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Remembering Well

Toward a Scriptural View of Communion - or - My communion can beat up your communion.

Posted Monday, October 03, 2005 by Sam Yeiter

   We all do it.  We appeal to logic when we approach an issue that we feel scripture does not speak to explicitly.  Often this approach is helpful, and I would even say valid.  However, I believe that all too frequently we fail to do adequate study because we trust our logic so thoroughly.  I recently found reason for this accusation in myself with regard to communion, and I think probably it is a safe one to point at the academic/pastoral world as well.  I recall spending about eight minutes talking about the Lord’s Supper at seminary…add that to the 12 seconds I got at college, and all totaled I had only spent eight minutes and twelve seconds trying to think biblically about communion.

   This past week I was called out and asked to give a scriptural defense of open communion over against closed communion.  I could bring up a couple of texts that could be interpreted my way, but in the end I found myself saying, “Well, we are one body in Christ.  Open communion is simply the better picture of unity.  Ergo, closed communion is stupid and anyone who believes in it is stupid (insert other ad hominem attacks here…)

   As soon as I took a breath, I realized that I had not ever really studied it.  I am not suggesting that we abandon logic in the Christian life, but I found that for myself I had only logic and a proof-text.  So off I went…and now, off I go.


(If you read this post before 10/6, I have made several updates and shortened it a bit.)

   I am hoping to keep this discussion focused.  Often we are introducing too many ideas to keep straight on this blog (it may be that even I have transgressed in this way before).  I am planning on a couple more posts on the Lord's you'll have your chance to take shots at me on various aspects of it (namely, should the church be taking communion at all & what do the bread and cup symbolize).  But for now, I am hoping to keep us locked in on the question, “How do we properly regard the Lord’s Supper (or our remembrance of it)?”  Once we have answered that I will offer my answer to the question, “What does that look like?”

   So, lets assume for now that the Church today is to be taking communion, what teaching do we have regarding it?  The truth is, there doesn’t seem to be much to go on…and this probably explains why we’ve spent so little time thinking and talking about it.  However, as I see it, there are two key passages.  The first is in 1 Corinthians 5.  This is one of those passages I’ve read a hundred times, but never read.  Paul is angry about this flaming immorality and their arrogance over it.  It seems that they were proud of their open-mindedness or their liberty (or something similar).  But Paul roundly criticizes them.  He commands them to remove the man from their midst and invokes the Lord’s Supper.  In verse 7 he urges them to remove sin (yeast) from among them because Christ had been sacrificed as our Passover Lamb.  He then says, “Let us therefore celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”  Either he is really talking about communion, or he is saying, "Since Christ has come and died and risen, let’s live that way."  He goes on to say that immoral people who claim to be Christians ought to be shunned.  With the close proximity of verse 11, “with such a one, do not even eat,” to thePaul wants only Christians living like Christians to be treated like Christians by Christians. discussion about the Lord’s Supper, I am very tempted to say that Paul was telling them specifically to exclude this man (and others like him) from communion.  Now, even if that is not what is meant by verse 11, that would still be carried out by the shunning.  Paul wants only Christians living like Christians to be treated like Christians by Christians.  (If I knew how to do those fancy sidebar things, I'd make that last sentence one  - thanks Brian!).  From this chapter, it is clear that Paul holds the Lord’s Supper in high regard, and that those who are living in open sin ought to be prevented from taking it.

   The second passage is 1 Corinthians 11.  Here Paul is angry about their mistreatment of communion.  It is clear that he wants them to celebrate communion, but he wants it done rightly.  In this passage we learn that there is a possible death penalty associated with the wrong people (or the people with the wrong hearts) taking communion.  However, the burden of judgment here does not seem to be against the pastor or congregation as a whole, “For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if he does not judge the body rightly” (11:29).  In chapter 5, it was the whole church’s responsibility to protect the sanctity of their assembly, but in chapter 11, the weight is placed on each individual.  Why the disparity?  I would suggest that chapter 5 is dealing with open, known and identifiable sin, while 11 is dealing with sin that is not easily quantified (such as the attitude you bring to the Lord’s Supper).  As a pastor, I am not responsible if someone is taking communion that ought not be, only if I am ignorant of (or unable to prove?) their wrongful state.

