If you’ve attended church for a while, you’ve been in a communion service. The little cups and the stale bits of bread passed around the sanctuary that we all grab patiently. The pastor reminding us the bread represents Jesus’ body and the wine His blood before we partake together.
But why is the Lord’s Supper, often called communion, so important for us to do in church? And why do different churches partake of communion differently? To answer these great questions, let’s take a look at the history of communion and use it to help us better understand the purpose for the church today.
Historical Practice of the Lord’s Supper
The ordinances of the church we see displayed in the New Testament began to change greatly during the medieval time period. At the close of the medieval time period and the beginning of the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had shifted in theological beliefs. They had become heavily dependent on tradition and papal authority to determine spiritual authority. This resulted in corruption within the Church. Further, the Church began to teach the need for indulgences in order to gain full salvation. The desire to challenge these beliefs based on Scripture alone began the Reformation. One of the beliefs challenged during the Reformation was the practice of the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.
The Roman Catholic’s View on the Pope’s administering the Lord’s Supper
By the end of the medieval time, the Roman Catholic celebration of the Lord’s Supper differed greatly from that of the early church seen in the New Testament. Pope Gregory VII, in the eleventh century, had insisted “only a properly ordained priest could confect the sacrament…” This rule about ordination led to the belief that if anyone besides an ordained priest administered this sacrament, the sacrament would be nullified. In addition, this power to make Christ present in the Eucharist depended only on the ordinating of a priest and not on the moral life of the priest.
The enhancement of the power of the priests served to increase the power of the Eucharist itself. “Christ was personally and truly present in every Mass, and only the priest could make this presence possible. The Eucharist became a moment of divine presence and clerical power.”
Challenging the Roman Catholic’s belief on who can administer the Lord’s Supper
Martin Luther began to challenge this increase in papal power over the Eucharist as he studied God’s grace. In his sermon entitled Sermon on the New Testament, Luther challenged this idea that the priest ultimately has the only power over the Eucharist for the common people. He stated, “There is nothing that can be brought from earth to heaven; all good comes from above. All acts in the Lord’s Supper come from God; nothing comes from human beings.”
The Roman Catholic’s View on the Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper
The medieval Church also brought with it the controversy of the presence of Christ within the Eucharist. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 clarified the belief of the Roman Catholic Church about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist by using the word transubstantiation. Transubstantiation means that Christ’s body and blood are converted into the bread and wine taken at communion.
The Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper Debated During the Reformation
Martin Luther’s Belief
The presence of Christ in the Eucharist became a needed discussion during the Reformation. Martin Luther did not agree with the doctrine of transubstantiation. He didn’t deny the existence of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but he claimed “he was willing to believe that Christ was present in the Eucharist even if he did not understand how this worked”. In 1530, his belief was firmly established in the Augsburg Confession and is often called consubstantial.
Ulrich Zwingli’s belief
Ulrich Zwingli also challenged the Roman Catholic view of the presence by stating the Lord’s Supper is done in remembrance but not as a means to claim the presence of Christ Himself. He believed claiming the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a form of idolatry. Zwingli and Luther adamantly disagreed on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and publicly debated this issue at the Marburg Colloquy. They were never able to come to a compromise.
John Calvin’s Belief
A third view of the Eucharist during the Reformation came from John Calvin. He landed in the middle of Luther and Zwingli by teaching that Christ is spiritually present, but there is no transformation of the elements. These three views of the presence of Christ still impact Protestant churches today.
The Purpose and Goal of the Lord’s Supper: 2 different views
The Reformation also challenged the purpose and goal of the Lord’s Supper. Believing the Eucharist was a sacrament, or a means of earning grace, was what the Roman Catholic Church taught. This grace became necessary for full salvation.
Martin Luther challenged this view of the sacrament system as he studied the doctrine of justification. Luther taught against the idea that the Eucharist, in and of itself, gave the participants access to the grace of Christ. This idea of salvation by grace through faith alone, not through the sacraments, became a defining and dividing doctrinal belief during the Reformation.
With this belief, Luther changed the trajectory of the Lord’s Supper. He established “a one-direction-dynamic; there was no other way than from above. God alone was actor, man was pure receiver.” No longer was the priest seen as a representative of God and the only one who could bring God and his grace down to the common people. The Council of Trent, in 1545, cemented this division between the Protestant and Roman Catholic religions. They held firm to the belief that people are justified by faith and works, the belief in transubstantiation, and the need for the sacramental system for grace.
