My Conversation with a One Cup Church

CB064070Throughout the nineteenth century, churches of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement followed the practice of other Protestant congregations in passing one shared cup in communion. In the 1890s, fears over the spread of tuberculosis and the Spanish flu induced churches across America to replace the single cup with small individual cups. This “hygienic” practice has become typical in many churches, including Churches of Christ, so that instead of passing the shared cup, most mainstream churches pass the tray—specially designed holders for tiny, individual glass or plastic cups. In 1911, C. E. Holt wrote an article in Gospel Advocate suggesting that churches use the individual cups.

old-paths-advocate-church-of-christ
Old Paths Advocate – a journal began in 1929 articulating the views of churches opposing Sunday Schools and individual cups for the Lord’s Supper.

Some church leaders and writers reacted with alarm. To them, using individual cups was an unauthorized deviation from apostolic example. Furthermore, the cup symbolized the unity of the Body of Christ and common fellowship. Such symbolism was destroyed by the adoption of single, individual cups. New journals came out promoting the One Cup view, and tensions became so great that in the 1920s a small group of congregations removed themselves from fellowship with the mainstream Churches of Christ. In 2009, there were 551 “One Cup” churches with 17,313 members, mostly located in Texas. Almost all these churches were congregations without Sunday Bible Schools.

One Loaf, One Cup

Our Wednesday night class has been studying “The Story of Churches of Christ.” One of my hopes for our class is foster better understanding, not just of our own congregational identity and theology, but also of those congregations who are different than we are. Not only can we learn from other congregations, but perhaps understanding, empathy, and an emphasis on the commitments that we hold in common can help us repair some of the divisiveness that plagued Churches of Christ in the twentieth century.

So I called Randy Ballard, an evangelist for Fairbanks church of Christ here in Houston. Fairbanks is a “One Cup” congregation with no Sunday school. I wanted to know why having a single cup was so important to this church and what they feel is lost when we use the multiple cups and trays.
As our conversation began, a couple of things impressed me. First, the division between One Cup churches and mainstream churches is often seen as a consequence of legalism and a sectarian spirit. Randy is neither sectarian nor legalistic. His commitment to the single cup comes from his study of scripture, deep reflection on the nature of communion and covenant, and a desire to be faithful to God’s word. And while he believes the One Cup perspective to be correct and important, he doesn’t consider it a test of fellowship. In fact, the first thing he said to me was that the division in our fellowship “is a sad shame.” He reminded me that of the night before Jesus’ crucifixion that Jesus prayed “that they [the disciples] may be one” (John 17:22), and our tendencies to divide over issues destroys that vision.

Here’s the conversation.[1]

Describe for me, what happens during the Lord’s Supper. What does it look like?

One man waits on the table. We use the term, “waits;” I know it’s not biblical. He officiates or leads. He will go to the table and make some comments about Jesus’ death or whatever he feels is appropriate. The table has been prepared before hand, and we have a cloth that sits over the bread and the cup. So he removes the cloth, picks up the loaf of bread and offers thanks for it. Usually a couple of younger fellows will pass that around, although I know some churches just pass it from person to person without any helpers. Then the man waiting on the table will ask if anyone was passed up. Then we’ll do the same with the cup, passing it around.

Is this a single loaf?

Yes, a single loaf of unleavened bread. It looks about like a thick tortilla. And this goes back to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, where Paul talks about the one body and the one bread. [“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”]

Communion cup used at the Fairbanks church of Christ. Photo provided by Randy Ballard.
Communion cup used at the Fairbanks church of Christ. Photo provided by Randy Ballard.

And then the cup is fairly large. Well, it’s not like a Stanley Cup or anything; it holds about, maybe, 24 ounces. It has two handles that we use to pass it around. We use unfermented grape juice. We used to use Welch’s, but Welch’s no longer makes pure, unadulterated grape juice, so in the last year we’ve switched to organic grape juice.

OK, so here’s the question you knew I was going to ask. Churches of Christ—along with all the other churches—switched from one cup to individual cups over concerns about hygiene and communicable disease. What is your perspective here?

 Yeah, we only have one, maybe two people die each year from sharing the cup.

Wait… what?

I’m just kidding.

I don’t think hygiene is an important concern for a couple reasons. First, I believe that this is what the Bible tells us to do. This is what God instituted. And if that’s true, then it doesn’t matter if we all get sick and die from sharing the cup, we’re going to be faithful to God. I mean, just think about those three young men who didn’t bow to Nebuchadnezzar’s image, even under the threat of death. If something is right, then we do it. And I do believe it’s a mandate from God. So if you’re worried about getting sick, then it’s a bit of a test of faith.

I do believe [using one cup] is a mandate from God. So if you’re worried about getting sick, then it’s a bit of a test of faith.

Yeah, we have examples of people who are faced with death for following God’s will. So we’re afraid of what? Getting a cold?

