Why one must belong to a church to take Communion
Anyone who has ever attended a worship service at Lake OPC, or any other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian church, on a Sunday when the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is being observed, will notice that before administering the elements the minister will explain who may and who may not partake of the holy supper. (This is a historic practice in the Reformed liturgy.)
While confessional Presbyterian churches like Lake OPC do not practice closed communion – which restricts communion only to those who belong in communicant membership to a particular church or denomination or family of denominations which share the same beliefs about the Lord’s Supper – at the same time neither do confessional Presbyterian churches practice open communion where everyone, without distinction or exception, is welcomed to participate.
Instead, confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches typically practice what could be described as restricted communion. The practice is sometimes referred to as “fencing the table” (meaning that a verbal explanation and/or warning is given prior to administration of the sacrament). This means that communion is restricted to those who meet certain criteria. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church these criteria include the following:
(1) You must be validly baptized in a professing Christian Church which upholds the biblical and historic Christian view of the Trinity.
Valid baptism with water, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in a church which (at least on paper) confesses the Holy Trinity, is the visible sign of initiation into the visible “catholic” (i.e., “universal”) church, and thus a prerequisite for participation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Unitarian or “Jesus only” baptism, cultic baptism (for example, Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon baptisms), “gender-neutral” baptisms (which purge out reference to Father, Son and Holy Spirit and replace the Trinitarian Names with such designations as “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer”) – all such “baptisms” are in reality non-Christian baptisms, and thus invalid in the eyes of God.
(Please note that there is a difference between an invalid baptism – which is really no baptism at all – and an irregular baptism. There are many examples of irregular baptisms – baptisms performed under less-than-ideal or extraordinary circumstances – which are nonetheless valid from a biblical standpoint. For example, a baptism administered by a heretical or scandalously immoral pastor is still a valid baptism, so long as it is administered with water in the Name of the Trinity in a professedly Trinitarian church, even though such a baptism may be irregular with respect to the circumstances of its administration.)
(2) You must have made public confession of your faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in the presence of a congregation of God’s people.
Passages like Matthew 10:32-33 and Romans 10:9 make it clear that an open confession of faith in Jesus Christ as Son of God and as one’s Lord and Savior is ordinarily a requirement for salvation (since such open confession of Christ is a fruit and evidence of true saving faith), and by implication a prerequisite for communicant membership in Christ’s visible church.
Furthermore, the very act of participating in the Lord’s Supper implies a reaffirmation of one’s public confession of faith in Christ. Therefore, those who reject Christ as the Divine Son of God Incarnate who was crucified for sinners and raised bodily from the dead, or who do not personally trust in Christ as their very own Lord and Savior and are not personally repentant for their sins, desecrate the sacrament and bring judgment upon themselves if they presume to come to the holy table. In addition, participation in the Lord’s Supper by unbelievers is an act of supreme dishonesty and hypocrisy, since unbelievers reject the very gospel that is signified and sealed in the holy supper. (See, for example, the warning about unworthy partaking that is given by the Apostle Paul in First Corinthians 11:17-32.)
(3) You must be a member in good standing of a biblical church which preaches the gospel.
Church membership implies accountability. It implies that you are willing to be subject to the God-ordained authority that Christ has entrusted to His visible church. To wilfully and knowingly reject the accountability of responsible church membership is to reject one very important aspect of Christ’s Lordship.
While it is true that the Bible does not, in proof-text fashion, have an explicit command that says “Thou shalt be a church member if thou wouldst take the Lord’s Supper”, responsible church membership involving submission to the elders and overseers of the church is clearly implied as a given in the New Testament Scriptures. (See, for example, Hebrews 13:7 & 17; First Peter 5:1-5, etc. Also note that almost all of the New Testament Epistles were written to local congregations with a definite membership, such as the church in Corinth, the churches of Galatia, the church of Thessolonica, etc. In addition, the Book of Acts describes the three thousand baptized converts on the Day of Pentecost as “those who were added” – Acts 2:41 – meaning added to the visible church.)
