By Donald P. Ames
A problem that has a tendency to crop up every once in awhile is the effort to restrict those who are to be allowed to partake of the communion, or Lord’s Supper. Usually this is done with one of two approaches: (1) the concept of “closed communion,” or (2) challenging whether or not one deserves the right to partake (“worthy”).
“Closed communion,” as popularly practiced by denominationalism, carries with it two basic elements: (1) only faithful members in good standing are allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper, and (2) no visitors are to be included in that number (as there is obviously no way to determine if they are “faithful” and/or “in good standing”). One Baptist church manual I have in my library even points out it is the responsibility of the church to examine the individual to see if he is “ignorant and ungodly.”
The fallacy of such reasoning is not hard to point out. For example, when Paul tarried at Troas (Acts 20) to meet with the disciples who gathered together to “break bread,” he would not have been allowed to partake in such a church today, since he was not a member of the church at Troas. And just how “ignorant” can one be and still be allowed to partake? Could he be allowed to partake in a congregation where the average IQ was not as high as it might be in a university town – but then the barred in the university town for being too “ignorant”? Is a new convert “ignorant” compared to a member who has studied for 30-40 years? And just how “ungodly” does one have to be before the church decides that he is no longer “worthy” to partake? Might it not depend on who is doing the judging? What criteria do they use to deem him “ungodly” and unworthy to partake and still excuse themselves (and/or others) also guilty of sins and allow them to partake. Suppose someone is engaged in sins they are ignorant of, do they become guilty of participating in his ungodly activities by accepting him as “worthy” to partake?
Actually, there is nothing at all in the New Testament to support the concept of “closed communion.” Some would seek to justify the idea on the basis of 2 Corinthians 6:15-16, which is not even dealing with the Lord’s Supper. Others would attempt to justify it on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11:27 and the idea one must be “worthy” to Dartake. This is also a false concent.
Actually, though, the church is not the one charged to do the examining! Paul says, “Let a man examine himself” (1 Cor. 11:28). Nowhere has Christ turned over to any church, or any other group of men, the right to exclude or dictate who may be allowed (or not allowed) to fulfill the command Jesus left us individually to do when he said, “This do in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24). He did not say,.” Let the church examine a man.”‘ Paul said, “Let a man examine himself. ” The concept of “closed communion” is simply not found in the Bible!
Some, while recognizing “closed communion” is not taught in God’s word, attempt to do about the same thing by charging someone is not “worthy” to partake of the Lord’s Supper. So, they look over an individual, conclude he has done things he should not have (or may be even an individual that has been withdrawn from and simply keeps on coming), and conclude it is a mistake to even offer him the communion until he changes his way of living. The idea one must be “worthy” to partake does not die easily. It is a carry-over from Roman Catholicism, and again, it is not taught in the word of God either. Indeed, none of us was worthy of the death of Christ upon the cruel cross of Calvary. None of us is worthy of it today. If we had to be sinlessly perfect and so righteous we were worthy of such, there would have been no need for Christ to have come into this world to save us, or to shed his blood on the cross in our behalf. Our salvation would have been granted as a debt, and not by grace! (Eph. 2:8-9).
But the word in 1 Corinthians 11:29 is not worthy, but rather the word is worthily. The NKJV translates it “in an unworthy manner.” It is an adverb, describing how we are to partake -.not our condition in order to be allowed to partake. This distinction is a very important one to remember.
The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to bring us back to the death and suffering of Christ on the cross. Hence, we proclaim the Lord’s death (1 Cor. 11:26) when we partake of the Lord’s Supper “in memory of me.” Christ died on the cross for our sins, and does not want us to forget that sacrifice! Nor does he want us to forget all the suffering he went through for us in that death. That is why the bread is to remind us of his body, and the fruit of the vine of his blood shed for our sins. The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to focus all our attention on his death.