With these decisions, the Protestant’s views on the Lord’s Supper were understood to be doctrinally and theologically different from the Roman Catholic Church. A new understanding of the practice of the Lord’s Supper began. A practice that more closely represented what we see in the New Testament.
Historial Narrative Conclusion
By 1648, the church was now clearly divided into Protestant and Roman Catholic. Looking at the practice and administration of the Lord’s Supper, the presence of Christ, and the dismissal of using the Lord’s Supper as a means to attain saving grace helps clarify this division. Overall, the practice of the Lord’s Supper during the Reformation encompassed many of the doctrinal differences that began the Reformation. But how does this impact us today?
Why the Lord’s Supper is Important Today
The Lord’s Supper continues to be an important point for the local church. The Reformation brought this ordinance back to the practice seen in New Testament churches based on Jesus’ example and Paul’s teachings. It also laid the foundation for what we see in most Protestant churches today. In Matthew 26:26-28, Jesus tells His disciples the bread represents His body and the wine His blood that was about to be spilled for their forgiveness. Paul reminds the church in 1 Corinthians 11:24 of Jesus’ words concerning the Lord’s Supper. Throughout the New Testament, this idea of partaking of the Lord’s Supper as the reformers taught is clearly seen.
Frequently Partaking of the Lord’s Supper
As the present-day church continues to grow, the need for frequent practice of the Lord’s Supper grows as well. Whether one believes Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli’s opinion about the presence of Christ doesn’t ultimately matter. The purpose of the Lord’s Supper has always been to pause, reflect, and humble oneself before the work of Christ.
Our world moves fast, technology has advanced, and society tends to believe it is self-sufficient. The Lord’s Supper, however, cuts through the lies, chaos, and self-sufficiency of the world. It forces the Christian to acknowledge Jesus’ broken body that He willingly gave up for sinners (Romans 5:6). Believers are forced to pause and remember Christ’s death on the cross which brought reconciliation for those who believe (Romans 5:8-10). In addition, the Lord’s Supper also reminds the church of the coming return of Christ. Jesus stated in Matthew 26:29 “ I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” One day, Jesus will return and will establish His kingdom on earth.
Next time you walk into church on communion Sunday, remember the significance of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper keeps us unified as one body. It reminds us of our dependence on Christ for salvation. In addition, it keeps our eyes focused on our future hope. In this way, the Lord’s Supper preaches the gospel message and gives joy to the believer.
You Might Also Enjoy:
- Simple Facts About the New Testament
- Understanding Basic Facts about the Old Testament
- The Book of Deuteronomy: Learning to Trust God
References Used and Quoted:
- Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion John T. McNeill, ed, Ford Lewis Battles, trans, Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960 ), IV.xvii.
- Duesing, Jason G, and Nathan A Finn. 2021. Historical Theology for the Church. Nashville, TN:B&H Publishing Group.
- Huldrych Zwingli, “On the Lord’s Supper, ” Zwingli and Bulllnger, G. W. Bromiley trans. The Library of Christian Classics vol XXIV (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953 ), p. 186.
- Fenerty, Becky. n.d. “LibGuides: The Reformation: Its History and Legacy (December 2017):Luther Studies.” Ala-Choice.libguides.com. Accessed July 22, 2022.
- Kolb, Robert. 1980. “Augsburg 1530: German Lutheran Interpretations of the Diet of Augsburg to 1577.” Sixteenth Century Journal 11, no. 3 (June): 47.
- Luther, Martin, and Martin Luther. “Luther on the Sacraments, or, the Distinctive Doctrines of the Evangelical Lutheran Church Respecting Baptism & the Lord’s Supper.” In Luther on the Sacraments, or, the Distinctive Doctrines of the Evang. Lutheran Church Respecting Baptism & the Lord’s Supper, 1–435, 1853.
- Slotemaker, John T. 2015. “A Companion to the Eucharist in the Reformation. Edited by Lee PalmerWandel. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 46. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2014. Pp. Xx + 518. Religious Studies Review 41, no. 2 (June): 87–87.