Wine or Grape Juice?
When the Lord instituted the Lord's Supper He made use of the elements of the Jewish Passover, which at the time included the use of wine. Christ passed around a cup of normal wine to his disciples. He said,
I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father's kingdom.Matthew 26:29
In this context 'the fruit of the vine' clearly refers to an alcoholic wine, the abuse of which can lead to drunkenness (1 Corinthians 11:21).
Why wine and not water or some other drink? Wine doesn't just serve to quench the thirst. It is not just a traditional table drink. It is a festive drink. It is a stimulant that "gladdens the heart of man" (Psalm 104:15). By using wine Christ beautifully portrays that He doesn't merely save us, but that He also fills those who grieve because of their sin with gladness and rejoicing.
We receive at His table a foretaste of the abundant joy which He has promised and look forward to the marriage feast of the Lamb, when He will drink the wine new with us in the kingdom of His Father (Form for the celebration).
The anticipated salvation in the kingdom of God is pictured as a banquet or feast where wine is shared with the guests in jubilation (Mark 14:25; Revelation 19:7; compare also Luke 13:29; 14:7-24).
From the above it is clear that Christ consciously chose to use wine as an element of the Lord's Supper and that wine has special significance as symbol of the joy of the new covenant. Even though Jesus did not give a strict and binding command to always use wine, the above does leave us with the self-evident and meaningful rule that under normal circumstances wine be used. A decision to change to grape juice should, therefore, not be taken lightly. There must be good reasons to deviate from what the Lord gave when He instituted the sacrament.
What about situations where wine is not available? Historical evidence shows that from time to time the churches recognised the right to make responsible exceptions. The first French Protestant colonists in America were unable to use wine because the wine was not known there. Calvin responded to their query by writing that it is permitted to use a different beverage if wine is not available, because the spiritual enjoyment of the Lord's Supper is not restricted to any particular beverage. The consistory of Batavia (Dutch East Indies) admonished a minister who declined to administer the Lord's Supper because there was no wheaten bread available. These occurrences show that in the Reformed tradition people had no problems with deviating from the general rule out of sheer necessity. When it is a matter of celebrating with other elements than the Lord indicated or not celebrating at all, then it is clear that the first choice is the only choice.
What about exceptions to the rule in the case of personal problems, for example, where someone is absolutely forbidden to drink alcohol? The fact that the churches in the past allowed people with contagious diseases to drink from separate cups shows that they did allow for exceptions for personal reasons. In the past it occurred that people who, on strict medical advice, were not allowed to use wine, were given water at the Lord's Supper. The church is obliged to make arrangements so that all the communicant members can participate. Doesn't Christ say, "Drink from it, all of you"?
To cater for the problems some may have with alcohol, should the church then as a whole switch over to grape juice? At times that could well be the case. The motive for such a move would be love for those fellow members. Such a move should not be taken lightly, however. It must be clear that it is necessary and that, for example, a person with alcohol problems is indeed served by the introduction of grape juice. Besides, the consistory should not decide to permanently switch over to grape juice. Love for the brother or sister should not make us indifferent about the signs the Lord instituted.
Would a non-alcoholic wine not be the solution? The only problem is, it doesn't exist. Let us not camouflage the truth by speaking of non-alcoholic wine. The very feet that it is non-alcoholic means that it is not wine. We need to be clear in what we are talking about and in such a case honestly speak of unfermented grape juice. Besides, the symbolic significance of the wine, as symbol of the joy of the new covenant, is associated with its alcohol content.
In the discussions on the issue 'wine or grape juice' we must be aware that it can be a rather embarrassing issue. On the one hand no-one wants to hurt fellow members by giving the impression that he is insensitive to their needs. On the other hand one may feel uncomfortable when, without pressing reasons, the wine (which Christ consciously chose) is no longer used for the Lord's Supper celebration.
Unless there is a unified decision in favour of changing to grape juice for the sake of individual problems it would be better to go in the direction of individual exceptions as has been done in the past. The consistory could submit a range of options to the members with problems. The following options could be mentioned:
Passing on the cup without drinking.
Offering small cups of grape juice to those who request it for lawful reasons.
Passing around a cup of grape juice at one table or a part of one table.