Communion (Lord's Supper, Abendmahl, Nachtmahl) has always had only a symbolic meaning for the Anabaptists and Mennonites and was observed as the ordinance of the Lord and not a sacrament which in itself conveys the grace of God to the participant. The early Christians probably observed the Lord's Supper at every meeting for worship in accordance with the Lord's ordinance given in Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-25, etc. It was a memorial to the death of Christ and a means of the closest fellowship of the believers in Christ. In later centuries the sacrificial aspect surrounded by elaborate liturgical accompaniments was strongly emphasized so that the sacramental character predominated and the Lord's Supper became the "Sacrament," "Mass," or "Eucharist," as it is in the Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, even the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Church, and some others. Bread and wine were believed to become actual flesh and blood of Christ (transubstantiation or consubstantiation) and partaking of them became a necessary means for securing forgiveness of sin.
During the Reformation this practice and concept were changed in the direction of the early Christian Church. The Anabaptists belonged to the wing which most radically broke with this tradition and restored the Biblical practice. Luther insisted on a literal interpretation of the words of Christ, "This is my body," while Zwingli interpreted it as meaning "This signifies my body." The early Anabaptists, who had originally closely associated with Zwingli, largely shared his views along these lines. Zwingli had adopted his interpretation which did away with the sacramental character of the Lord's Supper from the Dutch lawyer C. Hoen, who had written on this subject in 1521. In the Netherlands those denying the sacramental character of the Lord's Supper became known as "Sacramentists." It was this movement which influenced the early Dutch Anabaptists including such leaders as Menno Simons. Luther and the Lutherans commonly called the Zwinglians "Sacramentarians."
The first source of information regarding the attitude and beliefs of the early Swiss Anabaptists is a letter which Conrad Grebel and some friends wrote to Thomas Müntzer, dated 5 September 1524: "The Lord's Supper was ordained by the Lord as a means of fellowship. Nothing more nor less should be used than the words found in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and 1 Corinthians 11. The minister of the congregation should read them from one of the Gospels or from Paul's letter. One should eat and drink in the spirit and in love. Even if it is only bread, if faith and brotherly love precede, it should be partaken of joyfully; and as often as it is practiced within the congregation it is to signify that we are truly one body and bread and are and wish to remain true brethren together" (Geiser, Die Taufgesinnten-Gemeinden, 330).
The Schleitheim Articles speak of the Lord's Supper as the breaking of "one bread in the remembrance of the broken body of Christ" and the drinking of the cup "as a remembrance of the shed blood of Christ" (Mennonite Quarterly Review 19, 1945, 248). Hans Denck, Balthasar Hubmaier, Pilgram Marpeck, and the other early leaders emphasized the fact that the Lord's Supper was ordained by Christ so that His disciples would commemorate His atoning death and have true fellowship in Him. The basic idea of the Catholic Church, the transubstantiation and the sacramental character, disappeared and the Biblical meaning of the Lord's Supper was restored.
It was during the celebration of the Mass that the priest Menno Simons began to doubt the Catholic teaching regarding the Mass. These "whisperings of the devil" must have come to Menno via the Sacramentist movement. After a long struggle he realized that the spirit of God was leading him to the Bible as a source of information. He now believed that the "outward man" received in the Lord's Supper bread and wine, but that the "spiritual man received through the promises of Christ the invisible bread and drink" (Fundament, 1539 H.i.i.j.2). Menno accused the Catholic Church of having made an idol of the Lord's Supper, which made Christ Himself superfluous. He emphasized strongly the symbolic character of the Lord's Supper which points to the one in whom all salvation is found—Christ. The Lord's Supper was a memorial of the death of Christ for men and a special occasion for self-examination (C. Krahn, Menno Simons, 18-21, 139-142).
