The purpose of this study is to motivate the serious student of Scripture to " Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15) The practice of what is commonly called, “communion" or in some cases, "sacrament," has been a part of the Christian community for almost 2000 years. This practice is purportedly based on the words of Jesus, and of those written by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, "This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me." 25 In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes. NAS
Christians have attempted to obey the command by the Lord, "This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me,” by drinking little plastic cups filled with grape juice, and eating tiny broken pieces of unsalted Wheat Thin crackers in an attempt to ritualize the words of Jesus. Today, however, both the ritual of communion and it's Scripturally intended meaning have been distorted by centuries of man-made traditions of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and church denominations which sprang forth from the Great Reformation.
Well meaning, good intentioned born-again Christians have unwittingly incorporated a substitute ceremony of sharing grape juice in tiny plastic cups with an accompanying piece of unleavened cracker into their gatherings, rather than the" love feasts" spoken of in the Scriptures.
To begin, it is necessary to examine the historical development of the common practice of communion, as we know it today. The intent is not to provide a comprehensive development or a refutation to obvious false doctrines within the various sects of what claims to be Christianity. It will approach the belief systems as developed historically and expose error wherever possible without deviating from the primary objective (i.e. to build a scripturally sound doctrine on communion).
The historical introduction is somewhat lengthy because the sources used include quotes from documents, which come from Catholic and Orthodox authors, so as not to misrepresent their official position. This will also assist the student in making honest comparisons between the practices of non-Christian churches (e. g. – The Roman Catholic Church) and what is done in the assemblies of true born-again believers.
One of most powerful churches in Europe was the Church of England, which grew in stature and prominence developing its own articles of faith, which will be reviewed here and compared with the sacrament of Catholicism. Church of England or Anglican Church, the so-called ‘Christian’ church in England, dates from the introduction of Christianity into that country. More specifically, it is the branch of the Christian church that, since the Reformation, has been the established Church of England.
The earliest unquestioned historical evidence of an organized Christian church in England is found in the writings of such early Christian fathers as Tertullian and Origen in the first years of the 3rd century, although the first Christian communities probably were established some decades earlier. Three English bishops are known to have been present at the Council of Arles in 314. Others attended the Council of Sardica in 347 and that of Ariminum in 360, and a number of references to the church in Roman Britain are found in the writings of 4th-century Christian fathers.
The Celtic and Gallic missionaries and monks pioneered the ritual and discipline of the early English church, but after the arrival of St. Augustine and his missionary companions from Rome, in 597, and the subsequent blending of Celtic and Roman influences, the Celtic forms gradually gave way to the liturgy and practices of the Roman West. During the next four centuries, the church in Saxon England exhibited the same lines of growth and development that characterized the church everywhere in the early Middle Ages. After the Norman Conquest in 1066A.D., the power and influence in England fortified the connections between the English church and the papacy. The vigorous assertions of power successfully made by popes from Gregory VII to Innocent III between the late 11th and the early 13th centuries were felt in England, as elsewhere, and clerical influence and privilege were widely extended in secular affairs. Several times during the medieval period, English kings sought to limit the power of the church and the claims of its independent canon law, but without success until the reign of Henry VIII.
Thomas Cranmer was archbishop of Canterbury when the Act of Supremacy separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534. Cranmer withdrew his allegiance to the pope, revised the creeds and liturgies, and wrote new doctrinal statements. In 1553, when Cranmer opposed the accession to the throne of Mary Tudor, a Catholic, he was tried for treason and later for heresy. A secular court sentenced him to death. Cranmer recanted his beliefs but was burned at the stake. Just before he died in 1556, Cranmer a rousing and courageous speech, renouncing his recantations.
The acts of Parliament between 1529 and 1536 mark the beginning of the Anglican Church as a national church independent of papal authority. Henry VIII, irritated at the refusal of Pope Clement VII to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragón, persuaded Parliament to ratify a series of decrees denying the pope any supremacy or jurisdiction over the Church of England. He thus reaffirmed the earliest right of a Christian monarch to put into effect his preeminence over the affairs of the church within his sphere of influence.
