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A Modest Proposal: One Loaf in Communion

Harley 2865 f.53In 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.

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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.”

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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.

Objections

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.

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It’s a big changeFinally 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.

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too.



Endnotes:

  1. I owe a debt of thanks to Michael Riley for helping to shape my thinking on the question of one loaf. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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.” []
  4. Horton Davies, Worship of American Puritans, 189. []
  5. Davies, 191. []

29 Responses to A Modest Proposal: One Loaf in Communion

  1. This is very helpful, Ryan. Thanks. Our church already uses one loaf and breaks it during the Words of Institution, but I will definitely be saving your post to share with my students and others.

  2. Ryan,

    I am thankful that someone has finally mentioned 1 Cor 10 and that “the broken bread represents our mutual fellowship and unity in Christ.” I’m fairly certain that I have never heard this aspect of communion mentioned during any Lord’s Table service in which I have participated. I tend to think that this is the primary symbolism of the element of the bread and if one loaf helps advance this understanding, I’m all for it.

  3. Great article, Ry. You have hit the nail very squarely on the head by comparing Baptists’ insistence on mode/form in baptism, and their tendency to ignore it in the Supper. That has often occurred to me. At times I’ve suggested the “one loaf/one cup” idea to pastors, and their nonchalance about the idea would contrast strongly with their response to any meddling with the mode of baptism!

  4. Andy, I think you’re exactly right. I even had a sincere lady once tell me, “We don’t call it Communion; we call it The Lord’s Supper. Catholics call it Communion.”

    Yet without understanding the Communion aspect, we are missing a significant part of the symbolism.

  5. Will and others,

    I’m grateful that the article was an encouragement to you. I do hope the practice of one loaf spreads. Even though I say it is a “big change” in the article, once you do it a few Sundays, it really is not that big of a difference.

  6. Hi Ryan. Thanks for your article. I resonate with the theological arguments you make for using a single loaf. As an Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (Anabaptist) church, we have moved to utilizing a real loaf that we break as we say the words of institution, and a real cup that we pour. However, the reality of our situation is that we can’t distribute 1150 pieces of bread from that loaf. Consequently, we pass out gluten free wafers and pre-filled cups. The wafers are largely due to the fact that my colleague is GF, and my daughter is a celiac (and many others we know of), so they were having to abstain from the bread altogether, which to me is an unfortunate state of affairs when all believers are called to worship at the Table. So it’s a case of ideals vs. real-world issues.

    Our smaller evening service only has about 100, and they break a gluten free loaf, so that works better. But the challenge for larger churches is that unless we see the loaves and fishes (minus the fishes) miracle again, some will go without. Just a couple of thoughts to put in the mix.

    Thanks again.

    p.s. our church has increasingly taught that the communion meal is an expression of our unity in Christ, and not simply an act of personal piety.

  7. Johnny,

    Thank you for taking the time to interact and share your perspective, especially the thoughts on the difficulty of doing this with a larger assembly.

    Ryan

  8. Yeah I had the same question about larger churches. What do you think was happening in Jerusalem in the early chapters of Acts when there were thousands of believers in the city?

    Also, Ryan, any thoughts on frequency? Would you argue for weekly observance on similar grounds?

  9. Ben, I think they were breaking the bread in Jerusalem. That’s what it says. With respect to larger churches, I’d love to hear what others have to say, but I’d humbly suggest the following if I led a larger congregation (though I’ve not yet put any of these into practice; the church I pastor is a quite small rural congregation):

    (1) Consider planting another congregation out of your existing congregation;
    (2) Figure out an average amount of time it takes you (or the administrator) to break the loaves yourself. (I usually break far too much for our congregation from the small loaf we have). You might be surprised at how quickly it takes you to get the fragments necessary. No matter what, in a larger church or smaller church, I’d recommend test driving things before you practice it in front of the congregation. I’d also note that what to the administrator seems like a long time (being up in front) is not as long a time to the congregation, especially if the congregation is a group of a faithful believers who have their eyes on Christ at the ordinance rather than the clock;
    (3) Have several men beside the administrator break the loaves with him;
    (4) In extremely large congregations, do something like what Johnny recommends: have some of the loaves broken first.