   I’ve tried to stay on point…but lets come back to our question, “How do we properly regard the Lord’s Supper?”  I would suggest that Paul says that it is sacred, and ought to be treated as such.  It seems clear that it is for the assembled church, and that there are enforceable requirements for taking it (if you missed this, go back to chapter 5 and look up “shunning”).  

   Having said this, what does this look like today?  I think it is instructive that Paul never goes into detail about how it has to be carried out.  There is no one clear right way to observe communion.  I personally don’t think that the typical open communion is best.  You have no idea (in some cases), with whom you are taking communion (are they supposed to be under church discipline somewhere else?), and pastors wield very little protective power over its administration.  I also don’t think the typical closed communion is necessarily the answer either.  Closed communion gives the impression that only the hard core folks are worthy of this rite.  I do not think that the early church had a membership that correlates very well with ours…and even if they did, Paul never mentions a member’s only solution to their problems…it is in fact partially left up to the individual in chapter 11. 

   I see two main points that need to be central to communion. 1) It is for the assembled church, and thus the Pastor is given charge over its administration to his flock.  2) It is sacred and should be treated as such.  Thus, it should only be given knowingly to persons that are recognizable as being in a right relationship with God and his people (ie. Christians that are not being shunned).  I think this means that our communion should not be closed or open (in the extreme sense of both), but should be closingly-opened.

   Let me suggest a perhaps oversimplified resolution.  Instead of tacking it onto your normal service (sorry, we’ve just gotta get this communion over with), have a special time that is announced and explained from the pulpit as being for Christians only.  Encourage people to prepare themselves for the service before they ever show up (do we really think that 30 seconds of quiet before communion is what Paul was talking about?!).  Make a point of knowing the spiritual condition of those present and perhaps even close communion from those you don't know yet, and be willing to refuse communion to someone the church is supposed to be shunning (by the way, make sure you’ve gone through the proper biblical steps before taking this reformer’s stand).  And then make the service about remembering and communing with Christ and each other.  Finally, my personal suggestion would be to abstain from anything additional (eg. a full meal, special music, etc), until you find a way to actually make it contribute to the remembrance.     

   I know this has been too brief.  While I'm not expecting a warm reception, I would really like to hear your various comments.  I am always open to constructive criticism.

Friday, October 07, 2005 10:56 AM

Brian wrote: Closingly-Open? It sounds to me like you may be modifying closed communion only very slightly to allow the inclusion of regular attenders.

Friday, October 07, 2005 11:50 AM

Sam wrote: Do i need to be more provocative?
That's probably a fairly accurate assessment.  If you want me to be more provocative, i can suggest that a wide open communion doesn't square with Paul's take on the celebration (see 1 Cor 5).

Friday, October 07, 2005 6:25 PM

Charlie wrote:  I think I would like to take issue with your exegesis of chapter 5. It does not seem to me to be talking about the Lord's Supper at all. The passover acts as a metaphor for talking about getting rid of bad influences in the church and does not refer to the Lord's Supper. The "not even eating" seems to refer to actually eating a meal, which makes more sense in the context than the Lord's Supper. If it was just the Lord's Supper and not eating a normal meal, that does not seem to be enough punishment and does not worthy a "not even." For Paul to say that they should not associate with them and then say they should "not even share the Lord's Supper with them" is rather anticlimatic. So I would say that the Lord's Supper is included in an application of chapter 5, but it is not what he is talking about. And I would only exclude someone from the Lord's Supper if they were under church discipline, although if I wanted to do that based on 1 Cor 5 I might have to exclude them from our services as well, not just the Lord's Supper.

Sunday, October 09, 2005 6:47 PM

Sam wrote: Not even

   I will acknowledge that "not even" seems anticlimactic, and easily could point to mere eating (note that i only said i was tempted).  However, I am not certain that "not even" is necessarily the demanded translation of the mhde.  Regardless of what BDAG says (they offer no explanation), it seems that it could be just as easily be translated "nor."  That is how it is used in 5:8 and it would work to say, " must not associate...nor eat with such a one..."   Literary image or not, we have just been talking about the Passover (reinterpreted as the Lord's Supper) and will come back to it in chapters 10 and 11.  I don't think it should simply be written off as a possibility because the NASB chose to translate it a certain way. 