He cited precedents in the relations of church and state in the Eastern Roman Empire and until the 9th century under Charlemagne. Although his action was groundbreaking, Henry VIII received the support of the vast majority of Englishmen, clerical and laymen alike. Support was given chiefly because no drastic change was made in the Catholic faith and practices to which England was accustomed.
After Henry's death, the influences of religious reform were felt more strongly in England, and in 1549 the first Anglican Book of Common Prayer was published and its use required of the English clergy by an Act of Uniformity. The second prayer book, reflecting more strongly the influence of continental Protestantism, was issued in 1552 and was followed shortly by the Forty-two Articles, a doctrinal statement similar in tenor. Both were swept away upon the accession of Mary I in 1553 A.D., who returned England to a formal obedience to the papacy that lasted until her death in 1558.
A settlement of the religious controversy came when Elizabeth I succeeded Mary as queen of England in 1558. Most of the ecclesiastical laws of Henry VIII were revived, an Act of Supremacy defined more cautiously the Crown's authority in the church, and another Act of Uniformity established the use of a Book of Common Prayer that avoided the Protestant excesses of the second prayer book. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Puritans increased their power and became more insistent in their demands for further reform in the Church of England in the direction of the Protestantism of Geneva and other continental centers.
After the accession of the first Stuart monarch, James I, as king of England, in 1603, this campaigning for religious change became closely associated with the struggle of Parliament against Stuart’s autocracy. By 1645, the Parliament party was strong enough to outlaw the use of the prayer book; in 1649, Charles I, king of England, was executed, and the monarchy was temporarily overthrown.
In 1662, after the Restoration of Charles II, the use of the prayer book, revised to essentially its present form, was required by a third Act of Uniformity. One more attack was made on the establishment of the Anglican Church when King James II attempted to reintroduce the practice of Roman Catholicism in England. James lost his throne to William III and Mary II in the ensuing revolution of 1688. (Information obtained in part from Microsoft® Encarta® Reference Library 2002. © 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)
From a meal to a sacrament…from sharing to transubstantiation
Though the fundamental Christian churches oftentimes denounce the Catholic doctrine and practice of transubstantiation, remarkably the communion services held by them are nearly identical. Though the Reformers made great strides when they rebelled against Rome in the west and Orthodoxy in the east, they did not come into full scriptural light in the area of Communion.
A comparison of quotes from Catholic sources with those of the Forty-two Articles of the Church of England reveals similarities of such magnitude the discerning Christian is hard-pressed to see any substantial distinction.
In Joseph Stoutzenberger's book" Celebrating Sacraments" (Copyright 1993 by Saint Mary's Press) he makes some startling admissions regarding the communion practices of the early church. On pages 194-195 he states:
At the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated a Jewish community meal, very likely; the Passover Seder, with his friends. Meals, especially family meals, are a very important form of worship for Jews. Meals can be steeped in ritual; the Passover meal, which celebrates God's liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, is a notable example. Often, bread and wine play a central role in the ritual of family meals. And "giving thanks" is generally the theme of a meal. So when Jesus gathered his friends to share bread and wine, he was not doing anything strange or uncommon.
E.J. Bicknell, in his book. "A THEOLOGICAL INTRODUCTION to the THIRTY-NINE ARTICLES OF THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND" (April 1948 edition, Longmans Green Co., London), on page 481 states:
All over the world men have expressed their fellowship with one another by a common meal. Further, these common meals often had a religious significance. One of the earliest ideas underlying primitive sacrifice was that of communion between the god of the tribe and his people. The god was regarded as present as an honored guest at the feast made upon the sacrificial victim. Among many tribes the god was also identified in some sense with the victim slain and it was supposed that by feeding upon the flesh of the god the divine life shared by him and the tribe was renewed and strengthened. This idea of communion with God through a common sacrificial meal was not absent from the religion of Israel. So, too, among the Gentiles sacrificial meals were quite common...
