Meditation on the Lord's Supper
by Roger S. Oldham
Baptists have historically identified baptism and the Lord's Supper as the two ordinances given by the Lord to symbolize the believer's union with Christ. Baptism commemorates our identification with Christ—a visual reminder of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus; the death of the old nature through the reception of God's saving grace through Jesus Christ; and the promise of our future hope when our mortal bodies will be raised incorruptibly for eternity.
The Lord's Supper reminds us of the means by which God's salvation was secured on our behalf. The unleavened bread is a symbol of the perfection of the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ in His body, soul, and spirit. The fruit of the vine symbolizes the substitutionary, propitiatory, and covenantal blood of an innocent sacrifice, shed for the remission of the sins of the guilty (Romans 3:21-26; Hebrews 2:5-17; 7:27-28; 9:26-28; 1 Peter 3:18).
The Lord's Supper, also called Communion, demonstrates the doctrine of substitution—Christ died for me (1 Corinthians 11:26). Baptism demonstrates the doctrine of identification—I died with Christ (Romans 6:3-4).
When Jesus identified the bread and the fruit of the vine as His body and His blood, He spoke typologically. The bread did not become His body; the fruit of the vine did not become His blood; rather, they represented the fullness of His sacrifice for those He came to redeem. How do we know?
First, the Lord's Supper has its origins in the Jewish Passover, a memorial event designed as a perennial reminder to the Jews of God's deliverance from bondage in Egypt. Jesus' command to receive the Lord's Supper "in remembrance of Me" establishes it as a memorial meal after the likeness of the Passover "type."
Second, the specificity of Jesus' language points to a symbolical understanding of the Lord's Supper. It is hard to imagine the disciples thinking that Jesus, while physically sitting in their presence, literally entered the bread and the fruit of the vine. He did not say, "This bread becomes My body." Sitting before His disciples in His pre-glorified incarnate state, He said, "This is My body . . . This is My blood." Though they did not fully understand what that moment meant until after the resurrection, they clearly understood the metaphorical nature of His language, much as they understood so many other metaphorical occurrences of biblical imagery (e.g., the Lord is . . . my Rock, my Shield, my Fortress, my Shepherd).
Though receiving the Lord's Supper is a symbolic act, it is nevertheless deeply meaningful. When Jesus' followers participate in the celebratory meal, their prayerful, introspective reflection demonstrates their desire for and commitment to a continuing lifestyle of deepening devotion, communion, unity, trust, obedience, gratitude, and service (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 21; 11:20-34).
The New Testament provides no blueprint for the frequency of participating in the Lord's Supper. It was instituted as part of an annual event (the Passover). The apostles speak of the breaking of bread (which many interpret as a reference to the Lord's Supper) as a daily act (Acts 2:46) and a weekly celebration on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Paul referred to the Lord's Supper in a timeless way (as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, 1 Corinthians 11:26). Regardless of the frequency with which a church celebrates the Lord's Supper, the meaning is the same—a time to remember anew the value and joy of Jesus' sacrifice for us, His redeemed children.
Baptists generally have agreed on the biblical insights concerning the Lord's Supper described in this brief essay, but they have expressed a number of differing perspectives on the proper recipients of the Lord's Supper within the worship experience of a particular local church. The following essays address three perspectives concerning who properly may be invited to participate in the Supper of the Lord.
A Journey from More to Less Open Communion
by Mark Coppenger
I met a girl in college whose preacher father had what I thought was the oddest practice. He limited participation in the Lord's Supper to members of his particular church. This meant that, though she was raised in that very church, she couldn't take part in communion when she was home at Christmas, for she had moved her letter to a church in her college town. Now, decades after my college years, I've come around to preferring that approach, not because I think it's the only licit approach, but because I think it's the optimal approach.
Let me explain how I've gotten here. As I child, I understood that "Christian baptism . . .[was] prerequisite . . . to the Lord's Supper," as the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) puts it. And it was a joy to join in my first communion after I'd become a baptized believer at age seven. Years later, as a pastor, I took pains to explain the meaning of the Lord's Supper before offering the elements, saying that it was for those who had received Jesus as Savior and Lord—and that, in itself, it had no power. I didn't stipulate that those who partook must have undergone believer's baptism by immersion, for that was the assumed order of things in our congregation.
