A Short Note on the Common Cup: Justin Martyr’s Apology

I am a big fan of the common cup when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. I’ve grown up in a church where this was the standard practice, and I always thought it was a wonderful expression of our unity in Christ. I also accept that it may well be a thing of the past.

As churches think of reopening further later this year, and believers look to share Communion with one another again, the question of whether to use the common cup will need to be addressed. The vast majority of us will not be comfortable sharing the common cup anytime soon, or indeed, ever again. So this is something that must be reflected and acted upon. I won’t dive into any of the theological arguments for or against, but I will make a brief observation from one of the earliest records of the church gathering and sharing the Lord’s Supper.

Justin Martyr, First Apology 65-67.

In Justin’s First Apology, a now famous passage describes how some of the first Christian believers would gather together to worship in the mid-second century AD.

There is then brought to the president of the assembly bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and taking them, he offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and gives thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

Apology, 65.

This passage is fascinating, and there is so much more that could be said, but the last line is particularly interesting in this question of the common cup. Those who, for whatever reason, are unable to be there, are taken a portion. This needs to be taken carefully. It is not that the Early Church disregarded the instruction to gather and break bread (indeed, they were far better arguably than the modern church at gathering and observing things such as the Lord’s Supper together!) Rather, with Sunday being a regular day of work in the ancient world, and many members of the Early Church being slaves, or workmen, attendance was not always possible. It seems that at Justin’s church the practice of taking communion to those who were unable to be present was considered an expression of their unity in taking the Lord’s Supper together.

What is interesting is that this would not enable them to gather round a common cup together. Even if, logistically, the same cup were able to be transported round the locality to each absent member, it would hardly be a shared object, passed from hand to hand among the gathered church. Rather, it seems that portions of the meal were taken up and distributed. Justin repeats his point shortly after (67) “and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

Conclusion

Whilst I do not believe this can effectively be argued as evidence for taking Communion apart in a deliberate and repeated manner, this does seem to imply that in extraordinary circumstances, the Early Church of Justin’s time were willing to do away with the common cup to ensure that all the members would be able to take part in the Lord’s Supper. I make no judgement as to the implications of that for our current situation, but suggest it offers an interesting parallel from some of the first Christians for us to consider.

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