Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Holding His Table Hostage

I got a phone call I was expecting last Saturday morning. The group we have been meeting with for the last six months or so had announced that they would be having communion on Sunday, November 20th. We are not “members” which hasn’t been an issue so far but I suspected that it would become an issue when communion was observed. Saturday morning the call came in from the most senior of the elders to let me know that while we were welcome to come on Sunday, we were not permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper because we were not “members” and hadn’t been attending long enough to be granted a waiver. I was very disappointed but not surprised to get this call. This practice is not at all uncommon. There are many churches that flat out refuse communion to non-members or set forth restrictions on those who are being graciously allowed to participate. This practice is supported mainly by tradition and by the artificial barrier of formal church communication but it is terribly problematic to defend this position from Scripture.

Scripturally there are only a couple of reasons why someone would not be welcome to the Lord’s Table. One is if they are not a believer. As far as I can tell, and I am open to correction here, the Lord’s Supper was exclusively something observed by the gathered church. It was not something that unbelievers participated in or at least that is not obvious from the text. Again, I might be wrong on that. The other reason to deny someone the fellowship of the supper is a person in gross and unrepentant sin that had not been properly disciplined and restored to fellowship. This comes from the well known passage in 1 Corinthians 5. The context is a man who “has his father's wife” which indicates a man having sexual relations with his step-mother (see Leviticus 18:8) which is pretty gross but Paul expands on this specific situation in Corinth to make a more global point (emphasis added):
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)
Paul states pretty unequivocally here that those who are Christians that are guilty of a variety of sinful behaviors should be banned from sharing meals, which I believe is how the early church understood and observed the Lord’s Supper. This denial of the breaking of bread seems to be the most severe form of church discipline.

So what does that say about the “non-member” in a local gathering? From what I can see, you either welcome someone to the breaking of bread or you refuse them because a) the aren’t a believer or b) they are engaged in open and unrepentant sin and are treated as an unbeliever. Since formal church membership in any form is absent from the Scripture, how exactly does that suffice as a reason to deny someone the Supper? Or disagreement on secondary doctrines? If I hold to the Biblical practice of baptism, i.e. baptizing only professing believers, should I withhold the fellowship of the Table from those “baptized” as infants? In my understanding of Scripture they are tacitly refusing to submit to baptism upon profession of faith. There was a time when I would have refused the Lord’s Supper, at least the ritualized form it takes in the traditional church, from someone “baptized” as an infant with a clear conscience but now? Unless I believe that they are not a believer or that they are openly sinning I don’t see where that warrant comes from. The idea that I would enforce a completely artificial standard (being a "member" of that particular local church) as the entry point for breaking bread is divisive and to be blunt sinful.

The Lord’s Supper is the great unifying symbol of the shared faith of every Christian and yet it is most often something that is either ritualized to the point of losing its familial meaning or it is held hostage to manmade traditions like “church membership”. This should not be so. We are one people, part of the same one Body that is the Bride of Christ and we should welcome to the table all who confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

The Lord’s Table is not your meal. You aren’t the one who sent the invite and you aren’t the host so you and I don’t get to tell someone that they are not welcome because we have created an artificial barrier or a higher standard than the one that Jesus set forth and Paul affirmed. We should as His people be constantly striving to find ways to be in fellowship over the Table with other Christians more often, not seeking to exclude one another from this critically important act.

10 comments:

Aussie John said...

Arthur,

This extra-biblical sectarianism is a blight on the importance of the Lord's Table, and on the congregation which allows it.

Marshall said...

with John, I am sometimes sad each time to see sectarianism in the form of a local or denominational circle of fellowship. The cure (if the Lord so chooses to send you) is their introduction to an equal or greater portion of the Kingdom of God that gathers outside their sect circle. If after these things, they move to separate themselves, so then they are separate and will remain so --- unless they repent.

Joseph said...

Various passages seem to me to teach that you certainly need to restrict the table so the, "It is not your Supper" argument isn't completely valid. Every church along with their leadership, whatever they believe to be biblical has to make a decision on these matters. This isn't a "blight" and no matter what position a church holds, someone will complain that it is not a biblical one and will leave over the issue.

