A Fish Hooks reader relayed the question of a friend: “Why does our church restrict Holy Communion to the baptized? If this is really such an important spiritual blessing, shouldn’t it be available to all who desire it?”
This is an area where the beliefs and practices of traditional Christians come into conflict with the norms and assumptions of our culture. In modern Western society we are preoccupied with the ‘rights’ of individuals to decide what’s best for themselves and we (properly) take great offense when someone is ‘refused service’ as a form of discrimination. Perhaps to the friend asking the question, this restriction on Communion seems a bit like that. However, far more is involved.
The Bible itself doesn’t contain an explicit statement that only the baptized can be communed. However, we know that the practice of restricting the Sacrament of Communion to the baptized dates back to the earliest days of the Church. For example, the Didache (pronounced “DID-ah-kay”) was an ‘instruction manual’ (catechism) for training new converts to Christianity that dates back to 50-100 AD, the time when the Gospels were being written. It includes this unambiguous statement: “Allow no one to eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized in the name of the Lord.” Until recent times, this has stood as the ‘rule’ throughout Christianity. Today, however, some are questioning whether this restriction is really required and whether it inhibits our outreach to the unchurched. Some denominations today practice a completely ‘open’ communion where all who desire to commune are invited to do so, without reference to baptismal status. Lutheran denominations in the USA all still officially require Baptism before Communion, though this issue is under study in one. The NALC (North American Lutheran Church) of which this congregation is a member, adheres to the traditional practice of requiring Baptism before Communion.
But, lacking a specific scriptural prohibition, is church tradition an adequate reason for continuing to restrict Communion to the baptized? After all, there are well-documented practices of the early church which we’ve since abandoned (e.g., Acts 4:32-35) Can we agree that such an important rule as this should be supported by more than just a blind adherence to historical precedent? And it is!
First of all, it is a mistake to view Baptism and Communion as two independent ways in which God conveys grace – they’re not two ‘menu items’ from which the spiritual diner gets to pick and choose. Instead, they perform distinct but complementary roles in the Christian life. To state things in very simple terms: Baptism is the rite by which people are adopted into the ‘family’ which is the Body of Christ; Communion is the ‘family meal’ of the body of believers, where Christ Himself is the food. Just as one would not presume to enjoy the privileges of a family member without actually being a member of that family, it is presumptuous for those not adopted in Baptism to wish to partake of the special means of grace which is reserved for God’s redeemed and committed children. Moreover, there is a Biblical warning that inappropriate participation is actually dangerous.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote these sobering words: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:29) Now the precise intent of this warning may be disputed, but what is beyond dispute is that appropriate participation in Holy Communion involves some expectations of the recipient. Of course, we can’t read the hearts and minds of those who present themselves for Communion (either members or visitors) but we can put in place some ‘fences’ to protect the undiscerning. The most basic of these is to have undergone the initiation rite of Baptism which scripture consistently teaches is the entry portal to a life in Christ. Thus, our insistence on this rule is not discrimination, but an act of love. We desire all sincere seekers of God’s salvation to join us in the spiritual nourishment of the Lord’s Table – but Baptism is the ‘gate’ by which God’s children are invited in.