Common Cup or Separate Cups?
When the Lord Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper He took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to his disciples, saying, "Drink from it, all of you" (Matthew 26:27). This instruction is striking. It stresses that the disciples must drink together from the one cup.
The use of a common cup is generally claimed to be unusual for the Passover. Everyone had his own cup. Yet here Christ says, "Drink from it, all of you." Notice also that Christ does not give an instruction to His disciples that parallels His instruction about the bread ("Take and eat"); He doesn't tell the disciples to "Take and drink" He says, "Drink from it, all of you.” Apparently that drinking together from the same cup is part of Christ's command. In that light we need to understand what Mark mentions, "and they all drank from it" (Mark 14:23). The one cup coincides with the one bread and expresses the oneness that is central to the meal (1 Corinthians 10:16,17).
There is therefore no doubt about it that the Lord Jesus took one cup and that the disciples drank from it. The apostle Paul also speaks of "the cup of the Lord." (1 Corinthians 10:21; 11:25-27).
What about the health risks involved in drinking from the same cup? Serious diseases can easily be spread. In the past the church took that into account by making rulings with regard to certain members. The Synod of Middelburg 1581 decided that lepers should be given the Lord's Supper in a separate corner of the building or at the final table. The Synod of Leeuwarden 1920 determined that the consistories may, after consulting with the doctors, take such measures as seem fit at the celebration in a medical institution, in order to prevent infection if members with contagious diseases (especially tuberculosis in those days) wish to participate. They had in mind special little cups.
In these rulings, attention was given to exceptions within the congregation. The churches sought a way to enable lepers or members with a contagious disease to celebrate the Lord's Supper. At the same time it is clear that the churches wanted to maintain, as much as possible, the normal pattern indicated by Christ. The exceptions should not destroy the rule.
But are the health risks not greater today than they were in the past? This is questionable. In the past the hygiene was far worse than it is today. In the past the people were often struck by epidemics. It would seem that the difference today is that people are far more conscious of the risks of spreading or catching diseases by using a common cup. That is one of the reasons why some are requesting that we change to individual cups. Is this a good reason to change the pattern Christ has set and the church has followed throughout the centuries?
It is true that Christ did not give a strict and binding command that the church should always and under all circumstances drink from the one cup. That is why the church has always been open for exceptions. That is also why we have no problem using four cups in our congregation instead of one for the practical reason that one cup would be too heavy and cumbersome if all the members had to drink from it.
What about individual cups? Many churches have that practice, including churches which share the Reformed faith with us. When and why they introduced the individual cups would be an interesting subject for someone to study up. Do individual cups do justice to Christ's institution? What was the purpose of sharing the one cup? It was to emphasise the unity of the believers in Christ. That unity is still expressed with the individual cups in the fact that they are all filled from the one source and that the members wait for each other and all drink at the same time. When the synod of Sneek 1939 allowed for the use of special little cups in specific circumstances it stressed that the unity of the cups should be made visible by the use of one single jug. Our shared salvation in Jesus Christ, the only source of life, and our fellowship with one another ought to be visibly portrayed in the way we celebrate the Lord's Supper. One cannot deny that these two fundamental characteristics of the Lord's Supper are present when individual cups are used. Yet the question needs to be asked, 'Which practice brings out those two characteristics better, the use of the common cup or the use of individual cups?' Drinking together from one cup does have stronger symbolic value than drinking simultaneously from separate cups. Drinking from the same cup expresses a close relationship. In everyday life you will, for example, not easily drink from the same cup your neighbour has drunk from whereas you would have no problem drinking from the same cup one of your loved ones has already drunk from. Besides, passing on the cup to each other also expresses unity. That element is lost with individual cups.
A point we may also need to consider is the joy of the celebration. The Lord's Supper is meant to be a festive occasion. We receive a foretaste of the abundant joy which Christ has promised. In what way ought we and may we take this element of joy into account when considering the possibility of separate cups instead of a common cup?
Any decision to move away from the pattern Christ set at the institution and the churches followed throughout the centuries should not be taken lightly. We would need to be convinced that there is a real need for it and that the change would be an improvement.
With regard to exceptions we would do well to now already consider options for those who have something that is considered to be contagious. They could either be requested to be the last ones to drink from the cup or be provided with special cups which are filled with wine from the common jug.