It was my fourth week as the senior pastor of Liberty Baptist Church and I received the nastiest voicemail message I have ever heard. The lady who left the message said she had been visiting for several months and was close to becoming a member of our church. That changed after I explained the Lord’s Supper. This woman, who kept her identity anonymous, was so upset that she informed me that she would never set foot in our church again. I found out later that she stormed out of our sanctuary. What made her so furious?
I explained that the Lord’s Supper, according to Scripture, is exclusive—that is it’s not for everyone. And it’s not even for people who have only made a profession of faith. I taught that it is only for believers, who have been baptized as a Christian, and are in good standing with their local church. And since this is our church’s biblical conviction, we ask those who do not meet these prerequisites not to join us at the Lord’s Table.[i]
I admit this can come across as arrogant and close-minded, but our commitment to understanding and applying God’s Word correctly is one reason we restrict those who come to the Lord’s Table. Another reason is our concern for others’ well-being. Paul warned that partaking of the Lord’s Supper can actually do harm to those who do not take it rightly (see 1 Cor. 11:17-34).
Here I will explain my position more fully. I believe these are King Jesus' parameters for those who are authorized to come to his table. He instituted the Lord’s Supper so he has the authority to say who is eligible to eat it and we don’t have the right to overrule his ordinances with our preferences.
The Lord’s Supper is for believers.
Luke 22:15 teaches that the Lord’s Supper originates with Passover, which is first recorded in Exodus 12. In that account, God is preparing to judge Egypt and redeem his people. The final plague will claim the life of every firstborn son. To escape this judgment, God’s people must sacrifice a lamb, apply its blood to their doorposts, and eat the Passover meal. In doing so, they will be spared of God’s judgment and redeemed from bondage.
Since this is the context in which Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, it follows that this meal is only for those who believe in the promises of the gospel. It is reserved for those who have been delivered from God’s judgment by trusting in the sacrifice of the true Passover Lamb and thus have had the blood of Jesus applied to their hearts by faith.
The Lord’s Supper is for believers, who have been baptized as a Christian.
If someone has truly accepted Christ by faith then they will obey his command to be baptized. Baptism is not a ritual to make us feel good or personally fulfilled. It is a command from King Jesus that his followers must obey. Someone who professes Christ, but refuses to obey him by publicly identifying with him through the waters of baptism is confused about what it means to trust and follow Christ. A refusal to be baptized could be evidence that a person is not actually a believer.[ii] Thus a person should be baptized by immersion before observing the Lord’s Supper.
Additionally, the New Testament knows of no Christian who observes the Lord’s Supper without first having been baptized.[iii] The sequence in Scripture for every single conversion is first to trust in Jesus, then be baptized, and then to observe the Lord's Supper. This is clearly seen throughout the book of Acts as well as in Jesus’ own words to his church: “Go therefore and make disciples...baptizing them...teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus clearly taught that only after a disciple is made, he is to be baptized. And then after he is baptized, he is to obey his other commands, which would include the command to take the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is for believers, who have been baptized as a Christian and are in good standing with their local church.
The Lord’s Supper is not merely for the individual believer, but also for the corporate church. Three times in his instructions to the Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper, Paul explains that this special meal should only be observed when the church “[comes] together” (1 Corinthians 11:18, 20, 33). The clear implication is that the Lord’s Supper is by nature corporate and public. The Lord’s Supper is meant to express not just our individual fellowship with Jesus, but also our corporate fellowship with the local church to which we belong.
If a professing, baptized Christian is under church discipline and thus out of fellowship with Christ and the church, Scripture forbids the church to allow that person to eat the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Corinthians 5:11). The whole reason for barring them from the Table is so that they will forsake their sin and be restored to Christ and his church, experiencing the joy of fellowship with him and his body.
So if someone is not in good standing with their local church—either because they are not a member of one or because they have been put out of the fellowship due to unrepentant sin—then they should not be permitted to the Lord’s Table. To allow them to do so is to contradict what is clearly taught in Scripture.
What do you think? Have I correctly understood the Scriptures on this subject? Let me know your thoughts. But please, no livid voicemails.
[i] This is commonly referred to as “fencing the table.”
[ii] I do not think that those who believe paedobaptism is a valid form of baptism are unregenerate.
[iii] While Christians have disagreed on what constitutes a valid baptism, virtually all Christians for the last 2000 years have agreed on this point: baptism always precedes the Lord’s Supper.