Revising the Practice of the Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 6

The Bread of the Lord’s Supper

We have considered at some length the question of the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. But a number of you asked me if, in moving to wine, we shouldn’t as well move to unleavened bread. So, I thought it wise to spend a Sunday evening on that question as well. Our interest, remember, is not simply to answer the question, to settle our mind as to the proper practice, but, still more, to enter as fully as possible into the symbolism of these elements in the Lord’s Supper. How are we to think of the wine and the bread? What are they to convey to our minds and so to our souls? We are not only interested in liturgical correctness, but in the deepest possible engagement of our hearts and minds when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. Clearly the bread and the wine carry great meaning in the Lord’s Supper. They convey the blessing of the Lord’s Supper to the mind and heart of those who faithfully partake. What is that meaning? That is what we want to know.

So, now, we raise the question of the proper bread for use in the Lord’s Supper. We know that unleavened bread was required in the ritual of the Passover, the very meal out of which, at the Last Supper, the Lord Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper of the Christian era. Does that mean that the Lord’s Supper should likewise employ unleavened bread? If, as we argued last week, the Lord’s example in using wine in the institution of the Lord’s Supper set a pattern for us, should we then not, by the same principle, use unleavened bread?

Early Christianity, so far as we can tell, used leavened bread in the Lord’s Supper – Justin Martyr refers to it as “common bread” (koinos artos; First Apology, LXVI) – though there were some sects that argued for unleavened bread. Interestingly, one technical term for the consecrated bread of the Eucharist in early Christianity was “fermentum”, the Latin word for “yeast.” [The Study of Liturgy, 233; The Shape of the Liturgy, 25 and passim] In early Christianity, the bread and wine used in the sacrament was brought by the people out of their own pantries. It was, thus, ordinary bread and ordinary wine. The Western church went to unleavened wafers in the Middle Ages. The Eastern church continued to use leavened bread. Predictably, the difference in practice became controversial. The one side was called “fermentarians” the other “azymites” (from the Greek word used in the NT for “unleavened”). [Turretin, Institutes, vol. 3, 430] Many of you have at one time or another received the little paper thin wafers used by Roman Catholic, some Anglican, and some other Protestant churches for the communion bread. The old joke is that it takes more faith to make Roman Catholic school children believe that communion wafers are bread than it does to make them believe that the bread becomes Christ’s body. [J.F. White, Introduction to Christian Worship, 252]

The bread in Calvin’s Geneva was leavened, ordinary bread, as was the bread of Presbyterian Scotland’s Lord’s Supper, though unleavened bread, the custom of the medieval church, was continued in some places, often with what we know today as Scottish “shortbread.” [McMillan, The Worship of the Scottish Reformed Church, 199ff.] The Book of Common Prayer produced by the English Reformers did not forbid unleavened bread but considered leavened bread sufficient and the norm. In any case, the church’s historic practice of the Lord’s Supper is not as uniform in regard to the bread as it has been in regard to the wine. Protestant Christianity since the Reformation has preferred leavened bread, but by no means universally.

Most Presbyterians in the new world are accustomed to leavened or ordinary bread in communion and that has long been our custom here. But, so was grape juice and we are arguing that wine is to be preferred to grape juice. So, what about unleavened bread?

It is very interesting and certainly, for our purposes, providential, that I just had come across my desk notice of an overture to our next General Assembly from the New Jersey Presbytery. It proposes that our Book of Church Order in its “Directory of Worship” be amended so that the instructions for the Lord’s Supper would read “unleavened bread and wine.” They then propose an additional sentence, “If unleavened bread is unavailable, bread with leaven (yeast) may be used, but this is not to be the usual or normal practice of a congregation.” At every point where the word “bread” is found in that paragraph describing how the Lord’s Supper is to be observed “unleavened bread” is to be substituted for it. [The text of the overture is at the end of the sermon].

Now, time alone will tell whether that overture has any realistic hope of being adopted by the General Assembly – I for one seriously doubt that it has – but, more important for our purposes, in the overture, along with the suggested amendments, are given the rationale. The simple and ordinary case for using unleavened bread is made in these arguments offered by the New Jersey Presbytery on behalf of their overture. So, let’s take those arguments one by one.

