Bible readers agree that Jesus Christ established the practice of routinely eating bread and wine to commemorate his death as an atonement for sin. However, many Christian denominations, like Presbyterianism, have unique beliefs and practices regarding communion.
Many Presbyterian churches take communion every week. Others take it “frequently,” which may mean once or twice a month, depending on the preferences of the denomination or individual church. The largest Presbyterian denomination, the PCUSA, takes communion weekly. The PCA takes it frequently.
What do Presbyterians believe about communion? How do their beliefs differ from transubstantiation in Roman Catholicism and consubstantiation in Lutheranism? Continue reading to find out answers to these questions and more.
Also, see Presbyterian vs. Pentecostal: What’s the Difference? to learn more.
How Often Do PCUSA and PCA Presbyterians Take Communion?
Communion is an essential element of Presbyterian worship services. (Also see How Do Presbyterians Worship?)
The Presbyterian Church (USA), the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States with around 1,300,000 members, specifies that communion should be a regular Sunday service. However, the denomination concedes that some circumstances may make this impossible.
The second largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, the Presbyterian Church in America, merely stipulates that churches should observe the Lord’s Supper frequently as often as the ruling elders specify. Regardless, communion is an essential practice in the Presbyterian church.   (Also see Presbyterian Church USA vs. Presbyterian Church in America: What’s the Difference?)
|Presbyterian Denomination||Reported Membership|
|Presbyterian Church (USA)||1.7 million|
|Presbyterian Church in America||370,000|
|Evangelical Presbyterian Church||150,000|
|ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians||100,000|
|Cumberland Presbyterian Church||71,000|
|Korean American Presbyterian Church||55,000|
What Do Presbyterians Believe About Communion?
Presbyterians believe that communion is both a sign and a seal. As a sign, communion points the believer to the work that Jesus did on the cross.
The core gospel message is of great importance to Presbyterians and those of the Reformed tradition, and the Lord’s Supper serves as an additional reminder of God’s redemptive plan.
One day, Christians will continually feast with the Lord in heaven, and believers get to start this meal on earth in the Lord’s Supper.
At its core, communion for orthodox Presbyterians is not an individual event but a communal way for believers to remind each other of Jesus’s sacrifice. (Also see Presbyterian vs. Anglican: What’s the Difference?)
Communion also serves as a seal for believers by confirming their salvation and sustaining them through their Christian journey. Presbyterians recognize two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Baptism initiates an individual into the covenant of faith. Communion follows baptism and gives believers the strength to face each day.
As a sacrament, communion gives the believer a special application of God’s grace. However, Presbyterians stress the importance of always pairing the practice of communion with the preaching of the Word.
Therefore, the Lord’s Supper should continue the faithful presentation of the gospel message throughout the service. (Also see What Bible Translation Do Presbyterians Use?)
How Is the Presbyterian View Different Than Transubstantiation?
Transubstantiation is the belief that during communion, the bread and wine transform into the actual physical body and blood of Christ.
Do the elements change before your eyes? The Roman Catholic Church, which holds to this doctrine, recognizes that the appearance of the bread and wine does not change but argues that the essential substance of the elements does.
Do participants believe they are eating the body and blood of Christ? This change only occurs when the priest blesses the elements in a manner keeping with canon law.
Because the actual substance of the elements has changed, people who partake in communion are both consuming the real body of Christ.
“[The Lord] has given us a table at which to feast, not an altar on which a victim is to be offered; He has not consecrated priests to make sacrifice, but servants to distribute the sacred feast.” ~ John Calvin
Do Presbyterians believe the elements’ essential substance changes? No, the Presbyterian tradition does not believe that the bread and wine undergo any change during communion.
French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) taught the elements are more than symbols but less than the physical body and blood of Christ, “According to Calvin the sacraments are signs. The signs and the things signified must be distinguished without being separated. Calvin rejects the idea that the sacramental signs are merely symbols (for example, Zwingli).
He continues, “But he also rejects the idea that the signs are transformed into the things they signify (for example, Rome). Calvin argues that when Christ uses the words, ‘This is my body,’ the name of the thing signified (‘body’) is applied to the sign (the bread).” 
Instead, in some way, believers spiritually experience the presence of Christ. This spiritual reality allows the participating believer to experience the grace of God in a special way.
Can the union be fully explained? The Presbyterian church describes the exact nature of this spiritual nourishment as a mystery.
Nevertheless, they recognize that biblical passages such as 1 Corinthians 10:16 indicate that the believer is somehow united to Christ during communion while denying that the elements have changed. (Also see Why Do Presbyterian Churches Have Red Doors?)
Is exercising faith necessary during communion? Because of this reality, only believers experience this union with Christ during communion. After all, Christians and non-Christians are eating bread, crackers, or wafers and wine or juice; the Christians’ faith is what allows them to benefit from this sacrament.
Can anyone take communion? Because of this and the language of 1 Corinthians 11:29, some Presbyterian ministers warn against unbelievers partaking in communion.
However, there are differences between the major Presbyterian denominations on who should take communion. The PCUSA allows anyone who desires to take communion, regardless of age or understanding, while the PCA only permits those in good standing in an evangelical church. 
Presbyterian vs. Lutheran communion: What’s the Difference?
Like Presbyterians, Lutherans also do not believe that the physical substance of the bread and wine changes. However, they believe Christ is spiritually present “in, with, and under” the communion elements. Martin Luther described this as a “sacramental union,” similar to how Jesus exists as God and man.
“Calvin repeatedly stated that his argument with the Roman Catholics and with Luther was not over the fact of Christ’s presence, but only over the mode of that presence.” 
Lutheran theologians teach that this sacramental union differs from another theological belief concerning communion—transubstantiation—in that Lutherans do not believe that the body and blood of Christ are restricted to the same physical space as the bread and wine. (Also see: Presbyterian vs. Lutheran: What’s the Difference?)
While Presbyterians believe that Christ is spiritually present at the communion meal, they do not believe that this presence is particularly tied or united to the bread and wine.
Some Presbyterian theologians argue that the Lutheran understanding of communion is unbiblical because it requires Christ to be physically present in two places. According to this argument, Christ’s humanity does not allow this.
In general, the Lutheran view of communion exists theologically between the Catholic and Presbyterian views of communion. A fourth view, supported by Baptists and others, maintains that communion is primarily symbolic in nature. (Also see the full article Do Presbyterians Believe in the Trinity?)
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