Leading the Lord’s Supper: A Brief Manual for Pastors

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20160218_113822One of the unique privileges of pastoral ministry is the opportunity to regularly lead the body of Christ in remembering the atoning death of Christ through the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is a solemn and vital practice in the life of a local church; a tangible way for Christ’s redeemed people to remember the greatness of our Savior and the sufficiency of his sacrificial death to fully atone for our sins past, present, and future.

What follows is essentially a brief manual I put together for the purpose of helping the leaders of our church identify the basic elements involved in leading our congregation in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper and to unify our leadership team in the way each of us leads our church in observing this vital ordinance. Given that many readers of this blog are pastors and aspiring church leaders, I thought it might be helpful to share with you.

I would also invite the reader of this post to examine these elements and offer feedback regarding them if you believe it would be profitable. I welcome feedback, whether positive or constructive.

Here I will propose and expound upon five specific elements that are necessary in leading in the Lord’s Supper. As I see it, there are five major tasks of the church leader as he leads a congregation in observing the Lord’s Supper. Those tasks are:

  1. Explain the Ordinance.
  2. Fence the Table.
  3. Share the Gospel.
  4. Confess Sin and Give Thanks.
  5. Eat and Drink.

Let’s take a look at each of these important tasks.

Explain the Ordinance: Remind the congregation of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

At some point, before eating and drinking, the man leading in the Lord’s Supper should explain the biblical meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Here’s how we explain it in our church’s teaching statement:

“…the Lord’s Supper is the commemoration and proclamation of His death until He comes, and should be always preceded by solemn self examination (1 Corinthians 11:28-32). We also teach that whereas the elements of Communion are only representative of the flesh and blood of Christ, the Lord’s Supper is nevertheless an actual communion with the risen Christ, who indwells every believer, and so is present, fellowshipping with His people (1 Corinthians 10:16).”

Particularly, the elements of commemoration and proclamation should be stressed. In other words, the congregation should be reminded that the purpose of eating the bread and drinking from the cup is to actively remember what Christ has accomplished for us through His substitutionary death (1 Corinthians 11:24-25; Cf. Luke 22:19) and to proclaim the sufficiency of His death to save sinners until He returns (1 Corinthians 11:26).

In explaining the ordinance, it should be somehow stressed that partaking in the Lord’s Supper is both a corporate and a personal exercise. It is a corporate exercise in the sense that we are eating and drinking together, as one body, eating from “one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17), for we are trusting in a common Savior.

At the same time, the Lord’s Supper is an individual exercise in the sense that each individual is responsible for the manner in which he partakes in the ordinance, and therefore is responsible for eating and drinking individually in a manner that reflects the weight and importance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. The heart of the individual worshipper is critical to healthy corporate participation in the Lord’s Supper, despite the fact that the ordinance is not a purely personal exercise.

Fence the Table: Clearly define who the ordinance is for and encourage proper participation.

Jesus did not give this ordinance to the world. He gave it to His disciples; to those who have repented of their sins and have truly trusted in Him and in His death for salvation, joyfully accepting the fact that God’s salvation comes by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. One who is not a disciple of Christ must not participate in the Lord’s Supper, for he makes a mockery of these precious and eternal truths in doing so.

Likewise, a professing believer of Jesus Christ who is living in blatant unrepentant sin (i.e. in sexual immorality, or by actively causing division in the church, or by actively mistreating other Christians), must approach the table of the Lord’s Supper with great caution. When the church comes together to remember Christ’s death in the Supper, one such as this must either refrain from participating in the Lord’s Supper (so as not to “drink judgment upon himself”, cf. 1 Corinthians 11:29), or otherwise should humbly and sincerely repent of his sin and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup (1 Corinthians 11:28), acknowledging that the death of Christ sufficiently paid for the sins in which he has been living, and resolving to forsake those sins from that point on.

Further, no one should eat the bread and drink of the cup without first examining himself to ensure that he has rightly understood the nature of Christ’s death on his behalf, as well as to see whether his life is generally consistent with his profession of faith in Christ as Savior and Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27-31).