Already in 1533 a booklet Bekentenisse . . . coming from the circle of Anabaptists in Holland, stated: "Two things are continually held before us in Christ, namely, that He is our Savior and example. We should remind ourselves in the Lord's Supper of what He has done for us and what we should do for Him. Thus we should contemplate these two things when we partake of the Lord's Supper, but not only reflect about them, but realize them with the highest expression of gratitude in our life" (v. d. Zijpp, Geschiedenis . . . , 1952, 117). Similar concerns and beliefs were expressed by other writers of the Netherlands during the 16th century (see D. Philips in Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica X, 111-134). During the 17th century the beliefs of the Mennonites of the Netherlands were formulated in confessions of faith including the teaching about the Lord's Supper. Basically they remained the same throughout the centuries. The changes which took place pertained to the form and circumstances of observing the Lord's Supper.
During the early days of persecution, little attention could be paid to the outward form of the Lord's Supper. There was a very definite feeling and conviction that as much as possible of the outward form of the Catholic tradition should be done away with because of the idolatrous implications. Little attention was paid to uniformity of practice in the various parts of Europe where Anabaptists were located.
Rembert (Wiedertäufer, 510) reported regarding the communion services among the Anabaptists of the Lower Rhine in the late 16th century: "When the Lord's Supper was distributed the minister took the bread and broke a piece of it for each, and as soon as it was given out and each had a piece in his hand, the minister also took a piece for himself, put it into his mouth and ate it; and immediately, seeing this, the congregation did the same. The minister, however, used no words, no ceremonies, and no blessing. As soon as the bread was eaten, the minister took a bottle of wine or a cup. drank, and gave each of the members of it. On this wise they observe the breaking of bread."
In the 16th century severe persecution made development along uniform lines difficult. One of the differences seems to have been whether the bread and wine were to be distributed by the officiating elder or minister while the members kept their seats, or whether the members were to come to the front of the meeting place to receive the bread and wine, seated around a table. Vos. Kühler, van der Zijpp, et al., are of the opinion that in the Netherlands it was the original practice to distribute the bread and wine to the participants in their seats, and that Hans de Ries, an elder of the Waterlanders, introduced the practice of handing the bread and wine to the participants seated at table in groups around 1580. Thus it became the practice of the Waterlanders to observe the Lord's Supper seated around a table, while the Flemish received it from the elder in their seats. Later. when Flemish and Waterlander congregations united, a compromise was usually made. At one time of the year the Lord's Supper would he served around the table and at another time in the seat, This was the practice of the Amsterdam Mennonite Church to the 1950s.
The widespread practice in certain groups of Mennonites in South and North Germany to have the members of the congregation come to the table in the front of the room to receive the bread has very likely no connection with this practice of the Waterlanders, but is due to Lutheran influences. The practice of putting the bread into a cloth or handkerchief until it is eaten in unison must be old, going back to the Catholic days when the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine was a basic belief. According to Vos (De avondmaalsbediening . . .) this practice was observed among the early Dutch Mennonites but disappeared completely. Among some of the Mennonites of Prussian, Polish, and Russian background in America, it was still practiced in the 1950s (Beatrice, Gnadenberg, Rosenort, and other congregations). When the cup is passed from member to member the one receiving it turns to his neighbor who has not yet been served, asking with a silent nod for permission to help himself, to which the neighbor responds with a nod. The origin and full meaning of this practice is not known to the writer. It may have been the intention by this practice to indicate brotherly love and recognition. The practice was still in use in Berlin as well as in Göttingen in the 1950s, probably coming from West Prussia .
The vessels—cup, pitcher, and plates or baskets in which wine and bread were served—were originally very plain. They became more ornamental during the "Golden Age" (17th century) in the Netherlands. The cup and pitcher were originally earthenware or pewter and later sometimes silver, the first silver cups having been used at Zwolle in 1661. Etchings were common. This was also the case among the Mennonites in Prussia and Russia. Some of the vessels for communion services in Prussia and Russia (including cups from Chortitza dated 1842) were brought to North America.
