It was common practice in the Reformed Churches for the participants in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to drink of the wine from a common cup. In rather recent years the change has been made in many churches from the common or communal cup to the individual cup. By the former is meant a rather large cup from which many communicants drank. In larger congregations more than one of these cups would be used. By the latter is meant a small cup or glass which would hold enough wine for one person, so that, each person would have his or her own glass from which to drink. Undoubtedly the tendency toward individual cups arose with the more recent discoveries of germs and communicable diseases.
The question has therefore, often come up whether or not the change from a common to an individual cup detracts from the symbolical significance of the sacrament.
Although in the Protestant Reformed Churches it has become rather common to use the individual cup, nevertheless, it might be well to discuss briefly whether this usage does in reality detract from the beautiful symbolical significance of the table of the Lord.
The relevant article of the Church Order, Article 62, reads as follows: “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, and that at the conclusion of the sermon and the usual prayers, the form for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read.”
It will probably help us to an understanding of the problem if first of all we discuss the various elements that enter into the symbolism of the Lord’s table. The signs themselves are two, namely, the bread and the wine; but the symbolism is more inclusive. We may say that there are seven elements to that symbolism of the sacrament of communion. 1) There is first of all the symbol of the bread which points to the body of Christ. 2) Secondly, there is the symbolism of the broken bread, symbolic of the broken body of Christ upon the cross. 3) Thirdly, there is the wine signifying Christ’s blood. 4) Fourthly, the poured out wine which signifies the shed blood of the Lord. We may add her: parenthetically that this should be a part of our celebration of the sacrament of communion. It is often not done where the individual cup is in use, but this is undoubtedly a mistake. For the wine poured out is also a part of the symbolism which is essential to our celebration of communion. 5) Fifthly, there is the symbolism of the congregation as they eat the bread and drink the wine. This symbolizes to the believers the truth that by faith he eats and drinks the body and blood of His Savior, and thus becomes partaker of all the benefits merited by Christ for him in His suffering. 6) Sixthly, there is the gathering together of the believers about the table of the Lord. This is symbolic of the communion of the saints as they are one in the Spirit of Christ and as they dwell together with their God in covenant fellowship, which fellowship is only possible as based upon the sacrifice of Christ. 7) Finally, there is the Word of the minister which he speaks. This is not in reality part of the symbolism, for when the minister speaks, Christ speaks through him the word of life. But it is, nonetheless, a very important, or let me say, the most important part of the celebration.
Besides the various elements of the symbolism of the sacrament, there are also various elements as to the general form of celebration of the sacrament. I would say that the former constitute the content of Lord’s Supper while the latter constitute the form. The form has varied and may very well vary according to the locale of the particular congregation and also according to the circumstances of the times in which a particular church may live. The important thing to remember, however, is that the variations in form may never effect in any way the essential symbolism. The content is all important, for by it the conscious believer in Christ is assured of his union with Christ through the Holy Spirit. So that if the general form of the sacrament changes from time to time, with varied circumstances, the church must always be on her guard that this form never effects the true contents. So also it is important to notice the language of the Church Order in this connection. In the article which we quoted 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 . . .” Thus the form of the celebration of this ceremony is left to the discretion of the local church as long as it does not change “the outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word” and as long as “all superstition is avoided.”
Among the various elements that constitute difference in form we may mention: 1) The posture of the participants. In times past and maybe in some reformed churches of the present it has been customary to sit or to kneel or even to walk past the minister while one receives from the minister the bread and the wine. In this connection also may be mentioned the fact that sometimes the minister himself gives the bread and the wine to the communicants while at other times the elders will do this. 2) Secondly, there has often been variation as to where the communicants sit during the sacrament. Sometimes the congregation would come to the front in small groups and sit about the table of the Lord literally, and the minister would conduct the ceremony without the reading of the form for each group. The form would be read first to all. Or at times the communicants would come to the front rows of pews and partake of the bread and wine as a group. Or again, the communicants may remain in their pews with their families scattered throughout the auditorium of the church building. 3) Sometimes it is customary for the minister to break all the bread in the presence of the congregation; or, in places where the congregation is quite large, the minister may break only a part of the bread. 4) Again, it may be customary for a passage of Scripture to be read or an appropriate Psalm sung while the people are partaking of the bread and wine. Then again, the communicant may be silent and in meditation upon the sacrifice and atonement of Jesus Christ while the elders or minister distribute the wine and the bread. These matters all relate to the form of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and in no way effect the essential symbolism of the sacrament.
