October 22, 2020

Jesus + The Paperwork

paperwork.jpgYou will have to forgive me. Being post-evangelical should mean that denominational follies no longer surprise me, but I guess I’ve just got a soft spot.

I was imagining a conversation. Two college students, Bob and George, discover their mutual Christian faith and begin a friendship. One evening, a sensitive matter comes up….

Bob: So what do you mean I couldn’t take communion at your church?
George: I mean that you aren’t in fellowship with us. You don’t believe what we believe.
Bob: What do I not believe that would keep me from sharing communion with you?
George: For one thing, you don’t believe that the Lord’s Supper is the actual receiving of the true body and blood of Jesus, and for another thing, you reject infant baptism. Besides that, you don’t agree to our confessions and you don’t submit to the authority of our pastors.
Bob: OK. So disagreeing with you over these issues means I can’t take the Lord’s Supper at your church?
George: Right.
Bob: Because….somehow not agreeing with you about infant baptism means I’m not a Christian?
George: No, I didn’t say that. Not at all. I believe you’re a Christian.
Bob: And validly baptized?
George: Acceptably baptized, yes.
Bob: I’m “in Christ,” so to speak.
George: Yes, as far as I can say.
Bob: You expect that I will be in heaven?
George: As far as I can tell, sure.
Bob: So Jesus died for me, I’m a Christian, I’m part of the body of Christ, I’m validly baptized, but I can’t have communion with you because….
George: Because you aren’t in communion…in fellowship…with our church.
Bob: So, as far as your church is concerned, I’m to be treated as if I am not a Christian.
George: No…I didn’t say that…
Bob: Would I have to be rebaptized if I joined your church?
George: Of course not.
Bob: But no communion…
George: Right.
Bob: Because I’m not in fellowship with you.
George: Right.
Bob: But I am in fellowship with Christ?
George: It’s not the same thing.
Bob: What’s not the same thing?
George: There are people in fellowship with Christ who are not in fellowship with a particular church.
Bob: So am I more “in fellowship with Christ” if I agree with you about infant baptism?
George: No…that’s not the point.
Bob: What is the point?
George: The point about what?
Bob: What’s the point of not allowing me to commune if I’m in fellowship with Christ and belong to Christ?
George: Because you aren’t confessing the true faith and you aren’t in fellowship with those who are.
Bob: But if I were, would I belong more to Christ than I do now?
George: It’s not the same thing.
Bob: So, to be in fellowship with your church requires more than it does to be in fellowship with Christ.
George: Yes, but that’s not like it sounds.
Bob: How does it sound?
George: It sounds like we’ve added to the Gospel, but we haven’t.
Bob: I didn’t say you added to the Gospel. I said that to be in fellowship with your church requires more than to be in fellowship with Christ.
George: But it’s not the same thing.
Bob: You said that.
George: And it doesn’t make you “more right” with God. It’s just the truth.
Bob: I’m all for you confessing the truth, and I’m all for churches having differences. It just seems hard to bar another Christian from communion if you believe Christ died for him, Christ accepts him, Christ makes him acceptable to God and to other Christians, and he’s a member of everything one belongs to by virtue of acceptance by Christ. It sounds like the door to your church is narrower than the door to the Kingdom. It’s like justification doesn’t extend past the church door. It has to be sola fide + confessional unity.
George: That sounds bad, but that’s misrepresenting what I mean.
Bob: How?
George: Because doctrine matters. It’s how we understand the Gospel. You can’t throw it all out in favor of a group hug.
Bob: I don’t care about the hug, I just don’t get turning someone away from the table of the Lord over matters that clearly aren’t the Gospel.
George: How can you and I commune if I believe Christ is present in the elements and you don’t?
Bob: It wouldn’t be a problem for me, but that’s the nature of my beliefs. I see where it would be distressing for you. I don’t like being members of the same denomination or even local church as people who vote for pro-choice Democrats and want to ordain women. But those matters aren’t part of having fellowship with Christ and being in Christ. I can’t imagine Biblically demonstrating that God requires a unified confession on all doctrines before sharing communion. But it’s not my place to tell you how to practice communion. Accept or refuse whomever you choose. You have to answer to the Lord just as I do.
George: Unity matters. You’re saying that unity is in our basic faith in Jesus and after that, it’s just separating us needlessly.
Bob: I see how that’s how my view sounds, but I’m simply contending that for sola fide to mean anything consistent, I can’t refuse to commune with someone over something less than faith in Christ. I could set up test cases to separate me from everyone if I wanted to, just as long as I said “unity” was important. Unity isn’t faith. Faith in Christ alone is faith.
George: I’m not denying that.
Bob: CHIPS!!!
George: Just don’t say I said you weren’t a Christian, because I didn’t.
Bob: Ok. But I’m still not sharing any chips with you until we’re in unity on all matters that matter to me. So get your own.

