The Question of Individual Cups Versus The Common Cup
Dr. P. Janson

Exerpted from "Letters to the Editor" Clarion Vol 43 No 20 Oct. 07, 1994

Dear Editor:

In his "News Medley" of 16 July,

A.D. 1993, the Rev. VanOene quoted from the Chatham bulletin regarding the use of individual cups for the Lord's Supper. In a previous "News Medley" mention was made of at least one church that has already adopted individual cups. It appears that the question of individual cups versus the common cup is a recurring with greater frequency, and I would like to offer my thoughts on this subject.

Scriptural basis

There is certainly no scriptural basis for the use of individual cups. On the contrary. Both the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke state that on the night of His betrayal, our Lord "took the cup." Paul, in writing to the Christians gathered at Corinth, also speaks of the cup (1 Cor. 10:16; 1 Cor. 11:25). These very words are quoted verbatim in the "Form for the celebration of the Lord's Supper" in the Book of Praise.

Spiritual basis

As if the scriptural basis were not enough, the use of individual cups is contrary to the whole spirit of communion. Paul employs the Eucharist as a paradigm of the Church's unity in 1 Corinthians 10:16. The Body of Christ, which we receive from one loaf, and likewise the drinking from one cup, reflect that we are one in Christ. Hymn 46, based on the Didache, speaks of the unity that the Lord's Supper demonstrates: "As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in the broken bread made one."

Historical basis

From the Apostolic Church until now, the unbroken tradition has been to follow the precedent established by our Lord Jesus Christ of using a common cup. It is worth noting that, even though at the ritual Passover meal there would have been more than one cup available, Jesus explicitly commands

  His disciples "drink ye all of it" — not "drink ye all of them." [i]

Justin Martyr (100-165) in his description of the Eucharist says: "Then bread and a cup containing wine and water are presented to the one presiding over the brothers." The Antiochene chalice, one of the oldest extant Eucharistic vessels,[ii] is an amazingly large cup. Once again, demonstrative of the practice of the common cup. Moreover, the Reformers purged many abuses that had come into practice of the Roman Catholic Church, but neither Jean Calvin nor Dr. Martin Luther did away with the common cup.[iii]

Origin of individual cups

The introduction of the individual cups is a recent phenomenon. At the beginning of the twentieth century, professors Friedrich Spitta and Julius Smend recommended the use of individual cups for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Europe, mainly on aesthetic and hygienic grounds. However, the desire for real table fellowship weighed more heavily than aesthetic and hygienic considerations, and the use of individual cups was rejected.[iv]

On the North American continent, the introduction of individual cups originated in those churches that do not regard the mystery of this wonderful sacrament, which is so well expressed in article 35 of The Belgic Confession.[v] This influence appears to be gaining foothold in the Canadian and American Reformed churches, almost entirely on the basis of the supposed hygienic advantages of individual cups over the common cup.

Cleanliness

The public health issue has gained more attention with the present-day concern over the acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Research has shown, however, that one does not get AIDS from the common cup. Moreover, the common cup is from a hygienic point of view of disease control the cleanest means for Holy Communion — more sanitary, indeed, than individual cups; it is after all our hands which are most likely to transmit diseases, and each individual glass is handled probably right on the drinking rim, because of the small size.[vi] Indeed, it is almost sacrilegious to speak of sanitation in connection with the Lord's Supper and it is difficult to imagine the Apostles hesitating to receive the one cup from their Lord in fear of another's germs.[vii]

Conclusion

The introduction of individual cups is a recent phenomenon, that differs from the  scriptural  practice  of  the church.  No  biblical  rationale  is  pro- vided for a deviation of the liturgical practice of the church, and the sup- posed  hygienic  concerns  have  been proven  wrong.  Moreover, individual cups are  directly  contrary  to  the meaning of communion. St. Paul, in his  first  letter  to  the  Christians  at Corinth (chapter 10, vv.6-17) stresses the importance of the elements of the Eucharist as the symbol for Christian unity: just as we receive the Body of Christ from one loaf, and drink the Blood of Christ from one cup, so we are one body in Christ.[viii] Drs. Pfatteicher and Messerli comment:

The use of pre-filled individual glasses destroys the significance of the one cup, is excessively individualistic (which is contrary to the spirit of the sacrament), and is totally undesirable historically and theologically. The use of paper cups is distasteful aesthetically, liturgically, and theologically; and disposal cups of plastic or paper are the product of a garbage-producing, throw-away culture that respects neither the creation nor the sacramental element.[ix]

 The foregoing clearly demonstrates that the use of individual cups has no scriptural, spiritual, historical, and hygienical basis. The common cup, on the other hand does.

Lest one think that this issue is a minor matter, consider the following notice which appeared in a recent issue of Forum Letter:

A Texas subscriber sent along an advertisement from Christian Concepts Company for "pre-packaged communion services." They look like little plastic cream containers, the sort poorer restaurants hand out by the handful with a cup of coffee. But these are each emblazoned with a cross on the handy-dandy peel-away lid. Just peel the top and kick it back. Amen.[x]

Receiving the Lord's Supper  in  this format would certainly be hygienical, and the availability of this "product" is only a logical extension of the use of individual cups. Yet, this modus operandi would undoubtedly be greeted with significant reservation  if  it were introduced in the Canadian Reformed churches.

May the above observations stimulate further thought, so that appropriate scriptural, historical, and spiritual consideration will be given to the issue of individual cups versus the common cup in the Lord's Supper.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. P. Janson


[i] Matthew 26:27, St. Mark 14:23, St. Luke 22: 17,20

[ii] It is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

[iii] Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV:1

[iv] The Encyclopedia of the Lutheran Church, s.v. "Communion."

[v] Some even suggest that individual cups "were introduced to prevent Christians from different races from the same cup, in the same way as Blacks in South Africa are prohibited from drinking from fountains reserved for Whites only. Individual glasses were introduced as a means of racial segregation (Apartheid)!"

[vi] "Rev. Dr. G. W. Lathrop, AIDS and the Cup: Notes for  Parish Use,"  in Parish Practice Notebook (Philadelphia: The Lutheran Theological Seminary), Fall 1987

[vii] Incarnate Word Tract Series, Number 16: One Cup.

[viii] It is, therefore, preferable that one single loaf is being used for the Eucharist; as the Didache prayer says: "many scattered grains from the hillsides gathered into one." See also Hymn 46 in the Book of Praise.

[ix] P.H. Pfatteicher and C.R. Messerli, Manual on the Liturgy (Minneapolis:Augsburg Pub- lishing House, 1979), p. 244.

[x] Forum Letter (March 29,1993), p. 6.