Saturday, October 18, 2008

"Wine in Communion" by Alastair Roberts

The following is being republished here for the sake of convenient reference. It's virtually unreadable on my other site and I wanted to have a readable version available for linking purposes.

This piece was originally published by its author, Alastair Roberts, on his blog, "40 Bicycles," at and is republished here with the author's permission.

The common practice of celebrating the Supper with grape juice or some other form of substitute for alcoholic wine is, to my mind, a serious departure from the biblical pattern. In the old covenant there were many different rites, each with detailed instructions. God expected His people to be faithful to His command and celebrate these rites precisely as commanded. Any departure from the instituted pattern was regarded as a very serious error.

It seems to me that many evangelicals have relegated this precise God, who expects to be obeyed in the details, to the OT when it comes to the practice of the Lord’s Supper. Even some conservative churches, who loudly proclaim their adherence to the ‘regulative principle’, tamper with the menu of the Eucharist. God has only given us a few simple new covenant rites and yet many churches seem determined to play fast and loose with His instructions.

What shocks me is that fundamentalist Christians are generally the worst offenders on this point. Fundamentalists, who are the most adept at ramming the Bible down people’s throats, are often the ones who treat the Bible with least concern when it runs counter to their prejudices. People who will loudly denounce anyone who holds to anything other than full submersion as the proper mode of Baptism will happily celebrate communion with Ribena. Whilst there are occasions when compromise might be appropriate (legitimate compromise does not, I believe, stretch to Ribena), in the vast majority of cases it is merely an unbiblical intolerance of alcohol that causes people to compromise. They nullify the Word of God by their tradition.

What’s the Supper all about?
At this stage some people might argue that I am missing the whole point. To insist on the use of alcoholic wine is to misunderstand the purpose of the Supper. The Supper is essentially about knowing communion in our individual hearts with God, as we meditate on what Jesus did at the cross. The outward elements of bread and wine are little more than pictures that help to draw our attention to the body and blood of Christ.

What such people forget is that the Supper is an inescapably physical ritual and cannot be reduced to a mere linguistic or mental reality. Without the elements there is no Supper. Without the physical act of eating and drinking of the elements in the assembly of God’s people there is no Supper. The danger inherent in many lowgrade forms of eucharistic theology is to reduce everything to the sursum corda. However, Jesus instructed us to ‘do this’, not ‘theologize about this’, ‘look at this’ or even ‘meditate on this’. That which He instructed us to ‘do’ was to eat bread and drink wine. The physical elements and the physical act of eating and drinking are absolutely essential. The Supper is primarily a public event and not merely a time of private communion with Jesus.

We should also recognize that, as many leading liturgical and biblical scholars have observed, the ‘remembrance’ that we are called to is not primarily the private and subjective bringing to mind of a past event, but a public memorializing (much as the Passover functioned in Israel). We should also avoid over-psychologizing the call for self-examination and discernment of the body.

A related, but more important, objection is that the Supper is inescapably public and ecclesial. The Supper is about communion, and not just communion with Jesus in the privacy of the human heart. The Supper constitutes the Church as one body. ‘Private communion’, quite apart from being somewhat oxymoronic, is patently unbiblical. The fact that it is, to all intents and purposes, practiced in many churches where people partake as if the Supper is just a ‘me and Jesus’ meal is extremely worrying and shows how far the eucharistic doctrine of many evangelicals has departed from the biblical pattern.

The Supper is only the Supper when it is performed by the Church of Jesus Christ. The Bible does not teach a merely functional ecclesiology, but presents us with a visible Church outside of whose walls there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. In 1 Corinthians 11 it is interesting to observe the manner in which Paul speaks of the ‘body’ of Christ. One verse He speaks of the sacramental body of Christ (the bread as Christ’s body); shortly after he speaks of Christ’s historical body (the body crucified for us); later he speaks of the ecclesial body (the body as the Church). Only by maintaining the close relationship between the three aspects of the body of Christ can we protect the Supper from the Scylla of becoming a mere mnemonic device (as it has become in a lowgrade evangelical form) and the Charybdis of becoming an extrinsic miracle (as in some extreme forms of transubstantiation).

