THE “ONE-CUP” DOCTRINE
By Wayne S. Walker
There are many errors that have arisen concerning the Lord’s supper, both in and out of the Lord’s church. One of the most prominent is often called “the one-cup doctrine.” Actually, that is a misnomer because we all believe in one cup—the problem is the containers used to distribute the cup. But we use the term because most everyone understands what it means. Basically, the doctrine says that there must be only one container for the fruit of the vine in every church. There are three basic arguments for this contention, all of which are untrue.
What is the cup? The one-cup advocates claim that when the Holy Spirit said Jesus “took the cup” (Mark 14:23), He meant a single container and thus only one is authorized. They say that the cup is the drinking vessel. Now we must admit that the definition of the word “cup” is a drinking vessel. However, it is not a question of definition but of usage. The word “cup” does not always refer to a literal drinking vessel, but is sometimes used figuratively (Matthew 20:22-23). Its usage with reference to the last supper is a figure of speech called metonymy. Thayer says of the word “cup” in his Greek-English lexicon, “By metonymy, of the container for the contained, the contents of the cup, what is offered to be drunk.”
There is a number of syllogistic statements that can be used to substantiate this point, but I’ll mention just one. 1 Corinthians 11:26 tells us we are to “drink this cup.” But what we actually do is drink the contents of the container, the fruit of the vine. Thus, in this verse the word “cup” is put for its contents—the grape juice. Stated negatively, we are to drink “the cup,” but we do not drink the container, the literal vessel. So the cup here cannot refer to the container. In every Bible passage relating to the Lord’s supper, the word “cup” denotes not the container but the contents. As said above, we believe in one cup—one element in communion to represent the blood of Christ; we simply use more than one container to hold “the cup.”
How many containers were used in the institution of the Lord’s supper? Many people assume that Jesus used only one container. The one-cup brethren argue this and also preach that from A. D. 33 to about 1900 each local church had only one drinking vessel on the Lord’s table. However, numerous Jewish scholars attest that in the Passover, which was Jesus was celebrating at the time when He instituted the Lord’s supper, the Jews commonly used a container for each person involved. Thus, Jesus may indeed have used multiple containers that night. Luke 22:17-20 bears this out. The inspired writer recorded that Jesus took “the cup,” gave it to His disciples, and said, “Divide it among yourselves.” Now they did not divide a drinking vessel, so “cup” here means the contents. And you do not “divide the cup” by drinking from it either. That is just not what it means. [And besides, they did not actually drink of it until later, after they had “divided” it.]
Therefore, the theory that Jesus used only one drinking vessel to institute the memorial feast is just not found in the Bible; it is a figment of someone’s imagination. What the passage actually says is that as they were eating the Passover, Jesus gave them “the cup” [i.e., the fruit of the vine or grape juice], obviously held in some kind of vessel, which they divided by pouring out of it into their individual glasses. He then told them to break the bread, and after that, to drink the cup, or fruit of the vine, which they had already poured into their own cups. Furthermore, there is testimony from church historians that, throughout the ages since then, using more than one container has been practiced in various times and at different places [even among churches of Christ in America before 1900].
Is there any significance to the container? The one-cup fellowship teaches that just as the bread represents Christ’s body and the fruit of the vine His blood, so the container represents the New Testament. And since there is only one New Testament, they say that there should be only one container. But this makes three elements in the Lord’s supper, and the Bible reveals only two (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). In addition, since we have already shown that “the cup” is in actuality the contents and not the container, any significance that the New Testament has in the supper is in the drink, symbolizing Jesus’s blood, and not in the container itself. And even if it could be proven that Jesus used only one vessel, that would not necessarily bind us to do likewise [just as the fact that Jesus instituted the supper on Thursday night does not bind us to that day]. Such would be only an incidental since the Bible does not attach any importance to the vessel.
The truth is that the container is merely an expedient, just as the plate on which we pass the bread which, by the way, the Bible does not specifically mention. If we are adding to God’s word by using a second container (or more), why are not they adding also by bringing in a plate to serve the bread? Yes, there is only one New Testament—but there are many copies. There is only one body, but many members and many congregations. There is only one baptism, but many baptisteries. There is only one cup, but there are many containers. Besides, if the New Testament actually did authorize only one vessel, it would not be permissible to use two—one for each side of the building [as some in the one-container movement practice].
Why is there a problem of fellowship? If a congregation decides to use only one vessel in the Lord’s supper, that is their privilege. There is nothing wrong with it provided they do not teach false doctrine about its significance. It is not something that should split the body of Christ. However, division comes when people become militant in binding their one container on others. Most of them feel that everyone else is wrong and will have nothing to do with the rest of us [and there is not much that we can do about that]. We need to remember that the importance of the memorial feast is not how it is distributed but what it represents—the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. I hope that this may help answer any questions as to why we use multiple containers in our communion service.
—taken from Torch; June, 1980; Vol. XV, No. 6; pp. 17-20 (slightly revised and updated)