The case for wine, not grape juice, in the Eucharist
January 13, 2015
For some of you, the argument over wine versus grape juice in the Lord’s Supper is entirely foreign. You grew-up Roman Catholic or Lutheran or Greek Orthodox or Anglican or similarly “high church.” You can read this post as an observer on the outside, curiously looking in. But here in NASCAR country, we do our drinking at the track or pretty much anywhere and anytime, unless it’s Sunday morning at church and it’s time for Communion. So, this is a lively debate still. Here is a brief run-down of how I understand the issue.
For those who know little or nothing of this discussion, here is a quick history. The transition from wine to grape juice is a recent event in the two thousand year history of the church, and its provenance was almost entirely in America. Not every church or denomination transitioned to grape juice. Those that did were under the influence of two powerful sociological forces in the 19th century: (1) the plight of alcoholism and (2) the rise of revivalism. These are very different, but I think they sufficiently account for a lot.
The temperance movement swept our nation in the 19th century, in response to the serious rise in alcoholism, especially among the working class. The reasons for this are somewhat complex, but I think a broadly Marxian critique is probably right. The sociological behavior was driven by economic forces, namely the inhumanity of 19th century industrialism. Alcoholism was a consequence, in large part, of industrialism. I know that can be disputed, and I would not extend this critique further than it needs to go. For the record, this is probably the only time I have ever appealed to Marx to substantiate an argument, and I wouldn’t recommend doing so when talking to Southern Baptists!
Another factor worth considering is the increased availability of distilled spirits (hard liquor), thanks to the invention of the column still in the 19th century. Distillation goes back to the early middle ages, but it was not mass produced in the way we are accustomed today and for the past 100 or so years. As those of us who drink are well aware, it takes a lot of beer or wine to get truly drunk. But with liquor, it’s easy and relatively inexpensive, if you go for the bottom shelf booze. I don’t know how much of this contributed to alcoholism in the 19th and early 20th century, but it seems like a good guess.
The entrepreneur to capitalize on the plight of alcoholism was the devout Methodist, Thomas Bramwell Welch. But his motivations were not avaricious, as “to capitalize on” may suggest. He was genuinely concerned about alcoholism and for religious/ethical reasons — the same reasons that motivated his involvement in the Underground Railroad. He invented the pasteurization process that yields grape juice as we know it today, and he advocated for its use as a substitute for wine. He and his heirs were enormously successful in doing so.
Alongside the rise of alcoholism, the 19th century was also the century of revivalism in the churches. There was a “Great Revival” in the 18th century, but this revivalism acquired whole new dimensions with Charles Finney and other prominent revivalists in the following century. For many, it became a comprehensive template for how the church should conduct itself. As a result, the sacraments diminished and “enthusiasm” increased. The sacraments were sidelined, although not entirely abandoned, of course. It was in this context that substituting wine for grape juice was, quite simply, not a big deal. In those churches where a higher view of the sacraments was retained, this was unconscionable. The “low church” bodies were generally the most adaptable to grape juice, such as Baptists and Holiness groups, but many mainline leaders advocated the same, as a part of the social gospel awareness. As a result, many of the mainline Protestant denominations were caught in-between, such as the Methodists and the Presbyterians. The Methodists had a stronger revivalist streak, and thus many of them adopted grape juice rather easily. For Presbyterians, it was mixed, and it remains mixed to this day. Some use wine. Some use grape juice.
So, that is the history. More needs to be said, but let’s look at the common objections to wine in the Eucharist.
Objection #1: Alcoholism
The obvious objection, given the history above, is that of alcoholism. The objection is basically this: “Every church has members or guests who struggle with alcohol abuse. Serving wine is a temptation for them to ‘fall off the wagon,’ and so it is unloving and irresponsible for us to do so.” This objection has to be taken seriously, as I think everyone agrees. Because of this, I am willing for churches to adopt a compromise position, serving wine primarily but with grape juice as an option. But it also needs to be observed that Catholics, to give one notable example, do not seem to be debilitated by this concern. Neither do Lutherans or Orthodox or Anglicans. In those communions and cultures where wine in the Eucharist is “a given,” it is not a problem, and these also tend to be cultures that (as I see it) have a healthier view of wine and alcohol consumption in general. Alcoholism, as in the ancient world, is seen as one manifestation of a disordered life, and it is the disorder that has to be targeted. This is why “alcoholism,” as a distinct disorder, did not exist in the ancient world. This is a much larger and debated discussion, for which I am not truly qualified.