Originally not only elders (bishops) performed the function of administering the Lord's Supper but also ministers, deacons, and possibly lay members. Gradually the practice developed that elders (bishops) only could be in charge of this function. In later centuries when in some countries and conferences the traditional function of an elder (bishop) was restricted to one congregation and his authority and function were reduced to that of a minister of one congregation, each local minister administered the Lord's Supper. This has been the case among the Mennonites of Holland for many generations and was the practice among most of the Mennonite Brethren and General Conference congregations as well as other groups that have come from Europe to America during the 19th century. Among the groups of Swiss background such as the Mennonites (MC) and the Amish, or the Old Colony Mennonites, where the bishop system was still the prevailing practice, only the bishop could be in charge of a communion service. The preachers and deacons assisted in the act. In Germany it was still the rule that only elders were in charge of the communion service.
Moral integrity, and unity and peace among the members were prerequisites for the observance of the Lord's Supper. For this reason it was always strongly emphasized that all differences and offenses should be removed between members before the Lord's Supper. This resulted in the practice among the Mennonites of Switzerland, South Germany, and Holland, of setting aside the Sunday before the observance of the Lord's Supper to cleanse the congregation as far as necessary and possible from all misunderstandings, and to clear all cases of necessary church discipline of individual members. If this was impossible some congregations would nor observe the Lord's Supper, or individuals not "at peace" with fellow men and God would stay away. In Holland this meeting was called enigheid houden. Mannhardt reports that the Danzig Mennonites up to the 19th century were invited by the Ansager or Umbitter (a sort of deacon) to come to the Lord's Supper and that the ministers inquired whether there was anything among the members of the congregation that needed to be cleared to have peace. In an Old Flemish congregation of the Netherlands in 1753 two brethren were asked to take off their wigs for the communion service.
The emphasis on self-examination remained in all Mennonite congregations, and the traditional Sunday or other day set aside for this purpose was still observed in many European congregations. In America it was observed in the 1950s among the Amish, the Mennonites (MC) and others, where this day before the communion service was known as the "Counsel Meeting." According to J. C. Wenger (Glimpses, 112) such meetings could take place a few days or weeks before the communion service. This practice existed also in the Netherlands and was in some congregations maintained until the end of the 19th century. (See further Counsel Meeting) On this occasion church discipline was discussed and members were given opportunity to straighten things out if they were not in harmony with the standards of the church. Members who were "out of order" or not at peace with God and man, were "set back" from the communion and not allowed to participate until all matters had been made right. It was still the custom in these groups to have the congregation vote at the close of the preparatory service whether it was ready to proceed with the communion service as planned. Any considerable negative vote or even abstention resulted in a delay of the communion service until matters were cleared. The Schleitheim article on the "ban" states this principle clearly in referring to the disciplining of erring members, saying "this shall be done according to the regulation of the Spirit before the breaking of bread, so that we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink one cup" (Mennonite Quarterly Review 19, 248).
The early Anabaptists must have used ordinary bread for the communion. In the 17th century in the Flemish congregation of Rotterdam, Holland, a kind of crackers in the form of a figure "8," called krakelingen, were used instead of white bread. (Vos, 15.) In 1716 Jehring found the Mennonites of Norden using white bread which the elder broke, giving each member a piece. After that he filled eight pewter cups from a bottle of wine. The elder drank first and then the cups were passed from person to person. Several times the congregation knelt in silent prayer (Vos, 10). When Rues visited the Old Flemish of Holland a little later he found them using small pieces of white bread, which the minister broke and distributed, followed by the deacon with the basket of bread. The bread was eaten in unison. In front on the table were the cups and the bottles of wine covered with white linen. The elder filled the cups, drank first, and passed them from person to person. When one person passed the cup to the other he nodded without saying anything (Vos, 10).
The bread used for the communion must have been mostly unleavened, which was broken or cut. In Russia a conservative group insisted on breaking the bread (not cutting) because the Lord "took the bread and broke it" (Apostolische Brüdergemeinde). The usage in the mid-20th century among the Mennonite groups of America seemed to be that unleavened bread gave way to leavened bread, which was cut in slices and then broken as it is distributed. In some congregations the bread was still homemade (sometimes baked in small pieces) but the majority bought the bread. In some congregations the members walked to the Lord's Table and received the bread from the ministers, eating it after returning to their seats. But in the majority of congregations the bread was distributed by ministers and/or deacons, and the members then partook of it in unison. In those congregations which had bishops or elders, these did the distributing, and each recipient partook at once upon being served.
