At the front of the sanctuary is a table made of wood and stained to a beautiful golden oak. On it are inscribed the words “This do in remembrance of me.” A pagan visiting the church might be forgiven for wondering what is to be done in remembrance of whom. Perhaps our pagan is a curious sort and decides to come back again the next week. And then the next. And yet again. How many times would he have to return before finding out what exactly this table is for?
Baptists (like myself) are not sacramentalists. That is, we do not believe that some sort of saving grace is conferred upon the person who receives or performs a religious act, such as baptist or Communion. Nevertheless, we practice both of these rituals under the label of “ordinance”. While baptisms are celebrated, it has been my experience that communion is not. I’d like to suggest a couple of reasons why this is the omitted ordinance and then make a modest proposal.
We Don’t Value the Lord’s Table
There are many baptists who, judging by their actions, don’t seem to have much use for the Lord’s Table. In some churches it is only given as a sort of threat and everyone spends some time sweating over their sin before partaking. Often it is regulated to a quarterly or bi-annual occasion to which only members are summoned. Perhaps there is some residual fear left over from our Baptist forefathers that we will come across as Catholics if we observe it too frequently. But this fear is really misplaced because the table of the Lord is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is His broken body and His blood shed for the remission of our sins. It points us away from ourselves and to the Lamb of God. It humbles our acts of self-righteousness before a supreme act of sincere righteousness.
Just because Communion is not salvific, it doesn’t follow that it is ineffective. We pray in church, knowing that our prayers cannot save us. We attend church, knowing that church attendance will not cleanse us from our sin. We worship in church knowing that even our anthems of praise must be washed in the blood of the Lamb before they can be presented to our Holy Father. Why shouldn’t the act of communion have a spiritual effect upon us? Can we not walk away from the Lord’s table strengthened, humbled, provoked to love the body, and satisfied with our Savior? I can tell you of times when I was revived at the table of the Lord and strengthened by the Bread of Life and do I feel guilty about that? Do I feel as though I have moved toward Catholicism or Lutheranism? I do not. I rejoice in my Savior.
Christ left us this act for our good. Let us use it for our good and for His glory.
We Don’t Have a Good Ecclesiology
My Ecclesiology class in Bible college was a bit of a mishmash of the Purpose Driven Church and some guided conversation. But that’s par for the course in an evangelical culture that is saturated in consumerism and a sense of individual autonomy, not to mention the constant propaganda that success can be measured in numbers, platforms, book deals, and re-tweets. In such an environment, we have forgotten that the local church is not a club to which you pay dues until you no longer feel like doing so. You don’t pay dues because Christ has paid for you. You are bought with a price and now you belong to Jesus. And the world knows who belongs to Jesus because those who belong gather under spiritual leadership to be instructed in the Word, minister to one another, and properly use the gifts of baptism and communion in their local assemblies.
The Lord’s table is at the center of where we gather. Not the beautifully adorned piece of furniture: the Lord’s table is the broken body we eat and the blood of the New Covenant we drink. And as you eat and drink in the presence of those with whom you are living as the community of Christ, you look around and see others who also have been purchased by Christ. It is there that we welcome the sheep for whom the Lamb died and we shepherd them at the table. Guarding the table is a genuine function (as demonstrated in 1 Corinthians 5) of the eldership of the church, but we are not guarding the table from the imperfect, or the struggling, or the faint of heart. These are the ones who most need to find themselves back at the foot of the cross where love and mercy meet, and where righteousness and justice kiss. It is only the intentionally rebellious who trample underfoot the blood of the new covenant that are to be censored.
As I interpret the Scriptures, I find that the most consistent way to observe communion is by limiting it to the membership of my own congregation. Else, how do we fence the table? As it relates to the local church, those who have gathered on the Lord’s Day consist of your own membership, those visiting who belong to another congregation, those who do not belong to any congregation, and those who are unbelievers. As you invite your congregation to the table of the Lord, some may feel excluded. And I would say that this is not a bad thing. Those who are visiting from another congregation should be provoked to remember their own assembly and desire to return to the care of their spiritual shepherds and the various members of their body with whom they have covenanted together. Those without a church home should be reminded that the normal position of a believe is in the body and they should actively seeking such a body. If they are unbelievers, they should see the beauty of the gospel displayed and be convicted to come and belong.
When I became the pastor, our church did not have a preferred method of observing Communion. It’s been a few years, but I remember trying to observe Communion before business meetings, at Christmas, Easter, and New Years, and maybe some other times. It was pretty haphazard. I’m sure there were times when went months without observing Communion. It was rare enough that I’m sure we had members who had not been to the Lord’s Table in over a year. So while we had a true membership in the sense that all members attended at least on Sunday morning regularly and all had testimonies of salvation and all were receiving pastoral care, we were not regularly gathering around the Lord’s Table.
One summer month, I announced that we would observe Communion every Sunday night in our service and I would preach about belonging to the body of Christ. Still, not every member attended – some for legitimate reasons and others because they just didn’t make the effort. So I decided that if Sunday morning was when all of our membership was most likely to be present, then we would start observing Communion on Sunday morning.
We started with open communion. We announced that all genuine believers in Christ were welcome. “After all,” I reasoned, “who am I to keep a child of God away from the table?” Not only that, but I had been blessed to observe Communion with believers in Scotland, Japan, and Mexico, so it seemed hypocritical to limit its observance. But I quickly noticed that these instructions were so broad that they caused confusion. Many Americans think they are genuine believers just because they are Americans. So were left with this quandary of risking offending people by limiting the observance of Communion to members during a public worship service. After contemplation, we decided that was the right risk to take.
So here’s how we do it. We observe Communion on the first Sunday morning of every month. Early in the service we make an announcement that goes something like this, “Thank you for worshiping the Lord with us this morning. It is our practice for the membership of our church to observe Communion on the first Sunday morning of every month. If you do not have a church home, we would love to talk with you about becoming a member here. If you are not a believer or are not sure what it means to be a believer, we hope you will come talk to us after the service about any questions you have.” At that point, I give a short Communion meditation and then we distribute the elements to our membership. This is followed by a hymn that points us to the gospel (we probably sing the Getty’s Commuion Hymn quartlery).
I understand that this can be a bit of an emotionally jarring experience in a world that prides itself on inclusivity. It is not our goal to make people who may already feel uncomfortable in church feel even more uncomfortable. We try to mitigate some of those feelings by observing Communion early in the service, allowing people to “settle down” emotionally. And it is true that we have gotten feedback that not being allowed at the table of the Lord bothered them. Some of those people left and never came back. Some joined the church. And some received Christ and followed Him in baptism.
A Modest Proposal
I’m not suggesting you do everything like we decided to do it. I’m not even suggesting you hold to the same Ecclesiology that I do. I have told our congregation that we may not always follow the same pattern we are currently using. I am suggesting you should think about the importance of the Lord’s Supper in the life of your congregation. Christ left us this ordinance for our good, and if your church is like mine, you need all the help of Christ that you can get. If you were to survey your membership and ask how they are helped by your corporate gatherings, would any of them even consider Communion as a possible answer? Do you have a piece of furniture at the front of your church that says “This DO in remembrance of Me”, but you never DO?
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.1 Corinthians 11:26