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July 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 3 · pp. 29–38 

The Element of Unity in the Anabaptist Practice of the Lord's Supper

Wally Kroeker


The year was 1978; the place: Wichita, Kansas; the event: the 10th Assembly of the Mennonite World Conference. For five historic days, 17,000 Mennonites from 44 countries gathered to celebrate the multi-cultural mosaic of modern Mennonitism. It was like a giant missions conference, with “all of Menno’s children” coming together to celebrate their oneness in Christ and their joint mission in a fast-changing and often violent world.

Appropriately, the memorable convention featured a communion service, likely the largest such observance ever held in more than 450 years of Anabaptist history. Two MWC leaders, Charles Christano of Indonesia and Marvin Hein of North America, proceeded to take symbolic elements—a stalk of wheat and a cluster of grapes—to set the tone for the celebration. While morsels of bread and tiny cups of juice were distributed to the thousands of Mennonites in the Century 2 Convention Center, Hein and Christano ground the kernels of wheat together in a mortar and pestle, and squeezed the cluster of grapes over a bowl. The ritual was a representation of what happens in the body of Christ, Hein said. 1 The wheat and the grapes are crushed, bruised and manhandled. The individual kernels and grapes lose their separate identities. They produce a new substance that is inseparably intermingled. The kernel and the grape are no longer visible in the loaf and the liquid. There is unity.

For many of the Mennonites in Wichita, especially the North American Mennonites, the ritual enacted by Christano and Hein was novel and unusually creative. The Lord’s Supper had never before been celebrated in quite that way, had never been invested with such meaning, had never carried so many layers of symbolic significance. What they did not know was that these two leaders had not discovered something new. They were merely reviving something old, for the {30} parable of the grain and grape, the parable of unity, has long roots that go back to the very beginning of the Mennonites. In fact, the Mennonites themselves had taken the deeply symbolic parable from the Didache, the teaching manual of the early church. Thus, the 1978 Mennonites were experiencing a rite that was as old as the Christian faith, and appropriately so, for the Mennonites have consciously regarded themselves as a modern re-creation of the first-century church. The rite—the Lord’s Supper—and its meaning—unity—were as old as the faith itself.

The fact that the 1978 enactment was such a creative and novel surprise to so many participants suggests that Mennonites today (henceforth, for the purposes of this paper, defined more limitedly as Mennonite Brethren) have lost sight of an important dimension of the Lord’s Supper. It is my observation that for today’s Mennonite Brethren the concept of unity is not an important part of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the Lord’s Supper is commonly celebrated together but at the same time in private. Individual morsels, individual cups, a reminder to remember the shedding of Christ’s blood for personal salvation, and an entreaty to examine one’s own heart for any blemish and unworthiness (usually defined in personal and individual terms) all point to a rite that is individually understood. It is my contention that the element of unity was fundamental to the early Anabaptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper. This element, largely missing from today’s Mennonite Brethren celebrations of the Supper, should be recovered.


The Lord’s Supper in the early church was an event characterized by joy and unity. Scriptural references to the Lord’s Supper single out the fact that believers broke bread “together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46). The Lord’s Supper was a joyful event, the joy being rooted in two things. First, it was rooted in the resurrection of the Lord, which served to certify the truth of the Good News. Second, they experienced joy because of their unity in the risen Lord. Those early Christians at the first Lord’s Supper “rejoiced because the Lord was there. Their unity was in the fact that they were around the table there together with the Lord.” 2

The symbol of the meal as a worship rite has deep roots in the history of the Hebrew people. In the ancient Near East, meals symbolized fellowship, community and covenant. Meals were binding experiences; they were a common partaking of the basic elements of life. William Barclay calls eating together “one of the simplest and oldest acts of fellowship in the world.” 3

For the first several decades of the Lord’s Supper, it was celebrated {31} in connection with the love feast, an actual meal. The ritualistic “breaking of bread” was performed before, during, or after the meal (scholars are not certain precisely when). Scholars are also not certain as to when the love feast was separated from the Lord’s Supper. David Ewert says that in some areas the love feast remained a part of the Supper for centuries. 4 In the Didache (about 100 A.D.), the feast and the Supper are still connected. Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about abuses in the practice of the Supper provided the formal teaching that likely helped separate the two rites permanently.

The problem that led to Paul’s warning was one of disunity. The Corinthians were abusing the love feast, turning it into a drunken orgy in which class distinctions were imposed and which turned the celebration into something far different from that which Christ intended. Snobbish social distinctions were eroding rather than building fellowship. In simple terms, the rich Christians were getting to the feast first, before the peasants were finished with their work. By the time the peasants arrived, the rich were overfed and drunk. Barclay says that “The agape became a casualty because human nature debased a lovely thing until it became a handicap rather than a help to the Christian fellowship.” 5 The very ritual that was to be an event for unity became a source of disunity. Eating unworthily, which many modern Christians interpret as coming to the Lord’s Table with sin in one’s life, was the act of destroying unity.