Throughout the centuries members drank from a common cup; i.e., the congregation had up to a half-dozen chalices, which were filled and passed from member to member. The use of individual cups was started in Holland in 1896 (Vos, 13). By 1917 over half of the Dutch Mennonite congregations were using individual cups. In America the change from the common cup to the individual cup came after World War I. Most of the General Conference Mennonite churches had made this change by the 1950s, but most of the other groups still used the common cup at that time. The usual reason offered for the change was the sanitary one.
For centuries the Mennonites used regular fermented wine; this was still the case among the European Mennonites in the mid-20th century. In America the change from wine to unfermented grape juice came with the turn of the last century. Most of the Mennonite congregations of the United States, and the Mennonites (MC) in Canada, have made this change. Among the Mennonites of Russian background in Canada, Mexico, and South America, the common cup and fermented wine were still in use in the 1950s. The change in the United States has been due to the influence of the total abstinence movements, which had a great influence on the Mennonites.
The singing and praying during the Lord's Supper differed. Originally there was much silent kneeling prayer. Rues (Aufrichtige Nachrichten, 56) reported that during the 18th century the Dutch Mennonite elder preached and admonished his congregation while he was distributing the bread among the members. The Amish still used special prayers from the Ernsthafte Christenpflicht. The South German Mennonites used for over one hundred years the Formularbuch which included special prayers for this occasion. The Prussian Mennonites published Abendmahlsandachten as early as 1823 for use on such occasions. These were practices in which adjustments were made to the usage of the country. The Dutch Mennonites resisted the use of the ministers' manuals to this day. Among the American Mennonites some General Conference congregations have been using such aids since the early 20th century.
The Lord's Supper was accompanied by feetwashing in most of the Mennonite churches in the early centuries. Although this was not a fixed practice of the early Anabaptists it was gradually adopted by the Dutch-North German groups. Feetwashing was practiced during the meeting at which the congregations were preparing for the Lord's Supper, or just preceding the Lord's Supper or immediately thereafter. The conservative groups in Holland, Prussia, and Russia had this practice. About the mid-19th century it completely disappeared in Holland. In Russia only the Gnadenfeld and Alexanderwohl congregations, the Kleine Gemeinde and the Mennonite Brethren practiced it. The Alexanderwohl congregation discontinued the practice in America. The South German and Swiss Mennonites (who were not Amish) never adhered to it, but the Amish groups in South Germany, France (where all were Amish), and Switzerland did. The Amish and all who descended from the Amish, the Mennonites (MC) and related groups, and Hutterian Brethren still practiced it in the mid-20th century. Thus the practice of feetwashing, which originated among the Mennonites of Holland, was taken over by the Amish going to America (via the Dordrecht Confession of Faith), while in the country of its origin it long had been discontinued.
Since the Mass was celebrated every Sunday it can be assumed and is easily understandable that the early Anabaptists observed the Lord's Supper quite frequently, possibly at every meeting. Gradually the frequency must have decreased to twice a year. At times in the past the Lord's Supper could not be observed because of lack of unity and peace. During the time of extreme liberalism in Holland some congregations temporarily discontinued this practice altogether. In the Netherlands most congregations observed it only once a year. In most of the congregations in other countries it was observed at least twice a year, in a few four times, and occasionally even ten times a year, rarely only once.
