Bread, Wine, and the Lord’s Supper

Since Harvest was planted, we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper with the elements of common bread and wine. These elements follow the commands given to us in Scripture for the Lord’s Supper. When Jesus instituted this sacrament, he instructed his people to use “bread” (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:23, 27, 28) and “the cup” (Matt. 26:27; Mark 14:23; Luke 22:17, 20; 1 Cor. 11:25, 26, 27, 28) or “the fruit of the vine” (Matt. 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18). Common bread and wine fit these Scriptural definitions for the elements to use in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Alternative Bread and Wine

But over the years, the Harvest session has encountered requests for alternate elements. Specifically, people in our congregation with gluten intolerances have requested whether we might be able to use gluten-free bread or unleavened bread. Other people have asked whether we might use grape juice instead of wine. In regard to grape juice, some people have expressed concerns about alcohol altogether, whether because of previous struggles with alcohol abuse, or because of personal conviction regarding total abstention from alcohol, or because of extreme difficulty with the taste of alcohol in the wine. Are these legitimate alternatives?

These issues are important, so the session has spent a significant amount of time in prayer and study about these questions. In short, the Scriptures require that we use “bread” and “wine/the fruit of the vine,” but nowhere do the Scriptures provide additional qualifications on the kind of bread (whether or not to use gluten or leaven) or on presence of alcohol in the wine. Theologically, these issues are considered “matters of indifference,” left up to the judgment of the sessions of individual churches on the basis of godly prudence and wisdom. 

On the other hand, if we substituted a food other than bread (e.g., cheese or carrots), or if we used a drink not composed of the fruit of the vine (e.g., water or milk), then we would be violating the manner in which Jesus commands us to worship him in this sacrament. The primary issue, then, is that we must use bread and the fruit of the vine; the recipe of the bread and the alcohol content of the wine, on the other hand, is a matter left to the judgments of church sessions.

One Bread, One Body

There is, however, another important issue to consider: the unity we express when we celebrate the sacrament of comm-union. Paul writes this:

[14] Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. [15] I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. [16] The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? [17] Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. [18] Consider the people of Israel: are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? [19] What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? [20] No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. [21] You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. [22] Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Cor. 10:14–22)

The Lord’s Supper is more than an act of worship for an individual. Rather, the Lord’s Supper is a communal meal that expresses our unity: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).

One of the reasons that Harvest has retained only common (gluten-based, leavened) bread and wine (with alcohol) is to preserve this unity. We all eat the same bread, and we all drink the same wine. This unity goes to the heart of our identity as a church of many stories united as one body in Christ, and we embrace the chance to reflect that unity we have even in the manner in which we receive the Lord’s Supper.

As we have talked with many people in this congregation, however, we have discovered a breach in this unity. Some people with gluten intolerance cannot eat gluten-based bread (e.g., wheat flour), while others cannot in good conscience partake of alcohol, either from theological or personal conviction. The unity we have sought has actually caused disunity.

Gluten-Free Bread; Wine and Grape Juice

After significant prayer, study, and discussion, the Harvest session has judged that it is the right time to modify our communion practices. Our desires have been (1) to preserve unity as much as possible by (2) accommodating real needs within the church. Therefore, we believe that Harvest should transition to serving the Lord’s Supper with gluten-free bread and with wine as well as grape juice. Here is our rationale.

To preserve unity in the bread that we break, we believe that it would be wise to transition to using gluten-free bread only. Those of us who are blessed with bodies that can process gluten without health problems can gladly accommodate those whose bodies cannot tolerate gluten. In this way, we will continue to share “one bread,” since “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).

In the 1 Corinthians 10 text, the issue of unity seems focused more on common bread than a common cup. If you notice, Paul repeats the concept of participating in the body and the blood of Christ in regard to both the cup and the bread (1 Cor. 10:16), but he only mentions the issue of unity in relation to the bread (1 Cor. 10:17). Still, we would ideally prefer to preserve as much unity in the cup as possible.

Some churches, then, serve different colors of the fruit of the vine: red wine and white grape juice, or vice versa. This clearly distinguishes between the wine and the grape juice, but the different appearances suggest that the cup we drink is divided.

Other churches use the same color of beverages, and they then distinguish between the grape juice and the wine by grouping each in different parts of the communion tray. For example, the two outer rings contain wine, while the inner rings contain grape juice. This preserves the symbolic unity by similarity in appearance, but it becomes very difficult to differentiate when it comes time for someone to select the appropriate cup.

