The Practice of the Table in 20th Century Churches of Christ

On September 30, 1915 A. B. Lipscomb, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, published a special issue on the Lord’s Supper. These articles, with various additions, were printed as a pamphlet by the Gospel Advocate Company five times from 1917 to 1972. As a guide to the meaning and celebration of the Lord’s Supper, including model “Table Talks,” it provides a relevant case study for the theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper among Churches of Christ in the early 20th century.

Churches of Christ have generally focused on two dimensions of table theology. The Lord’s Supper is commemorative (memorial, monumental) and declarative (testimonial, proclamation). Both of these are primarily cognitive and anthropocentric categories. We remember and we proclaim. Through this cognitive process, we contemplate the death of Christ and when we do this together we proclaim the Lord’s death.

Others, however, did insist on a spiritual dynamic, a means of grace, through eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table. James A. Harding identified Scripture reading, fellowship with the poor, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer as means of grace through which God “transform[s] poor, frail, sinful human being[s] into the likeness of Christ.” E. A. Elam and E. G. Sewell, heirs to the Lipscomb-Harding emphases, both used this language frequently. The spiritual dynamic is a healthy one in these writers.

Using Around the Lord’s Table as an example of the theological matrix in which Churches of Christ observed the Supper during the 20th Century, I note below several dominant characteristics that run through most, if not all, twenty-seven contributors who range from Texas to Tennessee and from Georgia to Kentucky. The theology and practice of the Supper among 20th Century Churches of Christ may be characterized as: (1) cognitive/mental; (2) introspective/penitential; (3) vertical/individual; and (4) legal. The function of the table is fundamentally to bring the cross into full view and through the eye of understanding to experience the agony, suffering and sorrow of the death of Jesus. Noting that the “purpose” of the Lord’s Supper is “strictly monumental and commemorative,” M. C. Kurfees suggests that the participant—“on the wings of memory”—is led to the “somber shades and gloom of Gethsemane and by the cruel cross of Calvary, where, amid earthquake shocks and supernatural darkness, the story of ineffable love is told in agony and suffering.” There the communicants linger, remember and commune (by memory) with the Lord.

Cognitive and Mental. Silent “solemn contemplation” is the primary mode in which the Supper is experienced among Churches of Christ. It is a cognitive exercise by which the participant “by the eye of faith” sees “the awful suffering of our Savior that day as he was subjected to the humiliating indignities that culminated in his ignoble death on the cruel Roman cross.” Through “remembering, reflecting, visualizing” we focus on the cross rather than the “entire scope of the earth-life of” Jesus. We “remember the cross.” The intensity of this moment means that “the worshipper,” Chessor believes, “who has the greater power of concentration and reflection, and who employs that faculty, will be able to get greater spiritual benefits.” The Lord’s Supper, according to A. B. Barrett, is the “solemn moment of the worship when…our minds are carried back to Calvary to see anew the passion of the Lamb of God.” Through this “memorial service” we “picture the sufferings of Christ.” Indeed, to “fail” to discern the Lord’s body by “think[ing] of him as he suffered upon the cross while we engage in this communion of his body and his blood” is to condemn ourselves since the Supper “commemorates the tragedy of Calvary.”

Introspective and Penitential. Churches of Christ have generally understood that eating and drinking is a time of “godly fear and self-examination.” Indeed, the “worthy manner” of eating and drinking is “to picture the sufferings of Christ in the agony of the garden and in his crucifixion” which constitutes the “proper attitude” that “make[s] the individual worship acceptable to the Lord.” The “examination prescribed by Paul is for the purpose of bringing our thoughts into control, so that we may eat and drink in the proper spirit and attitude.” It is a moment to “see to it that we ourselves are in covenant relation with Christ and on praying terms with God.”

