Five Views of Communion

Basic Theology, Podcast Episodes

Why do churches practice communion so differently, and how do we understand these differences? Dive into the history of the Eucharist in this high-level overview of the denominational differences surrounding communion.


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Okay, so what are we going to talk about this week? Well, it’s an episode that is in high demand, I have had more requests for a communion episode than for almost any other topic in the last couple of months. And I don’t know if this is because someone in particular was talking about it. And so, it was on the forefront of people’s minds, whatever the case is, it was in high demand and it’s been on my list to research for quite some time.

As I typically do, I’m going to walk through a little bit of what Scripture says about Communion or Eucharist. And then we’re going to look at the different denominational perspectives on this topic. So, let’s start with scripture. That’s a very good place to start, as the sound of music says, I am in Matthew 26:26-28. Now, as they were eating, Jesus took bread and after blessing it, broke it and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And he took a cup. And when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying “drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” I tell you, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the wine until that day when I drink it new with you and my father’s kingdom.” So, this particular passage is at The Last Supper, the last Passover with the disciples. And this account is not just found in Matthew 26. It’s also found in Luke 22, and then John 6. It’s also in Mark, where we see the same kind of narrative given to us, telling us that Jesus is instituting this supper, this remembrance using bread and wine that represent his body and his blood. And if we go forward in church history to 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is talking about the appropriate celebration of the bread and wine with the Corinthian church. He says in 10:16, “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?” Because there is one bread, who we are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

So, this institution of the Lord’s Supper was a fundamental of church practice from the get go and if you look in the Book of Acts, we see the early church practicing these gatherings where they would remember Christ’s resurrection, they would worship they would gather together, break bread together, celebrating communion or Eucharist together. As time went on, in church history, there came to be different perspectives on what exactly happens when Christians partake of this sacrament. What do I mean by sacrament? So, we’ve talked about this in previous episodes, but a sacrament is a visible sign of invisible grace, and more liturgical churches are going to emphasize the sacrament a little bit more than maybe, less liturgical churches, would, liturgical churches are those like the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, etc.

And the less liturgical churches would be more of the Baptist, Pentecostal, sometimes Methodist Non-denominational types. And so, we’re going to look at these different views of how communion works but it’s important to note that early in church history, there was a general consensus regarding communion that was more liturgical in nature, communion was seen as a very sacred act. A sacred act that we as believers would participate in together and remember Christ’s sacrifice and even participate in grace that’s received through this visible sign of invisible grace. Now, obviously, not all of us will agree on exactly how communion functions or how we should understand it, but it is helpful and important to know what other people think about these issues so we can have healthy conversations about that. So, we’re going to start with the Roman Catholic view of the Eucharist. The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” And if we look at Luke 22 or Matthew 26, what we see there is Jesus giving thanks then breaking the bread and passing the cup and this word Eucharist is taken from that instance, and then when we participate in Eucharist or Communion, we also are giving thanks for Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf. 

So, in the Roman Catholic view, the sacrifice of Christ is given to the believer, who’s participating in a sacramental form, so the sacrifice of Christ is truly present when you participate in the Eucharist. After the bread and wine have been consecrated, Catholics believe that the bread and the wine actually transform into the body and blood of Christ, and this process is called transubstantiation. Trans means change and substantiation means substance, so the very essence of the bread and wine has changed to become Christ’s body and blood is the belief in the Catholic Church. This is from the Council of Trent, which outlined many of the primary doctrines of the Catholic church in the medieval era. By the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the Body of Christ, our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the Holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.

Now, I want to look at the orthodox view. So, this would be the Greek Orthodox Church, and then also the Russian Orthodox Church, which is a branch of the overall Orthodox Liturgical Church. So, for the Orthodox, the Eucharist is the center of the church’s life. This is very similar to in Roman Catholicism, everything in the church leads to the Eucharist and all things flow from it. I took that from the Orthodox Church of America and their statement about the Eucharist. The Eucharist then or Holy Communion as it’s called, is the completion of all the church’s sacraments. So, it’s kind of like this pinnacle of doctrinal belief and practice. One thing that’s unique about the Orthodox Church versus the Roman Catholic Church is that they view communion as a mystery. They call it Holy Communion whereas Roman Catholics are more commonly calling their practice Eucharist, but they focus on the mystery of this sacrament in the Orthodox Church. The entire ceremony itself is called the Divine Liturgy, and similar to Catholicism, the bread and wine are mystically turned into the body and blood of Christ once it’s been consecrated and you are consuming it.

It’s common and encouraged for Orthodox members to fast before they take communion and they’re also encouraged to take communion at least four times a year, usually during their highest holidays. But of course, taking it more often is encouraged as well. And prayer, praying certain prayers as a part of the liturgy before and after you take Holy Communion. What I hope you take away from these two practices, these two diverse practices of the Eucharist is they both have a very sacred view of this practice. It’s so much more than a symbol to them, it’s so much more than just a reminder of Jesus. I was talking to a friend once and we were talking about this issue and we both are in non-denominational churches. And she mentioned that one time she was in a non-denominational church and she watched someone go up to take communion while talking on the phone with someone. She pointed out to me that there is something lost when we no longer see communion as a sacred act. And the advantage I think of the more liturgical churches is that they do still treat this with great sanctity. 

