Almost three years ago now, I posted on the subject of the importance of using alcoholic wine in the celebration of the Eucharist. I argued that the use of grape juice was a serious departure from the scriptural teaching regarding the sacrament. Posts are generally forgotten about within a few days at most and are never read again. For some strange reason, however, there are times when old posts are revived and enjoy a second fifteen minutes of fame. Over the last few days a few people have asked me questions about my post on wine in communion. For this reason, I thought that it might be helpful to write a brief post responding to some of the questions that have been raised in response to my original post on the subject.
You take the use of particular elements far too seriously. What would you do, for example, in the case of a person with gluten intolerance?
There are occasions when it is perfectly appropriate to make exceptions. The problem comes when people use such valid exceptions to undermine or negate the rule. For example, the fact that some people might be physically incapable of kneeling does not excuse the rest of us from doing so.
What about people with allergies to wine or former alcoholics?
In the case of allergies to wine, it is worth pointing out that the allergy is generally to something other than the alcohol. In such instances I would suggest that it is probably best to serve an alcoholic, rather than a non-alcoholic, substitute. In the case of recovering alcoholics, much depends on the particular case. The vast majority of arguments against the use of wine in communion on account of alcoholism are utterly without foundation. Most former alcoholics can drink wine in communion without any problem. Even if a church chooses to provide a non-alcoholic substitute they should do so for that individual alone. Everyone else should be served alcoholic wine.
Those with scruples about the use of wine should not be catered for. If they won’t accept wine, then they will just have to go without. People with unscriptural scruples should not be encouraged in their errors. Unless there are strong individual reasons why a substitute is necessary, no choice should be offered. Those who unbiblical scruples should certainly not be permitted to hold the rest of the church hostage to their uninformed consciences. Besides, it really is not for the servant to decide what is served at his Master’s table.
The Scriptures are quite undogmatic about the type of bread that we use for the celebration of the Eucharist; doesn’t this suggest that we shouldn’t be that dogmatic about the use of wine?
The Scripture may be undogmatic about the type of bread that is used (although some would dispute that claim), but it makes clear that it must be bread. Likewise, we have considerable freedom in our choice of wine. We can celebrate according to the biblical pattern using red or white wine, sweet or dry wine, regular or fortified wine. It really is up to us. However, we are taught by Scripture to use wine, rather than anything else.
Why not? In a number of traditions, white wine has often been used for the celebration of the Eucharist. This is certainly not a novel or entirely unusual practice. The symbolism of the element does not rest primarily on the colour of the wine that is used. Many believe that the whole symbolism of the wine rests upon its being dark or reddish in colour, making it look like blood. On this basis they can justify replacing the wine with other dark or reddish liquids. I have attended churches where Ribena has been used in the celebration of the Supper. However, in Scripture the significance of the use of wine rests on details such as its being the fruit of the vine and being alcoholic.
Red wine is probably slightly to be preferred over white wine on account of its colour. However, this detail really is an adiaphoron. One benefit of using white wine would be that it would have the effect of shocking us out of unhelpful ways of viewing the sacrament. It is not there to be looked at, but to be drunk. The wine is not there to be a mere ‘picture’ of Christ’s blood, but to be received by faith as the gift of Christ’s blood itself.
Christ may have employed wine in His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, He also almost certainly used unleavened bread. Why make an issue about wine and not about the use of unleavened bread?
First, the type of leaven used in the ancient world was different from our yeast. Unless we use sourdough, our bread is technically unleavened.
Second, the Eucharist is not merely the fulfilment of the Passover ceremony, nor, in the NT, is it merely based on the Last Supper. Oscar Cullmann has argued, for example, that the Eucharist was seen by many within the earliest Church as some sort of continuation of the post-resurrection meals and was not merely based on the Last Supper.
Third, the use of leavened or unleavened bread has been a matter of heated debate in the past in Church history, principally between the Eastern and Western Church in the eleventh century. The Eastern Church used leavened bread, while the Western Church tended to use unleavened.
Fourth, leaven is not neutral in symbolism. The Scripture speaks of purging out old leaven to celebrate the feast, drawing on the pattern of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). On account of this and the negative symbolic sense that leaven tends to have within the NT (Matthew 16:6, 11-12; Luke 12:1; Galatians 5:9), many have insisted that the Supper must be celebrated without it.
