the weblog of Alan Knox

Why just the bread and the cup?

Posted by on Oct 18, 2007 in church history, ordinances/sacraments | 36 comments

I’ve suggested previously that the New Testament always describes the “Lord’s Supper” as taking place as part of a meal (for example, see “The Lord’s Supper as a Meal?“). Even when the elements (bread and cup) are mentioned, they are mentioned in the context of a whole meal.

One of the questions that I’ve struggled with, and had been unable to answer, is this: When and why did the meal turn into the elements only? Remember that even during the Reformation, the major argument concerning the Lord’s Supper revolved around the meaning of the elements not the meal, i.e. not the “Supper”.

Well, I may have an answer. In his book Making a Meal of It, Ben Witherington mentioned two councils that dealt with the Lord’s Supper and the meal associated with it: the Council of Laodicea (363-364 AD) and the Council of Trullian (692 AD).

Apparently, during these councils, the bishops attempted to deal with some improprieties (i.e., drunkenness) that were happening during the meal. These improprieties were being reported by people outside the church. This seems to be similar to what Paul was facing when he wrote 1 Corinthians 11. Paul decided to reign in the revelry and wantonness, but not the meal itself. However, in order to maintain appearances to those outside the church, the bishops decided to stop the meal altogether.

Here is a quote from the Council of Trullian (Canon 74):

It is not permitted to hold what are called Agape, that is love-feasts, in the Lord’s houses or churches, nor to eat within the house, nor to spread couches. If any dare to do so let him cease therefrom or be cut off.

I’m still looking for information from the Council of Laodicea. But, this begins to answer the question of when and why the Lord’s Supper changed from a meal (probably in homes) to a ritual of bread and cup in church buildings.


36 Comments

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  1. 10-18-2007

    How sad. Just think of all the spiritual life that has been lost over the ages because the clergy didn’t trust the laity. Or put another way, because the clergy was afraid of the laity.

  2. 10-18-2007

    So, wow. All these 1400 odd years and we haven’t been doing it right. God must’ve left awhile ago already.

  3. 10-18-2007

    David, I have to confess that sometimes I can’t figure out the tone of the comments you make. Is that a sarcastic way of saying 1400 odd years of tradition can’t be wrong?

    (I’m being sincere, by the way, in asking this question. I’m trying to figure out these little one-liners that you like to toss into the conversation.)

  4. 10-18-2007

    My sarcasm level goes up and down. It was up on that one.

    Well, yes, 1400 years of tradition can be wrong. But when we’re talking about communion, if you want to get really scriptural about it, we should be doing a passover supper. Because that’s what Jesus was doing when He initiated it.

    The remembrance is with the cup and the bread, as best I can tell (I’m not a scholar), because that’s what Jesus connected His body and blood with.

    I deal with a pretty good number of Christians who spend a lot of time getting the externals right. I understand that Alan’s post is not about that. But as I’ve said before, it almost always turns into that by the second generation of a reform movement.

    In other words, the spiritual children will start saying, “If we didn’t have the supper, we didn’t have the Presence.” The fourth generation will have forgotten all about the Presence and focus just on the Potluck.

    That’s my real issue with this issue. I’m part of a brotherhood that has divided over the practice of the Lord’s Supper more times than I can count. I think that it’s wonderful when we can celebrate it in the midst of a meal. But I think that’s a far cry from saying that we’re doing it wrong.

    If my sarcasm causes you to stumble, please let me know.

  5. 10-18-2007

    Brent,

    Trust is very important. We should trust one another, but we should also trust God. And, like you mentioned, I think a lack of trust often reveals itself through fear.

    Steve,

    Thanks for asking the question that I was thinking when I first read David’s comment.

    David,

    I like the new profile picture! I think you are right that we should not focus on the externals. Dividing over the supper is the opposite of what I think the purpose of the supper is. So, I’m not suggesting that anyone should seperate from other brothers and sisters in Christ because they do not take the Lord’s Supper as a meal.

    That being said – that it is important to say that – I also think that we miss something when we do not take the Lord’s Supper in the context of a meal. For one thing, it becomes much more individualistic, while it appears to have been celebrated in community. I am not one to separate the vertical dimension of our relationship with God from the horizontal dimension of our relationship with others. I think we have created this distinction when we choose to take the break and cup only apart from a meal with others.