In summary, both authors agree that sharing meals, whether for religious significance
or not, was a common practice in ancient societies, and a means by which people express their fellowship with one another. The earliest association with the pagan ritual of emblematic transubstantiation can easily be observed in how Gentile tribes ate the flesh and drank the blood of their ablutions to vicariously partake of the cosmic substance of their imagined deities.
So what changed the practice of sharing meals into the' ceremony' of communion? On page 196 of Stoutzenberger's book he talks about the Eucharist, the past and present day concept of the Catholic sacrament of Communion.
The word, " Eucharist" actually comes from the Greek word, "eucharisto" meaning, ‘to give thanks at a meal.' The modern day Catholic Eucharist consists of a host (i.e.-a small tasteless wafer) and a chalice of wine that is blessed by the priest at Mass before the members partake of each emblem.
Listen to another admission of Stoutzenberger on page 196 in his chapter " From Supper To Sacrifice”: A "Love Feast."
In the beginning of the church's history, the Eucharist was celebrated as a fellowship meal or "love feast," called an agape. Christians shared the food each person brought to the Sunday assembly, and they referred to this meal as the Lord's Supper. As the number of members increased, the meal was gradually reduced to a simpler fare of bread and wine, the essential elements of the Eucharist. For many years after the full meal ceased being common practice, however, Christians still brought food to their services to share with poor people.
E.J. Bicknell echoes a similar thought on the practice of the early church on page 482-3:
When we turn to the evidence of Scripture it is by no means easy to give any very certain account of the practice of the first Christians in reference to the Eucharist. In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 it is clear that at Corinth it was celebrated after and in close connexion with a common meal. St. Paul's own words 'This do oft as you drink' (the Greek contains no 'it') may mean 'as often as ye hold a common meal together.'
When we turn to Acts we find evidence of a similar custom. The familiar title 'Last Supper' reminds us that eating together had all through His ministry been a bond of union between our Lord and His disciples. At such common meals doubtless He was accustomed to break bread and give thanks even as He did at the feedings of the multitude (Mark 6:41 & 8:6). His performance of these acts at the Last Supper was only in accordance with His regular habit.
It was by the manner in which He performed these same acts, that He made Himself known to His disciples at Emmaus after His Resurrection, even though they had probably not been present at the Last Supper (Luke 24:30-31,35 & John 21:13). So after the Ascension it was only natural that the disciples should continue to meet for the breaking of bread, the outward sign of fellowship.
At first it would seem that the common meal of the Christian brotherhood was held daily. The mention of food in Acts 2:46 shows clearly that a meal is meant. Accordingly, as the Church spread abroad such daily union was found to be impossible. The common meal became part of the distinctive worship of the first day of the week. It was doubtless so at Corinth. In Acts 20:7-13 this is expressly stated.
So Luke gives a typical instance at Troas. 'Upon the first day of the week when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul discoursed with them.' Finally, when Paul 'had broken the bread and eaten and had talked with them a long while even till the break of day, so he departed.'
On page 484 Bicknell continues:
The order would seem to be a common meal, after which St. Paul took the opportunity of all the Christians being assembled to deliver a lengthy discourse... The meal would thus be held on Saturday evening, since, according to the Jewish mode of reckoning, the first day of the week began at 6 P.M. Saturday...
In Acts 27:33-36, just before the shipwreck, we find an account of a meal. "When Paul...had taken bread, he gave thanks to God in the presence of all: and he brake it and began to eat. Then were they all of good cheer and began to eat.” The language is strangely Eucharistic, but the meal clearly did not include the Eucharist. (Author's footnote says, 'the similarity is due, not so much to the fact that the Holy Eucharist is a meal, as that every meal has a sacred character and food "is sanctified by the word of God and prayer." '[Rackham, Acts, p.490]
The company consisted almost entirely of unbelievers, and the confusion of a storm at sea is hardly the moment for such a celebration. The important point is that the passage shows that ‘to break bread’ could be used of an ordinary meal. In Jude 12 and the parallel passage in Peter 2:13 we find the title 'Agape' or 'love feast' definitely given, according the best reading, to the common meal of Christians.
