Wine in Communion Redux

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.

White wine?!

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.


About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Wine in Communion Redux

  1. John H says:

    Alastair: very helpful post.

    As regards the colour of the wine, some Lutheran churches (and I think some A-C churches too) use white wine precisely because it reduces the “symbolic” aspect. As you say, it is not there to remind us of Christ’s blood by being red; it is Christ’s blood, by his Word and not by physical resemblance.

    I think my own church uses a darkish “white” wine, but personally I’m pretty easy on this one. After all, the converse is that it doesn’t cease to be Christ’s blood just because it looks like it!

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  4. Scott says:

    One objection I found to your original post was more grounded in a hermeneutical difference. The person I have in mind objected that if the Lord’s Supper is a new Passover (and only that), then the fact that the Passover ordinances do not call for wine implies that the Lord’s Supper does not necessarily call for wine (and the fact that the word “wine” is not there only substantiates that claim, it is supposed). Would you care to respond to that criticism?

  5. Phil Walker says:

    Al, this is all great. I’ve made the “disobedience” case quite forcefully with people who have suggested that Coca-Cola and Ryvita are acceptable substitutes. I find myself wondering what you’d think about this issue as set in missionary contexts? In the East Asian archipelagoes, there are whole people groups who have never seen a loaf of bread. In the Middle East, the purchase of alcoholic wine may be near-impossible. Are we able, in our theological expressions, to recognise that there are very peculiar situations in which obedience will mean something different?

  6. Al says:


    To my knowledge the Scripture never stipulates drinking of any variety as part of the Passover celebration. Later forms of the Passover had the drinking of wine as an established part of the celebration, but I really don’t think that such arguments prove anything one way or another. I find the argument that you speak of rather strange.

    As regards the claim that the Lord’s Supper is only a new Passover, I think that this needs to be responded to on two levels. Firstly, it is plain wrong. The NT associates the Eucharist with manna, the Rock that was struck in the wilderness and the sacrifices of the Temple, among a number of other things.

    Secondly, as it is a new Passover, part of the significance of the Eucharist is to be found in the significant ways in which it differs from the OT celebration of the Passover. For this reason, to argue that wine cannot be necessary in the Eucharist because it wasn’t necessary in the Passover has no more logic to it than an argument that claims that, since Christ is a new Adam and the first Adam didn’t have a mother, Christ can’t have one either.

  7. Al says:


    Absolutely. There are many valid exceptions that can be made and you mention a couple of them in your comment. I addressed this issue to some extent in my first and second questions and answers. My point is that, in the situations in which we find ourselves, such exceptions seldom if ever apply. These cases are called ‘exceptions’ for a reason: because there is a rule. Despite the numerous genuine exceptions that do exist, I want to make sure that we never lose sight or undermine the rule. I also wish to expose those who use such valid exceptions as a cloak for disobedience.

  8. Scott says:

    Yes. I agree the argument is a pretty weak one. But I found the original document that I was thinking of and I believe I might have restated the argument rather poorly. Of course, I still find it to be lacking having reviewed it, but if you are interested in reading the full critique you can read it here:

  9. Al says:


    To my knowledge, I never said that wine was part of the original institution of the Passover. If I did, I was wrong. As he addresses this point at considerable length in his response, I think that this needs to be made clear. Nevertheless, before moving on from this point, it is worth making clear that wine was in fact part of later Passover liturgies.

    The use of the language of ‘fruit of the vine’ and ‘cup’ is not artful ambiguity. It is not meant to be vague. Unlike those who read such expressions woodenly, everyone who heard Jesus would know that ‘fruit of the vine’ and ‘cup’ were simply ways of speaking about wine. These were established ways of speaking about the wine in the Passover celebration (this can be demonstrated from a study of early Jewish sources). They also serve to highlight certain symbolic connections in a way that the word ‘wine’ itself would not do.

    He never really engages with the broader biblical symbolism that the Supper draws upon and the significance of alcohol in this context. I contend that his argument ultimately rests upon a wooden and minimalistic reading of the biblical text, missing the forest for the trees. If one chooses to read the Scriptures in such a manner there is no ‘proof’ that can really convince you otherwise. Such an inattentive reading is quite hard to argue against as there is no scientific and purely logical demonstration of my case to be given. Our differences are at the level of hermeneutics, not at the level of the application of these hermeneutics to the text.

  10. Seth says:

    Love the song! . . . and the post. Glad to see you back from your hiatus.

  11. Scott says:

    Thank you for taking the time to read through the argument, Al. I think you hit the nail on the head with the difficulty that comes with engaging people coming from such a perspective: they’re operating on a rather different hermeneutic and it’s quite a struggle to communicate on such lines. I recently prepared a paper that attempted to show the numerous failures that accompany such a tight reading of the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, that it demands greater attention to symbolism and redemptive-historical readings in order to be read at all. Hopefully, the point will be understood for the sake of at least speaking on the same playing field.

    The fact is that very few people in the real world are accustomed to reading Scripture with more than a wooden literal reading, and so while what you originally wrote is immanently valuable, it’s still somewhat unintelligible to those not used to reading the text the way you do.

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  14. Christopher Witmer says:

    Couldn’t I just eat the unbaked sourdough? There’s alcohol in that, you know.
    Seriously, thanks for the great post. I admire how you are able to maintain an irenic demeanor on controversial subjects even while you drive home your points forcefully.

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  18. Corrie-Beth says:

    I tried to get to your original post on this subject through the links posted here, but was directed somewhere else entirely. Is there another way to get to the original post?

    Corrie-Beth Hendon

    • This should get you to a copy of the original post in question. Once again, it is a very old post, written when my thought was very much in development on a host of issues, so there is no guarantee that I agree with everything in it now. 🙂

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