Intinction is the style of communion where a person takes a piece of bread (often ripping it off of the loaf) and dips it into a communal cup of wine (or often grape juice). This practice is seen as early as the writing so Julius I in around 340 A.D. It way predates our use of individual cups in the pews, which don’t date until the 1890’s.

Recently I have become aware that the practice of intinction bothers some people. People are touching the loaf and sharing germs. People often end up putting their fingers (and fingernails) into the cup, especially if they only rip off a small piece of bread. If we used wine it would kill more germs, but not all. The other problem is that some people rip off a very large piece of bread and have to awkwardly dip it and take a long time to consume it. Some people don’t care for the texture of soggy bread, and I always end up having to wipe juice off of the floor after we have intinction. I am just glad that we do not have carpeting.

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When I first heard about these complaints from people in my church, I brushed it off. These people just need to get over it, right? But the more I thought about it, the more that I found that needing to “get over it” to come to the communion table is contrary to the message of the table. Communion should be a symbol of welcome, of love, and of gratitude. You don’t have to “get over” the junk in your life—sin, bad habits, guilt, shame. The whole story is that Jesus paid for those on the cross. He “got over” those things for you.

For many people, intinction becomes a time of stress, worry, and disgust. The symbol is backfiring. For many people in the pews today, communion by intinction represents the opposite of what it is meant to represent.

We could change the practice. The bread could be pre-cut. The server could dip the bread. But, in the end, I think I am not doing it anymore. I am doing communion, but that particular expression or style of communion is leaving my practice. I know that some people will love this decision, others won’t understand it, and still others will dislike it. I am personally sad to see intinction go. But the symbol is such a problem for so many people that I am willing to let it go for their sakes.

This is important not just for the practice of communion. This is exactly the kind of discussion that the church needs to be in right now. The church is full of symbols. We have hymns, liturgy, architecture, personal disciplines… We have stories and metaphors. But the problem with all language and especially with symbolic language or practice is that it changes.

Different words, actions, and symbols mean different things in different place and at different times. For example, if I wear a shirt with a rainbow on it, it means something today that it did not mean just a few years ago. The word artificial used to mean “artfully and skillfully constructed,” but now it basically means the opposite.

We have lost touch with our symbols. Do people in our churches know why we light candles at the beginning of worship, why we pass the peace, or why we do communion after the sermon? Do people know that our worship spaces are modelled after the Jewish temple, that our ceilings are meant to look like the inside of a ship, or that stained glass was at one time the only Bible people had?Last supper icon

The problem is that if we don’t understand our own symbols, how can we possibly understand what will work and what will not in our culture today?

This is scary for people, because it might mean we have to change. Here is the reality: many of the things we hold as sacred are not actually sacred. They may represent something sacred—like communion representing the saving life and work of Jesus. But their particular expressions are not. We know that Jesus served communion with a meal in between the elements, so it was clearly NOT inctinction. They were developed to signify the sacred for a particular time and place. Maybe they don’t work as well or mean something else for our time and place.

If others want to do intinction then that is fine. I might revisit it again later, perhaps with some adaptation to help people accept it. But for now, I am going to set it aside.

What are your thoughts on intinction?



  1. Interesting. I will be honest, I was hoping for a more theologically charged rationale than giving into the complaints against intinction. For me, it is exactly because of those complaints that we continue to do communion by intinction. It brushes up against and confronts our comforts in the church. I love that it is messy. I love that people have to get up and move and rip off their own bread. I love that some people will always take a piece that you need a microscope to see while others take a piece the size of their first and both bring their messy pieces to the same cup. There is something honest and humbling about communion by intinction. It’s not sterile. It’s not cookie cutter. It is about a bunch of people with their own inclinations, reservations, and phobias joining together at the same cup to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. All that being said, we provide for those who absolutely can’t handle intinction by having a separate station with gluten free bread (gluten free bread does not translate to intinction well) as a relief to burdened consciences. We do intinction every other month or so, I think it is more important to think about what we are doing and why more so than it is how we do it. If we keep changing it up, it forces the congregation to think about what we are doing instead of getting into a habitual rhythm. I think for that reason it’s important to name the why when we invite people to the table and it’s also important to name the reservations. I usually begin by addressing the concerns lifted about communion by intinction but then using that as a jumping off point to illustrate what the table means and invite people into the messiness of the table.

    Your statement “The problem is that if we don’t understand our own symbols, how can we possibly understand what will work and what will not in our culture today?” is absolutely true. However, I would press that instead of vacating the symbols we expound on what they mean and how they confront us and our culture. I have found that many do not even know what communion means or even if they do they probably don’t know what we mean in the Presbyterian Church with communion. Members are strewn all along the spectrum from the “only remembrance” position of the baptist church to a literal presence of Christ in the elements of the Lutheran, Catholic, and Orthodox churches. It’s not a bad time to pull out the institutes and explain Calvin’s view and then look at what scripture actually says.

    • just noticed this was part of a series on communion- then went back and saw you did an overview of what many believe is happening in communion. Nice work!

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  3. Pingback: Why I am Not Doing Intinction Anymore - Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

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