An Old Debate Revisited

In retrospect and at first glance, many of the issues that have plagued and divided the Church seem incredibly trivial. The Quartodecimians were branded as heretics for celebrating Easter on 14 Nisan. One of the issues that divided the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054 was the kind of bread that was appropriate to use in communion. The Eastern Church insisted on leavened bread, while the West used unleavened bread. Another dispute between East and West concerned the propriety of mixing water with the wine of the Eucharist.

The modern tendency to sneer at the apparent triviality of these issues is highly hypocritical, however. Churches today claim on the one hand that symbolism is insignificant, yet divide over issues that have to do with proper symbolism. At least the early Church admitted that it considered symbolism important.

Without wishing to raise divisive issues anew, it is worth asking which branch of the Church was correct about the bread in the Lord’s Supper. Should we use leavened or unleavened bread? On the one hand, it can be argued that we should use unleavened bread because this is evidently what Jesus used when He instituted the Supper. Unleavened bread was used in the feast of the Passover (Ex. 12:8); the Lord’s Supper is the New Covenant Passover; therefore, we should use unleavened bread in the Lord’s Supper.

This argument fails in two important ways. First, while it is true that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper at the celebration of the Passover, it must also be recognized that the Lord’s Supper is a replacement of the Passover meal (among other things, of course). We do not, after all, eat bitter herbs or roasted lamb when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, nor do we eat with staffs in our hands (Ex. 12:8-9, 11). There is both continuity and discontinuity between the Lord’s Supper and the Passover.

Second, the Last Supper was precisely that, the Last Supper of the Old Covenant. Jesus emphasized this point when He said that He would not drink the fruit of the vine again with His disciples until He drank it with them in the Kingdom (Mt. 26:29). This implies not only that there is a certain discontinuity between the Last Supper and later celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, but also that the later celebrations would be Kingdom Suppers. At the Last Supper, Jesus had not yet entered into the glory of the Kingdom, but when the disciples broke bread after His resurrection and ascension, they ate and drank (in a preliminary way) with Jesus in the Kingdom.

Thus, the symbols used in the Supper of the Kingdom should be appropriate to the Kingdom, and not bound by the symbolism of the old order. Leaven is emphatically a symbol of the permeating influence of the Kingdom and Spirit, and of the maturity and fullness of the New Covenant (Mt. 13:33). It is therefore more appropriate to use leavened than unleavened bread.

Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 seems to contradict this line of argument. Paul compares the Church to a lump of dough; in this analogy, leaven is a symbol of wickedness within the Church. Paul instructs the Corinthian Church to purge out the old leaven, the man guilty of incest (v. 1), so that the entire Church would not be leavened by his evil influence. The Church, Paul says, is already leavened, and therefore her members must act in accord with that fact.

The reason the Church is unleavened is that “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.” Paul is here making a New Covenant application of the Old Covenant calendar: The Passover was followed by the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. Since Christ the True Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, the Church has entered a perpetual Feast of Unleavened Bread. She is to be continually purging herself of the leaven of malice and wickedness. In context, this applies to Church discipline first of all, but by extension applies to the individual member’s duty to mortify sin (Rom. 8:13).

Having laid out this theological background in verse 7, Paul goes on to exhort the Corinthians in verse 8: “Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness (Gr. porneia), but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” In trying to understand how this verse applies to the liturgical question we have raised, we must answer two questions. First, what feast is Paul talking about here? It might be thought that Paul is talking about a continuation of the celebration of the Passover or the Feast of Unleavened Bread by the New Testament Church. This is unlikely, since he is here writing to a Gentile Church, and since all of Paul’s writings emphasize that the death and resurrection of Christ have done away with the Old Covenant festal calendar.

Charles Hodge says that Paul does not refer to any particular feast, but to the Christian life as a whole. Given the figurative nature of Paul’s entire argument, this is not an entirely abstruse conclusion, but it still reveals more about Hodge than it does about the text. I think the best reading is to view this as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, but the Supper as the concentration point of the whole Christian life. This is consistent with the context, which has to do with Church discipline (cf. v. 11), and it is also consistent with the connection Paul draws between the Old Covenant Passover and Christ’s paschal sacrifice. Just as the Israelites ate the flesh of the lamb slain for them, so we also eat the flesh of the True Lamb of God whose blood cleanses and protects us from wrath.

The second question is: If Paul is referring here to the Lord’s Supper, does he use “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” in a purely metaphorical sense, or is he also making a liturgical point? Should we, in other words, use unleavened bread in the Eucharist to symbolize that the Church is a new, unleavened loaf?

It is easy to see how one would draw this conclusion, but I think it is the wrong conclusion. I said above that the Church is in a perpetual Feast of Unleavened Bread, since the definitive Passover has been sacrificed. But the Feast of Unleavened Bread was a seven-day feast. On the eighth day, the people returned to leavened bread. In the New Covenant, the “common day” cycle is a perpetual Feast of Unleavened Bread, during which we should be constantly mortifying sin. But the Eucharist does not take place within the seven-day cycle. The Eucharist is celebrated on the eighth day, the day of the Resurrection, and is celebrated with Christ in His Kingdom. Thus, the Eucharistic bread is not to be the unleavened bread of the Old Creation week, but the leavened bread of the new heavens and new earth.

If this is true, what does it mean to “celebrate the feast . . . with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”? It seems to have the same force as Paul’s later exhortation to avoid eating in an unworthy manner. In this way, keeping the Eucharistic feast involves living each day in sincerity and truth.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post was originally found on Biblical Horizons

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