We live in a world of constant change. Should this change enter our Church? Paul says in 2Th 2:15 “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” Paul wrote these words, in part, because there were those who wanted to change the way things were done in the Church, even in Paul’s day. This will always be the case so long as we are here on earth. Our duty as a Church of Christ is to keep those biblical traditions handed down to us throughout the ages, and not waver from them no matter how unpopular they might seem.
The Lord’s Supper is one area where change has taken place. Not only has the sacrament itself gone through many changes, but the way in which we administer the elements has also changed. In many Reformed Churches, people no longer come forward to a table. Instead, the elements of wine and bread are passed out row by row. Because of this new idea of people sitting in the pew, and having the elements come to them (instead of going forward to a table), one cup has been replaced by many individual cups (an American fundamentalist invention). Even 50 years ago, the practice of individual cups was never found in our Churches. However, more and more congregations are switching to personal cups and leaving off the use of common cup.
Some will say, “So what? Is this really a big deal? Does it matter to the Lord if we have many cups instead of one common cup?” This short paper will attempt to answer this question, “Yes, the Lord does care.”2
The Common Cup in Scripture
The first thing we should take notice of is the fact that at the institution of The Lord’s Supper, Christ did not give each of the disciples their own cup. These are the words we find in Luke 22:17, “And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come” .
When Christ instituted the sacramental meal of the New Covenant, it came at the end of the supper of the Passover. (Mark 14:18; 1 Corinthians 11:25). Yet our Lord did not give the disciples their own cups as He instituted Holy Supper for the first time, but took one cup and blessed it. Now some would say that Christ would not have used individual cups because the Passover meal had a common cup . Exactly. There is a continuum in the institution of Holy Supper with that of the Passover , though it superseded it. On the basis of the old Passover, and the new Lord’s Supper, the disciples then each drank from the single cup and passed it to the next disciple until everyone had partaken.
In fact, every time the Lord’s Supper is mentioned in the New Testament, the single cup is also mentioned.
“And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it” (Matthew 26:27).
“And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it” (Mark 14:23).
“And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come” (Luke 22:17).
“Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20).
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 10:16)?
“Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils” (1Cor 10:21).
“After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25).
“For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Cor. 11:26).
“Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27).
“But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28).
By quoting these texts, we find that in every case the singular article is used when referencing the cup. The same is found in the original Greek. Never do we find the Greek using the plural noun or the plural article in reference to the wine of the Lord’s Supper. By doing this, the Holy Spirit has made it very clear as to how He expects the element of wine to be distributed. The emphasis is on one cup (singular), not personal cups (plural). In fact, there is far more biblical data to prove a common cup than there is to prove a common table or sprinkling in baptism. All three doctrines however, are biblical.
The command given by Christ is simple, and its conclusion, unavoidable. “Take this, and divide it among yourselves” is the command of Luke 22:17. Further, our Lord says in Matthew 26:27 “Drink ye all of it“. In both instances the Lord’s emphasis is on the single word “it”. We are to divine “it” (one cup), among the many, and drink, everyone, from “it” (one cup.) Let us remind ourselves of Paul’s words in Col 2:8 “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” Individual cups are not found anywhere in scripture, or the confessions, and has crept in by “the rudiments” (the thoughts), of this world.
“What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it” (Deut. 12:32).
One In Christ
The common cup represents in its second place, the oneness all believers have in Christ. 1Cor 12:12 says, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” Gal 3:28 says the same thing, “…for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
What message does the common cup signify, if not a unity in Christ and oneness in Him? The symbolism of this unity is completely lost in the use of individual cups by asserting the individual over the collective body. It is, by symbolism, both independent and baptistic  in nature and spoils the symmetry of the body by focusing on the parts. Listen to the apostle Paul once more in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” The word “communio
n” in this text means, “joint fellowship, or community”. The common cup is a visible demonstration of oneness in Christ, and singularity of the body.
The Common Cup In History
Pro 22:28 says, “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” Do our fathers have anything to say in this regard? Yes indeed.
We run the risk of doing great harm to our children by being the generation that removes the landmarks of our fathers. Often, the first generation to take liberty on a subject is followed by a generation which takes license. We must be very careful that we are not the generation known as the one who removed the landmark of the common cup. Briefly, let us examine our own confession of faith on the subject of the common cup.
First, let us examine closely the wording of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 28,
question and answer 75:
Question 75. How art thou admonished and assured in the Lord’s Supper, that thou art a partaker of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross, and of all his benefits?
