Water Alone

In my last post, I discussed an argument in favor of needing to partake of both the bread and water during a sacrament service as opposed to it being permissible to only partake of the water. This post is essentially a continuation of that same discussion (this time in favor of partaking only the water) and potentially provides a deeper discussion of the nature of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

To understand the main argument I’m presenting that it’s okay to just partake of the water during the sacrament, it is beneficial to look back to discussions that took place during the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic church had come to believe in a doctrine known as transubstantiation, wherein the emblems of the Eucharist miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Catholics also taught that the Eucharist was a sacrifice—the same sacrifice Christ offered on the cross—and was offered for the sins of the living and the dead. Thus, their celebration of the Mass had become an encounter with Christ through a repetition of the sacrifice offered on the cross. Martin Luther took a somewhat different approach, rejecting the idea that Mass was a sacrifice and also rejecting the doctrine of transubstantiation. At the same time, he still taught that the Eucharistic bread and wine did have the presence of the Lord’s body and blood (though in a more of a spiritual sense than the tokens literally becoming his body and blood). Thus, even though Luther broke with the Catholic church in many ways, he still viewed the Eucharist in ways more like the Catholic church than some other reformers.

One of those other reformers was a Swiss contemporary of Luther by the name of Huldrych Zwingli who saw the sacrament as a much more symbolic act. When the scriptures state that Christ said “this is my body”, Zwingli argued that rather than being taken literally, it should be read to mean “this signifies my body.” Looking back at the origin of the word sacrament (a word that held a meaning similar to how we use the word ordinance), Zwingli discovered that the Catholic church had borrowed the term from the Roman army, where it meant a soldier’s oath or covenant. Thus, to Zwingli the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was only a symbol—a communal pledge as Christians and an expression the believer’s faith in Christ rather than a magic talisman of Christ’s body. As one historian summarized, “For Zwingli, therefore, the sacraments shifted in meaning from something which God did for humanity, to something which humanity did for God.”[1] This belief led to deep and bitter disagreements between Zwingli and Luther.

John Calvin strove to find a middle ground between the two earlier reformers, though his own views evolved over time. Calvin held that Christ’s body “has its own (finite) limits … and that body is contained in heaven” and thus cannot be physically present on the table and eaten in the form of the bread. Instead, through the Holy Spirit, “all those benefits which Christ has supplied us with in his body” were present in the bread and wine.[2] The Eucharistic emblems were a visible sign of a sacred realities. To Calvin, both the Catholic church and Martin Luther had confused the reality and the sign, offering worship to the signs (the bread and wine) that was due to Christ, the reality behind the signs. Zwingli, on the other hand, had gone too far the other way, separating the sign and the reality too much in the sacraments. As summarized, Calvin’s view was that “In the Eucharist, God does not come down to us to sit on a table; but through the sign of the breaking of bread and taking of wine, he draws us up to join him in Heaven.”[3] The Eucharist continues an ongoing union with Christ initiated with baptism and effected by means of the Holy Spirit.

Where do Latter-day Saint beliefs lie in relation to these viewpoints? Certainly, the viewpoints proposed by the Catholic Church and Martin Luther are rejected. President Brigham Young stated that: “The Mother Church of the Christian world believes that the bread becomes the actual flesh of Jesus, and that the wine becomes his blood; this is preposterous to me. It is bread, and it is wine; but both are blessed to the souls of those who partake thereof.”[4] This seems to put us somewhere closer to the viewpoints of Calvin or Zwingli, and it is possible to argue that our viewpoint is more like one or the other.

Certainly, there is much in Calvin’s views of the Eucharist discussed above that resounds with Latter-day Saints, particularly the emphasis on the role of the Holy Ghost. Those who partake of the sacrament and live by the covenants made there are promised the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives. President Brigham Young once stated that: “If bread and wine are blessed, dedicated, and sanctified, through the sincerity and faith of the people of God, then the Spirit of the Lord, through the promise, rests upon the individuals who thus keep His commandments, and are diligent in obeying the ordinances.”[5] Terryl Givens interpreted this to mean that “early Mormons … saw [the sacrament]—in Protestant terms—as a channel of grace. As Young explained the ordinance, it was a vehicle for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to participants.”[6] This certainly seems to tie into Calvin’s theology mentioned above, particularly the idea that the sacrament helps form a mystical union with Christ through the Holy Spirit.

There are arguments, however, that can put Latter-day Saint theology closer in line with Zwingli’s understanding. Emphasizing the covenants found in the sacrament prayers fits in with his view of the sacrament as a communal pledge or oath.[7] The ordinance helps us remember those covenants and live by them on a regular basis. A close reading of the scriptures indicates that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit associated with the sacrament doesn’t result directly from the ordinance, but from keeping the covenants we make during the sacrament. For example, when the resurrected Christ taught the Nephites about the sacrament, he told them that they break and bless bread “in remembrance of my body” and as “a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me.” It is, however, only “if ye do always remember me” that “ye shall have my Spirit to be with you” (3 Nephi 18:7). His instructions for the wine were similar (see 3 Nephi 18:11). Likewise, the sacrament prayers found in the Book of Mormon list the covenants associated with each and states that participants keep these covenants so “that they may always have his Spirit to be with them” (Moroni 4:3 and Moroni 5:2). Thus, it can be argued that the sacrament is not a direct channel of grace, but a means of pointing us towards a way of living that open our lives to grace.

