Shooing the unwashed from the Lord’s table

Andrew Thompson laments our laxity about Holy Communion. (My mother, an Episcopalian, would agree with his view.)

If I read Thompson correctly, he is saying we need to stop serving to the unbaptized.

Reforming the so-called “open table” will require more effort. The weakness of reasons given for its continued practice don’t seem to dampen the desire for some Methodists to define themselves by what they don’t stand for. But make no mistake: Wesley’s use of the phrase “converting ordinance” to describe the Eucharist did not refer to its use as an evangelization tool for the unbaptized. It was rather meant to refer to the sacrament’s ability to quicken the faith of Christians who were caught in the malaise of sin.

Christ does want all to meet him at his Supper. But that Supper takes place in the church, and the manner of inclusion into it goes by a specific name: Baptism. Recognizing the profound meaning of coming to commune with Christ through the baptismal call would help us understand both sacraments more fully.

At the church I serve, that would mean a significant portion of those attending on a regular basis would no longer be invited to the table, including all of the young people. Of course, congregational strife is a poor reason to continue a bad practice. (Thompson does not comment on the propriety of non-ordained clergy offering the sacraments. That may be a further source of trouble for me.)

What do you think? Is our “open table” theology wrong? Is the Lord’s Supper a meal for the baptized only?

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18 thoughts on “Shooing the unwashed from the Lord’s table

  1. John – It means, “Our lamb has conquered,” and I meant it as a way of saying that the victory celebrated in Eucharist is Christ’s victory, not ours. Or as a divinity school professor of mine used to put it, “When we are invited to the table it is incumbent upon us to abide by the table manners of the host.” The meal is Jesus’ own, but he invites all of us to it – through baptism into his sacrificial and atoning death. That’s what makes us a part of him and draws us toward fellowship with him at his table.

    I have no doubt the issue in most churches is one of hospitality. And herein lies our real dilemma: Our problem is not that we don’t want to take the Lord’s Supper seriously. It’s that we don’t want to take Baptism seriously, largely because we don’t understand it and are ignorant of its place in Holy Scripture. But just read my response to Larry above; here’s someone who seems to know his way around the New Testament quite well, and yet the baptismal witness is practically jumping off the page at every turn without being noticed. How is that possible? (I’ve got my own theory, which is part the machinations of the Evil One and part the historic Methodist neglect of baptismal theology due to Methodism’s emergence in the Evangelical Revival). But the important point is that we don’t see it because we haven’t been formed to do so. That is an eminently correctable problem.

    So how do we think about hospitality as it regards our worship practices at the local church level? We begin by recognizing God’s greatest act of hospitality in all of history – the universal invitation to be reconciled to God and one another by the atoning death of Christ and through the sacrament of baptism. Romans 6:2ff – “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from teh dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Therefore, it is through the sacramental act of baptism that we extend God’s hospitality to all people, so that they might find their sins forgiven and find new life with the people of God, i.e., the Church.

    This requires us to teach and preach in a certain way, of course. But I can tell you that my own flock is beginning to see this after the past 18 months of my being with them. In a bible study this past Sunday night, we were discussing Paul’s troubles in Philippi when the Roman colonists were complaining about the Jews and their customs which were so disruptive. This led to a discussion about racial/ethnic strife in the contemporary world, which is a significant social sin in the county where I minister. But after a very short time, the conversation turned toward baptism and the 10 or 11 people there unanimously affirmed that the “dividing wall” we so often see in the world between races is overcome in baptism – that act whereby we take off our old clothes and put on Christ.

    John, you are right in saying that it is a General Conference issue. That means the sooner we start taking Scripture & tradition seriously in our local churches, the sooner it will begin to bubble up to that level. (And I’m really not exaggerating here; I do not think we test our practices by biblical precept and the ecumenical consensus of the church catholic nearly enough. Many of the errors under which we currently labor could be solved thereby.)

    As far as your own confession, I have to believe you confess your sins every time you receive the sacrament. You say so yourself! There would also be some question in my mind about sin committed unintentionally; any serious sin involves a certain willfulness to it that you clearly did not have (nor does anyone who is seeking to find Jesus and receives the host prior to baptism). I assume you were rather seeking after Christ and had simply not been catechized properly. No, this situation is, in the truest sense, the Church’s sin. And that’s why I’m willing to engage in this conversation so fully; I believe the Holy Spirit, in all his graciousness and love, is always calling us to a fuller knowledge of Christ Jesus. And I think that is, always and everywhere, very good news.

  2. Thanks for the pointer to this, John. It’s an interesting discussion and I’ll need to think about some of this.

    In general I’d say I’m in favor of an open table. But I’m bothered about the idea that “Baptism and communion require the same commitment to Jesus but I’m not ready to be baptized”. I’ll have to think about that further.

    As a British Methodist, what has bothered me more has been the “get this over quick” approach to communion that I’ve seen in both the Methodist and Lutheran churches I’ve attended so far here in the US. Yes, the hyper-shortened liturgy bothers me somewhat, but I’m even more bothered by the off-hand way in which the liturgy is said. Certainly in the Methodist case, by a pastor who is an advocate of revival and of calling more people to make a genuine commitment to Christ.

  3. Larry: there is no doubt that Jesus’ ministry was a baptizing ministry from the beginning. See Jn 3:22: “After this Jesus and his disciples went into the land of Judea; there he remained with them and baptized.” Of course the apostles were baptized.