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So, the third church I want to look at is the Lutheran Church. So, in the Lutheran tradition, Christ’s body and blood are present in with and under the bread and wine, and their view is called consubstantiation. So, the presence of Christ coexists with the bread and the wine so it’s not transforming into the actual body and blood like the Catholics believe, but the presence of Christ coexists with the bread and wine. One Catholic belief is that the Eucharist or Communion makes present Christ sacrifice on the cross. So, when you participate in communion, you’re participating in his sacrifice. But that’s not the Lutheran belief. They believe that Christ sacrifices once for all time, but Christ Himself is present in the elements when we take communion. Their term for the bread and wine is the sacramental union and this is from Living Lutheran, a website for the Lutheran Church. We commune with the saints who have gone before us and with other Christians around the globe who gathered at our “Lord’s table.” “The uncontainable presence, grace, love, forgiveness and mercy of Christ come to us in simple bread and wine.” What I loved about this quote, is the note that when we participate in Holy Communion, we are not only communing with God and Christ, we’re communing with all of our family of God around the world. I’ve never thought about it that way. How when we participate in communion on the same day that others are participating in it, we’re actually joining hands with them in a spiritual way by participating in Christ together and that is really powerful. 

The fourth tradition I want to look at is the Reformed Tradition. So, in this tradition, Christ is not present physically in the Eucharist, but he is spiritually present. And we receive him through the Holy Spirit, so this view largely came from John Calvin. If Lutheranism came through Martin Luther, the reformed view is influenced heavily by John Calvin, and his view is called Receptionism. We’re receiving Christ through the Holy Spirit as we participate in the Eucharist. This is also called the ‘spiritual presence’ or ‘real presence’ view. And this is directly from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. The rule which the pious, the Christians, always to observe is whenever they see the symbols instituted by the Lord, to think and feel surely persuaded that the truth of the thing signified is also present. For why does the Lord put the symbol of his body into your hands, but just to assure you that you truly partake of him? If this is true, let us feel as much assured that the visible sign is given us in seal of an invisible gift as that his body itself is given to us. So, he’s basically saying, “That we should have assurance that this visible sign of an invisible gift or grace is a reminder that he truly gave his body for us.” “He truly gave his sacrifice for us,” “He’s present with us.” And this is a quote from Christianity Today, an article on communion. “The Holy Spirit uses the bread and the wine as vehicles to catalyze a connection between Christians and the risen Christ. So, in the reformed view, this participation in communion is connecting us more to the risen Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s not like the holy spirit leaves us and comes back during communion, but that during a Holy Communion, we are connecting closely with our God and remembering who he is and what he did and participating in his grace.

The last view I want to look at is the Baptist view, but this view is not only Baptist, it’s also in other traditions, such as some Methodist Churches, even some Reformed Baptist Churches, it may be in Pentecostal Charismatic Churches, possibly Church of Christ. And this is the view that refers to Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion, and it is a remembrance of Christ’s suffering and death. I think that a lot of my listeners will relate to this particular view, many of you who grew up in the United States in non-liturgical church environments, this is going to be the communion you are familiar with. It’s a remembrance of Christ’s suffering and it’s mainly symbolic. So, this particular view arose from the work of Huldrych Zwingli, and it’s called Memorialism. Zwingli lived at the same time as Calvin and Luther, and he was actually heavily persecuted by both of them over this issue. In fact, he divided from the other reformers of the church because of the communion view, because he believed it was simply in a memorial assemble, and not an actual either, participation in grace or he did not believe that Christ’s body and blood were a part of the communion ceremony. So, some Anglican and Methodist Churches may take this view, but many of them are closer to the Lutheran view. And this is from James Accardi, on this topic of symbolic communion, the bread and the wine serve as flashcards for Jesus see bread, remember, Jesus, see wine, remember Jesus. Here, the Lord’s Supper serves as an opportunity for remembrance and thinking deeply about Christ in his work, but not necessarily an occasion for a unique encounter with his presence. And this viewpoint is sometimes reflected in our churches because if we don’t expect to have a unique encounter with Jesus through communion, we’re probably not going to notice if one was available so our outlook on communion, our understanding of it is going to change our participation in it. And in churches like this, you may sometimes do communion every week, you might do it every 5th Sunday, you might do it once a quarter, it just depends on how your church has decided to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. But in the end, the point of the memorialist view is that Jesus is not physically present in the bread and wine. There is no extra work of grace, there is no particular powerful revelation of God through this act. It is a memorial to what Christ did on the cross and that itself can be very, very powerful, at the same time it can lack a lot of the sanctity and sacred expectation that some of the other traditions have. 

A few last points, I wanted to make. First, The Salvation Army and the Quakers, don’t observe communion at all. This was interesting to me when I was doing the research for this episode. These two do not celebrate communion or in The Salvation Army in particular doesn’t believe it’s necessary to the Christian faith. And then in Messianic Jewish communities, so Jews who follow Jesus or Gentile non-Jewish Christians, who have decided to convert to a Messianic Christianity, often don’t celebrate communion because they believe that the passage is in Matthew 26, and in Luke and Mark and John refer instead to the Passover. They believe that Jesus was commanding his followers to do this in remembrance of me, do the Passover in remembrance of him until he returns. And because of that fundamental difference of practice, they celebrate Passover and sometimes or often will not take communion.

I hope this up episode was helpful to you and I hope it gave you a bit of a high-level view of the history behind these different views, some of the pros and cons or weaknesses and strengths of each. And that most of all, it will help you understand a little bit more of where your friends are coming from when they adhere to a different denominational perspective on communion. But mostly, I really hope that when you do take communion in your church, and you participate in the Lord’s table, that you have a little bit deeper understanding of what it stands for, and how powerful it really is. Even if you don’t subscribe to some of the theology behind these different views, there’s still a universal expectation that Jesus Christ is present with us when we take Holy Communion. And we’re communing, not just with him, but with our fellow believers around the world.

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