    Also, Ben, this article was not about frequency (obviously). I am not convinced that Acts 2 demands weekly observance. Right now, our congregation observes Communion monthly. So I would not argue for the necessity of weekly observance on similar grounds. I know there are good arguments for weekly observance, but at this point I do not see it stipulated anywhere in Scripture and regard it a matter of prudence. My understanding and comprehension of theology and the Scriptures is admittedly limited, so there might be some things that I am missing. My understanding of Scripture at this time has led me to believe that a church should practice communion often.

  10. In our church, the whole congregation surrounds the table (again, only possible in a smaller church). We break the loaf in half during the words of institution, and then we walk around to each individual, who then tears off a piece of the bread him/herself.

    On occasion, instead of surrounding the table, we ask each family to come to the table in turn to be served in a similar fashion. This would work for a larger church.

    These are suggestions that save the administrator from having to break the loaf into multiple pieces, which is the case if plates are passed. If people come to the table to be served, which is the case both ways for us, then they can break off their own pieces.

  11. Hey Ryan,

    My point about Jerusalem was to understand whether you’re conceding that one loaf is not necessary. It seems as though you’re modifying your one-loaf-is-necessary argument to a breaking-a-loaf is necessary, and it’s a matter of prudence whether everyone or even anyone consumes that particular loaf.

  12. Sure, Ben. Good point, and I appreciate your sharpening my thinking. I would try to use one loaf whenever possible, but breaking that loaf and eating that loaf is what I am encouraging churches to do. I believe breaking the loaf is an important symbol. When more than one loaf is necessary to distribute bread to the entire assembly, then I don’t think that destroys Paul’s argument. I’d be happy to hear how others think through this though.

  13. One can, I think, simplify the question as follows:

    Which practice better follows likely NT practice and illustrates Paul’s “one bread” statement? The use of whole loaves (whether single or as many as required for the amount of people present) or pre-fab wafers that are really never broken?

  14. Without getting into all the background, I’ve been mulling over the NT pattern on several of these issues—frequency, breaking bread, nature of the bread (gluten free? leavening?), place in the service, and whether to use the same verbal form at each observance. So many issues—the absolute essentials of the symbolism of the Supper, the relationship between the covenants, descriptive vs. prescriptive, ambiguities in the text. And, dare I say, contextual questions? (I’m not talking about biblical context.)

    I’m not sure there’s a decisive biblical answer to any of them, but that’s not to say they’re adiaphora.

    I will say that I’m struggling to see how we could give ground on one loaf but not on breaking a loaf. IOW, I think your point is valid that breaking seems important. One loaf also seems important in 1 Corinthians, but I don’t see that particular emphasis in other passages you cite. It also seems that Cotton Mather allowed for multiple loaves, for whatever that’s worth.

  15. And by the way, planting a church out of our congregation is part of what puts this matter in my mind, but not because our ambition is to get down to one-loaf-size.

  16. While we’re at it, I’ve heard some appeal to the logic we’ve been using to insist upon using alcoholic wine. I’m not convinced, but it’s out there.

  17. Scott, you may be contractually obligated to remain unconvinced. Just know we’re watching you. ;-)

    I don’t see a specific exegetical argument for alcoholic content in the wine, as Ryan is making about bread. I can see a reasonable biblical-theological argument. In any case, I always refer to “the cup” or “the fruit of the vine.” Never “the juice.”

    Speaking of which, Welch’s grape juice got its start marketing to churches during the temperance movement. I’d post a link, but the site won’t let me. Go to Wikipedia.

  18. John Piper is the one who convinced me that wine was unnecessary. One time I heard him observe that “wine” is never used to refer to the contents of the cup. In other words, I’m with Ben (to some degree)–the Biblical case is not there. One has to argue theologically to make the case, and that argument, as I’ve heard it, can go both ways. And we should always remember that modern wines are much (even essentially) different than ancient wines.

  19. With respect to the number of loaves, I’ll reiterate that I think that the use of multiple loaves does not defeat Paul’s argument. Though I entitled my article “one loaf in communion,” I believe the following elements are crucial to my argument: (1) the breaking of a loaf [or several loaves] for the Table, and (2) taking the time break loaves as part of the Lord’s Table. Moreover, my presentation is not simply a positive alternative, but it is also discouragement to churches from having everything broken beforehand.

    You’re right about Cotton Mather, Ben.

