Are We Sacramentalists? The Lord’s Supper

Baptism[I’m reposting this to get it in right order within the series.]

Most Protestants consider the Lord’s Supper to be a sacrament. The Churches of Christ do not. Rather, we follow the view of Zwingli that the communion is purely symbolic. In fact, it’s routine in many congregations to precede the Lord’s Supper with a declaration that the emblems are merely symbolic of Christ’s flesh and blood — specifically denying any transubstantiation or consubstantiation.

Alexander Campbell advocated a celebrative service. Hicks summarizes Campbell’s views. He rejected a —

“morose piety … expressed in … sad countenances.” … We assemble to “eat and drink with him” at his table. The table is a moment when disciples are “honored with a seat at the King’s table,” where they “eat in his presence” and “in honor of his love.”

Hicks summarizes 20th Century Church of Christ communion teaching as “anthropocentric.” “We remember and we proclaim.” However, he notes that some of our preachers taught differently.

James A. Harding taught that the Lord’s Supper “transform[s] poor, frail, sinful humans being[s] into the likeness of Christ.” Hicks notes that such language is very much a minority position, however.

My own observation is that we see communion as an ordinance, rather than sacrament. We take the meal because we’ve been commanded to do so. As a result, we tend to do so as a matter of rote — it’s strictly pro forma. We eat a crumb and sip a drop, but the real emphasis is on the sermon and the singing. We hire professionals to preach and lead singing, and get upset when these are done poorly. But when the Lord’s Supper is poorly led, well, it’s just no big deal. There has to be some room for amateurs in the service!

This is hugely ironic as our doctrine is that the service centers on the communion — as it’s the one act that can only be done on Sundays while we’re together. The disciples in Troas gathered “to break bread,” (Acts 20:6), not to sing and hear a sermon, we argue. And yet despite the importance of communion in our doctrine, we typically do it poorly. In fact, we’re so used to weak communion services that we aren’t even sure what doing it right would be like.

The early church centered their gatherings around the Lord’s Supper — often combining it with the Love Feast (agape) , at which the poor were fed and food shared. Many historians credit the Love Feast/Lord’s Supper with much of the early vitality of Christianity, sustaining Christians who were forced to meet in homes while risking persecution.

The Medieval Catholic Church and the Orthodox emphasized the “mystery” of the Lord’s Supper. Hicks points out the Orthodox refused to give a concrete definition of the mystery, but the Catholic Church came to consider the elements literal flesh and blood of Christ — a literal miracle taking place each Sunday.

The Reformation churches struggled to define a new meaning for communion, with the Calvinist churches hotly disputing the meaning with the Lutherans. The result was an end to the mystery and a reduction of the Supper to a symbol and a teaching moment.

Many modern evangelicals are trying to recapture some of the transcendence of the event. Meanwhile, in the Churches of Christ, the tendency is more and more toward a anthropocentric understanding. Many hold that it’s not even properly considered “worship.” Rather, it’s simply a time to proclaim Jesus’ death and to be together as family.

And maybe that’s right. If so, I’ll be disappointed. I think we could stand a little more mystery — a little more transcendence. We’ll see what the Bible says in the next post.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to Are We Sacramentalists? The Lord’s Supper

  1. shannon says:

    "We hire professionals to preach and lead singing, and get upset when these are done poorly. But when the Lord’s Supper is poorly led, well, it’s just no big deal."

    Spare me the sermons. Give me worship, celebration (communion) and fellowship.

  2. Chris C says:

    You said "I think we could stand a little more mystery — a little more transcendence."
    Amen to that. I recently discovered "The Imitation of Christ", Thomas a Kempis. Used some direct quotes from Book 4,
    "An Invitation to Holy Communion" in a Lord's Supper meditation. It was well received.
    Book 4 Chapter 18 (Man Should Not Scrutinize This Sacrament in Curiosity, But Humbly Imitate Christ and Submit Reason to Holy Faith) is interesting. Here's a sample-
    "Faith is required of you, and a sincere life, not a lofty intellect nor a delving into the mysteries of God. If you neither know nor understand things beneath you, how can you comprehend what is above you? Submit yourself to God and humble reason to faith, and the light of understanding will be given you so far as it is good and necessary for you. Some are gravely tempted concerning faith and the Sacrament but this disturbance is not laid to them but to the enemy."

    Perhaps "humbling reason to faith" would help us get over our incurable intellectualism!

    God bless,

  3. Jay Guin says:

    I actually had this scheduled to post well into the future as part of a series on the sacraments, which I'm still writing. Oops. I'll leave it up, as it stands alone pretty well.

    Regular readers know I have trouble with WordPress's timing software. I blame gremlins.

  4. josh keele says:

    It is a fallacy to say that the Lord's Supper must either be viewed as substantiation of some sort (whether trans or con) or a mere symbol. This is like the faulty reasoning that would argue that baptism is either magic water or a mere symbol, which is equally false. Paul clearly teaches a middle view in 1 Cor 10:16 "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" The bread does not literally change wholly into Christ's body (i.e. transubstantiation) nor partially (i.e. consubstantiation) nor is it a mere symbol of his body (i.e. pure figure, mere sign) but rather it is a figure of his body plus an actual communion in and joint participation in his body. Paul adds "For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread." The churches of Christ that properly observe the communion as to its external form seem to understand this whereas those that do not observe the communion properly in the external form also do not view it as anything more than a mere symbol. After all, if it is a mere symbol, who cares about properly observing the form? That's the attitude. The loss of, as you call it "mystery" and "transcendence" has also resulted for you in a loss of even observing the same thing that the Lord instituted! How so very sad!

    BTW, John Calvin attempts to explain a middle position in his commentary on chapter 11, something like that Christ is truly offered in the bread although it is not literally his body in any sense and that those who receive the bread by faith do truly receive him but those who eat without faith do not–you'd have to read his own words if you were interested in what he says but I think that's a decent summary. My point is merely that there were not just two poles in the Reformation on this issue. And as an aside, since Mark persists in mocking the notion of using one loaf in communion rather than multiple wafers, let him mock Calvin instead of me from now on, for Calvin says on chapter 10 and verse 16:

    "The bread which we break. From this it appears, that it was the custom of the ancient Church to break one loaf, and distribute to every one his own morsel, in order that there might be presented more clearly to the view of all believers their union to the one body of Christ. And that this custom was long kept up appears from the testimony of those who flourished in the three centuries that succeeded the age of the Apostles. Hence arose the superstition, that no one dared to touch the bread with his hand, but each one had it put into his mouth by the priest."

  5. Mark says:

    I am not mocking your position on one loaf. I am questioning it. I'll say again, there is nothing in the synoptic gospels that would indicate whether there was one loaf or several for the 13 men gathered in that room. Jesus "took bread." Calvin's comment about what "appears" to be the "custom of the ancient Church" seems to be far less dogmatic than your assertion that anyone who uses multiple crackers or wafers is following the Pope.

    I don't see anything at all wrong with using one loaf, but I have a big problem with your assertion that one loaf and one cup is the only biblical way to observe the Lord's Supper.

  6. josh keele says:

    How many bodies does Jesus have, Mary? 13 bodies? Any one with logic in his head would realize that as Jesus calls the loaf his body and as he has one body, the loaf must start off as one loaf to represent that one body. Now, that each man (however many there may be) breaks off a piece from that loaf and eats it does not make it more than one loaf. But clearly to begin with an hundred wafers rather than with one loaf and each hundred men break off a piece, is to deny the unity of Christ's body. It is to say that Christ has 100 bodies.

  7. josh keele says:

    So as to not be accused of an "ad hominem" let me correct myself. I meant Mark, not Mary.

  8. Mark says:

    I'm sorry, Josh, but your connect the dots approach just isn't working for me. There is nothing in the text to indicate how the table was set for the Passover Jesus shared with his disciples. I'm not an expert on the Jewish Passover. Maybe someone could tell us whether it is standard fare to set the Passover table with only one loaf. My understanding is that unleavened bread doesn't rise, so I don't know why "loaf" would be the proper translation anyway. That's why I keep saying "bread." The fact that Jesus took bread and said, "This is my body" doesn't say anything about whether there was any other bread on the table. Can you at least admit that much?

  9. josh keele says:

    "The fact that Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body” doesn’t say anything about whether there was any other bread on the table. Can you at least admit that much?"

    How ever many other loaves may have been on the table, Jesus only called one of them his body. Any other ones, the ones not referred to as his body are not part of the Lord's Supper as they don't represent his body. Are you, Mark, observing the Lord's Supper with your multiple wafers, or the Jewish Passover? Now, I will admit that as Jesus observed the Passover there were other loaves present but he did not use them in the institution of the Lord's Supper. Jewish tradition has 3 loaves being eaten at Passover. So what?

  10. Mark says:

    My point is that Jesus was reinterpreting the elements of the Passover meal, which recalled Israel's deliverance from Egypt. The cup of blessing becomes the cup of the new covenant in his blood. We observe the sacred meal to recall and celebrate our deliverance.

    You make assumptions without foundation. You have no idea what kind of bread was involved, but you assume that it was some kind of "loaf." You say that there were "other loaves present" but that he did not use them. How do you know that? He took bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it. Neither you nor I have the slightest idea whether he broke one and passed it to his left and broke another and passed it to his right. You have made a test of fellowship out of your assumptions and imagination.

  11. josh keele says:

    You could have made that argument that the English phrase "the bread" is ambigious and that we can't tell if it is plural or singular–you could have made that argument, that is, if Paul had not said "we being many are one bread because we partake of that one bread." That is enough in English to make it obvious that there is but one loaf in the Lord's Supper.

    For those who Greek, however, it is even plainer: The Greek word for bread is artos, and it's accusative singular declension is arton whereas its accusative plural declension is artous. In all the accounts of the Lord's Supper, we find the phrase "ton arton" which is singular "the loaf"–even in Matthew 26:26 where the KJV mistranslates as "took bread" leaving out the definite article "the," the Greek has the definite article "ton," showing it ought to be "took the loaf." The NRSV, BTW, says "took a loaf of bread," so the translation "loaf" is not unheard of. In fact, don't all translators translate the plural phrase "pente artous" as "five loaves" in Matthew 14:17 where Jesus feeds 5000 with "five loaves and two fishes"? I've not seen one yet that said "five breads." This is precedent for translating the singular phrase ton arton as "the loaf." After all, "the bread" is just a silly translation since it contains a possible numerical ambiguity that will confuse the really careless reader, or at least provide an opportunity to feign confusion. The word "loaf" does not have any connotation about rising–you're just imagining things–a flat loaf is still a loaf. After all, Exo 29:23 talks about taking "one loaf" out of the basket of unleavened bread.

    So, yes, it is 100% conclusive that howeversomany loaves there were at the Passover, Jesus took "the loaf" and instituted the Lord's Supper. "The loaf" being the only one of which he said "this is my body." If you want to use multiple loaves or multiple wafers or multiple crackers or whatever in your observance of your Supper, fine, but know that only one of them can represent the Lord's body. So you best hope you're lucky one who gets that cracker!

  12. Mark says:

    You are wrong. The Greek text of Matthew 26:26 does not contain the definite article "ton"–not even in a variant reading. The KJV, the NIV, and the RSV correctly translate it "Jesus took bread."

    You can't even see the folly of your own argument. If only one loaf can represent Jesus' body, is it the loaf at your church, the loaf at my church, or a loaf somewhere else? Oh, of course, that is a silly question. Jesus body can be represented in one loaf per church.

    You still haven't answered my question about what to do when you have a gathering of believers that is too large to be accommodated by one loaf and one cup. Neither have you answered my question about the maximum size of church that the Lord intended. Since we know that your church is right in all its particulars, maybe we could start there. Tell me what the average attendance is for your gatherings, and we'll work from there to define some limits. I know that sounds crazy, but one of my rules for life is "Legalism always leads to absurdity."

  13. josh keele says:

    I saw it in the text I have. But even without the definite article, the word arton is still singular, and hence would be "a loaf" rather than "the loaf."

    "Jesus body can be represented in one loaf per church."

    But not in 50 loaves in the same church. Because Paul speaking on a congregational level says "we being many are that one loaf…" Paul couldn't say that at your congregation, and therefore you have a big problem on your hands.

  14. Nancy says:

    Josh & Mark,

    What is the purpose of this exchange concerning loaves? It is your contention that our salvation is dependent on being right on this issue? Is there hidden meaning in the term "fellowship"?

    Wouldn't the bread logically have been matzo bread? Matzo bread (according to Wikipedia) serves as a symbol to appreciate freedom and avoid the puffed ego symbolized by leavened bread. Also, doesn't the passover supper include four cups of wine? Wonder which one Jesus used? And, I am also interested to know how you accomodate a large crowd with one cup (I think Mark asked this question.)

  15. Jay Guin says:


    I've repeatedly asked Josh to declare his position — do we have to agree on all doctrine to be brothers? That is, does any doctrinal error damn? And if not, how do we distinguish those covered by grace and those not?

    So far, he's not responded.

    Frankly, that's the question that matters most. You can't intelligently decide just how important the bread question is until you know what is and isn't a salvation issue. And if you don't know, then you're missing such a huge piece of God's will that you can't possibly have a well grounded perspective.

  16. Nancy says:

    Thanks Jay. The church of my youth requires agreement and damns for deviations from their doctrinal position. It may not even be an error. The impassioned arguments are familiar to me, I'm sure to you too. I am so very thankful that I know and understand the gospel.

