When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.
Drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper? One thing is certain – people weren’t getting “drunk” on non-fermented grape juice. And notice what he does not propose as the solution to someone being drunk at the Lord’s Supper – he never suggests (much less commands) that wine should no longer be used! If ever there would have been an excuse to forbid the use of wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it would have been in Corinth. The fact that Paul did no such thing should be very instructive to us. If alcohol itself were somehow inherently sinful or if Jesus Himself had not instituted this Sacrament with wine, it would have been the simplest solution, wouldn’t it? It would certainly sound logical enough. But because the Lord Jesus Himself instituted the sacrament with wine, we should be very careful not to tinker with it however we see fit.
The use of grape juice instead of wine in the Lord’s Supper is actually a relatively recent innovation in the practice of the church. In fact, it was virtually unheard of throughout the first 1,800 or so years of church history. In his book, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread, Robert Letham notes,
Only with the rise of the temperance movement in the nineteenth century was an aversion to alcohol allowed to intrude into the Christian church. (p.52)
To be sure, the Bible plainly condemns drunkenness. Ephesians 5:18 (also written by the Apostle Paul, who wrote 1 Corinthians) plainly says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” So drunkenness is indeed a sin, but drinking wine itself is not. And if the Lord Jesus Himself actually commanded that we drink wine in remembrance of Him and His blood shed on the Cross for our sins, certainly we should not try to be wiser than God. Even less should we appear to charge Him with error at somehow giving us something that would be harmful to us.
Maybe this is a non-issue for you. If so, good. But what should you do if you have an issue of conscience against any use of alcohol whatsoever? Maybe you were raised in a church tradition where you have been taught that alcohol itself is inherently sinful. (I myself was raised in such a church tradition.) Or maybe you have struggled with addiction to alcohol and fear that even the smallest amount of wine (as it is certainly common in the Lord’s Supper to use the tiniest of cups) crossing your lips could be the beginning of a terrible downward spiral back into alcohol abuse.
If any of those scenarios describes you, I would humbly offer you the following advice:
- Do not go against your conscience. Elsewhere Paul writes, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23, ESV). So if you are presently convinced that something is inherently sinful, then abstain from it until such time as your conscience freely permits. (Many churches, including ours, offer both wine and grape juice for this very reason.)
- Seek to the best of your ability to have a biblically-informed conscience. Prayerfully examine the whole counsel of God on the subject. Make sure that you are drawing the line where Scripture itself draws the line. There are more than enough commandments in the Word of God already; we don’t need to be adding to them (or subtracting from them, for that matter).
- Act in accordance with that biblically-informed conscience. If you now come to the conclusion that wine (and not grape juice) is what is to be used in the Lord’s Supper as Jesus originally instituted it, trust that He knows what is best and partake of the wine in the Supper in faith.
- One last thing – in the event that your mind is changed and your conscience has been persuaded of the use of wine, be careful not to seek to short-circuit this very same process in the life of a fellow brother or sister in the Lord who still has a conviction against the use of wine. Pray, gently seek to inform their conscience with Scripture, but do not try to get someone else to go against their coscience.
Of course, these same principles apply to just about everything in the Christian life, not just the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. But I hope that you find them helpful in thinking about the right administration & observance of the Lord’s Supper.