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Protecting the Lord’s Supper: Why I Like that Little Cup & Wafer

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If a Christian from the 1st century could travel forward in time to the 21st century and visit a typical worship service among churches of Christ, I doubt he would find any radical departures from the simple 1st century Christian worship to which he is accustomed.

Of course, he would quickly notice we typically meet in a church-owned building instead of a member’s house, he would hear new melodies and lyrics during our songs, and he would notice a different language, obviously. Perhaps the biggest difference would be the absence of spiritual gifts – such as the gifts of prophecy or tongues or the utterances of knowledge and wisdom – which were so necessary in the 1st century before Christians had the completed revelation of Christ’s New Testament.

But I do not think he would see anything wrong with how we worship, including how we do the Lord’s Supper.

What We Know

Just as was true in the 1st century, Christians today are not free to take the Lord’s Supper willy nilly. Scripture regulates how we take communion:

1. We are to partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. The frequency and day we are to observe the Lord’s Supper are not directly stated in preserved Scripture in the form of a command. However, it is clear from the practice of the apostle Paul that God approves of eating the Lord’s Supper on Sunday. Acts 20:7 speaks of Christians in Troas assembling on Sunday for the purpose of breaking bread, and 1 Corinthians 11:20 shows that the Lord’s Supper is one of the primary reasons for assembling on Sunday. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 shows us they assembled every Sunday.

2. Unleavened bread and the fruit of the vine are to be eaten during the Lord’s Supper. We partake of the same elements that the Lord instituted: “bread” and “fruit of the vine.” We know this from the accounts of Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:17-20, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-29. All other additions, substitutions, or innovations are corruptions of his memorial supper.

3. Only citizens of the kingdom (Luke 22:30) can legitimately take the Lord’s Supper. While it is virtually unheard of for churches of Christ to practice “closed communion” (no one is going to walk up and slap the grape juice out of the hand of an unwitting visitor), we recognize that the Lord’s Supper is intended only for those who have come into communion with His body and blood by being baptized into Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3-7; 1 Cor. 10:16). Thus, children are ineligible to share in the memorial.

4. The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to memorialize Christ. We should remember the suffering and anguish that our Lord went through in dying on the cross (1 Cor. 11:24-25). If we engage in the Lord’s Supper in an irreverent manner, or if we do not separate in our minds the significance of this memorial, it will be damnation to us (1 Cor. 11:27, 29).

Critical of the Way We do it?

I occasionally hear Christians (who should know better) criticizing the way churches of Christ (and, incidentally, much of evangelical Christendom) take the Lord’s Supper. “It should be a robust family-type supper. Everyone – including children – should take part.” “It should be an actual meal, with whole loafs of bread and other food.” “Tiny cups and wafers are recent inventions and are unlike what Christians used in the 1st century.”

This kind of reasoning demonstrates a dangerous misunderstanding of the Lord’s Supper. No human alive today knows the exact quantity of bread or juice that was typical in the 1st century observance of this memorial. Additionally, no human today has the authority to regulate the portions of the food for the universal church. To teach we must “super-size” the portions on the Lord’s Table is divisiveness.

The timing during worship and the portion of food during the Lord’s Supper is a matter of judgment and it seems to me that churches that rush through it are making a mistake. But I argue that it there is a benefit to keeping the portions relatively small in light of the fact that the purpose of the Lord’s Supper is not to satisfy hunger, but to memorialize the Lord.

The Lord’s Supper is not Intended to Satisfy Hunger

The Lord’s Supper was never a common meal. Both Luke and Paul confirm this by recording the Lord’s Supper “after they had eaten” (Luke 22:20) and “after supper” (1 Cor. 11:25).

The only time the Bible talks about a meal in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper, it gives the command to separate the two (1 Cor. 11:21). The fact that some early Christians in Corinth had profaned the Lord’s Supper with a meal doesn’t authorize us to do so. Only bread and fruit of the vine are used to describe the memorial; where does God authorize us to incorporate other elements from a common meal?

I like the fact that it is our tradition to use a small cup and tiny wafer during the Lord’s Supper because it helps clear any confusion that this might be a literal “meal” in the common sense of the word.

The Lord’s Supper did not Provide Much Food for the Disciples

Furthermore, a large serving of bread and drink is not necessary in order to remember the Lord. Bear in mind that Jesus, on the night He was betrayed, broke twelve pieces from the small Jewish loaf, today called matzo, and gave them to the apostles, after which He told them to divide the cup among themselves (Matt. 26:26-27). The same word for “bread” is used to describe the young boy’s lunch consisting of five loaves (John 6:9). Each of the twelve apostles would not have had very much to eat and drink.

