I've started a post several times, and each time, it wasn't quite what I wanted. Or, my thoughts ended up going in a different direction. So I have a few drafts I may someday turn into posts, but I wanted to try this from scratch one more time.
The central meeting in the assembly is the Lord's Supper. It is not exclusive of others, but it is takes a unique place. Consider some passages from the New Testament (brief comments in italics):
"41 Those then who had accepted his word were baptised; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers. 43 And fear was upon every soul, and many wonders and signs took place through the apostles’ means." (Acts 2:41--43, Darby Translation)
Breaking of Bread was one of the four reasons the early Church gathered: the others were teaching, fellowship, and prayers.
"6 but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and we came to them to Troas in five days, where we spent seven days. 7 And the first day of the week, we being assembled to break bread, Paul discoursed to them, about to depart on the morrow. And he prolonged the discourse till midnight." (Acts 20:6--7, Darby Translation)
So the early church gathered on the first day of the week (not the Sabbath), in order to break bread.
"17 But in prescribing to you on this which I now enter on, I do not praise, namely, that ye come together, not for the better, but for the worse. 18 For first, when ye come together in assembly, I hear there exist divisions among you, and I partly give credit to it. 19 For there must also be sects among you, that the approved may become manifest among you. 20 When ye come therefore together into one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper." (1 Cor. 11:17--20, Darby Translation)
Interestingly, Paul holds up the fact that the Corinthians were meeting "not to eat the Lord's supper" as though it were an anomaly.
"23 For *I* received from the Lord, that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was delivered up, took bread, 24 and having given thanks broke it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 In like manner also the cup, after having supped, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye announce the death of the Lord, until he come." (1 Cor. 11:23--26, Darby Translation)
And we find the the Lord's Supper is the subject of a special revelation to Paul.
So the Scriptural record tells us a few things about the Lord's Supper, just in these four passages. First, it was one of four reasons the early church gathered. Second, the Gentile church in Philippi gathered on the first day of the week to break bread. It doesn't explicitly say this was a weekly thing, but the inference is there. Third, the Lord's Supper was the subject of a special revelation directly to Paul: he received it "from the Lord", not from one of the other Apostles who was there that night. Fourth, Paul tells the Corinthians that there sectarianism meant they were not gathering to eat the Lord's Supper---almost as though that were an anomaly in the early Church.
So it is reasonable to say that the Lord's Supper appears, according to the Scriptural record, to be the central meeting of the Church. And notice in Acts 20, Paul spoke to them when they were gathered to break bread: apparently they did not have a special meeting to listen to Paul, but he took the opportunity to speak to them, when they were gathered to break bread. (The story seems to imply that Paul spoke after they had eaten the Lord's Supper, but I can't really prove it. Eutychus certainly fell out the window during Paul's message, not during the Lord's Supper.) It's singular that most Churches today prioritize preaching over the Lord's Supper; and while they might cancel the Lord's Supper for a special speaker, it's hard to imagine them having a guest speaker (not to mention an Apostle!) and making him take time at the Lord' Supper.
Why do we eat the Lord's Supper? Paul tells us plainly in 1 Corinthians 11:24 & 26 "this do... in remembrance of me". It is to remember the Lord Jesus that we gather to break bread. It's not for sermons (although Paul certainly addressed the Philippian church when they were so gathered), nor for fellowship, but to remember the Lord Jesus.
When I was in the "open" assembly in St. Louis, a brother mentioned once that the Lord called us to remember Him: not His death, not His life, nor His exaltation; but Him. In remembering Him, we do remember these things, but we don't gather to remember that the Lord suffered for us, we gather to remember Him.
Now, in remembering Him, we show forth His death. Many brethren have mis-quoted this, as saying we gather to remember His death, or we gather to remember Him "in His death", but that's not what the passage says: it says we gather to remember Him, and when we do, we show forth His death.
I doubt very much a Christian could eat the bread signifying His broken Body, and drink the cup signifying the New Covenant in His blood without remembering His death. But remembering His death is not why we gather.
