Sometimes there is controversy instead of joy when the Lord's Supper is celebrated. This article discusses contention around issues of having one cup versus many cups, using wine versus juice, or sitting at the table versus in the pew. How do we keep joy and unity at the Lord's Table?

Source: Clarion, 2002. 3 pages.

Feuding Over a Feast

Sacramental Controversy🔗

Of all of the blessings the Lord our God has given to his church on earth, the blessing of the Lord’s Supper has to be one of the greatest. In this special meal we, as the people of God, are reminded regularly, visibly and symbolically of the one great sacrifice of our Saviour Jesus Christ for us. Through it God nourishes and sustains us spiritually as we travel through this earthly life. Above all, this is a gift to cherish and to rejoice in.

Unfortunately, however, this is not always what is happening today in all of our churches. In some of them the Lord’s Supper, instead of being a meal of union and communion, has become a meal of discord and contention. Members are sending long and angry letters to consistories. Heated words are being spoken and serious accusations are being made. Lord’s Supper celebrations are even being boycotted.

What is causing all of this upheaval? Are some consistories teaching that the meaning and the message of the Supper has changed? Is the Roman Catholic dogma of “transubstantiation” or the Lutheran interpretation of “consubstantiation” being re-introduced? In other words, does this feuding have to do with biblical and doctrinal interpretation?

Not really! It appears that what is fuelling this latest round of sacramental controversy is not so much doctrine as practice, or administration, if you will. Of course, those involved will say that these are doctrinal issues, but properly speaking it is much more about the “how” of celebration than about the “what.”

The Issues of Controversy🔗

What are the issues? Perhaps they can best be identified as

  1. the issue of the communal cup versus individual cups;

  2. the issue of wine versus juice;

  3. the issue of partaking while sitting at a table or doing so in the pew.

In this connection it also needs to be mentioned that not all three issues are at the root of every disturbance being experienced. In some cases the disagreements centre around only one or two of the above. Still, it does seem that the heat emitted whether it is one, two or all three makes very little difference. It is all rather fierce.

Examining the Issues – The One Cup or The Many🔗

Be that as it may, the important thing for us is to take a closer look at these issues. Are they deserving of all of this controversy?

Beginning with the first issue concerning one communal cup or many cups, it is fitting to point out that to some extent putting the issue like this is highly debatable. I say this for the simple reason that, as far as I am aware, not one Canadian Reformed Church has ever used only one cup in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I have heard of two being used in very small congregations, but more often I have heard, or administered the sacrament myself, using either four or six cups.

In a sense then this issue suffers defeat before it even gets off the ground. Where have those members who insist today on a single communal cup been for the last fifty years? Why did they never protest in the past against the use of more than one cup?

I realize that what is fanning the flames of controversy today is the fact that churches are discussing the use of individual cups. The concern is more about the proliferation of cups from four to forty or six to sixty. Essentially, however, the matter remains the same. If one cup is the biblical norm then we have been doing it wrong as Canadian Reformed Churches for many, many years.

But have we been in error? Does Holy Scripture command the use of one cup? Does the Lord Jesus insist upon it? A careful reading of the various accounts concerning the institution of the Lord’s Supper leans toward the conclusion that the Lord Jesus passed one cup around to his disciples. Some scholars are of the opinion that this cup was most likely the third cup of the Passover or “the cup of blessing,” as it was called by the Jews. Let it also be said that there are scholars who believe that one cannot be absolutely certain about this, and that the Lord Jesus may well have used multiple cups.

In spite of this view, let us go for a moment with the majority opinion that our Saviour used only one cup. Does this mean that still today only one cup is the requirement? Here we enter into a different area, and it is the distinction between description and prescription. In other words, in the Bible many things are described. Take the holy kiss as an example. Does the fact that the Bible mentions it mean that we have to practice it? Not at all. We may but we do not have to. On the other hand, if the Lord or the apostle Paul had commanded that we do so, we would be in the area of prescription and we would have to comply.

Hence, does the Lord Jesus command that only one cup be used? Does He make this a matter of divine prescription? No! Celebrating the Lord’s Supper until He comes again is a prescription or a command. Using one cup or many is not. It is a matter of biblical freedom.

Another Issue – Wine or Juice🔗

Another issue closely connected to this has to do with whether wine has to be used or whether it is also possible to use something like grape juice, non-alcoholic wine, or something else that is deemed fitting. Is wine, then, the exclusive drink of the Lord’s Supper?

