In my church’s statement of faith, statement XV, “Of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper” explains baptism as, “a prerequisite…to the Lord’s Supper.” My church previously practiced what is known as “open” communion, which is a position that states that the Lord’s Table is available to anyone who has professed faith in Christ. Our new statement of faith, however, teaches a more traditional view known as “close” communion: that only baptized believers may participate at the Lord’s Table.
Why the change? Does the Bible really teach that?
Yes, it does, though indirectly through a series of assumptions:
- The Bible teaches that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the signs of the new covenant that correspond to the Old Covenant signs of circumcision and the Passover (Col 2:11-12; 1 Cor 5:7-8)–they are signs and symbols of the covenant. Just as an Israelite could not participate in the Passover meal without first receiving the entrance sign of the covenant (circumcision; Ex. 12:48), so too is it improper for a Christian to participate in the Lord’s Supper without first receiving the entrance sign of the new covenant (baptism).
- The Bible assumes that everyone who has been genuinely born-again has gone under the waters of baptism–baptism is what officially recognizes and marks one off as one of God’s people. See Acts 2:38; Rom 6:1-4; Matt 28:18-20
- In baptism, one becomes a member of the body of Christ, the church. See 1 Cor 12:12-13
- Scripture explicitly states that the proper practice of the Lord’s Supper is to happen when the “church” “gathers together.” When this gathering happens, there is to be a clear delineation between who is and is not a part of the church. Baptism and church membership function as these delineating markers. See 1 Cor 11:17-34, esp. vs. 19.
- The punishment of church discipline is to be removed from membership in the church and to no longer be admitted to the Lord’s Table. See 1 Cor 5:1-13, esp. vs. 11. This assumes that admittance to the Lord’s Table is not solely relying on an individual’s private estimation of themselves but is connected to the church.
- Therefore, if we know who the church is by the outward sign of baptism which unites them to the church, and only the church is to be practicing the Lord’s Supper, then it would appear the Bible assumes that only those who have been genuinely baptized (as believers) should partake in the Lord’s Supper.
For a more thorough treatment of this issue, check out Bobby Jameison’s book Going Public.
But does this really even matter?
Yes, it does.
Who participates in the sacraments that God has given us (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) is our way of declaring to that individual, our church, and the watching world that this person, to the best of our knowledge, is really a Christian! The Lord’s Supper is the glue that binds the Christian community together as one body: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread,” 1 Cor. 10:17. The Lord’s Supper identifies us as Christians and binds us together as one.
That is not a label we want to be cavalier with. If a non-Christian walks in off the street and considers themselves a quasi-Christian and hears that this meal is a meal for anyone who simply believes in Jesus and is an assurance of their pardon of sins, they might walk up and pop the bread in their mouth and sip the cup and think: Cool! I was worried that maybe I wasn’t right with God, but I guess I was wrong! God and I are on good terms! No need to worry about that guilty conscience I have. The ordinances that Jesus has given us is a way for us to make the invisible church visible on earth; it is a way of identifying and marking out who the people of God are. We don’t want to wrongly put that label on those who are not really members of Christ’s Body.
Explaining that the Table is reserved for those who have first submitted to Christ in the gospel AND who have demonstrated that submission by going under the waters of baptism is a way of guarding the church–what is usually referred to as “fencing the Table”–from passing out false assurance and damaging the church’s witness to the world. It isn’t by any means infallible, of course. Churches can baptize unregenerate people out of carelessness or simply because they lack the eyes of God–who alone sees into the hearts of men. But, on the whole, it helps guard the church by drawing a brighter line around who the church actually is.
But isn’t this exclusive? Won’t people be offended?
Yes and no. And probably.
Christianity is the odd mixture of being simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. Our faith is one that is wildly inclusive–it is an offer available to any and all cultures, races, genders, classes, and ages. You do not need to become a white, Anglo-Saxon to become a Christian. And it is an offer that anyone, from any walk of life is qualified to participate in; all you need is to be a sinner who admits that you need Christ. But, this scandalously indiscriminate offer is also exclusive: all peoples must possess conscious faith in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation.
This view of the Lord’s Supper is similar. It is exclusive; just because you were baptized as an infant (or an eight year old) doesn’t mean that you can participate in this meal. Just because you walked an aisle or signed a card, just because you deep down really believe that things are okay between you and God–regardless of the fact that you have never taken the most basic step of obedience to Him: being baptized–doesn’t mean that you can participate in this meal. One must first be baptized. But, it is simultaneously extremely inclusive. Baptism is available to any and all who will repent of their sins, trust in Jesus Christ, and demonstrate that through their baptism into the body of Christ.
While this may offend some, it is important to remember that this is ultimately loving. There is a severe warning given in Scripture agains those who flippantly participate in the Lord’s Supper wrongly: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” 1 Cor. 11:29-30 (emphasis added). We do not want to be encouraging people to be “eating and drinking judgment on themselves.” Truth is not in the eye of the beholder, and reality isn’t created simply because we would like it to be so. If I do not believe that I am walking into a tree when I manifestly am, it will not stop my nose from bleeding. And even if someone really believes that they are “good with God” when they manifestly are not, their settled confidence will not stop God’s judgment from coming. And we, as a church, want to stand up and say: Stop! Look out for that tree you are about to walk into! We want to love people.
By denying people access to the Lord’s Table aren’t you indirectly saying they are not a Christian?
No, not necessarily. I am saying that I am not free to decide who is admitted to this table: God is. And God simply states that one must first be baptized. This is an issue between them and the Lord that they should settle rather than take the bread and cup improperly. I fully understand that someone can be a genuine, born-again Christian who simply has not yet been baptized. By denying them the bread and cup I am not casting aspersions on the credibility of their faith per se, I am simply calling them to obey Jesus and be baptized. While a big part of fencing the table is to keep non-Christians or unrepentant, wayward Christians from eating and drinking judgment on themselves, that is not its exclusive means. It also can serve as a spur of obedience for those who are genuine Christians who have simply not made themselves known to a church, have not become members by not being baptized. So, before you sit down at the family table make yourself known to the family.
Lastly, it is important to remember the limitations of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. They are merely signs. They are representations of reality, not reality itself. A wedding ring is a wonderful sign of marriage, but is not “marriage” itself. So it is with the Lord’s Supper and union with Christ. In other words, being denied the Lord’s Supper (or even Baptism) will not affect an individual’s salvation. We are not saved through sacraments (contra Rome). Calvin explained that the benefits of the Lord’s Supper come through the union of the sacrament with our faith as we respond to God’s Word. But it is not a benefit that unlocks the gates of heaven. So, if an individual who, for some reason or another, is a genuine Christian but has yet to be baptized, by withholding the Lord’s Supper from them we are not barring them from salvation, nor are we even necessarily saying, “We know that you are not a Christian.” What we are saying is: “The Bible has given us a simple step of obedience to identify ourselves as Christians–will you take that step?” “There is no other command,” Mark Dever often says, “that Jesus will give you that will be easier for you to follow than being baptized.”
In conclusion, requiring participants to first be baptized prior to participating in the Lord’s Supper not only aligns with what the Bible teaches, but also helps guard unwitting participants from judgment, protects our church’s identity and witness, prevents non-Christians from being given false assurance, and helps spur Christians onto obedience to Christ.