If we are not Christians, obviously the Lord’s Supper is not a “memorial” to us because we have not benefitted in the blessings his death made available for us – the remission of our sins. We are not any better for having partaken. (Does a Frenchman become an American simply because he joined.in shooting off fireworks on the 4th of July?) Nor are we actually any worse off (remember, if one is lost, be is not going to be “more lost?” by partaking of a memorial that does not affect him). True, such a one needs to be taught who the memorial was designed for, but sometimes some become almost paranoid if a non-Christian partakes, as if his participation is going , to cause him to be even more lost than he already is. Just teach him who it was designed for, and the issue will resolve itself.
If we are Christians, as we ponder what he went through to make salvation possible for us, it ought to humble us (“Who am I to deserve such love and suffering?”), and make us even more determined to live for him because of what he did in dying on the cross for us. Failure to meditate on such a purpose (i.e., if we regard it as a mere meal or a hindrance to getting home sooner) makes us as guilty of mocking (“making light of”) the death of Christ as were those who actually mocked him at his crucifixion (see Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-29 for the same attitude involved in those who would turn away from the cross and back to the ways of sin).
For th is cause, many among those at Corinth were weak and sick, and some asleep (i.e., dead spiritually). They had perverted the purpose of the Lord’s supper from a memorial of Christ’s death into a common meal, and had completely lost sight of its true purpose. They were not even thinking of what Christ had told them, what he went through for them, nor why this “memorial” had been left. In “making light of” its true purpose, they were not “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” – just as if they had joined those who made mockery of him on the cross. In this, they ate and drank “condemnation” upon themselves “not discerning the Lord’s body.” They had instead made it into an occasion of satisfying fleshly desires. Paul says such desires ought to be satisfied “at home,” and that they were not to corrupt the “memorial” of Christ by such! If they had in deed partaken of the Lord’s Supper for the purpose for which it was intended, just the opposite would have occurred. Instead of being weak, sick and some asleep; they would have been drawn closer to the Lord and more desirous of doing his will as a way of showing their appreciation for the wonderful sacrifice he made in their behalf.
Now, having said all that, let us reconsider the person who knows his life is not what it should be (or ought to know), and yet plans to go ahead and partake of the Lord’s Supper anyway. Should we rebuke him? Should we refuse to serve it to him? Or, should we encourage him to partake? I believe one who is openly being rebellious ought to be rebuked as any other sinner would be. Some, however, may be “pondering” the question; and others may just be waking up to the fact something is amiss (some sins are usually more “obvious” to everyone else than they are to the one engaged in them). Should we allow them to partake? Yes, they ought to be allowed, yea encouraged, to partake. As he thinks about the purpose of the Lord’s Supper, he ought to be indeed ashamed of what his life is, and how he has shown appreciation to Christ for the salvation and remission of sins be suffered and died to make available.
Failure to partake not, only pushes the purpose of the memorial even further from our minds (hence, we become “weak and sick and many asleep”), but it also gives the erring Christian a resigned sense of “being lost.” He is now tempted to “accept it” in that he has taken another step away from Christ and his love by turning his back on the very reminder Christ set up to focus his attention on that sacrifice. It now becomes a resigned sense of being lost, and he continues on his way with even less pangs of conscience to remind him, “it ought not to be this way.” In this sense, he now justifies himself even in not partaking, and continues to drift even further away with nothing to turn him back (if we fail also to do our part).
A Christian can not ponder the death and suffering Christ went through for us, and then feel comfortable in doing what is wrong daily in his life! Christ did not intend for us to feel such “comfort.” He did not want us to forget what he went through, what he suffered. In doing so, he knew it would also serve to deter us from the paths of sin. An erring Christian who partakes of the Lord’s Supper should indeed feel the “coals of fire” upon his head (Rom. 12:20), as he pauses to think what that memorial actually means. If we partake “in a worthy manner,” it will humble and rededicate us to the purposes of the Lord.
Let us always remember what Paul said, “Let a man examine himself.” He will have to answer to the Lord if he partakes, “making light of” that awful sacrifice Christ made in his behalf. On the other hand, by allowing him that right, maybe he will be brought to repentance and shame by pausing to ponder what that sacrifice really means. And isn’t that why Christ so designed it?
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 7, pp. 206
April 7, 1988