A House Divided: Protestants and The Lord’s Supper

By Obbie Todd

Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists. –John Calvin (Institutes, IV.1.9)

I’m a Baptist. But the first church I ever pastored wasn’t a Baptist church. It was a ‘Restorationist’ church. You’ll understand the irony in a moment. The ‘Restoration Movement’ was born from the mind of Alexander Campbell, a former Baptist who reacted against organized denominations following the Second Great Awakening. (Restorationist Christianity had its roots even further back in the small Glasite/Sandemanian movement of 18th century Scotland.) After the American Revolution, Restorationists believed in returning the church back to the people, to a simpler religion free of creeds and academics. And that included returning the Lord’s Supper to the center of the church service. This Sunday if you walk into a Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, or Church of Christ congregation, you’ll be offered the Lord’s Supper. It’s a weekly practice that Restorationists support with texts like Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7, 11. It represents a renewed desire among modern churches to return to the early church. The primitive church. The ‘true’ church. And for many that includes more bread and more juice.

After a year it was clear that a Baptist didn’t belong in a Restorationist church. However, I’m thankful for the time I spent with the good people of Chaplin Christian. And during my time there I was posed an important question, one I believe every church should consider: how often should we partake of the Lord’s Supper? And more importantly, why? For many Protestant churches, the primacy of the pulpit coupled with a strong anti-Catholic spirit begins to dissolve the significance of the bread and the juice. And it can appear in our infrequent observance of the Lord’s Supper. Christ calls us to declare His Gospel with our mouths: both with our voices and our taste buds. And any attempt to separate the two can prove spiritually deadly, especially when we neglect an institution that Christ delivered personally to His church. So, for just a moment, let’s examine how the Lord’s Supper defines what it means to be Protestant.

Oddly enough, the origin of the Protestant church began with a strong view on the Lord’s Supper, also known as the Eucharist. (ευχαριστω – ‘to give thanks’) In the sixteenth century, the most significant doctrine in the eyes of the laity was that of the Eucharist. More was written about the Eucharist at that time than the doctrine of justification! All of the 1st-generation Reformers (‘Magisterial Reformers’) soundly rejected the Catholic Eucharistic method of ex opere operato. This is the practice still held by Roman Catholics today – that grace is conferred to the sinner merely by the taking of the sacrament, faith or not. This was of course repulsive to Protestants who championed the sola fide principle in all facets of the church. Equally disturbing was the Catholic sense of Eucharistic sacrifice, offered to God each time the bread and wine were taken. To Protestants this violated Christ’s objective, once-for-all work on the cross accomplished for sinners, not by them. (Heb. 10:10) Most of all, Protestants rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, a Thomistic doctrine established at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215. This is the Roman Catholic belief that, upon the words of institution (hoc est corpus meum, ‘this is my body’) the bread and wine undergo a metamorphosis into the material, tangible body and blood of Jesus. While Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin wholly rejected this ‘hocus pocus’, it’s precisely here that they also differed. In fact, it could be said that the Eucharistic controversy is what birthed the Protestant Reformation…and what fractured it.

Today, when Protestant churches disagree over the Lord’s Supper, they’re merely perpetuating a seminal conflict that began with the Reformation itself. Speaking of the famous debate between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli regarding the Lord’s Supper, Carl Trueman observes, “The breach at Marburg was the point at which Protestantism divided into Lutheran and Reformed, a breach that continues to this day.” The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli was so strong that Luther himself believed that Zwingli wasn’t even saved! Convinced the Zurich Reformer was “of a different spirit,” the former Wittenberg monk believed that Zwingli’s memorialism effectively removed Christ from the Eucharist. Thus when Zwingli evacuated Christ from the Lord’s Supper, he removed the Gospel and hence his own salvation! (Admittedly, it’s often hard to reconcile Luther’s doctrine of the Eucharist with his doctrine of justification) While Luther rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, his belief in the omnipresence/ubiquity of God demanded that he see the Lord’s Supper as a real divine presence. (this doctrine has been called consubstantiation, although this term is an invention of the Lutheran Church, not Luther himself) For Luther, the Eucharist was a gift, the conclusion of God’s promises to the church. The Supper is not our work. It’s God’s work for us in Christ. For Luther, it also delivered an overwhelming sense of assurance to the Christian who doubted in his fight against sin, something Luther knew well. And while we as Protestants may not agree with Luther’s doctrine of the Eucharist, we can certainly benefit from Luther’s view of faith. This assurance is a benefit of the Lord’s Supper many churches remove from their liturgy when they fail to explain the meaning of the Supper or even deliver the Gospel while doing it! The sermon and the bread are two expressions of the same Gospel and should never be divorced. For Luther, solus christus meant the Word eaten and the Word spoken, received in sola fide. Thus the Gospel must be delivered with the bread and juice or else we’ve emptied it of its spiritual blessing.

