At the beginning of the year I began to read through the eight volume tome, A History of the Christian Church by the renowned scholar Philip Schaff. I have found it to be of immense benefit. One of the ways in which I have received help from this work is by the historical confirmation that, indeed, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). This is certainly true when it comes to the theological debates that we face in our day. For example, the heresies of today are the same as those faced by the church 1,800 years ago, though in our day they are clothed a lot more chicly. Not only is this true regarding outright error, it is also true when it comes to honest debate, among Spirit-filled believers, concerning matters of faith. One such matter is the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is a blessed meal in which the church looks with eyes of faith to Christ as we “proclaim His death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). But this means of grace has often been at the centre of much controversy. In fact, when one considers the history of the church, it would be hard to find an issue over which more blood has been shed. The Roman Catholic Church is notorious for its intense persecution of those who refused her errant teaching that the bread becomes the actual body of Christ and that the wine becomes His actual blood. The heretical doctrine of transubstantiation was rightly rejected by those who saw it as an act of idolatry, not to mention a denial of the once-for-all sufficient work of Christ at Calvary.
But a less vicious, though often no less vociferous, battle has often been waged over the issue of whether or not the church must use unleavened bread when observing Communion. Again, this has been debated within the church for nearly two millennia.
In this article, I will address this issue and try to persuade you from the Scriptures that either leaven or unleavened bread is suitable for use.
When discussing this issue we must keep before us the principle of the continuity between the old and new covenants. That is, the new covenant (New Testament) flows directly from the source of the old covenant (Old Testament). These two covenants are not mutually exclusive. What we have in the New Testament is the fuller revelation of what was concealed in the Old Testament. This is why the church is called “the Israel of God” (Galatians 6:16). Whereas the Old Testament focused primarily on ethnocentric Israel, the New Testament focuses on a multi-ethnic people of God. And so, as there is continuity between the two Testaments (the one flows into the other), so is there also some discontinuity. Though the church is the Israel of God, we do not follow the Old Testament ceremonial law. The principles of the Old Testament ceremonies are no less binding for us today, but the expression is different. And this is important to bear in mind when it comes to the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper.
When Jesus instituted the Supper, He clearly did so during the traditional Passover event. Thus, He would have used unleavened bread in accordance with Old Testament regulations. This naturally raises the question, should we thus not only use unleavened bread? Well, not necessarily. Again, consider the continuity. We do celebrate the feast (1 Corinthians 5:8) as the old covenant church did. We do so, like they did, in remembrance of a great deliverance, while also looking forward to the full redemption to come (1 Corinthians 11: 26). But there is also a discontinuity; namely, we do not celebrate it entirely like they did. We don’t follow the prescribed order originally set out in Exodus 12. Since the Lamb of God has come, much of the Passover ceremony is no longer relevant. My point is simply that we must be careful of assuming that, since Jesus celebrated the Passover while announcing this henceforth prescribed ordinance, we are duty bound to copy all that accompanied this special breaking of bread and drinking of the cup.
For example, in the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus clearly drank from one cup and the same cup was passed to all of the disciples. Thus, if we believe that we must follow every movement of the original as a pattern for today, we must only use one cup. Also, would we not need to attend the Lord’s Supper with all of the other washing ceremonies that accompanied it, along with the eating of bitter herbs? Are we then duty bound to make sure that there is no yeast in our homes, or at least that there is none on the church property? If this is required, let’s do so. But I know of no Scriptural mandate that would make this necessary under the new covenant age.
Connected with this question is that of the symbolism of leaven. Many are under the impression that leaven, as used in Scripture, always pictures sin. But this is not the case.
For instance, some offerings required the use of leaven in order to be acceptable (see Leviticus 7:11–13; 23:16–17). Further, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is like leaven, (Matthew 13:33)—not (obviously) that it is sinful, but rather that it spreads unobtrusively but certainly and powerfully. I will return to this point later.
We must consider why the Passover feast had to be observed with unleavened bread. Quite clearly, the reason was twofold. First, the Israelites at the original Passover were in a hurry and thus were not to lose time by waiting for the bread to rise. They were to make haste to leave Egypt and nothing was to hinder this. Second, this represented for them the affliction that they were to leave behind in Egypt. They were to remember the affliction of being enslaved in Egypt and God’s gracious and powerful deliverance of them from that. They were to make a break from the leaven of Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:3). But keep in mind that they were all the time looking forward to the ultimate deliverance that could only come through Christ. And it is precisely because of this that the Passover underwent a discontinuity as the Lord Jesus transformed this feast into the Lord’s Supper. Since the Saviour has come, the old feast has now been leavened with the joy of rest. We are not awaiting our deliverance, in one sense, but rather we are celebrating that the one who saves us from our sins has come.
It is interesting that one of the feasts that the Jews were to celebrate (Pentecost) called for loaves of bread (that is, leavened bread) (Leviticus 23:16–17). This was a joyful celebration that pictured God’s present grace with the promise of more to come. We know, as recorded in Acts 2, that the day of Pentecost was the inauguration of the new covenant people of God. It is significant that on this day of Pentecost, on this very day on which leavened bread was offered to God, the church observed the Lord’s Supper (see Acts 2:42, 46). Thus it is quite clear that the New Testament church used leavened bread in the observance of the Lord’s Supper in at least one instance.
My conclusion, after looking at the biblical evidence, is that either leavened or unleavened bread may be used, and the determining factor is not whether or not matzos is available! Rather, at issue is, what do we want to emphasise as we commune together?
If the emphasis is to be upon the breaking with the old life and we want to focus on the sin-leavened affliction from which we were delivered, then matzos is appropriate. But if we want to emphasise the newness of life and the hope of Christ’s return to consummate the full harvest, then let us use leavened bread. If we want to celebrate the ongoing power of the gospel to save souls and the promise that the kingdom is slowly but surely permeating society (see Matthew 13:33), then by all means let us use loaves of bread. At the end of the day, it is not the type of bread that is used as much as it is the attitude of our heart and of our focus. Whether we are celebrating the harvest to come because of what Christ has done, or whether we want to remember from what we have been saved, the focus must be on the Lord Jesus Christ. We must, with eyes of faith, look to Christ and feed afresh upon Him.
As an eldership we are aware of the fact that this is an emotional issue for many and thus we will handle our observance of communion with sensitivity. There will be times when we use matzos and other times when we use bread, and we would certainly encourage you to participate regardless of which one is being served. We appeal to you to search the Scriptures for a settled mind in order that you may engage in a joyful observance as we partake of Communion together. As always, where there are lingering questions, please feel free to speak to us as we are most happy to discuss your concerns further.