The Positions of the RPCNA
The present positions of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) are that congregations within the RPCNA are permitted to use wine, unfermented grape juice, or a split cup. Neither wine, nor grape juice, is required.
In the paragraphs that follow, we examine the recent decisions of the Synod of the RPCNA concerning the contents of the cup, as recorded in the minutes of the Synod meetings.
The RPCNA Synod of 2019
The Synod of 2019 made two important decisions regarding the contents of the communion cup. First, the Synod refused to consider a position paper, written by the author of this web site, about the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper.
Second, the Synod refused to consider an appeal brought to it by the author of this web site, in which he asked that the Synod overturn the censure of admonition that had been brought against him for statements on this web site that the session of Shawnee (Kansas) Reformed Presbyterian Church alleged were “contrary to the standards” of the RPCNA. The Synod justified its decision on the ground that a few previous synods had already ruled that the use of real wine in the Lord’s Supper is not required.
The RPCNA Synod of 2017
The Synod’s Judicial Committee reminded the Synod of the work that was done in 2010 and 2002, and summarized its understanding of the Church’s position on the contents of the communion cup. “1. Synod has ruled that the contents of the cup may be either non-alcoholic or alcoholic in nature, and even that a split-cup is permissible. 2. Synod has ruled that the responsibility and authority for specifying the contents of the cup in each congregation lies primarily with the Session of that congregation. 3. When making that decision, the Session should seek the unity and full participation of the people as being of the utmost importance, even when the singularity of the cup must be sacrificed. 4. However, Synod does not require a Session to utilize an alternative in order to satisfy the conscience of a member. It may—for pastoral reasons unique to the congregation—choose to do otherwise.”
After this, a special resolution was adopted. This special resolution said, “All members of the RPCNA maintain liberty of conscience — whatever fruit of the vine is administered by local sessions.”
The RPCNA Synod of 2010
The Committee to Study the Contents of the Cup in the Lord’s Supper made the following recommendations:
- a) That Synod affirm that, as stated in the Committee report, the Biblical language used for elements of the supper are generic items, not specifically defined; b) that the scriptural requirements for the sacramental elements may be satisfied by bread that is either leavened or unleavened, and by the “fruit of the vine” that is either fermented or unfermented.
- That every session make every effort to retain both (1) the singularity of the elements and (2) the participation of all communicant members of the congregation.
- If the session is unable to find a single loaf of ‘bread’ or a single cup of ‘fruit of the vine’ that satisfies everyone’s health concerns or convictions to the point where members of the congregation have to refrain from participating in the supper, that the session provide an alternative. [This recommendation was not adopted.]
- That this committee be dismissed.
A substitute motion to #1 was adopted. This motion said, ” a) That Synod affirm that, as stated in the Committee report, the Biblical language used for elements of the supper are generic items, not specifically defined; b) that the scriptural requirements for the sacramental elements may be satisfied by bread that is either leavened or unleavened, and by the ‘fruit of the vine’ that is either fermented or unfermented.”
Synod passed Recommendation 1 of The Committee on the Contents of the Cup which continued the definitions of Bread and Cup/ Fruit of the Vine as generic, not specific, and, so, could be satisfied with variations of bread and fermented or unfermented contents of the cup, so long as it qualified as “fruit of the vine.”
In 2010, Synod also passed Recommendation 2 of the same committee: “That every session make every effort to retain both (1) the singularity of the elements and (2) the participation of all communicant members of the congregation.”
Synod DID NOT pass Recommendation 3 of the same committee: “If the session is unable to find a single loaf of ‘bread’ or a single cup of ‘fruit of the vine’ that satisfies everyone’s health concerns or convictions to the point where members of the congregation have to refrain from participating in the supper, that the session provide an alternative.”
The RPCNA Synod of 2002
The Synod’s Judicial Committee considered three papers regarding the use of wine and unfermented grape juice in the communion cup. The Committee wrote, “It is clear that members of our Church have strong and varying views on this subject. Some do not want to participate in communion where only grape juice is served. Some do not want to participate when only wine is served. Others do not want to participate where the split-cup is served.”
Though one communication asked for the formation of a study committee, the judicial committee wrote “that is neither our task nor our passion.”