Paul’s whole point is that to dare to partake of the sacrament while there are factions and sections and divisions in the church, to dare to partake of the sacrament unaware or forgetful of the fact that we are a body and the body of Christ, is nothing less than a blasphemy. 6

The lesson to be learned from Paul’s corrective is that the Lord’s Supper is meaningless where there is no unity of Christian brothers and sisters. His corrective (urging a solemn, commemorative celebration), however, has been misused by succeeding generations. As Yoder says, Paul’s seeming reorientation of the Lord’s Supper is “a corrective, not a basic definition.” 7

Paul’s corrective, taken to an extreme, led to an understanding of the unity aspect. With the fellowship meal gone, the ritual soon became more formal. By the third century the idea of sacrifice as a central meaning of the Supper had grown more prominent, based on Old Testament practices. By the Middle Ages the eucharist (taken from the Greek word for “thanksgiving”) was being understood primarily as a re-offering of the sacrificial act of Christ on the cross. 8 The concept of unity, so strong in early church practice, had been reinterpreted in such a way as to make it almost disappear. In theory, though, it remained an essential ingredient in the ritual. Clement of Rome and Ignatius were so concerned {32} about the preservation of unity that they declared the Lord’s Supper could be properly practiced only under the direction of an authorized church leader. 9


By the 16th century the celebration of the Lord’s Supper had become strictly ritualized, with special objects, elements, places and meaning. It was no longer a meal of fellowship and unity, not even a commemoration of the Lord’s death and resurrection. Instead it had become a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ. In Catholic belief, the Lord’s actual body and blood were present in the elements (transubstantiation), concretizing the shift in understanding from a celebration of unity and commemoration to one of actual salvatory significance. Says Cornelius Krahn,

Gradually the doctrine of the actual sacrifice and real presence of the Lord in the bread and wine on the altar was accepted, and the aspects of the eucharist (thanksgiving) and the fellowship which were so strong among the early Christians, were overshadowed or disappeared. 10

The spiritualistic overtones that attended the Lord’s Supper led some to adopt magical and superstitious beliefs, likely heightening the discontent among those who were already troubled by the direction of the Catholic Church. Krahn relates instances of priests giving Holy Communion to sick animals (cows, etc.) to effect a cure. It was also commonly believed that a faithful Catholic would not contract illness on the day that he/she attended mass (the Lord’s Supper being a central part of the mass), and that a person did not grow older during the time expended in this ceremony. 11


Against this view the Anabaptists (and others) rebelled. Although the Lord’s Supper is seldom thought of as a pivotal issue in the Radical Reformation, there is much evidence that differing interpretations of this celebration contributed much to the ferment of the early 16th century.

The centrality of this rite in the Reformation is only fitting, since it was a central act in the worship life of the church from the first century onward. Many biblical scholars agree with the assessment of Barclay that “without question and without debate” the Lord’s Supper was the “central action in Christian worship.” 12 Robert Roth goes so far as to say that the early Christians did not even draw clear lines of separation between preaching and the breaking of bread. 13

The Lord’s Supper was a central issue in the debate between the {33} Anabaptists and the reigning authorities. It was one of the key issues between Conrad Grebel and Ulrich Zwingli in the Second Disputation at Zurich. 14 Moreover, it was precisely during the celebration of the mass that Menno Simons began to doubt the biblical integrity of the Catholic traditions. 15

Grebel was the earliest and most specific articulator of an alternative view of the Lord’s Supper among the Anabaptists. In his arguments with Zwingli (who sought to establish the practice of the Lord’s Supper as a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, already a radical view in the context of 16th century Catholicism and Lutheranism) Grebel tried to remove every vestige of Catholic practice. He sought to restore what he believed was a truly apostolic celebration of the Supper. This meant rejecting the practice of a priest or pastor placing the wafer in the celebrator’s mouth. It also meant rejecting the wafer itself, and insisting upon practicing the Supper only in the evening, as the early church apparently had done.

