Yesterday, somebody raised the question about the use of breaking bread in Acts 2:41-47. Specifically, what are we to make of the breaking of bread (v42) and breaking bread in (v46)? Are they referring to the same thing or are they talking about two different things? Does this have an impact on our application of the ordinances in church services?
Personally, I love reading these verses before we are about to take communion because I think they helpfully crystallise exactly why our practice is what it is. Why do we think that communion is for baptised members of the local church? I think these verses answer that question helpfully for us.
First, we need to recognise that the context of the verses is Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. He has just preached an absolute banger, the Spirit was at work, thousands of people want to know what they must do to be saved and Peter tells them in clear terms. So, we are told in v41, ‘those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.’
Just reading that, there is a clear order in what happened. The order seems particularly significant. They first received the Word – that is, they believed it and became Christians – at which point they were baptised. So, their baptism and their profession of faith hang together. Then, having baptised them, they were ‘added’. Added to what? Clearly, they were added to the church. This is apparent from v42 when we look at what they did following their baptism and ‘adding’. They devoted themselves to the Apostle’s teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers. These are the very things that constitute a church.
There are two significant reason to take the breaking of bread to mean the gathered church ordinance. First, there is the grammar. It is quite clear that the text reads breaking of bread, rather than breaking bread. Given v46 later on, which clearly refers to breaking bread, that seems deliberate. Second, and more tellingly, there is the context. In v42, following immediately the conversion, baptism and adding to membership of these new believers, we are told what they did. The context strongly suggests they were bound together as a church to do the things of a church. Sitting under teaching, fellowship (which necessitates being together), prayers and the breaking of bread. The context suggests that these were communal activities in the context of a church gathering. They were baptised into the church, became members of the church and then did the things that you would expect a church to do.
Why do we read that out before we take communion? It speaks to the fact that the church is made up of professing, baptised believers who then commit themselves to membership of the church. It is also clear that the taking of the Lord’s Supper comes after people have been brought into membership which itself comes after they have been baptised and that follows after they profess faith and ‘received the Word’. This order seems important and speaks specifically to why we have the practice that we do.
However, the context after v42 appears to change. It moves from the church assembly to the weekly lives of the members of the church. So, vv41-42 describe the church as a church, but v43-47 describe the members of the church living their lives through the rest of the week. This is apparent enough from vv44-45. It seems highly unlikely they only shared things in common at their church gathering. Indeed, they were selling what they had and using it to serve the membership. All unlikely only to be happening on one day. But it is clear by v46 we are talking about weekly living as it says clearly, ‘day by day’ (that is every day) they attended the temple together and broke bread in homes.
Now, this latter use of breaking bread in homes simply refers to eating. For one, Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 push us away from any idea that communion can be done privately. Paul specifically speaks to the Corinthians about ‘when you come together’ and censures those who have been eating their meal first before others turned up i.e. having a private Lord’s Supper. What this means is that the breaking bread in home in Acts 2:46 is highly unlikely to mean the church ordinance. Not least, they were doing it every day and they were doing it, not necessarily as a fully gathered church, but separately in each others homes. The context is clearly different from the breaking of bread in v42 and that, along with the grammar in v46, suggest the latter is speaking about eating ordinary, everyday meals together.
It seems clear enough, then, that the context of v41-42 and vv46-47 are different. One is speaking to the gathering of the local church whilst the other speaks to the daily lives of the believers who make up the local church. One speaks to the things that constitute a local church – including the Lord’s Supper – while the latter refers to eating ordinary meals throughout the week.
This shouldn’t be surprising seeing that Luke seems to be trying to get across the change that took place in these new believers. They first believed, were baptised and joined the local church. They then set about doing the kind of things you would expect new believers joined to a local church to do when that church meets together. He then goes on to say how their lives outside the gathering of the local church were impacted too. This gives us a holistic picture of the lives changed by the Spirit. They believe, they join the church and become ‘religious’ and that impacts their entire lives, including how they helped others, how they spent their time and how they were viewed by the community around them.
One question that follows from this is what this has to say about our practice of the Lord’s Supper. The only grounds from these verses for arguing that the Lord’s Supper always took place amid a communal meal is if we can show that v42 and v46 are referring to the same thing. As I’ve argued here, I don’t think the context and the grammar push us in that direction. They are clearly distinct and separate things. In fact, if both verses are referring to the same thing, consistency would push us to take v46 more serious, especially the ‘day by day’ statement, and question whether we ought to be having the Lord’s Supper every day! But if v42 and v46 are referring to different things – and I think they are – then we shouldn’t press v46 too far in respect to our taking the Lord’s Supper.
That, of course, isn’t to say there is no argument to be made about the form of the Lord’s Supper and whether it should be in the context of a meal but that argument has to be made from other bits of scripture if you want to make it. I don’t think that Acts 2:41-47 has a great deal to say about whether the ordinance was part of a full communal meal or not. What is clearly does tell us, however, is that the Lord’s Supper is for those who have professed faith, been baptised and joined to the local church in membership. It is for those who are gathered together and a body of baptised, professing believers.