Pursuant to its work, the Judicial Committee presented a summary of past synodical decisions concerning the contents of the communion cup:
- In 1857, Synod declared that the sale and use of intoxicating drinks, as a beverage, was an offense deserving of church discipline. At the same time, however, the Synod declared that this ruling did not apply “to the use of wine in the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper.”
- In 1882, the sacramental use of alcoholic beverages was recommended against, but not forbidden by Synod.
- Paragraph 5 of Chapter 26 of our Testimony currently states that it is “altogether wise and proper that Christians refrain from the use, sale, and manufacture of alcoholic beverages.”
- In 1992, a report from Synod’s Judicial Committee was approved that included the observation that the word “beverage” has been understood by the church as that which would be used as refreshment or in connection with a meal (see the 1857 wording as one example) and that the use of alcohol in the sacrament is not included in the prohibition of our Testimony.
- In 1992, Synod ruled that Query #8, which at that time forbade officers of the church from using alcoholic beverages, did not forbid officers from partaking of communion in churches with whom we have fraternal relations, which serve fermented wine in the Lord’s Supper.
- Paragraph 3 of Chapter 29 in the Westminster Confession of Faith says, “The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance (the Lord’s Supper) appointed His ministers to declare His Word of institution, to pray, to bless the elements of bread and wine …”
- Paragraph 14 of Chapter 3 in our Directory for Worship suggests as a prayer of consecration these words, “Bless so much of the elements of bread and wine.”
The Judicial Committee recommended that the Synod find that a “split-cup” is not inconsistent the law and order of the church; that sessions seek peace and unity; and that the “law and order of the Church, based on our best understanding of the teachings of Scripture, does not require fermented wine to be used in the Lord’s Supper by all participants.”
The recommendations of the Judicial Committee were adopted by the Synod.
Every Christian has a duty and a right to examine the decisions of the RPCNA synods in the light of the Holy Scriptures, in order to see if what the synods said is true (Acts 17:11, I John 4:1, Psalm 119:99-100). How do the decisions of the synods compare to the teaching of the word of God?
As the preceding sections demonstrate, the RPCNA permits a broad and diverse assortment of practices. Some congregations use wine, while others use unfermented grape juice. Some offer both grape juice and wine, in what is commonly called a “split cup” or a “split tray,” and let individual worshippers decide which to use. At least one congregation uses denatured or dealcoholized wine. Likewise, RPCNA ministers are permitted to administer wine, grape juice, or a split cup.
However, the diversity in the RPCNA is not limited to the actual practices of the congregations and ministers. We would expect these diverse practices to be the result of diverse theological beliefs, and close investigation reveals this is indeed the case. The crux of the issue is one’s opinion of wine itself; for some ministers and members believe that even the moderate consumption of wine is a sin, or at least unwise. Consistent with this belief, some ministers are persuaded that unfermented grape juice must always be used in the Lord’s Supper, and that it would be sinful to administer wine. Other ministers are convinced that wine must be used, and do not administer anything else. On the other hand, many RPCNA ministers and congregations find themselves somewhere between these extremes. For example, many ministers express a personal preference for wine, but are willing to administer grape juice. Some ministers do not object to the use of wine, but wish to avoid a cause of offense, and so administer grape juice. Some ministers will simply do whatever they are expected to do, or submit to the wishes of the session, and this usually means they administer grape juice.
When we consider this diversity, we are justified in speaking of–not merely “the position” (note the singular) of the RPCNA–but rather “the positions” (note the plural) of the RPCNA. For almost any kind of practice and opinion is permitted. We might even be indulged if we spoke of the contradictions in the RPCNA; for what is practiced or believed in one congregation or by one minister, might be contrary or opposite to what is practiced or believed by another congregation or minister. Furthermore, when we expand our perspective to include the practices and beliefs of the RPCNA of more than 150 years ago, the picture become even more diverse. The RPCNA disagrees with itself.
How can we explain this diversity? The RPCNA Constitution and the subordinate standards are clear enough, and do not lead us to expect that churches and ministers who agree with them, would disagree with each other. The Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Larger Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism teach that wine, indeed “common” wine, is to be used in the Lord’s Supper. There is no exception. The subordinate standards do not mention, and do not authorize, the use of unfermented grape juice. If the RPCNA completely agreed with the teaching of the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Catechisms, then there would be no disunity, no disagreement, no divisions, no confusion, and a truly biblical unity would be achieved.
