Question: Is baptism necessary for communion? I was in a church recently where the worship leaders emphasized that every person present was welcome to take communion, whether that person had been baptized or not. Most churches I have attended invite only the baptized. Who’s right?
Frank Answers: Many mainline liberal Protestant Churches today are practicing “radical hospitality” at the Lord’s Supper. We celebrate Holy Communion as our worship service and the sign on the outside of the church building says “All are welcome.” They argue that you can’t invite people to a meal and then not share the food and drink with them. In our “all are welcome” approaches to public worship we are not likely to return to the sharp division that once existed between the liturgy of the catechumens (the word portion of the service) and the liturgy of the faithful (the meal portion of the service). In the ancient church the unbaptized were dismissed after the liturgy of the Word. In the Eastern Orthodox liturgy the deacon still proclaims, “Let all catechumens depart”. But today catechumens (by which I mean those preparing for Baptism), seekers, even believers of other religions may be present at what was originally a closed door event.
I will reflect on the biblical and theological rationale for radical hospitality and give my assessment of the arguments. But first I need to point out that never in the history of the Church has the sacrament of Holy Communion been made available to everybody and anybody. Even the baptized have been excluded for various reasons. For example, the first statement about Holy Communion in one of the earliest New Testament writings is the exclusion of a member of the church because of his unrepentant sin. “Don’t even eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11). St. Paul is recommending excommunication—exclusion from the meal.
The Lord’s Supper is not for everybody; it is for the church. Sharing the bread-body of Christ and the cup-blood of Christ unites us with Christ and unifies the many members of the one body. There is a connection between the sacramental body and the ecclesial body. We who drink from the same cup and eat of the one loaf are one body in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). If you share in the bread and cup, the body and blood of Christ, you are one with everyone else to shares this bread and cup. You are a member of the body of Christ, the church—whether that was your intention or not.
Then there’s the question of discerning the body of Christ. The issue in 1 Corinthians 11 is that worldly social divisions are being maintained at the Lord’s Supper. What ought to have been the sacrament of unity had become the source of disunity in the Corinthian congregation. The congregation was not discerning the body. “Body” here clearly refers to the connection between the Eucharist and the Church. Failure of discernment brings judgment on the those who do not discern the Lord’s body. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (11:30). There is an area of taboo surrounding the Lord’s Supper precisely because of the presence of Christ whose coming in the sacrament as well as on the last day brings judgment. It is not unlike the zone of holiness that surrounded Mt. Sinai when Yahweh was present (Exodus 19). This situation of sacramental malpractice is the context in which St. Paul recites the words of institution (11:23-25).
The restriction of Eucharistic fellowship to the baptized is ancient. The oldest Christian catechism at the end of the first century says, “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the Lord’s Name” (Didache 9:5). Justin Martyr reports to the Roman Senate ca, 150 AD that no one is allowed to partake of “the food we call Eucharist” except one who “believes that the things we teach are true, and has been washed with the washing that is for the forgiveness of sins and rebirth, and is living as Christ enjoined” (First Apology 66). The Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (ca. early third century) not only excludes the unbaptized (catechumens) from the Eucharist; they are also excluded from the offering and the kiss of peace (“their kiss is not yet pure”). In the liturgies that developed after the fourth century the catechumens were dismissed after the liturgy of the Word (“the liturgy of the catechumens”).
The kiss of peace and offertory marked the transition to “the liturgy of the faithful.” The communion table continued to be fenced off, especially in the Eastern liturgies, with the invitation/admonition “Holy things for the holy people.” One becomes holy—a person is dedicated to God—in Holy Baptism. In the ritual process of Christian initiation, Baptism leads to the Eucharistic Meal. Holy Communion is actually the goal of Christian initiation. One is not fully a member of the church until one receives first communion. But if you receive communion you are a member of the church. The table does not lead to the font, the font leads to the table.
Of course, the Eastern Churches have continued to practice the communion of all the baptized from the time of their baptism, including the baptism of infants. (See the image above this post of an infant receiving communion in an Orthodox Church.) So there is never a question that these baptized children are full members of the Church. For various reasons the practice of infant communion fell out of use in the Western Church. Confirmation and confession became gateways to first communion. (See the image following this post of a child in a line for communion receiving a blessing.)