    By the way, I do think the Last Supper was given in the context of the Passover meal. I’m not sure that it was continued in that same context. It seems that Jesus instituted a new meal instead of changing Passover. However, this is really a very unimportant issue.

    Have we be doing it wrong for 1400 years? Maybe. The good thing is that our relationship with God is not dependent upon our “doing it right”. God is faithful even when we are not.

    -Alan

  6. 10-18-2007

    Alan,

    I know this is a little off topic, but I always wanted to ask it and I trust you will have a good biblically based answer.

    Why don’t we do footwashings?

  7. 10-18-2007

    David,

    In no way does it cause me to stumble. It mostly just makes me feel sad.

    There seems to be a strong pessimism that says, “Why bother trying? Just keep doing it the way we’ve always done it because even if you’re onto something good, your kids and grandkids will just mess it up and ruin all your good efforts.”

    I find it hard to defend that kind of “pragmatism” from a biblical or a Spirit perspective, and I just don’t understand why it colors so many comments.

    If we have been “doing it wrong” for 1400 years, wouldn’t you want to discover what was truly meant to be? I sure do! Not for the sake of saying, “I’m better than 1400 years of tradition” — it’s nothing about that. But because I desire to see the greatest possible expression of what Jesus prayed for and modeled for us.

    I can’t take “church as usual” any more. I spent 35 years of my life doing that, and it accomplished a lot of the opposite of what I see in scripture as fruit of the Spirit.

  8. 10-18-2007

    Anonymous,

    That’s a great question! I think there are two reasons that most believers do not practice foot washing (some do, by the way):

    1) When Jesus explains why he washed the apostles’ feet in John 13:12-17, Jesus seems to equate his washing of their feet with their serving one another. So, in this sense, when we serve one another, we are practicing “foot washing”.

    2) We do not have a record in the NT of the church practicing “foot washing”. We have records of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in comparison.

    This is a very good question. Perhaps I should put a little more study into this and write post about it.

    Steve,

    I appreciate your response to David very much. I think you’ve said some things that we all need to hear and think about. If I ever suggest that something has been done wrong with the attitude that seems to say, “I’m better than them”, then please rebuke me.

    -Alan

  9. 10-19-2007

    I think that there were a couple other reasons that it was stopped.

    Bring the food in became a “show”. Individuals wh were well off brought in more food and thus a classification was occuring. They were trying to make it being about “one”.

    Also, along with the drukedness; it was about gluttony and taking the focus of of the bread/wine.

    Personally, I wish we had the full meal and there are a few churches that do that and would love to have that experience.

  10. 10-19-2007

    Jeff,

    That may have been part of the problem in the 7th century when the council decide to forbid meals. It does seem to be the problem in Corinth which Paul wrote against. I think it is interesting that the council decided to forbid the meal, while Paul did not.

    -Alan

  11. 10-19-2007

    Gentlemen: You may be pleased to know that Grace Brethren churches still do, or at least did recently, meals and foot washing in conjunction with communion. My wife and I started going to Bible churches several years ago, but prior to that we attended GB churches all around the US. Just as communion built remembrance, meals built community, and foot washing built real humility. It took some humility to wash a brother’s feet (we did segregate by gender), and it took a lot of humility to have your feet washed by another. This more robust Lord’s supper is something I truly miss. Eventually I hope to get a small group to do this.

  12. 10-19-2007

    Great post. I am one of those who argue for the Lord´s supper as a full meal (not “a part of a meal”). I recommend reading the article on The Lords Supper in “Dictionary of the Later New Testament” (Inter Varsity Press 1997), where the author explains how this might have happened. I agree roughly. The Lord´s supper seems to be a full meal in Didache and Ignatius (and of course in the NT) and in Plinius letter. In Tertullianus there has been a split into eucharist and agape (both still in effect, though). The division should have happened in the time between 120-180, probably because of persecution. As I see it, this was one of the major steps away from NT-christianity into christendom. I have written about this, but unfortunately in swedish, which I assume you don´t read?

    In church history, there might have been groups returning to this praxis. The waldensians probably did, and definitely some of the anabaptists.
    /Jonas Lundström
    http://blog.bahnhof.se/wb938188

  13. 10-19-2007

    Sad indeed- what we celebrate then becomes a shadow of what was… thank you for posting this!

  14. 10-19-2007

    George in AZ,

    Yes, there are many Christians who take the Lord’s Supper as a meal. We do also. I don’t know as many who practice foot washing regularly. Thanks for the comment!

