Should leavened or unleavened bread be used for Communion?
Most groups of Christian fellowship use unleavened bread (crackers, pita bread, wafers, etc.) for the communion service, also called the “Lord’s Supper.” Because the fellowship I am part of uses leavened bread (ordinary bread), I have had to think about the reasons on both sides of this custom. I will try to give a fair explanation, but if you (the reader) wish to note something I have misrepresented or wish to add to what I have said please comment below and remember the “comment guidelines.” Also, I am not going to comment on the current trend in some Christian groups toward mystical interpretations of the “Eucharist.” I am only looking at the ordinary Protestant practice since the Reformation.1 I am also going to sidestep the issue of using grape juice instead of the more traditional use of wine.
The Communion Service, or as I prefer simply the “remembrance” or “breaking of bread,” has been a central practice since the very beginning of the Christian testimony (Acts 2:42). Almost everyone realizes that this practice is derived from the Passover supper that the Lord Jesus held with his disciples on the night he was betrayed. This event is recorded explicitly in all the synoptic gospels and is implied in John’s gospel as well. Luke gives the most precise account and by reading that passage carefully we notice that the “remembrance” ritual or tradition2 was instituted (apparently) immediately after the actual Passover meal. Note Luke 22:19–20.
Unleavened bread used in first remembrance
Because of the close temporal connection with the Passover meal, the natural assumption is that the bread for this first request for remembrance would also be unleavened similar to the bread used in the Passover meal. Indeed, it is likely that the Lord Jesus and His disciples did use the bread that was at hand, which would have been the matzo or “unleavened cakes”(Ex. 12:39) prepared for the passover meal. That this was not explicitly mentioned is significant because it allows the possibility of a wider practice than would otherwise be permitted.
So, my obligation is to satisfactorily explain the reason I would use leavened bread. It is very important to realize that the rituals of Scripture have specific spiritual meaning. They are not just customs in the ordinary sense. The apostle Paul explicitly tells us that even historical events as recorded in Scripture have spiritual significance (1 Cor. 9:10; 10:6; Heb. 7:3; etc.). So, to answer the question we will look at the deeper symbolic meaning rather than simply try to reconstruct what might have actually taken place at the “Last Supper”3.
The first thing to notice is that leaven is always a picture of evil in one form or another. The disciples were confused when the Lord urged them to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt. 16:6). He had to explain to them that he was not talking about ordinary bread. But, they should have known this because leaven (and honey) was forbidden (Lev. 2:11). But there were two exceptions which we need to notice (Lev. 7:13; 23:17).
The first exception is the peace-offering. In this case, leavened bread was offered with the offering. It was not properly part of it. So, it reminds us of the effect of the work of Christ as making peace with God for us. Although this is an interesting offering, we cannot dwell on it here. The second exception is connected with the feast of Pentecost and this is the connection we are most interested in for this question.
Connecting Pentecost and the Church
We find in Leviticus 23 a series of “feasts.” In this passage, we find the first four of the seven feasts that the nation was to observe. The ones described in this chapter are particularly associated with the beginning of the Church and signify peculiar aspects of its beginning. We cannot take up details here. The first is the Sabbath. This might not seem associated with the Church but in fact is basic to all God’s purpose because from the very beginning of Genesis (Gen. 2:2) it pointed to God’s Rest, that is eternity. The next is the Passover which shows the sacrifice that is basic to all God’s relation to man. The third is the first-fruits which naturally is connected to resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). The fourth is Pentecost and is the one that helps us with our present question.
Pentecost is the day the Holy Spirit was sent down to form the Church (1 Cor. 12:13). The offering associated with this celebration is unique.
You shall count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath. Then you shall present a grain offering of new grain to the Lord. You shall bring from your dwelling places two loaves of bread to be waved, made of two tenths of an ephah. They shall be of fine flour, and they shall be baked with leaven, as firstfruits to the Lord. And you shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, and one bull from the herd and two rams. They shall be a burnt offering to the Lord, with their grain offering and their drink offerings, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the Lord.Leviticus 23:16-18
Symbolic meaning of leavened bread
Now we need to observe that the Passover represents the Blessed Lord Jesus in offering Himself for our sins. That is, it looks forward to the cross. It was after the Passover that the memorial of remembrance was instituted. We need to notice that the Lord Himself declared that the bread represents His body. So, we might ask whether the Lord’s body was fundamentally different after resurrection and whether Scripture gives any guidance regarding this difference which would be represented by the bread.
The apostle Paul gives the significance of the bread in the remembrance service when he links it to the body of Christ as the Church (1 Cor. 10:16,17). So, bringing these thoughts together we see the justification of using a leavened loaf in the remembrance (communion) service. The loaf represents His body as it is now composed of believers which admittedly includes the thought of their sin (the leaven), but judged as being dead (judged) with Christ (Rom. 6:6; etc.) just as the bread is baked in the fire.
1. I understand that some of the reformers like Luther held a mystical view of the communion objects, but I think most of the reformers rejected transubstantiation and the associated mystical views.
2. I use the terms in the sense of “tradition” in 1 Corinthians 11:2 because here I am emphasizing the form of the practice. As many who read these posts know this is a “most holy feast” with very deep spiritual significance which I in no way wish to demean.
3 For the Christian this really was the last passover.