However, leaven is not purely a symbol of evil. At the Feast of Pentecost new leaven was used (Leviticus 23:17). Old leaven is cut off; new leaven is introduced. Jesus uses leaven as a positive image in one of His parables of the kingdom (Luke 13:20-21). Leaven symbolizes the hidden spread of the kingdom of God and its message. At Pentecost the new leaven of the Spirit was introduced. We are to cut off the old leaven of malice and wickedness and introduce the new leaven of the Spirit. The use of leavened bread highlights one dimension of biblical imagery, the use of unleavened another. There may be good reasons for using leavened bread on one occasion and using unleavened on another.
The use of leaven is an adiaphoron for good theological reasons. Such reasons are not present in the case of wine.
Your argument from scriptural symbolism notwithstanding, the Scriptures that God have given us nowhere explicitly teach that alcoholic wine must be used. In light of this, how can you say that the use of grape juice — which is clearly the ‘fruit of the vine’ — is against God’s instructions?
God has not just given us the Scriptures; He has also given us intelligence. God does not insult the intelligence that He has given to us by spelling out explicitly that which is clear to any careful reader.
As James Jordan has remarked, a good servant is attentive to the slightest gesture of his master. Only a bad servant needs to have explicit commands in order to do his master’s bidding. Only an evil servant seeks loopholes in the explicit commands of his master in order to avoid doing that which he knows deep down is his master’s will. If we truly are good servants we will immediately pick up on the fact that God wants alcoholic wine on his table and will act accordingly.
Should a common cup be used? Should individual cups be avoided?
I don’t think that the Scripture presents us with as clear an argument for the use of a common cup as many believe. I suggest that this is another adiaphoron. I am not even sure that there was a common cup at the Last Supper. There were a series of cups of wine drunk as part of the Passover celebration and it is possible that, rather than passing one cup around, the ‘cup’ referred to the particular serving of wine that they were about to drink as part of the celebration. The ‘cup’ would perhaps function like the way that a toast does in our celebrations. Each individual would have an individual cup. Passing around individual cups and drinking at the same time might therefore be closer to the original celebration.
What do you think about the practice of intinction?
The biblical pattern for the Eucharistic rite is really quite simple. Intinction is a practice that breaks with this biblical pattern. Intinction is also more unhygienic than the use of the common cup, a practice that many express health concerns about. The fact that high church Christians often follow this practice means nothing. High church Christians frequently get liturgy wrong and are not the pattern that we should be following.
What size should portions be?
Again this is an adiaphoron. However, I think that portions should ideally be a lot more substantial than they are in most churches. We are eating a meal. A larger hunk, rather than a miniscule morsel of bread would be nice. Also a larger glass of wine would help us to recognize that the Eucharist is not primarily about ideas, but about joy and celebration in the kingdom of God.
In your post you claimed that wine is a drink that is dangerous and that it takes maturity to partake in such a celebratory meal. How does this impact the arguments for paedocommunion?
Wine is dangerous and must be handled with maturity. This is a significant dimension of the symbolism. The Table of the Lord is a place of wisdom and not the table of fools (Proverbs 9:1-6). Young children are trained in wisdom by being taught to treat wine appropriately at the table of wisdom. The supervision of older and wiser persons ensures that young children do not learn to drink as fools drink. The wisdom and maturity that the table speaks of is not an individualistic matter, but something that is true of the congregation as a whole.
I am currently in a church that only serves grape juice. I am deeply troubled by this practice. What should I do?
Important as these things are, we need to beware of causing unnecessary division over them. God is gracious and does not judge us as harshly as we tend to judge each other. I can understand why this would be a difficult and sensitive issue for a pastor of a church to work through or a member of a church to live with. Even if you want to reform the church’s practice, you don’t want the sort of reform that tarries for no one. Reform needs to be taken slowly, in order to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. Reform is important and, if we are obedient we should be working towards it. However, there is a sort of unloving and impatient reform that actually causes great damage, despite its noble intentions. God gives us time to grow out of old practices and does not force us to change completely overnight (witness the significant overlap of the old and new covenants, for instance).
There are occasions when a strong line needs to be taken. Those who want the church to capitulate to their unscriptural scruples should not be pandered to. Although we must be patient and gracious in reform, we must also be persistent. We may reach a point where some people must be resisted, even if this results in their leaving for another church.
The reform that I primarily have in mind here is a gradually phasing out of the use of grape juice. In a church that resists the use of wine altogether, the issue may need to be addressed more forcefully. It is one thing to resist the use of wine for yourself. It is quite another to resist its being served to others.