Theological Variety: Communion

This is a series on theological variety. Diversity in theology has been part of Christian faith from the very start. A modern movement is growing which embraces and appreciates it instead of dividing and quitting over it. Find the intro here: Intro


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Communion. The Lord’s supper. Eucharist. These are all the same practice, but each term means different things for different Christian denominations. In this post, we take a look at many ways people meditate on Christ’s death and resurrection.

I would like to start by saying much of my source material for this post not only comes from Scripture, but from a book called A Flexible Faith by Bonnie Kristian. The book covers a plethora of theological topics, ranging from communion to views on the end of the world. (Available on Amazon: here.)

Let’s get started.

There are generally 3 views on communion/the Lord’s supper/the Eucharist. They are called the Memorial View, Transubstantiation, and Consubstantiation.

1. Memorial View

In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is giving the Corinthian church instructions on how to follow Christ’s example. Starting in verse 17, he provides instruction on how to properly hold communion. By verse 24, Paul is illustrating what Jesus said when He had the first communion. Jesus said, “This is my body… do this in remembrance of Me.” For the memorial view, the key term here is remembrance. That is the crux of the memorial view of communion. When we remember the life of another person, we are memorializing them.

This view is common in Baptist, Quaker, and many nondenominational traditions. Maybe you’ve been in churches that have special tables that have words like “In Remembrance of Me” carved into them. I grew up in a church with that very table. To be fair, I never understood that our congregation celebrated communion in a memorial context. Lots of Christians don’t have a deep understanding of the “why” of given theological practices. Another reason we are doing this series!

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This do in remembrance of Me.

People with a memorial view of communion see it as an ordinance – a symbolic act, a visual aid of sorts. For the memorial view, communion is not considered a sacrament, the other sort of ritual we will mention. Both are rituals, but they have very different purposes. In the memorial view, God is understood to already be present everywhere. So communion in this sense doesn’t necessarily bring God into the moment more, for He is already there. When communion is viewed as a memorial, it is a visual and kinesthetic reminder of what He did for us on the cross.

2. Transubstantiation

Alright. Let’s get some misconceptions out of the way about this view! Raise your hand if you thought people with this view on communion genuinely believed bread turned into chunks of flesh and wine turned into real blood. I sure believed that! This view is commonly held by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers. Most of them would tell you they know very well they aren’t consuming literal flesh and blood. Rather, they believe that the bread and wine become the essence of God Himself (versus the material substance, genetic material). There is a divine mystery surrounding what His essence actually is.

These believers refer to communion as the Eucharist, a sacrament whose literal translation is “thanksgiving.” A sacrament is different from an ordinance – it is a ceremony that “confers God’s grace on the person participating,” according Bonnie Kristian (A Flexible Faith, pg. 77). The Eucharist is thanksgiving for many things. It is thanks for the belief that the sacrament forgives minor sins and causes us to want to sin less. It is also thanks and participation in a unique visitation of the presence of God, different from the memorial idea that He was already there anyway and isn’t present in a special way during communion.

Eucharist
Eucharist.

3. Consubstantiation

Consub
Lutheran Communion

This view is somewhere between the memorial view and transubstantiation. It is the view of many Methodist and Lutheran congregations. While consubstantiation is still a sacrament, people who hold this view don’t necessarily believe the bread and wine become the essence God. Jesus is not inhabiting the bread and wine. Rather, He is inhabiting the moment. He is not spatially present, but spiritually present, as Bonnie Kristian puts its (pg. 93).

Jesus is there in reality, even if we can’t sense him with our eyes, ears, nose, hands, or mouths. An interesting result of these two views is that a church practicing Transubstantiation often has protocols for respectful ways to dispose of leftovers, since God is thought to be uniquely present in the tools of the moment, whereas Consubstantiation view holders do not necessarily need to worry about it. The bread and wine are more than “mere symbols” (Memorial view) but more of tools to invite God’s presence instead of an embodiment of His presence itself. Again, Jesus inhabits the moment, not the bread and wine.

4. Communing over Communion

Historically, the Catholic/Orthodox approach in transubstantiation was the dominant view for much of church history, slowly developing over centuries. The Consubstantiation view was developed in response to Catholic abuses during the Reformation. Younger still, the Memorial view developed in the Radical Reformation when some reformers felt Luther and Calvin didn’t put enough separation between Consubstantiation and Transubstantiation. All three believe they are closer to how the early church practiced communion.

An interesting note, however, is that most Christians practice communion (same root word as commune, community, communing, communication)… alone. Which in many ways defeats the point – a time for Christians to unite and both celebrate and remember Jesus together. After all, Jesus was having a Jewish symbolic dinner (Passover seder) where each course has a symbolic meaning. And as the disciples lounged around and talked and communed, Jesus interrupted the dinner to add two more symbolic courses – bread and wine.

All three of the major views are important and useful and can keep you in regular fellowship with fellow Believers! If you also want to get back as close as you can to the “original way” then you’re going to have to do it over dinner, and do it together with others by sharing memories… remembering.

Last Supper

Our house church has tried a couple different things to help honor the original intent of communion that you might want to give a try with your own family or friends – or even church! One is that we do communion in the middle of a meal. No “sit alone in your pew quiet time” where you think on your sins and feel guilty about Jesus having to die for you – but rather part of a meal where we are already celebrating! We just pass the bread and cup as additional courses, in a sense.

Another thing we have done is go around the group and share a moment we remember fondly with Jesus. A moment from Scripture we hold on to and love to think about. Or a moment from our lives where we realized Jesus was boldly present. Any memory of Jesus will do – the point is that we are supposed to be remembering Him, and doing so together.

Please understand that I am not advocating for any one view of communion. There is truth in each one. Each one illustrates the seriousness with which Jesus took Himself to the cross, the victory in which He rose up from the grave. Understanding the different views of various Christian groups might even help you to appreciate the diversity of our faith but also to find a view you are most comfortable with and that, for you, fulfills the purposes Jesus had in mind when he implemented it!

Another final thought I have is that God isn’t going to get hung up on how you practice this ritual. He is more interested in what it does to enrich His and your relationship, and your relationship with other Believers. God wants nothing less than full communion with you!

4 thoughts on “Theological Variety: Communion

Add yours

  1. I think that this whole series is such a great idea. I have often felt frustrated at the caricature many within the evangelical world present of my own beliefs. In fact, I have actually heard a sermon preached on communion outlining the problems with transubstantiation as the reason they practice memorial communion. False dichotomy!

    I found it interesting that many churches who hold to consubstantiation do not have special methods of disposing of the sacraments. As far as I know, Anglicans and Episcopalians are concerned with their disposal and act accordingly. I do know that my own small denomination which believes in the Real Presence of Christ during communion practices respectful disposal.

    As to your thoughts on communing alone, coming from a liturgical background I do think that their practices are designed to foster unity. I believe that is the reason behind using an individual chalice from which the entire church drinks. It is even mentioned in one of the Eucharistic prayers: “Grant that all who share this bread and cup may become one body and spirit, a living sacrifice in Christ to the praise of your Name.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Love those thoughts! I’ve often thought it fascinating, unifying, and communal to see congregants line up to get communion together in such Eucharist settings as opposed to the pass-the-plate-along-the-pew method. To each their own, but there is something rewarding about inviting people to do things communally!

      Liked by 1 person

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