Communion, membership and the reality of fellowship

Just before I became pastor of Oldham Bethel Church, I was careful to try and outline some of things I intended to do. My goal in doing that was simple. I wanted to explain some of things I was going to do and give the church the opportunity to say I was not the man for them if they did not want me to do them.

One thing I was clear on was the need to overhaul our membership structures. The church did have a membership but it bore little to no relation to either baptism or communion. It was my stated intention to make baptism the marker of entry to the church and communion the mark of ongoing right standing within the fellowship. In other words, no baptism; no membership. No membership; no communion. Baptism and communion were both now to be signs of membership.

I was always amused, sometimes bemused, by those who advocated strongly for an open table. I distinctly remember a discussion with one church member who had vociferously rejected any prospect of restricted communion. I pointed out that the church already restricted communion to professing believers and I only intended to make that clearer by permitting those whom the church could affirm as believers to the table. The member remained entirely unmoved and I determined not to push it any further. Not long after that discussion though, this same member approached me after the service in a state of vexation. The conversation went something like this:

‘I am worried about some people taking communion.’
‘Why is that?’
‘I’ve seen people taking communion and I’m not sure they’re Christians!’
‘Right? But that is the system you fought me tooth and nail to maintain – the one where we leave it up to people to decide whether to take communion with no regard for what anybody else may think.’
‘Yes. But they shouldn’t be taking it!’
‘Why not?’
‘Because they’re not Christians!’
‘I know. But what do you want me to do about it when we have an open table?’
‘You should stop them.’
‘On what ground?’
‘On the ground that they’re not a Christian.’
‘But they say they are a Christian.’
‘But I don’t think they are.’
‘Nor do I. That is why I haven’t baptised them and welcomed them into membership.’
‘So why are you giving them communion?’
‘Because you insisted that we invite everyone to partake of communion who professes faith. Would you like to support restricted communion?’
‘Oh no! We don’t want that.’
‘So what do you want me to do about it?’
‘… well… I… it’s just not right!’

As it happens, some time after this conversation, we did bring in close communion. We now have a stated position that communion is for those who profess faith and are continuing in good standing in a local church.

But the conversation helps to outline why close communion is important. It doesn’t resolve the problem of people taking communion wrongly. I am quite sure there are still people who take communion wrongly (both in and out of membership). So, it is not a silver bullet for making sure nobody takes communion inappropriately.

Instead, it gives us a ground for withholding communion. Under an open table, those in the gravest of sin may continue taking communion because they have examined themselves and determined they may partake. This, despite the widespread feeling of the church that their lifestyle makes clear they should not be partaking. But if the table if open, it is open.

If the people taking it are not in membership, removing communion as a means of discipline is a nonsense because they aren’t under the authority of the local church to begin with and never submitted to it. You can’t enact church discipline against someone who doesn’t belong to the church and that extends to the Lord’s Supper. What is more, this view of an open table plays into the rampant individualism that has so adversely affected the Evangelical church at large. It is open, and I examine myself, because it is about nothing other than me and my walk with the Lord.

But if we understand communion rightly, it is a communal meal. It is not something we do on our own but corporately as a body. It means that I am not merely there to examine myself alone but am to examine myself in relation to the wider body. Likewise, the body is affirming together that those who eat the supper are in right standing with one another.

Close communion is a reaffirmation each week of our right standing within the body. It is a memorial meal that says I am in right fellowship with the Lord and, as a result, continue in right fellowship with my brothers and sisters. We baptise people into the local church on profession of their faith and they receive communion as a re-affirmation of that same faith. The church, likewise, removes the Lord’s Supper from those who show they are not walking rightly in the faith. Communion is not merely the affirmation of the individual but the corporate affirmation of the church together, in the same way as baptism and membership are similar corporate affirmations of the same faith in evidence.

It strikes me that far from being unloving and unkind, close communion gives a much less personal line of admittance. Rather than being a subjective view determined by whoever doles out the elements, we have an objective line that permits one to partake. We don’t try and judge the heart (that we can’t see) but act upon the outward manifestation of a heart changed by Christ, a love and commitment to his people (which we can see). Those who are in right standing with a local church, who have been affirmed as believers by a local church, may partake. Those who profess faith, but not so much that they see fit to join formally with the Lord’s people, do not evidence the right standing with God’s people that they want to affirm by taking the Lord’s Supper.

Rather than pointing to the heart we can’t see, we point to the membership that we can see (or, as it happens, that we similarly can’t see). We say that the Lord’s Supper is for those who have professed faith in Christ and shown evidence of that faith in their commitment to God’s people. This seemed to be John’s concern in 1 John 1:3-4. They took the gospel out so that they might have fellowship with those they are reaching, which necessarily centres on Christ, and their joy is completed by such fellowship. The Lord’s Supper expresses that joy of fellowship together in Christ, which is hard to maintain when you won’t join in fellowship with the local church.

Communion itself is a local church ordinance to express the fellowship of the church together in Christ. To express fellowship in the Lord’s Supper, whilst refusing to express it in church membership, is perverse. To enact discipline against those who haven’t joined the local church is all but impossible. It is in the confines of local church membership that the Lord’s Supper makes much sense.