Is Communion for Baptized Believers Only?
Who should be invited to participate in the the Communion Service of a given local church? I acknowledge that adherents to believers baptism and adherents to infant baptism will of necessity approach this and related issues with somewhat different nuances. I am answering this question from a credo-baptist perspective.Three views are prevalent among evangelical credo-baptist churches. Briefly they are:
Open - the communion service is open to Individuals who are professing believers.
Closed - the communion service is restricted to baptized professing believers who are members of the host church.
Close - the communion service is restricted to baptized professing believes (who may or may not be members of any church).
Variations are practiced by advocates of each view. However, those variations will not be addressed in this paper. And because the “closed” and “close” positions share the common precondition of baptism I will consider them categorically the same for purposes of this paper under the designation “baptism first”.
Thus, the question is, “should baptism be a precondition for a believer’s participation in the Communion Service?” Numerous considerations help us answer this question.
Does the New Testament envision unbaptized Christians?
A key text is Acts 2:41-46. It certainly seems that in Jerusalem all new believers were expected to be baptized. Those who “received” (41) the message Peter preached at Pentecost were baptized. (see previous study). And it is reasonable to assume that this same practice was widespread among first century churches. This passage is a summary of life in the early church. And it seems to indicate that the normal pattern was that new believers were baptized and became part of the church. In fact, their baptism was the means of entry into the local church. As members of the church they then participated in the life of the church including observing the Lord’s Supper. This passage may have a prescriptive tone to it.
However, the passage does not directly address whether all first century believers were baptized or whether any unbaptized believers were excluded from certain facets of life in the the church such as Communion. In fact, to my knowledge, none of the other NT passages describing baptism include a description of Communion following. A striking example is Acts 20:6-11. This description of a gathering of believers in Troas is the first clear mention that believers gathered on Sunday. Included in the gathering was breaking bread - probably the Communion rather than a common meal or a combination of the two. If so, we are not told anything about who gathered, including who Eutychus was. Was everyone a believer? Baptized? On this significant occasion, it seems reasonable to think that if who participated was critical Luke would have included it in his history.
So, it does not necessarily follow that there were no exceptions even though this description of the Pentecost event resembles a prescription. In fact, the paragraph structure does indicate a new line of thought at v 42. Verse 41, beginning with a “so then”, is a statement of what followed Peter’s message. It tells us what the believers did on the first day; they were baptized and were added. Though not translated in v 42 and v 43, what follows are four coordinating statements connected by “and” (de). These statements further describe daily life in the first church as played out in the days following that first day:
Verse 42 describes four activities (in pairs of two). Teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer are likely bedrock essentials in the early church.
Verse 43 describes the climate that was created in the community as it observed these believers and the apostles who continued to perform miracles.
Verses 44-47a describes the tangible extent to which the new believers were committed to one another in daily life.
Verse 47b describes the further blessing of God upon this first church.
Thus there is a natural break between v 41 and 42-47 (as NIV). Verse 41 portrays the first day; verses 42-47 portray subsequent days. Verse 41 is a summary; verses 42-47 are a listing of specific activities. Grammatically then, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that v 41 is sequential while v 42-47 is only descriptive.
An example of unsubstantiated overreach here is Mark Dever’s statement that, “When he (Paul) wrote, then, to the Corinthians about their abuse of the Lord’s Supper, his assumption was certainly that all those coming to the table had been baptized.” (Mark Dever in Believer’s Baptism p 339). Fortunately, Dever sprinkles the term “assume” throughout his discussion. This is not an explicit teaching.
Are believers commanded to be baptized?
The line of argument is: The New Testament issues a command to all believers to be baptized…therefore to refuse to be baptized is disobedience… and disobedience is sin… thus, the unbaptized believer is guilty of unrepentant sin…and in light of the fact that self-examination should accompany participation in the Communion service (1 Corinthians 11:27-29), the unrepentant believer should be bared from the Lord’s Table. Consistently applied, this line of reasoning would also conclude that such an unrepentant individual, if he were a member of the church, should be a candidate for formal church discipline and, further, the professed faith of such an unbaptized believer should be questioned.
