Rev. Mark H. Creech
Scriptural sobriety: Rethinking wine in the Lord’s Supper
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By Rev. Mark H. Creech
April 20, 2024

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. In recognition, the following article is part two of a two-part series addressing two popular arguments made in favor of social drinking.

Several years ago, my wife, our son Matthew, then a teenager, and I decided to worship with some friends at a church of a different denomination. It happened to be a Sunday when they were observing the Lord’s Supper, and their practice involved a common cup, requiring each row to approach the front for the wine in remembrance of the Savior. With the church brimming with participants, Matthew found himself seated alone in the row directly ahead of us.

As my wife and I made our way down the aisle to partake, Matthew was already returning to his seat, his face etched with urgency and near panic. With a heartfelt plea, he whispered to me, “Daddy, don’t go! That stuff they’re serving is the real thing!”

Assuring him that everything was alright, we later shared a good laugh over the incident. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but swell with pride at his steadfastness regarding alcohol. This commitment persisted even as he embarked on a journey with the Coast Guard. Assigned to the USCG Eagle, the captain confided in me that Matthew was the sole sailor onboard who abstained from drinking. While his shipmates indulged during port visits, Matthew was there to ensure their safe return to the ship, where they could sleep off the effects of their revelry.

When contemplating the myriad of negative ramifications associated with alcohol use and abuse – ranging from liver disease, cardiovascular issues, and neurological disorders to an elevated risk of cancer, compromised immune function, diverse mental health challenges, alcoholism, incidents of impaired driving (many of which end in either life-altering injuries or death), strained interpersonal connections, legal entanglements, and financial burdens – it appears incongruous that some might invoke the consumption of wine during the Lord’s Supper as an alibi for their drinking habits. Nevertheless, they do, and quite often.

The origins of the Lord’s Supper can be traced back to the Passover feast during the Exodus period, where Jesus established it during his last supper with his disciples. The bread and the cup symbolize his sacrificed body and blood, representing the establishment of the New Covenant in himself. Jesus shaped the Lord’s Supper from the Passover feast.

During Passover, the exclusion of all yeast was absolute, necessitating the use of unleavened bread. This absence of leaven symbolized the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt – without time for their bread to rise, they baked it unleavened, giving rise to the tradition of consuming matzah during Passover. Additionally, in Jewish symbolism, leaven is associated with sin and corruption, so its removal during the Passover observance signified a purification ritual. The underlying message was clear: those who would be redeemed and counted among God’s people must hasten to be delivered from sin and its enslaving powers.

Interestingly, the Jewish Encyclopedia discusses the interpretation and application of the prohibition against eating leaven during the Passover festival. “To eat,” says the reference is understood broadly to encompass any form of consumption of leaven, including drinking it. It emphasizes that no advantage or enjoyment may be derived from leaven during the festival period. Failure to remove leaven from one’s possession, such as their domain or house, results in the violation of two prohibitions. The severity of the punishment varied depending on the circumstances, with the penalty of stripes (“makkat mardut”) being applied for certain violations. Additionally, leaven that was not removed during Passover could never be used afterward, regardless of whether the neglect was intentional or unavoidable. Mixing leaven with any other substance during Passover rendered the mixture unfit for use. [1]

In essence, the original observance of Passover dictated not only unleavened bread but also unfermented wine, emphasizing the absence of yeast in both elements.

Today Jews still come together for this special ceremonial meal known as the seder. During this gathering, they engage in rituals such as reading from a text called the Haggadah, consuming traditional foods like unleavened bread (matzah), and drinking four cups of wine. Historian Jonathan D. Sarna highlights that in the early nineteenth century, the wine used during Passover seders was often a non-alcoholic beverage made from water and raisins.

