The Lord’s Supper and Reading the Bible

The old-school Church of Christ laid the smack down on me recently. I should have been ready for it, but I wasn’t. I should have, because I know from whence I come. I wasn’t, because much of the old school was never actually a part of my immediate experience; it was a caricature. My family comes from truly rural Churches of Christ, the kind that know the old line and hold it with ferocity. But the thinking part of my youth, the formative part, was spent among more middle-of-the-road conservatives; those more suburban in style and savor. I hesitate to characterize too much, because the generalizations break down quickly within the ambit of personal relationships. But I know from experience that there are very distinct subcultural worlds within Churches of Christ, and certain styles of reading, thinking, and arguing tend to coincide with these sociological spheres. I mention them, because I’ve been trying to understand where I’m coming from—what makes it so hard for me to fathom the approach to Scripture with which my own recently collided.

In the aftermath of conflict, there are very few good reasons to make public one’s thoughts about contested issues. There are just too many motivations that arise from the nature that Paul called “unspiritual,” the very nature that inhibits spiritual discernment (1 Cor 2:14-15). But there are good reasons. If I risk too much in the hope that mine are among them, it is not without awareness that perhaps in this my own weakness of character is on display. Yet, I have been told that I am damaging the church in Peru and teaching false doctrine. If that is true, then quiescent false piety will avail me little in any event. I am writing here about the work for which I have prepared since I was seventeen years old, which has been the focus of my life, which my family has fought to make possible, and for which many others of God’s people have sacrificed to support. More importantly, I am writing about the kingdom of God. So I will risk it, and God be merciful to us all.

My other reason for opening this discussion publicly is two-fold. We are open about what we teach and practice in Peru anyway. Anyone who would visit or simply ask can know precisely what goes on. In addition, the kind of brothers and sisters who challenged our practice of the Lord’s supper here have a long history of “writing up false teachers” in the “brotherhood periodicals,” so I’m sharing all of this preemptively. This is not the first and will hardly be the last point of contention between the established Churches of Christ and the mission churches that grow in different soils the world over. Such conversations are inevitable and necessary. For my part, I say a spirit of openness is healthiest.

The story begins a few of months ago. A couple from a traditional Church of Christ background—the kind I’m describing as “old school”—visited our church meeting. At its conclusion the couple approached me and said that they didn’t know whether we’d thought about it or what our reasons were for using leavened bread, but we really needed to consider using unleavened bread for the Lord’s supper. That would be more biblical, they said. So here’s the first problem: it didn’t appear that they were actually interested in whether we’d thought about it or what our reasons were; they just wanted it to be know that we needed to be more biblical. There was no interest in conversation or mutual understanding. The truth is a known quantum, and the only obligation for the one who would “reprove” is to make known the necessary information. Relationship, prayer, listening, and discernment have no place. I’m not proud to admit it, but my response was in kind. Since we were not going to bother with a discussion, and since it wasn’t the time or place for it anyway, I stated in the friendliest tone I could muster that, if they would study the issue more deeply, then (I felt) their understanding would change. That prompted the comical question as to whether I had been raised in “the church,” as though proper indoctrination would have put such deviance to bed. I say comical, because that is precisely the sort of traditionalism the original Stone-Campbell Movement rejected. I was raised in the Churches of Christ, I replied, but managed to study my way out of certain assumptions. We traded a few more quick thoughts on the matter, but it was going the way of proof-texting, and the conversation fizzled.

Their presumption bothered me on an emotional level, but I had too much else going on at the time to really mull it over, and it quickly became a thing of the past. Recently, though, this brother and sister bumped into me and seized the opportunity to request a conversation. I knew what was coming, but I conceded and sat down with them anyway.

They would be remiss, they explained, if they didn’t try one more time to teach me the truth. They needed to give it one more shot in order to be absolved of responsibility, you see. After this, they could wash their hands of us. It was a long shot—in the end they said that they knew it would probably be a “waste of time,” but they had to try anyway. Their argument went like this, as far as I followed it: (1) 1 Cor 5:6-8 “makes the connection” between the significance of unleavened bread and the celebration of the Lord’s supper. Unleavened bread is a vitally important symbol of the purity of the church. (2) Moreover, Jesus used unleavened bread, giving us the example we must follow.

