What is the Lord’s Supper? What does it do? Why do Christians regularly participate in this ritual?
To non-Christians, it certainly looks strange. You walk into the average Baptist church on Communion Sunday, and you’ll see a bunch of folks eating little wafers, drinking little cups of grape juice and talking about bodies and blood. What?
Baptists tend to refer to the Lord’s Supper as a “symbol” or a “memorial.” This certainly is correct, but I would suggest there’s more to it than that.
“Just” a symbol?
A few years ago, Texas pastor Austin Fischer wrote an insightful guest post on Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog. He argues that Christian rites like the Lord’s Supper and baptism are not “just” anything. They are more, even if we can’t fully explain exactly what they are.
I once heard a professor tell a story about a combined Communion service his church held with another congregation years before. Because of a miscalculation, there were not enough elements for everyone in the service. Someone attempted to comfort my embarrassed professor by saying, “Don’t worry; it’s just a symbol.” My professor did not find those words comforting.
So, what else could the Lord’s Supper be besides “just” a symbol? The Roman Catholic Church holds the doctrine of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation, in a nutshell, is the belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist have their essence transformed into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ but retain the appearance of bread and wine.
This did not become formal dogma until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and the historic development of this doctrine is too complex to recount here. Suffice it to say, the Church Fathers wrestled with what it means for the bread and cup to be Christ’s body and blood, but they did not clearly teach either transubstantiation or the “mere symbol” view.
The Protestant Reformers strongly rejected transubstantiation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli and others still disagreed, however, on how best to understand the nature of the bread and wine. Zwingli is famous for championing something akin to the “mere symbol” view, though he would not label it that way.
Baptists generally have adopted Zwingli’s perspective, and for much of our history we have sought to avoid even the appearance of adhering to “Catholic” doctrine and practice. So, we’ve tended to emphasize heavily the symbolic nature of the Lord’s Supper. But Baptist history is a bit more diverse on this subject than one might assume.
Benjamin Keach was a famous and influential early Baptist who lived from 1640 to 1704. He pastored the church that would one day become the Metropolitan Tabernacle under the leadership of Charles Spurgeon.
Keach is most well-known for his contributions to the Baptist catechism that now bears his name—Keach’s Catechism. A catechism is a series of theological questions and answers that functions as a doctrinal curriculum for use in churches.
In the answer to question 117 regarding the Lord’s Supper, the catechism states: “The Lord’s Supper is a holy ordinance, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, His death is showed forth, and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporeal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of His body and blood, with all His benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.”
Did you catch that? The catechism denies transubstantiation but argues that we “partake” of Christ’s body and blood in a spiritual sense. The same idea shows up in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. When we take the Lord’s Supper, we “really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified” (30.7).
Whatever Keach and the 1689 Confession say, Scripture must provide the final word. Keach’s Catechism and the 1689 Confession both cite 1 Corinthians 10:16: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ” (NASB)?
The key word here is “sharing,” sometimes also translated as “participation,” “fellowship” or “communion.” The Greek word is koinōnia, which carries all those meanings. When we as believers take the Lord’s Supper, we are in some sense jointly sharing in the sacrifice of Christ for our sins.
Paul states immediately after, “We [believers] who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17).
The New Testament is clear that the bond believers share, to which Paul here refers, is deeply spiritual (Romans 15:5-6; Ephesians 4:1-6). The Supper is an instrument of that spiritual unification. Paul makes no mention here of symbolism.
Later, Paul warns his readers against taking the Lord’s Supper “unworthily” (11:27-32). He says doing so may cause weakness, sickness and even death (11:30). Would a “mere symbol” have that kind of effect on one taking it unworthily?
So, what is the Lord’s Supper, exactly? It certainly is a symbol and a memorial—a meal taken in remembrance of Christ and his sacrifice (11:24-25). It also is our public proclamation of Christ’s atoning death on the cross (11:26). But it is even more than that; it is a special means by which we spiritually partake together of Christ’s body and blood, broken and spilled for us. I encourage you to reflect on this the next time your church takes Communion together.
Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. The views expressed are those solely of the author.