    In the NT whenever someone repents and turns to Christ this is accompanied by baptism. The Lord’s Supper is never associated with the initial move to conversation in the NT or in the church fathers, or anywhere else, to my knowledge, until modernity. From this angle it is apparent what a striking novelty the current UMC practice is when judged against Scripture and tradition. The sheer fact of its novelty is not proof that it is incorrect, but it gives one pause.

    The repentance – i.e. the examination of oneself – in 1 Cor 11 is a of a different sort: Paul is speaking to those who have already been baptized (cf. 6:11) and who were “profaning the body and blood of the Lord” by partaking “unworthily” (11:27). What was this unworthy partaking? Apparently the wealthier members were gorging themselves while others went hungry (11:21-22). Paul admonishes them that the Lord’s Supper isn’t for filling one’s belly (11:34). The most striking part comes in 11:27-30:

    “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”

    The self-examination here is not some vague realization that everyone sins sometimes. It’s very specific and very serious: some of those who communed without addressing their sins against other members became sick or even died. This is why the church has thought it necessary to lead people to the grace of baptism, and to teach them to confess their sins (something that can hardly be accomplished adequately during the brief comments before the Lord’s Supper) before leading them to the Lord’s Supper. Christ, with whom we commune in the Supper, is not to be trifled with.

    None of this contradicts the love of God, but rather shows how wide and deep that love is. As C. S. Lewis put it:
    “When Christianity says that God loves man, it means that God loves man: not that He has some ‘disinterested,’ because really indifferent, concern for our welfare, but that, in awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God: You have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect,’ is present: not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a parent’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.”

    In sum: communing before baptism lacks warrant in Scripture and tradition. Second, even if one should object to the first point, Paul shows us that no one should commune – including the baptized! – unless they have “discerned the body” and examined themselves, something more serious than vaguely admitting you’re a sinner as you approach the table.

    1. Nathan: What makes you say “Of course the apostles were baptized”? John 3:22 may imply that, but it does not say it in black and white. And even if they were baptized, was it John’s baptism or another? I have never been able to reconcile John 3:22 with John 4:2 that seems to say Jesus did not baptize people – it seems very murky to me to draw a hard and fast conclusion that either Jesus himself baptized anyone (John’s gospel is the only one to mention it at all, and then confuses the point a few verses later), or that the disciples at the time of the institution of the Lord’s Super were baptized in any Christian sense. Maybe so, perhaps even likely, but the evidence seems slim to me to posit it was necessarily the case.

      Andrew: I don’t base my assertions on “in my opinion” because they happen to be what I already like, but base them on my study and interpretation of Scripture. That is why I laid the brief evidence from Scripture in my first comment, as I see it, for having a table open to those not yet baptized. I don’t find God’s word to be as clear on this point as you do.

      I can agree that John 1:35-42 would support the claim that certain of Jesus’ disciples had received the baptism of John, but I find it insufficient evidence to conclude that all 12 who were with him the night he was betrayed had been baptized.

      As to the situation in Corinth, Paul writes that “Christ did send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.” (1 Cor 1:17). He openly admits he baptized a handful of people there, and I am sure from his other writings and the testimony of Acts, he valued baptism immensely (Romans 6:3ff, for example). That is not the issue. Was the Lord’s table in Corinth such a mockery because so many were violating their baptisms? Or because people were partaking who had not been instructed and baptized? Arguments from silence don’t mean much, but for what its worth, Paul does not rebuke them on account of their weak follow-through on their baptismal promises. Is it assumed by Paul that 100% of his audience in Corinth is baptized so he doesn’t need to spell it out? Or is not a valid argument for Paul to make in that context because some are receiving it without having been baptized? It is clear that the Corinthian church practiced the gifts of the Holy Spirit that the NT describes as accompanying baptism – in fact he uses that argument in chapter 12 in discussing the gits that “we were all baptized into one body” (12:13), but that is in dealing with a different issue than the Lord’s Supper. Interesting that he applies the argument there but not in relation to communion.

      When Paul went to Ephesus (Acts 19), he finds people there who know only John’s baptism. Paul fixes the situation by “baptizing them in the name of the Lord Jesus” and they receive the Holy Spirit. This account, for example, begs the question, were these disciples (Luke’s word in Acts 19:1) participating in the Lord’s Table improperly up to that point? It makes no mention of their other worship practices, so one is left to speculate.

      What’s the difference between receiving the sacrament without being baptized at all and having been “baptized with the baptism of repentance” that is insufficient for Christian baptism? Was God’s grace reduced or not present in the sacrament as a result?

      Ultimately, I have no doubt that:

      1. The early church restricted the table to the baptized, and it may be likely that the NT era church did as well. Still it was work in progress, and I think it just as likely that people received communion without Christian baptism.

      2. I agree is preferable that those receive communion be baptized, but based on the Biblical witness as I read it, I have not yet concluded that such practice be mandatory. As a pastor, I can and do strongly urge anyone I know who receives but is not baptized to become a baptized believer.

  4. To me the question hinges on whether baptism is your basic sacrament of initiation. If it is, then it should be required before taking communion. If not, it would be wrong to restrict the table to the baptized. Determining whether baptism is such a sacrament requires a Biblically and historically minded search.

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