The spiritual blessings from the Lord’s Supper are derived from the focus of the Christian who is spiritually sharing the body and blood of Jesus, not on the physical quantity or quality of the elements. If it was about quantity, then fill my plate up! But the remembrance of Jesus is more important than the amount of the substance.

Let’s Make the Lord’s Supper Better

It is misdirected zeal to suggest we need to bring the entire church around a literal table and incorporate the Lord’s memorial meal into a common meal. If your elders have elected to use a small cup and wafer, they are justified in doing so.

I would argue, however, there is room for many churches to improve how they do the Lord’s Supper. May I suggest:

  • Don’t rush through it. I can’t help but feel a “let’s get this over with” attitude among some when visiting different congregation. Give people time to read one of the crucifixion accounts. Give people time to pray another private prayer. Give people time to meditate on the meaning of the bread and the fruit of the vine.
  • Separate it from the offering. As a matter of expediency, since the men leading the Lord’s Supper are already in front of the audience, it is typical for churches to move on to passing the collection plate immediately after the Lord’s Supper. I feel this is in poor judgment. Sing a song in between. Give people time to transition from memorializing the Lord to preparing their offering to Him.
  • Find a dedicated speaker for the table. Don’t just grab the first unsuspecting guy in the lobby 5 minutes before worship and ask him to direct the Lord’s Supper. Ask a Christian several weeks in advance to prepare a 5-10 minute talk. That is what he focuses on. Don’t ask him to pass the plates; let the other men do that.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged, even if they are in disagreement. However, please keep your comments relevant to the article. For my full comment policy, click here.

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19 Responses to Protecting the Lord’s Supper: Why I Like that Little Cup & Wafer

  1. Billy Jeffers June 21, 2017 at 9:57 AM #

    Hi Ben,
    I’m curious what your thoughts are on having someone deliver a 5 minute talk before the Lords Supper. I was recently told that doing so is offensive and unscriptural and that one should only get up and pray, then begin passing. That seems rushed to me and makes it feel more like a check mark than a memorial. I’m doing my own research but curious to hear your thoughts.
    In Christ,
    Billy

  2. Garrett English June 21, 2017 at 9:58 AM #

    Good thoughts! I’ve understood the “fruit of the vine” to mean we can use any juice from a fruit that grows on a vine because of the Greek words; so, grape, watermelon, etc. can all be used. Is this in line with the Bible?

    • Mike Osnes June 21, 2017 at 1:41 PM #

      I had the same question a while back about watermelon. Can’t recall the verses but our preacher told me that there are verses in the Old Testament that link fruit of the vine with clusters so we use grape juice cause watermelon don’t grow in clusters. Hope this helps.

    • Stephen Scaggs June 21, 2017 at 2:28 PM #

      The word for vine in Greek is ampelos (which refers exclusively to the grapevine). In every instance of its usage in the New Testament, it refers to a grapevine.

      • Ray Pippin June 29, 2017 at 11:55 PM #

        Why would anyone want to use something else?

    • Jeff Griffith June 21, 2017 at 7:22 PM #

      No, “fruit of the vine” was an idiom for wine.

  3. Evan Kirby June 21, 2017 at 11:52 AM #

    So to suggest that the Lord’s Supper be in larger portions is divisive, but to make the unfounded claim that to suggest such a thing is committing the sin of divisiveness isn’t itself divisive? Seems to me you’re building a barrier where God hasn’t, brother. If the scriptures are silent about what the portion size SHOULD be, then I should be able to serve fistfuls of bread here in Mississippi, and you should be able to serve nibbles of bread in Georgia.

    • Ben June 21, 2017 at 1:53 PM #

      No, you have read into my words something I did not say. It is divisive to claim we are inadequately restoring NT Christianity unless we drastically increase portion sizes, let alone requiring it to be an actual common meal. It is each congregation’s prerogative, depending on their elders, to choose how much bread and fruit of the vine to offer during the memorial meal. In other words, it is divisive to plant seeds in the minds of people that somehow cups and wafers/crackers (that are so common among the Lord’s body) are somehow inadequate.