The Supper is a memorializing meal that is celebrated by the assembled church and not a mere picture for individuals to meditate on. Consequently, the physical elements that constitute this meal are very important.

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi
By arguing for the validity of grape juice in the Supper, evangelicals have greatly reduced the significance of the Lord’s Supper. The Supper celebrated without wine is a radically distorted Supper, a Supper that is at risk of being entirely eviscerated. In many churches today, the Supper has become a time for people to put on funereal countenances and engage in sombre introspection, whilst meditating on how unworthy they are and how much it cost Jesus to pay the price for their sins. Whilst elements of the Supper instituted by our Lord are undoubtedly retained, the true character of the Supper is badly obscured.

Part of the problem is found in the fact that evangelicals often fail to appreciate that the theological meaning of the Supper is embedded in the concrete practice of it.

There is a world of difference between grape juice and wine. If you were arranging an important party and instructed a friend to go and buy some of the finest wine for your celebration, you would be appalled if he returned with cartons of grape juice instead. The character of a celebration can be considerably altered by the type of food and drink that is served.

I am a firm believer in the statement lex orandi, lex credendi. The manner in which we worship has a powerful effect upon our beliefs. If we consistently worship God falsely, we will be moulding our minds to believe in a false God. Arguably nothing is more urgently required in the Church today than a reformation of worship.

Many evangelicals today find it hard to believe in a God who would command His people to celebrate with wine and strong drink in His presence. They find it hard to believe in the God of Scripture (Deuteronomy 14:26). In place of this God they have created a god in their own image—an irascible and judgmental party pooper. This god would have us engage in morbid introspection and look melancholy at His table. This god is reluctant to have us too relaxed in His presence; we might forget that we are unworthy and sinful worms.

The problem is that for all too many evangelicals the Supper is not a joyful feast of memorial of Christ’s great victory over the powers in the assembly of the Church; rather, it is a time for dour individuals to contemplate their personal relationship with Jesus. It can look more like a funeral than a feast.

Stripping away the Symbolism
The phrase ‘fruit of the vine’ should not be read in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Christ’s institution of the Supper takes place against the backdrop of the Passover, OT prophecies of an eschatological feast, tithe feasts, drink offerings, sacrificial meals, images like that of Lady Wisdom’s feast (Proverbs 9:1-6) and an OT network of symbolism in which wine—the sabbath drink—plays a significant role as a symbol of judgment and blessing.

Wine is the drink that brings gladness (Psalm 104:15), wine is the drink of kings (Nehemiah 2:1), wine is forbidden to the priests because their work is not yet done (Leviticus 10:9); wine is also the drink of victors (Genesis 14:18). Wine is something that matures and is produced by man in time. It does not occur naturally.

The choice of wine was not primarily motivated by its colour, but by its place within a network of symbolism (although wine was certainly associated with blood in the OT). Besides, if we are going to rule out anything except the explicit command of Christ in the institution of the Supper we could just as easily celebrate communion with white wine (indeed, the blinkered literalist could celebrate with tomato juice; tomatoes are the fruit of a vine) as the colour is never expressly stipulated. Of course, whilst white wine or some other alcoholic drink would preserve far more of the meaning of the Supper than red grape juice, there are clear reasons to prefer red wine.

Most evangelicals presume that the alcoholic nature of wine is not an important part of the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper. I disagree. The symbolism attached with wine throughout Scripture plays much on its alcoholic quality. Wine is seen as that which distinguishes between fools and wise. Wine is dangerous and demands wisdom, power and maturity to control it properly. Cups of wine are symbols of judgment for this reason and kings are often associated with wine (we see a few cupbearers to kings in the biblical narrative).