Churches still express fellowship with one another on the basis of whether they can share Holy Communion together. As we see already in 1 Corinthians, you cannot receive the sacramental body of Christ without at the same time recognizing the ecclesial body of Christ. In the modern ecumenical movement, Churches have painstakingly worked out entering into full communion arrangements with one another.
But now there are pastors who set aside the sacramental economy in which those who are reborn by water and the Holy Spirit are nurtured in the new life in Christ in Holy Communion in order to practice what they believe to be the radical inclusiveness of the hospitality of Jesus. They point to the feedings of the five and four thousands (plus women and children) on the hillsides of Galilee. They point to the accusation of the Pharisees that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. But while in the gospel narratives the evangelists evoked Eucharistic imagery in the feeding stories (especially in John 6), Holy Communion is not based on the feeding stories but on the last supper of Jesus with his disciples in the closed quarters of the upper room where Jesus instituted a meal that he commanded, “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
Jesus hosted this Passover Seder, so his hospitality is involved. But hospitality was not the point of that Passover Seder. In fact, hospitality is seldom the goal of any meal. Perhaps it is required in a desert oasis, as when Abraham provided food and drink for the three strangers at the oaks of Mamre. But the point of the feeding of the multitudes was not to provide hospitality; it was to satisfy hunger—and in the process Jesus is portrayed as the messianic shepherd-king who provides for the needs of his people. When our churches provide soup kitchens, our concern is also to feed the hungry. Hospitality is the art of making people feel at home. But the point of making people feel at home is to build a relationship with them. When you invite your future in-laws to a get-acquainted dinner, you practice hospitality in the hope that this intimate meal will initiate a new family relationship. It is a private dinner. Outsiders are not wanted. We have a number of meals in our lives that have this character.
The point of excluding the unbaptized is the radical intimacy of Jesus and his disciples in Holy Communion. This is seen in the post-resurrection meals of Jesus and his disciples which served as the means by which Jesus forgave them for abandoning him at the cross. He reconciled with his wayward disciples by hosting a breakfast on the lake shore in John 21, and then told Peter, who had denied him three times, “feed his sheep”—also three times. Celebration of the Eucharist has required the confession of sins since at least as early as the Didache 14: “First confess your sins that your sacrifice may be pure.” Holy Communion continues to be about forgiveness of sins and reconciliation, not only with one another in the church, but between the church and its Lord. This intimate meal between Christ and his church is eaten by us in repentance and faith. Moreover, only those who have the faith given by the Holy Spirit can discern that they are actually eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ, according to Christ’s word. “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63).
I suspect that stakes are higher for fencing the table in faith communities that believe that the true body and blood of Christ are really present in the bread and wine. Those who do believe in this “sacramental union” of bread/body, wine/blood believe that we consume the very body and blood of Christ into our bodies. You can’t get more intimate than that! We become what we eat. We become Christ.
I would like to think that with the weight of doctrine and tradition associated with Holy Communion, non-Christians (the unbaptized) would not want to receive the sacramental bread and wine unless they are already being led by the Spirit to faith in Christ. Visitors will pick up cues regarding the church’s teaching concerning the Eucharist just from hearing the words used in the liturgy. They will hear “body” and “blood” and being “made members of the mystical body of your Son” and conclude that what is going on in Holy Communion is something more than just sharing a little bread and wine. Some invitations for everybody to receive the bread and wine that I’ve heard strike me as proselytizing since they apply social pressure for everyone to come forward and receive without respecting the beliefs or non-beliefs of visitors who may be present. If, inadvertently, unbaptized persons do partake of Holy Communion, they should be invited to be baptized. That’s where the Church is all-inclusive.
These summer weeks in many Churches around the world, we have been hearing the “bread of life” discourse in John 6. It ends next Sunday with words about “eating the flesh of the Son of Man and drinking his blood.” People who heard Jesus’s words concluded that “this is a hard message.” “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (6:66). These were people who had been fed with the multiplied bread and fishes on the mountainside. But they could not go the distance to the Eucharist. Only the Twelve remained. Do we think by softening the message we can reverse this situation?
I think this practice of radical hospitality is a major mistake. And if pastors who have opened the fence to the table have second thoughts about this practice, it will be very difficult to shut the gates again because people will have come to think that this inclusiveness is a great thing. They have probably not heard why it is not.
Pastor Frank Senn