The Lord’s Supper and Alcohol-Removed Wines

A common area of pastoral concern regarding Holy Communion centers on the responsible communing of those with health issues related to alcohol (e.g. alcohol intolerance; medication reactions; alcoholism). There may also be members of a parish who have an aversion to alcohol due to some past experience in their lives.

First and foremost, every one of these cases is going to require individual pastoral care: discussion, prayer, and study of the scriptures together.

Questions arise from time to time – and in fact I came across one posted to Twitter overnight – concerning what may be used for the elements? For example: “Is it alright to use gluten-free hosts?” Another question (this is the question linked to above): “Is it permissible to use non-alcohol or alcohol-removed wine in the Supper?”

First, it is not in keeping with our Lord’s institution nor faithful to the meaning of the text of Scripture to use pasteurized, unfermented grape juice in the Supper. Amongst discussion of this topic, a common argument is that the phrase “fruit of the vine” used in Matthew 26:29; Mark 14:25; Luke 22:18 would not mean fermented grape juice (wine) but instead unfermented (e.g. Welch’s Grape Juice). This is an erroneous interpretation of the text. The use of grape juice in the Holy Communion is a modern innovation, with exegetical arguments made following the change in practice.

The Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) has written concerning the question of not using wine, and includes discussion of pastoral practice when dealing with certain exceptional circumstances, such as those listed at the beginning of this article :

All four accounts of the Lord’s Supper speak of “the cup.” The content of this cup was most definitely wine. The references in Matt. 26:29 and parallels to the “fruit of the vine” would not have suggested anything else to Jesus’ listeners than the grape wine of the Jewish Passover ritual. In 1 Cor. 11:21 there is corroboration that the early Christian church understood wine for “fruit of the vine.” Some of the Corinthians, sadly, had abused the Holy Supper by becoming drunk.

The color, type, or origin of the grape wine is a matter which Christians can select in accord with their situation.

In the oft-cited pastoral circumstance of an alcoholic communicant, the counsel of foregoing Communion for a period of time or the action of diluting the wine with water (perhaps done at the Lord’s Supper itself) are preferable. In the extreme situation where even greatly diluted wine may lead to severe temptation, no fully satisfactory answer, in the opinion of the CTCR, can be formulated. The counsel of completely foregoing Communion is clearly unsatisfactory. In this situation, too, the actions of diluting the wine with water or intinction would be preferable. The substitution of grape juice raises the question of whether the Lord’s instruction is being heeded. Luther’s openness to Communion in one kind is difficult in view of confessional texts which strongly urge the Biblical paradigm of both kinds, though the Confessions do not address the extreme situation.

A similar pastoral problem is posed by those rare instances where a severe physical reaction is caused by the elements (as, for example, when the recipient is concurrently taking certain medications, or is simply allergic to one or the other of the elements). The pastor, in such cases, will surely stress the Gospel’s power and total effectiveness in the individual’s life and patiently seek a practical solution that both honors Christ’s word and satisfies the desire to partake in the Lord’s Supper.

(Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper, 1983, pp.15-16)

This is a helpful outline of the concerns and solutions, relying on faithfulness to the institution of our Lord while at the same time stressing the importance of individual pastoral care. There is debate concerning whether or not the practice of intinction is faithful (which the CTCR describes as a possible practice), but that’s outside of the scope of this article.

The CTCR does not discuss the use of now commonly-available wines which are advertised as “alcohol-removed.” A type with which I’m familiar is Fre from Sutter Home, although there may be others. The question cited above from Twitter directly relates to the use of this type of wine in the Lord’s Supper.

The question boils down to whether alcohol-removed wine is still truly wine. In the Scriptural use of the word “wine” (οἶνος), as well as in our common everyday usage of the word, wine is the “fruit of the vine,” that is, made from grapes, and is fermented. As the CTCR document discusses, the wine used in Holy Communion should be made from grapes; varietal, color, etc. are a matter of Christian freedom.

Fre wines are grape wines. As they state:

The process of making our alcohol-removed wine isn’t really that different from making regular wine. We source grapes from premier California vineyards known to produce the very best characteristics of each varietal.

After harvest, our winemakers carefully craft each wine using traditional methods. Once the desired flavor, texture and balance is reached, we use state-of-the-art spinning cone technology to remove the alcohol while preserving delicate aromas and flavors.

Likewise, the “fruit of the vine” used in Holy Communion should be fermented; that is, it is faithful to Christ’s institution that there be alcohol present. Fre wines, while being “alcohol-removed”, do retain some small percentage of alcohol.

Although we remove most of the alcohol during our spinning cone process, a small fraction of a percentage of alcohol remains—less than one half of one percent (<0.5 %).

It is my pastoral opinion, humbly offered, that it is acceptable to use Fre wine as an alternative to a “fully-alcoholic” wine in certain, carefully considered pastoral situations.For the sake of the conscience or health of each individual in these situations, I believe that using Fre wine or an equivalent is faithful to the institution of our Lord. I believe it to be more or less equivalent to placing a drop or two of regular wine into a small amount of water in order to be consumed by a communicant. I think either practice would be faithful, and thus guard that Christian’s conscience or health.

I do not think it would be a helpful practice to fully replace the usual sort of communion wine with Fre wine or an equivalent (that is, made from grapes and still retaining even a minuscule amount of alcohol). It would be better to retain commonly used communion wine for the sake of confession against those who insist on grape juice. This would also serve well the consciences of those who desire to be faithful to the institution of our Lord in using wine and who would not have had a pastoral conversation regarding the use of Fre wine or an equivalent.

For an introduction of any type of non-alcohol or alcohol-removed wine in his congregation, the pastor should do his homework and ensure that the wine is made from grapes, has been allowed to ferment (that is, allowed to become alcoholic), and following the process of alcohol removal still retains some measure – no matter how small – of alcohol.