I make a this point very carefully, because there is subtle danger in remembering the Lord's death, rather than remembering the Lord. We are called to remember the Lord who went into death for us: but we are not called to remember His death. Why the distinction? Because He's not dead now! We are remembering a Person---a Divine Person---who once died for us, but is now in Heaven, sitting at God's right hand for us. Not now our priest as an offerer, but our Great High Priest as one who has offered, and invites us into God's presence as purged worshipers.
"19 Having therefore, brethren, boldness for entering into the holy of holies by the blood of Jesus, 20 the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, 21 and having a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, sprinkled as to our hearts from a wicked conscience, and washed as to our body with pure water." (Hebrews 10:19--22, Darby Translation).
Does our remembering Him show forth His death? Absolutely! Does our coming into Heaven remind us of His death? How could it not? We enter by our new and living way, His blood; through the veil, His flesh. When we go into the Holiest of all, it's His blood that we see thrown against the sides of the altar. We can't go into God's presence and not remember Hid death for us.
But it's not to remember His death that we gather. It's not to stir up some emotional response to the sufferings of the Son of God. It's not to visualize a beaten, abused, crucified Man. It's not even to try and see a glimpse of His being made sin for us. It's to remember Him. It's the Person---not the event---we worship.
Having established why we gather, it is easy to see that there are a great many things we can do to destroy the Lord's Supper. Paul mentioned schism and immorality in 1 Corinthians 11. Derailing is also possible, by using the Lord's Supper as a platform for issues other than remembering Him.
It is this last possibility I find the most frightening. Personally, I have seen this done many times, often by well-meaning brethren. I think of this as the subversion of the Lord's Supper.
There are a few ways I personally have seen the Lord's Supper subverted:
One of the things I notice every time I attend an "open" meeting is, that there are a lot of mini-sermons in the Lord's Supper. "Exclusive" brethren consider it a bad thing to speak much in the Lord's Supper: brethren pray, give out hymns, or read Scripture; but they don't make comments on the verses they read, they don't give short messages in the Lord's Supper.
While I don't by any means think "exclusives" have a corner in the truth here; I can appreciate the heart behind this taboo.
Sermonettes in the Lord's Supper are not always terrible: there were many times I can remember when someone stood at the Lord's Supper and gave a short lesson or address that contributed to remembering the Lord. On the other hand, the vast majority of the times I can remember someone standing and giving a short address at the Lord's Supper, it was a distraction.
It is a fact that making some sort of rule about what's appropriate in the Lord's Supper is a bad idea: law (as a principle) always works in opposition to grace. But the fact is, the Lord's Supper is not the time for teaching, exhorting, admonishing, or encouraging: it's the time for remembering. Now, I have no problem with someone doing all those things afterwards (which is apparently what Paul did in Philippi), but we gather to remember Him.
I think the problem of sermonettes in the Lord's Supper among "open brethren" is partly---or largely---due to their scheduling all the meetings. I find it interesting that two common themes I hear in ministry on assembly order from "open brethre" are: (1) the Lord's Supper is a place to remember Him, not a place to teach; and (2) that not every brother should minister publicly in the assembly: only "gifted brothers" should minister. These two messages work against one another, but the "open brethren" don't seem to see that. If you limit some brethren from public speaking in the assembly, but then tell them they are priests, they will take the only opportunity they have for public address (the Lord's Supper) and use it to say what's on their hearts. The best way to ensure brothers don't abuse their freedom to speak up in the Lord's Supper is to allow them the freedom to do so in other meetings.
The problem with scheduling (or limiting) the roster of speakers in an assembly is, the criterion for doing so is always wrong. As wrong as it is to include men who have nothing to say (and haven't we all seen that?), it's just as bad to exclude someone who very much has something to say. But in all the messages I have heard out of "open brethren" about how "only gifted brothers should minister", the criterion is always presented as "brothers gifted for public ministry". The criterion is wrong for several reasons:
1. There is not a hint in Scripture that the Lord limits His activities to working through "gifted" people. Quite the opposite: Moses and Paul were both said to be poor speakers (Ex. 4:10; 2 Cor. 10:10), and yet they were both sent with a message from the Lord.
2. A gift for speaking is not the same as something to say. It's quite possible for a gifted speaker to fill an hour without saying anything: possible, but not profitable. The criterion ought not to be whether a brother is gifted to speak, but whether he has something to say.
