Recently a friend who attends our church asked me:
“Would you give me some scripture that supports the church’s decision to be so selective in who partakes in communion?…As you know, I attended a church were the sacraments were offered to anyone who wanted to partake.”
This is a great question. Should the Lord’s Supper be offered to anyone who wants to take it, or are there certain conditions that should be met before one is given the privilege to come? I thought others might be interested in the answer. Here’s a few of the things, slightly altered and edited for the blogworld, I shared with her…
We can read about Jesus first instituting the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26:17-29 (it is also in the other gospels). To answer this question, we must recognize that this first communion took place at the time of the Passover (note verses 17-19). The Passover was the meal the Jews ate to commemorate God’s deliverance of them out of Egypt through the blood of the lamb. As you might recall, only those who had this blood on their doorpost were saved from the angel of death. In God’s plan, Jesus was put to death at this Passover time to show He was the true lamb of God who can take away people’s sins. Just as the Jews had to believe God by putting the blood on their doorposts to be saved, so we must trust in Christ’s shed blood to be saved. That is why He lifted the cup and said “Drink from it, all of you, for this is the blood of My covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Verses 27-28). So the first condition we find in Scripture is this: Just as only Jews could eat of the Passover meal, so only those who are Christians (i.e disciples of Jesus) are to eat of the Lord’s Supper.
This is seen in that Jesus only had the 12 disciples with Him in the upper room. Very clearly the Scriptures say that He broke the bread and “gave it to the disciples” (verse 26) and took the cup and “gave it to them (i.e the disciples)” (verse 27). He did not offer this meal out in public indiscriminantly to all in the streets of Jerusalem; instead He gave it to His followers. This same pattern is seen in the rest of the New Testament. In Acts 2:41-42 we are told it is those who were baptized that were devoted to the “breaking of bread.” In I Corinthians 11:23-33, where Paul gives instructions about the Lord’s Supper, he is obviously writing to the church at Corinth (those that had professed faith and been baptized) on how to practice it. The second condition then is: Only baptized members of the church are allowed to partake. A Buddhist, Muslim, or atheist should not be able to walk into a church service and just take of the Lord’s Supper if they so choose. To have a person who does not believe Jesus is the Son of God take of His body and blood would be to desecrate the meal. Having unbelievers eat and drink of the body and blood of the Lord would be to say that the gospel does not have any true power or meaning. Communion is a meal of fellowship with Christ and His people.
A third condition we find is this: Taking of the Lord’s Supper is to be done carefully and in a holy manner. Paul makes this point in I Corinthians 11:27-32. If we do not come to this meal by true faith or we come while living in sin, Paul says we will be judged with weakness, sickness or even death. The Jews who mishandled the blood of the lamb in Egypt would have died; the Bible warns that mishandling the blood of Christ is even more severe (Hebrews 10:28-29) because eternity is at stake. So we must come to the table, where His blood is represented, in a worthy manner. That is why we are called to examine ourselves before we come.
Now the question arises, “Who is to be sure that the people who come to the table are 1) Christians who are 2) members of the church and 3) living holy lives?” A final aspect to answer the question is this: Christ has appointed elders to shepherd the flock of His people. They are called to teach and manage the church (I Timothy 3:1-7), exercise oversight and be be examples to the church (I Peter 5:1-5), and guard against harmful influences (Titus 1:7-11). The people in the church are to choose godly men to that office and then submit to them (Hebrews 13:17). Jesus gave “the keys of His kingdom” (see Matthew 16:19), i.e. the responsibility to bring in or release from membership, to the leadership of the church. One of the ways that we are to shepherd God’s people is to be sure that these three conditions listed above are being met by those coming to the Lord’s Table. That is why if people are not members of our particular congregation we ask that they meet with us so we can hear of their faith in Christ, be sure they are members of a true church somewhere, and are walking rightly before the Lord.
Some could see our practice of watching over the communion table as a prohibitive, legalistic, power-grabbing move. However, our desire is to honor Christ and His table, and that is the reason for this practice. Please understand that we are not seeking to exclude anyone; rather, we are inviting people to come in the right manner. Communion is the supper of the Lord, who has given the church the privilege of hosting it. The Lord Jesus told a story of a man being thrown out of a wedding feast for coming improperly clothed (see Matthew 22:1-14, especially verse 12). Our practice is simply His way of reminding people to come properly prepared. Afterall, if I Corinthians 11:29 is true, then taking communion is one of the most dangerous things you can do. It is only right for the church to help those wanting to come to see that.