Sarna uncovered a recipe for this drink written by Mordecai M. Noah, a prominent figure in New York, renowned for his contributions to journalism, politics, and theater. Described as “the most eminent Jew of his day” by Sarna, Noah’s recipe involved placing three to four pounds of raisins into a gallon jug, covering them with water, and allowing the mixture to sit near a fire. After approximately a week, the resulting liquid was considered ready for consumption. Noah characterized this beverage as a “pure, pleasant, and sweet wine, free from alcohol,” arguing that this wine was “precisely the liquor used in old times for sacred purposes.” [2]

Sarna also quotes Noah arguing that raisin wine “is the wine we use on the nights of Passover, because it is free from fermentation, as we are strictly prohibited not only from eating unleavened bread, but from drinking fermented liquors.”

The historian then references Moses Stuart, the highly esteemed professor of sacred literature at Andover Theological Seminary, who said:

    “The great mass of Jews [at that time – the 19th century] have understood this prohibition as extending to fermented wine or strong drink, as well as to bread. The word is essentially the same, which designates the fermentation of bread and that of liquors. Hence the Jews, the world over, with few exceptions, have kept the Passover with unfermented wine.” [3]

Of course, Sarna noted the Talmud contradicted this point of view. But as John Freeman, in “Shadow Over America” pointed out:

    “It is quite evident, therefore, that the Jewish lawyers, probably influenced by pagan sources, came to feel that the Passover was incomplete without the libations in wine, so the Talmudic law which described wine superseded the Mosaic law in many places of sacrifice.” [4]

Numerous other evidences of this kind clearly shows that originally the Passover meal would not have allowed for a fermented wine.

Therefore, it is highly unlikely the wine Jesus used in establishing the Lord’s Supper, a ritual drawn from the Passover, would have been fermented in nature. As Freeman correctly noted:

    “Nowhere in the account of the Lord’s Supper is wine found. ‘He took the cup’ (Matt. 26:27) refers to the cup just used during the Passover where no ferment was allowed, not even in the house where the supper was prepared (Ex. 12:15). When Jesus spoke of the content of the cup, he called it the fruit of the vine (Matt. 26:29). Mark gives the same report of the occasion (Mark 14:22-25), and Luke’s version is quite similar (Luke 22:14-20). One is backed by good witnesses when he declares that in instituting the Memorial Supper the Lord did not use intoxicating wine; he used the natural ‘blood of the grape’ for it is to symbolize for future ages the blood he shed as Pascal Lamb (John 1:29, 36).” [5]

Admittedly, some find these assertions absurd – a remnant of the alleged backward Prohibition era. Today, one has to be some kind of Bubba, some kind of uneducated nut, to hold any view outside of the belief that every time the Bible speaks of wine, it’s always a fermented wine. But it is a fact that in Bible times, the word wine was used generically to describe both intoxicating (Proverbs 20:1) and non-intoxicating (Proverbs 3:10; Isaiah 16:10; 65:8) beverages. The context of the Scripture helps one understand how the word is being used, just as surely if someone today would use the word, “drink.” The context would determine what kind of drink was being suggested, alcohol or soda pop.

Neither is this point of view unintellectual. Peter Lumpkins in his book, “Alcohol Today: Abstinence In An Age of Indulgence” rightly surmises that in earlier years, abstinence from alcohol was the position of university presidents, seminary professors, medical professionals, linguists, Classic scholars, and New Testament and Old Testament theologians and scholars alike argued tirelessly in professional journals, books, pamphlets, and speeches not only the personal virtue of abstaining from intoxicating beverages but also the public vice of manufacturing, distributing, selling, and consuming alcoholic beverages for social and recreational purposes…to suggest that abstinence from recreational use of alcoholic intoxicants lacked scholarly support from the academic community…would seem to be blatant ignorance to the historical record or blind captivity to a desired lifestyle.” [6]

“Yes, but wait a minute,” someone says. “Aren’t you willing to admit that the wine used by the Corinthian church had to be an intoxicant? Didn’t Paul say that partaking of the Lord’s Supper among them had turned into gluttony and drunkenness?”