Priests were forbidden to drink wine as their work was not yet done. I doubt if they would have been forbidden to drink grape juice. Jesus refused sour wine on the cross, as he had promised that He would not drink of the fruit of the vine until He had finished His priestly work and entered into His kingdom (Matthew 26:29). Grape juice damages this element of the biblical symbolism.

Wine emboldens and this imagery of wine emboldening for battle is used of both God and man in Scripture (Psalm 78:65; Zechariah 9:15). Wine is that which makes hearts glad, leads people to sing and loosens inhibitions. Grape juice does not have quite the same effect, at least in my experience. Wine is the sabbatical drink, the drink of feasting which men take to relax (e.g. Deuteronomy 14:26). It is therefore fitting that wine is associated with the Spirit in certain places in Scripture. Grape juice empties much of this imagery also.

The Bible is full of feasts of wine. Take Esther, for example. Or the eschatological feast in Isaiah 25:6. Or the marriage suppers. Or the victory feasts. Or the tithe feasts. Are we willing to sacrifice all of this biblical imagery associated with the Lord’s Supper on the altar of modern evangelical prejudices concerning alcoholic drink? We cannot exclude alcohol from the Lord’s Supper without losing much of the theological import of the celebration. Having grape juice at the Lord’s Supper is like having a vegetarian substitute at Passover.

New Testament Teaching
In addition to the OT background, I believe that there are certain other things that can be demonstrated from NT teaching. The Lord’s Supper should be more of a joyous feast than a sombre occasion. It is a foretaste of the great Marriage Supper of the Lamb and should, to some degree or other, be celebrated in a manner that brings this truth out. I believe that it is one of those occasions when we are called by God to ‘rejoice’ (like in Deuteronomy 14:26). We should encourage joy.

A further thing that we should encourage is fellowship. The Lord’s Supper is about communion—not just with God but with one another. If we go through the Lord’s Supper with grave faces and fail to fellowship with others, I believe that our celebration is woefully lacking. We are corporately memorializing the great victory of the Son of God over Satan, in which event the community of the Church sees its foundation; how can we not rejoice?

Wine in Bible Times
Few will deny that Christ used wine when He instituted the Supper. However, many argue that the wine of those times was considerably weaker, perhaps so diluted as to barely have any alcoholic content at all. Scholars have produced detailed word studies, trying to argue that the references to wine in the old and new testaments can include grape juice.

The persuasive power of such studies lies purely in the mind of those who want to rationalize their unbiblical practices with regard to the Lord’s Supper. It is patently clear in Scripture that wine is alcoholic and the alcoholic quality of wine is central to both its positive and negative uses. Those who focus exclusively on lexical studies often (willfully) lose sight of the fact that wine is given significance by its place within a system of symbolism; extract wine from this setting and its significance diminishes considerably.

I have yet to see someone explain how grape juice ‘makes the heart glad’ in the same way as wine does. Feasts are practically universally celebrated in scripture with some form of alcoholic drink. The fact that drunkenness is reported to have taken place at a number of biblical feasts suggests that, even if their wine was heavily diluted, they were drinking more than mere thumbfuls of it.

We should also remember that God did authorize the use of strong drink alongside wine in the tithe feasts (Deuteronomy 14:26); there is nothing wrong in principle with the use of stronger alcohol in communion.

The Tradition of the Church
Just about every aspect of the Lord’s Supper has been controverted at one point or another. There have been differences within the church on whether the wine should be mixed with water or not, or whether the issue was indifferent. There were differences between the azymites and the prozymites with regard to the kind of bread to be used. There have been differences over the legitimacy of intinction. The list could go on.

Nevertheless, with regard to the use of wine in communion, there has been a clear consensus throughout the church for well over 1800 years. The impetus towards change on this matter did not arise from some new biblical insight, but from cultural prejudices.

Other arguments
Some Christians bring up such passages as Romans 14 as reason for abstaining from wine in communion. There are weaker brothers and sisters who might be caused to stumble if wine were used in communion.