How then should we explain the differences in practices and opinions? The answer is not difficult.
Like most American evangelical churches of the nineteenth century, the RPCNA was greatly influenced by the temperance movements. Some parts of the temperance movements did not discourage all use of wine, and even fewer forbade the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper, but it was the most extreme elements of the temperance movements that had triumphed by the end of the nineteenth century. The immense influence of these elements was seen in new attitudes toward wine in general, new methods of interpreting the biblical passages about wine, and the abandonment of the use of common wine in the Lord’s Supper.
Today, many RPCNA elders and members believe that the consumption of wine, even in the small amounts of it that we find in the sacrament, is always a sin. (A few RPCNA elders and members think that the medicinal use of alcohol in cough syrup and the like is an exception. Why is the sacrament not also an exception?We may well suspect a logical inconsistency here.) The use of wine in the Lord’s Supper is therefore a sin, in the opinion of such persons. Moreover, the use of unfermented grape juice by so many ministers and congregations has endured for so long that it is now regarded as an established and venerated tradition. This tradition has such unquestioned authority among some that it does not allow the Bible to speak for itself. Therefore, even the merest suggestion of the possibility of any change is viewed with suspicion or alarm, as if the use of wine would be a dangerous innovation. An innocent observer would be quite surprised, perhaps even shocked, at how tenaciously such views are held in the RPCNA, and it is almost impossible to exaggerate how vehement and passionate the opposition to the use of wine really is.
True, the opinion that all consumption of wine, even in the Lord’s Supper, is a sin, presents obstacles for those who believe it. These obstacles may be fairly regarded as insurmountable. In the Holy Scriptures, wine is often spoken of as a blessing. How then can it be a sin to drink it? How could Jesus appoint “this fruit of the vine” to be used in the sacrament, if all consumption of wine is sinful? How could the Westminster Confession and the Catechisms teach that wine must be used in the Lord’s Supper, if all wine consumption is sinful? The answer was supplied by the proponents of total abstinence more than a century ago: the “two wine” theory. According to this theory, terms like “wine” and “this fruit of the vine,” are generic terms, and include both wine and unfermented grape juice. But how do they know when a word like “wine” is referring to unfermented grape juice? Answer: every time “wine” is spoken of as “good,” it refers to unfermented grape juice; every time “wine” is spoken of as a “bad” thing, it is the fermented juice of grapes. Thus, the proponents of the “two wine” theory are able to satisfy themselves that their practices and opinions conform to both the Holy Scriptures and the subordinate standards, even if they believe the consumption of true wine is a sin, and even if they use unfermented grape juice in the communion cup. For they have persuaded themselves that “wine” and “this fruit of the vine” can be unfermented grape juice, and not alcoholic. They believe they can use unfermented grape juice in the communion cup, but truthfully call it “unfermented wine” or “sacramental wine,” or even simply “wine.” Regrettably, the “two wine” theory was refuted long ago, and the notion that “wine” and “this fruit of the vine” can mean unfermented grape juice has been exploded. Still, for those who do not examine the evidence too closely, and look only on the surface, this passionately-held belief in the “two wine theory” props up the practices and opinions that they wish to see and hold. The belief that even moderate consumption of wine is a sin, and the biblical interpretations adopted to support this belief, explain the diversity in practices and opinions in the RPCNA.
It is the responsibility and the duty of the courts of the church to correct these mistakes. They have not. In fact, the synods have repeated, reinforced, and perpetuated them. Perhaps the most egregious example of this tendency is the finding of the 2010 Synod that the “fruit of the vine” is a generic term, and so embraces unfermented grape juice. This was a reckless distortion of the word of God. In addition, the “liberty of conscience” the Synod of 2017 spoke of is actually a license to commit lawlessness, and an encouragement to antinomianism, in the matter of the communion cup, because an uninformed or erring conscience, when it is at liberty to do as it pleases, will inevitably stray from biblical teaching. These blunders would never have been committed, if the scriptural and confessional data were properly scrutinized, but it is precisely such scrutiny that is assiduously avoided.