1. First, Exodus 12:8, 15-20 reveals that the Passover celebration and accompanying Feast of Unleavened Bread used unleavened bread…[and] Luke 22:1 reveals that the Lord Jesus, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, was sharing a Passover meal with His disciples…”

Here is the primary argument for the use of unleavened bread in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It was the bread of the Passover Feast and so would certainly seem to have been the bread that the Lord Jesus passed around at the first Lord’s Supper. I am not aware of anyone who disputes that fact. The bread used that wonderful night was unleavened bread. That is a straightforward argument and to be taken seriously by Christians who, as we do, propose to find their rule for worship in the Word of God.

However, there are considerations that have, through the ages, weighed with the church and led her to reject the otherwise plausible conclusion that since the Lord used unleavened bread we ought to as well.

a. First, a rationale is provided for the use of unleavened bread in the Passover Feast. That is, we know why it was       used. The reason is given in Exodus 12:34, 39.

“With the dough they had brought from Egypt, they baked cakes of unleavened bread. The dough was without yeast because they had been driven out of Egypt and did not have time to prepare food for themselves.” And, in Deut. 16:3 we are explicitly reminded that the significance of bread without yeast in the Passover Feast was to remind God’s people that they “left Egypt in haste” so “that all the days of your life you may remember the time of your departure from Egypt.”

Passover was a remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and the unleavened bread used in the feast and the requirement to remove yeast from Israelite homes during the feast of unleavened bread are recollections of Israel’s hurried departure on the night of the 10th plague. The other features of the feast that served to recall that great night and God’s redemption of his people – the bitter herbs, the lamb – all fall away from the Lord’s Supper because the Supper is not a recollection of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt but of the greater deliverance of which that Passover was an anticipation.

There is no teaching in the Bible to suggest that the remembrance of the flight from Egypt is brought into the Lord’s Supper. Bread and Wine in the Supper serve what seem to be very different purposes. Another redemption is being remembered in the Lord’s Supper, that of ourselves from sin and death through the body and blood of the Lord Jesus. Unleavened bread does not in any obvious way contribute to that symbolism. It is not anywhere in the NT said to be the kind of bread used in the Lord’s Supper – while the text of the institution of the Lord’s Supper makes a point of mentioning wine (“the fruit of the vine”), bread is referred to simply as “bread” not as “unleavened bread.” The lack of yeast was a detail belonging to the old ceremony, not the new, it seems. Remember, it is bread in each case. The Lord took bread, we are told. That it happened to be unleavened is neither mentioned nor hinted at. What is significant is that it is bread, not unleavened bread. What is more, when the church moved into the Gentile world, a world that had no recollection of the Passover, “bread” would mean for them the ordinary bread that was the staple of life. So, in other words, as the scholastic theologians put it, that the bread was unleavened in the first Lord’s Supper belonged to the “accidental circumstances” of that first feast, not to the necessity of it. [Turretin, 430]

b. The early church, so far as the evidence goes, did not receive from the apostles the practice of using unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper. The Jews were used to having unleavened bread in the Passover just once a year. Usually they made their bread, as everyone else did, with yeast. It would have been a great change to begin using unleavened bread every week for the Lord’s Supper and there is no evidence that this change was ever made.

2. But there is a second argument attached to the overture. “1 Corinthians 5:7 specifically states that believers are ‘unleavened’ because Christ ‘our Passover’ has been sacrificed, and…’leaven’ is sometimes used in the Bible to denote sin. Whereas Christ is sinless.”

This is a substantial argument as well and, actually, could have been made more powerfully than it was. Many of the offerings of bread brought to the sanctuary in ancient Israel had to be unleavened. In Lev. 2:11, for example, we read, “Every grain offering you bring to the Lord must be made without yeast, for you are not to burn any yeast or honey in an offering made to the Lord.” So offerings that were burned on the altar could not contain yeast.

The rationale for this rule is never given in Holy Scripture, but it is very likely that it resulted from the sense that yeast represented decay and that decay was associated with corruption. So, to be entirely pure, ceremonially speaking, and an offering that was to be burned on the altar of God had to be completely pure, the offering, if it were of bread, had to be without yeast. There is perhaps something of this same symbolism in the Feast of Unleavened Bread and its requirement that yeast be removed from the home for that week, though this is never said. This would have been a principle equivalent to that of clean and unclean foods and the like. The removal of yeast was a symbolic representation of purity and fitness before God.

