Saturday, September 30, 2017

Inbox: Policing the Table

A reader queries an older post. Jeff asks:

“Are there any hard guidelines as who can eat the Lord’s supper? You refuted a few in this post but are there others not mentioned? (i.e., baptism, member of a local church, a women who doesn’t want to wear a head covering, etc.)

Also, who has the authority to decide who gets to eat and who doesn’t? Obviously God has given us certain instructions pertaining to church order, is it the elders / pastors / leaders’ job to police these issues?”

Good questions, Jeff.

Comparatively little is explicitly laid out of us in the New Testament concerning the Lord’s supper. Even the frequency with which we are to share in it is a matter hotly debated, as we are left to infer it from early church practice rather than given a direct command. Now, an inference is not nothing, of course, but it’s not really a “hard guideline” either, is it? Our conclusions about these matters, then, are drawn primarily from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 10:16-22 and 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, supported by the historical record in Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26 and Luke 22:14-20 (John doesn’t mention it; one possible explanation for his omission may be found here).

Who’s Got the Sheriff’s Badge?

Let’s deal with the second part of Jeff’s question first, which is essentially Who decides these matters? That’s a question unanswered in any of the passages I’ve made reference to above, but it’s not a difficult one.

The writer to the Hebrews gives this general principle:
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”
This is consistent with what the Lord Jesus taught his Jewish followers about their own religious leaders, though the scribes and Pharisees he described were not of a high calibre:
Do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.”
Ruining God’s Temple

Another verse may be relevant to disagreements with church leadership:
“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Here, both context and grammar demand we read the “you” as collective, referring to the local Corinthian body of believers. Also, “destroy” in this context does not mean to annihilate, but to corrupt or ruin for a particular purpose, usually by redirecting others from what they should really be doing. With that in mind, it certainly seems possible to “destroy” God’s temple in this sense by being the sort of person who encourages rebellion against church authority, either by teaching or by example.

On that basis alone, the believer who holds the New Testament in high regard is compelled to respect his local leaders and obey their traditions and policies, even though they may be dead wrong. So, yes, in that sense it is up to the local leadership to establish how such questions are to be dealt with, and up to the rest of us not to visibly rock the boat even if we may think them a bit high-handed about it.

A Personal Take

My own take on it is that policing these issues is best done very lightly indeed, not because they are unimportant, but because I do not find in the New Testament any “intermediate” stage in church discipline where a professing Christian is excluded from fellowship at the Lord’s table, yet remains otherwise welcome to gather with believers.

There is “Purge the evil person from among you” (which is a drastic step that involves the (hopefully temporary) removal from fellowship of professing Christians who are sexually immoral, drunks, cheats, greedy or characteristically abusive) ... and then there is normal Christian fellowship, which includes breaking bread.

There is no stage in between; that is, unless your local elders have decided to make one up — which is why I would counsel those who bear these responsibilities to proceed with caution if they go about restricting access to the Lord’s table. I am not the first to note that the instructions not to eat and drink in an “unworthy manner” or “without discerning the body” are directed to the individual conscience (“Let a person examine himself”), not to church leaders.

Thus, I read Paul to teach that the elder’s responsibility is to be diligent about making professing Christians aware of the dangers inherent in sharing in the Lord’s table. They are a good source of advice if you question whether your own participation is appropriate. I do not believe their mandate extends to physically preventing that participation, nor that it extends to publicly humiliating any who insist upon it. Assuming leadership is correct in its assessment of the spiritual state of would-be-participants, I’m confident the Lord can make their authority clear to anyone foolish enough to resist it.

Practical and Theological Answers

With all this teaching about church authority in mind, the practical answer to first few questions (the ones about who can eat the Lord’s supper) really boils down to “What is the policy of the elders in your church?” They may be right, or they may be wrong, but it falls to them to decide before the Lord what they must do, and it falls to us to respect that.

The more theological answer as to who can eat the Lord’s supper would be “the Lord’s disciples”, whose feet he had first washed (something which may equate to “let a person examine himself” in our modern experience). That’s who shared with him in the first supper, just as it is “brothers” Paul contemplates being present when the Lord Jesus was remembered in Corinth. That’s the only limitation I can find.

(It is debated whether Judas was still present when the Lord broke bread and passed it around. If Luke’s order of events within the Supper is chronological, it would appear he was, but John’s “immediately” may suggest otherwise. I’m not sure much turns on it, since it is evident that throughout church history the Lord’s supper has been taken many times both by unbelievers and by men and women in a sub-optimal moral state. The difficulty of distinguishing between the false and the true in the kingdom is well-established and fully anticipated by God, and those false-hearted individuals who deliberately try to pass themselves off as believers with a good conscience toward God do so at their own peril.)

The Not-So-Hard Guidelines

As to Jeff’s specific questions, I am not aware of any “hard guidelines” in the New Testament with respect to baptism, church membership or the willingness of a woman to cover her head:
  • Baptism is the norm for believers, and in the New Testament is always associated with conversion. It would seem unusual for a believer to reject baptism while desiring to share in the Lord’s supper, but I’m sure it happens, perhaps with very young believers who have unsaved or Catholic parents opposed to water baptism. Again, the policy of the local elders should govern here, though opinions vary.
  • Church membership is a hot topic at this blog, and I’d point anyone interested to IC’s fine post on the subject, with which I heartily agree. The Lord’s supper should certainly not be restricted to “church members”, though I believe many churches do just that.
  • Finally, church leadership’s policy on the participation in the Lord’s supper by women who don’t want to wear headcoverings will be necessarily informed by its convictions about headcoverings, which also vary substantially within evangelicalism. It seems to me there is a difference between a woman who is in rebellion and a woman who hasn’t yet come to grips with Paul’s teaching on the subject, and the way local elders handle such a person will probably come down to individual attitude.
But, again, how these things are dealt with must be derived from other principles of church order, rather than from specific verses. In his wisdom — and perhaps to give us the opportunity to choose obedience, trust and discernment over wrangling about legalities and just doing the bare minimum required — the Lord has not seen fit to address these questions individually in his word.


  1. Agreed. And the key verse about this says, "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." (1 Cor. 11:29). Now, we note it does not say, "he eats and drinks judgment upon the local church," or "he eats and drinks judgment on the elders."

    It's on HIMSELF.

    I think that makes it pretty clear who has the issue if a person comes to the Lord's Table casually, or in wrong motives or condition. It's on his own head, not on anybody else's. Period. Full stop.

    And though we might, in well-meaning folly, imagine we ought to protect other people from making such a serious mistake, we are not instructed to do so in Scripture. Worse still, doing so would require us, or the elders, to imagine we know a man's heart...which we cannot know without decisive outward evidence, and even then not precisely.

    Moreover, while I hear people say how awful it would be to approach the table unworthily and to incur condemnation, I hear very little said about the sin of arbitrarily barring a genuine Christian from his or her rightful participation.

    Are we so sure that erring on the side of refusing people is any better than the thing we are trying to prevent?

    I think we're best to let the responsibility rest where the Lord Himself has put it -- with the one who approaches the table, and not to arrogate to ourselves the right to police the table.

  2. Thanks for answering this question! I couldn't agree more.

    1. Always happy to be on the same page, Jeff.