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.