Every reminder of the Roman mass must be eliminated. In its place a simple supper was to come, in which only the installation words were to be read, and which would not be taken in the church but in the homes of believers, without clerical dress, with ordinary bread and ordinary drinking cups, as a symbolic meal demonstrating the fellowship of Christians with each other and with Christ. 16

Grebel was already in agreement with Zwingli in respect to the matter that the Lord’s Supper had no sacramental value in itself. Other early Anabaptist leaders wholeheartedly agreed with this position. They rejected both transubstantiation (Christ exists in the elements) and consubstantiation (the elements become Christ’s body and blood). Anabaptist writers generally agree that “neither baptism nor the Lord’s Supper has sacramental significance. . . . They are signs (significatum) which point to Christ, the cross event, and resurrection.” 17


The Anabaptist view of the Lord’s Supper was usually radical, given the tenor of the times. Grebel’s insistence that laymen, and not special clergy, perform the Lord’s Supper flouted the Council of Constance (1415) which had made it a fixed doctrine that laymen were not to partake of the wine. 18 Krahn further points out that the Lord’s Supper was a vital sacrament, repeated at every worship service and “emphasized as being the main channel of man’s salvation . . . To deny the actual presence of the Lord in the bread and wine . . . was equal to denouncing Christ himself and his church.” 19 The public scandal of {34} such a denial, says Krahn, could be similar to a report today that “some of our towns had been invaded by living beings from another planet.” 20

Fritz Blanke says the difference between the Lord’s Supper as celebrated by the Anabaptists and as celebrated by the state church of Zurich was “so great that it cannot be bridged.” 21 While the Zurich churches’ practice was already radically different from that of the Church of Luther and the Pope, it was still characterized by a pastoral distribution, a Latin recitation, a distribution of the wafer but not of the cup.

But here in the farmers’ parlors in Zollikon, laymen break ordinary bread and distribute it along with the wine to all participants—a revelation in the history of the Lord’s Supper. . . . 22

Unlike other Christian practices of the time, then, the Anabaptist celebrations had no holy words, no sacred things, no holy place, no special person, and no special time attached to this important celebration. 23

The details of the practice apparently varied among the Anabaptists. Some Hutterite groups practiced the Lord’s Supper once a year, while others, like the church at Zollikon, observed the Supper at every meeting. 24 It was practiced, according to Claus-Peter Clasen, “in houses, in barns, in orchards, and allegedly even in prison.” 25


The Anabaptists were in large measure agreed that an important element of the Lord’s Supper was that of unity. It was for this reason that the Lord’s Supper and church discipline were so closely connected in Anabaptist practice. Partaking amid disunity and impurity was tantamount to eating unworthily, in the eyes of Grebel, “for the body of church is destroyed when one has fellowship with ‘false brethren’.” 26 For Marpeck and others, the Supper was a way of maintaining the purity of the church. 27 The Supper and church discipline were two of the vital signs of the church. Klaassen says,

The purpose of the Supper, especially, is to express in signal form the reality of this new community of love and peace and truth. The letter of Grebel and his friends to Müntzer repeatedly makes reference to the “rule of Christ” or “Christ’s rule of binding and loosing” found in Matt. 18:15-18. The Supper should never be used without it. It is not a legal formula disclosing the steps by which a person should be expelled from the church . . . but a way of dealing {35} with sin and evil in the new community. 28

For a church to be obedient to Christ, it had to be pure and united, the Anabaptists believed. “Moral integrity, and unity and peace among the members were prerequisites for the observance of the Lord’s Supper.” 29 The concept of purity became so strong that its influence extended even into the state church. Says Gordon Kaufman,

Many who were called into court for abstaining from the communion services of the state church, stated that they could not participate because they were not worthy. 30

Participation in the Lord’s Supper was thus an enormously meaningful event. Not only was it a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice, not only was it an act symbolizing unity; it was also a personal and corporate sign of obligation to live a Christian life and be allied with Christ’s bride, the church. Thus Blanke can say, “We feel that in these Lord’s Supper gatherings with their puritan solemnity beats the real heart of the young church.” 31


The richness of the symbolic meaning of the Lord’s Supper is illustrated by the frequent use in Anabaptist literature of the grain and grape parable. The parable, found first in the Didache, appears time and again in Anabaptist literature, including the writings of Claus Felbinger, Peter Walpot, Hans Nadler, Andreas Ehrenpreis and Menno Simons. The use is always with the intention of stressing unity and self-sacrifice. The parable is rich in symbolism. The term bread was generally representative of food, the staff of life. The grains of wheat (which have already had to fall into the ground, die and sprout forth in resurrection life) are ground together (symbolizing suffering and unity) and then baked (in the further suffering) into a common loaf. None of the characteristics of the original kernels can be seen; all the grains have lost their own identity in producing the unified whole.

Similarly, the wine is a product of crushed and mingled grapes. The Old Testament refers to wine as “the blood of the grape” (Gen. 49:11). The juice of the crushed and broken grapes was mingled to produce a new substance, one that would undergo further transformation in the fermenting process.

