Should a church request that only baptized believers partake of the Lord’s Table? This question has arisen periodically at our church in response to comments made from the pulpit before communion. You may have been one of those who has asked this question, perhaps due to personal reasons or perhaps out of a desire not to offend or to hurt genuine believers. In answering this question, I will seek to be sensitive to good desires, and to make my case without denying the greater unity that exists in the body of Christ. Let us first consider the question in its larger context before considering biblical reasons for making such a request.
The Larger Context for Baptism and Communion
First, regarding the greater unity of Christians, it is a fact that almost all denominations place baptism before communion. Granted, they may disagree on how “baptism” is defined and over who should be baptized; but placing baptism before communion is just ordinary Christianity. Interestingly, among those who sprinkle infants, it is not uncommon that first communion must follow confirmation, when the individual confirms for himself what his parents did for him as an infant. Even here, communion follows an individual’s public confession. Therefore, tradition favors requesting baptism before communion, and even though tradition is not our ultimate authority, it can show us that a position that appears novel may not actually be novel, and it can also caution us against being too novel ourselves, as if the word of God originated from us or came only to us (1 Corinthians 14:36). In this matter, as in others, Paul’s words are appropriate, “But if one is inclined to be contentious, we have no other practice, nor have the churches of God” (11:16).
Second, regarding our desires for the good of others, we do need to be sensitive regarding personal beliefs in Christ, and to not “lord over” another’s faith (2 Corinthians 1:24; cf. 1 Peter 5:3). One of the ways I seek to do this as a pastor is not to impose my belief about the definition of “baptism” on visitors. If a visitor is genuinely a believer, but was sprinkled as an infant and then confirmed this “baptism” as his own, I choose to eat with him at the Lord’s Table. In this, I respectfully disagree with closed communion. However, regarding those of us who reckon this church to be our church home, we must follow a tighter standard, for we are to “walk by the same rule” and “mind the same thing,” according to the maturity “whereto we have already attained” (Philippians 3:16). As a church, we believe baptism is by immersion and for believers; therefore, we insist on this baptism for church membership, of which communion is a visible symbol. By way of analogy, in my home, I hold my own children to the household rules, but cut some slack for visiting children.
Third, regarding priorities, it is true that both baptism and communion are not as important as Christ and salvation. As with all such matters of church order, we must be careful not to make majors out of minors. Conversely, we must be careful not to make nothing out of minors. Just because baptism itself is not a matter of heaven or hell does not mean that baptism is no matter at all. Jesus said that one of the ways we show our love to Him is in keeping His commandments (John 14:15). Though some commandments are not as important as others, we should cultivate our love to Christ in seeking to obey all His commandments in their proper order. Perhaps for this reason, Jesus testified, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).
Church order has its proper place, as Paul told the Corinthians, “Let all things be done properly and in an orderly manner” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Paul’s rationale was simple: “God is not a God of confusion, but of peace” (14:33). Church order is not an extra-credit project. It is a matter of obedience, and it reflects the orderly character of our God. Furthermore, church order is for edification (14:26). In other words, holding to matters of church order will benefits others, if done properly and with the right spirit. Personally, I have seen how requesting baptism before communion has led another individual to face the question of the genuineness of his own salvation. As John Calvin once wrote, proper church order safeguards the church’s message and worship (On the Reformation of the Church; cf. Titus 1:5, 10). So, even though neither baptism nor communion are themselves the great things of salvation, they do symbolize those great things, and have often been used to help individuals regarding those great things. In other words, requesting baptism before communion is the loving thing to do–loving to Christ and to others.