Now the question is, whether the common or individual cup is a part of the content, the symbolism of the sacrament, or whether it is a part of the form of the ceremony.
Those who argue in favor of the communal cui, insists that it is a part of the symbolic significance of the whole ceremony. And the symbolism lies in this, that by it is expressed the communion of saints. They say that it is necessary in order to preserve the distinctive feature of the sacrament that the believers partake in the fellowship of the Spirit and therefore in the fellowship of one another of the benefits of Christ’s atonement. If this were the case, it certainly would be necessary to retain the communal cup in favor of the individual cup.
Yet such is hardly the case. For, in the first place, the symbolism is not in the cup but in the wine. As Rev. H. Hoeksema remarks, “There certainly can be no objection against the use of the individual cup. An especially for large congregations the individual cup is undoubtedly to be preferred. The symbolism is not in the cup, but in the wine. Yet, where the individual cup is used, there certainly could be no objection, and on the contrary, it would be entirely proper if the minister would pour out the wine into one cup in the sight of the congregation, rather than immediately passing all the cups already filled to the communicants.” (Eating and Drinking Christ, p. 26). Secondly, the symbolism of the communion of saints is not expressed in the drinking of one cup, but rather in the gathering of the congregation together on the Sabbath under the preaching of the Word by the consistory and around the table of the Lord. As is expressed in the Notes on Reformed Church Polity by Rev. Ophoff, “Some regard the one cup—all drinking from the one cup—as an element in the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Christ, thus regard it as being a symbol setting forth the truth of the oneness of God’s people in Christ, he being the one spiritual nourishment of them all of whom all the believers partake. But the words of the institution of the Lord’s Supper do not indicate that the one cup has this symbolical significance. According to Scripture (I Cor. 10:17) the oneness of the believers is symbolized by their all partaking of the one bread and of the one wine. ‘For we being many are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.’ Our Reformed Fathers had understanding of this as appears from the following passage contained in the form for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, ‘For as out of many grains one meal is ground, and one bread baked, and out of many berries being pressed together, one wine floweth, and mixeth itself together; so shall we all, who by a true faith are engrafted in Christ, be altogether one body; through brotherly love, for Christ’s sake . . .’ Thus believers are one by reason of their being grafted in Christ by a true Faith and hence by their eating his flesh and drinking His blood by faith. The question of the one cup (necessity calls in most churches for more than one cup) (and we may add that that already destroys the “principle”, H.H.) belongs to the ‘Things indifferent.'” (p. 147.) Thus Rev. Ophoff finds the symbolism of the communion of the saints not in the communal cup, but in the wine made from many berries, and the common drinking from one wine. Not one cup, but one wine.
Thus far our conclusion is that either one of the two may be used. It remains yet to say a word about the question of which the two is the better. It can probably be argued that the individual cup is the better of the two. This in the first place, because in a large congregation not as much time is taken in the celebration of the sacrament with the individual cup as with the common cup. Thus there is left more time for the sermon which precedes this celebration. Secondly, the preference of individual cups may be argued on the basis of the Church Order. “Every church shall minister the Lord’s Supper in such a manner as it shall judge most conducive to edification; . . .” It is conceivable that the possibility of the transference of germs and the communication of colds and illnesses should detract from the edification of some people, so that they become more concerned over this than the spiritual significance of their participation in the Lord’s Supper. As Van Dellen and Monsma observe in their Commentary on the Church Order, “In this day of widespread and more thorough knowledge concerning disease germs’ of individual drinking cups in the home, of individual paper cups and drinking fountains in public places, it is very natural that the common cup at the Lord’s Table, going from mouth to mouth’ constitutes a detraction and a hindrance for at least some communicants. By using individual cups this source of detraction and hindrance is removed. And that is gain.” (p. 261.)
Therefore, in the light of all these considerations, the individual cup does not detract from the symbolism and essence of the celebration of communion, and is even to be preferred over the communal cup.