So, I question the merit of this objection. One of my seminary classmates has a long history of alcoholism and is now helping other alcoholics. I asked her about wine in the communion service, and she said (without hesitation) that it has no effect on her or anyone she knows. It is too little alcohol. And with intinction, it is entirely a non-issue. This is just an anecdote, and other alcoholics can disagree. But it is people like her that we have to hear, as we weigh this delicate issue.
Objection #2: “Wine” in the Bible is not really wine.
This objection can take a number of creative forms. The general approach is to emphasize how wine in the ancient world was diluted by water. This is true, to an extent. Wine is clean. It is pure and healthy (as we know now more than ever), protecting itself against parasites, which is the biggest reason why it was used so often as a common drink in Jesus’ day. In its everyday use, it was “cut” by water in order to make it last longer…but not in festivities. When Jesus turned the water into wine at Cana for the wedding celebration, it was the finest wine of the entire event, which means that is was definitely not cut by water.
It is hard to take this objection seriously. Even diluted wine is still wine, not grape juice. And the festal wine was not diluted. This objection only serves to further highlight the extent to which wine was part of the life and well-being of ancient societies. It was an everyday drink, safer than water, and yet it was also a celebratory drink for special occasions. These are not unconnected, it seems to me. Wine was a blessing. Amos 9:13. Joel 2:24. The prophets used it as an image of blessing in the restoration of Israel. Even today, when we don’t have to worry about unhealthy drinking water (at least not in the West), wine still has its celebratory association, which seems rather important in its signification within the Eucharist (which, after all, means “thanksgiving” for a reason).
Objection #3: Both wine and grape juice are “fruit of the vine” and that’s all that matters.
The expression, “fruit of the vine,” indicates wine. As Jesus said, “I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29 NIV). Nonetheless, some have used “fruit of the vine” to indicate grape juice as well. As such, it is used as the essential feature of the wine. All that matters is that it is “fruit of the vine.” Thus, the fermentation does not really change anything substantially. The alcoholic content is accidental, in other words. But, are we really squabbling over alcohol content? That’s how it may seem.
But, I think the fermentation process is essential, not accidental. It’s more than about “alcohol content.” It’s about what the element (bread or wine) signifies, and grape juice does not have the same signification as wine. It lacks the festal and celebratory features noted under objection #2 above. Jesus chose wine for a reason. And I think one of the casualties, of switching to grape juice, has been the cheapening of the entire character of the eucharistic meal and celebration.
This is a quick discussion of the objections, with only the briefest of responses. I am convinced of the responses, which is why I wrote them! But even if you are not convinced, you have to ask yourself one question. Is it not significant that Jesus, the apostles, and over 1800 years of church history unanimously agreed on this? At the very least, that should be a haunting question.
For your listening pleasure, I will direct you to a sermon by Arden Hodgens, pastor of Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in La Mirada, California: “Wine vs. Grape Juice.” Hodgens, with the other elders of Trinity Reformed, changed the church’s practice from grape juice to wine! He doesn’t care about your opinion or preferences in regard to consuming alcohol. The only question is whether it is biblical to substitute grape juice for wine in the Lord’s Supper. It is not.
Image: Gundlach Bundschu, located in Sonoma Valley, is California’s oldest continuously family-owned winery. With my brother and our parents, I took a tour of their winery this past summer. It was fascinating. They are German Protestant, which meant that they had to close during prohibition, whereas the Catholic wineries were given an exemption for sacramental reasons! Of all the wineries we visited, Gun-Bun was by far the best.