In 1 Cor 10:17 Paul says, Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. For many Christians, Paul’s words in that verse do not make as much sense as they might otherwise, because they break the their Communion bread before they see it.1 While I do not believe that a church is disobedient or even irregular for breaking the bread beforehand, yet I believe if churches began their observance of Communion with one bread and then broke it as part of their worship service, churches would be more in line with the Apostolic practice of the Lord’s Supper.2 They would also better understand the sacred image of our communion or spiritual fellowship together.
I would like to encourage Gospel-preaching churches (who do not already do so) to consider using one loaf when they observe the Lord’s Supper.
Reasons for Using One Loaf
I believe that there are several good reasons for using one loaf in Communion. As a foundational matter, Christian churches must strive to follow the Bible’s pattern for worship. Indeed, churches have no right to depart from a New Testament practice, inasmuch as it is clearly discerned therein. While I recognize that the circumstances of worship are left as matters of wisdom and prudence to New Testament churches as they worship the Lord with the forms mandated by Scripture, we ought to approach our worship services with an attitude of submission to the authority of Christ whenever possible. With our submission to Christ in mind, I would suggest the following reasons for breaking one loaf as part of the church’s observance of the Lord’s Table:
First, using one loaf is Biblical. A clear Biblical mandate exists for this practice. I cited earlier 1 Cor 10:17, where Paul says, Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. I believe that this practice was derived from Christ’s own institution of the Supper. Take Mark 14:22, for example: And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Indeed, in the book of Acts we see that it was the practice of Christians from their very beginning, to observe the Lord’s Table with whole loaves. Acts 2:42 says, And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. I agree with most Biblical scholars that “the breaking of bread” in Acts 2:42 is a likely reference to Communion.
Second, Using one loaf has theological significance. Breaking the bread at the Lord’s Supper is not only established by New Testament practice, but the act has a dual theological meaning ascribed to it under the authority of Scripture. First, the broken bread represents Christ’s broken body for our sins. The reason Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper was to symbolize his body broken on the cross for our sins. (Incidentally, this symbol does not mean that Jesus’ bones were broken, but that his flesh was torn and broken for our sins [John 19:36; cf. Psa 34:20].) Jesus died for our sins. When Christians break one loaf as part of their Lord’s Supper service, they dramatically and vividly show the symbol that Jesus suffered in his broken flesh for our sins. Second, the broken bread represents our mutual fellowship and unity in Christ. Paul teaches in 1 Cor 10 that the symbol of one bread shows that a church is one. Eating one loaf doesn’t guarantee that a church will be united, or even that Christians in the church will act toward each other consist with their shared unity, but it does help teach them as a church each time they observe Communion that they are one body in Christ.
As a corollary to this point, as a Baptist, in our argument for the necessity of baptism by immersion, we not only point to the evidence for immersion as the mode of baptism in the early church, but we also argue that the mode is important because of the theological significance tied to it. In the case of one loaf for the Lord’s Table, we not only see that there was one loaf, but that there is theological importance and symbolism tied to the one loaf.3
This leads directly into the the third reason for using one loaf. Using one loaf in Communion is consistent with our greater practice as Baptists. (If you’re not a Baptist, I suppose you can skip this point.) Here I appeal to Baptists. As Baptists, we should desire to be consistent in how we practice both ordinances. If we insist that the biblical mode is important in baptism, we should follow the biblical mode or form as we understand it with respect to the Lord’s Supper. Our argument for credobaptism is rooted in both primitive Christian practice and the biblical, theological reasons behind that practice. If there are theological reasons for using one loaf, we should be consistent and use one loaf in that ordinance that as well. If the form for observing one loaf is specified in Scripture, we should use one loaf in that ordinance as well.
The fourth reason is that using one loaf is historic and has precedent in the church. John Cotton described 17th century American Congregationalist observance of the Table: “In the time of solemnization of the Supper, the Minister having taken, broken, and blessed the bread, and commanded all the people to take and eate it, as the body of Christ broken for them, he taketh it himselfe, and giveth it to all that sit at Table with him, and from the Table it is reached by the Deacons to the people sitting in the next seates about them, the Minister sitting in his place at the Table.”4 Horton Davies summarizes Cotton Mather’s description of Puritan Communion in this way: “When he reaches Christ’s reference to the bread, ‘he touches with his Hand the Loaves of Bread in the Dishes (or takes the Dishes towards him) now before him uncovered, where they were aforehand fitted easily to be broken in pieces.’ Meanwhile the communicants are standing and when he has said, ‘And HE BLESSED it,’ the minister prays in gratitude for the truths of the Gospel which the Lord’s Supper recalls and asks for a blessing on the bread and the communicants. The fraction follows, either in silence or with the minister adding appropriate sentences of Scripture or ‘their own Pathetic Thoughts.’”5 John Stott put it this way:
The breaking of the bread demonstrates [our unity in Christ]. It is not just that for centuries in middle eastern culture to ‘break bread together’ is the way in which people pledge and cement their commitment to one another. It is also that the nature and means of our unity are symbolized in the bread we eat. ‘Because there is one loaf’, Paul wrote, ‘we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’ (1 Corinthians 10:17). In order to retain this vivid symbolism, real bread should be used rather than wafers. Each communicant then receives a fragment from the same loaf, because each is a member of the same body, the body of Christ, the church. Further, since the loaf is an emblem of our crucified Saviour, it is our common participation in him (set forth visibly in our common participation in it) which makes us one.
