Sausage One: “Fencing” The Communion Table

My wife Caryn and I recently visited a large evangelical church in another city. As the worship leader transitioned into Communion, he gave a disclaimer which is so often heard in churches across the world: “This meal is for those who call Jesus Christ their Savior and Lord. If that is true of you, then you are invited to partake. Otherwise, please let the elements pass you by this morning.” Then, as the elements were being distributed, we sang these lyrics:

“Open wide the gates tonight…

Jesus come and flood my life with grace amazing”

This combination of lyric and practice seemed so discordant.

As I pondered the contradiction of “open wide” gates and a fence around the table, I wondered if “grace” which excludes people from our table can really be celebrated as “amazing?”

I believe that an honest Bible student will find that nowhere in Scripture are unbelievers commanded to be excluded from Communion. In fact, it is my assertion that excluding people from the Lord’s Table is actually a contradiction to the concept of grace the meal is intended to proclaim.

Now, I know that many would respond against my claim very passionately. Many understand The Bible to teach that the table is reserved for believers “with no unrepentant sin” only, and it is our responsibility to protect people from “eating damnation unto themselves.” These are certainly legitimate concerns. They come from a passage in First Corinthians, Chapter 11. So, let’s start with an honest examination of the biblical data. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 says:

“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”

The immediate passage context of this passage deals with the misuse of Communion. There seems to have been a problem in Corinth in that some people were getting drunk at the Communion table, while others were gluttonous, not waiting for their turn to eat. At the same time, the poor were excluded from the meal. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that Paul rebukes the Corinthians for the exclusion of certain people, but never for the inclusion of anyone.)

In response to the rabblerousing at worship, Paul gave the warning against partaking in an “unworthy manner,” following his warning with the instruction that “everyone” should therefore “examine themselves.” Many people have the misconception that the self-examination is meant to be aimed inward – that Paul is instructing each to examine one’s own worthiness in order to receive the body of Christ. They then ascribe criteria foreign to the passage context such as being a “professing believer,” having no “unrepentant sin,” or even participating in “regular church attendance” as rules of examination. However,this is not at all what Paul is instructing. In this context, the subject of examination is not the worthiness of one’s soul, but the worthiness of one’s actions.

The Greek word translated in the NIV as “in an unworthy manner,” is an adverb meaning “unworthily.” As an adverb, this word must agree with a verb. Therefore, this adverb modifies the verbs “eats” and “drinks,” not “everyone,” since “everyone” is a noun, and adverbs do not modify nouns! This means that the warning pertains to unworthy eating and drinking, not unworthy people. Paul was commanding the Corinthians to examine the worthiness of their practice, not their person.

Paul wanted first for their eating to become worthy. Instead of excluding others, as they had been through their gluttony, they should have instead invited all to the table, just as Christ invites all to come and “eat of his flesh.” Then, he wanted their drinking to also become worthy, practicing moderation in their consumption of wine rather than getting drunk. Their gluttony and drunkenness were convoluting the very message that Communion was meant to proclaim, and that is why Paul gave the warning.

I would hope that if anyone examines the worthiness of his or her person to come to the table, they would find that they are indeed not worthy! Isn’t that what the gospel is all about, unworthy people invited to the table based on the worthiness of another? We come to the table in spite of our unworthiness, not because of our worthiness!

I believe that in our zeal to be biblical, we have inadvertently convoluted the very message of grace that Communion is meant to depict. I believe that we have allowed people to hear and see the gospel, but not have allowed them to taste or touch it. I believe that in our effort to elevate Communion, we have actually diminished it by excluding those who need it most.

In our little church, we eat the meal weekly. We have made the decision to open the table to the non-believers who frequently gather with us, many of whom are international students from India or China, and quite unfamiliar with the gospel. In order to help them to understand what the meal is meant to convey, we publish and refer to the following statement weekly:

“During the course of this gathering, we will participate together in a small meal called Communion. This meal, celebrated by Christians for thousands of years, consists of a piece of bread, and a cup of grape juice or wine. The bread symbolizes the body of Jesus Christ; and when we break the bread, it symbolizes the injury and death he endured as a sacrifice for our sins. The juice symbolizes his blood, which was spilled to cleanse us from the guilt of our sins. The purpose of this meal is to remember and celebrate this great act of love for us; to eagerly anticipate his return; and to communicate this good news in a tangible way. As our guest, you are invited to share this meal with us, for it is a symbol of the grace which is offered to all. Please also feel free to let it pass by if you prefer–we will not be offended, nor will you be judged in any way. Thank you for honoring us with your presence today.”