Now, to be sure, all offerings made to God did not require the removal of yeast. And this fact complicates the picture. For example, the showbread placed in the Holy Place of the Temple each Sabbath day and, then, after they were replaced by fresh loaves were eaten by the priests in the sanctuary, may have been leavened loaves. Josephus, more than a thousand years later, in the Lord’s day, says that they were unleavened. But the Bible neither says nor implies that they were.

But, in any case, in Lev. 7:13 (Amos 4:5) we are told that the thank offering was made with leavened bread. This was bread that the priest would eat. The offerings of the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, were also made with leavened bread (Lev. 23:17). The Israelites would come and worship God and then the offerings would be given to the priests to eat.

Without question there is a symbolism of yeast in the OT sacrificial ritual, though it is not an easy thing to define precisely what that symbolism is, and why yeast is forbidden in some contexts and required in others. It may have something to do with a principle as simple as that bread that was designed to be eaten and enjoyed was typically baked with yeast.

However, it is not certain that we should draw from this data the conclusion that the Lord’s Supper would have thus contained unleavened bread. Most of the specific ceremonial laws were not carried over into the new form of worship, the distinction of foods between clean and unclean was abolished, for example, why would we assume that the principle of unleavened bread in some sacrifices should continue. The general Protestant view has been that the necessity of unleavened bread in the Passover belonged precisely to those particularly Jewish ceremonies that were cancelled when the new forms of worship were introduced by the apostles.

However, as we saw, the argument for the overture offered by the New Jersey Presbytery is that the principle of yeast as a sign of corruption does continue into the new epoch and that this is demonstrated in 1 Cor. 5:6-8. Leaven is sometimes used in the Bible to denote sin in its corrupting power and Christians are said to be “unleavened” by reason of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ, our Passover Lamb.

Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 5:6-8 reads as follows.

“Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.” “A little yeast works through a whole batch of dough” seems to have been a proverb, and Paul uses it again in Gal. 5:9.

Now several things are worth noting.

a. First, this is not a statement about the Lord’s Supper, but about the Christian life. “Keeping the festival” here does not mean “participate in the Lord’s Supper” but “live a holy life.”

b. Second, we cannot easily apply Paul’s use of leaven here to the Lord’s Supper because it would give an entirely different meaning to the “bread.” Now, the elements of the Supper can do double duty, of course. The wine stands for the blood of Christ, but it is also an image of the Supper as a feast. We said that last Lord’s Day evening. It is not just that we drink Christ’s blood for the nourishment of our spiritual life, wine being drink as bread is food. Wine also signifies to us that the Lord’s Supper is a feast, and that in eating and drinking we are celebrating with thanksgiving the life of love, and peace, and eternal joy that Christ has given us by his death. In the same way, bread stands both for the body of the Lord and the nourishment of our lives. Bread is the staple of life. It serves as an image of our being fed and nourished and strengthened by this holy food: Christ present by his Spirit and the benefits of his salvation. That much is clear. But, the argument of the New Jersey Presbytery requires us to believe that the bread of the Supper does at least triple duty and that one of its significations is virtually the opposite of the others. Here, in 1 Cor. 5, “bread without yeast” is our holy life not the body of the Lord Jesus Christ which nourishes us. It is what we offer to him, not what he has provided for us.

It is a similar sort of problem that immersionists run into when they try to apply the death and burial with Christ imagery of Rom. 6 and Col. 2 to the question of the form or proper method of performing baptisms. They argue that there Paul is teaching us to perform a baptism in a way that looks like a burial underground and then a resurrection from the dead. But to do that requires making the water into which one is immersed and out of which one comes up – burial and then resurrection – into an image of the ground, the earth, of dirt. That is problematic in many ways, not least because Jesus was not buried that way, but entombed, but it is also problematic because it makes water a symbol of something completely different, almost opposite that which everyone admits is the symbolism of water in baptism. Water is used in baptism because it is an agent of cleansing. Everyone gets clean with water. That is why it is used; it is a symbol of our cleansing. It cannot then, without a terrible wrench, also be a symbol of the ground or of dirt. Those texts that speak about our burial and resurrection with Christ are talking about our salvation, about the salvation that is symbolized in baptism. They are not talking about how a baptism is to be performed. Paul says nothing about that.