As stated earlier, throughout the 16th century and in most places down to the 19th century only members in good standing could participate in the Lord's Supper. This practice, called close communion, was also followed by other evangelical denominations and was in the mid-20th century still practiced by some large and small groups in America, e.g., the large Southern Baptist group. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Mennonites of Holland were divided on this question as to who should be admitted. The Zonists and other conservatives favored the retention of close communion, while the Lamists and others wanted to have not only all Mennonites of various groups admitted but also other professing Christians (v. d. Zijpp, 119, 244). Most of the European Mennonites practiced open communion by the 1950s, stating in their invitation something to the effect that all Christians were welcome to participate. In America this practice in the mid-20th century was followed by the General Conference Mennonite Church and some others, while the Mennonite Church (MC), the Mennonite Brethren, Krimmer Mennonite Brethren, the Amish, and the Hutterites generally observed close communion, i.e., only members of their own group in good standing were admitted. -- Cornelius Krahn
The primal act of the Christian church is its gathering to eat bread and drink wine in memory of Jesus. This ritual meal originated among the Jewish people as a reenactment of their exodus from Egyptian bondage. The Christian breaking of bread recalls Jesus' meals with seekers and friends before and after his resurrection (Mark 2:18-22; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 24:13-35; John 21:9-14) and, supremely, that Passover supper at which the Messiah announced a new covenant to be inaugurated by his death (Mark 14:12-25). The early Christians believed that even after his ascension the repeating of the meal Jesus had instituted at his death was a "communion of the body and blood of Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:16), i.e., a participation in his person and life.
It was not long before attempts were made to explain this mystery. Some (Irenaeus, fl. ca. 180-200; Cyril of Jerusalem, 315-86) emphasized the physical changing or conversion of the bread and wine as the means by which Christ is present; others (Clement of Alexandria, fl. ca. 200-215; Origen, ca. 185-254) concerned themselves more with the spiritual reality of this communion. At the time of the Protestant Reformation the former interpretation dominated in the western church. It was one of the central concerns of the Reformation to restore eucharistic practice and belief to their primitive simplicity. This involved a denial that priest and sacrament cause Christ to be present by the performance of the ritual whether or not there was a response of personal faith. All the reformers taught that nothing could or needed to be added sacramentally to Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Many non-Lutheran reformers (Anabaptist, Reformed, Anglican) put forth the claim that Christ could not be offered again because physically he was in heaven. Since the Lord's Supper was not a sacrifice, it was not to be celebrated at an altar but around a table.
Anabaptism as a separate church community came into existence in a celebration of the Lord's Supper in Zürich in 1525. Its leaders emphasized those medieval and Reformation beliefs concerning communion which they believed to have a basis in Scripture. There were three characteristics and three tendencies which appeared in varying degrees in most Anabaptist understandings of the Lord's Supper. The three characteristics were: (a) "Body of Christ" signifies not only the historical person of Jesus and not only the bread and wine, but also the church. The church is the body of Christ because it is made up only of those who have personally covenanted with Christ and fellow believers in baptism. In the breaking of bread this reality is recreated; in it Jesus' incarnation is prolonged through time. (b) The Lord's Supper is, inseparably, an act of remembrance of and thanksgiving for Jesus' suffering sacrifice for the world. It is a visible word by which the church "proclaims the Lord's death until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). (c) It is a communion of the body and blood of Christ. The elements do not change, but in a gathering of believers who break bread in faith and love, there is an assured participation in Christ's saving presence.
The three tendencies of Anabaptist belief about communion are the following: (a) The relationship between God and humanity is unmediated; grace cannot be caused by material means. It is the immediate work of the Spirit through the response of faith which unites us to Christ. Bread and wine remain outward signs of an inward relationship. (b) The person of Christ, more than the words of institution, is the source for understanding what happens in communion. The church is the extension of his incarnate life. This presence is renewed in the Lord's Supper. Since his ascension, the Lord's physical body is in heaven. Because he is fully human and fully divine, Christ can be present only in one place at a time in his humanity, but he is present everywhere in his divinity. (c) The Gospel of John is the preeminent source for Anabaptist eucharistic thought. From it comes the emphasis on Christ's ascension, the description of the Lord's Supper as a meal of love, and the inclusion of feetwashing as the enactment of that love.
Certain of these characteristics and tendencies dominated each of the three regions in which Anabaptism originated. The most far-reaching reformation of the Lord's Supper took place among the Swiss Brethren. They placed their emphasis on the body of Christ as the church and on the memorial/thanksgiving character of communion (Schleitheim Confession, articles 2, 3). Peter Walpot turned to rational arguments to prove the impossibility of the Catholic position and removed all mystery from communion (TA Oberdtsch. II, "Vom Abentmahl, 126-34, layoffs). Balthasar Hubmaier, the most original and sophisticated representative of the Swiss Anabaptist view of communion, argued that the most profound sign function of the Lord's Supper was that it represented the church's pledge to give up its life just as Christ had done (Hubmaier, Schriften, 104, 317-18). Thus communion became primarily an ethical event; not so much a means of grace as a response to grace.