Similar statements can be found in the teachings of modern apostles. One of the most important discussions of the sacrament in recent years was by Elder David A. Bednar. While he does maintain that “the ordinances of salvation and exaltation” are “authorized channels through which the blessings and powers of heaven can flow into our individual lives” and thus “are far more than rituals or symbolic performances,” his approach to the sacrament was much more circumspect than that of other ordinances in this regard. In discussing the sacrament, he stated that: “The act of partaking of the sacrament, in and of itself, does not remit sins. But as we prepare conscientiously and participate in this holy ordinance with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, then the promise is that we may always have the Spirit of the Lord to be with us.”[10] The sacrament doesn’t directly give us a remission of sins, but provides a way for us to focus our energies on maintaining a state of being where we can have the Spirit constantly in our lives.

What I’m getting at with this is that if you look at the sacrament as a reminder or a symbol to turn your thoughts to Christ, then it may not be too terrible if you miss the bread but still have the water. It still provides an opportunity to remember Christ, think of your covenants, and reflect on your life and changes you need to make. From this perspective, those thoughts and the corresponding actions in your daily life are the way in which the sacrament has power for individuals who participate. We have already received an initial remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost through the baptism and confirmation ordinances. Further remission of sins comes through sincere repentance and the ongoing presence of the Holy Ghost in our lives, which the sacrament prayers make contingent on remembering Christ, taking his name upon us, and keeping His commandments. All of this can be done even if you miss the bread occasionally.

There is always danger, of course, in pushing this argument too far. For example, if this is the case, do we really need to partake of the sacrament at all if we make the effort to keep the covenants of the sacrament? Similarly, why do we really need the ordinance at all if it’s so closely tied to the same covenants and promised blessings as baptism and confirmation? On the other end of the spectrum, if the sacrament exists as a symbol of our commitment and a reminder of Christ, are we really taking it seriously if we show up too late to take the bread? What type of commitment does that show? Can we fully benefit from the ordinance at that point?

These questions are valid concerns. Just because the sacrament might be a symbol, however, doesn’t mean that it’s not a commandment. Jesus still commanded his disciples to “this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) and that “except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:54). We need the constant reminder in our lives and the opportunity to show that we love and will serve the Lord. Because of that, we should make every effort to arrive in time to contemplate and prepare to partake of both emblems of the sacrament. A habit of arriving late enough to miss one or both parts of the sacrament on a regular basis does show a certain lack of respect for the ordinance and what it achieves in our lives. What I am addressing here, however, is what might be okay if, on a rare occasion, you arrive after the bread has been passed.

As indicated in my previous post, then, the permissibility of taking only the water depends on how you view the sacrament. If you view it as a means of dispensing grace (and that it only dispenses grace if performed properly) and is required on a regular basis for salvation, then it is can be concluded that you should only take the sacrament with both the bread and water. If you view it strictly as a symbol of our covenants and commitments, then it may be possible to argue that you can take only the water. I recognize that likely those arguing in either direction will likely feel strongly about their point of view. In either case, however, it is preferable to make the effort to be there for both the bread and the water.


End Notes:

[1] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 620-621). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Cited and discussed in Charlotte, Methuen. Luther and Calvin (p. 167-168). Lion Hudson. Kindle Edition.

[3] MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (pp. 635-636). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[4] Discourses of Brigham Young, 172.

[5] The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. Richard S. Van Wagoner (Salt Lake City, UT: Smith-Petit Foundation, 2009), 2:729.

[6] Terryl L. Givens, Feeding the Flock: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Church and Praxis (Oxford: Oxford Univesrity Press, 2017), 204.

[7] It is also interesting to note that we generally call our sacred rituals ordinances rather than sacraments, a distinction that potentially puts our viewpoint closer to the reformed traditions that had ties to Zwingli’s views. The traditional distinction is that a sacrament is a channel of grace while an ordinance is a commandment or practice that allows a believer to display his or her faith.

[10] David A. Bednar, “Always Retain a Remission of Your Sins,” CR April 2016, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2016/04/always-retain-a-remission-of-your-sins?lang=eng.

6 comments for “Water Alone

  1. “These questions are valid concerns.”

    To me, it is very simple — do your best to take both — but if you are called away before the water, or arrive after the bread, we don’t need a bunch of canon lawyers debating whether the portion you took was efficacious.

  2. ji. Hip hip hooray. Much ado about nothing. But interesting history lesson.

  3. When I was a Deacon, if someone missed one of the two portions of the Sacrament, they met us at the Sacrament table at the end of the meeting, and under the direction of the bishop we offered them the half they missed. Easy Peasy.

  4. This is an interesting pair of posts, Chad; thank you. Too often familiar actions become rote — we do them mechanically, and if we think at all about the why, we stop with “Because God said so.” Obedience for obedience’s sake isn’t wrong, but then all we learn is mere obedience. How much richer an ordinance becomes when we also probe its meaning, as you have done here.

  5. “What I’m getting at with this is that if you look at the sacrament as a reminder or a symbol to turn your thoughts to Christ, then it may not be too terrible if you miss the bread but still have the water”

    Thank goodness. I was really losing sleep over this issue, racked with guilt about the times I had taken only the water and missed the bread.

  6. My current bishop told me he was contemplating locking the chapel doors the first minute of Sacrament meeting and not sending the Sacrament into the foyer, so that anyone who arrived even a minute late to the meeting would get to take neither the bread nor the water–no matter their reason for being late. I told him that it was a bad idea and that Jesus didn’t care that much about punctuality.

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