  4. Josh June 21, 2017 at 2:08 PM #

    Why must we lump all “churches of Christ” together? If each congregation’s elders have the prerogative to decide how and when the Lord’s Supper is to be served, then why write an article that presents a certain way of doing it as ideal and superior? I’m not sure you have fulfilled your purpose here and would suggest approaching the topic again, with less bias towards personal preferences and more enthusiasm for the celebration and memorial that is the focus of the Lord’s Supper.

    • Jonathan Medley June 22, 2017 at 10:02 AM #

      Ben…I believe you did a great job, and you even presented something that I’ve never heard. Believe it or not, I’ve never heard anyone push to make the Lord’s Supper more of a meal setting. I’m in Tennessee, so maybe that’s a regional thing. You explained well why that would not be acceptable. Thanks for what you do!

  5. Stephen Scaggs June 21, 2017 at 2:30 PM #

    Thanks for the thoughts Ben. This is something I’ve been curious about for awhile. Appreciate your perspective.

  6. Stephen Loftis June 21, 2017 at 3:44 PM #

    Appreciate your thoughts. One thing a 1st century Christian would surely notice is that each Christian (and others) has their own copy of the scriptures! What a wonderful gift!

    • Alan C Rohner June 24, 2017 at 6:05 PM #

      Thanks Stephen; I noticed especially your last four words: What a wonderful gift!
      When I pray I try to remember to thank God for all the gifts He has given me; He
      has given me too many for me to remember them all; especially His Son Jesus.

  7. Karen Lawson June 21, 2017 at 4:35 PM #

    I so look forward to your articles and this is another great one! You have made clear those elements of the memorial that are dictated by scripture and those that you feel enhance the memorial honoring Christ our savior. I couldn’t agree with you more that this portion of our worship is too often handled in a very rote manner. I hope your article will find its way into the hands of many men who plan and organize the communion service. Thank you, Ben!

  8. queenmummarybell June 21, 2017 at 10:51 PM #

    Ben, I truly appreciate your thoughts on this matter. Sometimes the man at the head of the Lord’s Table will remark that “separate and apart” from the Supper, we are about to pass the collection plates. I feel that the Lord’s Supper should not be “tacked on” after the sermon and invitation, either. I don’t like that it seems rushed. Perhaps we would do better to partake at the beginning of the service and take up the collection at the end of the service. “This do in My memory” is a vital part of our corporate worship.

    Mary Frances Christie
    zeus72241@eplus.net

  9. Richard Bauer June 22, 2017 at 4:13 AM #

    Thanks for the words, Ben! At the local congregation where I meet, partaking of the Lord’s Supper has turned into a “lesson” of its own. What started out as a quick item, has now evolved into a 15-20 minute occasion. This is quite significant considering we are only about 20 members partaking. It always surprises me, when we have visiting preachers, to see their reactions when we explain the length of the offering.

    Keep up the good articles.

    in Him,

    Richard

  10. Steve Waller June 22, 2017 at 11:57 AM #

    Ben, Fine article! You addressed a couple of points I was unaware of as being problems today. When I was a boy living in Michigan (back in the 1950’s), it was the practice of most congregations to spend time with one brother using Scripture to explain what we were doing and why just prior to the Lord’s Supper. When we came south, I noticed that things were different (btw, I love the south). I had the impression that, in many congregations in the south, the Lord’s Supper was rushed, and little or no explanation was given as to “what” and “why.” To the unlearned and those visitors who practice error in the denominations, this would be very helpful. I am happy to note that in our congregation we sometimes have brethren who do take time to read Scripture and explain what and why. In many places we are way too wedded to “getting out on time” so we must rush through this item of worship or cut the sermon short, etc.

  11. Tony Williams June 22, 2017 at 7:24 PM #

    We have to remember that the Supper was instituted at a Passover meal. There was a lot more going on that night than a cracker and a cup of wine. Certainly we can agree that what we practice today is substantially different from what Jesus and the apostles did.

  12. Doris Parker July 15, 2017 at 12:31 PM #

    Very good and thought provoking article. I like the idea of giving partakers time to meditate by reading scripture or praying. In small congregations it’s difficult because it goes so fast. I once had a man ask me why I folded my hands and left the hymnal open while taking the Lord’s Supper. I wasn’t conscious of what I was doing but I do try to re-read the words of the song to help me mediate and keep my mind from wandering. We once had a man that, especially on Sunday evenings, if someone needed to partake, he would say a prayer for the bread and a prayer for the fruit of the vine and serve both at the same time. I had a feeling he was rushing through it without giving thought to why we were doing it. Keep up the good work, Ben.

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