The Case for a Members-Only Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is a solemn topic that has been the focus of serious Christians for centuries. The Reformers in particular spent significant amounts of energy in the consideration of the ordinance. Professor Keith Mathison notes that “the sixteenth century was a time of heated controversy over such crucial doctrines as the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone, yet the doctrine that was discussed more often than any other was that of the Lord’s Supper.” Though believers may reach different conclusions regarding specific matters of the Lord’s Supper, no Christian can doubt the seriousness of the topic. Just as the ordinance, by its nature, is solemn, so too is the administration of the Lord’s Supper a solemn and sobering responsibility. Every minister of the gospel who would administer this ordinance must think carefully about how he is to do so.

In this post, I will be presenting the position that I believe to be most consistent with Scripture, the 1689 Confession, and some key points that appear in many Reformed Baptist church constitutions. It will also demonstrate why I believe this position has practical benefits which would be edifying to the church and non-members who attend the church services.

The 1689 Confession states that the Lord’s Supper is to only be “administered by those…who are qualified and thereunto called, according to the commission of Christ” (28.2). It is the “[church] officers appointed by Christ…and set apart by the church” who are specially tasked with the “peculiar administration of the ordinances” (1689, 26.8). It is indeed a weighty responsibility to invite others to partake in an ordinance which, if done in an “unworthy manner,” leads to participants being “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). It is because of this weightiness that ministers in the Reformed tradition have thought deeply and carefully about who should be able to partake of the Lord’s Supper. It is also because of this weightiness that a minister must do what he believes is honoring to the Lord, consistent with biblical truth, and most edifying for the congregation. For a minister to administer the Supper in a way which goes against his conscience would not be healthy or wise.

There are two main parts to my position. (1) Who should partake of the Lord’s Supper in a local church. And (2) how the table should practically be fenced. My position is as follows:

Who should partake? Only members of the local church in view may partake of the Lord’s Supper.

How should the table be fenced? The “fencing of the table” ought not to be a mere verbal fencing, but rather a practical fencing in which the officers of the church will only physically give the elements to members. (One way in which this could be done is by members coming forward to receive the elements.)

In what follows, I will seek to briefly defend this position and also point out its practical benefits.

A Local Church Ordinance

There is much that the Bible teaches regarding the Lord’s Supper. The scope of this short post will only allow me to highlight a few things that relate to the narrow focus I have in view. There are two things I want to note regarding the Scriptural teaching on the Lord’s Supper: (1) it is an ordinance of the local church and therefore (2) it is for members of a defined body (local congregation).

When Paul wrote about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians he was specifically writing “to the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). His instructions to the church about the Supper are given in the context of the local church in Corinth. Daniel Chamberlain elaborates:

Note the words to the Corinthian church describing their observance of the Lord’s Supper: when ye come together in the church…when ye come together into one place…when ye come together to eat (1 Corinthians 11:18, 20, 33). It is not for families to gather and take the Supper. Nor is it a community ordinance, in which the whole town is invited. Nor is it a private, individual ordinance, observed in solitude. Rather, churches—gathered assemblies of Jesus Christ—alone have the authority to administer this Supper.

The same is true of the ordinance of baptism. Only the New Testament church has the authority to administer either of these ordinances. Inasmuch as it would be out of order for us to baptize a person who was not committing himself to our assembly, so it would be out of order for us to serve the Lord’s Supper to one not already committed to our assembly.

The ordinance is therefore a local church ordinance. As such, it follows that it is for the local church (i.e., her members—after all, the membership is the local church). John Floyd explains:

Paul indicated the Lord’s Supper was to be celebrated as a church (1 Corinthians 11:18). It is important that the church should do so in a spirit of unity (1 Corinthians 11:17-22, 27). If visitors from other churches participate in the Lord’s Supper, there is no way to know if there is spiritual unity. Conversion, baptism, church membership and an orderly walk (2 Thessalonians 3:6) are the prerequisites for coming to the Lord’s table. As a church ordinance, it protects the church’s unity to restrict the Lord’s table to the members of the local church.

Further, Paul describes the partakers of the Lord’s Supper as one body (1 Corinthians 10:17). The terms body of Christ or one body in the New Testament always refer to a local church. A person can be a member of only one body or one congregation at a time. It is the Lord’s table (1 Corinthians 12:18). No amount of brotherly love, ecumenical spirit or political pressure should cause one to invite to His table those who have not complied with His requirements.