    Even if you are breaking multiple loaves, Paul’s point is still valid. Each of them represents the one body. In fact, I would say that if multiple loaves do not in some way destroy the symbolism of ONE broken body of our Lord for our sins (who ever heard of such a thing?), why would multiple loaves destroy the symbol of ONE corporate body of Christ that is the church?

    In many congregations, one loaf will be sufficient. But if you need more bread, why not use more loaves? You’d be hard pressed to make an argument that you must either limit the participants or stop breaking the bread during the service merely because of the size of the local assembly.

    [Edited to fix some really bad grammar.]

  20. Yeah, I can see that, Ryan.

    And as a practical matter—as long as we’re talking about the normativity of biblical patterns—I can see no reason why a biblically plural eldership couldn’t break multiple loaves simultaneously.

  21. Scott, how does your congregation handle non-members when everyone gathers around the table? Are you closed communion, or do you encourage believing, baptized non-members to gather with you?

    As much as I appreciate the symbolism of the covenanted members gathering, I can imagine that there might be drawbacks to such a stark identification of those who aren’t welcome to the table.

  22. Scott, Why do many churches use leavened bread? Certainly, at the institution of the Lord’s Supper at the Passover, the bread was not leavened. Indeed, the entire week-long feast is known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, is it not?

  23. Hi, Ben. We practice close communion, so we announce as part of our introduction that all baptized Christians who are in fellowship with Christ and his church are welcome at the Table. We also announce that any unbaptized children or others not taking communion may receive a pastoral prayer by crossing their arms across their chest. So even our children come to the Table with us, but they do not partake of the elements. One of our elders walks around during distribution and prays for each child or others who are not taking the elements.

    David, I think your question illustrates the heart of this whole discussion. When considering the various ways we could serve the elements or practice Communion, the important question involves whether the imagery of the particular issue at hand is essential to the Table practice or not.

    So, I agree with Ryan and others here that one loaf and the breaking of that loaf in the service is an image essential to what the Table is. On the other hand, I would disagree with those who insist that alcoholic content in the cup is an essential image. Was the wine Jesus used alcoholic? No doubt. But the alcohol pictures nothing essential to the table (and, as Ryan pointed out, the alcoholic content would have been much less than it is in wine today).

    So the question with leaven in the bread is whether unleavened bread pictures something essential to the Lord’s Supper. It certainly pictured something important to the Passover, but is it necessary for the Lord’s Supper. At this point I’m not sure unleavened bread is essential, but I could be corrected.

  24. Interesting, Scott. I’ve never heard of that practice before, but I’m assuming it’s not an mark of your church’s innovative instincts. Hypothetically then, a non-Christian or someone under discipline would gather at the table, just not partake. Am I reading you right?

    As for leaven, my instinct is that the symbolism of the unleavened bread was bound to the symbolism of the Passover meal, which is fulfilled in the death of Christ and its implications for those who, through it, receive redemption and forgiveness. I think I’d argue that leavened bread actually better displays the full fulfillment of the Passover, but I’m just thinking it through.

  25. We find value in our children, and other unbelievers who are in attendance, to witness the Table and learn from its meaning and significance. And, each time we celebrate, an elder personally prays for the conversion of each child. So they come to the table, but they do not eat with us; that also has opened some good conversations with my children.

    I agree with you on the leaven as well.

  26. found this discussion when I searched Google for denominations that used one loaf and one cup at communion. Interesting. I consider it so vital as to be a litmus test as to whether a church is scriptural. The church of Christ used one cup and loaf until about 100 years ago, when a member introduced multiple cups and loaves. It took off from there. Yet there is one fellowship of the church of Christ that has remained faithful to the practice. Jesus said “this do” (i.e. “do this”) and Paul said ” I have received of the Lord that which I have delivered unto you”. It is obvious to a child that Christ used one loaf, broke off a piece and passed it to each disciple who in turn broke off a piece. He passed one cup to the disciples who in turn drank from it. The one bread has eternal significance and the one cup with its fruit of the vine also is essential. Both are foretold by Old Testament examples. It is also obvious that the New Testament church observed this practice every Lord’s day. We would do well to follow the commands and examples given to us. Happy to have a discussion about this part of worship that the church of Christ has been observing since Christ gave it.

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