I should have thanked them for their concern and gone on with my day. Instead, I engaged. What ensued was about an hour of sometimes heated discussion. It is beyond my skill to represent it in writing, mostly because it unfolded so non-sequentially and often irrationally. I do not say this to disparage them, but the fact is that I could not develop a logical, cohesive argument, because I could scarcely utter two sentences without being interrupted, and when I did manage to make a point, their response was unrelated or tangential or just a repetitive refrain like “What did Jesus do?” It was unproductive, to say the least.

What I want to do is try to represent the key dimensions of the discussion, though my presentation here will be far more orderly than it actually was, and my own thoughts will be more developed. What is at issue for me is not just the Lord’s supper, though I hope my understanding of it will be apparent in the end, but also the interpretive problems that plagued this representative exchange. Thus, I intend to explore the essential differences related to where we are coming from that make each unintelligible to the other.

The conversation opened with a reading of 1 Cor 5:6-8:

Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

My first question was whether they believed that Paul was here talking about the Lord’s supper. The response was that it “makes the connection.” The assumption, naturally, is that the Lord’s supper was a passover meal, instituted as a “celebration of the festival.” More importantly, the aim in turning to this passage is to establish perspicuously (read: self-evidently) the meaning of unleavened bread in connection with the “celebration” of the Passover meal, which is (presumably) an indirect reference to the supper. Thus, we must eat unleavened bread, because Paul says it has a particular meaning: the purity or righteousness of the body of Christ.

The major problem with this reading is that while Paul does appropriate symbolic meaning from the Passover, he is simply not talking about the ritual observance of the Lord’s supper. It is right that unleavened bread has symbolic meaning, and I was pleasantly surprised that my conversation partners went in so theological a direction. If there is a strong argument to be made for the use of unleavened bread, it is surely bound up with the theological significance to be derived from its symbolic OT meaning. Yet, Paul here moralizes the symbol, abstracting the conduct he advocates from the symbol itself, rather than reinstating the ritual observance of the form as normative for the church. It is the conduct he cares about, not the bread. Moreover, he does so quite apart from a discussion of the supper. The passage clearly identifies Christ as the lamb, not as the bread. If Paul were talking about the Lord’s super, he has taken a nonsensical tack. In the context of the supper, the bread is the body of Christ, not the lamb meat. It is a misapplication to make 1 Cor 5:6-8 a proof text for the form of the Lord’s supper elements.

Even so, the more important argument for the biblicist position is that of Jesus’ binding example. Jesus’ intention, so it goes, was to establish the authoritative form of observance. He used unleavened bread; so must we. I take issue with this argument in two ways.

One, the assumption about the function of Scripture is erroneous. This is the most fundamental disagreement undermining the intelligibility of our exchange. Their presupposition is that if Scripture has Jesus eating a particular kind of bread, the purpose of that information is to provide the church with a form that is acceptable and pleasing to God. The belief is that God cares about things being done just so, and Scripture exists in order to let us know what just so is. While I believe there are forms that matter, at a more fundamental level, I do not assume that Scripture functions in this legal or blueprint way. Anyone who asserts that it does must explain why; it is not self-evident, and it is not the only option. My purpose in this paragraph is not to lay out an alternative (which is what my explorations of missional hermeneutics is about) but to point out the difference—and the presumption—involved.

Two, the argument is inconsistent. If the kind of bread Jesus ate is determinative, then so should be the kind of drink: wine. Upon making this assertion, I was told that I could not know that they were drinking wine, because it only says “fruit of of the vine” (Mark 14:25; Matt 26:29; Luke 22:18). They are “just doing what it says,” not more. Of course, I might have pointed out that it also only says that Jesus “took a loaf,” not that it was unleavened. Knowing (or thinking) that it was unleavened depends on something more than “just doing what it says.” To expand this point a bit, those who have tried to be more consistent with the interpretive methodology my conversation partners employed have required only one cup, because it only says that Jesus took “a cup” and gave it to the disciples to drink from. On the inconsistent side, the unleavened crackers passed around my childhood congregations were hardly “a loaf”—and the oneness of the loaf is even something that Paul expands upon theologically in 1 Cor 10! The one-cup argument is a deeply problematic one—every bit as problematic as the unleavened-bread argument—and I’m not advocating that my conservative brothers and sisters go all the way and become completely consistent in their patternism. I’m pointing out the inconsistency in order to make the assertion that their claim to a simple “just doing what Jesus says/does” biblicism is not only wrongheaded but also false. They are already engaged in selective reading and patterning. Unleavened bread: yes. One loaf: no. Fruit of the vine: yes. Wine: no. Why not think more deeply about what is at work behind such interpretive decisions and develop a more conscious, less presumptuous approach to Scripture?

