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The Communion (3): Its Participants

Who may partake of the communion?

More to the point, should congregations restrict communion to its own members, make it available to everyone, or something in between? Here are some points to bear in mind.

Universal Communion

First, the communion, like every other act of worship, is designed for Christians to fellowship with God (1 Cor. 10.16). Christians who “partake of that one bread” acknowledge that “we, though many, are one bread and one body” (1 Cor. 10.17) — that is, we are members of one church (cf. Eph. 1.22-23; Rm. 12.5; Col. 3.15). Thus, when Jesus instituted the supper, he gave it to “the disciples” (Mt. 26.26).

Since that is so, those who have not yet been “baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12.13)—i.e., who are not his disciples—but who nevertheless “partake of that one bread, cannot claim that “we…are one body,” for they are not yet members of that “one body.”

In this sense, the communion has significance only to Christians. If a non-Christian happens to partake of the meal, they do so merely in friendly association (or common fellowship) with God’s people (cf. 1 Cor. 5.9-10), but the communal aspect of the supper is reserved only for those who belong to the body of Christ.

In much the same way, when a non-Christian guest sings, “we’re part of the family that’s been born again” (God’s family), that individual cannot truly claim to be a part of God’s family as of yet. However, what church would prohibit that individual from singing such songs with the church? While non-Christians may be participating in the worship, they do not yet share in the truth behind that act of worship.

In short, unbelievers may worship with the church, but they do not engage in Christian fellowship (i.e., full spiritual concord) with the church until they obey the gospel (cf. Rm. 6.17-18; 1 Jn. 1.6-7; 2 Cor. 6.14-16).

Brotherhood Communion

However, the Lord’s supper is open to all believers who have been baptized into Christ (cf. Gal. 3.26-27) — i.e., anyone who is a member of that “one body,” regardless of congregational membership.

When Paul and his company visited the congregation at Troas, they all partook of the meal (Acts 20.7). The church in Ephesus and the church at Corinth shared “one bread” (1 Cor. 10.17).

Accordingly, churches which restrict communion to its own local members fail to acknowledge the universal brotherhood of the church, for which the supper is intended. Thus, all Christians, regardless of their congregational affiliation, ought to partake of the communion.

Closed Communion

That said, the question that still concerns us is this: while unbelievers do not share in spiritual concord with Christians in the meal, should Christians actually debar unbelievers from partaking, or is it wiser to exercise tolerance with them in this matter, as we do with the other acts of worship?

While the New Testament itself does not sanction it, and there is no indication that either Christ or his inspired disciples ever debarred non-Christians from participating, closed communion is surely an ancient practice. Within a century after the close of the New Testament era, a document known as the Didache (c. 120-160 C.E.) reveals that it was already a common practice to prevent the unbaptized from participating in the communal ritual (cf. Didache 9.5; 10.6).

In his fascinating book, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Stephen Benko explains that the

“earliest Christian liturgy, the Didache, called on certain people to leave the service; first, in an ordinance that only those previously baptized could take part in the Eucharist and then, in the call after the service: ‘if anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not, let him repent’.” To some second-century Christians, the communion was “a mystery from which the uninitiated should be excluded” (112).

However, despite its age, there is much in the Didache that constitutes a departure from New Testament precedent (see [1] below for examples). Even in New Testament times, a departure from apostolic procedures was already at work (2 Thess. 2.1-12).

In that light, the Didache must not be construed as a perfect model for how the church offered the communion during the apostolic age.

Even so, the Didache argues for closed communion on the basis of Matthew 7.6: “Do not give what is holy to the dogs.”

From this argument, it is clear that the authors of the document were already laboring under the impression that the communal elements themselves were to be given a special — even sacramental — significance.

There are several flaws in this reasoning.

First, Matthew 7.1-6 concerns the proper way to “judge” or reprove others; it has nothing to do with the communion. Some individuals are particularly calloused and fiercely wicked. To rebuke such an individual would almost certainly redound to your hurt (cf. Prov. 9.7-8; 23.9).

Hence, the Lord is admonishing his disciples to use caution and prudence when dealing with individuals of this nature. Sometimes it is best just to hold your tongue, “shake the dust off your feet,” and give your judgments to others who display more receptive hearts instead (cf. Mt. 10.14; Acts 13.51; 18.6).

Second, the authors of the Didache infer that the term “dogs,” here, is reserved only for the unsaved (or “uninitiated”). In so doing, they have changed the identity of the Lord’s intended subjects. Hence, they have twisted this text to mean: holy things may only be given to Christians; non-Christians must not be given anything “holy.

