Three reasons are commonly given for someone refraining from taking communion. The person abstaining is not a Christian, is under church discipline, or has an unresolved disagreement with someone. People with food sensitivities and food allergies, however, can also fall into the category of those not partaking. The association between the negative reasons given and those who refrain for health reasons can unnecessarily cause painful isolation. But there are ways churches can help.
Get to know their story
Don’t assume everyone eats gluten-free simply because of the trend or because they want to lose weight. The need for a gluten-free alternative may result from health issues. People who must live on specific diets lack the ability to “hide” their health problems—and often have to provide an explanation at every social function that involves food, which many social functions do. Turn the situation into an opportunity to learn about the person. Assume that people have sound judgment about their own dietary and healthcare needs. Don’t say things like, “A small piece of bread can’t actually hurt. You’re not eating a whole sandwich.”
Offer gluten-free bread and gluten-free juice. Yes, grape juice and wine can contain gluten. And gluten can hide under many alternative names. Few labels say “contains gluten.” Bring those with knowledge about food allergies into all stages of communion preparation.
Announce the alternatives
To provide alternatives takes extra work—wasted effort if the information never makes it to the whole congregation. Many with gluten sensitivities will still take communion regardless of the lack of alternative bread at the table. They do so accepting that health consequences will follow. But not all food-related health issues manifest themselves in the same symptoms or stem from identical root issues. Some people will partake in the provided alternative elements based only on an announcement that they do not contain gluten. Others will want to see the labels for themselves. And despite the offer of gluten alternatives, people with severe food allergies may still pass on communion. Assume the person has made the best choice for his or her situation and offer support.
Not everyone with food allergies wants to divulge private health information. Avoid the urge to voice your opinion about the person’s health issues. If gut health and food allergies have confused doctors devoted to the topic, of course they will perplex the average person. Many theories have surfaced to explain why a growing number of people have health problems connected to eating wheat, rye, and barley (just to name a few). But to date we have no definitive answers.
To care well for people with food allergies takes research, conversations, and change in preparation and administration of the elements. A simple gluten-free wafer will not solve the communion issue for all who deal with food allergies. But for many it will greatly help.
To celebrate the Lord’s Supper by the taking of the elements together is more important than insisting on traditional bread. Communion should serve to remind us of Jesus’s sacrifice and our union in him.
The issue of food allergies and communion can serve as a wedge—pushing some away from the body of Christ. But it can also serve as an opportunity for the church to come together in care and love for one another. Christ’s body was broken to unite his church. A relatively small number of people struggle with food allergies. Yet, if one struggles, we all struggle. Are we not all members of the same body?