oes Scripture actually afford us guidelines as to the breaking of bread? Aside from the literal “breaking of the bread” and then the “drinking of the cup,” is everything else merely our tradition, our attempt to fill in time until we partake of the emblems?
What do we do?
We come together to remember the Lord Jesus. Everything which is done should obviously further that purpose. An examination of 1 Corinthians 14 will help to define the activities which mark a gathering of the people of God. Note that Paul speaks of “praying with the Spirit” (v15), of “singing with the Spirit” (v15), of “blessing with the Spirit” (v16), and of “giving thanks” (v17). Notice the various exercises of the assembly when gathered: prayer, singing, blessing (speaking well of), and giving thanks. The word “bless” is used both here and in 1 Corinthians 14:16, linking these passages together as the breaking of bread.
So we are not stretching our imaginations to think that when local companies of believers met in the first century, hymns were sung, thanksgiving was given, and men rose to their feet to “speak well” of the Lord Jesus Christ. What was done in 1st century assemblies is still being done today in 21st century assemblies.
The teaching of 1 Corinthians 14 may extend beyond the breaking of bread. It is likely that 1st century assemblies, comprised of slaves as well as others, could only meet on one day during which they would have the Lord’s supper as well as teaching. That does not lessen or negate the activities mentioned.
We have a rich heritage of hymns given to us by men and women who wrote many years ago. Good hymns may still be written today and believers in assembly fellowship should consider the possibility of writing hymns. It may well be that our worship rises higher in our hymns of praise than in our verbal giving of thanks. We should sing “with the understanding” (14:15) that it might rise as worship. Hymns should never be given out to “fill in the time” or make up for the barrenness of public thanksgiving. But hymns add immensely to the worship of the assembly.
As the men, to whom public participation has been given (1Cor 14:34; 1Tim 2:8), rise to their feet to give thanks to God, and as the women silently raise their hearts to God in praise, the believers are occupied increasingly with the person of Christ. A point is then reached (not a hour on the clock) where it is appropriate to give thanks for the emblems. In some places, it is customary for the brother who gives thanks for the loaf to also give thanks for the cup. If this is the practice of the assembly, there is nothing unscriptural in so doing.
To mandate this, however, appears to go beyond Scripture. If the basis for the practice is that the Lord gave thanks for both emblems when the Supper was instituted, the reason for that is obvious: no one else there had any idea of what the symbols would mean. As well, 1 Corinthians 10:16 speaks of the “cup of blessing which we bless.” Thus, the brother who rises is merely representing the assembly. The entire assembly is speaking well of, or blessing, the cup.
How do we do it?
The underlying principle of 1 Corinthians 14 is that whatever is done should be profitable. In keeping with this, Paul speaks of the necessity of being understood, of simple language, of order and consideration. In light of that, a few helpful suggestions emerge.
Participation should be audible. Some men do have softer voices than others. They, conscious of this, must attempt to speak loudly enough for all to hear. Since saying “Amen” depends on understanding what has been said, the verse seems to assume that the assembly believers all understand and have heard what has been said. Why then is the “unlearned” singled out? Does this support the idea that he is unlearned in an unknown tongue? No. If the unlearned person is to conclude that “God is in you of a truth,” it is crucial for him to be able to understand what is said and done in the assembly. The Lord places an importance on the teaching of the unlearned.
Participation should be intelligible. “Words easy to be understood” would include not only the volume, but the clarity. Public speaking is not a time for muttering and mumbling. One feature which helps the believers to follow intelligently is brevity. No one ever complained about someone being too brief; the opposite is, sadly, too often the case.
Participation should be suitable for the moment. Too often, perspiration is mistaken for inspiration. Neither is really needed to take part in the assembly. The consideration should be, “Is what I am enjoying suitable for this time in the meeting?” or “Is this hymn I have been enjoying suitable for this moment?” Intelligence is needed, not a special feeling that it is time to get up and take part. My contribution should move the meeting forward and occupy the believers with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Participation should be Scriptural. Do not allow imagination and eloquence to carry you beyond Scripture in trying to describe the sufferings of Christ or the awfulness of His hours on the tree. We cannot exaggerate what He endured but we can go beyond what Scripture has revealed. No one will make you an offender for a wrong word, but be as careful as possible to maintain Scriptural language when speaking of the person and work of Christ.
Participation is representative. That simply means that the person who is speaking is speaking on behalf of the assembly. As a result, a clear and definitive “amen” is fitting when he is done, by the entire assembly, brethren and sisters alike. Nehemiah 8:6 may be Old Testament ground, but its lesson is applicable to us as well. “All the people answered, ‘Amen and amen’.”
Believers at times become concerned over the thought of partaking of the emblems “unworthily” (1Cor 11:27). A bad week at work, a problem in the home, a personal failure, and countless other things can oppress the conscience of the sensitive and make him feel as though he is not fit to remember the Lord. The context of 1 Corinthians 11 is not personal merit, but the manner in which they were remembering the Lord. “Unworthily” has to do with not realizing the purpose for which they were gathered. None of us is “worthy” to be at the Lord’s supper. It is only grace that has given us a place.
Why a Circle?
We must honestly own that we do not have a precept or pattern to demand sitting in a circle for the Lord’s supper. Some have taught that the Lord is in the midst and thus we gather around Him in a circle; but we also enjoy His presence “in the midst” at all our gatherings. He is in the midst at every other gathering when chairs are arranged in a different manner, whether at the ministry meeting, gospel meeting, or prayer meeting.
It is a tradition – but it is one of those good traditions which are borne out by Scriptural principle. The breaking of bread expresses our fellowship as a local body of believers, perhaps as no other gathering does. It is also the one meeting when we are not occupied with someone speaking to us; thus all attention is focused upon the emblems.
There is precedent for physical symbols representing spiritual truth (the head covering and the emblems themselves). Thus the physical arrangement of seating is showing the centrality of our interest and our oneness together.
From a practical standpoint, the circle (or square, rectangle), also makes it much easier to hear all who take part audibly.
Why do we do it?
Of all the issues which might be raised, this is by far the simplest to answer. We do it out of obedience to the Word of God; we do it out of devotion to Christ; and we do it as an occasion to collectively bring worship to God. Every meeting may not rise to the level of being a foretaste of heaven, but every gathering to remember Christ and to worship is a preview of heaven. We come together to remember the Lord, to proclaim His death, and to testify to His return.
By referring to it as the Breaking of Bread, we are calling attention to the simplicity and the symbols. When we refer to it as the Lord’s Supper, we are stressing its directive and dignity.