We even see hints of this in Second London Baptist Confession 30.3: “The Lord Jesus hath in this Ordinance, appointed his Ministers to Pray, and bless the Elements of Bread and Wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use, and to take and break the Bread; to take the Cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the Communicants.”
How do we do this?
I think churches need to think through how they do this on their own. Different methods will work for different congregations. For our assembly, I considered providing napkins with the plate and having believers break off chunks themselves. In the end, we ended up having the administrator simply break the loaf himself at the Table and distribute the broken pieces into the two trays for distributing the bread. When I lead, I read or recite Scripture while I am breaking the bread.
Having made a brief case for one loaf, allow me to answer briefly some objections.
You’re still being inconsistent! What about the one cup? Some might object that I am still being inconsistent in not lobbying for one cup. If they are right, I am being hypocritical, for I argued above that one of the reasons for adapting one loaf is that Baptists, who argue that form matters with baptism, should be consistent in the practice of ordinances. This I offer in response. First, we do not see an emphasis on the one cup in the New Testament like we do the one loaf. In fact, I would argue that it’s not at all clear that they used one cup. Second, we do not see the theological significance of one cup in the New Testament like we do for one bread. Indeed, Paul arguably goes out of his way to show that the one bread, and not the one cup, is a symbol for one body in Christ. Paul does this when he reverses the normal order of the ordinance (which is usually first bread, then the cup; cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26). Paul explicitly uses the adjective “one” (εἷς) only with “bread” in 1 Cor 10:16-17. He never makes the connection between one cup and one body (ἓν σῶμα), as he does with the one bread. I know that there are some denominations that use one cup, and there might even be good reasons for doing so. But the Biblical ground for one cup is on shaky ground, where the Biblical ground for one loaf is not.
It’s unclean! Some Christians may think that using one loaf is unsanitary. They don’t want to get other Christians’ germs. To this I am tempted to reply that I think we should return to the holy kiss as well. (…Kidding…) In all seriousness, Christians have been using one loaf for a long time, and they mostly survived the practice. We have no evidence that using one loaf in Lord’s Supper will cause sickness or the more rapid spread of illness. Even so, there are sanitary ways of enjoying one loaf, as I proposed above.
It’s something liturgical churches do! Perhaps some Christians believe that churches should not use one loaf because it has associations with high, liturgical, or even unbelieving churches. To this I would reply that this may or may not be the case. In fact, I have no idea if it is or not (I didn’t bother doing a search on the Internet, which, since the Internet is purported to be omniscient, would surely know). Even if it was true that one loaf was associated with liturgical churches, I do not propose that churches use one loaf because “high churches” do it. I propose churches do it because it is biblical. If there are places where another kind of church is practicing their faith more consistently than we are, we ought to be humble enough to learn from them. Yet, again, that’s not why I believe churches should consider doing this. My reasons are given above, and “liturgical churches do this” is not a reason among them. Moreover, using one loaf is not an endorsement of any liturgical church or unbiblical denomination.
It’s a big change. Finally some may object that they as a church should not do this because it is a big change. I agree that this has the potential of being a big change, but I believe the change is warranted, given the biblical support for the practice. Even so, I would strongly encourage church leaders to lead their assemblies to do this carefully and thoughtfully. It might even be a “long term goal.” I would not divide a church over it. But for those who fear it is a big change. Along these lines, we should remember, it is not a change that moves us out of fellowship with other assemblies, for using one loaf has historical precedent. In addition, it is not a change that will hurt other churches and believers, but help them. Some “big changes” are worth doing, and I believe using one loaf at Communion is one of them.
- I owe a debt of thanks to Michael Riley for helping to shape my thinking on the question of one loaf. [↩]
- In fact, all things being equal, I would gladly participate in a Communion service where the church broke the bread beforehand without my conscience being harmed. I encourage others to do the same. [↩]
- In Understanding Four Views on Baptism, Richard L. Pratt, Jr., the author of the Reformed View of Baptism, writes: “To argue by analogy, it is common for Baptists to exercise freedom in many circumstances as they observe the Lord’s Supper. The elements are served in individual cups and wafers, even though this was not the NT pattern. In fact, Paul spoke of “the cup” and “the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:16 – 17) and drew specific theological implications for the unity of the body of Christ in the oneness of the loaf. Even so, few Baptists insist on observing these details because the Scriptures do not clearly insist on them. Observing the Supper is an element of worship, but the precise manner in which we serve Communion is a matter of circumstance.” [↩]
- Horton Davies, Worship of American Puritans, 189. [↩]
- Davies, 191. [↩]