It is our prayer as our guests experience the gospel demonstrated in our community each week, whether through speaking, singing, praying, eating or drinking, that their hearts will be filled with understanding, and that they too will trust in the worthiness of he who gave his body and blood for our salvation. 

21 comments

  1. John Amandola Jr

    Thanks Chad, I appreciate your comment! My hope is that people will feel free to disagree on this forum as well as agree!

  2. Tony

    Well thought out argument and convincing. You have done, or I should say God is doing a tremendous work at the Lighthouse. God Bless you brother!

  3. Dan Gooch

    It’s kind of wild how much we just accept without ever thinking about it. This makes perfect sense and yet I’ve never considered this possibility in all the times I’ve read the passage just because I’d always heard differently at church.

    Can’t wait to see what else you write, John. It’s always a pleasure.

  4. John Amandola Jr

    Thanks Dan for the kind words, glad you were challenged. Please consider subscribing, and please tell your friends! 

  5. Todd Murphy

    This is an insightful post Chad. I agree worthiness is a state that a person must obtain before coming to the table. This makes the reception of the grace of the table conditioned upon a form of works righteousness. It should be done often (we do it at least weekly too). Also I agree that the table is a participation with Christ.

    What I did not hear however is the singular most important part of the supper which bolster’s your case against a false human “worthiness,” the most element being Repentance.

    The very purpose for the sacrament is communion with Christ through self-examination and repentance. Paul’s theology of the Lord’s Table is that Jesus is the one and only complete and perfect sin offering for us. Thus when he says in 1Cor. 11:28: “But let a man EXAMINE himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup,” he is lifting that idea of self examination, confession of sin, and repentance right from the law of the sin offering in Lev. 5:5. So I absolutely agree with you that the Lord’s table is not for those who are “worthy” (when used to mean “without un-confessed sin”), but rather it is for the redeemed sinner to come do business and keep short accounts with God. However in Corinth, it was not a matter of mere “rable rousing” but that the covenant community was taking the table together while tolerating ONGOING UNCONFESSED SIN! There were factions, and even incest that was being ignored.

    Where I would push back however is in regard to opening the table to everyone and their brother without Baptism. You are pressing the role of baptism on the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s supper is an ongoing nurturing sacrament similar to the OT sacrificial system. It served the called out community to nurture them in faith until the kingdom. Baptism is initiatory and adoptive. There is a great deal of this theology in the NT.

    In the ancient Near East, and especially Israel, a meal is something you sat down together with either family, or highly valued parties, especially those you had entered into by covenant. Baptism is that sign of the covenant, the door through which we enter the Church. The Lord’s supper is the family meal of the Church, a covenant renewal feast, and you need to be an adoptive member to participate. If you look for a literal proof text for “thou shalt only serve the table to the Baptized,” you won’t find it. Neither will you find a single case where it says a woman took the supper in the NT either, but we know from the early Church that they did. You have to take the pattern of sacramental application throughout the entire Bible to understand their proper place.

    For what it is worth, the earliest Church was often persecuted and accused of doing gruesome acts of drinking human blood because they did not allow non-baptized people in the room when they partook of the Lord’s supper, so many Churches today are actually being way more “politically correct” than the early church was.

  6. Kevin D Johnson

    Unfortunately, this post is an example of doing the sort of atomistic biblical interpretation we ought to avoid. 1 Corinthians was written to the church at Corinth, the church members and community is mentioned specifically at 11:18 and the whole passage is directed to divisions within the church by differing members. Any evidence that people who were not Christian participated in the Supper as it is put in 1 Corinthians 11 is most certainly an argument from silence. Additionally, from very early on the Early Church was quite careful to limit Communion to the baptized especially in light of persecution.

    I’m not saying the floor would open up and swallow those who are not Christian when taking part in the Supper, but the weight of evidence very much favors the more traditional interpretation.

    Last, there are theological reasons why you would want to limit participation to Christians only not the least of which being the what the word “communion” really means in the first place in terms of union with Christ and one another. To ignore that in favor of being more welcoming seems to me to ignore not only what Christians have practiced over the last two milleniums but also the meaning and implications behind the ceremony in the first place.