Of interest in this connection is that not one of the gospel writers ever use the word “wine” (Greek: oinos) when describing the drink that was consumed at the Supper. The word or expression that is used by them is “the fruit of the vine” or “vine fruit” (Greek: ampelos).

In addition, when you read these various gospel accounts, what is striking is that the Lord Jesus does not place the emphasis either on “the fruit of the vine” or on “the cup.” Rather He puts it on the fact that the cup represents “my blood of the covenant” or “the new covenant in my blood” (Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20). In other words, He directs our attention especially to what the contents of the cup stand for and that this needs to be seen in connection with the new covenant.

In any case, getting back to the wine debate, here too the distinction between description and prescription plays an important role. Did the Lord Jesus command that “the fruit of the vine” be used? No! Does the Bible describe the use of wine for the Supper? Not even that! Besides, we need to realize that if it was wine, it was most likely diluted wine because it was a Jewish custom to add water to the wine for the sake of the children present at the Passover celebration.

A Third Issue – Sitting at the Table or in the Pew🔗

Although perhaps not as widespread an issue, it is a fact that some of our churches celebrate the sacrament in this fashion and that others are considering it. Especially in large churches where “many tables” are used, it surfaces from time to time as a point of discussion.

Again when it does so there are often those who react strongly against the idea of members receiving the elements of the Lord’s Supper in the pew. They see this too as a violation of biblical givens.

Is that the case though? Does the Bible insist that the communicant members of the congregation have to sit around a table and so partake? No, it does not. It does not even mention sitting at tables. It speaks about the Lord Jesus and his disciples “reclining at the table” (Matthew 26:20).

What this means is that those who refuse to acknowledge the distinction between prescription and description, and who see everything as prescriptive, need to insist that the Lord’s Supper be celebrated in a reclining position. And that is not all. For consistency’s sake they might also want to insist that there be no more than thirteen people reclining at one time (see Luke 26: 20).

Now, is there anyone making such a demand today in our churches? Not that I am aware of. The point is that when it comes to the manner of our celebration there are those who treat the biblical data in a very selective way. They demand that one communal cup be used and that wine only be used, but they say not a word about reclining only at the table. Consistency would demand that they do so.

Where Does this Leave Us?🔗

No doubt some of you reading this will be wondering about where I am going with all of this. Am I saying that the Lord’s Supper can be celebrated any way that we please? Not at all! Rather I am trying to show you that the views that some members promote with such great vigour when it comes to this sacrament are going too far.

At the same time they reflect a serious lack of church historical understanding. Throughout her history the church has celebrated this Supper in many different ways. In the time of the Reformation alone it was possible to partake kneeling, standing, and walking. Sitting at table only became acceptable later on, and then not in every country either.

The use of wine, while common, has not been universal either. What is a church to do in an Islamic country where wine is forbidden? What is a missionary to do in a tribal culture that either does not know wine or has no access to it?

And as for the matter of the cup or the cups, is the symbolism not to be found in what is in them rather than in the type of container being used? Besides, what does our Form for the Lord’s Supper tell us?

We must not cling with our hearts to the outward symbols of bread and wine, but lift our hearts on high in heaven, where Christ, our advocate is, at the right hand of our heavenly Father.

Looking back to history on this matter, and the history of the Reformed Churches in particular, one scholar has written, “the manner of celebration has never been a cause for discord within the Reformed churches, at least, according to the pronouncements of synods” (Bij Brood en Beker, p. 414). What a sad and lamentable thing that in some of our churches a fine track record is now being broken.

A Better Way🔗

Surely, there is a better way. It is the way of Ephesians 4:3, where the apostle Paul writes, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” What this means is that members need to exercise caution when it comes to these matters. Study them – fine! Discuss them – of course! Debate them – if you wish! But to descend to the level of accusation and name-calling – that must never happen in the church of Jesus Christ. You are not allowed to destroy the unity of the Spirit over matters of description.

At the same time, it is also necessary for consistories to deal with these matters wisely. Changes in the church should never be made with haste, or with a lack of study, or with insufficient time for congregational reflection and discussion. Objections also must be received with charity and answered respectfully.

Yet if, after all of this, a consistory is still convinced that changes are needed in how the congregation celebrates the Lord’s Supper, then let that be accepted in good faith. We all need to take a step back before we shatter the bond of peace over a meal that is the highest symbol of peace. Should you find it impossible to accept what is happening, then follow the church orderly way and make your objections known to the broader assemblies. All the while stay on the high road of patience and love. Do not react in a way that will deprive you of the peace and blessing of the Lord.   

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