    Jonas,

    I’m very interested in your article. While I’ve studied the Lord’s Supper, I’m still struggling with the distinction between the elements and the meal itself. So, I would love to hear more about the distinction between the Lord’s Supper “as a meal” and the Lord’s Supper “as part of a meal”.

    Sally,

    The Lord’s Supper has become a symbol of a symbol?

    -Alan

  15. 10-19-2007

    This may be a little off the subject, but I have been wondering if there would be anything wrong (unbiblical) about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in the context of a meal you have in your home with a few believing friends? Not as part of the regular congregation gathered, but just some brothers and sisters gathered for good fellowship around the Lord.

    I would appreciate anyone’s comments.

    Jon

  16. 10-19-2007

    This still doesn’t answer the question of where the chalk comes from…or, as I like to call it, the “bones of Jesus.”

  17. 10-19-2007

    John:

    I do not see a problem with it. Some churches / denominations would because they believe that you must be ordained to “bless” the elements.

  18. 10-19-2007

    Steve and Alan,

    Please understand that I am not nor ever will be arguing for a status quo of deadness. And once again, I am all for incorporating the Lord’s Supper into a meal. I do it at home with my family. I have done it with others. I am all for doing it as a celebration at church. God’s going to judge deadness a lot harder than making a mistake borne out of intended faithfulness to scripture.

    However! Some of the comments (for instance the first one) suggest a judgment over what previous generations of Christians, guided by the Holy Spirit, have decided to do in wisdom. I’m still trying to figure out where clergy were afraid of laity. They were concerned about drunkenness during the Lord’s supper and the spiritual health of the congregation, from what I read of it. My initial sarcasm was probably ignited by the spark of Brent’s comment, rather than from Alan’s post.

    I’ve started to see a lot of armchair quarterbacks in the blogosphere, who are willing to criticize Christ’s church, gather like minds about themselves, and then separate from their churches. That’s where my concern kicks in.

  19. 10-19-2007

    Alan Knox. This is some of my (preliminary, of course) views on this:
    -To “break bread” and give thanx to God seems to have been the normal jewish way of introducing a common meal. It also has a practical dimension, of course, you break/share the bread among the participants.
    -“Bread” in the story of the Bible is not something you eat alongside a full meal. It is a part of the main dishes (unfortunately, I can´t find the word in english I am looking for) in this culture, it is like our pasta or potatoes or rice. Jesus is “the bread of life” (John) and we pray God for our daily bread. So when the texts mention “bread” or “bread and wine”, this does not mean that this was the only or the important elements of the meal. They are just the main thing of what you eat and drink, so together they sum up the meal. But it is interesting to notice that fish is often mentioned in christological contexts in the gospel, and as far as I have been informed, also on paintings in catacombs. (See Vernard Eller on this.)
    -The wine maybe indicate that the meal was a little more of a party than ordinary meals. I am not sure they always drank wine.
    -The big issue, of course, is how to understand the words of Jesus. I hesitate on this one, but I would tend to agree with the Italian anabaptist Camillo Renato (see George Williams/The Radical Reformation) who thought that the words “This is my body”, did not refer to the bread, but to the body of Jesus. In Matthew 26, for example, there is a lot of focus on the body of Jesus who will soon be broken, and people are relating different to his body (compare 6-13 with 14-16). Jesus is admonishing his disciples to take his body seriously. When we do this, “the body” is the gathered church, not the bread. But this explanation might not be the best one. There are some alternative explanations.

    -When we do this in our small church, we do it in our homes as a full meal. Someone hands out the main elements of the meal (like soup or pasta and sauce) in the beginning of the meal. Later one of us (we take turns) share something that reminds us of Jesus, and after this we hold hands a say a short prayer of thanksgiving. Once a month we collect money to poor fellow believers in Niger. Kids are included. We take turns making the meal, doing the dishes, taking care of the children (this is our “foot-washing”). We also have an open door for unbelievers. And, by the way, not all of us thinks of this as a proper Lord´s supper. We have studied the subject together but have not reached consensus.
    /Jonas Lundström

    See also: http://anabaptist.lifewithchrist.org/permalink/35208.html

  20. 10-19-2007

    Jon,

    As others have mentioned, I do not see any restrictions against celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home. We have not done this, because we know that there are brothers and sisters who would be offended by this. We’re trying to honoring them and teach at the same time.

