Whenever talk of communion rears its head, particularly discussion of close v open tables, several questions need to be answered. The problem with many approaches to communion is that they overemphasise the personal at the expense of the communal. That is, churches already steeped in Western individualism offer communion on a specifically individualistic basis. Communion amounts to little more than my personal statement that I have a personal relationship with Christ.
Those who wish to run an open table tend to emphasise this individualistic approach to communion. The meal is offered to anyone who has a personal faith in Jesus. Access is restricted purely by personal conscience. Anyone who believes themselves to be a Christian may take and affirm their ongoing standing in Christ as they judge it.
The problem with this sort of individualism is that there is no end to it. Why, for instance, should we bother having the meal communally at all on this view? Can’t we all just have a bit of juice and a lump of bread at home and affirm our standing in Christ before God all by ourselves? If doing this privately at home is considered a problem, why is it a problem? If we are affirming our standing in Christ, I am the arbiter and it has nothing to do with anyone else, why do I need to take it in their presence at all?
Of course, Paul isn’t silent on that issue. Somebody might point to 1 Corinthians 11:
20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. 21 For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.
Whatever else these verses might be saying, it seems apparent the Corinthians were all going ahead and having their own private meals. Paul doesn’t seem that impressed. It seems that communion apart from the believing community is not the Lord’s Supper at all. There is something about taking the meal communally among the community of believers that turns a private memorial into the Lord’s Supper instituted by Christ.
The question for those with an open table policy, who emphasise the personal belief in Jesus line, is why does the community setting matter? If all we are doing is remembering Jesus’ death personally and thinking back to when he will come again for me, why do we need to do that in the company of other people? Paul tells us not to do it privately but, if that’s all we’re doing, there really isn’t any reason for him to say so.
Those of us who favour close communion restricted to church members have an answer to this issue. Communion is not principally about my standing with the Lord Jesus but about my standing with the Lord’s people that necessarily centres on my relationship with Christ. When we take communion we are not simply saying I am in right standing in Christ, we are also saying we are in right standing with his people. And, for anybody who knows their New Testament, these two things are not mutually exclusive; one necessitates the other.
When we take communion we are remembering that Jesus died for me personally. But we are also recognising our unity together as God’s people in Christ. Of course, how can we signify our unity together privately? Likewise, how can we claim to be unified with God’s people in the Lord’s Supper when we refuse to join with his people in membership? Moreover, by permitting access to the table, the church is also affirming that each individual is in right standing with the Lord and his people. This was the very authority Jesus gave the church in Matthew 18:18-20. Just as baptism marks our entrance into the church, communion is the ongoing sign that we believe we are in right standing with Christ and his people and the church, in turn, affirms it.
In fact, only a view of communion that takes account of the important communal aspect can make any sense of Jesus’ command that is typically applied to the Lord’s Supper from Matthew 5:
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Why bother reconciling with your brother if, in fact, you are simply there to affirm your faith in Christ? Surely the only compelling reason to do so is if communion signified more than just our personal faith in Christ. It symbolises something of the unity in Christ of the people partaking.
If we accept that communion must symbolise our unity together as Christ’s people, it is difficult to understand why we would then open it up to all and sundry. Why would we allow those who specifically choose to avoid unifying with us formally through membership state via communion that they are nonetheless unified to us? Why would affirm as believers in communion those the church cannot affirm as believers due to their reticence to join the church? If obedience of Christ’s commands is the primary sign of true belief, how can we affirm in communion those who will not obey Jesus by going through the waters of baptism and joining the church?
If the church says an individual cannot be baptised and join the church, this is presumably because they are unable to affirm the candidate as a true believer. Perhaps the profession of faith or testimony is not credible; maybe there are lifestyle issues that put a question mark over the validity of the testimony. Whatever the reason, why would the church actively affirm in communion those it can’t affirm through baptism and membership?
None of these things are a problem if you simply view communion as an individualistic affirmation of your personal faith in Christ. But such a view seems deficient and offers no credible reason why we take communion comunally at all. Both the words of Paul and Jesus seem to suggest such an approach would not represent the Lord’s Supper.
Once we concede there must be a communal aspect to communion, we are forced to ask why it is communal at all. If our unity is in view, it follows that the Lord’s Supper must be an affirmation of those who are truly unified to one another. If we accept that communion is a local church ordinance, the question becomes one of how we determine those who are truly unified together in the local church.
If the Lord’s Supper exists, at least in part, to identify our unity together, isn’t there something wrong with actively encouraging those – by virtue of their own conscience – to affirm with us in communion what they won’t in membership?