Some, interpreting the language of Paul, “So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28), suppose that each is to be the judge of his own qualifications, and that the church’s role is merely to spread the table for all who choose to participate. However, Paul is addressing the members of the church at Corinth, not an extended body. Paul praised the Corinthians as having kept the ordinances as they were given, but he warned that the Lord’s Supper was not to be taken in an unworthy manner. No discipline could be directed to those who were not members of the church.

In summary, the Bible teaches that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the local church meant for the members of that local church.

Confessional Considerations

The 1689 Confession affirms the biblical teaching that the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the local church when it states that the ordinances are to be administered in “a particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ” (26.8). Furthermore, the confession states that “the supper of the Lord Jesus was instituted by him…to be observed in his churches” (30.1). But it goes further than this. In stating the purposes of the Supper, it states that it is to be “a bond and pledge of [believers’] communion with [Christ], and with each other” (30.1). The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the local church, meant to be experienced in the local church, in order to affirm the bond of believers with each other in the local church. A more recent creed, the Baptist Faith and Message affirms this view:

The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming. (VII, emphasis added)

The Lord’s Supper is not an ordinance for the universal church, but the local church. This aligns with Paul’s teaching that the (local) Corinthian church was to put out one of their members—they could not put this man out of the universal church, but only the earthly expression of that reality (i.e., the local church). Because the 1689 Confession affirms that this ordinance is a local church ordinance, we must understand its other statements about the Supper in light of this. The confession makes it clear that church officers are responsible for administering the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Part of this responsibility includes deciding who may partake of the ordinance. This is clear because the confession states that the church officers are not to admit (allow to participate) certain people (namely, “all ignorant and ungodly persons”) (30.8). The full paragraph reads as follows (emphasis added):

All ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Christ, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table, and cannot, without great sin against him, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, nor be admitted thereunto; yea, whosoever shall receive unworthily, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, eating and drinking judgment to themselves. (2 Co 6:14-15; Co 11:29; Mat 7:6) (1689, 30.8)

According to the confession, the minister is to “give [the elements] to the communicants” (30.3). This giving however must be done discriminately, as is clear from the previously referred to qualification that certain people are not to be admitted to the table. (This is one of the reasons that simply giving a verbal warning and then passing the elements out to a mixed group of believers and unbelievers does not allow a minister to follow the letter or spirit of the confession in preventing certain people from being admitted to the table.)

It is interesting to note that the confession rejects the Roman Catholic practice of denying part of the ordinance (“the denial of the cup to the people”) (30.4). However, this must not be understood to mean that the ministers are not allowed to deny certain people from partaking of the ordinance because the section on not allowing the ungodly to partake is found just four paragraphs later. Rather, the idea is that the ordinance must not be denied to worthy receivers (i.e., members of the church).

What does the confession mean by “ignorant and ungodly persons”? I believe it is referring to unbelievers. This phrase is not referring to a narrow group of overtly wicked people, or even excommunicated church members. It is referring to all unbelievers. All unbelievers are ignorant of the truth and ungodly in their conduct and character (cf. Ephesians 4:17-19). All unbelievers are thus unfit to enjoy communion with Christ and unworthy to partake of the ordinance.

Let’s summarize what the confession teaches:

  1. The ordinance of the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the local church
  2. The minister is to give the elements to a certain group of people
  3. The minister is to refrain from giving the elements to another group of people
  4. Unbelievers are not to be given the elements

Many biblical churches affirm that only believers are to partake of the ordinance. Many will even affirm that the ordinance is for the local church and only believers who are members of a local church should partake. However, this is where many of them stop. A verbal warning may be given, but there is no true guarding of the table—anyone in attendance is essentially admitted to the Lord’s Table. But in order to follow the confession, the minister would have to decide who is to be admitted and who is not to be admitted.

The local church is the context in which believers and unbelievers are recognized and affirmed (via baptism and excommunication, respectively). Therefore, it is fitting for a local church to honor and validate those recognitions as it relates to the Lord’s Supper. If baptism is to be the entrance into church membership and baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper (as the Baptist Faith and Message argues), then it follows that church membership in a local church is required for admittance to the Lord’s Supper in said local church. Many Americans, however, believe that every individual Christian should have the right to enter any local church and partake of the Lord’s Supper. This individualistic approach may be popular, but that does not necessarily make it biblical, confessional, or helpful. Pastor and professor R. Scott Clark notes:

The American assumption tends to be individualistic, that the Supper is primarily a private or personal matter between the communicant and his God. This assumption is grounded in the history of Pietism, which emphasized the personal and individual aspects of faith. American evangelicals tend to be influenced by the low-church tradition that de-emphasizes the visible, institutional church…

If a local church adopts the individualistic spirit of the age, it is nigh impossible to guard the Lord’s Table in any meaningful way. Conversely, the practice of carefully screening who might partake in the Lord’s Supper has a rich history in the Reformed tradition. The Synod of Middelburg (1581) made the following affirmation:

No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except one who, according to the custom of the church which he joins, has made confession of the Reformed religion, who has testimony of godly behavior, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

This statement tells us at least two things: (1) the baseline assumption was that members of the local church would be admitted to the Table, and (2) if non-members (visitors from other churches, etc.) were to be admitted, they had to essentially be members of a Reformed church. This statement also affirms that the elements of the Lord’s Supper were not simply distributed indiscriminately to the assembly. Again, there was a discrimination in admitting people to the Table.

The church order of Utrecht states that “those who come from other places and want to be admitted to the table of the Lord shall first present a proper certificate of their earlier way of life to the pastor of the place where they desire to be admitted.” Again, this language only makes sense if the minister/church is deciding who to admit and who not to admit to the Lord’s Supper. It makes little sense to discuss who “may be admitted” to the Table in a local church where the elements are passed out to everyone, and the people are then free to decide if they are “admitted” to the Table. Professor Clark comments, “there may be real wisdom in the old Reformed and Presbyterian practice of a certificate of membership or a token.”

In summary, I believe the position of admitting only members to the Lord’s Table in a local church is consistent with the 1689 Confession and other Reformed documents from the past. However, there are also very practical benefits for the position I am advocating. It is to these benefits that we will now turn our attention. 

Practical Benefits

While it is possible that some people may be offended by not being able to be admitted to the Table, the main concern must not be pleasing others, but being faithful and biblical. Be that as it may, as Professor Clark notes, many unbelievers will understand the exclusive nature of the church (and therefore the Lord’s Supper). Professor Clark: “In my experience people without church backgrounds are not offended. They expect church to be religious and they expect a certain amount of order.” He continues:

The difficulty is with those Christians who assume autonomy relative to the visible, institutional church. There are those who profess faith but are united to no congregation or to a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church.

These Christians may assume they have a right to be admitted to any local church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper. Their assumptions, however, should not dictate the practice of a local church and her membership. The Lord’s Supper has an important place in the life of the local church. It is meant to demonstrate who is in fellowship together and who has been removed from said fellowship. Therefore, it is intimately linked to church membership. Many churches have a low view of church membership and therefore would not have a framework to accept a members-only Lord’s Supper. However, church membership is vital. One Reformed Baptist church’s website sums up the importance of church membership:

We take church membership very seriously. There is a difference between attending a church and being a member of a local church. We are commanded in Scripture to not only attend church (Hebrews 10:24, 25) but also to obey and submit to our pastors (Heb. 13:17). The pastors of a local church must give an account for the flock they shepherd, which implies they must know who their sheep are (Heb. 13:17). And those who are living in sin are to be disciplined by the church and eventually removed from the church if they do not repent (Mt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5). All of these truths demand church membership.

A former director of the Northwest Baptist Convention noted that a members-only Lord’s Supper “was one way to show the seriousness of membership.”

Many Reformed Baptist church constitutions will state that one of the privileges of church membership is “participation in the Lord’s Supper.” They will also note something along lines of: “if someone is under church discipline the elders will be sure that said person not be admitted to the Lord’s Table.” My contention is that without adopting a members-only Lord’s Supper, the doctrine of church membership suffers and such statements in church constitutions lose much of their practical meaning. Let’s consider why this is the case by asking two questions.

First, if anyone coming off the street can partake of the Lord’s Supper (even if the minister encourages them not to), how is partaking of the Lord’s Supper a privilege of church membership? In nearly all assemblies, there is a mixed group of non-members attending the church service. Several of whom are non-members who will participate in the Lord’s Supper if the only fencing is a “verbal” fencing. Many of these non-members may be true believers, but they have not been formally recognized as such in the context of the local church. It is likely that some are unbelievers. In practice, these non-members may partake of the Lord’s Supper. Even the phrase given before the Supper that this ordinance is only for members or those “actively seeking church membership” is ambiguous and leaves much open to interpretation for non-members to decide if they should partake. (One Reformed Baptist church in California uses this phrase as well, but in a stricter sense—the non-members must be actively seeking membership in the local church they are taking the Lord’s Supper in, and they must therefore be endorsed by the elders.) In practice, the officers of churches who do not practice a members-only Lord’s Supper do not prevent non-members from taking the Lord’s Supper. Thus, in practice, partaking in the Lord’s Supper is not truly a privilege of church membership. Anyone may partake.