Summarizing the admissions of authors both Catholic and the Church of England on the previous page:
1. Both agree that the practice of the early church, particularly at its inception, was to share fellowship, which included a full meal. This was apparently a very common custom of the day, as verified by Scripture. The term used in Scripture 'to break bread' refers to the eating of a meal and not some exclusive religious ceremony reserved for Christians alone.
2. Both agree that as the church (i.e.-believers) grew in number, daily meals shared together became logistically impossible... Our Catholic author assumes that at this time meals were reduced to contain only the two elements of bread and wine, but he offers neither scriptural nor historical proof of this. Bicknell's opinion from Scripture is that the church reduced its frequency of sharing meals to once a week. Again, the scripture does not support this conclusion with any clear definition.
3. Both seem to agree that the 'Eucharist' is a separate and distinct part of the early worshippers’ meal; that is to say, it is that part which honors the Lord's Supper. The assumption by both that the 'Eucharist' is some sort of ceremony, sanctified by Christ, and to be imitated by believers, probably comes from their bias (as to the meaning of the Greek word for thanksgiving… eucharisto). Instead of seeing eucharisto as giving God thanks for an ordinary meal that is shared by Christians, the influence of their man-made traditions, admittedly rooted in pagan worship of false gods, has caused them to venerate the ceremony itself. The truth eludes both Catholic and Anglican because of their bias; doctrinal prejudice only serves to reinforce one’s belief in the traditions of the church. Tradition blinds their reason and obstructs intellectual honesty; they are unable to comprehend the reason Jesus encouraged His followers to share their substance with one another.
Let us now continue with further admissions by both authors, which show progressive decline in the sharing of meals amongst early Christian believers, while at the same time organized religion rooted itself in pagan traditionalism thru lavish ceremonies. We start with Stoutzenberger's comments on page 196-197:
A RITUAL MEAL OF SACRIFICE - Over the first three centuries of Christianity, the Eucharist evolved from a fellowship meal to a ritual meal. After Christianity was declared a legal religion in the fourth century, the church's rituals went public. That change set the stage, by the end of the sixth century, for the development of a highly elaborate… almost regal ceremony around what had once been a simple sharing of food and drink. Prayers that had once been offered spontaneously by the presiding bishop were; written down and standardized. The place of worship moved from homes, where rituals were carried out secretly during times of persecution, to magnificent church buildings that Christians were proud to build and to celebrate Mass in.
E.J. Bicknell comments in his book on pages. 484-485:
We conclude, then, that in apostolic times as a general rule the Eucharist formed the conclusion of a common meal or agape and was not sharply distinguished from it. The whole was considered sacred, being a representation of the Last Supper.
Whether an Agape was ever held without a Eucharist or vice versa we cannot be certain. There is nothing improbable in such a separation. The phrase "breaking bread' is in itself quite vague and might be applied either to a meal or to the Eucharist or to the combination of the two.
Outside Scripture the earliest evidence has been very differently interpreted. Dr. Lightfoot held that in the time of Ignatius the two had not yet been separated. In his letter to the Smyrnaeans he (Ignatius) writes, 'It is not permitted without the bishop to either baptize or hold a love-feast.'
The first clear evidence for the separation of the two (meals & the Eucharist) is in Pliny's letter to Trajan (Ep.96). This makes it clear that in Bithynia by 112 A.D. Christians had come to hold two meetings on Sunday. At first they met before day and sang a hymn to Christ antiphonally as to a God and bound themselves to an oath (sacramentum) not to commit certain crimes. At the second meeting later in the day they met to take food but that ordinary food; but in consequence of Trajan's edict forbidding the existence of clubs or guilds, these last meetings had been abandoned. This last statement would refer to the Agape. Whether the separation of the Eucharist and Agape had taken place before Trajan's edict or in consequence of it is not certain, but it is clear the Eucharist had been transferred to the morning.
