Evangelical Questions: The Sacrament
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about the sacrament. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Before I get into that let me remind you of the FAIR Conference. I will be speaking on Friday, August 4 at 10:30 Mountian time. I would be delighted to see you there in person, but you can also sign up to stream the event. It’s free to stream, but you do need to sign up at https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/conference/august-2023. I will be talking about issues of sexual abuse in church settings.
And, before we get started, I’ve been wanting to address a question that comes up a lot, but I haven’t been able to find the right spot to do it. Maybe I just need to do a Q/A video – hit me with questions in the comments if you’d like to see that, but for now, I want to briefly answer this one because I get it frequently. The question goes something like, “My grown child has left the church and joined an Evangelical church and I want to use all this information to talk with them, but they do not want to talk with me about this topic. My faith is such a huge part of who I am, so it seems like I’m being kicked out of their life. What should I do?” The short answer is: What you should do is respect their wishes. I know that’s not the answer you really want to hear, but it’s the only one that makes sense, and here’s why…No one likes being given boundaries by other people. I don’t like it, you don’t like it. It stings. That’s okay. But a boundary is someone telling you to, “stay in your lane.” The idea of “staying in your lane” directly implies the idea that you have a lane in which to stay. You’re not being kicked out of their life. I know it can feel that way. But try to focus on the relationship you do have with them and work with what you’re given. In this scenario, parent-child, it is a very long game, and it makes sense to do the work to figure this out. Perhaps it doesn’t make sense in other relationships, only you can decide that. But in this scenario, you might just have to dig deep into every bit of emotional maturity you can muster and preserve the relationship. All right, that was me slipping into mental-health education a bit, but I hope that was helpful for you. Moving on.
Today, we are talking about the Sacrament, which Evangelicals know better as communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Lord’s Table, and Catholics know better as the Eucharist or the Holy Mass. My favorite alternative name for it is a term that pops up a few times in history, “The Love Feast”. But they all are referring to roughly the same thing, though obviously with some very different understandings of it. Our text comes from Matthew 26:26:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
Before about 5 years ago…Latter-day Saint friends, you can laugh at me for this all you want…I did not know that the main worship meeting of the week was called Sacrament Meeting. And I remember when I heard that phrase I thought, “How odd! I wonder what they think “sacrament” means?” Commence laughter, I’m not offended.
In my own defense, I will say that part of this is because I spent about 10 years in the Anglican world where the word “sacrament” can refer to several things: it can be the taking of communion, but things like baptism and marriage are also considered sacraments. I think the LDS word there is more specific, as we would call those ordinances, but we mean the same thing. Anglicans (and Catholics, and others) also have something they call “Sacramentals” which are considered, “sacred signs” (LDS friends, don’t run too far with that word here, they’re using ‘signs’ differently.) But Sacramentals are something like oil that has been blessed to use in healing, or making the sign of the cross, or holy water. These are things that get really misunderstood by outsiders, but they’re functioning very similarly to how some of the ordinances function for us. (There is an episode I want to do on water as symbol – how it’s used in our faith for baptism and in the initiatory, how it’s used as “holy water” in other places. But that’s some deep geek-level stuff and I think I will try to spare you from that. Maybe. We’ll see.)
I’ll start by describing the differences an Evangelical would see in our Sacrament meeting, and include the differences we would see in theirs. And then we’ll go a little deeper and examine on the theological level what is purported to be happening during the sacrament or communion, and we’ll even look at the Catholic side too simply because it’s helpful to illustrate some of the differences in theology.
Evangelical friends, if you were to attend a Latter-day Saint service on a Sunday morning you would probably be surprised to see that what we call “the sacrament” is pretty familiar to you, even if it’s not 100%. The elements are blessed and passed, which would feel very familiar to you. Latter-day Saints are taught to use this time in 2 ways. First, it is considered a renewal of the covenants we have made – I have an episode coming up on covenants so I’ll kick the discussion of what that actually means for us down the road. Some Evangelicals are very familiar with the idea of Covenant theology and none of this would be new to them, others have only the vaguest idea of what that could even mean. The second thing we are taught about this time is it is for focusing on Jesus Christ.
There are 3 things that stand out that are really different though.
1) Most of the time in an Evangelical Church no special priesthood is required to bless the Sacrament. In theory, anyone can do it. In our Latter-day Saint tradition, ordinances require someone who holds the priesthood. It’s hard for me to think of other times in which this would come up, but during the pandemic lockdown everyone was doing church at home, and if you did not have someone in your home who is a priest, then you are instructed to spend that time pondering the sacrifice of Christ but to refrain from taking the elements. That will sound very weird – and very Catholic – to Evangelical ears. But for Latter-day Saints, priesthood really matters, we’ve talked about that on this channel a couple of times already, and I have more planned on that as well.