    David,

    I think there was an issue of fear and trust in choosing to do away with meals. But, that is beside the point. Your point is well-stated and needed. As I said before, I do not think it is wise nor scriptural to separate over differences about the Lord’s Supper.

    Jonas,

    Thanks for the translation, or at least the explanation. I need to read through it again, but I think I agree with you. I’m still trying to reconcile the meal with the fact that the gospel writers and Paul singled our the bread and cup for some reason. Like I said, I’m still studying this issue. I appreciate your help!

    -Alan

  21. 10-21-2007

    Just as a postlude, I want to apologize for my sarcasm. The Lord exposed to me a root of bitterness in my life totally unrelated to this post. But the evidence of it popped out here. He is dealing with me on that.

    The tongue is a fire.

  22. 10-21-2007

    David,

    I appreciate your “postlude”. I sincerely hope I didn’t hurt you in asking about the sarcasm. You’re my brother, and I want to be an encouragement to you.

  23. 10-21-2007

    David,

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Your honesty has helped me today. I pray that God will continue to bring both of us, and others reading this, toward maturity in Christ.

    -Alan

  24. 10-21-2007

    Jon-
    Regarding your question about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home with friends…
    In my exuberance and ignorance 36 years ago, I decided to celebrate my first year as a believer by inviting some people from my church who had been instrumental in my coming to Christ. My “birthday party” included celebrating the Lord’s supper together. The group included our pastor, SS teacher, Bible study leader, friends, etc. Nobody made any objection as my husband and I served them and as we gave testimony of God’s saving grace, but… the next morning I got an irate phone call from a lady who wasn’t even a member of my church. She criticised us for using Kool-aid (we didn’t) and for over-stepping our authority to do something only the pastor and elders were allowed to do!
    Ignorance often rocks boats. Sometimes it even sinks ships. In our small town, that was something that has always set us apart as “troublemakers”, I think. But then, Jesus was a troublemaker, too. What is the cost of comfort, and when do we step out of the boat?
    Kat

  25. 10-21-2007

    Jon-
    Regarding your question about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home with friends…
    In my exuberance and ignorance 36 years ago, I decided to celebrate my first year as a believer by inviting some people from my church who had been instrumental in my coming to Christ. My “birthday party” included celebrating the Lord’s supper together. The group included our pastor, SS teacher, Bible study leader, friends, etc. Nobody made any objection as my husband and I served them and as we gave testimony of God’s saving grace, but… the next morning I got an irate phone call from a lady who wasn’t even a member of my church. She criticised us for using Kool-aid (we didn’t) and for over-stepping our authority to do something only the pastor and elders were allowed to do!
    Ignorance often rocks boats. Sometimes it even sinks ships. In our small town, that was something that has always set us apart as “troublemakers”, I think. But then, Jesus was a troublemaker, too. What is the cost of comfort, and when do we step out of the boat?
    Kat

  26. 10-21-2007

    Jon-
    Regarding your question about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home with friends…
    In my exuberance and ignorance 36 years ago, I decided to celebrate my first year as a believer by inviting some people from my church who had been instrumental in my coming to Christ. My “birthday party” included celebrating the Lord’s supper together. The group included our pastor, SS teacher, Bible study leader, friends, etc. Nobody made any objection as my husband and I served them and as we gave testimony of God’s saving grace, but… the next morning I got an irate phone call from a lady who wasn’t even a member of my church. She criticised us for using Kool-aid (we didn’t) and for over-stepping our authority to do something only the pastor and elders were allowed to do!
    Ignorance often rocks boats. Sometimes it even sinks ships. In our small town, that was something that has always set us apart as “troublemakers”, I think. But then, Jesus was a troublemaker, too. What is the cost of comfort, and when do we step out of the boat?
    Kat

  27. 10-21-2007

    Jon-
    Regarding your question about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home with friends…
    In my exuberance and ignorance 36 years ago, I decided to celebrate my first year as a believer by inviting some people from my church who had been instrumental in my coming to Christ. My “birthday party” included celebrating the Lord’s supper together. The group included our pastor, SS teacher, Bible study leader, friends, etc. Nobody made any objection as my husband and I served them and as we gave testimony of God’s saving grace, but… the next morning I got an irate phone call from a lady who wasn’t even a member of my church. She criticised us for using Kool-aid (we didn’t) and for over-stepping our authority to do something only the pastor and elders were allowed to do!
    Ignorance often rocks boats. Sometimes it even sinks ships. In our small town, that was something that has always set us apart as “troublemakers”, I think. But then, Jesus was a troublemaker, too. What is the cost of comfort, and when do we step out of the boat?
    Kat