This argument unravels on several fronts beginning with the so-called command to be baptized. Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:38), Peter’s directive to Cornelius and company (Acts 10:47-48), and Ananias’ directive to Saul/Paul (Acts 22:16; 9:18) are not usually cited as proofs for this command probably in recognition of the uniqueness of these events. Rather, Matthew 28:19-20 is the passage most often cited by advocates of the “baptism first” position: NAU Matthew 28:19 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” I offer a few observations.
Jesus is speaking directly to the eleven disciples in Galilee soon after the resurrection. There is nearly universal agreement that this is transferable to future followers of Jesus.
The main verb is the command to “make disciples” (imperative aorist active of μαθητεύω). This means that they must engage in bringing people to the point of becoming obedient followers of Jesus (see John 8:31; Matthew 11:29). The sense is that they become learners (Ephesians 4:20).
Three participles tell more about this disciple making task Jesus has given to the eleven. First, disciple making is to happen after they get where they are going (aorist passive participle of πορεύω - “after having gone”). Apparently this began to happen after the ascension (Acts 1:8), at Pentecost (Acts 2:5-12), and later when this newly formed Christian community was scattered among the nations (Acts 8:1). Second, disciple making is to happen in concert with baptizing (present active particle of βαπτίζω - “while baptizing”) and teaching (present active participle of διδάσκω - “while teaching”). These two parallel participles are simultaneous activities with disciple making. Or perhaps it is that baptism and teaching are integral parts of the disciple making.
Thus, it is not technically accurate to say that Matthew 28 commands believers to be baptized and therefore failure to be baptized is a sin. Rather, it is more accurate to say that because the eleven were commanded to make disciples in concert with baptizing and teaching a reasonable expectation is that newly minted Christians would be baptized and submit to teaching. Yet, In some sense failure to be baptized is a serious departure from God’s design. This is of one piece with the description in Acts 2 where baptism is not commanded.
Even though I strongly urge all professing believers to be baptized and pointedly ask why they wouldn’t so be identified with Christ, nonetheless, barring unbaptized believers from the Lord’s Table based on Matthew 28 is a hermeneutic jump I am not willing to make. It simply proves too much.
I have yet to encounter an advocate of baptism first who also argues that failure to receive teaching (perhaps they could be designated “untaught believers”) is a sin and thus living in this unrepentant sin is grounds for being barred from the Lord’s Table.
Is withholding the Lord’s Table an expression of church discipline?
The line of reasoning is that only church members are proper candidates for church discipline. And, if withholding the Lord’s Table is a means of church discipline then it follows that errant individuals who are subjects of church discipline are baptized members of the church. Thus, the working conclusion is that all persons who come to the Lord’s Table are baptized.
Of course, this whole argument fails if it can not be shown that withholding the Lord’s Table as a means of discipline has biblical warrant. A search of the Scripture fails to uncover any directive or even an example of withholding the Lord’s Table as step of church discipline. Now, this doesn’t mean churches are prohibited from implementing intermediate steps of church discipline, such as withholding the Table, before excommunication. However, it does mean that it is inappropriate to conclude that baptism is a precondition to participating in the Lord’s Table based on withholding communion being a form of church discipline.
Do historic confessions of faith speak to the relationship between baptism and communion?
Historic credo-baptist confessions of faith give a mixed message on this question. For instance, The London Baptist Confession of 1689 in chapter 30 - Of the Lord’s Supper, paragraph 8, only “ignorant and ungodly persons” are barred from the table. And paragraph 1 and 7 refers to “believers” and “worthy receivers” as participants in the supper. And the Philadelphia Confession (1742) is identical to the 1689 on these points. On the other hand, the New Hampshire Confession (1833) states that baptism is a “…prerequisite…the Lord’s Supper…”. And the London Baptist Confession of 1644 in a later edition added the phrase “and after to partake of the Lord’s Supper” to the statement that those who professed faith are the proper candidates for baptism.