Answer: Thus: That Christ has commanded me and all believers, to eat of this broken bread, and to drink of this cup, in remembrance of him, adding these promises: (a) first, that his body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and his blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes, the bread of the Lord broken for me, and the cup communicated to me; and further, that he feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, with his crucified body and shed blood, as assuredly as I receive from the hands of the minister, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, as certain signs of the body and blood of Christ .
Our Instructor, in this answer, makes it abundantly clear that the single cup was used during the time of this writing. In fact, the Heidelberg Catechism goes so far as to affirm that the common cup is a command. The next question and answer (76), quotes many of the passages we spoke of earlier as proofs of the institution of the Supper as well as demonstrating its proper administration.
Hear Dr. Zacharias Ursinus in his book, Of The Lord’s Supper, And the True Doctrine and Pure Administration thereof; With a Refutation of both Transubstantiation & Consubstantiation.
“The rites which Christ has instituted are, that the Lord’s bread be broken, distributed, and received, and the Lord’s cup be given to all the communicants, in remembrance of his death”.
Second, our form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper is also quite revealing. In it, when the minister takes up the element of wine to bless it it says, “The cup of blessing which we bless is the communion of the blood of Christ.” Notice the singular cup that is blessed? It is good at this point to remind ourselves that at the table of the Lord, only one cup is blessed. How could a minister say, “The cup of blessing which we bless” to 60 or 70 individual cups? That would require the minister to bless all the cups individually, or changing the form by saying “these cups” instead of “this cup” (It would also require changing 1 Cor. 10:16!). In most congregations that use individual cups, the wine was poured into them before the service began and thus, remain unblessed. It goes without saying then that the only cup blessed is the one prayed over during the Lord’s Supper. Do we then bless the pitcher instead of the cup? The problem still remains as the wine poured out during Holy Supper is only that of the minsters, not the congregation. Do we remove the problem by lifting the whole tray or stack of trays and blessing the individual cups that way? To remedy this obvious theological problem, we would need to institute a whole new series of man made inventions. The simple answer is the biblical one, we bless the same cup that all partake of just as Christ intended.
And finally, in our Church Order, Article 62, we read, “Every Church shall administer the Lord’s Supper in such a manner as it shall judge most conducive to edification; provided, however, that the outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word be not changed and all superstition be avoided…” If what we have tried to establish previously is indeed the prescription of the Word of God, and if our fathers testify to this truth, it would be hard to argue for the use of individual cups and remain faithful to the Word of God and our Church Order.
The Dutch Reformed Fathers
In 1618, the Synod of Dordt commissioned a group of ministers to write an commentary on the whole Bible. These annotations remain one of the great contributions to the Reformed world by commenting on most passages of the Bible. Here is what our forefathers say regarding the common cup as found in Matthew 26:27, “And took the cup, and having given thanks, gave (it) to them; and they all drank of the same [cup]: [Namely, as Christ had commanded them, Matthew. 26.27].”
Wilhelmus à Brakel (2 January 1635, Leeuwarden – 30 October 1711, Rotterdam), one of the ablest of all Dutch Divines says on this subject,
Even if the world, as their enemy, hates, despises, persecutes, and oppresses them, there is yet no reason for concern; they can readily miss its love, for they have better company and they refresh themselves in a sweet manner in the exercise of mutual love. They confess this unity in the Lord’s Supper by eating of the same bread and by drinking of the same cup. “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor.10:17) (Wilhelmus a Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Bartel Elshout, trans., [Morgan, Pennsylvania: Soli Deo Gloria], 1992, 1995 , 2:577).
Likewise, another well loved Dutch divine Herman Witsius (1636-1708) says, “The third action of the guests is, to drink the consecrated wine out of the cup. It is remarkable, that our Lord said concerning the cup, not only “take this, and divide it among yourselves,” Luke xxii. 17, but likewise added a mark of universality, “drink ye all of it” , Matt. xxvi. 27. And we are told how they complied with this command, Mark xiv. 24, “and they all drank of it” [i.e. they all drank from it- LFRC] (Herman Witsius, The Economy Of The Covenants Between God And Man, [Phillipsburg: Pennsylvania], 1990 , 2:455, 456,).
For the sake of time, we have only given to you a small sampling of the record of our History. We could take several more pages and detail the absolute unity of the practice of the common cup from our fathers (Early Church Fathers, The Magisterial Reformers, Puritans, Westminster Divines, etc), but brevity prevents us. Suffice it to say that we are in great peril of removing the “ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set”, when it comes to the common cup, should individual cups be used.