Another solution is to use different colored cups: clear communion cups for the wine, and tinted cups for the grape juice. The wine and the grape juice would look the same, but people be able to differentiate them easily on the basis of the color of the cups.

Finally, it is also possible to simply rely on a color difference between the dark purple of grape juice and the lighter purple of the wine that we dilute with water. We have not finalized the logistical presentation of the two kinds of beverages at this point.

Why Not Grape Juice Only?

We are offering a grape juice option in addition to wine to avoid causing unnecessary offense to those with different theological perspectives or personal convictions. As we strive to be many stories united together in Christ, we want to strive for unity in the midst of our diversity, so long as we remain faithful to Scripture. Since Jesus commands us to use “the fruit of the vine” in the “cup” that we share, unfermented grape juice is a legitimate alternative that falls within the guidelines of God’s word. 

Nevertheless, the session also believes that wine should be the default in our practices of the Lord’s Supper. Wine is the normal form of “the fruit of the vine” in Scripture, and the historical practice of the church followed suit. Grape juice was not really used for the Lord’s Supper until very late in history (the mid to late 1800s) because of the temperance movement, along with the development of technology to keep grape juice from fermenting.

For these reasons the session is convicted that to move away from wine completely would be to abandon a Biblical precedent followed throughout the vast majority of church history. This doesn’t mean that partaking of grape juice rather than wine diminishes the spiritual value of the Lord’s Supper. In other words, we do not believe that Jesus blesses grape juice less than wine, and we certainly do not believe that using grape juice invalidates the sacrament. Rather, in our attempt to conform as much as possible to the precedent set forth by Jesus himself in the Scriptures, we are compelled to treat wine as the normal, default standard of our practice. 

Why Not Unleavened Bread?

Some have also asked whether we should offer unleavened bread rather than leavened bread. The argument goes that since the Lord’s Supper was instituted on the occasion of the Passover, and since one of the requirements for the Old Testament practice of Passover was that unleavened bread be consumed, then shouldn’t we also follow this as a precedent? But there are reasons to believe that, unlike the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, the use of leavened or unleavened bread is incidental and not critical for the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. 

When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he could have described the “bread” by using a specific word that means “unleavened bread.” Nevertheless, the word for “unleavened bread” is never used in the Bible to describe the Lord’s Supper. Such a word exists, and the New Testament uses that word elsewhere. Instead, Jesus uses a more general word for “bread” that carries no baggage of either unleavened bread alone nor leavened bread alone. 

Moreover, there are reasons to believe that leavened bread might even have an advantage over unleavened bread in the new covenant. In Matthew 13:33 leaven is directly associated with the kingdom of heaven that Jesus inaugurates and that we celebrate in the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, while the Passover was the occasion for instituting the Lord’s Supper, there are probably more connections with covenant meal that Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and seventy of Israel’s elders enjoyed in the presence of God in Exodus 24. There, the people feasted from their peace offerings (Ex. 24:5, 11), and peace offerings involved both unleavened and leavened bread (Lev. 7:12–13). Furthermore, God commanded that his people bring leavened bread for the feast of weeks (Lev. 23:16–17), although God forbade leaven from being offered on the altar to be burned to the Lord (Lev. 2:11–12). 

The witness of the Old Testament regarding the use of leaven is complex, so we cannot simply draw a straight line from the Old Testament to the Lord’s Supper. Instead, we must ask ourselves whether Jesus commands us to use a specific kind of bread (gluten/gluten-free; leavened/unleavened), and the answer is that he does not. He simply instructs us to use bread.

Throughout history, the church has used both leavened and unleavened bread for communion. On the whole, leaven in bread has been judged a matter of indifference, left up to the judgment and discretion of the elders of a church. John Calvin, for instance, writes this: 

“But as for the outward ceremony of the action—whether or not the believers take it in their hands, or divide it among themselves, or severally eat what has been given to each; whether they hand the cup back to the deacon or give it to the next person; whether the bread is leavened or unleavened; the wine red or white—it makes no difference. These things are indifferent, and left at the church’s discretion.” – Institutes IV, xvii, 43

We pray that God will continue to deepen our communion with Christ and with each other as we receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper week by week.