Missiological Implications of the Symbolic Understanding of the Lord’s Supper


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This article is related to another one that looks at the missiological implications of the symbolic understanding of baptism. A look at the function and structure of symbols is shown there as well.

<Note: Like with baptism, I take a more Baptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper (or Communion or Eucharist). Thus I understand baptism as primarily symbolic rather than sacramental. The doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation are part of a number of Christian traditions, but the symbolic view, strictly followed, sees the blood and body of Christ related to the bread and wine by metaphor only. However, I think most all Christians would agree that there is a strong symbolic aspect to the Lord’s Supper. As such, hopefully there are thoughts here worthy of consideration by all. But since the Lord’s Supper, along with Baptism, is one of the biggest divisive issues in the Christian faith, I cannot promise you will find this edifying. Also, since experts have argued over this stuff for centuries, don’t expect to be “wow’d” by this post. Just some thoughts to think about.>

The Lord’s Supper has its roots in the Passover Meal. Unleavened bread and three or four cups of wine were part of the meal. The Passover meal pointed back to the blood sacrifice of the lamb prior to the Exodus. Jesus’ is described as the lamb of God, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper with Passover appears to be quite intentional. So one symbolic purpose is:

  1. A remembrance of Jesus as the redeemer of His people.

But it does not appear that Jesus and the early Church limited itself to only this symbolic understanding. Some others include:

  1. Looking forward to the return of Christ. In fact the formula linked the past with the present and future. “Do in remembrance of Me” is linked to doing this proclaiming His death until He comes again.
  2. Shows our union with Christ and with each other. The eating of “blood” and “body” of Christ symbolizes this union with Christ, and doing it communally symbolizes the union of believers— often described as “the body of Christ.”
  3. God as provider. The symbolism of Christ as the bread of life and as living water (drink) show Jesus as one who takes care of our needs.
  4. Additionally, the Lord’s Supper is so intertwined with Christian history that our involvement connects us to fellow believers throughout history. As Islam may be drawn together by Ramadan and, to a lesser extent, the Hajj, Christians connect worldwide and through history by the Lord’s Supper.

If one takes a symbolic look at the Lord’s Supper, how might that affect its practice within the missions setting?

A. In the Cordilleras of the Northern Philippines, grapes are starting to be grown, and bread is available (although wheat must be imported). Wine and bread may have been the normal staples for 1st century Judea, but they are not that in the Cordilleras. The natural equivalents here could be coffee and kamote (yam). Another possibility might be bugnay wine and rice. Symbolically, switching makes a lot of sense. It does not hurt the symbolism… in fact, connecting it to normal staples makes clear the role of Christ as one who providess, even within a different cultural context. Perhaps the only area where the switch of ingredients harms is in the final one. The connection between the believers in the Cordilleras with Christians around the world and through time could be hurt by the change. This seems silly, but the use of unfermented grape juice by some Christians and the use of fermented grape juice has (strangely) led to divisions within the church (at least on an emotional level). So there is question on what is the ideal choice. But it seems clear to me that one should not be overly limiting in the components.

B. Who can join in the Lord’s Supper? Tradition puts a great limitation on who can take communion. But even within groups that view the Lord’s Supper as symbolic, not sacramental, there is often still a great deal of limitations. Some limit communion to those within the local church (curiously, some of the great traditional leaders within my denomination were deeply committed to “closed communion.”) Others may allow for communion with people of other churches as long as they from churches within the same denomination, or of common faith (on some level). This gets touchy. The symbolism makes sense within the context of believers. So having non-believers join in the Lord’s Supper spoils the symbolism. However, rejecting fellow believers because of being a member of a different church or denomination (I am assuming theologically orthodox denominations) fails to fit the symbolism of union with Christ and fellow believers throughout the world and throughout time. Since the Bible tells us how we may know we are His children, but does not tell us how to know if others are believers, I believe we must be generous in determining who is eligible for Lord’s Supper. While it may be justifiable to hold off new believers from baptism somewhat until they understand the symbolism of the act, it seems to me the value of the union of believers through Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper suggests that rapid incorporation of the believer with the communion of believers through the Eucharist is appropriate.

C. How should the Lord’s Supper be done. I was raised up with precut bread and grape juice in individual cups. Later on the church switched to precut wafers (because leavening at times symbolizes sin). Others share a common cup and common bread broken on the spot. Clearly, breaking bread is more historical, and the original unity of both cup and bread show Christ’s unity and the unity of the believers with each other better. On the other hand, the concern about disease has caused some to be worried about sharing a common cup. In the end, this is a matter of conviction. Having precut bread and separate cups does not destroy the symbolism… but it may be useful to find ways to show the unity. For example having separate cups but filled publically from the same ewer.

D. Who can lead the Lord’s Supper and where can it be done. Sacramental understanding of the Eucharist leads to only a very limited number of people who can offer communion. In some places, adjustments are made (like on warships where lay people are trained to provided specially blessed bread and wine), but major limitations on who and where remain. Even where a symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper exists, often it is felt that it must be offered by an ordained minister, served by that minister or by ordained deacons, and must be done in a traditional church setting. In the mission field there may be no ordained ministers, and the gathering of believers may be a small group in a house. If one holds to the symbolic understanding, the officiator and the server don’t really need to be ordained. Likewise, the place does not matter that much. What matters is that it is a community of believers. Of greater question would be whether there is value in doing the Lord’s Supper with one individual. With a sacramental understanding, it may be valuable to provide Eucharist for one. Symbolically, there are a couple of ways it could be looked at. On one side, the communal idea of the Eucharist is lost with serving on person. On the other hand, for shut-ins for example, serving Eucharist may help demonstrate that they are also part of the body of Christ.

E.  How often to should Lord’s Supper be done. Within sacramental traditions, the Eucharist is done frequently. Priests may carry out Eucharist many times a day and laity are encouraged to attend frequently… even daily. With the symbolic understanding it does not need to be done as frequently… but how often. In truth, I don’t know. Sometimes there is a fear to do it too often because of Christ’s warning of “vain repetition.” But the key is the adjective “vain.” Repetition does not have to be vain. However, if the symbolism is not explained and reminded, the Lord’s Supper is likely to degenerate into vain repetition. I was in a church plant here in the Philippines where we did Lord’s Supper about once a year. Why? One reason may have been that many of the members came from a sacramental tradition, so there was fear that people were involved with the Lord’s Supper because it was thought to be a “dispenser of grace.” I think that the main reason was that the leadership (including myself) had lost the symbolic relevance of the Lord’s Supper so we did not value it. However, because of the significance of the Lord’s Supper (symbolically and historically), the end result was that we were too lazy to teach its appropriate role in the life of the church. So I don’t know the appropriate frequency, but clearly, the symbol of the Lord’s Supper must be taught and reminded. The educative value of the Eucharist should never be forgotten.

I don’t suppose this answers much. However, I believe that in the mission field, flexibility is necessary but not so as to destroy the symbolic value of the Lord’s Supper. As with all symbols, it should link the meaning with

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