Bad trees must bear bad fruits. The RPCNA’s diverse practices and opinions result in some sad consequences, and these are not limited to simple disagreements. Some RPCNA ministers find themselves unable, for reasons of conscience, to administer the Lord’s Supper in some congregations within their own denomination, because the practice and opinion of the minister disagrees with the practice and opinion of the host congregation. In some cases, in some congregations, ministers in good standing are not permitted to even preach, because this subject is so controversial. Thus, the very ordinance that is intended to demonstrate brotherly love and Christian unity has become an occasion for strife. This must hinder the church’s life and witness. Worse, many precious souls languish in error or ignorance, unsure of what the content of the communion cup should be, and so they are unable to partake of the Lord’s Supper with an unencumbered peace of conscience.
What measures should the RPCNA take to solve these problems? A dispassionate and intellectually honest discussion, undertaken by men of good will, using open minds and open Bibles, for the purpose of understanding and applying the mind of Christ, is urgently needed. However, for the present time, this blessing appears to be impossible. Why? Because the leaders of the RPCNA simply will not discuss wine in the Lord’s Supper. The reasons for this reluctance are various and sundry. The elders may feel that they should make great and inordinate efforts to ensure that no one is offended. Maybe they fear that a close examination of the RPCNA’s positions, in the light of Holy Scripture, would result in disagreement, division, or strife; and this they may regard as the worst of evils. Perhaps leaders in the church are unable or unwilling to handle the difficult pastoral problems that would admittedly follow a reformation.
In any case, most elders in the RPCNA have concluded that silence is the best policy. Anyone who dares to publicly teach biblical truth, or who questions the current practice of using grape juice, may find that he is regarded as foolish or divisive. It is a rare soul who is willing to risk his career or the opprobrium of his friends by speaking out.
Elders sometimes forget that they must be “apt to teach” (I Timothy 3:2, KJV). Ministers sometimes forget that the word of God must be preached “diligently, in season, and out of season…” and that they must make “known the whole counsel of God…” (WLC 159). Good men sometimes forget that the ninth commandment “requireth the maintaining and promoting of truth between man and man” (WSC 77). Christians sometimes forget that the very purpose of the church is to cheerfully herald the truth of God’s word, and not to hide it beneath the traditions of men. (These assertions are generalizations, of course, and we are glad to take note of the many exceptions.) However, on the question of the communion cup, we have only silence. This silence is not agreeable to either the word of God, nor does it meet the urgent needs of the RPCNA. It is a dysfunctional church that is unable or unwilling to discuss such an important matter. Yet, this is the reality.
The result of this silence, and perhaps its unconscious motive, is a latitudinarian toleration of very different practices and opinions, in order to maintain a kind of unity. True, it is not a biblical unity; for if it was, it would be entirely based on biblical truth. It is, in fact, founded on compromise. Still, it is a kind of unity. The RPCNA may even be satisfied with this sort of unity enough to guard it against every threat–real or imagined–with all the instruments at its disposal, not excluding even the censures of the church. (The science of sociology teaches us that all social groups enforce conformity with the means available to it, and the RPCNA is no exception.) But this unity comes at a price. The RPCNA must ask: Is the disapproval of men, even godly men, really worse than disobedience to Christ? So far, this question is unasked, and unanswered, in the reigning silence. Or perhaps we must interpret the silence itself as the answer.
Good men see these problems, but resign themselves to the way things are. Change would not be easy, and may not be worth the effort, even if change was possible; and they may well doubt that it is. They may think this question, though it concerns how God should be worshipped, is unimportant. They console themselves with the obvious truth that other work, perhaps more urgent, must be done. The practical business of day-to-day pastoral ministry demands that good men think of other things, or so they believe.
However, sooner or later, thoughtful Christians must consider the more profound questions. Where is the principle of semper reformanda? Where is the reformation principle of sola Scriptura? Has the RPCNA abandoned these principles forever? For the decisions of a few RPCNA synods have effectively supplanted the Holy Scriptures, which should be the only rule of faith and practice. Furthermore, reformation is at a standstill, and the RPCNA is frozen in time. That the RPCNA should find itself in this morass is bad enough; but that it should remain here, after a clear way of escape has been offered to it, is an outrage. The Scottish Covenanters would not have approved of the RPCNA as it is today. Worse, the truth of the word of God, and the practice of the historic Christian church, is buried. That is a pity. But the God who brought Ezekiel’s dry bones to life again can bring a revival and a reformation, and we should pray that He would be pleased to do so.
Until then, a poignant verse of Holy Scripture may serve as a loving and pastoral rebuke for the RPCNA:
“In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25, KJV)