  28. 10-21-2007

    Jon-
    Regarding your question about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home with friends…
    In my exuberance and ignorance 36 years ago, I decided to celebrate my first year as a believer by inviting some people from my church who had been instrumental in my coming to Christ. My “birthday party” included celebrating the Lord’s supper together. The group included our pastor, SS teacher, Bible study leader, friends, etc. Nobody made any objection as my husband and I served them and as we gave testimony of God’s saving grace, but… the next morning I got an irate phone call from a lady who wasn’t even a member of my church. She criticised us for using Kool-aid (we didn’t) and for over-stepping our authority to do something only the pastor and elders were allowed to do!
    Ignorance often rocks boats. Sometimes it even sinks ships. In our small town, that was something that has always set us apart as “troublemakers”, I think. But then, Jesus was a troublemaker, too. What is the cost of comfort, and when do we step out of the boat?
    Kat

  29. 10-21-2007

    Jon-
    Regarding your question about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home with friends…
    In my exuberance and ignorance 36 years ago, I decided to celebrate my first year as a believer by inviting some people from my church who had been instrumental in my coming to Christ. My “birthday party” included celebrating the Lord’s supper together. The group included our pastor, SS teacher, Bible study leader, friends, etc. Nobody made any objection as my husband and I served them and as we gave testimony of God’s saving grace, but… the next morning I got an irate phone call from a lady who wasn’t even a member of my church. She criticised us for using Kool-aid (we didn’t) and for over-stepping our authority to do something only the pastor and elders were allowed to do!
    Ignorance often rocks boats. Sometimes it even sinks ships. In our small town, that was something that has always set us apart as “troublemakers”, I think. But then, Jesus was a troublemaker, too. What is the cost of comfort, and when do we step out of the boat?
    Kat

  30. 10-21-2007

    Jon-
    Regarding your question about celebrating the Lord’s Supper in your home with friends…
    In my exuberance and ignorance 36 years ago, I decided to celebrate my first year as a believer by inviting some people from my church who had been instrumental in my coming to Christ. My “birthday party” included celebrating the Lord’s supper together. The group included our pastor, SS teacher, Bible study leader, friends, etc. Nobody made any objection as my husband and I served them and as we gave testimony of God’s saving grace, but… the next morning I got an irate phone call from a lady who wasn’t even a member of my church. She criticised us for using Kool-aid (we didn’t) and for over-stepping our authority to do something only the pastor and elders were allowed to do!
    Ignorance often rocks boats. Sometimes it even sinks ships. In our small town, that was something that has always set us apart as “troublemakers”, I think. But then, Jesus was a troublemaker, too. What is the cost of comfort, and when do we step out of the boat?
    Kat

  31. 8-8-2012

    David:

    You’re right in your thinking. Many in this tradition will do exactly what you fear: say that all Christians until X date were just plain wrong and thank God X prophet/reformer/whomever came along and saved us all.

    I’m glad that you can see that Christ did not leave His Church abandoned and without the Spirit in her decisions.

  32. 8-8-2012

    Josh,

    And the Spirit of God does not leave his children even when they make wrong decisions.

    -Alan

  33. 8-8-2012

    Sure, but I’m saying that the Spirit has guided the Church as Christ promised. The Spirit didn’t abandon the Church until you or Martin Luther or whoever else came along. David’s right in picking up this tone in your posts and the comments of those who frequently read your blog. It’s a good reminder for you and others like you that the Church has been making right and good decisions long before any hint of your system came along.

  34. 8-8-2012

    Josh,

    I agree that God certainly doesn’t need me to guide his church. Even when we stray he brings us back to him and his plan. The funny thing is, I agree that the church has made some good decisions. Do you agree that the church has also made some wrong decisions? That’s where we’ll end up disagreeing.

    -Alan

  35. 8-8-2012

    You think people in the Church have never made poor decisions? If so, then yes, we will disagree. Or you could stop playing psychic and misrepresenting what I believe. Give it a try.

  36. 8-8-2012

    Josh,

    Since we both agree that the church has made good decisions and bad decisions, we’ll simply disagree on which decisions were good and which were bad. For example, I think the decision to limit the Lord’s Supper to only the bread and the cup was a bad decision.

    -Alan

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