Bicknell assumes that all Christian meals were representative of the Last Supper. This is a clear statement of doctrinal bias. There is evidence from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian churches that he promulgated the idea believers should consider their group meals a sort of sharing in the table and cup of the Lord. This is a far cry from stating all Christian meals were representative of the Last Supper.
Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 actually contrast eating together as the church gathering with one who eats his own food at home. The ONLY reason Paul weaves the “table” and “cup” of the Lord into his letter of instruction is to expose the selfishness displayed when they shared a meal, and some would act as gluttons, leaving the poor and needy without sustenance, often resulting in weakness, and sometimes in death through starvation.
E.J. Bicknell's continued comments, pages 485-486:
Specifically, the priest presider did more and more of the action while the people in attendance participated less and less At any rate Justin Martyr (150) describes the Eucharist without any mention of the Agape. But the Agape still continued to exist. It tended to assume the character of a charity supper contributed by the rich; possibly from the earliest days it had been a means of providing sustenance for the poorer members of society. It (the Agape feast) became increasingly distinct from the Eucharist and gradually lost it's sacred character and became a common meal and nothing more. Hence by the canons of the various councils it was forbidden to hold it in churches. It lingered on in Africa as late as the Trullan Council in 692.
Stoutzenberger says on page 197:
LESS AND LESS OF A ROLE FOR THE PEOPLE - The shift in emphasis from the Eucharist as a community meal to the Eucharist as a highly elaborate and dramatic ceremony of sacrifice naturally affected the participation in the ritual. Specifically, the priest presider did more and more of the action while the people in attendance participated less and less. By the Middle Ages, priests were "saying" Mass while the people watched in silence. In fact, priests often said Mass privately on weekdays, or with only a single server present, for the special intention of some member of the congregation. The community dimension of the Eucharist had all but disappeared.
WORSHIP FROM A DISTANCE - At the same time that people's participation in the Eucharist was lessening, the significance of the wine was being de-emphasized, and the bread became more important as a symbol. In fact, the awesomeness of the presence of Christ in the bread was so strongly stressed that people hesitated to receive Communion. They contented themselves with viewing the bread elevated at the consecration. People received Communion so infrequently that the church had to require that the faithful receive it at least once a year. Also, with the emphasis on devotion from a distance, the idea of "gathering around the table" faded. As a result, the table became an ornate altar that was set against a decorated wall. The priest, with his back to the people, faced the altar and led the people in holy sacrifice. Everyone faced the same direction, but the people were unable to see what was going on at the altar.
Stoutzenberger on page 116:
Then, in the thirteenth century, the Second Council of Lyons affirmed that there were only seven official sacraments of the church, basically those that Catholics celebrate today. With the word sacramentum being restricted in application to seven rituals of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance (today called reconciliation), anointing of the dying (now more broadly understood as anointing of the sick), marriage, and ordination into the priesthood, other changes came as well.
Stoutzenberger on the Council of Trent (1545-1563) page 120:
DEVOTION TO THE BLESSED SACRAMENT - An extremely popular and widespread devotional practice following the Council of Trent was the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The term Blessed Sacrament refers to the consecrated Communion bread that is stored in the tabernacle in the church sanctuary; Catholics believe that the consecrated bread is the body of Jesus Christ.