  17. Mark says:

    Maybe there isn't a point in this exchange, if we can call it that, concerning loaves. Josh is using a strained interpretation of a couple of verses as the basis for judgment against every church that doesn't use one loaf and one cup. I asked a few questions to try to get him to imagine some different possibilities. I never get a straight answer to my questions, but I don't have sense enough to extricate myself from the conversation. Josh and I have different approaches to hermeneutics, and we appear to have very different understandings of the nature and function of Scripture. That makes it very difficult to have a meaningful conversation.

    You are right. There are four cups in the passover meal. The cup just after the meal (the third cup, I believe) is the cup of blessing. Don't worry about how to accommodate a large crowd with one cup. Josh already told us that the Lord never intended for a church to get big enough that it could not be accommodated with one cup. The maximum size of a faithful congregation is determined by two factors: the size of the cup they use for communion and the volume of each member's sip as he or she receives the cup. It could get pretty tricky!

  18. dagwudandblondy says:


    I hope its ok to just drop a note in about "points of exchange." Paul told the Romans at the end of his teaching regarding eating, drinking and days, "I myself am convinced, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, complete in knowledge and competent to instruct one another. I have written you quite boldly on some points, as if to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me (Romans 15:14-15).

    It's a characteristic of people of faith to try to be right even if salvation is not based on rightness. Paul wrote boldly about some issues, but knew there would be many more issues if the coming was not immediate. God will forgive us if we aren't supposed to be using more than one loaf, and he will forgive those who teach that there should only be one if they are wrong. None of that indicates, however, that we should try to convince others when we are convicted about something.

    If one ends up convincing the other, that's cool. Hopefully both will now be right and we have found out what pleases God. Perhaps we are both wrong, though, and we have failed to find out what pleases God. "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!"

    We have knowledge and we are competant to teach each other. Doing so in a Christ-like fashion is noble. If neither is convinced of the other's position, acceptance is the rule of love. And Jesus, the Lord of all, is able to make us stand.

  19. josh keele says:

    "What is the purpose of this exchange concerning loaves? It is your contention that our salvation is dependent on being right on this issue?"

    I've already answered that second question elsewhere. I suppose, therefore, my real point is this attitude that we should only care about the proper interpretation of Scripture we think that we'll go to hell otherwise. What's with this attitude that says "unless you can 100% persuaded that we'll go to hell for breaking this commandment, we intent to break it as badly as we can with all our might!"? I think I go on and on here about the loaf because I'm baffled by this attitude. I mean, where does it come from? From the gospel, from the royal announcement that Jesus is Lord and everything appertaining thereto? Clearly not. It can only come from men who want to institute false practices in the church so they convince everyone that unless it can be 100% proven that breaking this or that results in hell we ought to go on breaking it and laugh at the proper interpretation of the passage and try as hard as we can to twist Scripture and fandangle away the passage. I mean, trying to say that Jesus took a basket-full of bread when Paul says "we being many are one bread for we partake of that one bread"–what does that show other than that fandangling away the passage at all costs is the fruit of this attitude of "I'm gonna break unless you can prove that doing so will send me to hell"?

  20. Richard says:


    First, I think that most of people who read this blog would conform to any teaching that they believed had a 75% potential for being true. Seventy-five percent is a completely arbitrary number.

    Second, I can honestly say that you haven't even gotten to 10 percent possibility with me yet. And that's not just you. You are not the first nor will you be the last to try to prove this point. I appreciate your conviction.

    Third, I'm sure that I'm not the only one who doesn't think in terms of percentage of believability. Some prominant thinkers have, I think it was Swinburne who argued for the probability of God's existence. The Exitstence of God is a great book, but I hated it, because I don't think much in terms of probabilities. To me an argument is either convincing or it's not. No percentages. No "close but no cigar." Just convincing or not convincing. The arguments you have made, and those that have preceded are not convincing.

    Fourth, freedom is a major New Testament theme. When I am unconvinced by a brother's argument, even when he has made some good points (and there are some good points made for nearly every argument) it is God-honoring to continue to live in freedom. It does not honor God for someone to do something that they are not convinced is his will just because there are some good arguments for it.

  21. This subject is explored in more detail in A Gathered People: Revisioning the Assembly by Hicks, Melton and Valentine. You might find it a worth while read.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  22. Rick Griffis says:

    Josh won't state his position. He is a "gnat-strainer". They interpret scripture from a legal/judicial perspective. Their only goal is to find a rule/command/ordinance that they insist must be binding on all believers.