2) Most Evangelicals use grape juice or real wine for communion. Latter-day Saints use water. In my lifetime more and more Evangelical churches have switched from using grape juice to using wine. It’s sort of considered a little bit edgier of a thing to do, and they like that. But Latter-day Saints have had their own journey through what to use as well. My initial guess at why water was used was something like: Latter-day Saints avoid alcohol, even socially, so maybe this is them just trying to stay really far away from something that looks like alcohol. But, I was surprised to learn later that the Word of Wisdom makes a provision for using wine during Sacrament. Doctrine and Covenant 89 gives us, “Inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father, only in assembling yourselves together to offer up your sacraments before him. And, behold, this should be wine, yea, pure wine of the grape of the vine, of your own make.” Latter-day Saints use wine in the Sacrament well into the 19th century. In fact, in 1861 Brigham Young sent 309 Mormon families to settle in southern Utah, where they could produce, among other crops, wine for the sacrament. (That’s in Leonard Arrington’s book Great Basin Kingdom – which is very good and worth a read.) By 1906 the temperance movement is really starting to come into its own and by that point, the Word of Wisdom had been around for 70 years. The Saints had been given a generously slow onramp to living by the Word of Wisdom, so during that on-ramping time, alcohol and tobacco use was not unheard of among the Saints. But by 1902 the on-ramping time was coming to an end, and shortly after that, in 1906 the First Presidency and the 12 begin using water in their Sacrament meeting in the temple, and the rest of the church soon follows suit. So, yeah, we use water.
3) The third difference Evangelicals would notice is that it’s quiet while the elements are passed. Well, it’s not quiet. I’m in this fantastic ward with lots of young families with babies and toddlers. Just because of the area where I live is brand new, high-density housing, which tends to attract younger families just starting out after college. So, if you’re in a ward like mine, it is actually not remotely quiet during Sacrament. Delightfully so. But, what I mean by that is that there is no music playing. In an Evangelical Church, for the most part, during that time their band would be playing music, sometimes contemplative, but frequently loud worship-rock music.
That should give you a good overview of the practical differences in how we practice Sacrament, but let’s take a look at the theological differences.
In the Protestant/Catholic world, there are 3 ways to think about what is happening in communion. The first way is the Catholic version, and if you’ve never heard it before, or if you can think back to the first time you heard it, it sounds weird. But this is an extremely sacred doctrine to them, so we’re going to treat it respectfully. In Catholic theology, at the beginning of the service, the bread and wine are just common elements. There is nothing special about them, they were made in perfectly ordinary ways. They lay on the altar and look like the bread and wine that they are. At a specific point in the serve, often indicated by the ringing of a bell, the priest says the words of consecration, and the elements become the actual body and blood of Christ. They sill look and taste like bread and wine, but they are not. They are the body and blood of Christ. This idea is called transubstantiation and it is an expression of their desire to take the words of Christ literally when he says, “this is my body, broken for you, take and eat.” This practice has a lot of meaning for them and it deserves respect. But it is very different from the typical Evangelical view.
In the typical Evangelical view the communion bread and wine remain bread and wine and only become the body and blood of Christ symbolically. But there are 2 versions of this. These make up numbers 2 and 3 of out list of ways Protestants and Catholics think about the Sacrament. Some Evangelicals would say that the bread and wine are simply there as a memory jogger. Jesus asked us to remember his death, and he asked us to use bread and wine, so we do this and remember him. But there is nothing happening more than memory or recall. There is nothing efficacious in it. It’s not doing anything other than helping them remember. This is probably the more common view, or at least it has been historically, things are shifting here too. The other possible way Evangelicals `view the element is what gets called, “The Real Presence.” Which is sort of a halfway point between communion-as-memory-jogger and Eucharist-as-literal-flesh-and-blood. In this view, they see Christ’s presence in the elements, though the elements themselves remain bread and wine, but Christ indwells the elements in a special way that brings Christ’s presence to the one who eats it worthily.
For Latter-day Saints, none of those categories are even discussed much. Instead, we believe that what is happening in the Sacrament is the renewal of covenants. Before I was baptized into the church, I attended Sacrament Meeting for a long time, months, and I made a decision that I wanted to participate by receiving the bread and water. And as far as I know, no one had any problems with that, but I also understood the theology was clear: I had not yet made covenants, so there was nothing to renew. My participation in eating and drinking was something else – a desire to express my faith and hope that I could become part of that community. But that was my own personal meaning. The actual point of the Sacrament entirely has to do with covenant keeping.
There is so much more to talk about on this topic, I know that doesn’t seem possible, but it’s true. And this is a topic we will come back to again from a different angle a couple of months from now. Thank you for joining me all of this. I’ll be back next week and we’ll continue working our way through the New Testament.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.