Well, in the same way, it is a terrible wrench if bread in the Lord’s Supper is a symbol of Christ’s body – which the Lord explicitly says that it is – and so, of his sacrifice for us and, at the same time, a symbol of our holiness and obedience of life. No, the bread is what Christ gives us, the food he provides us. It is not a symbol of what we are and do for him! 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 is not about how the Lord’s Supper is to be served or about the symbolism of the elements in the Lord’s Supper. Rather Paul uses a common fact about yeast – that a little bit of it soon spreads to the entire lump of dough (a point never made explicitly in the OT) – to make the point that allowing sin to go unrebuked and uncorrected in the church must eventually corrupt the entire congregation. This is a passage about church discipline, not about the Lord’s Supper, as the opening verses of the chapter make clear. And, then, having mentioned the power of yeast to work through the entire dough, he picks up the thought of the Passover, without yeast, and Christ as our lamb. It is a mixed metaphor, an extended image, moving, as Paul often does, from one thought to the next. The mention of Passover brings him back to Christ, the lamb of God, and his death for us and his having broken the power of sin in us. And, by the end, he has developed the thought of a holy Christian life from these images.

I read this week a sermon on the analogy between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper by the 17th century English Puritan Richard Vines. It was based on this very text from 1 Cor. 5. And, interestingly, although he did use this text to relate the Passover and the Lord’s Supper to one another, he never drew the conclusion that we were being taught to take the Supper literally with unleavened bread. He took Paul to mean that when we come to the Supper we may not come with and in our sins, “for that’s eating with leavened bread.” “[We] cannot think to have Christ and [our] sin too, to be pardoned and not purged, to be saved and not sanctified.” [The Puritans on the Lord’s Supper, 18] At least Vines was right about that: Paul is not talking about how the Lord’s Supper is to be observed; he is speaking about how Christians are to live their lives.

c. Another difficulty with applying this text to the practice of the Lord’s Supper is that it makes bread not only a symbol of our obedience, when its signification is already the Lord’s body, by the Lord’s express teaching, but a symbol of still something else again. For we are forced to ask: if we connect the bread to the Passover Feast, as we do if we make it unleavened, then what is its meaning? Certainly in the Passover feast it was not a symbol of Christ’s body. All we are ever told is that it was a remembrance of the haste with which Israel left Egypt the night of the Passover. It is an historical recollection. But what then does the bread stand for if it comes into the Lord’s Supper as Passover bread by being unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper also?

The arguments offered for the overture conclude with the argument that Christ is sinless. So, clearly, they take unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper to be a symbol of Christ’s sinlessness. He is the lamb without blemish and without spot. That is absolutely true. But whether it is the meaning of “unleavened bread” is another question. You see, it certainly is not what Scripture teaches us to have been the meaning of unleavened bread in the Passover ritual. Paul does not teach us here that in the Passover unleavened bread was a symbol of Christ’s sinlessness – he says nothing about Christ’s sinlessness – nor does the Bible anywhere else in connection with the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper. If we are going to take the argument from 1 Cor. 5, unleavened bread is a symbol of our sinlessness, not Christ’s. So what would unleavened bread mean in the Lord’s Supper? That is the question and I do not believe we can answer it from biblical materials. But if we are to use unleavened bread, it must be for some reason. But we are not given a reason.

This is all the more the case because leaven is not simply an image of sin in the Bible. Paul doesn’t even use it that way here in 1 Cor. 5, at least not in the first place. He uses it as an example of something that spreads, just like sin can spread in a congregation of Christians. Only after using that thought does he elaborate his metaphor and compare yeast to sin and then yeast with unleavened bread as holiness. To be sure, “yeast” is often a symbol of sin. On several occasions in the gospels the Lord warns us against the “yeast or leaven of the Pharisees”, “Sadducees,” or “Herodians.” [Matt. 16:6; 22:23, 29; 22:16-21]

However, yeast can also be used of the image of something good and holy. For example, the Lord in his famous parable of the kingdom in Matt. 13:33 compares the kingdom of God to “yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.” Clearly the Lord is referring to the hidden, silent, mysterious but all-pervading and transforming growth and influence of the kingdom of God in the world. [NBD, 726]