Still, to Zwingli, Luther’s doctrine sounded like mysticism. How could the Eucharist be Christ’s real body when Christ had ascended to the right hand of the father? The Council of Chalcedon had affirmed that Christ would remain there forever. Zwingli mocked Luther, asking him if Christ was hiding underneath the bread! For the Swiss Reformer, the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines smelled of idolatry. The Lord’s Supper wasn’t an object to be worshipped. It was a memorial, a re-commitment to Christ. The words of institution, contrary to Luther, weren’t to be taken literally but figuratively. Therefore the Supper was more of a symbolic, public profession than an actual feast. And it’s precisely this view that serves as the foundation for the ‘Zwinglian shift’ we are currently witnessing in American Protestant churches: an emphasis upon the symbol of the Supper rather than the sign. (the marker distinguishing the baptized from the unbelieving) For this reason, in many churches today, the Lord’s Supper has become an act of remembrance devoid of any ecclesiological significance. For this same reason Carl Trueman postulates, “Luther, the great Protestant hero, would probably not recognize most Protestants today as Christian.”

Unlike the Glas/Sandemanian/Campbell movements, the expectation in both Reformation Europe and post-Reformation England was that each believer would participate in the Lord’s Supper between four and twelve times per year. (e.g. John Knox and the Genevan service book) In his Dissertation on Frequent Communicating, Scottish Presbyterian John Erskine (1721-1803) investigates why the frequency of the Lord’s Supper as seen in the patristic church had disappeared. And his conclusion has as much to do with persecution as it does with church policy:

The most probable cause I can assign for this, is, that till then the religion of Christ being persecuted, few professed it who had not felt the power of it on their hearts. But soon after, Christianity became the established religion of the Roman Empire, a greater number of hypocrites, from views of worldly interest, intermingled themselves with the true disciples of Christ. And in a century or two more, this little leaven leavened the whole lump…Such nominal Christians could have no just sense of the use and benefits of the Lord’s Supper and the obligation to frequent it…Their example would soon be followed by lukewarm Christians who had fallen from their first love. (267)

In summary, when the purity of the church suffers, so does the Lord’s Supper. As persecution decreased, so did the need for assurance in Christ. When unbelievers partake of an institution that has no personal meaning, it deteriorates the corporate meaning for the entire church. It was actually Erskine’s estimation that Calvin had personally preferred the early church practice of weekly communion but had settled for a monthly administration along with the pastor of the English congregation at Geneva, John Knox. (Calvin’s theology of the Eucharist sits somewhere between Zwingli and Luther, although his exact position between them is debatable) In Scotland, Erskine located the origin of the quarterly Supper in the First Book of Discipline. (1560) In his research, Erskine presents an important truth to modern Protestants today. While the Scottish theologian fought for weekly observance of the Eucharist, he was also a Presbyterian – so his ecclesiological commitments prevented him from supporting the sheer memorialism of Huldrych Zwingli. And it’s important to remember why.

To exclusively ‘memorialize’ the Lord’s Supper in a ‘Zwinglian’ commemoration gradually diminishes the meaning of the event because it ignores the inseparable bond between theology and ecclesiology. Even Baptists like John Bunyan and Charles Spurgeon who practiced ‘open communion’ still upheld ecclesial purity by reserving the Supper for believers only. Their belief was that the bread and the juice should be rightly reserved for those who not only understand its meaning, but treasure the assurance of the eternal meal in which we set our hope. This is the true church. It’s the reason men like Jonathan Edwards fought so hard for a credible profession of faith. (And lost his pastorate at Northampton fighting for it!) The Lord’s Supper should be protected so that its blessings can be unadulterated and meaningful for those who desperately need it as the promise it should be. When church membership becomes so porous that baptized unbelievers partake of the same Supper intended only for those who can appreciate its promises, then the ordinance is drained of its value. This is why baptism and the Lord’s Supper are so inextricably connected. As baptism loses its integrity, so does the Lord’s Supper. And that appears to be the case in many of our churches today.

As John Erskine warned, when the baptized church becomes a large conglomerate of believers and unbelievers, church purity is extinguished and a cheapened Lord’s Supper loses its nature as a valuable gift. The Lord’s Supper is not only a symbol of the flesh and blood of Christ given for our eternal life; it’s also a sign to distinguish those who believe in what it represents. It’s both theological and ecclesiological. When unbelievers are baptized en masse, then the sign becomes diluted and ambiguous. And when the sign loses its meaning, so does the significance of the symbol. Over time, baptism can become a V.I.P. card to live like the world instead of a declaration that the old man has died and the new man walks in newness of life. The Lord’s Supper signifies a life sustained by the flesh and blood of Christ, and unregenerate sinners have no basis to understand such a thing. Thus pastors have an obligation to protect it for believers and unbelievers alike, keeping in mind that the individual value of the Lord’s Table is inextricable from its corporate value. For many churches today, the Lord’s Supper is a quarterly or monthly event precisely because they wish to uphold its value in the church. For others, the mandate for weekly observance is clear and Scriptural. However, whether celebrated weekly or quarterly, the Lord’s Supper is to be treasured as a gift to the church. An honor. A privilege. Not just another thing we do at church. And that begins with the way we protect it as a genuine marker for sincere believers. The saving Word that we hear proclaimed each Sunday should never be severed from the bread and juice that symbolizes that same salvation. One Gospel. One mouth. Two ways to express the same glorious hope in the heavenly banquet to come.

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 vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom. –Matthew 26:26-29

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