  7. Tkinney

    I always sort of wondered why Jesus didn’t fence out Judas. Besides, who does not eat and drink judgment on themselves by partaking? Who is really worthy of grace?
    To add to that, I am a baby-baptizer, am I not baptizing my children into “greater judgment” by doing that? What about having them pray to Jesus, read their Bibles, and learn of our creator? Is there any truth to the idea that the more a person knows and does not believe the worse off he/she will be in the end?
    I can’t help but think…For God so loved the world that he gave…that whoever..
    I don’t know, perhaps the fence is too often erected at arm’s length where it is safe. When the fence has, in all reality, been erected by Christ and the real job is in laying out the Biblical rules of playing in God’s yard.

  8. Kevin D Johnson

    Troy,

    The difference between Judas and someone else who isn’t a believer is that Judas was still not only a covenant member of Israel but also chosen by Jesus to be a disciple. I’m not saying we need to fence the table so tightly that only true believers come to the table. I’m saying that only members of the church – properly baptized – are welcome at the table. Of course, we want all members to be true believers but we also know that not all are. The excommunicated and the non-members shouldn’t be admitted, but barring that indeed all should come.

  9. John Amandola Jr

    Thanks so much Kevin for your thoughtful post. I hope we can continue to dialogue about this.

    I agree that we should not be atomistic. Space did not allow me to treat the greater context in my post. So, I appreciate the opportunity to clarify. I would briefly say that the greater book context demonstrates that non-believers were indeed to be present in the service and that that the service should be led in a way that is conscious of their presence (14:24). Paul also gave the purpose of communion (which Paul calls “The Lord’s Supper”) as remembrance and proclamation (11:23-26). So, I do not think it is an argument from silence. The natural reading of the text lends to the meal being a proclamation of the gospel to all present, not union with Christ (The word “communion” was
    not applied by Paul, so I would say appealing to the meaning of that term is somewhat of a weak argument). However, I would concede that it is a picture of the path to union with Christ.

    So, I would say that the burden of proof is on the view to exclude Christians. The best way is to do that is to appeal to Church history, which you have done. In my reading of the documentary record of the Lord’s Supper in Church history, It is indeed clear that the early Church did exclude non-believers. It seems that that there were several reasons for
    this, some of which are persecution, rewarding confessors (Cyprian), the rise of the Sacremental view (Ignatius: “it is the medicine of immortality, the antidote against death”), or just plain old proof texting. For example, the Didache says: “Let none eat or drink of your Eucharist, save such as are baptized into the name of the Lord. For
    concerning this the Lord hath said; ‘give not that which is holy to the dogs’ (emphasis mine). The bottom line is that while the second century church and later did exclude non-believers, it was not because of the text, but other reasons. Then, I believe they read their understanding into 1 Corinthians. (Also, keep in mind that throughout history, there are plenty of examples of open tables – for example, Solomon Stoddard of the Northampton Church)

    I certainly understand and respect your view. Maybe some day you and I can smoke a cigar in my backyard and discuss this further – I would enjoy that.

  10. Kevin D. Johnson

    John,

    I appreciate the offer on the cigar and further discussion – thank you. It would be a pleasure, I am sure.

    I don’t think an extra paragraph would have done too much harm further elucidating your point about the wider context. 🙂 As it is, I believe we will have to agree however that the existence of non-believers in and among the congregation of the faithful does not immediately establish a logical necessity that they partook of the bread and the wine.

    I agree that outsiders are considered in the context of the entire book but there are a few complicating factors which you neglected to mention. First, 1 Corinthians 5 makes clear that whoever else may partake there are some that the congregation puts out and excludes to the point of handing them over to Satan and expelling them from the covenant community. So, at least in this case we can demonstrate that there are some unqualified to come to the Table and particularly in regards to discipline issues that involve gross immorality that exhibit a condition which is likely a matter of being truly unconverted (or unrepentant). Furthermore, once an insider becomes an outsider through excommunication they are to be treated as unconverted anyway. This, in my view, implies that they have no access to the meal whatsoever because they are not a part of the Body. True, they can be restored but only through legitimate repentance and restoration as the church dictates just like any other man or woman that has yet to repent, believe, and be baptized.

