Eat Which Bread?

Thanks to Gene Veith’s great blog for reminding me about a somewhat recent/current controversy in conservative church circles – are gluten-free Communion wafers acceptable?  He refers to this article, which provides an analysis of the Roman Catholic refusal to approve gluten-free wafers for Holy Communion, including a history of how they reached this point (which shows that this point today is not really a new thing in their circles).

I’ll disclose at the outset that about two years ago we started offering gluten-free wafers in our congregation.  We have at least one member with Celiac Disease, who was never able to take Communion before.  Now she can, and I think this is a good thing.  There are likely a couple of others who consider themselves gluten-intolerant.  Whether this is a fad or a health thing is not a call I’m qualified to make.  Nor do I think it’s one I need to.  My only issue is that, thanks to a snafu a few weeks ago, I tasted one of those wafers and they’re disgusting.  Actually worse than the tasteless regular wafers.  I remain firmly committed to the principle that if we’re going to make a big deal about the elements (as we likely can and should), we should insist that the bread actually looks and somewhat tastes like bread, rather than simply being made from the requisite same ingredients as bread.

Several questions come to mind.  First of all, is the gluten-free issue in any way a revisitation of the gnostic rejection of anything material, a rehashing of the Docetist view that Jesus only appeared to be human but wasn’t really, and therefore celebrating Holy Communion at all – or with actual physical elements – is inappropriate?  I don’t think it is at all.  I think it’s an example of using the rationale from one theological dispute towards decisions in unrelated issues.  I don’t believe that people with legitimate health concerns are denying the real presence of Christ in with and under the bread and wine, or seeking to undermine the goodness of the created order and the material world (as declared by God in Genesis 1) by asking for gluten-free wafers.

Secondly, what kind of bread were Jesus and his disciples using?  And was that bread substantively different from other breads?  We know that it was unleavened, yet the Eastern Church uses leavened bread for their Eucharist.  Is that a big deal?  Not to them.  Should it be to us?  Perhaps.  I think the idea of maintaining the unleavened nature of Communion bread makes good sense, and is a further means of tying us more closely to the actual event, the actual Jesus, and the actual Jewish faith.

Jewish tradition dictates that the unleavened bread of Passover must be made from wheat, spelt, barley, rye or oats – either whole or refined grains – and water.  Jesus and his disciples ate whatever bread was provided to them by their host.  It could have been any of those.  Oat bread is gluten-free (when prepared properly).  Couldn’t this be an option (as opposed to rice) for gluten-free wafers?

What we seem to have at the core is whether the Roman Catholic decisions about the elements for Holy Communion should be considered binding beyond their denomination.  Lutherans traditionally line up pretty closely with the Roman Catholics on many issues – far more closely than most other Protestant traditions (except for maybe high church Anglicans).  Should we assume that the mandate for pure wheat and water alone being the ingredients for Communion wafers should be adopted?  That puts a lot of power in the arena of tradition, something that Lutherans are historically hesitant to do (fluctuating political trends notwithstanding!).  If Scripture doesn’t provide us with the ingredients of the Communion bread used by Jesus, should the Church take the authority to determine what does and does not qualify?

Finally, there’s the 1 Corinthians 11 issue.  St. Paul is taking the Corinthian church to task for some of their worship practices.  In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 Paul deals with some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of Holy Communion, and how it is different than any other meal we eat.  Yet the Corinthians have forgotten or don’t realize this.  They treat it just like any other meal.  If the bread and wine were in some way substantively different than the rest of the bread and wine available, or that they consumed at home, wouldn’t this have been a less problematic issue?  In other words, it seems clear that they weren’t using special bread for Holy Communion – as in special pure-wheat-and-water-only-bread.  Paul doesn’t fault them for this, but only for failing to distinguish that the consecrated bread and wine is something very different than the rest of the bread and wine laying around the house.  It has been set aside for the presence of Christ.  It is not the ingredients that are the issue, but the failure of the Corinthians to discern this spiritual truth that has led to issues in their community and the need for Paul to correct them.

I believe there should be regularity in the elements.  I believe that the elements should by and large reflect the type of elements Jesus and his disciples actually were using that night.  The bread should be unleavened.  But it should also be bread!  The wine should be kosher wine, not some sort of trendy boutique variety.  Holy Communion is not a wine-tasting exercise.  Because of the fermentation process with grapes, I don’t have a problem with offering grape juice (which has barely discernible levels of fermentation).  I don’t think we should substitute just any sort of juice or any kind of bread-like substance.

But I think it’s possible to become too legalistic about the issue as well.  I don’t think gluten-free wafers are a new incarnation of Gnostic/Docetist theology.  And while I may agree that the whole gluten-free thing is more a fad than anything else, I won’t take it upon myself to medically interrogate my parishioners to determine if they legitimately need a gluten-free wafer or just prefer one.  Here, as in many areas of worship, we attempt to be faithful while recognizing still our essential freedom.  We try never to lose sight of our connection to the Body of Christ as a whole – historically or otherwise – while taking into account the needs of our members and trying to discern whether there is theological tomfoolery afoot.

 

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