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Monday, January 24, 2011

A Debate

Recently I have been engaged in some very interesting discussions on worship, specifically concerning whether the practice of Communion should have primacy in a worship service.

Part of what has spurred this conversation is the understanding of Christian worship historically having four folds by which it has been practiced:

Fold One: Gathering
Fold Two: Word
Fold Three: Response/Table/Thanksgiving
Fold Four: Dismissal

Scholars such as Robert Webber, Constance Cherry, and James White have written about how this four-fold structure of worship recurs both biblically and historically. Webber explains this structure in this way: “To state it very simply, you gather the people, you tell them the story, you break bread, and you go home to love and serve the Lord. This basic fourfold structure is analogous to what we do when we entertain people in our homes or have any kind of meeting. And so it is when we gather to worship together. It is a meeting with God, and therefore we need to think about—well, how do we gather the people? How do we tell the story that is central to Christian worship—the Word, reading the Word, and preaching the Word? How do we respond to the story with thanksgiving, eating together, fellowshiping together—in a way that allows relationships to be repaired, transformed, and established? And then how do we send people forth?”

As stated earlier, in my recent conversations I have been talking with others about the primacy of the practice of Communion (or the Table) in worship. This has led me to question the following: should the Table have equal primacy to the Word in worship? We do not question that the sermon is important in worship, but is the Word preached as important as the Table celebrated? Should it be? Does thinking of the third fold in the different ways of Thanksgiving, Response, or Table affect our value of what is needed?

Though I will take some time in some following blogs to discuss how this has been approached through the history of the church, for now I will offer this very limited summary: In the Middle Ages, the Table celebration was valued more highly than the preaching of the Word. In the Reformation, the opposite became true - the Word was much more highly valued than the Table.

I am interested in seeing if there is a movement more toward the balance of the two. Should we look to the Table as one of many different possible responses to the Word? Should we look at the Word as nothing more than a prelude to the celebration that takes place at the Table? Could there and should there be a reciprocal relationship between the two? Is one not truly fully valued without the other?

Before I offer any of my thoughts, or the biblical, historical, and theological research I have done on this topic, I am curious to hear some of your responses. I look forward to engaging with you in this discussion. 


  1. Well, this may vary from a theological hermeneutic approach and significance that may vary in the association of worshiper. My stand on this would be that the table must be given the same position as other worship tenets.

    Pastor Emmy Mugisha

  2. Great post, Jonathan! I'm looking forward to reading your further thoughts on the matter.

    Two things, biblically, that are worthy of note in favor of centrality of both Word & Table: (not to say that this is an exhaustive assessment by any means) 1. The road to Emmaus. Both Word & Table are present. Centrality there seems to be on the Meal, since that is where it is revealed that the man was Jesus. Augustine said something along the lines of: "If you are confused in the preaching, at least you can find comfort and clarity in the breaking of bread." 2. Pentecost. The people understood THAT they could tell a message was being declared in their own language, but the didn't know the significance of WHAT this event MEANT until Peter brought the WORD or prophecy to explain what had happened. That said, the four folds you mention in the post appear pretty central throughout the life of the church in Acts and the letters.