If anyone has a problem with strong alcohol in communion, it can be diluted. Besides, no one drinks enough communion wine to even get tipsy, let alone completely drunk. If a person in a congregation has a problem with the use of alcoholic wine I would suggest that it would be better for them to abstain, rather than change the biblical institution to accommodate their biblically uninformed conscience / lack of self-control. It should also be recognized that for many former alcoholics, the Church is such a radically different context for drinking that temptation is not a real issue.

I do not believe that the pattern of Romans 14 teaches us that we can play fast and loose with Christ’s institution. There is an important distinction to be drawn between those who might be led into sin by our enjoyment of liberty and those who simply carry unbiblical cultural prejudices that they want to impose upon everyone else. The institution of Christ should not be held hostage by the tyrannical opinions of such people.

In my experience, the most militant teetotalers are not the type who would be led into sin by other Christians partaking. They are not appropriately described as ‘weaker’ brethren, but are those who habitually judge brothers and sisters who drink, contrary to Scripture. Such sin should be confronted and not pandered to.

A further point must be made. Seeking to bear with the scruples of the weak should not involve disobeying God’s positive commands. There are areas on which we have freedom. In other areas we do not have freedom. I am convinced that the use of alcoholic wine in the Supper is mandatory. Departing from this is not an option.

The reference to wine in Romans 14:21 should be read in context. It is paralleled to v.17 and some have taken it as hypothetical. I do not. The instruction takes place within a particular cultural context in which Jews fasted on particular days and those who did not fast and abstain from wine on those days of fasting (cf. Luke 5:33f., 7:33-34) would possibly cause others to stumble in the young church in Rome. That fast days are prominent in Paul’s mind is clear from Romans 14:5-6. The idea that Paul is thinking of relativizing Christ’s institution for the Lord’s Supper is out of the question. We fast in order to prepare for feasts. The friends of the bridegroom cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them. Joyful celebrations of the Supper, using alcoholic wine, reinforce the truth of the Bridegroom’s presence on such occasions.

Some churches give members of the congregation a choice between grape juice and wine for communion. This is certainly an improvement upon grape juice only. Nevertheless, it still falls far short of the biblical pattern. For one, I believe that, if there is to be any sort of substitute, it ought to be alcoholic in order to retain the biblical character of the Supper. I also believe that sharing from one cup is to be preferred. Individual mini-cups simply reinforce the individualism of our culture.

Towards Reform
Many will argue that my position is simply impracticable. Members of churches will not accept a Lord’s Supper without a non-alcoholic option. To be absolutely frank, I don’t see that this should be a real issue. The real question is whether God accepts alcohol-free celebrations of the Supper.

I sympathize with the situation faced by leaders of churches who have large numbers of militant teetotalers in their congregations. However, I believe that such people need to be opposed. God does not want us to tinker with His instructions for the sacraments. We should be far more concerned with what God thinks than with what congregations think.

Change on such matters will undoubtedly be painful, but I do not think that we can see it as optional. If churches are more concerned with keeping congregations happy concrete steps will never be taken towards reformation on such controversial issues. Church leaders need to be prepared to bite the bullet on this matter.

The way that we worship has a powerful effect upon the way that we think about God. If we move away from the biblical form of worship we will move away from the biblical picture of God and of where we stand in relationship to Him. Checking downgrades in worship is, in my opinion, far, far more important than many evangelical and Reformed Christians are accustomed to think. The use of non-alcoholic substitutes for wine in the Eucharist represents just such a downgrade.

If there is one thing that Church history has taught us, it is that old habits of worship die very hard. Calvin pointed out about 450 years ago that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated weekly if we are to follow a more biblical pattern. Countless other theologians have said the same things since. Nevertheless, there is such a powerful inertia in churches that few pastors feel like pushing towards change on these issues. I believe that the leadership of churches needs to be far more proactive in the reformation of worship if we are to get anywhere.