For these reasons, the man responsible for leading in the Lord’s Supper needs to make it plain to the congregation that participation in the Lord’s Supper is for genuine followers of Christ who have repented of their sins (and are still repenting!) and have trusted in Christ alone for salvation. Saints of years past called this task “fencing the table.” It is a helpful description.

Share the Gospel: Proclaim the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for the sins of His people.

When Jesus instituted the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper during the last Passover meal before His crucifixion, he did not merely proclaim the fact of his sacrificial death, but also proclaimed the benefits of it for His people. As Matthew records,

“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27-28 ESV).

And Mark,

“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’” (Mark 14:23-24 ESV).

And Luke,

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:19-20 ESV).

By tying his sacrificial death to the institution of the “new covenant,” Jesus began to make clear to his disciples that the promises made through the Prophets, particularly the promises of spiritual restoration and renewal, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; 32:38-40; Ezekiel 36:22-33), would be secured for His people through His death on the Cross.

Therefore it is appropriate when inviting the congregation to remember Christ’s death in the Lord’s Supper, that the benefits of Christ’s death for His people are clearly proclaimed to them as well to give assurance and spiritual comfort to those who are trusting in Christ for salvation.

In other words, to prepare the local congregation to eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus, the man leading the church in the ordinance should remind them of the greatness of the Gospel, calling attention not merely to the historical fact of Jesus’ death, but also to the grace of God that is offered freely to all who trust in Christ for salvation; the very grace that brings the Church together as one family in Christ.

There is no need for this to be complicated, nor overly structured. A simple, heartfelt proclamation of the Gospel will suffice.

Confess Sin and Give Thanks: Acknowledge ongoing need for God’s grace and give thanks for the sufficiency of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for our sins.  

In keeping with the instruction of the Apostle Paul regarding the importance of self-examination before partaking in the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28), as well as with the way the Lord Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, by giving thanks before passing out the bread and the cup (Luke 22:17, 19), the leader should encourage the members of the congregation to acknowledge their ongoing need for God’s grace and cleansing from sin, while giving thanks for the ongoing sufficiency of Christ’s death to have atoned for not only our past sins, but also our present and future sins (Hebrews 10:14).

Some take the call to examination and confession in the Lord’s Supper essentially as a call to confess every sin that a person can possibly think of before he actually partakes of the bread and cup, as if a Christian must confess his sins in order to be worthy of Jesus and his death. As a result, the Lord’s Supper for a lot of people is a time of very intense personal examination and dark introspection leading to feelings of overwhelming guilt. Some may not take the bread and cup because they feel that there are just too many sins in their lives to do so.

This presents the church leader with a vital task, which is to remind the congregation that one of the primary reasons for the whole exercise of the Lord’s Supper is to remind us all that we will never be worthy of the salvation offered in Christ. Personal examination in the Lord’s Supper is not for the purpose of being or becoming worthy to eat and drink – it is about preparing the heart to proclaim the fact that the Lord Jesus is worthy of our praise, our faith, our passion and our confession, because he has died for our sins and purchased our redemption through his death. We don’t confess our sins to be worthy for Jesus; we confess our sins because He is worthy of us. Examination doesn’t make us worthy. Jesus does.

And so, when we come to the Lord’s Table, which reminds us of his sacrificial death on our behalf and His worth as our suffering Savior and victorious King – we must examine ourselves. Not in order to be worthy to eat and drink, but to remember of how unworthy we are to share in the benefits of his salvation, and how worthy he is to have won those benefits for us through his perfect and obedient death.

This beautiful truth should shape the way we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper. Not only should it lead us to personal examination before eating and drinking, but it should also lead us to eat and drink as an expression of our confession and our repentance. Thus we confess our sins and repent of our sins by laying hold of Him afresh and taking hold of the benefits of His saving work afresh as we eat and drink in remembrance of Him.

As with each element in observing this ordinance, the aspects of confession and thanksgiving can be encouraged in various ways, whether by a single corporate prayer or by encouraging personal (private) prayer and preparation. Either way, or some combination of the two, should be acceptable, as long as both the corporate and individual aspects of this ordinance are stressed (mentioned above).

Eat and Drink: As Jesus commanded, eat and drink in remembrance of Him.