    So, in other words, I have demonstrated already where we have at least one explicit instance where outsiders are not to partake. My question really would be what’s the relational difference between “those who are outside” (1 Cor. 5:13) and the curious unbeliever that is present merely to check things out? Verse 11 of chapter 5 says not even to eat with such a one. From the standpoint of the New Covenant, there is no status difference except one may have the possibility of returning and eventually proving that he really has been converted. The other must initially repent and be baptized. Effectively though, their actions are the same in terms of inclusion and participation in the Body of Christ found in the local church.

    I am not overly concerned with whether you want me to shoulder the burden of proof or we shift it to you. Obviously, as you have noted, the overwhelming weight of tradition is on my side and that should count for something. Given that the Didache was likely written within at least 20 years of the Book of Revelation, I would say there is a strong preponderance toward my point of view but I also realize there are always exceptions in the tradition. Last, regarding tradition, I fully realize the Fathers often advocated a position for different reasons so I don’t automatically entertain their notions as support for my viewpoint. And, like anything else, Scripture is our ultimate guide.

    A couple more paragraphs to come…

  11. Kevin D. Johnson

    However, I would suggest that the Fathers may have had a more organic and apostolic way of looking at the text then we currently allow due to our allegiance to the grammatico-historical form of exegesis. Immediate reasons on their part that you mention above however may not necessarily include all of their reasons simply because they were fighting their own battles removed from us by a couple thousand years. In other words, we can pick up clues from their objection to open communion but there is also little reason to think they wouldn’t have picked up on what I have already mentioned.

    I don’t know exactly what kind of Christian/minister you are but given what you have said of the rise of the sacramental view by which I think you may mean sacerdotal as even the Reformers like Calvin had a sacramental view of the Supper. In any case, the theological reasons I presented to you about what the Supper is as “communion” is no less important whether you fully buy a Reformational sacramental view or are happy to remain content with something more Zwinglian or even Baptist. The point of my rambling is simply that the Supper signifies and really better speaks as God’s Word in picture form of a reality which would be inconsistent with an unbeliever’s participation. And, I would dispute that the purpose of the proclamation of God’s Word in and among the covenant community in the main is an evangelical exercise however much that may turn out to be true on occasion. The remembrance and proclamation is one for believers more so than it ever would be for an unbeliever.

    Last, who is doing the proclaiming in verse 26 of chapter 11? This certainly says that it is the church proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes again – the very job they have been tasked to do by our Lord. Why would an unbeliever proclaim something he has yet to own for himself?

  12. John Amandola Jr

    I really appreciate the interaction, although I don’t want
    to belabor it either. So, I will conclude with just responding to the questions
    you raised…

    I am an evangelical minister, with the Missionary Church. We are a pretty eclectic denomination theologically, although my position here would certainly be in the minority – most of my colleagues would agree with you!

    I agree with you that some are unqualified to come, as you clearly demonstrated from Chapter 5. However, I personally would make a distinction between our posture towards the excommunicated (who should be put out of the community) and the unconverted (who would be present with us in the community). I too would exclude excommunicated people from the table.

    I understand your distinction, and do indeed mean sacramental. I believe that the grace of communion flows from the believers present, not the meal itself – both to each
    other and to the non-believers present.

    I would say that the genius of communion is that the unconverted do indeed proclaim the gospel to themselves!

    Lastly, I would say, as you already have mentioned, that sometimes tradition can be wrong. I want to emphasize that the whole purpose of this blog is to raise the issues where there may be some error in tradition.

    Thank you Kevin for your thoughtful and gracious interaction.  

  13. Deann

    WOW! I appreciate your words and discernment John. My friend had not attended anything but a Catholic church in his life he had never received communion, he did not understand. We went to the Heights for Christmas service where he received the message of Christ and the blood and the body and how all are welcome to partake in the good news and new life. We then walked along the path leading up to the cross and they had stations with people there to explain more in depth about Christ and they offered communion and they prayed with us. His heart and eyes were opened to Christ that night. I appreciate yours and Caryn’s heart and passion for the Lord John.
    Deann

  14. Dr. Rev. Matt Weber Esq.

    I enjoyed this post John and miss having these kinds of discussions with you! Keep em coming!

  15. Josh Hahne

    Hello John,

    I heard about your blog randomly and have just read your case against fencing the table. I thought I might offer a few thoughts in the spirit of mutual edification.