My brining up the wine at the Last Supper took us down a tangential path, but the conversation was so indicative of another problem that I have to mention it here. Their claim was that not only could I not know that the fruit of the vine at their Passover meal was wine, but that they wouldn’t have been drinking wine anyway, because “they” (presumably, Jews) only drank grape juice, and if it fermented it was on accident because they didn’t have refrigeration. Well, that blew my mind. In the first place, the claim that first-century Jews didn’t make wine is just spurious. In the second place, Jesus himself made wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2). In the third place, we know what the drink was at the Passover. Any Bible study resource on the historical background of the Passover meal will make it quite clear that “the cup” was wine. Everett Ferguson is a perfect example, being both an eminent NT backgrounds scholar and a conservative CofCer. In his Backgrounds of Early Christianity he explains plainly: “Four cups of wine mixed with water were passed around during the meal” (3rd ed., 558). This is a matter of historical fact: we know exactly what kind of fruit of the vine Jesus was drinking, just as much as we know what kind of loaf he took and broke. My appeals to historical-contextual study, however, were rejected as “listening to men rather than the Bible.” There is my problem, they said. I have listened to men instead of just doing what the Bible says.

Likewise, my appeal to John 2 was met with obstinate rejection of sound exegetical principles. I was flabbergasted to learn that the “good wine” that Jesus made was “good” because it wasn’t actually wine. I’ve since learned that this has been taught in certain Churches of Christ, though I somehow missed it in my youth. Upon my offer to retrieve a Greek lexicon in order to determine whether Jesus make wine (on this point I was, ironically, keenly interested in “what it says”), I was told that I could get ten lexicons and it wouldn’t matter, because they knew what it says. The point of this little rabbit trail is to highlight another insuperable disconnect: their rejection of exegesis and my requirement of it. I don’t know how we are supposed to read the Bible while ignoring the historical and linguistic evidence that makes sense of it. They, on the other hand, accused me of having an arrogant attitude because of my appeals to scholarship. Those who know me know that I do sometimes have an arrogant attitude, and I’m not unaware of the sin, but at that moment I was not committing it. I was only appealing to easily accessible data that we could all agree upon, not to the superiority of those who make that data available. I actually feel that it is far more arrogant to reject the help of scholars. Listening to those who know what we do not and depending on those who know what we cannot is an act of humility. And it’s something we practice involuntarily every time we pick up a translation of the biblical text in order to “just read what it says.” Ignorance is not the key to faithful biblical study.

I return now to consider another aspect of the inconsistency of patternism as I have known it in the Churches of Christ. To reiterate, there are forms that I believe to be important. The problem with typical biblicism is its inability to discern theologically which are important and which are not. Often, the more important forms are disregarded while those of little relevance persist. In regard to the Lord’s supper, for example, I believe the sharing of a meal is one of those forms in Scripture that functions. The table fellowship involved is an efficacious form, one that reifies the ritual of remembrance as a social expression of solidarity and unity. My question for the typical pinch-and-sip practice of the Lord’s supper is: Why reduce the supper to the elements of bread and wine in abstraction from the shared meal? Not only is that a major theological move (to the surprise of many, no doubt), it is also the loss of a deeply significant NT form. It is, in fact, the only Lord’s supper form that Paul wrote about keeping properly: 1 Cor 11:17-34. To this assertion my conversation partners responded that Paul says in 1 Cor 11:20 that they are expressly not eating the Lord’s supper—they were eating a meal instead of doing the supper. This is, however, a compete misreading of Paul’s logic in the passage. He argues that their mistreatment of one another makes the meal not the Lord’s supper, but if they would treat everyone rightly (“discern the body”), then their meal would be a proper Lord’s supper. The meal is the social expression of “communion” that makes or breaks the ritual; it is the table fellowship, the togetherness of the meal, that constitutes the most important form.