Among South German Anabaptists, Hans Denck taught a mystical union with Christ which was symbolized by bread and wine but came about in the individual's willingness to suffer with Christ. Pilgram Marpeck reacted against the emphasis on the exclusively human and inward reality of communion, insisted on divine initiative in the celebration, and emphasized the outward form of the celebration. For him the Lord's Supper was not a static object but a dynamic event. In it the Holy Spirit takes the gathering of those who come in faith and love to break bread and unites it with Christ. Christ's incarnation is the model of how God reveals himself. he comes to us in outward realities to lead us to inward ones (CRR 2:76, 85, 99). Thus, our faith and the bread we share are made by the Spirit into a participation in Christ (CRR 2:194ff.; Marpeck, Verantwortung, in Marbeck-Schwenckfeld, ed. Loserth , 501-515).
In Dutch and North German Anabaptism, Menno Simons taught that it is by faith in the working of the Spirit rather than in the working of the sacrament that one receives Christ. The Supper is a memorial of Jesus' suffering and the renewal of the covenant made in baptism (Menno, Writings, 1870, bk. 1, 40-52). Dirk Philipszoon carried forward and expanded these beliefs in a systematic way (Enchridion, trans. Kolb, 69-96; On the Incarnation, BRN 10, 10140). He emphasized that the communion we have with Christ is given to us when we are born again. The Lord's Supper is a moment within time and space when visible evidence is given of this communion. Through it the believer is assured of the grace of God. On the basis of John 6, Dirk claims that this communion is a spiritual eating and drinking of Christ's body and blood (Enchiridion, 57, 141). Though the church must come to the Lord's table forgiven of God and at peace with its own members, its communion is predominantly that of individuals with Christ rather than with each other.
Only fragmentary data exist to describe how these communities observed communion. The one complete order of service from the first generation of Anabaptists was composed by Hubmaier (Schriften, 355-64). The first extant minister's manuals with orders of service for communion date from the 19th century (Dahlem, 1807; Eby, 1841).
The second stage in Mennonite eucharistic thought and practice begins with the transition to an established movement. The two most influential confessions of faith (Dordrecht in 1632 and the West Prussian [Flemish-Frisian-High German, later General Conference Mennonite] in 1660) perpetuate the plurality of Anabaptist eucharistic doctrines. The former articulates the memorial and covenant aspects (Loewen, Confessions, 67). The latter includes these but also teaches that Christ, "in his heavenly estate is the life-giving bread, food, and drink of our souls. In the keeping of this spiritual supper, Christ unites himself with all who truly believe" (Loewen, Confessions, 121/119). The Dordrecht Confession articulated beliefs which were to be carried to the new world by Swiss Mennonites; the West Prussian confession articulated those which were carried by North German Mennonites to Russia and to North America. Both confessions included the ordinance of feetwashing.
This second period of Mennonite history led to the codifying of practices concerning communion. Hans de Ries and J. Gerrits van Emden wrote meditations on and instructions for the observance of the Lord's Supper (Vijf Stichtelijcke Predicatien, 1650, 37ff). Leenaert Clock composed a prayer formulary in 1625 (Formulier, 60ff). Its three communion prayers were used by Mennonites throughout Europe and are still used by the Amish in the late 20th century.
By the 17th century it had become usual for Mennonites in northern Europe to celebrate communion twice a year while Mennonites in south Germany and Switzerland celebrated it once a year (Mast, Letters, 69). There is no extant rationale for the establishment of this practice. The following is an interpretive hypothesis: added to the undercurrent of fear of unworthy communion and obligatory confession beforehand, common through much of Christian history, was the Mennonite stipulation that believers had to be reconciled not only to God but to fellow Christians before they could commune. As communion for Anabaptists was a celebration of the church as the body of Christ, it could be observed only when the whole community was together and of one mind. As persecuted believers went into hiding and differing factions solidified, there could hardly be communion.