Conversely, Jesus’ “dogs” refers to anyone with an animalistic disposition — particularly those who will not listen to reason and are prone to violent rejection. Even the “initiated” (i.e., God’s people) are prone to this disposition.

For example, Paul warned the brethren of Galatia and Philippi not to “bite and devour one another” and to beware of “the dogs” among the brethren who were attempting to drag the church back into Judaism (Gal. 5.15, 2ff; Phil. 3.2ff). Such individuals, though members of the covenant, shall receive their punishment (Gal. 5.10; Phil. 3.18-19). To reprove brethren who are so stubbornly insubordinate would be like trying to reason with a dumb, vicious animal. It is best just to leave them to their own self-destruction.

By contrast, there are many non-Christians who, although outside the covenant, nonetheless possess receptive hearts (cf. Lk. 8.15), who are more than willing to listen to a righteous man’s rebuke (cf. Acts 2.36-37). Such individuals, while as yet unsaved, were regarded as “devout” (Acts 2.5; 10.2), “fair-minded” (Acts 17.11), and “zealous toward God” (Acts 22.3). Jesus’ remarks in Matthew 7.6 do not pertain to such individuals!

Third, misusing this passage in this way can lead to devastating conclusions.

Consider this: the Scriptures are called “holy” (2 Tim. 3.15; cf. Rm. 7.12). If “dogs” refers to non-Christians (regardless of their disposition toward the truth), then is it wrong to give the holy Scriptures to non-Christians? Do not give what is holy [i.e., the Scriptures] to dogs [i.e., non-Christians]! Should only the “initiated” be given a copy of the “holy Scriptures”? Or, should we begin practicing “closed teaching” — i.e., whereby we ban the unsaved from receiving God’s holy message? Christianity would die within a single generation!

For that matter, if Matthew 7.6 really means what the Didache thinks it means, why should we allow any non-Christian to participate in any of our acts of worship? Every item of Christian worship — from singing (Col. 3.16), to teaching (Acts 20.7), to the collection (1 Cor. 16.1-2), to praying (Col. 4.2), to the communion (Acts 20.7) — is holy, for they are each set apart by God as directives in which God’s people ought to engage, by which we draw near to God in Christian “fellowship” (Acts 2.42).

Yet, having unbelievers participate in the worship assembly was a significant source for evangelizing the lost in the first century church (1 Cor. 14.24-25; cf. Acts 2.46-47; 3.11; 5.12-16). They were not to be excluded. Surely, then, the deficiency in this reasoning is readily transparent.

The heart of this issue is this: while all the acts of worship are holy, the communion is not holier than the rest. It is simply a memorial ordinance. Never do the Scriptures suggest that the communion, above the other acts of worship, confers a special blessing or grace on those who participate, just for participating in it (as in the sacramental system).

Some may be inclined to think that it is sacrilegious for an unbeliever to partake of the communion in particular, since anyone who partakes of the communion “in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself” (1 Cor. 11.29). Yet, the same may be said of those who sing, pray, give, and hear God’s word in an unworthy manner too (cf. Mt. 15.1-9). Shall we exclude unbelievers from our entire service, lest they engage in sacrilege?

These are surely difficult questions. Often, long-standing tradition skews our ability to see an issue clearly. But perhaps there are some points that will help us see through the murkiness.

A Balanced Approach

First, it is impossible to distinguish between visitors who are in Christ and those who are not at first glance. In fact, even after several encounters, no one can know an individual’s heart or read an individual’s mind telepathically (cf. 1 Cor. 2.13), and there some who flat-out misrepresent themselves (cf. Jude 4ff).

In that light, when the church offers a visitor the communion plate, it must do so with a certain degree of trust. It can hardly be held accountable for this.

Think of it in this way: there are some Christians who partake of the communion in an unworthy manner (e.g., they are insincere when they partake; etc.). Yet, how is the church to know what is going on in that brother’s heart when it offers the communion to him? Can it be held accountable for that brother’s vain worship?

Second, on the flip side of the coin, the communion is principally a matter of individual conscience. While the entire assembly may partake of the same meal together, each individual is responsible for his own self-examination (1 Cor. 11.28). In other words, it is not the church’s duty to determine whether each individual is participating worthily; that is up to each one present. The church may make the communion plates, the collection plates [2], the song books, and Bibles available for everyone to use, but it is up to each individual to use them properly.