Point: I don’t care where I am allowed or not allowed to share the Lord’s Table. The other man’s conscience is his own affair, not mine and freedom to pursue that conscience is crucial to all of us. But when you say I can’t come to the Lord’s Table with you, but you say I am in Christ, belong to Christ, am justified by Christ, etc., just go ahead and own up to the fact that something other than Christ himself must create the kind of “rightness” that you require, namely “unity.”

As Bob says, I could separate from every Christian on earth by insisting on “unity.”

If I refuse you at the table, I have no reasonable way to say you are a Christian. I have to say that my requirements exceed those of Jesus. It’s Jesus + the paperwork.


  1. That is SO GOOD! I have had very similar internal dialogues about this issue and actually said as much to some of the EO and RC sisters I’m in “online fellowship” with. We end up just having to table the whole issue because it gets too hot.

  2. You threw me off with the “CHIPS!” near the end. Clever way to end your imaginary discussion.

    I can see where it would be more truthful (and less painful ultimately) for George types to just blurt out, “You aren’t in Christ because you aren’t with US!” Either be logically consistent and excluding or let us commune with you.

  3. Michael, I laughed out loud several times reading this. So very well written, and quite ironically, right in line with a discussion that’s been taking place on my blog. So, the timing of this was quite wonderful. I will be linking to it shortly as part of the discussion over at my place.

    steve 🙂

  4. I was in the National Cathedral in Washington with my mom, as a tourist, and there happened to be an Eastern Orthodox service going on in one of the smaller chapels. My mother was enchanted, and looking in, saw that they were having communion. She said we should go in and take communion, sort of as part of our visit to the cathedral. I absolutely objected, but my mom was disappointed, called me a ‘stick-in-the-mud’, and argued that as she’d been baptized she could take communion with anyone if she liked. She viewed baptism as kind of an EZ Pass to any and all religious activities she might care to sample. Admittedly, I don’t think they’d check ID. I thought it would be disrespectful, and so we didn’t do it, but my mother was quite put out that she had been deprived of the experience of receiving communion from that impressive bearded Orthdox priest.

  5. This is good Michael. A version of this conversation has played out a million times, I guess. Your logic is right, IMO.

    I would point to one kind of exception. I do believe that there are those who take very seriously the warnings concerning approaching the Lord’s Table (1 Cor 11:27). If someone is not a member of your church then you have no authority or avenue of saying “have you put your faith in Christ?”, “are you depending on Christ alone for your salvation?”. Church membership gives the avenue to ask these questions and (in theory) help erring brothers and sisters find their way back. So if people are there who are not members, they haven’t been asked these questions and may very well be non-believers who want to play along. Some church leaders who feel that a great responsibility comes with communing others say the risk of this is too great and so the membership requirement is the answer.

    I know that you already know all of this. I also know that this line of thinking may only account of 5% of closed communions. But, nevertheless, I think it is a valid point and wanted to throw it out here.

    Brian Coffey

  6. …but my mother was quite put out that she had been deprived of the experience of receiving communion from that impressive bearded Orthdox priest.

    I think that that demonstrates the point that the straw man failed to make above.

  7. Hmm. Who do you have in mind, here? 😉

    One problem is that pretty much every Christian confession, if taken at face value, “unchurches” those who disagree with it. The need to confess the Gospel clearly is in tension with the need to acknowledge that many Christians are in what the RCs might call “imperfect communion” with the truth as our confession understands it.

    I think there are two separate issues here:

    i. Altar fellowship with those who are in doctrinal disagreement with us.

    ii. Admitting to the altar those who are in public, visible denial of what we believe is going on at the altar.

    On the first, I am more sympathetic towards your argument, though I still tend to agree with the Roman Catholic Catechism when it argues that a shared altar should be the goal of ecumenism rather than its start-point, and that broken communion fellowship brings us face to face with the seriousness of the divisions that most certainly do exist within the Body of Christ.

    As to the second, there is a pastoral issue here. The pastor and elders of a church have responsibility for the spiritual health of those who commune at that church’s altar. For Lutherans, the Lord’s Supper is the body and blood of Christ, in, with and under the forms of bread and wine. If you deny that, you are not simply denying some aspect of the mechanics of the Lord’s Supper, from our perspective you are denying the thing itself. The pastor says, “Receive the true body of our Lord Jesus Christ”, and while you accept it from his hand, you don’t believe what he is saying about it. From a pastoral point of view, I don’t want to be asking people to affirm at the altar things they don’t believe, turning them into hypocrites or even of “eating unworthily” (i.e. without faith in what is affirmed there).

    Of course, this immediately gets us back into the question of what the Lord’s Supper is, and what the essence of the Supper is, but that takes us into real issues of substance, and some way away from a simple dichotomy of narrow, restrictive George vs simple, Jesus-believing, open, tolerant Bob.

  8. Your point is well made, Monk. Unfortunately RCs and EOs don’t have a corner on this type of exclusivity. You cannot join a Southern Baptist church if you’ve been baptized in any church outside their SBC umbrella, unless you get rebaptized. Even if you were baptized by immersion as an adult in a Baptist tradition, just not a Southern Baptist tradition!