What about the requirement of being a church member “in good standing”? What does “good standing” mean? It means that you are not under any kind of church censure or church discipline. For example, let’s say you had belonged to a biblical church which excommunicated you for scandalous, unrepentant sin. This means you have been excluded from taking communion (hence “ex-communication”) due to your impenitence. Due to your persistent impenitence the church has judged you to be outside of saving communion with Christ. In such circumstances you are not a “member in good standing”, and thus you have no right in such circumstances to receive the visible emblems of such communion. In such circumstances you may not receive the Lord’s Supper until such time as you repent, make amends and are publicly restored to good standing in the fellowship of Christ’s church.
“But pastor, why such restrictions? And why do I need to be an actual member in good standing before I can take holy communion?” Allow me to offer some further arguments in favor of our communion practice.
The belief that communion is only for those who are church members in good standing of a biblical church is a legitimate inference from the fact that, like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance for the church. It makes no sense for someone to partake of an ordinance appointed by Christ for His church if he/she is not an actual member of the church. Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper with His apostles on the night in which He was betrayed, and the apostles were themselves the foundation of the visible church (Ephesians 2:20). So, clearly, Christ intended this ordinance to be for those within His church, not those outside of it. (Indeed, one of the functions of the sacraments is to make a clear distinction before the world between those who belong to Christ and His church and those who do not.)
A similar argument for this practice can be seen when we compare the old covenant sacraments of circumcision and the passover with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Under the old covenant administration Gentile foreigners to the covenant community of Israel could not eat the passover meal until their males were first circumcised (see Exodus 12:43-49). In other words, before a Gentile could celebrate the passover he first had to become a Jew. Such Gentile converts had to become members of God’s visible covenant people, at the time called Israel, before they could receive the covenant meal of the passover. Likewise, in this new covenant age, an outsider to God’s covenant community of the church may not partake of the Lord’s Supper until he/she is first baptized and becomes a member of God’s covenant people, the church.
Finally, the New Testament teaches that under the new covenant the old covenant sacrament of circumcision (a bloody rite pointing forward to Christ) has been replaced by baptism (an unbloody rite pointing us back to Christ). Likewise the passover (again, a bloody rite involving the death of the passover lamb) has been replaced by the Lord’s Supper (an unbloody rite pointing us back to Christ’s bloody sacrifice on the cross). (For example, see Colossians 2:1-12 and First Corinthians 10:1-4, and also consider the fact that the Lord Jesus insituted the Lord’s Supper in the midst of celebrating the passover with His disciples.)
What is the conclusion? If God’s people under the old covenant had to be members in good standing of the covenant community before they could participate in the covenant meal of the passover, so likewise God’s people under the new covenant have to be members in good standing of the visible covenant community of the church before they are welcome to partake of the covenant meal of the Lord’s Supper.
Of course, at Lake OPC and at most other confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches we don’t have “communion bouncers”. The Lord’s Supper is not a “presbyterian” supper. Rather, it is the Lord’s Supper, and thus it is for the Lord’s people, whatever their church affiliation may be. Nevertheless, it is a serious ordinance in Christ’s church, and therefore we in the OPC seek to make it clear who may and who may not partake – for God’s glory and for the spiritual welfare of those who would partake.
During the celebration of the Supper the minister offers a “verbal fencing” of the table, and the elders will usually try to pass the elements over those who are not yet able to take communion (for example, the communion plate will be handed past young children who have not yet publicly professed their faith). But, once the verbal warning has been issued, the ultimate responsibility for partaking or not partaking of the holy supper rests upon the shoulders of those in attendance, who are summoned by Scripture and through the pastor’s exhortation to examine themselves of their fitness to partake (again, see First Corinthians 11:17-34). Let us all take this solemn responsibility seriously.