 Exactly. The second reason though is that it’s actually not a big deal. Several entities and organizations like the CDC have been asked about this practice, and they’ve said that the chance of sharing disease is pretty low. In fact, you’re more susceptible to getting sick from sitting next to a person who is sick and breathing their air than you are from drinking after them. Also, most cups are silver or silver plated, which may have some anti-microbial qualities, but I’m not sure about that. [2]

So what you’re saying is, on the one hand any risk associated with sharing the communion cup is worth being faithful to the practice and sharing symbolically with the congregation, and on the other hand the fears of disease are generally overblown?

 Yes, exactly. That’s a good way to put it. Here’s the thing, too. That word “communion” means sharing, and that idea is intimate. Look, people who know me know that I’m a germ-freak. I don’t eat or drink after people. I don’t even drink after myself; I won’t put a glass down for half an hour and then come back to it later. I’ll rinse it out and fill it back up. But in communion, in that moment, there’s an intimacy in sharing the cup. It’s a joint participation.

In communion, in that moment, there’s an intimacy in sharing the cup. It’s a joint participation.

Also, look at the four accounts of the Lord’s Supper. We can compare and contrast them. When Jesus hands them the cup, in two of them, Jesus says, “This is my blood of the testament” [Or “covenant.” Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24]. But in the other two [Lk. 22:20, 1 Cor. 11:25], Jesus says “This cup is the new testament in my blood.” There’s something going on here with the cup and the blood.

We have to understand the meaning of this. I believe that the cup, the container, is symbolic of the testament. The juice is symbolic of the blood. But I don’t see the two as separate elements. I don’t say the cup is the new testament[3] and the grape juice is the blood as though they were different things. The grape juice in the cup is the blood, and the cup containing the juice is the new testament. It’s like if you were to ask me for some coffee. I wouldn’t just pour coffee into your hand—burn you—and say that I’d given you coffee. Nor would I hand you an empty cup. Giving you coffee means handing you a cup with coffee in it. The cup is part of the element.

And the covenant and blood inseparable. In the Bible, anytime there was a new covenant, it was ratified by blood. So Moses ratifies the covenant with Israel by taking the blood and sprinkling it on the people, and saying “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words” (Ex. 24:7-8). And so the New Covenant is ratified by Jesus’ blood, as we see in Hebrews 9. So you can’t have the new covenant without the blood of Jesus. The cup symbolizes the covenant, and the juice the blood, and you have to have them both. But that symbol gets lost in multiple cups.

That is a more sophisticated theological understanding that what usually gets talked about when we talk about our practices of communion. The perhaps stereotypical argument is that multiple cups are not “authorized” by command or apostolic example.

Sure, and I don’t want to discount that argument. The old Nadab and Abihu and unauthorized fire story. It’s an important argument, but I do believe there’s more going on here. There are deeper reasons for using one cup than simply that multiple cups aren’t explicitly authorized.


 

Again, I’m grateful for Randy for our conversation together.

I would like to offer a couple of takeaways. First, the single loaf and the single chalice are powerful symbols that point us to the unity of the Body of Christ in a way that broken matzah fragments and single-serving cups do not. During our communion mediations, we are often fighting against the signs themselves in order to get them to signify the united cup—we point, for example, at a tray full of cups and talk of the “one cup of the new covenant.” I am attracted to practices that use a single cup and loaf.

Second, far more important than the shape of our communion practices are the people with whom we commune. We can have heated discussions about whether multiple cups are an acceptable way of taking communion. However, if we let those arguments keep us from sharing the cup—in whatever form—then we’re missing the point altogether. On the other hand, what greater way could One Cup and mainstream Churches of Christ honor the body and blood of Christ than by sharing a common Lord’s Supper? There would need to be negotiations and compromises, of course. Perhaps a church would have to learn how to tolerated a few shared germs. But such giving, grace, and hospitality have always been demanded of those who seek to live in united Christian community.

One final note: the Fairbanks church of Christ will be having a gospel meeting on October 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. The meeting will be led by a scientist from Oklahoma, who will be presenting on Science and the Scriptures. The Fairbanks congregation invites anyone who would like to attend. 


 

[1] Some edits have been made for space and clarity’s sake.

[2] A review of relevant scientific literature concluded, “[T]here is experimental evidence suggesting that sharing a communion cup contaminates the wine and cup. However, there has never been a documented case of illness caused by sharing a chalice reported in the literature.” James Pellerin and Michael B. Edmond, “Infections Associated with Religious Rituals,” International Journal of Infectious Diseases 17, no. 11 (November 2013): 945-948. [http:// http://www.ijidonline.com/article/S1201-9712(13)00187-2/abstract?cc=y=]

[3] Here I believe Randy means “testament” as synonymous with “covenant.” Both are appropriate translations.

Sources:

D. Newell Williams, et. al., The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History, Chalice, 2013.

Douglas A. Foster, et. al., Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, Eerdmans, 2004.