    1. I happily grant you 1 Cor 11. I don’t believe Paul is speaking to the issue of fencing the table in this passage. In 1 Cor 11, Paul is addressing a unique problem in the Corinthian church, he nowhere seems to envision elders or pastors limiting the observance of others, and he gives a twofold instruction–first, examine, then, eat and drink (vs. 28). Paul is speaking about the way that Christians should participate, which in v. 29, is to discern the body (read “Church” a la 10:16) so that the meal demonstrates the unity rather than division in the church (11:18).

    2. I’m not sure if we can say with certainty whether Judas did partake of the Lord’s Supper on the night of the betrayal. As I’m sure you know, Matt & Mark place the institution of the Lord’s Supper immediately after the revelation of Judas betrayal; that coupled with John 13:30, which describes Judas flight after being identified makes the sequence sketchy. Most exegetes, at least so far as I’m aware, think that Matt and Mark preserve the chronology while Luke is operating more thematically (for an example see Gillespie’s article on this for an overly long argument: http://www.fpcr.org/blue_banner_articles/gillespie-judas.htm).

    3. I think the best rationale for fencing the table is found in (1) the nature of authority given by Jesus to the leadership of his church, and (2) meaning of the Lord’s Supper.
    a. First, concerning nature of authority, I believe that passages such as Matt 16:17-19; 18:18-20; and Jn 20:22-23 teach that Jesus entrusts Kingdom authority to the apostles (and eventually their replacements, ordained leadership). Thus, when they act in affairs of the church they change eternal and heavenly realities (of course, if we were talking about this with any fullness we’d need to qualify with “ordinarily” as we don’t believe this is universally true–cf. Matt 16:22). One part of their job is to admit and to demit, to bind and to loose, to open and to close, heaven to sinners. They do so in a ministry of word, sacrament, discipline, etc. All of which is to say, ministers have divine authority to publish the terms for participating in Jesus’ kingdom, experiencing his forgiveness, and relating to him in worship.

    [More to come in next post…]

  16. Josh Hahne

    [Continued from above]

    b. Second, concerning the nature of the Lord’s Supper, most basically, this meal is an act of worship in which we commune with God (1 Cor 10:14-22). It assumes and demonstrates a specific relationship with God, that the one who drinks “the blood of the covenant” (Matt 26:28) has experienced forgiveness of sin and is a part of Jesus people, the church (1 Cor 10:17). To say that those who are not a part of Jesus covenant people might rightly partake of the meal, is to obscure the meaning of the meal–both to believers and unbelievers alike. I believe it would be similar to inviting interested but unbelieving persons who visit the church to be baptized. The result would be that they as well as the believes would leave confused. John, I agree that the Lord’s Supper is a powerful means of evangelism, but think it to be so precisely because it is one way that a clear distinction is made between those who do and don’t believe in their standing with God.
    c. Obviously, what I am putting forth is an inference. Fencing the table is not spelled out explicitly in Scripture. I do believe that it is a good and necessary conclusion from the Bible’s theology. With that said, we should hold our beliefs with conviction that corresponds to their clarity in Scripture and I wouldn’t be overly upset if I was off on some of this. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Cheers, brother. Too bad we can’t do this over an Arrogant Bastard at FGC!
    ~Josh Hahne

  17. John Amandola Jr

    Josh! Good to hear from you! Yes, simpler times…talking theology over a beer in the middle of the day. 

    Thank you for your thoughtful and gracious comments. I appreciate fruitful interaction such as this. To briefly respond, I appreciate you acknowledging that 1 Cor. does not fence the table – thank you for that. Also, I agree with you as to the ability for ministers to “bind and loose” and suppose that could be used as a foundation to fence the table. I guess I would ask in response, why would you want to? Why would we not want unbelievers to partake of a symbol of the New Covenant, then invite them in? This does not seem to me to obscure the meaning, but to enhance it – as Jesus did in John 6 when he invited the crowd to eat and drink of him. We have several unbelievers attending our gatherings regularly – many of whom are international students who have previously not heard of Jesus and the gospel. We have found that our times around the table (weekly, with an accompanying Gospel reading) have been very meaningful to people who don’t yet believe the gospel. As far as the comparison to baptism, I can see your point, given your more Presbyterian approach – which I greatly respect, although don’t practice. Since I am more Baptistic in my view, I would not make the same comparison.
    Again, thanks so much for taking the time to comment – I enjoyed reading your thoughts. Perhaps we can continue this discussion over a frosty mug some day…

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