After properly preparing the congregation for this final climactic act, the leader should encourage the congregation to eat the bread to remember that Christ gave himself up for us, and to drink from the cup to remember that Jesus’ blood was shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

By eating and drinking the church proclaims that not only do they believe in the death of Christ, but that they are trusting in Christ as the one that their souls so desperately need. Like food nourishes the physical body; in the Lord’s Supper the members of the church proclaim that Jesus is the only nourishment that will satisfy their souls.

If the church leader takes these tasks seriously, the body of Christ will be more equipped to remember the death of Jesus in a worthy manner, which will not only bring glory to God; it will also increase the joy of Christ’s people.

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Zach Putthoff

About Zach Putthoff

Originally from Tonganoxie, KS, Zach, serves as pastor for preaching at Shepherd's Community Church, in Lafayette, CO. He received his B.A. in Biblical Studies at Moody Bible Institute and did a few years of graduate level studies in Biblical Counseling at The Master's University. Zach is happily married to his best friend, and has three awesome kids.
  • Thanks for this, Zach. I was surprised that under “Fencing” you did not mention the necessity of participants having been baptized. You may want to further explore this for your manual – since the Lord’s Supper is the continuing ordinance of the church, and baptism the initiatory (Matt 28:19), it’s odd to continue in something to which you’ve never been initiated.

    Jameison’s newer book, Going Public, is of help, here – see especially chapter 6 on the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and Baptism – as well as other works.

    Thanks, again, brother.

    • Zach Putthoff

      You raise a very important issue, Steve, and I very much appreciate the feedback. Thank you also for pointing me to Jamieson’s book. I’ve been eyeballing it for some time, but have not read it as of yet. I have no doubt it would be helpful, and will pick it up soon.

      This is one of those important issues at our church where we have resolved for the time to hold at least a couple of strong biblical convictions in tension; until we find a better way. Namely, while we are credo-baptists by strong conviction, leading us to stress the biblical pattern of baptism preceding sharing in the Lord’s Supper both in private and public instruction (particularly with new converts, children/young people in the church, etc.), we also practice a cautious form of open communion. Thus, we would not prevent a committed Christian who is also a convinced paedo-baptist and who was baptized as in infant from coming to the Lord’s table with us in the Supper; despite not viewing their baptism as consistent with the teaching of Scripture.

      I chose not to address this issue in our manual, given that there is agreement regarding these issues among our elder team and we do address the issue on regular occasion both in private and in public. And I did not get into it in this post because of my assumption that the folks reading this blog would approach the open / closed communion questions differently.

      Nevertheless, I value your feedback and will continue to keep this issue before the Lord and his Word, with the help of my fellow pastors and others who wrestle through the issues with their Bibles open. Thank you for commenting.

      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Zach. Yes, I know many brothers / churches that hold this position. (For full disclosure, we’re “closed communion,” even to convinced paedo-baptists – though I totally understand the tension and the rationale that you describe).

        Personally, I think that if you ever revise your manual, you might consider articulating what you have in this comment. It could strengthen your explanation of fencing. Additionally, one thing I suggest to my fellow pastors who similarly hold to a “cautious open communion” is to try to distinguish between convinced paedobaptists and rebellious baptists (i.e., Christians who are refusing or are negligent in baptism). For that latter category, their life is not really consistent with a profession of faith in Christ if they refuse obedience in that most basic command of identification with baptism.

        Of course, if that makes fencing too complicated in a church, one can always decide to join us in practicing closed communion! 🙂

        Thanks, brother. I appreciate your work here and your reply – it’s helpful stuff. Blessings to you.

        • Jason

          Steve,

          I’d be interested in a cliff-note, meat / potatoes (no bread — pun not intended), argument for closed communion as you described. If you have any articles on line you recommend let me know. If I just need to buy the book, then so be it, let me know 🙂

        • Zach Putthoff

          Thank you for the suggestion, Steve. I’ll definitely consider that in any future revisions.
          And, I think you make an excellent point with the convinced paedobaptist
          / rebellious baptist distinction, and totally agree with your counsel
          there. Thanks again for the interaction, brother. Grace & Peace.