But what of our visitors? What if they had undergone infant "baptism" instead? Well, first, I hoped that my description of what we were doing would lead those with a sacramental bent and a keen conscience to abstain. But, more than this, I was squeamish about pointedly excluding genuine believers in other Protestant traditions from joining us, however confused they might be on baptism.
Furthermore, the BF&M teaches that, "The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages." And it's reasonable to think that, for instance, such Anglicans as C. S. Lewis and William Wilberforce, whom we celebrate, would belong to that Body. And I thought it would almost seem churlish explicitly to "fence the table" from such as these should they, as visitors, wish to join in.
That being said, I believe that infant baptism is one of the gravest errors in church history, one that has caused untold mischief. It gives the recipient and his family the false impression that something spiritually significant has happened; and, it can serve as a sort of inoculation against genuine conversion in the future. And, I have to say, it makes the work of the apologist much more difficult as he tries to explain how supposed "Christians" from paedobaptist groups could have perpetrated the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the European Wars of Religion. In short, I think the Apostles would have been astonished and appalled that some would one day institute the practice of infant baptism.
With so much at stake, you don't want to err either way—whether suggesting that baptism differences are trivial or that non-Baptists are reprobate. It can be a tricky situation. Which is one reason that, in recent years, I've found comfort in a members-only Lord's Supper, held in a special service in the evening. That became the practice in our Illinois church plant. I have to give Cecil Sims, former executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention, some of the credit. He said they had a lot of people up there who liked to visit but never join, and this was one way to show the seriousness of membership. And in our Chicago setting, I was struck by the way some perennial visitors pressed me to hold the Lord's Supper more frequently, as if it were some sort of ritual service available to the community at large.
So I graciously (I think) announced that we members would observe communion at an evening service, making it clear that this didn't mean the others weren't saved, but only that this was a distinctive observance for the fellowship of those who had signed our covenant of faith and mutual accountability.
We made it a real meal, with catered food from a Middle Eastern restaurant. And I have to say, the spirit was both somber and sweet, with the core of our congregation focused on the greatness of Christ's mercy. As we began, I asked them to recount their most memorable Lord's Supper, and one of the deacons simply observed, "None, until tonight."
A Short Defense of Close Communion
by Paul H. Chitwood
As I write this article, I am preparing to preach and serve the Lord's Supper at a church holding ten worship services each weekend on seven different campuses, in multiple languages, with combined attendance averaging more than 3,000 people. If that church practiced closed communion, which it does not, it might be pressing the limits beyond what would be acceptable to some who defend that practice. The diversity of the congregation's ethnicity, worship times, and physical locations has not, however, caused it to accept the arguments for open communion. Instead, the congregation has historically embraced the position of close communion, a position that I, too, have accepted.
Close communion—inviting baptized believers to participate—"fences the table," but not with proverbial barbed wire. Unlike the closed communion practice of limiting the Lord's Supper to members of a particular local church, close communion casts a broader net, welcoming to the table any who have repented of their sin, trusted in the atonement secured through the cross and resurrection, confessed Jesus as Lord, and submitted to scriptural baptism. Being a member in good standing of a church of like faith and practice is another qualifying mark typically stipulated.
The distinction between open and close communion is easy to make. Open communion invites anyone present, who claims to follow Jesus, to partake of the Supper. Though commonly practiced in churches of various denominations, open communion can be spiritually dangerous for a host of reasons. And, according to the Apostle Paul, the stakes are high. In his instructions concerning the Lord's Supper, he wrote, Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
Paul's admonition is more than a strict warning against missing the symbolism of the elements. In the broader context of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is obviously concerned about the self-centeredness, gluttony, and drunkenness that had come to characterize many of the Corinthian believers and their participation in the Supper. These sins, of which the Corinthians were not repenting, led Paul to alert them of God's impending judgment.
On other fundamental issues, open communion fails to offer the warning of 1 Corinthians 11. Believer's baptism is a good example. With baptism being the symbol of one's profession of faith and a clear command of Jesus, is not the rejection of it a sign of willful disobedience at the most basic level? Offering the Lord's Supper to the unbaptized is unwise at best; at worst, it leads them into temptation. Establishing scriptural baptism as one of the fences around the Lord's table seems non-negotiable and moves a church quickly away from the open communion position, drawing a closer circle around the table.
