Pastoral Letter Wine in Communion
Since All Saints Presbyterian Church began, we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis and used gluten free bread and wine as our elements. While none of these aspects of our observance of the Lord’s Supper are totally unique, they are somewhat unusual among churches in our denomination (Presbyterian Church in America). At times, visitors and members ask questions about our decision to observe the Lord’s Supper in this way with these elements.
In this pastoral letter, we want to provide a brief summary of the reasons that the leadership of All Saints, after prayerfully wrestling over this for several weeks together, felt, and continue to feel, compelled to use only wine in our communion.
It is quite clear from Scripture that wine was a regular part of Communion (1 Cor 11). And this wine was what we typically think of as wine – an alcoholic drink made from fermented grape juice. We can extrapolate backwards from 1 Corinthians 11 to the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s last Passover meal in which he instituted this sacrament of Communion and see that wine is what Christ used to institute this sacrament. It is there called “fruit of the vine” (Matt 26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18). This can be none other than juice derived from grapes, and there is every reason to believe it was fermented, making wine. Therefore, we have the Lord’s example, and implicitly his command, to use wine in Communion. It is instructive that some in Corinth were even getting drunk off of the Communion wine (1 Cor 11:21), and yet Paul does not advise the use of some other drink. Instead, he commands them to observe the sacrament correctly. Since Christ has given us his example in the use of wine in instituting the Supper, we should follow that example. If we wished to change it by including grape juice as an option, or grape juice as the only option, we would need to point to what authority we are given to do so. If Christ taught us to use wine in Communion, by what authority may we change this practice?
There is also the nature of wine as a symbol. The bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper are signs – they represent something true. What does the wine represent, and can grape juice serve this purpose equally well? The wine represents the blood of Christ (Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20). In order to appreciate this fully, we need to recall the role of the sacrificial blood of the lamb in the law of Moses. The blood represents life – life granted and life taken (Gen 9:4). Christ spilled his blood, giving his life, in order to grant us life. His spilled blood then is a symbol of God’s judgment against sin, but also a symbol of the life (and all the blessings that come with it) that is ours in Christ (Heb. 13:11, 1 Pet. 1:19, Rev 1:5; 5:9). This is why God uses the symbol of a cup full of wine to represent judgment in Scripture (Rev 16:6). He says his enemies will drink the cup to the dregs and stumble around drunk (Psalm 75:8, Jeremiah 25:15). It is this cup of which Christ speaks in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prays that this cup would pass from him (Matt. 26:39, Luke 22:42). However, when God wishes to give his people a symbol of his love for them and his rich blessings to them, he does so by commanding that they celebrate his goodness by drinking wine (Deut. 7:13, 11:14, 14:23)! The Wisdom literature tells us that wine is a blessing from God and, approvingly, that “wine makes the heart glad” (Psalm 104:15; Prov. 3:10). Wine is uniquely capable, then, of representing both the judgment and the blessing that meet at the cross for us. Grape juice fails to adequately represent these truths. It has no bitterness and therefore offers no reminder of judgment. Lacking alcohol, it has no ability to “make the heart glad,” as a celebration of God’s goodness and provision.
The question has been posed, “Why not offer both?” As explained above, we have no authority upon which to offer a substitute or add something to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Second, the intended symbol of unity in our practice would be undermined. Paul not only chastens the Corinthians for being gluttons and drunkards at the Table, but he also accuses them of observing the Supper in a way that actively undermined the symbol of our oneness – our unity in Christ (1 Cor. 11:18, 33). When we come to the table, we should be eating the same bread and drinking the same drink (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Options at the table serve to multiply and divide rather than confirm our unity. And this is not merely symbolic. It is possible, and given the condition of the human heart, quite possible, for those who drink the grape juice to judge those who drink the wine and vice versa. There are, in any church that offers both, wine drinkers and juice drinkers when they come to the table. That is a division and therefore contrary to the truth the Supper is meant to portray.