3. Spiritual gift is a very real thing, but it's very hard to diagnose. There are many gifted, unsaved speakers. Natural talent, learned skills: these are deceptively similar to spiritual gifts. To select speakers based on "spiritual gift" is impossible, and ends up being a selection based solely on eloquence.
4. There are many gifts that might be appropriate for public ministry at one time or another: "open brethren" assume that public ministry is teaching, but there are also encouragement, exhortation, admonishment, etc. These all have a place in public ministry.
But the biggest problem of all is, it replaces the Holy Spirit's leading in the assembly---the practical Headship of Christ---with man's agenda and schedules.
I believe one of the reasons "exclusive brethren" have a more purely worshipful time at the Lord's Supper is precisely that they have "open ministry" meetings, where any brother with something to say is allowed to get up and say it. Brothers don't need to try and get their message into that one meeting: there are meetings explicitly for a brother to address the assembly.
Laws and Rules
While this is a somewhat sensitive topic, I sincerely believe one of the biggest subversions of the Lord's Supper is when brethren declare some formal rules for it. For example, I once heard a brother declare that all prayers and singing in the Lord's Supper should be directed to the Son, as we are gathered to remember Him. The Father, while certainly worthy of worship and praise, was not to be addressed in prayer or song in that meeting. I heard another brother go further, saying we are to worship the Son before the bread and wine are passed around, and then the Father after. I've also heard a lot of people saying we are only to remember the Lord's death, or suffering, not anything else---not His life, not His resurrection or ascension, just His death.
This sort of nonsense causes a lot more trouble than anyone realizes. At the very least, it forces the brethren to examine carefully every word they say before saying it: the focus becomes scrutinizing every word, rather than remembering the Lord. More importantly, it takes the Lord's place as center of the gathering and puts in it the brethren's rules for meeting. It practically usurps Christ's place.
Now, I'm all for limiting our meetings to what's in Scripture, but if you don't have a chapter and verse, you need to keep quiet. That's all there is to it. We all have preferences, and that's fine: but if you can't tell the difference between the weight of Scripture and your personal preference, then you are not in a spiritual position to declare what the brethren should do in the meetings.
This is closely related to the last point, but I think it's deserves special attention. One of the best things about the Lord's Supper is, it is unscripted and loosely scheduled. Any brother who feels led of the Lord may give out a hymn, read Scripture, or pray. The meeting is almost completely free-form, progressing as the brethren feel the Lord directs. But the sad reality is, we all fail to see the value in that from time to time.
If you spend enough time among "brethren", you eventually hear someone lamenting "long silences" in the meeting.
If you're a young man in the meeting, you will almost invariably be told you need to participate in the meetings: pray, give out a hymn, whatever.
The sad reality is, the same people who arrogate to themselves the exclusive claim of the Lord's presence Sunday mornings (because "we gather to the Lord's name alone, not to a man's name, a pastor, or a denominational title"), casually and frequently deny the Lord's place in the assembly by their constant meddling: telling others what they ought to do where the Holy Spirit is supposedly in control.
Does this sort of nagging have an effect on the meetings? Of course it does! We are better off with someone sitting silently than to have him say something designed to stop the nagging.
The fact is, silence in the meeting can be a very good thing. If we really believe the Scripture; then we must accept we are there to remember Him, not to talk. To the extent that silence in a meeting is the result of spiritual apathy, it is a problem. But spiritual apathy isn't cured by nagging: it's just hidden that way. As one brother said "If you think the meetings are too quiet, you're talking to the wrong man. Take it to Him, and let Him deal with it."
I think one of the worst things is, when the meeting is going along so well: we're all remembering the Lord, enjoying His presence, and someone stands up to stop the meeting, because we've gone way past time, and we're going to need to start Sunday School soon.
I have no solution to this problem, but I hate it when it happens. I suppose we could just say "Look, Bro., we're not done yet. But we'll finish soon," or something to that effect. But no matter where you go, there's always at least one who would rather die than be off the schedule...
In the end, the Lord's Supper is of the first importance in the assembly. But our desires to do it right seem to cloud the issue: get in the way of our actually doing it. Almost all the problems I see in assemblies are the result of meddling; and we seem to meddle more in this one area than all others.