How tight must the circle be? With regard to New Testament exegesis, the argument for closed communion is an argument from silence. Nowhere in Scripture are churches told to refuse the Lord's Supper to believers visiting from sister churches. Admittedly, "policing" who participates in the Lord's Supper is easier to do when believers have the intimate knowledge of one another's lives that should characterize meaningful church membership. Yet, the emphasis in 1 Corinthians 11 is upon believers examining themselves as they come to the table (verses 28 and 31) rather than fellow church members determining who is worthy to partake.
Most close communion churches place the burden of responsibility upon the believer by outlining the basic requirements for participating in the Lord's Supper and then inviting those who meet the requirements to participate and asking others to abstain. Adding to those requirements the issue of membership in that local church is not scripturally warranted and would seem to harm the fellowship that members of churches of like faith and practice should be able to enjoy around the Lord's table.
The Lord's Supper is for believers striving to obey Scripture, symbolizing their absolute trust in the saving work of Jesus upon the cross. It can and should be enjoyed in the close fellowship of those who share in that obedience and trust.
A Case for Closed Communion
by John Floyd
A group of IMB missionaries were meeting in a mountain retreat center in Romania. The young missionary who had planned the opening worship service announced we would have a foot-washing service where each missionary would wash another's feet. He had a basin and towels prepared. It was a good experience for all.
He then said we would observe the Lord's Supper. Commenting on how much of a blessing the foot washing had been, I said I would need to be excused from the Lord's Supper because I felt this was a local church ordinance. Another missionary (a professor of New Testament in a local seminary) said he believed the same thing and would need to be excused as well. Our young missionary colleague expressed surprise that anyone would object and decided not to proceed with the observance of the Lord's Supper.
Several issues are involved in deciding who should participate in the Lord's table. One is the distinction between the church, the Kingdom, and the family of God. H. Boyce Taylor masterfully addressed this question in Chapter 9 of his book, Why Be A Baptist? He concluded that all believers of all ages in heaven and on earth are members of the family of God (Ephesians 3:15); the Kingdom of God includes all the saved on earth at any given time; and the church is a group of baptized believers in a particular place who have covenanted together to be a church. He wrote, "Men are born anew into the family of God and into the Kingdom of God: but they are baptized into a church of God."
Using the church of Corinth as an illustration, he wrote, "That local church at Corinth was the body of Christ at Corinth. The members of the church at Corinth belonged to only 'one body' of Christ. That body of Christ probably did not contain all the saved at Corinth . . . and none of the saved anywhere else except at Corinth. . . . [T]hey belonged to only 'one body' and that was the local church at Corinth. Christ has no other kind of church or body except a local church."
Another issue is when the church was founded. Some feel the church began on Pentecost, concluding that both the Lord's Supper and the Great Commission were given to each individual disciple, not to the church. However, as L. R. Scarborough wrote in an article published in The Baptist Standard, "It is certainly true that Christ in His own personal ministry established His church."
When Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, His disciples were present (except for Judas). They were the seminal church. It was from this group, baptized by John, that Jesus organized and founded the church; and it was to this church that He said, This do in remembrance of Me. His mother was not present, nor were others of His followers. There is no record of her being baptized. The Lord's Supper, from the moment of its institution, is a church ordinance.
Another issue is the purpose for which the Lord's Supper was instituted. The ordinance of baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. It is seen each time a person comes into the local church through baptism. One is not baptized into a denomination. Similarly, the ordinance of the Lord's Supper shows His death (For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes, 1 Corinthians 11:26), and the Lord leaves it up to the church to determine the frequency of its observance.
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 warned that the Lord's Supper was not be taken in an unworthy manner. No discipline could be directed to those who were not members of the church.
In reviewing the biblical evidence, this writer's conclusion is that the ordinance of the Lord's Supper is for the local church.
Roger S. Oldham is SBC Executive Committee vice president for convention communications and relations; Mark Coppenger is vice president for extension education and director of the Nashville extension center of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Paul Chitwood is executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention; John Floyd served as an IMB missionary, area director, and trustee, and was an administrator and professor of missions at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Each writer has also served as a pastor of Southern Baptist churches.