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LIFE > Life in the World > Drinkers of Wine > Wine and the Early Church > The Lord's Supper

THE LORD'S SUPPER (I Cor. 11:17-24)

During the love (agape) feast, a time of eating and fellowship in the early Church, the Lord’s Supper was observed. At Corinth this celebration had developed into a display of discrimination and separation, instead of being a time to exhibit the unity that is to distinguish the body of Christ. The rich alienated themselves from the poor, violating the very name of the feast; the rich had plenty to eat and drink, while the poor were in want. There was little evidence of love.

Paul wrote to the Church: “I hear that there are divisions among you” ((I Cor. 11:18); and, according to the apostle, the divisions resulted in one being “hungry” and another being “drunk” (v. 21). Some had too much to drink, and some had too little to eat. The feast that was to be a time of unity had been destroyed by their separating into rich and poor, with the rich showing discrimination toward the poor.

One of the practices the believers at Corinth were guilty of was drinking too much. The point is that those in the Church drank that which could cause drunkenness. And some drank excessively and got drunk, adding additional shame to the Supper. Paul did not condemn the drinking of wine, as the modern pastor who is committed to teetotalism would do, for he asked: “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in?” (I Cor. 11:22). Paul’s admonition to them was to do their drinking at home if it could not be done properly when the Church was gathered. He would not tolerate such drunken behavior.

Paul spoke of “the cup” (I Cor. 11:25) the Lord drank when He instituted the Lord’s Supper and gave guidelines for their drinking that cup. Paul’s reference was to the cup of the Passover, which was a cup of wine. Their cup was to be the Lord’s cup; they were to drink what he Savior had drunk. They were to drink wine like the Lord. Believers in the Church would not have thought to do otherwise. It was the cup of “the new covenant” (v. 25) and was taken in proclamation of the Lord’s death and in anticipation of His return (v. 26). The cup the early Church used was a cup of wine, as they imitated their Lord and followed the instructions He had give. “While oinos is not used in the accounts of the Last Supper, it is obvious that the cup contains wine” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 680). Grape juice in the modern sense was simply unknown.

From the beginning, according to Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology, the Church used wine, either pure or diluted with water, as the drink for the Supper (III, 616-617). The Armenian Church has consistently refused to mix water with the wine. It is interesting to note that Hodge, like Augustine, referred to the Aquarians, a group that used water rather than wine at the Eucharist; some groups have even used milk. But these were splinter groups, and their practice was always viewed as an anomaly. The Council of Braga in 675 AD forbade the use of any liquid except wine for the drink at the Supper. Throughout the Middle Ages, wine was the accepted drink in the Church, both East and West.

Historically, wine has been the drink at the Lord’s Supper. Without any debate and without any inhibition, the Church has drunk wine throughout its history as it celebrated the death and resurrection of the Christ and looked forward to being reunited with the Lord. This has been done because wine was the drink at the Passover, and it was the drink Jesus used when He instituted the Lord’s Supper.

At the time of the Reformation, wine was considered an acceptable drink by the Reformers and the required drink at the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Concerning food and wine Calvin wrote in the Institutes that they are “among the benefits of God” and that God “gave all such things to men” (III, X, 2). Part of his annual salary provided by the Church in Geneva consisted of several barrels of wine. Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli enjoyed wine as a beverage, wrote approvingly of its use, while warning of it abuse, and felt that it was the only acceptable drink to use at the Lord’s Supper. “All the Reformers were united that the wine comes from God but the drunkard comes from the Devil” (West, Drinking with Luther and Calvin, 30).

Through the first part of the nineteenth century, all Christian groups in America, whatever their beliefs and practices in other areas, used wine during the Lord’s Supper. It was the acceptable drink and an alternate one was never discussed. It was acceptable because moderate drinking was not a moral issue in the minds of most believers. Even the Puritans enjoyed their wine as well as other forms of alcoholic beverage; they “did not have any problems about people drinking as long as it did not lead to drunkenness” (Barr, Drink, 366).

The acceptance of moderate drinking led believers in the Church to oppose the teetotalism of the temperance movement that gained momentum between 1830 and 1840, finally leading in 1920 to Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933. Many believers were against this new teetotalism because it would mean abandoning the practice of using wine which had characterized the Church for eighteen hundred years. Moderation was defended by those who were in favor of continuing to use wine at the Lord’s Supper on the basis of Scriptural teaching and previous ecclesiastical practice, neither of which support abstinence. It is interesting to note that some in the temperance movement were in favor of wine, and were only opposed to the stronger distilled spirits.

Today the Protestant churches are divided between the traditional wine and the recent innovation, grape juice. And grape juice is a recent innovation, appearing in the last half of the nineteenth century. According to the booklet, This is Our Story, published by the Welch’s Grape Juice Company, Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, a Methodist minister turned dentist, “not only was the first to make grape juice 125 years ago, but, by this achievement, he was also responsible for the development of the fruit juice industry as we know it today.” Following is the record of the events in the words of the company:

Back in 1869, a New Jersey dentist, Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, wondered if the theories of Louis Pasteur could be applied to the processing of grapes to produce an unfermented wine that could be used in his church’s communion service.

One day with his wife and 17-year-old son, Charles, he picked about 40 pounds of Concord grapes from the family’s yard. Taking over Mrs. Welch’s kitchen, they cooked the grapes for a few minutes and then squeezed the juice through cloth bags into twelve quart bottles.

After sealing the bottles with cork and wax, Dr. Welch lowered them into boiling water long enough to kill all yeast organisms in the juice and prevent fermentation—the same technique used in the pasteurization of milk.

For weeks the family waited, listening for the explosion that would signify failure. But no explosions occurred and when the bottles were opened, Dr. Welch discovered he had succeeded in producing a sweet, unfermented grape juice.

He convinced his pastor to try his unfermented wine, as he called it, and began processing and selling a limited amount to churches in Southern New Jersey.

Welch, according to the company that bears his name, developed grape juice for the purpose of replacing the wine used by his church during the Lord’s Supper. He was caught up in the temperance movement of the last century and felt that the historical use of wine was improper. He even called his drink “unfermented wine,” a contradiction in terms.

Initially churches rejected his product, preferring the drink of the New Testament. It was Welch’s son, Charles, who persuaded some churches to adopt the new product. Slowly churches began to accept the novel drink. “By the time that national Prohibition was introduced, the Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Methodist, and Baptist churches had abandoned the use of wine in the celebration of Holy Communion. But the Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic churches persisted in their traditional practice (as did the synagogues)” (Barr, Drink, 363). And nearly a century and a half later the churches are still divided, emotionally and stridently, over the proper drink for the Lord’s Supper.

The conclusion of the matter is as follows: to drink grape juice is to follow the urgings of Dr. Thomas Welch; to drink wine is to drink what Jesus and the disciples drank at the original Supper.

Christ’s church is a banqueting-house,
and the banquet in it, like Esther’s, is a banquet of wine;
such is the ordinance of the supper,
a feast of fat things, of wine on the lees well refined.
John Gill

If a person can’t tolerate wine,
omit it (the sacrament) altogether in order that
no innovation may be made or introduced.
Martin Luther

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