The Biblical Reasons for Baptism before Communion
In answering whether only baptized believers should come to the Table, we cannot simply quote the Bible. There is no command, “Thou shalt not take communion without baptism.” Lacking a prohibition is not uncommon. As John Piper commented in a sermon I once heard, the Holy Spirit often does not tell us directly what to do because He wants us to grow in our discernment (1 Corinthians 14:20). In this case, there appears to have been no reason for the apostles to have asked such a question because in their day baptism routinely followed conversion immediately. The book of Acts quickly bears this out (e.g. Acts 2:41; 8:12, 13, 36-38; 9:17-18; 10:47-48; 16:14-15, 33; 18:8; 19:5). In fact, we find Peter ordering Cornelius’ household to be baptized (10:48). We also find Ananias chiding Paul, “Why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:15). Moreover, Paul assumes that the recipients of his letters have been baptized (e.g. Romans 6:3-4; 1 Corinthians 12:13 in light of 10:1-4; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12). To be a Christian in the early days meant to be a baptized person. Baptism was a convert’s first public act of obedience to Jesus Christ. Therefore, why should we expect the New Testament to answer our question directly? Which apostle would have considered the unheard case of an unbaptized believer wanting to partake of the Lord’s Table?
The only exception may be a communion service where a person is converted during the service. This scenario is not as far-fetched as it may first appear, for communion offers a wonderful opportunity to preach the Gospel. According to Paul, communion is like a visual sermon, for as often as we do it, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Moreover, communion has an element of invitation, as when Jesus bid the disciples, “Take, eat” (Matthew 26:26). In communion, as Luther noted, we have the Gospel in short form. In taking the bread and the cup, it is as if we are taking Christ Himself to ourselves (see John 4:10 and 6:27, 51). Therefore, since Jesus offers Himself freely to sinners, it is tempting to offer the bread and cup freely to sinners as well. Given this rationale, it is not surprising that Solomon Stoddard of Puritan Massachusetts turned communion into evangelistic outreach, allowing unbelievers to eat of the Table. (Strangely, even these unbelievers had already been “baptized”¾as infants!)
As stated earlier, we must be careful about innovation. Stoddard’s zeal was commendable, but his innovation was firmly rejected by other pastors. Communion is a family meal. Jesus first instituted it in private among His disciples. While we do not have to do so privately, or imitate Augustine and other church fathers, who asked unbelievers to leave the room before communion, we must insist that only believers eat of the Table. Not to do so is to encourage men and women to eat and drink judgment to themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29). Moreover, if unbelievers were to eat of the Table, how would it remain a symbol of our union in Christ (10:16-17)? Therefore, leaving Stoddard’s innovation aside, we arrive back at the original question: Should a church request that only baptized believers partake of the Lord’s Table?
Let me offer three reasons why unbaptized believers should not eat at the Table:
First, the Great Commission teaches that a new disciple should first be baptized, and then be taught to do all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). Baptism is the first act of obedience; communion falls under the “all things.”
Second, baptism resembles the ritual washing needed to attend a ritual meal. According to Scripture, we have a spiritual altar, from which unbelievers have “no right” to eat (Hebrews 13:10). At communion, we spiritually feast upon Christ, who was offered once for us on the Cross (9:25-28). Unlike the Catholic Mass, which offers Christ repeatedly to God, we spiritually take a once-crucified Christ to ourselves, symbolized by the bread and the cup. In order to approach this altar, we must have had our conscience cleansed internally by faith, and our bodies washed externally in baptism (10:22). In essence, we resemble the Old Testament priests, who first had to be washed before they could touch the holy food as holy men (e.g. Exodus 29:4; 40:12; Leviticus 8:6).
Third, requesting baptism before communion makes the two rituals harmonious and consistent. Baptism is the symbol of initiation into Christ; communion is the symbol of continuation in Christ. Baptism occurs once; communion, repeatedly. In the nature of things, initiation occurs before continuation; therefore, baptism should occur before communion. It is only fitting. Furthermore, if baptism is not important enough to be requested, because it is a ritual, then neither is denying someone communion an important matter, for it also is a ritual. Conversely, if the rituals are important, then let them both occur and in their proper order. We should direct new converts to obey Christ in seeking baptism (e.g. Acts 2:38-39).
Ultimately, everything should be done in love (1 Corinthians 16:14). Does requesting baptism before communion encourage love towards Christ and love towards a brother or an outsider? I leave this for your own judgment to weigh. As a pastor, I am convinced that it does. May Christ bless His church through the ordinances He instituted! Amen.