Yes, the point is well-taken. Nevertheless, as the late evangelist, Dr. Jack Van Impe fittingly wrote in his book, “Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy,” the Corinthian’s practice “had developed apart from apostolic instruction. In celebrating Communion, they had moved from the ‘fruit of the vine’ to intoxicating wine. There is no evidence that this is true in any of the other local churches spoken of in the New Testament. In Paul’s instruction concerning the Communion service, given to correct the errors at Corinth, he avoids the use of the word ‘wine.’” [7]

Indeed, Paul does avoid the word for wine, referring only to the “cup” (I Cor. 11:23-26), which is very significant.

Many people may be completely unaware of the history of Welch’s Grape Juice.

Dr. Thomas B. Welch, a dentist, pioneered unfermented sacramental wine due to the strong opposition by most churches to imbibing alcohol. Despite setbacks, his son Charles revived the business, and by 1880 churches everywhere were purchasing unfermented grape juice for use during the Lord’s Supper. Charles Welch emphasized the spiritual significance, stating, “Unfermented grape juice was born in 1869 out of a passion to serve God by helping his Church to give its communion ‘the fruit of the vine,’ instead of the ‘cup of devils.'” [8]

Be it known this writer does not mean to disrespect churches who use an intoxicating wine for the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, it would not only be disingenuous of me but cowardly if I didn’t stress that I believe this practice by the churches is in error and they should do better.

Unfermented wine can be used by all communicants, young or old, without any danger of creating or reawakening alcoholism in someone. The use of alcoholic wine at the Lord’s Supper has been known to rekindle that flame in some who had previously doused it by complete abstinence. Christians must be careful not to put a stumbling block in their brother’s way (Rom. 14:13). Furthermore, when Christians use non-alcoholic wine for the Eucharist, they extend no sanction whatsoever to the use and abuse of alcohol, which traffics in the most iniquitous behaviors.

At one point, many evangelical denominations staunchly advocated for abstinence from alcohol. However, this stance has shifted within numerous mainline denominations. Yet, this shift does not necessarily indicate a more enlightened or mature understanding within the Church. Nor does it serve as a justification for societal norms surrounding social drinking. Rather, it reflects a concerning trend of compromise within the Church, extending from views on alcohol to human sexuality.

Resources:

[1] Hirsch, Emil G. (volumes published from 1901-1906). “Passover.” The Jewish Encyclopedia, Volume 9, pg. 549. Retrieved from https://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3343-bitter-herbs.

[2]Gershon, Livia. (2019, April 12). “When Passover Meant Raisin Wine.” JSTOR Daily. Retrieved from https://daily.jstor.org/when-passover-meant-raisin-wine/.

[3] Sarna, Jonathan D. (1988). “Passover Raisin Wine, The American Temperance Movement, and Mordecai Noah: The Origins, Meaning, And Wider Significance Of A Nineteenth-Century American Jewish Religious Practice.” JSTOR Daily, Vol. 59, pg. 4.

[4] Freeman, John D. (1957). Shadow Over America. Convention Press, pg. 92.

[5] Ibid, pg. 93.

[6] Lumpkins, Peter. (2009). Alcohol Today: Abstinence In An Age of Indulgence. Hannibal Books, pg. 42.

[7] Van Impe, Jack, & Campbell, Roger F. (1980). Alcohol: The Beloved Enemy. Thomas Nelson Publishers, pp. 132-133.

[8] Iovino, Joe. (2016, June 28). “Methodist History: Communion and Welch’s Grape Juice.” The People of the United Methodist Church. Retrieved from https://www.umc.org/en/content/communion-and-welchs-grape-juice.

Read Related Article: Scriptural Sobriety: Challenging Assumptions About Jesus’ Wine Miracle

© Rev. Mark H. Creech

 

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Rev. Mark H. Creech

Rev. Mark H. Creech is Executive Director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc. He was a pastor for twenty years before taking this position, having served five different Southern Baptist churches in North Carolina and one Independent Baptist in upstate New York.

Rev. Creech is a prolific speaker and writer, and has served as a radio commentator for Christians In Action, a daily program featuring Rev. Creech's commentary on social issues from a Christian worldview.

In addition to RenewAmerica.com, his weekly editorials are featured on the Christian Action League website and Agape Press, a national Christian newswire.

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