Second, if non-members are partaking in the Lord’s Supper, how would it make sense to prevent an excommunicated member from partaking in the Lord’s Supper? Perhaps one of the strongest practical reasons to adopt the position of this paper is that it upholds and gives practical weight to one of the more serious consequences of excommunication. Historically, biblical churches have understood that an excommunicated member could not partake of the Lord’s Supper. The fourth-century church father, Hilary, said, “If anyone has not committed sin for which he can rightly be put out of the congregation and be considered no Christian, he ought not stay away from the Sacrament.” Note first that the Lord’s Supper is in the context of the (local) congregation. It is presupposed that the person in view is part of that congregation. Next, it is also clear that if one is to be “put out of the congregation” (excommunication), he would not be allowed to partake of the ordinance. Thus, a discriminatory admitting to the Table is presupposed.

I believe that this is one of the linchpins of this position. An excommunicated member is to be treated as an outsider (“let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” Matthew 18:17). This does not mean we treat an excommunicated member with malevolence or disdain. It simply means that we treat him as someone outside the community of the local church. We do not formally recognize him as a brother; he is to be outside the local church’s membership and the privileges of said membership. If this is the consequence of being removed from the membership of the local church, then it does not make sense to admit outsiders to the table. In such a scenario, the outsider is basically in a position of immunity from any sort of formal accountability or recognition. Even if he were an unbeliever, living in open sin, we could not excommunicate him (because he isn’t part of the body). A closed communion of the sort I am arguing for does justice both to the Lord’s Supper as a privilege of church membership and to the loss of such a privilege in the case of excommunication. Daniel Chamberlain notes the connection between church discipline and the Lord’s Supper:

Each local church possesses…disciplinary authority over its members, and over its members only. Our church does not have oversight over the members of another church. Therefore we cannot invite to the Lord’s Supper those over whom we do not exercise oversight, and over whom we have no authority to discipline from the table if the need arises.

Closely guarding the Table in the manner I have suggested protects the ordinance, helps define and give shape to church membership, and maintains one of the most widely accepted consequences of excommunication (no admittance to the Lord’s Supper).

But there are other practical benefits. Let me briefly summarize two.

1. Removes the element of peer pressure

Peer pressure is not simply a phenomenon in grade school. People of all ages can be prone to go along with the crowd. Therefore, a practical benefit of a members-only communion is that it prevents non-members from taking the elements because “everyone else is.” When the elements are handed out for everyone, allowing each person to make their own decision, many people (perhaps especially younger ones) may feel a real sense of peer pressure to partake. If everyone around them is taking the bread and wine, they may fear looking different if they abstain. Thus, we may inadvertently be creating a situation where people feel pressured to eat and drink condemnation on themselves. If the table is fenced as I have suggested, these people will not experience such peer pressure and will not even be able to be tempted to partake in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner. Would it not be safer and wiser to remove this danger? Personally, I remember many times I participated in the Lord’s Supper as an unbeliever simply because everyone else was doing it.

2. It helps non-members (believers and unbelievers) understand church membership

Among other things, the ordinances are visual and tangible signs of spiritual realities. By restricting the Lord’s Supper to members, we are demonstrating something very significant about union with Christ. Namely, we are showing that the context in which such union is to occur is the communion of the saints in a local church. The gospel brings together a people—not simply a universal group (which it does!)—but also a specific group in a local church. None of this is to suggest that all non-members are not Christian. Such affirmations would be clear and poignant. At the same time, however, there is an exclusive nature to the local church. By practicing a members-only Lord’s Supper we will help people understand that exclusivity, perhaps even spurring them on to consider the importance of church membership. The goal would be for all non-members to (1) be converted to Christ if they are not already and (2) join the church as members. (If they cannot join this local assembly due to conscience issues, we would desire them to find another gospel church in which they can covenant as a member.)   

Conclusion

I believe a members-only Lord’s Supper is consistent with biblical teaching, confessionally sound, and practically edifying. It is my conviction that by explaining these important topics in a spirit of gentleness and understanding we will be able to help many people understand the importance of church membership and the Lord’s Supper.

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