The parable was used in many forms in Anabaptist literature. For the sake of brevity, I quote a representative example from Ehrenpreis. 32

The grains had to be brought together into one flour and one loaf. Not one of them could preserve itself as it was, or keep what it had. Every grain has given itself and its {36} whole strength into the bread. In the same way the grapes. The grapes must be pressed for the wine. Every grape gives all its strength and all its juice into the uniform wine. In it no grape can keep anything for itself. Only in this way does wine come into being. Grapes and grains which remain whole are only fit for the pigs or the muck heap. They have nothing to do with bread and wine. If they kept back strength and body for themselves, they lost everything and remained lost.

In the light of the richness of this parable we can understand why the ordinance of the Lord’s supper had so much power and vitality in the Anabaptist church of the 16th century. The Anabaptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper was further honed by the danger to which the early Anabaptists exposed themselves every time they celebrated this rite.

This eating and drinking in brotherly fellowship gave them strength and encouragement and the certitude of belonging to a company of redeemed souls, and of being part of the “true body of Christ.” 33

It was in this simple celebration that the Anabaptists further distinguished their understanding of the Christian faith from that of Zwingli, for it made meaningful the concept of the church, the horizontal dimension of Christian relationships. Friedmann says,

This meal then was a confirmation of that inner unity (also called “the body of Christ”) and gave the Lord’s table the meaning of spiritual sharing and togetherness, the horizontal element in the Anabaptist church idea, which was initially missing in the Zwinglian understanding. 34


The Anabaptist practice of the Lord’s Supper, with its rich texture of apostolic and even pre-apostolic symbolism, 35 has been shorn of much of its depth and richness by contemporary Anabaptists. For many Mennonites today, the Lord’s Supper is primarily a Zwinglian celebration, with virtually all emphasis placed on the commemorative aspect and almost no attention given to the aspect of unity. To restore a celebration that is consistent with the practice of the early Anabaptists and the apostolic church, the dimension of unity of redeemed believers will need again to be given a prominent place, at least equal to the role the commemorative function currently enjoys.

John Howard Yoder describes the first Supper of Christ’s apostles as a time of unrestrained joy and thanksgiving over the miracle of resurrection {37} and the inauguration of the Messianic era. The description of Anabaptist gatherings sound a similar note. The Anabaptists, despite trials and tribulations, were bound together by a shared vision of the Messianic era, and the place of the gathered church in the earthly manifestation of the Messianic presence. There was joy and unity in their fellowship around the Lord’s table. With both the early Christians and the early Anabaptists, the joy and unity of the Lord’s Supper was a natural response, growing out of their embracing of the mission of the Lord.


  1. Don Ratzlaff and Wally Kroeker, “Coverage of Mennonite World Conference,” 1978, Christian Leader, Aug. 15, 1978, pp. 2-12.
  2. John Howard Yoder, “Experiencing Joy and Unity: A Meditation on the Lord’s Supper,” Christian Leader, May 10, 1977, p. 2.
  3. William Barclay, The Lord’s Supper (New York: Abingdon, 1967), p. 56.
  4. David Ewert, “The Lord’s Supper,” an unpublished paper delivered at an Inter-Mennonite Summer School Class, entitled Schieitheim, July 22, 1977, p. 1.
  5. Barclay, p. 61.
  6. Ibid., p. 109.
  7. Yoder, p. 2.
  8. Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1977), p. 123.
  9. Ibid., p. 126.
  10. Cornelius Krahn, Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life and Thought, (1450-1600) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968), p. 45.
  11. Krahn, p. 12.
  12. Barclay, p. 16.
  13. Helmut T. Lehmann, ed., Meaning and Practice of the Lord’s Supper Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961), p. 210.
  14. Fritz Blanke, Brothers in Christ (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1961), p. 9.
  15. Mennonite Encyclopedia, (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1955), I: 651.
  16. Blanke, p. 14.
  17. William Estep, The Anabaptist Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963), p. 175.
  18. Krahn, p. 45.
  19. Ibid., p. 47.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Blanke, p. 23.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Walter Klaassen, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant (Waterloo, ON: Conrad Press, 1973), pp. 13-14. {38}
  24. Blanke, p. 53.
  25. Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism: A Social History, 1525-1618 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972), p. 116.
  26. Gerhard J. Newmann, “The Anabaptist Position on Baptism and The Lord’s Supper,” MQR 35 (1961): 147.
  27. Estep, p. 188.
  28. Klaassen, Neither/Nor, p. 25.
  29. Mennonite Encyclopedia, I: 653.
  30. Gordon D. Kaufman, “Some Theological Emphases of the Early Swiss Anabaptists,” MQR 25 (1951): 88.
  31. Blanke, p. 24.
  32. Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973). pp. 142-43.
  33. Friedmann, p. 139.
  34. Ibid., p. 140.
  35. Ibid., p. 139.
Wally Kroeker, editor of the Christian Leader, is currently on part-time study leave at the Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California.

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