I was recently told about a church service where, before communion was observed, a leader stood up and read from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 and stated that “anyone, sinner or Christian, can take communion because Christ opened it up to all.” So the question was posed to me… is that true? Who can participate in communion? Is it for everyone, just Christians, just specific church members?
Here was my answer:
I have never heard of the practice of serving communion to non-Christians. That’s what I’m assuming you mean by serving to “anyone, sinner or Christian.”
What we typically see in most churches is either something called closed communion or a practice sometimes called open communion. However, closed and open communion usually have to do with church membership, not whether or not you are a Christian.
Open communion usually means any Christian in attendance can observe communion. Closed communion usually means only members of that particular church can observe communion. Each local church will go about this differently.
At my local church, we practice what I call a semi-closed communion. Before we observe the communion meal, I fence the table and explain that communion is only for Christians because it is a remembrance of what Christ did on the cross for us and an anticipation of His coming again for His church. Communion gives Christians an opportunity to renew or profession of faith in Christ and our commitment to Christ and his people (our local church). I like to think of communion as a family meal. We gather around the table as a family and we enjoy each other’s company, fellowship and love. If a non-family member joins in, then it is no longer a family meal. There is no commonality. There is no mutual love for God. It can still be pleasant, but it’s not quite as intimate as a family gathering.
As harsh at is may sound, non-Christians have nothing to remember or look forward to as far as Jesus’ death and future return. They aren’t in the family (yet!) We invite them to stay and watch/observe, but we invite only Christians in good-standing with an evangelical church participate in communion. I’ve only had one or two people get upset at me for that, but most understand.
That being said, we do not have communion police. After the observance has been explained, we let each person to either partake or allow the elements to pass them by. We simply pray that they take this communion meal seriously. The only time we may be intentional in withholding communion from someone is if the individual has been excommunicated from the church by a the voting membership during a membership meeting. We’ve only had to do that twice, and it has not been an issue yet.
Now, I would like to address the text at hand. I’m not sure where this brother from the church us getting the idea of what can only be described as universal communion. It is certainly not this text in 1 Corinthians 11.
First of all, Paul is writing to the church. Throughout the entirety of the letter he makes distinctions between the church vs. non-Christians. He even says in verse 32: But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned ALONG WITH THE WORLD (emphasis mine.) So even in this passage he is making the distinction from Christians in the church and non-Christians outside the church.
However, the troubling warning from verses 27-32 is very serious, but for Christians; not so much non-Christians. The Corinthians were abusing the communion table. They were selfishly eating all the food (more than crackers, apparently.) They were not letting the poor and hungry get their portion. And they were getting drunk on the wine. What Paul is saying is that if Christians will not take communion with the necessary seriousness and with open sin in their hearts, then there will be consequences. He even goes as far as saying that some people are weak, ill and even have died from improper attitudes while taking communion.
So, in that respect, what most Christians (specifically Baptists) have always been taught is correct; a Christian should reserve some time of introspection, self-refection and confession of sin before observing communion. We take a time during the communion service for exactly that. It is quiet and awkward, but necessary.
In this instance, a robust statement of faith would be helpful. Many churches take a ambiguous approach to communion without making any firm theological distinctions. Our own Baptist Faith & Message 2000 is somewhat helpful. It says, “The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH, throughout partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.” So at least they said members of the church. Again, each church will have to decide whether that means an open communion to all Christians or only their own members.
The strongest Baptist language is found in the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, which is basically where most Baptist theology comes from. It says: “All ignorant and ungodly people are unfit to enjoy communion with Christ and are thus unworthy of the Lord’s Table. As long as they remain in this condition, they cannot partake of these holy mysteries or being admitted to the Lord’s Table without committing a great sin against Christ. All those who receive the supper unworthily are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, eating and drinking judgment on themselves.”