To take this further, the meaning of the supper—particularly the manifestation of unity—matters far more than the kind of bread or drink. The meaning revolves unanimously (according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul) around remembering (cf. the point of the Passover) the significance of Jesus. Moreover, Paul is emphatic that unity (1 Cor 10 and 11) expressed in the meal (and the loaf!) is essential. The Lord’s supper actually has layers of meaning, and I might say much more, but these two principle ideas are the sort of thing that actually matters. My point, therefore, is that discerning the “weightier matters” must inform our use of NT forms. Patternism is inevitably inconsistent, because it purports to imitate all NT forms, no more and no less, but it actually engages in unintentional selective patterning. In so doing, it also fails to realize that some forms are more important than others and may even overlook important forms, not to mention essential meaning. The wiser interpretive course is to self-consciously and critically engage in theological discernment of more important matters and then to be intentional about the imitation of biblical forms that seem to function. Having adopted this approach, I believe that we practice the Lord’s supper according to its meaning—remembrance and unity—when we practice it with whatever bread is part of our shared meal (usually leavened).

A few other points specifically in reference to leaven bear mentioning. Acts 2:41-47 succinctly describes the life of the first Christian congregations. Verse 42 in particular lists four activities, in almost ritualized language, that made up their spiritual life together: “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (NRSV). These are clearly the “religious” activities they engaged in, and we correctly understand “the breaking of bread” (tē klasei tou artou) as a reference to the supper, echoing the language of the Last Supper story when Jesus broke (eklasen) the bread. Verse 46 then says: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (NRSV). Some would argue that “they broke bread” (klōntes arton) here refers to eating a meal and not to the Lord’s supper, but that strikes me as special pleading. The language in this context is fairly loaded. In v. 46, it is associated with the “religious” activity of worship. Both v. 42 and v. 46 employ the word proskarterountes, translated “they devoted themselves” and “they spent much time,” suggesting that both passages are describing the practices of the Christians in very similar terms. Verse 42 mentions “fellowship” (koinōnia), and v. 46 mentions “togetherness” (homothumadon), which inhere in the meaning of the supper mentioned above. The case is strong. Luke certainly could have meant two different things by this word choice, but it is not probable.

If it is true, then, that the earliest church was participating in the Lord’s supper every day as they ate together, we may make an deductive inference: they were not making unleavened bread for every meal. They could have, most likely, but there is no reason (outside the supposition that they were patternists) to think that they would have begun eating Passover bread with every meal. They seem to have understood “this” in “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24) in a broad sense. Rather than understanding the antecedent of “this” to be the eating of specifically Passover bread, which would have limited the remembrance to once a year, they seem to have generalized “this” to be “breaking of bread.” There was, no doubt for good reasons, a change some time later to meeting weekly rather than daily, but in Acts 2 they broke bread and remembered Jesus literally “as often as” they met together—every day. This is natural enough given the number of initiates coming in every day coupled with the need to share food with out-of-towners, not to mention the likely impossibility for the Apostles of eating a meal without remembering that fateful last supper together. How could they break bread or drink wine and not remember Jesus? The kind of bread would be inconsequential in this context.

Moreover, assuming that the Last Supper was in fact a Passover meal, it did not involve merely unleavened bread. It was bread made in a house (Exod 12:54) and in a region (Exod 22) in which there was no leaven at all. It was not just a symbolic tip of the hat made by not putting leaven in a loaf. For the bread to be really “unleavened,” the whole country had to get rid of its yeast. This strengthens the inference that the Acts 2 church was not eating Passover bread with every meal—it wasn’t actually possible outside of an immediate abstraction of the superficial symbol of unleavened bread from its OT law context. But it also problematizes the symbolic meaning of unleavened bread (which was, according to Deut 16:3, affliction and haste) for Gentile Christians. The festival—which Paul would have been rather strongly against perpetuating among Gentile converts—and its accompanying symbolism would have been lost on Gentiles. Not to say they wouldn’t have been taught the Exodus story and the law. Yet, it does create a difficult transfer of significance.