   My point in bringing chapter 5 into the picture is that Paul is defensive of the assembled church.  He does use Passover/Lord's Supper imagery here and then excludes the unrepentant brother from all parts of their lives.  Whether or not the church's eating together was for the Lord's Supper, it is clear that at least some of these early congregations included eating together as part of their assembled time (see Rom 14:21 [i might be reading into this one]; 1 Cor 10:16; 1 Cor 11:20-33; Gal 2:12; Acts 2:42-47; Acts 20:7).  I think these verses also demonstrate that the church of Corinth in particular connected eating and their assembly at least part of the time. 

   Even if you don't like my suggestion as to what the eating might be in verse 11, I think you/we need to take his commands in this passage seriously, and have the courage to "Expel the wicked man from among (us)."  Paul very obviously thinks of the church as a community, not individuals who get together because they like a certain pastor or the programs some church offers.  He is very protective of the church and (I think) would not hesitate to refuse communion to a so-called brother or disallow such a one from participating in an assembly...I see no other way to interpret 5:9ff.  Would such a stand be comfortable or popular?  Of course not, but there is not much comfortable about dealing with sin (in ourselves or in others). 

   I appreciate your critique of my treatment of chapter five...keeps me honest.  

   PS.  Charlie, help me remember to tug on your beard if i see you on my Tacoma visit (Josh asked me to do that for him).  Thanks.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005 10:31 PM

Sam wrote: Small Clarification In a later post i need to differentiate between the Lord's Supper and the Passover.  They are not the same, but bringing up the Passover sacrifice of our Lord is going to bring the rite of communion into the minds of the Corinthian audience (who probably do not celebrate the Passover...i could be wrong about that, by the way).  Is that better, Adam?

Thursday, October 27, 2005 11:51 AM

Sara wrote: How does this look?

So then, how would you actually prevent someone who has open sin from not taking communion?  Would you go up to them before the service and let them know that they are unfit, do you give a wink-wink nod-nod to the usher?  (Do you think that person would ever come back; is that even your concern?) Would you refuse communion to a visitor -- and how? By making an announcement that it's only for Christians known (by you personally) to be walking with God? 

Friday, October 28, 2005 9:18 PM

Charlie wrote:  That's a great question! What do you say Sam?

By the way, I missed seeing you. I don't suppose you are going to ETS this year?

Monday, October 31, 2005 11:04 AM

Sam wrote: Simple.
Actually, unless you are at MegaChurch where they might try to serve communion to thousands at a time, this is an easy proposition.  Simply change your delivery method.  Instead of sending out deacons/elders/deaconesses/trustees/trusteeettes with plates of bread and cups, have people come up to the front where they receive the bread from the pastor(s).  When the one who is not supposed to receive the supper comes forward, they are denied the elements.
If you are going to pass out the elements, you have no control other than simply asking people who ought not to take it to not take it (from the pulpit, not by name i assume!).

Tuesday, November 01, 2005 10:51 PM

Charlie wrote:  Do you deny it only to people under church discipline? And unknown visitors? Can someone be at a spot where their sin isn't bad enough for church discipline but is bad enough to keep them from the Lord's Supper?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005 9:10 AM

Sam wrote: Worth the wait?
Sorry this has been so long in coming....hope it was worth the wait...
What i am suggesting is keeping communion community-oriented.  To lock out all non-members is to miss the nature of the universal church, but to be non-discriminate with regard to inclusion is to miss the high regard for the purity of the local church.  The people i would exclude are those under church discipline and those about whose spiritual/community state i am unaware. 
With regard to your question about seems to me that you're possibly misunderstanding church discipline.  Church discipline isn't about expelling those who commit the really big sins.  Church discipline should begin with one believer seeing a brother or sister straying, so they go to them and hope to restore them via repentance.  Ex-communication doesn't occur until they have steadfastly refused to repent.  The specific sin (gossiping, lying, coveting, or murder) isn't what is important, but rather their response to confrontation/chastening.

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