The first permanently institutionalized challenge to this practice and to the piety which underlay it came with the formation of the Mennonite Brethren Church (1859-60). Its emphasis on grace and the assurance of salvation as well as its adoption of the Baptist practice of monthly communion counteracted the dread and awe associated with the Lord's table. This spirit and practice have become evident in other Mennonite communities in the mid-20th century.
A description of communion practice and understandings among Mennonites in North America in the late 20th century includes the following: The traditionally conservative (as opposed to revivalist) groups outside the large conferences have retained conventional forms and piety, often in a stern fashion. In the large conferences there has been a reductionism at work concerning the breaking of bread. The emphasis on mystical union with Christ among Russian Mennonites (Loewen, Confessions, Mennonite Brethren 1903, 169-170; General Conference Mennonite 1881, 186; General Conference Mennonite 1930, draft 146, final text 306) has receded in both worship and theology (e.g., Loewen, Confessions, Mennonite Brethren 1975, 177). In these groups, as well as in the Mennonite Church (MC), the teaching of the church as the body of Christ (implying renewal of covenant and church discipline) has also receded, leaving only the memorial /thanksgiving aspect of the original threefold belief about the Lord's Supper.
This diminution of belief has come about in part due to the rationalism and individualism of both Fundamentalist and liberal Protestant influences on Mennonites. It has also come about through protest by church members against the inflexible ritual, legalistic spirit, and morbid tone of many communion services. In the past, ethical conformity in matters of detail was often the precondition of admission to the Lord's table. Intense reflection on Jesus' suffering was practiced by communicants in the hope of thereby becoming worthy of communion. In reaction, considerable change and experimentation have taken place in the mid-20th century. Close communion (limited to members of one's congregation or specific faith community) has all but disappeared, its departure hastened not only by opposition to earlier ethical stringency but also by the ecumenical spirit of the times. Innovative orders of service, characterized by a spirit of freedom and grace, have become common. The contraction of the Lord's Supper from an event unto itself (with a preparatory service) into a brief appendix to a regular Sunday worship service is now commonplace. The demand to admit to communion unbaptized children who are growing up in the care of the church is heard more loudly. Little theological or devotional reflection on a popular or academic level has guided this changing understanding of communion. The teaching of Anabaptist and early Mennonite theologians on the subject has almost been lost to memory. This loss is reflected in all of the theological summaries of the Lord's Supper written by Mennonites in recent years (Wenger, Friedmann, Kaufman, Finger). In the conservative districts of the Mennonite Church (MC) in the United States and in traditionalist General Conference (GCM) and Mennonite Brethren congregations in Canada, longstanding communion rituals have been retained, though often without attention to their shortcomings.
The spiritual and theological work of the ecumenical movement has transcended 16th-century formulations as the unassailable norm for how both Protestants and Catholics understood the Bible. Mennonite, like other Protestant, understandings of the Lord's Supper came into being in the controversies of the Reformation. In the late 20th century, Mennonites stand on the threshold of a revolution sure to be as significant for how the church breaks bread as was that of the 16th century.
In summary, the Mennonite interpretation of Christian belief concerning the Lord's Supper has the following traits: It is opposed to speculation about metaphysical changes in the elements, yet often rationalistic in its arguments against such speculations. It has a spiritualistic tendency which is manifest in its inability to make positive claims for the relationship in communion between bread and the presence of Christ. At the same time the traditional piety of participants in communion indicates belief in a mysterious reality beyond what Mennonite teaching can explain. The Mennonite interpretation of communion has emphasized the human more than the divine action of grace. This has sometimes been a way of countering claims for divine action which Mennonites deem to be unbiblical. More often it has issued from the conviction that ethical response is the most profound act of gratitude for grace. -- John D. Rempel
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Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, pp. 651-655, v. 5, pp. 170-172. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Krahn, Cornelius and John D. Rempel. "Communion." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C654ME.html.
APA style: Krahn, Cornelius and John D. Rempel. (1989). Communion. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/C654ME.html.