Q: In my church we consume the elements left over from the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Is this necessary? What is the position of scripture on this?
A: Neither the Bible nor the Lutheran Confessions make any statements about what to do with the leftover elements upon the completion of the Sacrament of the Altar. Since Scripture is silent about this matter, people’s consciences are not to be bound by insisting that a certain way of disposing of the elements is the correct, orthodox practice, Since the bread and wine were consecrated and used in a valid celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we have recognized that in Christian freedom our disposing of the remnants should reflect a respectful attitude. We have no reason to believe from Scripture or from the Confessions that once the Sacrament has been completed the true body and blood of Christ still are present in the consecrated elements that remain. The Confessions state this rule: “Nothing has the character of a sacrament apart from the use instituted by Christ, or apart from the divinely instituted action” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VII:85). Outside the divinely commanded use of consecration, distribution and reception, there is no valid Sacrament and no real presence of Christ’s body and blood.
Our synod has been careful not to make a law where God has made no law in the handling of the leftover elements in Communion. God has not given us a “New Testament ceremonial law.” To the Colossians, Paul’s statement about Christian freedom can also apply to the freedom Christians enjoy in the respectful treatment of the remaining elements: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. . .” (2:16). The Christian has freedom in adiaphora – that which God has not commanded or forbidden (see page 13). “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
The pastoral theology book we use in our seminary contains this paragraph: “In our churches the saving of the remaining wafers for a future communion should cause no problem. The wine that remains in the flagon may also be returned to a bottle and saved for future use. What remains in the chalice can be used for private communion, or disposed of in a manner that does not show disrespect for the Sacrament or cause offense to the people” (The Shepherd Under Christ, page 95).
In 1988, the Doctrine Committee’s essay, “The Theology of the Lord’s Supper,” was adopted as the 1988 General Pastoral Conference’s official response to the 1987 convention, where the synod had urged the pastors to discuss questions and concerns in relation to the Lord’s Supper. Concerning the question of how to treat the remaining elements, also known as reliquiae, the essay contains this remark, which characterizes the view of our Evangelical Lutheran Synod:
The mixing of consecrated and unconsecrated elements outside the sacramental action is common Lutheran practice in the twentieth century and ought cause no one to doubt the real presence or to fear the infiltration of Calvinism. Each congregation is free to do as it wishes with the reliquiae. One congregation may want to consume the reliquiae. Another may want to save the remaining species for the next Lord’s Supper celebration. Still another congregation may have a special means of disposal of the consecrated wine, e.g., piscina, and may burn the hosts. Each manner of disposal is acceptable. The important thing is that the remaining elements are handled with respect. (The Lutheran Synod Quarterly, December, 1988).
At the 1996 General Pastoral Conference, another Doctrine Committee presentation included this pertinent comment regarding the leftover elements: “. . . when dogmatic demands are made about what must be done with the remaining elements, then he [the person insisting] is going further than Scripture or the Confessions. When we delve into these things and are consumed by them we are dangerously close to speculative and presumptive questions that are not wholesome to faith and life.”
Because God has not commanded us to consume what is left after communion, we are free to use our Christian judgment. At the same time, Christian freedom does not mean license to do as we please. We dare not overthrow good customs which already are established in congregations, provided that these customs are not taught as mandatory and compulsory doctrine and practices of Holy Scripture.