Lord’s supper once a quarter, others once a month, and some celebrate it every week. Are churches free to decide for themselves how often they will observe this meal or does the New Testament tell us how frequently we should celebrate it? Paul assumes that Christians celebrate the Lord’s supper every time they gather together as the church: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk” (1 Cor 11:20-21). The early church always broke bread together when they met: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7).
The Lord’s supper was an actual meal, not a chiclet-sized piece of bread and a sip of grape juice. Paul rebukes them for allowing members of the church to go hungry during this meal. He assumes that the amount of food consumed during the meal was enough to satisfy the desires of a hungry man. If the Corinthian Church did not celebrate the Lord’s supper every week, then everyone would have gone hungry. Some were neglecting the body of Christ by beginning the meal before everyone had arrived. They failed to discern the membership of the body of Christ which resulted in Christians missing out on this fellowship meal.
The origin of observing the Lord’s supper once a quarter or once a month comes from a compromise between John Calvin and the city of Geneva. Calvin wanted to celebrate the Lord’s supper every week while the city council wanted to celebrate it as infrequently as possible. They had become afraid of the Lord’s supper because it reminded them of the Roman Catholic doctrines of Eucharistic sacrifice and adoration which they had recently abandoned. So they came to a compromise position where each parish would celebrate the meal once a quarter and the city would celebrate it once a month as the different parishes alternated celebrating the Lord’s supper each month. This tradition became ingrained in Protestantism and has remained with us ever since. But Scripture determines how and when we are to celebrate this meal, not human tradition or an overreaction to Rome’s doctrine of the Mass. When the supper is celebrated as an actual meal, it looks nothing like the Catholic Mass.
One of the arguments used against the weekly observance of the Lord’s supper is that weekly observance makes the meal less memorable than monthly or quarterly. Not only is this not a biblical argument, but the same argument could be applied to any activity of the church. If it is more memorable to observe something infrequently, then why not sing hymns once a month instead of once a week? Imagine how much more memorable the preaching would be if the pastor only preached once a month!
The real reason the church does not celebrate the Lord’s supper every week is because we do not understand it. We have become afraid of the meal because it is no longer celebrated as a meal, but as a Protestantized version of the Mass. A celebratory meal has been replaced by a somber relic of Roman Catholicism. Of course we would want to observe that as infrequently as possible because it looks nothing like the New Testament. We should seek to recover both the theology and frequency of the Lord’s supper. As Charles Spurgeon once said: “How can it be thought right to leave the celebrating of this ordinance to once a year or once a quarter I cannot understand, and it seems to me that if brethren knew the great joy there is in often setting forth Christ’s death they would not be content with even once a month.”