Third, since Christians may engage in secular fellowship with unbelievers (1 Cor. 5.9-10), but not religious fellowship (2 Cor. 6.14-18) [3], we must take into account that there is a semantic distinction present in every worship assembly in which Christians and non-Christians are involved. While Christians may be fellowshipping one another in Christ, they are only fellowshipping with the unbelievers who are present in a sociable way. Hence, whereas Christians are partaking of the communion of Christ (1 Cor. 10.16), non-Christians who may consume the meal are merely partaking of bread and grape juice.

Fourth, the belief that the Lord’s Supper has a sacramental significance, above and beyond the other items of worship, has given rise to the inconsistent practice of closed communion. If the communion should be closed (i.e., debarred) to non-Christians, should not the collection, praying, etc., also be closed on the same basis?

In light of all of the above, what is the best policy for the church to follow in this matter?

That is, of course, ultimately up to each congregation to decide.

However, the approach which the Lord’s people have long taken with regard to the collection (and, tacitly, with the other acts of worship) appears to be the one most consistent with Biblical principles:

(1) Let us attempt to “persuade” (2 Cor. 5.11) non-Christians that they are outside the fellowship of Christ and stand in need of salvation (Acts 2.40; 3.19).

(2) Let us invite them to worship with us — to “come and see” (Jn. 1.39) what being a follower of Christ entails.

(3) Let us inform them that while worship is obligatory for Christians, they should not feel obliged to participate. If they do participate in the singing, they have not dishonored the services; if they do give to the collection, they have not sullied the treasury; if they do partake of the communion, they have not desecrated it; instead, they have merely consumed bread and juice. For them, such worship may be profane in nature (or even vain), but it may pave the way to their acceptance of and obedience to the gospel of Christ.

In short, the Scriptures neither debar nor instruct non-Christians to participate in the worship of the church; in the end, it is their choice, and each one will be held accountable for their own decisions.

End Notes

[1] Consider a few examples of such departures:

(1) Didache 8.1 directs Christians to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, contrary to 1 Tim. 4.1-5.

(2) It also requires those who wish to be baptized (as well as those who administer baptism) to fast for “one or two days” before the baptism (7.1). No such provision is ever indicated in the Scriptures, and, again, to “command to abstain from foods” is to “depart from the faith,” according to the apostle Paul (1 Tim. 4.1-5).

(3) It also places greater importance on baptizing in flowing or “living” water, as well as using warm water only if cold water cannot be found (ibid.). No such concerns are ever intimated by inspired penmen.

(4) Strangely, the document also argues that if neither cold nor warm water can be found, one may “pour out water three times upon the head” (ibid.). Aside from a non sequitur (i.e., what does the relative temperature of water have to do with the mode of baptism?), the New Testament is unequivocal in its insistence that baptism is to be a burial, which symbolizes the burial of Christ (Col. 2.12; Rm. 6.4). The term itself denotes: “to dip, immerse” (Ardnt, 131). Pouring water over the head is incompatible with these instructions.

(5) It condemns the reception of anything unless one has a need for it (cf. 1.1). Conversely, birthday gifts, holiday presents, and other frivolous items one may purchase purely for one’s godly pleasure are each authorized by the Scriptures, for God liberally provides not only for all our needs, but well beyond them (cf. Mt. 2.11; Eph. 3.20; Phil. 4.12; 2 Cor. 1.3f).

There are several other matters relating to church organization, eschatology, etc., that could be cited, but these will suffice. Even though the document is fairly brief, there are a sizable number of digressions from apostolic times (only a century earlier) recorded in this document alone. While several are relatively insignificant, their sheer volume is nonetheless alarming.

[2] It is strange that those who would cite Matthew 7.6 to prohibit passing the communion plate to a non-Christian are more than willing to pass the collection plate to them. Both are holy, and both are designed “for the saints” (1 Cor. 16.1f) as part of the “fellowship” of the body of Christ (Acts 2.42).

[3] In Paul’s context of this passage, fellowshipping with an unbeliever meant worshipping their idols — which he condemns. It did not mean having unbelievers present in Christian worship [hence, Paul said: “come out from among them” v.17, not send them out from among you]. Still, even in Christian worship, there can never truly be a “oneness shared” with an unbeliever, even though both engage in the same divinely-approved activity.


This is a 4-part Series:

The Communion (3): The Participants


Ardnt, William & Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1957. Benko, Stephen. Pagan Rome and the Early Christians. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Coxe (eds.). Translation by M.B. Riddle, Didache. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.


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