The Lord’s Table: Is a Christian Allowed to Avoid Wine?

(Given the discussion that’s occurred here over the last week, I feel a need to preface this post. The posts categorized “Preaching” are excerpted from my weekly Sunday sermons, generally a light edit of the charge at the close of the sermon.  I appreciate my brother Bobby and his online contributions, and I hope to continue discussion as we have opportunity to engage the deeper hermeneutical issues that underlie our disagreement.  Nothing here should be interpreted as a slam at Bobby; some of my thought has been shaped by interacting with him over the past week, but I’m not going after him here.  I am, however, expressing my convictions, with which he disagrees.)

The Scriptures are quite clear that the wine served at the Lord’s Table is wine—alcoholic, possible-to-get-drunk-on, wine. The Scriptures are equally clear that Jesus instructed us to eat and drink at His Table. It is highly inappropriate for us as Christians to start messing with the menu. I mean, imagine the scene: we come to church and hear the call to worship. The ceiling opens, the walls grow thin, and we are carried into the Holy of Holies in the heavenly tabernacle to worship our God as priests of the New Covenant. We offer our praises; we hear a word from God, and then Jesus, the priest after the order of Melchizedek, invites us, children of Abraham by faith, to come eat bread and wine at His Table. Can you imagine, in that setting, quibbling with the Lord about what He serves, and trying to make a substitution on Jesus’ menu?

Yet this is exactly what we do when we insist on something other than bread and wine. The proper course of action here is obvious: submit to Christ and eat and drink what He serves.   Simple.

Unfortunately, we come from a culture where there are long-standing bad connotations attached to alcohol—so much so that drinking grape juice is assumed to be the default position. There couldn’t be anything wrong with that, people think, and anyone who wants to see wine in a communion cup has a long, hard uphill battle to justify their position—as biblical as it plainly is. However cloaked in explanations, it is idolatry to elevate our tradition above what God actually says in His Word. The only thing we can offer in defense of our well-meaning brethren is that most of them have never given it a second thought, and those that have are often mired in a few centuries’ worth of very bright folks muddying the waters–which is to say that the idolatry is rooted very deeply in American church culture.  We won’t get free of it overnight.

That said, there is always a tension between where we ought to be—perfect holiness—and where we actually are, and we have certainly not attained perfection either. As Christians, we are called to love one another and stir one another up to love and good deeds. As we seek to grow the Church to maturity, we must do it without losing anyone, and without provoking them to rebel against the truth. So we change incrementally. The fruit of the Spirit is patience.

In practice, this means that if insisting on wine in the communion cup will have the practical effect of dividing the Body, then we can’t do it. The Table both celebrates and sustains our unity; to divide the Body over the way we observe the Table is to partake in an unworthy manner — and this we must not do. If necessary, we will serve Welch’s with joy and thanksgiving, rightly discerning the corporate Body of Christ that eats and drinks at the table. We will look at the grape juice in our cup and pray, “Lord, this is wrong. It’s wicked. Please bless it; the alternatives are far worse. Please hasten the day when we can stop committing this sin without doing something worse in the process.” And confident in God’s mercy, we will eat our bread and drink our ersatz wine with gladness and simplicity of heart.

Of course, the brother whose convictions run toward Welch’s ought to be as willing to drink wine for our sake as we are to drink Welch’s for his; no one should be willing to breach the unity of the Table over what’s in the communion cup.  In our case, we will seek to serve both wine and Welch’s at communion, so that each person can choose as he will, and no one’s conscience need be troubled by what he drinks.  This is not a perfect solution, by anybody’s lights.  But perfection is reserved for glory, and in the meantime we trust in God’s mercy.

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4 Responses to The Lord’s Table: Is a Christian Allowed to Avoid Wine?

  1. Josiah says:

    C’mon. You have to mention that Jesus didn’t serve wine in a thimble either. Imagine the implications of that!

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    You ex-Independent Baptist rebel libertines and your concern for the facts…

    Actually, it seems to have been a common cup. Divided out amongst all present and assuming an ordinary drinking cup, couldn’t have been all that much wine per man.

    On a related note, the tray this morning had grape juice in the center and wine on the perimeter. No one appears to have been scandalized.

  3. Jay says:

    Given this logic, we should only use the unleaven bread (matzah) that Jesus ate on Passover. As a jewish believer it has always bothered me that most churches do not use the same bread that Jesus did.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Jay,

    My church uses matzoh for communion bread when we can get it. Sometimes there are supply problems way out here in the desert, and we fall back on other forms of breakable, unleavened bread.

    Of course I’d use a baguette in a pinch, lacking anything else, just like I’ll drink Welch’s at the Table if that’s all that’s available. (Or baptize someone by pouring water on them, if there’s not enough to dip ’em in.) Better to come to the Table than to refuse to celebrate it at all because the ingredients aren’t up to scratch.

    Edit: I should add that as I’ve looked into the bread, I’ve found some reason to doubt that unleavened bread is a necessity, both on biblical and historical grounds (scholarly doubt as to whether Jesus and the disciples were eating the Passover that night, lack of any clear reference to unleavened bread in (biblical) early church practice, historical usage of common bread, etc.). But some have strong convictions on the matter, and in any case unleavened bread is certainly permissible — so why not use it?

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