  9. Out of interest, do you agree with the practice in many Episcopal churches of what one might call “wide-open communion”, where the Table is open not only not only to all the baptised, but to the unbaptised and to members of different religions or of no religion at all.

    I’m not setting this as a trap to bring the wolves of Truly Reformed-ism (and Truly Lutheranism) down upon you, just out of interest as to where the line is to be drawn (not that I think “drawing of line” is always the right way to think of this, as opposed to “defining the centre”).

    Also, and again this is prompted more by your latest BHT posts than by this IM post, would you say it is fair to suggest that Baptists have been more guilty of hedging baptism round with “paperwork” than those of other confessions? It’s just that I agree entirely with your comments about people being baptised immediately in Acts. (Of course, it is not only Baptists that have practised a catechumenal system).

  10. I agree with you in esence but what is problematic is where we draw the line. Many today are advocating allowing anyone at the communion table…no questions asked about anything. This allows non-Chrisitans to partake in the comunion to which to me is in the realm of abomniable to Christ’s Body and Blood.
    So, how do we separate the Christians from the non-…when it comes to the communon table?

  11. 2 things:

    1. I know there has been discussion lately on “tiered doctrine”, that perhaps there are things that are worth discussion and debate but not worth dissassociation or disfellowship. I think communion is one of those “third tier” doctrines.

    2. BKC and John – While I understand your points, I don’t think I could refuse communion to anyone seeking it. Can (and do) I mourn for those in my church who I know are taking communion with sin in thier lives? Yes! Is it my responsibility to help guide those in my church to right living under God? Yes. But I don’t feel refusing communion is the way to do so. History has shown us that where people have been openly refused communion, the reaction has been to simply leave and find a church that doesn’t condemn whatever sin they are caught up in. I care too much about those in my care to do something that would simply drive them away from Truth.

  12. I read this and tended to disagree with it. I think some of what is going on is a difference in understanding about communion. So lets take communion out as the isssue.

    From your dialogue:
    Bob: It just seems hard to bar another Christian from communion if you believe Christ died for him, Christ accepts him, Christ makes him acceptable to God and to other Christians, and he’s a member of everything one belongs to by virtue of acceptance by Christ. It sounds like the door to your church is narrower than the door to the Kingdom.

    This could be rewritten to match a lot of other issues. “It just seems hard to bar another Christian from voting on issues in your Church if you believe Christ died for him, Christ accepts him, Christ makes him acceptable to God and to other Christians, and he’s a member of everything one belongs to by virtue of acceptance by Christ. It sounds like the door to your church is narrower than the door to the Kingdom.”

    Or “It just seems hard to bar another Christian from teaching a Sunday School class if you believe Christ died for him…” or “It just seems hard to bar another Christian from speaking from your pulpit if you believe Christ died for him…”

    I guess you could use the same form of question to interrogate all barriers that Churches errect. It starts to lose its punch though, when you realise that the pastoral letters account for the possibility that the requirements for being in an office in the local church (deacon, elder, etc) are indeed higher than just being in Christ. Even Jesus’ advice about corporate discipline in Matt 18 does not (to me at any rate) say that those who refuse to be subject to the Church are therefore outside of Christ. That is thankfully not for us to judge. And yet, yes, sometimes the door to the Church is rightfully and biblically narrower than the door to the kingdom. You can be in communion with Christ and out of communion with a particular part of the Body.

    Which brings us circling back around to communion. If you see communion as the most basic act of the Christian liturgy – simply the reminder of Christ’s death for us – it does seem a little silly to refuse to allow fellow believers to participate. Obviously the character of George does not so understand communion. And despite George’s refusal to bring it up, what they’re really arguing about is the nature/purpose, etc of communion.

    I can’t really speak for George’s theological understanding of communion, but I can speak for my own. My tradition (Anabaptist/Brethren) historically practices communion only twice a year. It is the high point of an entire weekend in which first there is an “examination service” – a preaching service on friday exhorting the members of the congregation to examine their relationships to find the sins and grievances which may exist. Confession is encouraged and historically the elders of a church might use this time to resolve conflicts betweeen members. On Saturday the congregation gathers again for the “Love-feast”: a simple passover style meal, followed by footwashing and the reading of the Passion accounts in the Gospels. After everyone has eaten and feet have been washed, a communal cup is passed around and strips of unleavened bread are broken between the congregants.

    This practice takes its emphasis from the Corinthian accounts of the Church coming together, from the Last Supper description in the Gospel, even from Jesus’ comments about coming to the Temple and discovering a fault between yourself and another brother. I don’t insist that it is the correct theological understanding of the place of communion in the life of the Church. But, for Bob to observe that from his point of view, being excluded from my communion service imperils the Solas and draws into question Justification is nothing more than a reinforcement of the fact that we have different points of view!

