Thursday, February 28, 2013

Can non-members take Communion?

…And should they?

I was recently asked by a fellow pastor for my opinion on this topic. He commented (regarding our denomination's polity about who may be admitted to the table of the Lord's Supper), "BCO 58.4 offers us the option of inviting members of a gospel-believing church to participate in the Supper or the option of closed communion. After fencing the table do the elders have a further responsibility to withhold the sacrament from people they know are not members anywhere? Why or why not?"

This is a GREAT question. What do we do with people who have never bothered to join the local church? Should they be permitted to take Communion?

Here's what I said: The BCO structures it the way it does so that Sessions will have the option of choosing for themselves, according to their own convictions (or one could say, so that Sessions would be FORCED to choose for themselves). Most PCA churches have opted (actively or passively) for open Communion, though even this takes different forms.

In my own practice, I almost always say something to the effect of, "this Sacrament is not only for members of ___ church, but for all believers in Christ. Therefore, if you are a member in good standing of a Bible-believing church, we bid you to come and dine."

Now, in my previous congregation, this declaration actually was used of the Holy Spirit to bring conviction to one regular attender's heart, who was not a member anywhere. She came and asked whether she could, in good conscience, take the Sacrament — and I told her that I didn't see any reason why she couldn't/shouldn't join the church and soothe her conscience! So she did, before the next time we served Communion (which we did monthly there).

I know that many will argue that 1 Corinthians 11's warnings about "discerning the body" are the basis by which we should demand an active profession of faith from communicants, i.e., why we shouldn't offer paedocommunion, etc. However, the best exegesis I've seen on that passage actually takes it another direction (based, at least in part, on context): that it isn't about discerning the body of Christ in the elements — understanding His sacrifice on our behalf — as much as discerning the body of Christ in the communion of the saints. In other words, when we take Communion without a clear awareness of the local church and its life together, we are in danger of eating and drinking judgment on ourselves.

Thus, I believe that Elders DO have a responsibility, when the know people are not members, to urge them to rectify that (by offering a profession of faith for membership) in order to protect them from judgment. This serves them well, too, in that their profession of faith is tested and verified by the local church, and not just a matter of their own opinion — and thus, they will know objectively that they are rightly partaking of the Sacrament that is clearly intended to be taken by those who are in union with Christ.

Beyond that, though, I wouldn't go further. The above would, on its face, be a good argument in favor of close or closed Communion, but I stop short of advocating that because:
  1. we inevitably have frequent visitors who are, indeed, members in good standing of a Bible-believing church — and we should rejoice in the fellowship that we share in Communion;
  2. we've generally done a very poor job (for several generations now) of teaching more comprehensively about the primacy and implications of church membership, and to get to the point where close Communion is appropriate (in light of the above) demands a better and more comprehensive high view of membership — both in our own congregations and in all/most others;
  3. the circumstance you describe — where Elders know for sure that there are people taking Communion who are not members anywhere — assumes a relationship between those people and the Elders, or at least one Elder; in which case, there is already the context for the sort of conversation I described to take place.

[That's the end of my response to my friend.]

How should we approach it, then? Are we to conclude that, because our culture has eschewed a high view of the local church, Paul's warnings no longer are in effect? No — but we should approach it more comprehensively, teaching the importance of the local church and the implications of membership (or lack of it). We should approach it more pastorally, exercising concern for "weaker brothers" who don't (yet) see the emphasis that Scripture places on the local church. And we should approach it relationally, working in an organic way to come alongside one another to urge the vitality of healthy church life — and thereby avoiding the pitfalls of formalistic, legislative approaches to such problems.

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