Arthur Sido said...

Joseph, would you care to share which passages you think gives the church warrant to restrict the fellowship of the Table from fellow Christians?

Steve Scott said...

Arthur,

I've been in this position before, and it was terrible. "Holding hostage" is an appropriate term. The church I was attending clearly had their priorities misplaced as they lofted their pet and unbiblical doctrine of "formal church membership" to a position even above that of baptism and the Lord's Table.

Joseph said...

"With such a one, know not to eat." 1 Cor. 5:11. There are multiple understandings of the passage of course. My main point is that churches have to draw the line somewhere: We are to not eat with some people and Paul seems to indicate we should know better. In an age so rabid with unregenerate souls, fornication, and people leaving churches divisively over music, versions, don't like the preaching, etc. etc. etc. The table calls for unity - real not pretended. How can two walk together except they be agreed? I don't fault a church for restricting the table. That doesn't mean I agree with it, but I certainly see the reasons for it and appreciate the church taking a stand. All of the comments here demonstrate outrage that a church would do such a thing- words like "blight" calling for Repentance, and accusing churches of hostage taking. If you don't agree with a church's position- leave if you must, join the church, or just sit in the pew and meditate on the life, death, shed blood of Christ without eating a nasty cracker and sipping .025 oz of Welch's finest. Again, I lean in a more "close" position but do not in any way fault those who don't agree with me.

Joseph said...

Sorry to hijack your blog, but it is too much work to maintain my own...
What encourages me is that the church you speak of seems to have carefully thought through this issue:
You knew the call was coming which means at least in part that the church is proactive in the matter so as not to offend, demonstrating care for you and your family.
The senior elder called which again indicates to me the desire of the church to handle it carefully- to shepherd the flock. Interesting, they offer a waiver after a year or so of observation of the doctrine and practice of non-members! Give them some credit, they are trying to account for the Scriptural teachings you mention but still trying to be faithful to the whole counsel. Sounds like it isn't so much the letter "membership" as it is the spirit of "by their fruits you shall know them."
In this American age of Sabbath breaking, idolatry of every sort, rampant sexual sins, erosion of the family, etc. etc Here you have a church who wants to practice the Lord's Supper with integrity and a clear conscience as those that watch for your souls and must give an account. I see a blessing not a burden.
If a church believe in the Baptism of believers by immersion, then another's belief in infant sprinkling at least on the surface would indicate that one of the groups is not a true church according to the age old definition of church: Preaching of the Word, Proper administration of Ordinances, Church Discipline. Whether you agree or disagree, the church has to draw the line somewhere. It seems that this church has prayerfully thought these things out. Sounds like a church I would like to join.

Don Litchfield said...

It is evident from Scripture that each city/community had only one church. ALL believers in Jesus were members - there was not "formal" membership lists. An individuals confession of faith coupled with a lifestyle that validated that was to be considered a member. To have such restrictions - in light of Scripture - is to question the salvation of the persons who do not "qualify" for their membership lists. To make such a judgement is horribly grievous to the Holy Spirit Who labors to bring Christ's body to oneness. Paul states clearly that there is "one" body (Eph. 4:4) and that we are not to say to some other member, "You do not belong to us" (1 Cor. 12:21).

Arthur Sido said...

Joseph, I am not at all advocating that there be no barriers to the Table but as you recognize the example in 1 Cor 5 is an issue of gross sin, not a doctrinal difference. I specifically addressed 1 Cor 5 in the post itself. Since formal church membership is utterly absent in command or example from the New Testament to bar a believer from the Table is indeed a blight, raising a man-made tradition to the level of sin.

We bear no ill feelings toward the folks in this local assembly. They have been wonderful people, bringing us meals when my wife broke her leg, welcoming our family each week. What is happening is a symptom of the greater issue in the church that sees formal church membership that excludes others from other churches or who are not formally affiliated with a particular local church organization.

Arthur Sido said...

Don

That is marvelously well said!

We need to get together some Saturday for breakfast with you and your wife!