    With that very large quibble out of the way… I don’t really object to the dialogue. I think it’s important that we consider not just how we understand our own theology but how others understand and perceive it as well. It also brings attention to the issue (the division of the Body) that I think most Christians just take for granted as the normal state of affairs. The few times I have taken Communion in some context other than my Church it has been a powerful reminder of the ultimate unity of all those who confess the same Lord – even when we differ on creeds and popes and baptism and sacraments… Yet still there is ony one Body, one Spirit, one Faith… If we are in Christ than someday we will all be eating at the same table…

  13. >….where the Table is open…

    I never advocated anyone else’s views nor did I endorse the heretical or apostate views of any “team” in the usual theological debates.

    There are commenters saying “How do we keep non-Christians away from the table?” What do you mean? I invite Christians to the table. Is someone inviting non-Christians to the table?

    Or are you asking “How much paperwork do I need before I feel it’s ok for them to come to the table?” Well that’s different. My tradition says Baptism. I tend to think that’s a good order, but I recognize there may be- in some situations- unbaptized believers who belong to Christ who might answer an invitation to the table. (I won’t list those situations, but they could be anything from nursing homes to the recently evangelized in unchurched areas and so on.)

    When someone says what about atheists, Hindus and non-Christians, I can’t quite understand the context in which you hold communion or what you are saying as an invitation to the table.

    I appreciate that this sounds like I am trying to play team sport theology, but I really have no interest in doing so.

  14. When I used to be an ordained Presbyterian minister I remember being taught about the Reformer’s practice of “fencing the table”. The elders of a church would actually stand around the table and allow only those approved to partake. The reasoning behind it was that they were protecting anyone unworthy from eating and drinking damnation unto themselves. The difference between this and that is that churches used to be tight-knit families where everyone knew everyone, and the elders knew the soul-condition of their members(or presumed to). Nowadays, church’s are less like that, and it is impossible to really know the people. I’m not for fencing, but is there a way to have an open table ALONG WITH the pastoral care of the people? thus spoke churchpundit!

  15. I started reading this and hearing Bud and Lou doing, “Who’s on First?”
    I go to a Reformed Church but we must be a lot more liberal than most. Yes we put a big emphasis on church membership but not to the point of denying the Lord’s Supper to someone. Our pastor does go thru a basis explanation of what the meal means and basically states that it’s up to each individual to understand whether they should take up the bread and the cup. If they aren’t sure we don’t look down on them in some way, but ask them to come and talk to one of the Elders after the service. We understand that there are visitors, guests, seekers who are Christians but not members of our church. We certainly aren’t going to deny them from participating with us.
    MetaPundit – We love to have preachers outside of our church fill in when the sr. pastor is out of town. And, if you had something relevant to teach I’m sure we could put a class together for you. But, you’re not going to vote on what our church is doing with the tithing that we invest in this particular House of God any more than you’d want me helping you decide what the salary of your pastors should be. Let’s keep things in perspective.

  16. My wife comes from an “exclusive Brethren” background in England with the result that her family will not break bread with us nor allow us to break bread with them. Before the fall of the iron curtain I joined my brother-in-law on a visit to a Brethren family in then-communist Slovakia. I was asked to sit at the table with the men in order to translate for my brother-in-law (the Slovaks spoke better German than English) but I was expressly told not to take of the bread and wine. This grated so much that I have not been back at a Lord’s Day meeting of the Brethren.
    On the other hand, knowing the R.C. position on Communion, and knowing that the policy promoted by the Archbishop of Vienna (C. Schoenborn who published an editorial on Evolution in the NYT last year) is that anyone is welcome to commune in his diocese who can without reservation pray the Eucharistic prayer of the mass, I am quite content to stay in my pew when attending a Catholic mass. For myself I feel that I can pray those prayers whole-heartedly; but realizing that I probably understand parts of the wording differently than the R.C. Church intends I understand their concerns and am willing to comply.

    I guess the reason for my different reaction is that I cannot for the life of me understand the Brethren’s reasoning for denying me communion, while I do understand the Catholics’.

  17. Rong>
    MetaPundit – We love to have preachers outside of our church fill in when the sr. pastor is out of town. And, if you had something relevant to teach I’m sure we could put a class together for you. But, you’re not going to vote on what our church is doing with the tithing that we invest in this particular House of God any more than you’d want me helping you decide what the salary of your pastors should be. Let’s keep things in perspective.

    My only point in listing other issues was to try to point out the the frame of the issue, the context, determines (or at least informs) the ethics. How you understand communion theologically (add ecclesially) determines whether you say that denying someone communion is like denying justification or like denying them voting privileges.

    FWIW, my current Church frequently has unaffiliated guests at our pulpit (the decision is left to the discretion of the leadership) and practices open communion: anybody who wants to come and claims Christ can come. Only members lead Sunday School classes (though I suspect you could have a guest speaker if you desired) and only members vote.