It is an incontrovertible fact that from the time Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper until the 19th century, the Church exclusively used wine for the Lord’s Supper. That should be a staggering fact to us! The tremendous spread of the gospel throughout the world into different tribes and tongues and cultures did not change this practice. The Great Schism between East and West in 1054 did not change this practice. The Reformation of 1517 did not change this practice. The division of the Protestant churches into national churches and different denominations did not change this practice. It ought to cause us to ask, “Whatever could have made the Church change such a long-standing practice?” The answer is rooted in liberal theology. One of the key beliefs of liberal theology is that man is basically good. The problem isn’t a sin nature, it is our environment, they say. We are surrounded by things that cause us to sin. Alcohol is numbered among those things. A basically good man drinks alcohol and in his drunkenness, he beats his wife or cheats on her. A basically good woman drinks alcohol and in her drunkenness is verbally or physically abusive. The answer seems simple. Get rid of alcohol and we will get rid of abusive and cheating spouses. This is the most fundamental thinking of the American temperance movement. And the movement failed because the linchpin, the basic goodness of man, was false. Unfortunately, caught up in the movement were virtually all the churches. When Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist minister, was able to devise a method by which grape juice could be kept from spoiling, the churches changed over from wine, the “source of all evil,” to grape juice, a harmless substance. When prohibition failed, many of the liberal churches went back to using wine in Communion. The evangelicals, however, did not for some reason. Does it seem right that this practice, which was begun entirely as a result of false doctrine, should be maintained in otherwise faithful churches today?
For all of these reasons, biblical, theological, and historical, we believe that the use of wine in Communion is proper and biblical. And it is the conscience of our session that no other drink is proper. In so saying, we are not at all interested in pronouncing judgment on those church sessions that disagree with us. We are responsible for this flock and are leading this flock according to our consciences, and we have no intention of crusading this view among sister churches which could (unintentionally) disturb the peace of their fellowship.
Commonly Asked Questions
This view often prompts several questions, so we hope the following will address the most common.
What about those who abuse alcohol? Aren’t you causing them to stumble?
There is a lot wrapped up in this question. The abuse of alcohol has existed for as long as alcohol has existed. It certainly existed at the time that God commanded the inclusion of wine in the ceremonies under the Mosaic law, including the drinking of wine during festivals. It existed when Christ instituted the Supper using wine. It was on display when Paul chastised the Corinthians for getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper. And yet God chose to command the use of wine in the Supper. And Paul did not instruct the Corinthians to use a wine substitute to avoid drunkenness. So it is not biblical instruction, affirmed by the Session, which is causing anyone to stumble by following Christ’s command. As with any good thing that mankind twists into something wicked, the answer is not to reject the good thing and label it as wicked, but instead to be transformed in heart and mind by the power of the Spirit in order to reclaim the good thing for its proper use.
Isn’t it sinful pride to suggest so many gospel-believing churches have gotten this wrong for so long?
It is only sinful pride if we pride ourselves in being better than other churches. We have no such pride, and encourage humility among our parishioners with respect to this practice. We are not commenting on those churches or their practices. We are simply acting out of conviction and with love for the flock God has given us to serve.
Isn’t it more important to be considerate to those who abuse alcohol and others who don’t like wine rather than to get this right?
We are very concerned to avoid simply being right. We want to be both faithful to God’s Word and loving in our administration of that Word and practice. So, while it is possible to be right and unloving, we do not believe it is possible to be wrong and loving. Changing our practice, contrary to God’s Word, is not a loving act. It is not God’s Word that is deficient and needs to change, but our own sinful hearts.
Is the Session telling us we may not drink grape juice when we celebrate communion at other churches?
The Session would humbly encourage our members to avoid the use of grape juice when coming to the Table anywhere in the Lord’s Church. If there is a wine option, members should partake of wine. If there is no wine, members should consider abstaining.
What if I have taken a vow before God to abstain from alcohol?
Vows taken before God are a serious thing and should not be taken lightly. A vow cannot bind someone to sin, nor keep someone from the proper religious worship of God. For this reason, we would humbly answer that such a vow, though certainly well intended, either must not apply to the Lord’s Supper, or must be recognized as a rash vow. Such a vow may and should certainly be repented and set aside. Again, the vow may also be retained intact, if only the one who made the vow will recognize that it cannot apply to the Lord’s Supper, in which God has called us to his table and gracious gives us wine to drink to represent the body and blood of our Lord.
Are others sinning if they drink grape juice in communion?
We do not intend to suggest this at all. We believe it is more appropriate to simply acknowledge that they are not observing communion as it was ideally given to us by Christ. Wine serves as a symbol in very particular ways, and when grape juice is used, it fails to communicate those realities – specifically the curse of sin and the blessing of salvation. Once again, we have no desire to judge those who practice differently, but only to lead the congregation to which we have been called according to our conscience as instructed by the Word of God.
We anticipate visitors and members worshipping with us who espouse these or other objections, and a period of shepherding may be appropriate for those who are new to this practice. It is our intention, in every case, to patiently shepherd members and any visitor who seeks our instruction. Our desire is that all would come to understand that Christ has given this cup of wine to us, and why he has done so. We offer this instruction in the hopes that all will come to know the blessings and benefits of coming to the Table and partaking of the bread and the wine.
The Session of All Saints Presbyterian Church
June 23, 2020