It is probably worth noting from the outset, I pastor a church that currently practices an open table. Though this is not where I sit by conviction, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from the title of the post, this is not a matter of first-order importance for me. The members are aware of my position and it inevitably makes its way into my teaching as (I understand) particular texts demand but I submit to the church on this issue. However, let me offer a handful of reasons why I believe we ought to restrict communion to confirmed members of the church (1).
Communion symbolises unity with the body
1 Cor 10:17 makes clear that one of the central purposes of communion is to express our unity with one another. Given communion is an ordinance administered by the local church, we are specifically expressing unity with the visible body of believers with whom we are gathered at the moment of partaking, not the entire catholic church. There is something flawed about our concept of unity if we argue we are unified by taking communion but not so much that we dare join the local church in membership. In what world are we united with the body if we will not join in membership with it? Can we really proclaim with a clear conscience before God, and the watching world, that we are, in actual fact, one with the very people we refuse to join?
Communion symbolises association with God’s people
Outside of membership, the church ordinances make no sense. 1 Cor 12:13 tells us that baptism marks our union with Christ and entrance into his church. It is the initial step in publicly associating with Jesus and his people. The Lord’s Supper, likewise, is the ongoing statement that we continue to associate with Christ and his people. Again, it seems a funny form of public association to proclaim in the communion that we are joined together whilst simultaneously making clear on paper, in the church membership records, that we aren’t as united as we claim. If we can’t assent to the church doctrinal basis or find some problem with the church, how can we proclaim ourselves one with them in communion? If we can assent to the doctrinal basis and we find no problem with the church, why on earth will we not join in membership and then proclaim our oneness through communion after we have made clear our unity in membership?
Communion demands the ability to “discern the body”
Paul’s warning to the Corinthian church makes clear that the one eating and drinking judgment upon themselves is the one who fails to “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:27ff). That v29 mentions eating and drinking but only talks of “discerning the body” suggests that Paul is no longer talking about Christ’s physical body but the body of believers. There are two ways to take this verse: (1) Paul is saying Christians should act like Christ when they come together; or, (2) Paul is saying we must examine our unity with this local body before we can partake.
On either view, a case can be made for requiring membership. Just as Christ associates with his body, if we are to imitate Christ we ought to associate with his people. Alternatively, on that first view, if Paul’s main emphasis is on being selfless and Christlike, rather than selfish, that may have wider applications to building up the body and joining in membership. On the second view, we are pressing similar ideas to points #1 and #2 above. In either case, “discerning the body” must involve knowing the people around us and being involved with them. At the very least, it involves a sense of knowing who is a part of the body and this is usually determined by membership of the local church. Standing outside of the membership makes this command either difficult or nonsensical.
Communion acts as a membership control
As already noted, baptism is the means of admitting people to the church and communion is the sign of continuing fellowship with the local body. Through these ordinances, the church signifies that it considers those who receive baptism to be saved and those who take the Lord’s Supper to be continuing in the faith and in good standing with the fellowship. It is most difficult for the church to affirm these things in those with whom they have no ongoing fellowship. Equally, it is strange (at best) for the church to affirm such things in non-members even where they are regular.
One primary sign of continuing in the Christian life is ongoing fellowship with God’s people. If the church has refused membership to an individual, it is usually because they cannot detect a clear testimony, the person doesn’t affirm the doctrinal basis or they are in some open unrepentant sin. In any case, there is a question over that person’s spiritual state. Likewise, it says something to the church leadership if an individual is in regular attendance at church but will not commit in membership. It is difficult for the church to affirm continuance in the Christian faith. It is equally hard, if not impossible, for the church to affirm its unity with this person because they will not join in union with the church itself.
- In the case of visitors, I would permit those in membership with their home church to partake