    I understand though, why a Catholic might not want me to accept communion. After all, I don’t believe it is the literal body of Christ, I don’t see it as an efficacious sacrament, I don’t recognise a priest as the only legitimately constituted authority to dispense the sacrament. I reject the Pope as authoritative over me in the Catholic sense (though I respect him as a learned theologian and Christian leader)… All those things are implied in accepting communion in the RC sense (please pardon my ignorance if I’ve gotten something wrong; my knowledge of catholicism is limited). But just because I don’t subscribe to those things certainly doesn’t mean that my hypothetical Catholic “George” thinks I’m going to hell. He just sees me as a fellow Christian in imperfect communion with the Church. And I’m OK with that if we can still be brothers in Christ… I’m just suggesting that the dialogue explains Bob’s “perspective” pretty well, but not George’s perspective.

  18. A Quick Thought says

    Internet Monk, for once I disagree with one of your postings! I think your dialogue buries the bigger issue–differences in doctrine of the Supper and Ecclesiology–under a seemingly simple “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along” surface. For example, as a non-Catholic (as of now, but most would consider me a fellow traveler), I have no desire to receive the Eucharistic Host or partake of the Precious Blood at Mass–until such time as I am truly in full communion with the Catholic Church, if that day ever comes. Don’t get me wrong; I LONG to receive Jesus (Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity) at the altar. But to do so right now would be to lie publicly about my relationship with the Catholic Church and proclaim a visible unity that simply does not exist. Here’s a question: When the priest holds up the Host and says, “THE Body of Christ,” can a Baptist in good faith respond with the required “Amen”=”So be it”=”I truly agree that you are offering me The Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, made present at the moment of Consecration in an inexplicable miracle”? Does a Baptist accept that receiving Jesus in the Eucharist grants grace, justification, sanctification, forgiveness of sins, salvation, and all the benefits of our Lord and Saviour Himself? Can a Baptist agree that this Eucharistic meal is a real and efficacious sacrifice–THE efficacious Paschal Sacrifice–and still remain a Baptist? Accepting the bread and wine at the altar from the hand of a Catholic priest or Eucharistic Minister is a public affirmation of all those beliefs, by virtue of the recipient’s “Amen”. If one is really Baptist in one’s view of the Supper (or Reformed; the Lutheran understanding is much, much closer to the RC), then I don’t see how such an affirmation would be possible without blatantly lying–in the commission of an otherwise holy act in the Lord’s house, on the Lord’s Day, in His very Presence, no less (see Paul’s admonition and stern warning). It would be like purposely bearing false witness while passing behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle in Moses’ day. God didn’t seem to look kindly on that type of thing in the O.T., and I don’t think He’s changed His mind. Conversely, I feel funny receiving at my in-laws’ Free Church because the pastor tells the congregation that the Supper is a memorial and a symbol that reminds us of what Jesus did for us so long ago, although he points out that it is a very special ‘ordinance’ because Jesus told us to do it, and that we ‘meet’ Jesus in a special–but purely spiritual–way at the Table. That is not what I believe, and I am not a member of that church anyway, so why would I want to publicly affirm that I am a part of that ‘communitas’. (I can maybe justify receiving in that case by equating the Free Church Communion with an Agape meal instead of an actual Eucharist, but perhaps that’s getting a bit too creative…) We might be in the same invisible church, but there is no unity between us in the Church visible. Hence, I excuse myself from partaking. Do Baptists or Free Churchers even have a doctrine of the Church visible? Is this the heart of the matter? Luther certainly did, as did Calvin. Or do Baptists think of divided denominationalism and schism as the normative mode of existence in the Body of Christ? I’m honestly curious, because I don’t know the answer to those questions…

  19. >I think your dialogue buries the bigger issue–differences in doctrine of the Supper and Ecclesiology–under a seemingly simple “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along” surface.

    I never made this post to state a complete ecclesiology or theology of the supper. I certainly am not saying “Let’s all just get along.” I would FAR PREFER that my friends who will not commune with me tell me that I am not a Christian. I am confused and insulted when I’m told I belong to Jesus, but I am not welcome at the “table of Jesus.”

    This post is simply an exercise in interpersonal relations, and the ironies that denominational team loyalties get us into.

    Jesus started a movement that bears witness to him and takes the message of the gospel across cultures. That’s my ecclesiology. I don’t believe Jesus started a denomination, and I believe all kinds of people from many denominations belong to Jesus. IF..IF…IF their loyalty to Jesus Christ can’t motivate them to find a way to recognize Christ in each other beyond differences in theological expression enough to share the Supper, then I think it would be better to simply say that to be consistent, exclusio from the table means I can’t consider you a Christian.

  20. A Quick Thought says

    Oh, and regarding the question, “Is someone inviting non-Christians to the Table?”, that would be a big “Yes.”

    I was in Boston for a conference a few years ago and attended a Lutheran (ELCA) church near my hotel. The female pastor invited “all people of good will, anywhere on your personal spiritual journey–whether Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, Wiccan, even Atheists or Agnostics looking for meaning in your life–to join us at this beautiful shared meal where we can all reflect and move forward on our own paths to the Divine.” That is a somewhat exact, minimally paraphrased, quote.

    Needless to say, I was shocked.

  21. A Quick Thought says

    Thanks for that explanation, Michael. I get your point better now.

    >>I would far prefer that my firends who will not commune with me tell me that I am not a Christian.

    But we, from our mere human perspective, CANNOT say that! To do so would be the height of presumption; I wouldn’t dream of saying that “people in denomination XXXXX” aren’t Christians. Only God can know and judge the heart. (I believe that there are true Christians/members of the Body of Christ in every denomination, FWIW.)

    I prefer the oft-quoted Eastern quip when thinking about this: It is easy to say where the Church is; but it is impossible to say where the Church *isn’t*. That works fine for me, but I guess different people of different temperaments and experiences will feel differently about closed Communion. I don’t feel like anyone is telling me I’m not a Christian if they don’t invite me to the Table. That’s OK by me, but I recognize better now that not everyone feels that way about it. 🙂

  22. Some here are commenting that they wouldn’t feel hurt by not being able to take the Lord’s Supper in (for example) RC churches, because they wouldn’t be comfortable with all that it signifies to the RC anyway.

    That’s fine to state that, but isn’t that different than what this post is talking about? I thought the point here was about people being refused, even though they confess Christ. If you don’t want to partake of the Lord’s Supper somewhere, based on your own convictions, that’s one thing. But telling another brother or sister that they are not permitted is another thing entirely, and one which I think is quite troublesome.

    steve 🙂

  23. Paul Timotheos says

    A reasonable interpretation of the words of Jesus regarding “binding and loosing” (as rabbinical language regarding matters of authority) and the writings of Paul about the Lord’s supper both allow for closed communion.

    The council of Jerusalem exercised it’s authority to bind and loose to settle the issue of what is acceptable food for gentile Christians. Paul excercised his authority to bind and loose when he told the church at Corinth to excommunicate one of it’s members. He exercised it again later when he told them to re-admit someone into their community. Paul also wrote about the consequences of receiving the body and blood of Jesus in an unworthy manner (1Cor11).

    Early christian history shows that closed communion was a common practice. The Eucharist was not available to non-Christians and it was not available for Christians who hadn’t been fully instructed in their faith. Catechumens left the community after readings from Scripture but before the prayers of the Eucharist. The period of instruction didn’t take just a day or a week or a month. It could last longer.

    I have trouble understanding why it would be appropriate for the early Christians to practice closed communion but inappropriate for us today. What has changed between now and then to lead us to think that the practice of closed communion is just “paper work”?

    My simple understanding is that closed communion has a double benefit. It protects the faith of those who believe and it protects the souls of those who don’t.

    Jesus either rose from the dead or He didn’t. If He didn’t, I totally agree with what Paul wrote in 1Cor15 and our faith is a sham. This is black and white.

    Jesus is either present in the consecrated bread and wine or He isn’t. Also, black and white. If He isn’t, then participation is out of obedience to His command to “do
    this in memory of me” and it doesn’t matter who participates, who doesn’t or how often. But if He isn’t, why the scary warning from Paul?

    The Eucharist is either the body and blood of our Savior or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then closed communion is insulting and devisive. If it is, then closed communion is a mercy for the unbeliever. How you see this issue depends on what you believe about the Eucharist. Whether or not you are a Christian doesn’t.


  24. This has been a nice discussion, but frankly, it’s about to head down the same rabbit hole that Christians have been down for 2000 years.

    If I can’t commune at the table of Jesus with you, even though I have faith in the REAL CHRIST and belong to the real Christ, then you are saying that there is more I must believe. I MUST believe your theology of the supper.

    I’m fine with that. Let’s just quit saying people who can’t come to the table really belong to Jesus.

  25. It’s good that you are pushing past the superficial irenicism of our day. I disagree but won’t belabor my points except to suggest that your argument is parallel to the one that sex + paperwork = marriage. What some call paperwork, I would call commitment, fidelity, obedience …

    Keep up the great work!

  26. I’ve heard and taken part in conversations very much like this on numerous occasions. For a while I tried to be George, but I was never to sure about it. Finally I just admitted Bob was right and gave up the fight for doctrinal purity. Anyway, you depict the 2 sides very well here. Thanks for that.

  27. Michael:

    This whole thing just came up recently. My best friend’s daughter is marrying a Roman Catholic. She is not RC, nor is anyone else on her side of the family. Mother of the groom asked Mother of the bride to join with her in the passing out of the communion (I’m not sure how this works in RC churches), but, of course, Mother of bride and bride, and all of bride’s family will be excluded from the actual TAKING of the communion. Mother of the bride refused to be a part of it, and even urged daughter to ask that this be left out of the ceremony altogether. Mother of groom was very put out, and long story short, talked groom into reinstating communion, just not involving Mother of bride. This has led to some hard feelings, but more just a “HUH?” type of reaction. I will be attending the wedding, and would absolutely not be tempted to join them, not because I’m not worthy or not in Christ, but because I would never join myself with the RC church on anything as important as the Lord’s Supper. I take it at home, or anytime I feel the need, and don’t wait until they’re doing it at church. You may take issue with that, but my point of this post is more just an illustration of the folly of RC church members.

  28. Michael,

    Long time listener, first time caller. Love your blog.
    Don’t Baptists do the same thing with baptism that conservative Lutherans, EOs and RCs do with communion? I grew up in SBC churches, and in my experience (and I think it is standard procedure for Baptists of any stripe) they re-baptize people who join from other churches that have been baptized as infants.
    For example, a friend of my brother’s is a christian and was raised by Methodist missionaries. He decided that he really liked the preaching, bible study and fellowship at my brother’s Baptist church and told them he was considering joining. He was then told that if he joined he would need to be re-baptized since the only time he had been baptized before was as an infant. He was aghast at the idea as in his mind this was akin to saying that he and all Methodists weren’t real christians. As a result, he decided not to join.
    This is usually the case for all who belong to churches that practice infant baptism. So when you say “let’s just quit saying people who can’t come to the table really belong to Jesus,” padeobaptists will certainly come back with the line for Baptists “let’s just quit saying that people who we re-baptism to join our churches came from real christian churches in the first place.”
    I think you are making the mistake of judging closed communion from a Baptist point of view of communion. Of course, padeobaptists do the same thing when the look at the Baptist practice of re-baptizing. Closed communion makes about as much sense from a Baptist point of view as re-baptism does from a Lutheran point of view. In the end, I think we need to look at practices like closed communion and re-baptism from within the framework of theology that they came out of and not our own.


  29. This was a great post and many wonderful comments as well. I guess what I find so interesting about this topic, is that in reality George, having most likely only receving infant baptism would not be allowed to commune in Bob’s church either and the discussion would end being very similar to the one that is portrayed here.

    I’ve belonged to several churches over the years, and am currently an Elder at a Christian Missionary Alliance church. While we hold strongly to The Lords Table being something for Christians only, we allow visitors to commune with us without checking their baptismal credentials at the door. Granted, some people will certainly not have accepted Christ who take communion, but is that really an issue for the church or for those individuals?

    It could very well be that taking communion outside of a fellowship with Christ could actually start the process of convicting the unbeliever of their separation from our Lord and move them towards accepting who He is, and accepting Him as Lord and Savior of their lives. This is not a doctrinal stance on communion from my denomination, but this issue applies to any church, and I’m convinced that unbelievers are taking communion all over the world on any given Sunday, I’m just not so sure it is as abominable as we may think.

  30. Because Bob is baptised, George’s church considers him a member of the body of Christ, in “some sense”. This doesn’t mean he’ll necessarily end up in heaven. I think the sola fides idea that permeates Christian thought is what makes it so difficult for Bob to understand. What George should bring up is that even many members of his church “on paper” are not supposed to receive communion if they don’t meet special requirements. Bob, for instance, hasn’t confessed his sins to a priest, and for that reason alone he wouldn’t be able to receive communion at George’s church, and that rule applies to George too. In fact if George stopped believing in, say, infant baptism, he ought not go to communion anymore until he sorts out whether his church’s creed is the true faith. In both cases they are being treated the same. Membership in the church “on paper” is one of several requirements, and seen as only part of the whole it is easier to understand.

  31. Anyway, Michael, reading your latest comment, who said that really belonging to Jesus is all that is required to “come to the table”? You seem to think this is self-evident.

  32. I can assure you, Sam, that anyone’s refusal to commune with me doesn’t bother me in the least.

    And if my invitation for them to commune with me bothers them, I apologize in advance.

    And if there’s more to the Lord’s Table than belonging to Jesus, I don’t want to know what it is.

  33. “And if there’s more to the Lord’s Table than belonging to Jesus, I don’t want to know what it is.”

    A nice rhetorical flourish, but it kind of ends the conversation, doesn’t it?

    I appreciate your wanting to avoid contradictions, have all the cards on the table, etc. But have you fully taken into account that George is also not supposed to receive communion except under strict circumstances? Doesn’t that hint at a whole different idea of what a liturgical communion is or should be, from the bottom up?

    In other words the ritual that George’s church is trying to perform obviously bears little resemblence in its essential meaning and purpose to your idea of “the Lord’s Table”. You can’t assume that because they sometimes use the same words (“the Lord’s table”) to describe it that you are talking about the same thing. To then go and critique how they are going about that ritual based on your concept of what “the Lord’s table” should be is simply what logicians call an equivocation.

  34. Sam,

    I guess I’m missing the point. I realized about 35 years ago that Roman Catholics couldn’t commune with me nor me with them.

    I’ve lived with that just fine for all this time. I respect it. And I deeply disagree. Deeply.

    But I’m not camping in George’s backyard, sending him emails or, if he’s an RC blogger, leaving him comments.

    I’m writing posts and leaving it to people to work it out in their own lives.

    I’m the LAST person to insult the Lutheran or RC who can’t commune with me. And the fact that they condescendingly find some way to say I might be a Christian is appreciated. Seriously. We’re making progress.

  35. In a lighthearted way, I’m thinking, “Gah! There you go again!”

    This time its the word “commune.” I look it up here:


    It seems like you’re taking the 1st set of definitions (various forms of to be one with) and the 2nd set of definition (to receive the Eucharist) and concluding that because it is the same word that these two meanings are somehow irrevocably tied together.

    Well, sure there are doctrinal issues that separate us, just as there are probably issues that separate you from Christians you can celebrate a “communion” with.

    But I just want to make sure you don’t read too much into your not being able to receive the Eucharist with Catholics. It doesn’t mean we don’t think you are united with us in many profound and meaningful ways.

    Most Catholics (devout or not) are aware –painfully aware– of the symbolic separation that can be felt when a non-Catholic attends a mass. The fact that many Catholics don’t understand why this is necessary is one of the many failings in Catholic pedagogy over the last several decades.

    Now, I am **not** a theologian, but here’s one angle. Catholicism maintains a strong sense that the Tradition is greater than those who maintain it. Even a priest or a bishop is merely supposed to safeguard the liturgy, not to own it or make it into whatever they please. In a newer denomination, without a long-inherited liturgy, the thinking context for worship or communion is totally different. Protestants, to put it bluntly, are free to offer communion to whomever they please, while Catholics don’t have that option, because the Eucharist as a thing that is done is literally a part of the doctrinal content of revelation. I guess it goes back to Scripture+Tradition as opposed to just Scripture.

    But what I really want to say is that, understanding the Catholic meaning of receiving the Eucharist is different from the protestant notion, there’s no internal contradiction when we still say, yes you’re a Christian. Yes, you belong to Jesus.

  36. Sam,

    I appreciate your presentation of the Vatican II flavor of Catholic-Protestant relations. I’ve noted that the inability to partake in what is clearly the mystical high point of mass is a powerful attraction to most liturgically/sacramentally starved protestants.

    At one point I was impressed that I was a separated brother and that I was saved because it was no fault of my own that I was born into a schismatic church, but now that I’ve read the catechism and discovered that much the same thing is said for Muslims and atheists, I’m a bit less excited.

    Our basic problem is that I can delineate the difference between Jesus and the church, but I don’t believe a person can be true to the RC and articulate that difference. The distinction between Christ and the church is really all one needs to look at these days to see where the real fault line lies.

    I appreciate the dialog, and I know I’m accepted by many Catholics. When I attend mass, the local priest goes out of his way to speak of Christians of other faith traditions. The differences in our views of communion are the differences in our views of Jesus. That’s the real tragedy.

  37. Yes, we absolutely do not delineate the difference between Jesus and the Church, at least not in the way non-Catholics do. To sketch it very briefly:

    a) The Church is the body of Christ, and the body of Christ has its essential being in the Roman Catholic Church.

    b) What the Roman Catholic Church truly IS goes far beyond the temporal construct of RC baptismal records. To the extent that you are brought to God through Christ by grace, you are in some sense a part of the Church, whether you know it or not.

    c) The ambiguity in b) can only really be supported by dropping any idea of “once saved always saved”, and seeing the Church on Earth as a group of people who are in the process of being saved, or i.e. being incorporated into Christ. That process is complete when you are glorified in a heavenly body and not before.

    d) given the above 3, its simple to reconcile the apparent contradiction of post- and pre- Vatican II “flavors”. The Catholic sacraments are the intended path for salvation, but God can work outside of that plan. But when he does, successfully, the person affected ultimately becomes Catholic.

    Definitionally there’s the obvious difference between Jesus and Church, but for the Catholic there’s no separating the Church from the Revelation.

    Are we off topic yet?

  38. I slogged through a lot to get here. Some folks are really on track (JohnH, ??Paul, others…) When two Trinitarian brothers discuss their Trinitarian faith, should we be surprised that the sacraments might be the key divide? They not only represent Christ’s gospel, they also represent someone’s authority — we all say it’s in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and that’s why we believe in the communion of the saints. But coming to the table and font has to mean membership with a body of believers and a commitment to discipleship (OK, when a guest attends our church, we fence by saying this meal is for believers who have marked out their discipleship through baptism and faithful participation in a Christian church — I’ll even make it a REAL altar call and say, “If you want to receive Christ and get baptized, you’re welcome too!!”) But no one is going to get tackled by an elder for not passing the litmus test. Just listen to the fencing. (BTW, this opens the door to other communion issues as to the age one is able to receive… did anyone even go there yet? Or will that divide us more?) I understand why a RC wouldn’t want our simply sanctified “bread and wine” when he (if he truly believes his dogma) NEEDS the actual body and blood of Christ. If he’s a guest, and he comes forward, he’ll still hear, “the body & blood of Christ for you.” On the whole, I appreciate the conversation — this brings a whole new meaning to Evangelicals and Catholics drinking together! But I do believe the sacraments represent something very important to the church — so much so that I won’t substitute them for chips and coke.