The role of communion

Were this being written from a Brethren perspective the title of this post might refer to ‘the Breaking of Bread’, were it Anglican it might be ‘Eucharist’ and were it certain reformed churches it may be ‘the Lord’s Supper.’ Although, between denominations, the words we use may differ and the means by which we receive the emblems varies the function and purpose of Communion remains the same. This post will refer to the taking of bread and wine as ‘Communion.’

It is possible to cite three main reasons why we take Communion. Firstly, it exists for the believer to remember Christ’s death and give thanks for purchasing their salvation (see Luke 22:19-20; 1 Cor. 11:26). Secondly, it exists for believers to show their unity in Christ with one another (see 1 Cor. 10:16-17; 1 John 1:3; 1 John 1:7). Thirdly, it exists to let us look forward to Christ’s return and the day he will call us to be with Him (see Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18; Mark 14:25; 1 Cor. 11:26).

With these things in mind, and starting from a point upon which the vast majority would agree, we must firstly state that Communion is only for believers. Clearly, only believers can give thanks that Christ has purchased their salvation, only believers can claim to be one with other believers in Christ and only believers can look forward to the coming parousia. On this basis, some argue that the only requirement for taking Communion is to be a believer. However, others stipulate that one should be a member of a local congregation and, by extension, baptised before they can participate. Whilst I by no means take umbrage with those who suggest salvation is the only requirement for participation in Communion it would be my contention that the latter is the correct position for two principle reasons.

Firstly, one central purpose of Communion is to show our unity with other believers in Christ. If we are not willing to publicly join in membership with a local body of believers, how far can we say that we are truly united with them? If we reject fellowship with our fellow believers through joining a local church then we cannot expect to show our unity in Christ by taking Communion. Secondly, Paul states that

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

From this, we must determine that those who are in rebellion to God and harbour unrepentant sin should not take the emblems. This clearly rules out the non-believer, however, this may extend to some believers as well.

Peter is quoted very clearly in Acts 2:38 saying “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins (ESV).” Jesus also commanded the disciples to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Matt 28:19-20a).” The apostle John notes ‘By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome (1 John 5:2-3).’ When we consider all these verses together we must assert that those who refuse to be baptised are going against a clear scriptural command. Furthermore, by refusing to be baptised thereby not keeping a clear command, John suggests that this represents a lack of love for God and, by extension, fellow believers. If we shun the public statement of unity in Christ through baptism how can we legitimately show unity by taking Communion? 

As a result, one who will not become baptised or join in fellowship with a local church cannot be said to be unified with their fellow believers. They are openly rejecting scriptural commands and, as John notes, the sign of love for our fellow believers is that we love God and keep his commands. If we do not keep his command to be baptised we are not keeping his commands. If we will not publicly declare our unity through baptism or membership how can we claim unity with fellow believers? In reality, if we continue in rebellion against God we cannot be thankful for his forgiveness and we cannot participate in an act of unity as we are not truly united. On this basis, it is possible to argue that communion should only extend to baptised believers who are joined in fellowship to a congregation.

I would also contend that, given who it is for and the importance attached to it, Communion warrants its own service. Firstly, it seems a shame when Communion is relegated to a 10 minute tag-on at the end of a Sunday service. If we really believe that Communion is important should we not devote more time to it and make it the central focus of its own service? Secondly, given who Communion is for, the difficulties in stating the church’s position on Communion and refusing the emblems to the ineligible are made much more problematic during normal Sunday services. Were the Communion given a service of its own the potential for ineligible people wishing to partake would be lessened and the ability to withold the emblems from those within the congregation (but not eligible to take part) need not become a major point of contention or awkwardness and need not draw the focus away from the centrality of Christ.

Above all else, Communion exists for believers to thank Christ for his atoning work on the cross, to show unity with fellow believers and to look forward to Christ’s return. These issues are central and should provide the basis for all that happens in a Communion service.

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