There can be no mistaking that the dawn of the individual cup came about for 2 reasons. The first is the individualism of our age, the “me” gospel of independentism. This, we hope has been answered as an objection, namely, that unity and oneness must take
precedence over individuality. The second objection is more general, and it has to do with the concern of sanitation.
The Yuck Factor
Many who do not wish to use the common cup have only one objection- “the yuck factor”. It is believed that drinking from one cup will greatly increase the risk of contracting illness. This is a very real concern for many serious Christians.
Does this objection then remove the command to use a common cup? We think not. The reasons are :
1.The common cup has been used for over 2000 years. Are the dangers of illness any more pressing today than they were in Christ’s day? Do we have better or worse methods of sanitation today than ever before? The answer is obvious. The risk of contracting a disease has always been a factor in any public setting. Yet the Lord, who knew full well the potential of illness, still commanded a common cup.
2.Many diseases can also be contracted by handling the communion tray, or the communion loaf. The doorknobs of the Church building, a hand shake, a cough, a sneeze, a bathroom sink, are all more unsanitary than the sterilized cup used at Holy Supper. If illness is in view first and foremost, many would not attend Church at all.
3.It is more likely that one will contract illness through the neglect of hand washing and then making physical contact with a carrier (door, hand, etc). You are more likely to contract illness eating out of a communal vegetable dip at a fellowship meeting than you are from using the common cup.
4.Strong wine (even fortified wine 12% or higher) is often used as communion wine to to kill bacteria on the edge of the cup.
In understanding the potential of contracting illness with the common cup, we must bear in mind one thing, “the cup of blessing which we bless”, is just that, blessed. Many old ministers have given testimony that in all the years they have been administering the common cup, no one has been made sick by it. This is the general understanding and experience of most congregations.
The “yuck factor” is not new to the Church. It has always been with us. Should we then use it to erase all biblical doctrines on this subject and 2000 years of Church tradition? Are we wiser than our fathers? Are we wiser than God?
On this point we leave you with God’s words to Peter, who argued the uncleanness of what God had sent down from heaven, in Act 10:15, “And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common.”
A last objection often offered is one of pragmatism. If one cup is commanded, why is it that some congregations use two cups? For this we would remind the reader of article 62 of our Church Order, “Every Church shall administer the Lord’s Supper in such a manner as it shall judge most conducive to edification; provided, however, that the outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word be not changed and all superstition be avoided…” The use of one cup at one table (to the left), and another table (to the right) still carries with it the symbolism of the one cup for many people. The emphasis is still on the sharing of a cup between believers as a demonstration of unity. In some congregations, multiple tables are needed for Holy Supper. It is for expediency that more than one cup is used. This accommodation, for time constraints, is not a sound reason however for each communicant to have their own cup, and act contrary to the Word and Church history. Two cups at the table does not remove the symbolism of unity as individual cups do, and is in keeping with article 62 of the Church Order. In light of the material here presented in this paper, this objection argues to little.
A Plea to Return to the Common Cup
Unless the Lord does a work of reformation in His Church, each generation will take a step to the left. History has borne this truth. We will, because of our corrupt human nature, have the natural tendency to leave off the things that should be done in order to make accommodation. Some have argued that this is a “tempest in a teapot” issue, that it is not all that important to the wellbeing of the Church. If so, then why change to individual cups at all? While we would admit that one’s salvation does not hang on whether or not a common cup is used, it is still important to God, and subsequently to His Church. As a Church, we are to take heed to ourselves and to our doctrine, not just in the main, but also in the detail.
Holy Supper is no small thing. It is a means of grace for every believer that takes part by faith. By faith we are fed by the true heavenly bread and drink, Jesus Christ. Do we then not wish to walk with Him in obedience to His revealed will concerning it? Is there any biblical reason to use individual cups? No. Are there biblical reasons to use a common cup? We hope we have demonstrated that there are indeed.
1. See, Material History of American Religion Project The Individual Communion Cup at http://www.materialreligion.org/documents/may98doc.htm. This is a reprint of the 1906 article in the United Brethren periodical.
2. All bold words are the emphasis of the the author.
3. Alfred Edersheim .The Temple: Its Ministry and Services. Chapter 12, “The Paschal Feast and the Lord’s Supper.” In fact, each section of the Passover had a cup associated with it, four in fact. This does not detract however from the fact that the Lord used one cup for Holy Supper.
4. To this day, Orthodox Jews still use the symbolism of the common cup at Passover.
5. We note that several Reformed Baptists also use a common cup.