E.J. Bicknell's commentary on the word 'sacrament'; pages 444-445
The word 'Sacrament' has a long history. In classical Latin 'sacramentum' meant 'a sacred pledge.' It was used for a soldier's oath or for caution money deposited to prevent frivolous suits. Pliny first uses the word in reference to Christians in a letter to Emperor Trajan. He writes that Christians bound themselves 'sacramento,' not to commit some crime (as popular opinion supposed), but rather not to commit theft, robbery, adultery etc. The word here, in the writing of a heathen governor, must still have its meaning of 'oath' or 'solemn promise’… It's first employment in any technical Christian sense was in the earliest Latin-speaking Church, that of North Africa. Here it was used to translate (a) Greek word (which) originally meant a secret (not anything 'mysterious' in our sense of the word). It is used e.g. of State secrets. Hence it came to be applied to religious truths that were known only to the initiated or to acts 'where more was meant than met the eye or ear,' and where the secret meaning was known only to those who had been taught it. In the Fathers it is used in it's old sense of oath or of any Christian truth or ceremony or ordinance. (e.g.-Pope Innocent can write of two sacraments in the Eucharist, the bread and the wine.)
E.J. Bicknell on the 'sacrament' (continued) from page 445:
Accordingly, the term sacrament came to be limited to the rites, which were commanded in the New Testament. The number of sacraments varied with different writers. The fixing of the number seven is assigned to Peter Lombard (d. 1164). It is accepted in a decree of the Council of Florence (1439), and finally ratified by the Council of Trent in 1547.
Let us now summarize the past history quoted from previous sources, both Catholic and Church of England:
1. The precious fellowship meals that were enjoyed by the believers in the first century, the simple sharing of food and drink where true agape love could flow amongst brethren who were familiar with one another, was eventually replaced by edict with a formal, non-participatory, ritual meal.
2. The place of worship gradually moved from the homes of individual Christians and was relocated in elaborate impersonal structures where personal relationships became almost non-existent.
3. Though both Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sources attempt to make a distinction between the agape feasts (i.e.-common meals) and the Eucharist, such attempts find no basis in the scriptures. In fact both groups openly admit that what had first originated in the early church was, in fact, the communal feasts enjoyed as meals between believers.
4. Apparently around 112 A.D. the persecution of true believers had become so intense that law forbade their gatherings. By 150 A.D. no mention is made of the 'love feasts' by the church fathers. Instead only the Eucharist, an illegitimate symbol of Christ in a wafer and a manmade imitation of the real thing are mentioned in their writings. As far as the public record is concerned, by the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. the agape feasts had been altogether abandoned.
5. The Agape lost its significance and eventually the canons of various councils forbade the practice of enjoying community meals in the church buildings. The Eucharist replaced community meals as one of seven religious sacraments (i.e.-rituals). These Eucharistic rituals became highly elaborate and dramatic, but the participation of the common people was not encouraged, and eventually diminished into a silent observation. The members of the church would act as observers while priests presided over these elaborate services.
6. More emphasis was placed on symbolism while the common man was encouraged worship at a distance. The implements (i.e.-the bread and wine) were exalted. The bread was said to contain the awesomeness of the presence of Christ to such a degree that people hesitated to even partake of it in Communion. A common dining table was replaced with an ornately decorated altar where the priest was said to actually perform a sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.
7. Later in history the doctrine of transubstantiation was instituted. Transubstantiation finds its roots in the barbarism of pagan sacrifice and the drinking of the sacrificial victim’s blood and eating of its flesh to mysteriously gain the power and protection of the deity it was given to as an ablution. Participants believe after the bread and wine have been consecrated by the priest and offered to the believer its actual substance miraculously changes into the literal flesh and blood of Jesus. Roman Catholic sources acknowledge this ritual is rooted in similar pagan ceremonies predating Christianity.
8. Today what is known as the ‘Sacrament’ or ‘Communion’ began with the early practice of certain sects of Christian believers who took oaths not to commit certain crimes. These oaths called 'sacramentum' in Latin were later reinterpreted to mean a ceremony or ritual. These rituals were ratified at Roman Catholic Church Councils as being necessary ‘sacraments’ for the individual believer to faithfully observe and practice in order to gain the grace of God and ultimately his or her own personal salvation. To “partake” of Christ meant one had to actually drink his blood and eat his flesh in the ceremonial ablution, where Jesus was sacrificed anew each and every time the priest administered the sacramental implements.
Links to the Entire "Communion” Series: