What Does Communion Mean Without Atonement?

I am part of a small denomination called the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and I always have to explain that, yes, the parentheses are actually part of the denominational name. Long story. Just trust me on this.

Our denomination is known for being very non-credal, which basically means we don’t tell churches what to do, believe or think from the top down on hardly anything. Congregation autonomy is values, and the concept of the “Priesthood of all believers” is central. Or as Amy puts it every Sunday in worship, “we’re all ministers and we all have a ministry.” One phrase that describes us well is sometimes mistakenly attributed to us originally, though it was actually penned in the 17th century by Rupertus Meldenius, a German theologian. His credo was:

In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity

Regardless of who came up with it, it’s a pretty good summation of what Disciples are about.

We’re also known for including communion in every single worship service we ever have. How it’s done, who can participate and even what words are said vary from church to church (see above), but the centrality of communion is pretty much a given in Disciples of Christ services. I should mention here that I’ve helped start one church, I currently am on staff at another, and in all, I’ve worked in ministry for more than ten years now. So I’ve participated in hundreds of communion rituals by now, and I’ve even presided over several of them myself (laypeople can do this in Disciples churches, after all).

But I’m also known for holding an alternative view on salvation than many Christians – even disciples maintain, in that I do not adhere to the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins. I know there are lots of scriptures to back this position, and one can also use scripture to justify other explanations for Jesus’ death. As many of us have seen, the Bible can be, and has been, used to justify nearly any position we care to use it to support. As for me, I’ve done years of searching, praying, discussing and reading, and my conclusion is that it is the love of God as manifest by Jesus that is redemptive, and not Jesus’ blood.

I know some folks will likely stop here, discrediting anything else I have to say because of this perspective, which is unfortunate, but which I also understand. But a family member recently asked me about my take on communion if, in fact, I don’t ascribe to the idea that Jesus was saying “this is my body broken and my blood poured out for the remission of your sins.”

A fair question for sure.

For this, we have to go back a few steps to what I understand the Bible to be. I see the Bible principally as humanity’s effort to understand God. As such, the God that is portrayed throughout scripture is multifaceted, and arguably even seems to kind of “evolve” over the thousands of years during which the texts were written. Even Jesus speaks of “perfecting” or “fulfilling” the law, taking 613 Jewish laws and honing them to Ten Commandments. Finally, he boils it down to one (or two, depending on semantics). At the core of this Greatest Commandment is one word: LOVE.

The word is not “repent,” “atone” or sacrifice, although these are found in the Gospels too. But paramount of all the laws, Jesus says, is the prevailing, overarching law of Love. This, more than anything else, informs my theology, as I think it should.

As such, I cannot reconcile the idea that a violent act is redeeming when Love is what is held in highest esteem by the one I understand to be Messiah. The two simply do not coexist in my understanding of theology. I understand why some differ, and I respect that interpretation. But I do not share it.

So what does communion mean if we don’t look to it as the reminder that Jesus died for our sins? Let’s consider which words we use at the table, to begin with. There are several versions of the so-called Words of Institution, after all. The Roman Catholic Church has said that there are eight words they believe are “necessary and sufficient,” which means they have to be included to be considered a legitimate mass. And although I’m not Catholic, this seems a good place to start. Those eight words are:

“This is my body…this is my blood.”

Though most denominations ascribe to this idea, it’s not necessarily the case that they all agree even on this handful of words. But as for the most common Protestant text for the Table,  it generally comes from I Corinthians, 11:23-26, which says:

“…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'”

So this text is found in a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a fledgling Christian church in Corinth. This is basically his guide for them on how to conduct communion. There are a few critical phrases here, it seems, and I’ll take them one at a time.

“This is my body which is for you” These are words from Paul, attributed directly to Jesus. Was he there at the Last Supper, the event on which our communion is based? No. Actually, Paul says that God imparted to him the words to record in his letter to Corinth. So, what we have is not a firsthand account, but rather an inspired writing. Depending on your understanding of divine inspiration, this may mean either that Paul was no more than a human dictation machine at the time, or perhaps that he and God were, somehow, collaborators in the creation of these important letters. I lean toward the latter interpretation (no surprise), and so I don’t lose sleep over the fact that these words are different than other accounts of what was said at the actual Last Supper.

But in this text, my understanding of the gesture Paul asserts that Jesus is making is one of giving himself over to the world. It is a loving act of total submission, an act which makes sense in the context of Jesus as a suffering servant. He did not come to conquer, but rather to submit in love to all that the world would heap upon him. And why? Because in spite of it all, what has endured is love. And how else could such love have been communicated than through such a selfless act of submission?

Second, we have, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”  It’s important to understand what the word “covenant” means here, as he is referring to a “holy promise.” And at the time, covenants were bound by a seal, sometimes even with the blood of both parties used to seal the promise. However, in the case of Jesus, his covenant does not require our blood, but rather, his promise is sufficient without such sacrifice by us. He makes a promise,  he completes  the seal, and that is all that is required.

Finally, there’s the phrase “do this…in remembrance of me,” which actually appears twice in this brief text. One device often used to get people’s attention in scripture is repetition, so when something is said more than one in short succession, we’re called by the author to pay close attention. On the one level, there the common understanding of remembrance as recollection, or thinking back to some event that has since passed. But there’s also the etymology of the word, “re-member,” which means to put back together. If Jesus is broken in the process of sealing this covenant, it is we who are charged with the command of putting him back together in the world.

How? By manifesting God’s love as he modeled. It’s a simple concept, but one that we will never fully realize in our lifetime. It’s a beacon toward which we orient, time and again, when we falter, rather than a destination to be fully achieved. We gather up the brokenness all around us and reconcile the pieces, erase the divisions, heal the wounds and fit them all back together in a way that reflects the One who called us to do so.

To me, that’s the message of communion.

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  • Very thoughtful –A good reflection of the diversity of thought in the Disciples of Christ and a helpful theological take on communion that challenges us to respond in love. I too have left behind the doctrine of atonement as it is just too easy an understanding of the life of Jesus — it demands nothing of us other than belief and asks us to accept a violent God. In contrast, at the table we speak of a God of unconditional, overwhelming grace and compassion. I will be passing this along to a small group I’m leading right now in our church looking at the practice of Communion. Thanks.

  • Brent

    Enjoyed the reflection. Historically, it seems equally if not more plausible that the ritual precedes the story, and not the other way around. So the practice of sharing a meal together becomes the inspiration for the “story” of the Last Supper, which, if it has any basis in historical fact, was probably quite different that written about in the gospels. Its not the words that are important, or the theology, but rather, for me, the enacted symbolism of a group of diverse people unified around the most basic human need/ritual – food/eating.

    • absolutely. And as for where atonement theology comes from, I think that’s another example of ritual preceding story. We look back in our past to try and make sense of the present.

  • So, i grew up Quaker and we don’t partake in the Eucharist or Communion as a separate sacrament– we believe that any meal can (and should) be communion with God. As such, i have this deep sense that a full meal rather than a cracker/wine/grape juice ritual reflects Christ’s intent as the Bread and the Wine. We also believe in the priesthood of believers and i love this line: “we’re all ministers and we all have a ministry”. i’m at a Catholic institution, so the next time i get into a discussion about my beliefs “versus” their beliefs, i may have to borrow it. 🙂

  • Sherrill Morris

    In my church, which is a very progressive Disciples congregation, we range from a pretty conservative woman to an agnostic man, all coming to a common table. I am sure that each of us have a different idea of what it means to us and we are free to do so. For the agnostic man, the meal is simply partaking of a common meal literally, becoming community by sharing a loaf of bread. For others, the Pauline dictation would be more strictly enshrined. In my understanding, and thank goodness I am a Disciple where I am not only allowed to read and discern for myself but practically required to do so, the communion table is the great potluck of God, where all understandings and interpretations are welcome. As a lesbian, I have struggled with going to the table with churches whose teachings, in my opinion, teach LGBT youth to hate themselves and consider harsh options as a result. But the still small voice reminds me….it is not my table. Jesus, my teacher, offers the invitation and I only respond with the rest of his invited. Thanks for taking on such a complicated and potentially sticky question. Your explaination is thorough and honest, with which it is hard to argue. You have unstuck a sticky wicket.

  • Another take is that of Rene Girard that Eucharist recalls the end of sacrifice. Christ’s death was a victory over the violent forces in the world. It was the ultimate passive resistance statement that violence is not of God. God’s wrath didn’t need to be appeased, but man’s wrath did. Jesus illustrates the collective violence that humankind has demonstrated from prehistory. God’s word is, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” We can recall Eucharist in this light and remember how the work is finished. No more blood and collective persecutions. Just peace and wholeness in a post-violent cosmos.

    • I resonate with Girard on this quite a bit.

    • That’s pretty close to how I would understand the atonement, and therefore the eucharist, as well.

    • ChrisB.

      I’m agree on this as well. My take on the crucifixion itself is that “losing is winning,” in that by not engaging in the political power struggle and violence, love in fact wins.

      I have a friend who attends a charismatic church who often wants to know if I consider Jesus my “lord and savior.” And she gets really annoyed when I respond with “what does that mean?” If it’s that, as Christian said, “By manifesting God’s love as he modeled” . . . then sure, count me in.

  • This may be my favorite of your posts so far. Thank you for sharing this.

  • I thought a lot about the whole penal atonement idea and came to realize that it’s a reading which is largely imposed on the text rather than drawn from it. There was nothing about Jesus death which was motivated, demanded or ordained by God. It was a human event from start to finish. In fact, nearly every rule for sacrifice or even punishment ever given to the Hebrew people was broken on the way. That said, the bible does pretty explicitly link Jesus’ death with the forgiveness of sins. Why? I wrote a couple of posts on the matter and described God’s reaction this way:

    God takes this ugly, evil display of cruelty, vice, power, betrayal, self-interest and arrogance and does what he is wont to do with the things we humans come up with. He uses it to turn us towards himself. It’s as if he says, “are you done now? Are you satisfied? Have you vented your fury and poured out your sinfulness on me to your satisfaction? Fine. Then it is done. You poured out your sin on me and my son. And now, I have redeemed even the worst that you can do. He is risen. He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings now. You sin has no power. It has no power to defeat me and it has no power to separate us any longer. Turn away from it and seek after me.”

    I think that we can see this reaction foreshadowed in the story of the Prodigal Son. Jesus was the inheritance of the Jewish people which they destroyed much like the wayward son in the story.
    (The posts I wrote are here:


  • Cliff Cole

    The essence of the Table is the community sharing in a conciliatory act. If the church stands for anything, it is this and there is nowhere else, secular or sacred that exemplifies this behavior as well. The elements are not sacred in and of themselves which is why as ordained clergy, apple juice and crackers can do just fine!

  • Keith Watkins

    I appreciate the care with which you have written this statement and I affirm your determination to provide a serious understanding of this ceremonial meal while at the same time distancing yourself from doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement. Christians do pay attention to the fact that Jesus died and to the understanding of the people who were drawn to his way in the first century that God’s love was expressed in and through this event. They also understood that the triumph over death and sin which Jesus accomplished extends to those who believe in him and are called by his name. One of the challenges for people of our time, and especially for all of you who are moving forward in church leadership, is to find ways of reaffirming the heart of the gospel without using metaphors and symbols that worked fine in an earlier age but don’t work well now.
    As a side note. The early Disciples practice was “the every Lord’s Day Lord’s Supper” rather than “Communion every time we meet.” We are developing a “pop Disciples set of slogans” that may be fine except for the fact that some of them are pious inventions of recent times that have only a shaky basis in our earlier history.

  • Interesting interpretation of the word “remember” as “re-member.” That’s something that you’d expect to find in poetry, for sure, and why not the Bible? Although, of course, there’s also the fact that the original writers have been followed by a string of translators two thousand years long, so there was definitely some stuff that was lost or changed in transit. As far as your mentioning Paul and how his words differed from the Gospel account of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, I have to say – have you ever noticed how people who like to hate and oppress people or deny them rights quote either Leviticus or Paul? I think he and Jesus may have differed on some key points about love, since Jesus was all about loving everyone, no matter what, and since he hung out with the dregs of society, as it were.

    A beautiful sentiment that I take to heart. Doesn’t really matter if I start saying unorthodox stuff like this anyway – people are already weirded out by the fact that I am an apparently rogue Catholic, being all into gay marriage and stuff.

  • Matt Every

    Thank you for this post. As soon as I saw the title I knew I had to read it. I struggle with our current interpretations of atonement theology, but I had never thought about that struggle in relation to the Eucharist. I think the question rests within the rise of the ritual. As others have pointed out, the ritual most likely predates the words, so what is the function of the words within the context of the act? I think that the language might have been used to connect the life giving elements of bread and wine to the life giving acts of Jesus, from his birth through his death and resurrection. Bread and wine were common “elements” that offered life, providing nourishment for the hungry and the thirsty. In the same way, in remembering Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we are nourished for the work of the the reign of God here and now. It is an act of remembrance, that binds as a community to the life of Jesus. It is an act that draws us toward the presence of Jesus/God.

  • Claude

    In Essentials, Unity, In Non-Essentials, Liberty, In All Things, Love

    This is the motto of the Moravian Church, as well.

  • Jose F Morales

    To play diablo’s advocate, I would’ve entitled ur piece, “What Communion Means without Penal Atonement.” For without atonement, the Eucharist means nothing. But by atonement, I don’t mean God beating the crap out of “His Son.” I simply mean “reconciliation.” Communion is a reconciling meal, God in Christ fully present with us, and we fully present with each other.

  • abombt1

    Love this post; can’t believe I missed this! I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) crazy uncle: The Independent New Testament Christian Church.

    One of the reasons I love the Disciples is not only is communion served every week; but it is an open table. I am always welcome there.

    I never thought about remembering being “re-membered”- I remember Amy using the phrase “put the world back together again” when I visited, but I never connected that to remembering.

    I love it.