Does the situation at the Corinthian church help clarify the issue?
In 1 Corinthians 11:20-34 Paul undoubtedly chides the church in Corinth over their abuse of the Lord’s Supper. He does so in the framework of the new covenant - “In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (11:25).
This reference to the new covenant could imply that all participants in the new covenant should be able to participate in the Lord’s Table observance. This would include all believers regardless of age or baptism or affiliation.
An overview of this passage seems to support this perspective. First, the communion service is a memorial service (“in remembrance of me” v 24,25 and also Luke 22:14-23) rather than a detached ritual. Those connected to Christ participate in this memorial service. The Lord’s supper was for new covenant people as a memorial to Christ, the author of the new covenant. It was designed for all new covenant people, not just baptized ones. Furthermore, all followers of Jesus have the capacity to participate in the Lord’s Supper and “do this” (v 24) in remembrance of me. To deny participation to some followers of Jesus is to impede their obedience to the command to “do this.”
Second, the insertion of the “body” into the discussion (v 29) may shed light on this question. If the body is a reference to the broad family of God rather than to the physical body of Christ, then it must include unbaptized believers. (See Fee in NICNT 562-564 and Thiselton in NIGTC 891-894 for discussion of various views). Certainly 1 Corinthians 10:14-17 uses “body” in this manner and assumes that all who are in the body of Christ participate in the Communion observance, not just those who have been baptized. Thus, to bar unbaptized believers from the Table seems to miss the point.
Third, the Lord’s Table is presented as an expression of the unity or “communion” among the saints. To require baptism clouds this picture. What all believers have in common is the cross of Christ, not baptism. Christ binds the people of God together, not baptism.
Fourth, the meaning of partaking in an “unworthy manner” is not helpful to the baptism first view (v 27). This most reasonably refers to the context of the Corinthian letter, namely to factions and favoritism in the Corinthian church as is evidenced by abuses at the Lord’s Supper (11:17-22, 29, 33-34) rather than to a lack of baptism or to sin in general.
Make no mistake, I urge all professing believers to be baptized and unite with a Bible believing local church. I am committed to the centrality of the local church. I am committed to the proposition that the Bible does not per se picture unbaptized Christians. Or Christians at large. Baptism for the believer is the expected norm.
However, when it comes to the issue of whether or not unbaptized believers can sit at the Lord’s Table, I can find no direct Biblical teaching regarding the issue and certainly none explicitly supporting baptism as a valid prerequisite for participation in the Communion observance. And further, at the end of the day, I see a greater preponderance of evidence weighing in favor of opening the table to professing believers regardless of whether they have been baptized or whether they are a member of a local church. Also, in my view, a baptism-first practice not only does not enjoy explicit Biblical support, it does not enjoy sound implicit support.
Secondarily, a baptism-first practice easily leads to unhealthy dogmatism, inflexibility in dealing with unique cases, and reluctance in applying exceptions. After all, if failure to be baptized is unrepentant sin, why not be dogmatic, what room is there for flexibility, and what exceptions can be granted?
Thus, I do find it awkward, if not inconsistent, for a church to close the Lord’s table to attendees or guests who have not undergone believers baptism and at the same time open the pulpit to preachers and teachers who have not undergone believers baptism. (However, see Believer’s Baptism p 341 for a defense of this practice.)
Thus, I do find it unnecessarily difficult, for a church to have to grapple with the situation of a teen who professes Christianity and wants to partake of the Lord’s table but his parents refuse to give permission for baptism.
Thus, I do find it borderline combative for a church to bar an unbaptized child from the table whose well taught and faithful parents are convinced of the genuineness of his salvation.
© Copyright. Joseph Flatt. 2016. All rights reserved. May be used for educational purposes without written permission but with a citation to thi