One final, well-known difficulty presents itself for those who want to be very adamant about the form of the bread. The synoptics, though not totally unambiguous about the matter, intend to leave the reader with the impression that the Last Supper was a Passover meal. John, however, has Jesus crucified during the slaughter of the Passover lambs—clearly before they are eaten. From this I believe it is fair to draw the conclusion that at least one inspired apostolic author (a) really didn’t care about the kinds of minutia my whole confrontation revolved around and (b) in particular, didn’t give a rip about preserving the particular Passover character, including the unleavened bread, of the Last Supper. There were, to risk redundancy, more important theological concerns.

Which presents a segue to another side conversation. When I made the claim that there are far more important matters that Jesus actually teaches but we don’t do, they asked for an example. So, I responded with “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” They were very adamant that that command only applied to the rich ruler, a particular case. I tried to clarify that I wasn’t talking about that story but rather Jesus’ teaching in Luke 12. They continued to assert that it was only taught in the one story of the rich ruler and applied only to him. Once I realized that we weren’t going to make any progress until I made it clear that I wasn’t talking about the rich ruler, I opened up a Bible and read Luke 12:33: “Sell your possessions, and give alms.” Well, they said, that is just a principle that means we should love our neighbors. That’s right: Jesus said it, but we don’t have to do it. Here we have a direct command—not even an example from which to infer a command but a straightforward imperative from Christ himself—and we’re not going to “just do what he said.” The rest of the conversation was infuriatingly illogical, but the details aren’t of great import. The point here is to marvel at the fact that there is principlizing happening, despite the claim of reading and obeying. They are doing theology—albeit badly in my opinion—and I just wish we could all get honest about that fact and proceed to do it better.

Finally, I have to say something about the terrible overall effect of failing to discern between more important and less important matters. The basic idea underlying their confronting me was that this issue matters so much that to be wrong about it is tantamount to teaching false doctrine and damaging the church. They asserted that if I really believed what I was saying, then I was implicitly condemning all the Christians who think and practice differently and should be traveling around the country correcting them. The conclusion was natural for them, because they were actually condemning me, so the inverse must be the case if I were right. And that is the real difference between our positions on this issue. It’s not that leavened bread is “right” for me and “wrong” for them; it’s that I think it’s a matter of very little import and therefore let other factors determine practice. They said that I would cause divisions by teaching this false doctrine. The fact is, they will split the church (more) by declaring this a divisive issue in the first place. And that is the point that, in the course of the conversation, I felt responsible to make to them. Making everything a matter of truth or damnation is what causes unnecessary division. Focusing on Jesus and core issues is what really matters. Their reply—and I cringe to repeat it—was, “That’s what the denominations say.” I pointed out that our sectarianism has caused far more harm than many of the “denominations” ever did. And they asked, in genuine distress, “Are you saying the denominations are right?!” And that question about sums it up. If I have to side with “the denominations” to say that Jesus and his kingdom are what really matters, then sign me up. For my traditionalist brother and sister, it is far more important not to be in agreement with those outside our little group than to place Jesus above all else and have unity with others who do the same. That disposition is the most deadly threat to the church, the ultimate negation of the Restoration Movement, and the greatest barrier to a productive conversation.

So this is my plea: let us place Jesus, rather than ecclesial and liturgical forms, first. Let us read the Bible with humility, ever striving against our assumptions and prejudices and ever seeking a more faithful manner of reading. Let us put aside the presumption of the patternist “just what it says” claim and begin to listen to those God has gifted and raised up as teachers of the church—who have the gift of knowledge that not every reader of the Bible possesses. Let us deepen our practice of the Lord’s supper by obedience to its true meaning. And let us stop bickering over minor concerns and start advocating for the kingdom, which is not a matter of what we eat or drink but of justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Holy God, may you be honored in our struggle to discern your will. If we must be freed from our assumptions, then you must be our Liberator. Fill your people with your Spirit, and do what we cannot, for only your Spirit knows your mind. Salt us with grace and truth, and do not let us lose that flavor; do not let our presence in your world be made worthless because of our failure to seek first your kingdom and justice. Forgive us and transform us, that we might faithfully proclaim Christ until he comes.

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