So, in conclusion, the fact of the matter is that the Bible never teaches us or even implies that the Lord’s Supper was to be taken with unleavened bread. If it were to be, it never tells us what the lack of leaven would stand for, as the only explanation ever given for its place in the Passover ritual was as an historical recollection of Israel’s hasty departure from Egypt. The Lord’s Supper was instituted on the occasion of a Passover meal. But it is not itself a Passover meal. Nor is the Lord’s Supper the Last Supper. There are many features of that particular meal that do not carry over into the Lord’s Supper of the Christian church. It was twelve men and men only. Nowhere are we told in the NT that women should participate. It was taken with the participants reclining about a central table. There were the remnants of a large meal on that table. The Lord’s Supper is not defined by any of this. The Lord’s Supper arose out of a Passover meal, but it is itself only what the Lord made it to be. The Lord, we are told, “took break” and told us to take it as well: “bread” not “unleavened bread.” And he took the fruit of the vine. We are to do the same. Bread and Wine are the elements of the Lord’s Supper as the Lord himself defined that Supper.

We said, last week, that wine serves in the Supper both as a symbol of the Lord’s blood shed for us and of the Supper as a feast. Bread stands for the Lord’s body given up for us on the cross as our food and nourishment for life. Bread was the staple of life in the ancient world, so much so, that “our daily bread” in the Lord’s prayer stands for all the necessities of life. That much is perfectly clear in the Bible. Unleavened bread is, at best, a guess and a guess, in my judgment, based on weak arguments because, in every case, they amount to the application of texts to the Lord’s Supper that don’t have anything directly to do with the Lord’s Supper.

So, if we were to use unleavened bread, we would be unable to explain what it meant or what we were to appreciate about it in our own participation in the sacrament. So, with the vast majority of Christians through the ages, we propose that the elements to be used in the Lord’s Supper are bread, ordinary bread, the bread we eat every day, and wine, the drink of feasts.


OVERTURE 2 from New Jersey Presbytery (to CCB & B&O) “Amend BCO 58-5 – Use Unleavened Bread in Communion”

Whereas, the first paragraph of The Directory for the Worship of God, states that “BCO 56. 57 and 58 have been given full constitutional authority by the Eleventh General Assembly after being submitted to the Presbyteries and receiving the necessary two-thirds (2/3) approval of the Presbyteries,” and

Whereas, Exodus 12:8, 15-20 reveals that the Passover celebration and accompanying Feast of Unleavened Bread used unleavened bread,

Whereas, Luke 22:1 reveals that the Lord Jesus, when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, was sharing a Passover meal with His disciples, and

Whereas, 1 Corinthians 5:7 specifically states that believers are “unleavened” because Christ “our Passover” has been sacrificed, and

Whereas, “leaven” is sometimes used in the Bible to denote sin, (cf. Matthew 16:6, 11-12), and

Whereas, Jesus Christ is sinless, (Hebrews 4:15),

Therefore, be it so ordered that the BCO 58-5 be revised by the insertion of the word “unleavened” before each occurrence of the word “bread” in the first, second, and fourth paragraphs and by adding these words at the end of the first paragraph: “If unleavened bread is unavailable, bread with leaven (yeast) may be used, but this is not to be the usual or normal practice of a congregation.”

The first four paragraphs of BCO 58-5 shall now read (added words are underlined): “The table, on which the elements are placed, being decently covered, and furnished with unleavened bread and wine, and the communicants orderly and gravely sitting around it (or in their seats before it), the elders in a convenient place together, the minister should then set the elements apart by prayer and thanksgiving. If unleavened bread is unavailable, bread with leaven (yeast) may be used, but this is not to be the usual or normal practice of a congregation. The unleavened bread and wine being thus set apart by prayer and thanksgiving, the minister is to take the unleavened bread, and break it, in the view of the people saying: That the Lord Jesus Christ on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, gave it to His disciples, as I, ministering in His name, give this bread to you, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Here the unleavened bread is to be distributed. After having given the unleavened bread, he shall take the cup, and say…”

Adopted by the Presbytery of New Jersey on May 20, 2000.

Attested by: James A. Smith, Stated Clerk