Vertical and Individual. With an emphasis on silence, solemnity and contemplation, it is not surprising to find an individualistic and vertical emphasis. The horizontal dimension is almost completely absent. Indeed, W. E. Brightwell bluntly states that “our communion is with the Lord. There is [horizontal] fellowship, but that is only accidental.” R. L. Whiteside is even more blunt: “In worship people do not commune with one another…In the worship our communion should be with the divine being.” However, this is not uniform perspective. Trice believes that even in the “solemn silence” there is “sweet fellowship with each other and with the heavenly Father.”

Legal Test of Loyalty. Churches of Christ, perhaps more than the other streams of the Stone-Campbell Movement, emphasized the legal “sacred duty” to eat and drink weekly in commemoration of the Lord’s death. We embraced the language that the Lord’s Supper is a “positive appointment” which functions as an “acid test” of our love. The “observance of the ordinance tells in large measure who is on the Lord’s side, and vice versa.” It functions as a “test of loyalty.” “Can a church member say he is fighting the good fight and keeping the faith, and at the same time,” Wrye asks, “ignore, neglect, or forget to obey this positive command?” Thus, it is the “duty” of every Christian “to proclaim the death of our Lord in a faithful observance of the Lord’s Supper on every first day of the week.” Further, our observance “cannot do anything [the Bible] does not require, and…must do all it does require.” Consequently, we should follow the model in Scripture as close as possible since it is “safe.” Indeed, if we neglect the duty of weekly communion, “we have no promise of salvation should we die” in that neglect. It is “safe” to eat weekly. Churches of Christ come by this attitude naturally—it is embedded in our consciousness at least from the time of Tolbert Fanning  in the mid-19th Century who wrote, “Without its weekly observance no one can worship God acceptably, or promise himself the eternal rewards of Christians.”

These elements have shaped the practice of Churches of Christ in the 20th Century. There is no movement among those who eat and drink other than the servers. Communicants are served as they sit silently in their pews in contemplation of the cross of Christ. There they “silently, solemnly, sublimely” proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes. In other words, it is an anthropocentric and individualistic legal duty performed in memory and proclamation of the death of Jesus.

[If you are interested in the source of the citations and documentation, you may read the full article upon which this post is based here.]

5 Responses to “The Practice of the Table in 20th Century Churches of Christ”

  1.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    why is this memorial not considered a more theocentric outlook with the inclusion of 2cor 5:21 and the indwelling Spirit so to be focused on the deliverance of god by his goodness(promised grace) and the obedience of his son to his will through righteous life giving faith and the glory brought about for creation by god becoming fully human and separated from one another for us.
    would not the focus change a little to a dance of love, we the family of god share.for the purpose of redemption of the separated because of the condemnation of death being reversed for us all by the righteous act of death/unto redempshion through faith and not law?


  2.   rich constant Says:

    oops….the righteous act of death/unto redempshion through faith and not law by the spirit

  3.   Willis Says:

    Well done.

  4.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    It is interesting that growing up, I don’t remember any passages other than Matthew 26 and 1 Corinthians 11 being read as a meditation for the L.S. (though I am sure on a rare occasion, some other passage was read). I see this changing now, as I frequently here other passages being read as a meditation text which to me is a good thing (I believe it is good if we see the gospel in a variety of scripture). Now it will be interesting to see if the theological understanding/purpose for the L.S. changes any and if so, to what.

    Grace and peace,


  5.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    the thrust.
    seems to me that
    the mystry is revieled,
    by the spirit,
    and it says rejoice because of the delerance of god through his truth?
    by the one righteous act,concidered sad at the time for lack of understanding.
    prase god
    blessings rich

    13:28 (Now none of those present at the table70 understood71
    14:5 Thomas said,12 “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
    14:18 “I will not abandon41 you as orphans,42 I will come to you.43 14:19 In a little while44 the world will not see me any longer, but you will see me; because I live, you will live too.

    “I did not tell you these things from the beginning because I was with you.11 16:5 But now I am going to the one who sent me,12 and not one of you is asking me, ‘Where are you going?’13 16:6 Instead your hearts are filled with sadness14 because I have said these things to you. 16:7 But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate15 will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you

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