Why Is There So Much Disagreement about Holy Communion?
- Dolores Smyth Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2020 10 Jan
The sharing of Holy Communion (also called the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Eucharist, or the Lord’s Table) is a common thread binding most Christian denominations. In basic terms, Holy Communion is a ritual instituted by Jesus in which bread and wine are prayed over and then consumed by the faithful in memory of Christ. The holy meal is considered to be a sacrament in most Christian churches. Despite Holy Communion being a common practice among most Christian groups, some denominations contest what the bread and wine represent and how the ritual of Communion should be practiced due to Scripture’s ambiguity as to those specifics.
With the exception of the Quakers and the Salvation Army (denominations that do not celebrate Holy Communion), the majority of Christian denominations agree with the general aspects of Communion as outlined in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In particular, Christians agree that:
- Christ Himself instituted the ritual of Holy Communion at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-21; 1 Corinthians 23-25).
- Christ blessed and broke bread, and directed His disciples to, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
- Christ blessed a cup filled with “fruit of the vine” and told His disciples to, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28; Mark 14:23-24; Luke 22:17, 20; 1 Corinthians 11:25).
- Christ told His disciples to repeat this ceremony in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25).
Disagreement and the Life of the Church
Scripture provides no further instruction as to how or when Holy Communion should be performed. Because of this, the various Christian denominations practice Holy Communion according to their own beliefs about the sacred meal’s meaning and purpose. These beliefs diverge as to the nature of the Communion bread and wine, the frequency with which believers should receive Communion, who should serve Communion, who should receive Communion, what prayers should be said during Communion, and whether the Communion cup should be filled with wine or grape juice.
This article attempts to provide an overview of two of the most debated issues regarding Holy Communion — the nature of the Communion bread and wine, and how often churches should offer Holy Communion.
The most disputed issue among Christian denominations regarding Holy Communion is what the bread and wine represent.
Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist
Denominations such as the Catholic and Orthodox faiths believe in the doctrine of the Real Presence during Holy Communion. This belief holds that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the essence (or substance) of the consecrated bread and wine transforms into the essence of the body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharistic prayer. Importantly, although the food elements become the true body and blood of Christ, the elements maintain their outward appearance of bread and wine for the sake of our human senses.
Likewise, the Lutheran denomination also professes the Real Presence of Christ in the Communion bread and wine. Unlike the Catholic and Orthodox denominations, however, the Lutherans believe that the substance of the bread and wine coexists alongside (without transforming into) the body and blood of Christ.
These denominations’ belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is largely based on Jesus’ description of Himself as the “living bread that came down from Heaven” whose flesh and blood must be consumed for eternal life, as well as the ultimate refusal of some of His followers to accept this divine mandate (John 6:51-66).
Christ’s Symbolic Presence in Communion
Denominations such as the Baptists deny that Christ is literally or spiritually present in the Communion bread and wine, and don’t profess that these food elements are infused with any special power. Instead, these Christian groups believe that Jesus’ reference at the Last Supper to the bread and wine as His “body and blood” was figurative. As such, these denominations believe that the Lord’s Supper is simply a symbolic way to remember Jesus’ sacrifice and join in fellowship with Him and all participants of the communal meal.
Christ's Spiritual Presence in the Eucharist
Other Christian denominations such as the Presbyterians take a middle ground approach to Holy Communion. These denominations believe that Christ is spiritually, but not literally, present in the Communion bread and wine. These denominations also reject the belief that partaking in Holy Communion is a mere symbolic reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for us without any genuine encounter with Christ Himself. Instead, these Christian sects believe that the faithful, in receiving Holy Communion, are genuinely receiving Jesus in the sense that He is spiritually present in the bread and wine, not merely symbolically present in our memories.
How Often Should the Church Offer the Lord’s Supper?
Scripture doesn’t decisively state how often we are to receive Communion. Paul taught that “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This verse speaks of Communion in a timeless way without establishing if Communion is to be received daily, weekly, monthly, or less frequently.
The Book of Acts provides some guidance on this issue. Notably, Acts 2:46 states that Jesus’ disciples met daily and “broke bread,” which some have interpreted to mean that Holy Communion was practiced daily. Further, Acts 20:7 states that the disciples “came together to break bread” on the first day of the week, i.e. Sunday — an argument in favor of weekly Communion.
With no conclusive answer as to the frequency of Holy Communion, how often churches celebrate Communion depends on the denomination and, sometimes, the particular church within the denomination. For example, Catholic churches offer the Eucharist at Mass daily, citing the holy meal as a remedy to free us from our daily defects and keep us from the temptations of daily sin.
In contrast, one research survey of over 1,000 Southern Baptist churches found stark differences in how often those churches celebrated the Lord’s Supper. The results showed that the majority of the churches surveyed conducted the Lord’s Supper on a quarterly basis; the second-highest number of churches conducted the Lord’s Supper monthly, and the third-highest group conducted the Lord’s Supper 5 to 10 times per year.
What Does This Mean?
Regardless of doctrinal differences, it’s worth noting that in celebrating Holy Communion with our fellow Christians, we unite with our Lord Jesus in commemorating His ultimate sacrifice for us as we also nourish our souls with He who is the real “bread of life.”
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Dolores Smyth writes about her life’s passions — faith and family. Her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications. You can read more of her work on Twitter @LolaWordSmyth.