Serving Communion

Most of us are aware that churches vary in the frequency of the times they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and also in the ways in which they invite people to the table of the Lord. In the former instance we have no Biblical mandate with regard to frequency, and so it is appropriate that this be decided by the local elders according to their wisdom. In the latter instance, there are two primary approaches which are called either open or closed communion.

Closed communion is when you permit only members of the church, or those previously approved by the elders to partake. Here we are commenting only on open communion. In open communion the invitation is addressed to the whole congregation including visitors or strangers, and consequently the wording of that invitation is exceedingly important. The crucial importance of using appropriate language is revealed in Paul’s solemn warning in I Corinthians 11:23-30, For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep.

My experience in many churches has been that when the Pastor invites the congregation to partake, the invitation is generally couched in words such as, “Everyone is invited to this table who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.” This kind of invitation is grossly inadequate and fails to appreciate the importance of Paul’s warning. I fear that many people have been betrayed into participating to their own condemnation by this simplistic approach. It seems apparent that many Pastors are so bent on not offending anyone present that they would not even read the ominous words of Paul in verses 27-30. I would agree that we do not want timid souls to be intimidated by words they do not understand, but a simple explanation would obviate that possibility.

The fact is that the world is full of inadequate definitions of what it means to be a Christian. All too often people are invited via radio and TV, and even in churches to receive the Lord Jesus Christ without an adequate understanding of what it means. Often they respond because of some problem in their life and they hope they will receive the Lord’s help. However, they may not have repented of their sin, or understood the free offer of the Gospel, or the call of Jesus to discipleship. They want help, but not necessarily the kind of help the gospel is offering. The prevalence of this phenomenon, called easy-believism, means that many people who are thinking that they are Christians really are not. Responsible evangelists tell their responders to get into local churches as soon as possible. Many do not, and thus when the Pastor says if you have Jesus as your personal Savior, you are welcome at this table, they proceed on the basis of their own opinion and partake to their own condemnation, while trampling on the body and blood of Christ.

The simple solution to this is to pay attention to what the Bible really teaches. In John 20:19-23 the risen Christ is speaking to His Apostles. On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” That this is a Scripture capable of misinterpretation, no one would deny, and it has been abused in the history of the church by some communions who usurp the right to absolve people of their sin. Nevertheless, it is an exceedingly important statement. Jesus would agree that only God can forgive sin. When He forgave people he was accused of making Himself God. In fact he was God. So, exactly what right is he conferring upon the Apostles who are the foundation stones of the Church according to Ephesians 2:19 and 20? Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. The Apostles were to carry on Jesus’ mission of preaching the good news of the kingdom, and they were to preside over the membership of the church and its discipline. This meant that they had the authority to include or exclude people from the church, not arbitrarily, but on the basis of the gospel and a credible confession. The Apostles ordained elders in all the churches to take over when they were gone. After the generation of the Apostles this duty passed on to the elders in the various churches. Ultimately, it is the elders who decide who is and who is not a Christian. This idea, based on the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, that it is the church that ultimately decides who belongs is being obscured in our time. It is being obscured by the dilution and cheapening of the gospel message and the lack of church discipline.

The way to make this clear to those in the congregation at a communion service is also simple. The invitation must reflect Christ’s zeal for the purity of His church and its ordinances. In the Presbyterian Church in America the Directory of Worship states that neither the ignorant or the scandalous are to be admitted to the table. The word scandalous refers to those who are unrepentant of sins and offenses. The word ignorant has nothing to do with one’s I Q. It is referring to the understanding of the gospel and the significance of the sacrament. Clearly if you do not understand that you are a sinner doomed to eternal condemnation, and that the atoning sacrifice of Christ is the only remedy for your lost condition and that you need to have a genuine commitment to follow Him, which is the essence of saving faith, then you are ignorant and should not partake. My heart breaks, not only for all the people who have been misled, but also for the preachers who are misleading them. We do not need to frighten people with solemn words of condemnation in a public communion service, but we do need to make very clear who is qualified for partaking. To do this we need only follow Scripture and insist that those who are not members of our church in the audience need to be members in good standing (not under discipline) of a particular evangelical or Bible-believing congregation. If they are, then they have been approved by the elders as genuine believers who understand what they are doing. They have been admitted to the communion of their own churches. In this way not only are such folks warned, but the Pastor is relieved of participating in the process of giving them false hope. In the history of the Church there have been genuine Christians and spurious Christians, and never more so than today when the meaning of genuine Christianity is murky and clouded. The function of the Apostles and elders was and is to determine who is genuine and who is spurious and this must be part of any responsible invitation to partake in the supper of the Lord. Question 82 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Should unbelievers and the ungodly be admitted to this supper?” And the answer is, “No; for by this, the covenant of God would be profaned, and his wrath kindled against the whole congregation; therefore it is the duty of the christian church, according to the appointment of Christ and his apostles, to exclude such persons, by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, till they show amendment of life.”