Many of us have never considered whether or not we should take the Lord’s Supper when it is offered during a worship service. This is because, in many cases, churches do not teach on this topic — which is unfortunate and unusual. Unfortunate because taking the Supper improperly comes with consequences (1 Corinthians 11:27-30). Unusual because Christians of every tradition have believed for 2,000 years that the Supper is only for specific people.
Historic Christian teaching holds that baptism is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper. The latter is understood to be a symbolic act of obedience, whereby members of the church memorialise the death and resurrection of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming. In other words, the Lord’s Supper is for baptised believers who belong to a church. Let’s look at the three parts of this understanding of the Supper.
Historic Christian teaching holds that baptism is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper
First, the Lord’s Supper is for believers. It is for those who have trusted Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. The Supper proclaims that Jesus shed His blood and gave His body to save sinners. Therefore, those who believe this are the ones who should take it.
We also know that the Supper is for believers because eating it wrongly carries the threat of judgment. 1 Corinthians 11:27 says, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” One way to take the Supper in an “unworthy manner” would be to take it as an unbeliever. By definition, an unbeliever does not discern the connection between Jesus’ death and their need for forgiveness.
It is therefore loving for churches to instruct non-Christians to not partake of the Supper. Of course, unbelievers should feel welcomed and loved by the congregation. But they should also get a sense that they are “outsiders” (1 Corinthians 14:23). They should see the love we have for Christ and for each other and want to be part of it. They need to understand that if they do not repent of their sins and trust in Jesus, they will remain outside of Christ and His people. Bobby Jamieson, in his book Understanding the Lord’s Supper, says, “That the Lord’s Supper is only for believers actually clarifies the gospel and reminds non-Christians of their need for Christ. The plate passes them by because they are passing Christ by.”
Second, the Lord’s Supper is for baptised believers. Baptism is when a Christian publicly professes their faith in Christ (Acts 2:38-41). It’s our public commitment to Christ and His people. It’s how a church affirms a person’s profession of faith and their new identity. That’s what it means to be baptised “into the name” of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). At our baptism, the church affirms that we bear the family name of our trinitarian God.
If baptism is how we publicly profess our faith in Christ, the Lord’s Supper is how we regularly renew our faith in Christ. It’s the repeated reaffirmation of our commitment to Christ and His people. Therefore, a person must be baptised before they take the Supper because you have to make a profession before you can renew a profession. We have to make a commitment to Christ before we can renew it.
Third, the Lord’s Supper is for baptised believers who belong to a church. The New Testament makes it clear that those who come to Christ come into a church. At Pentecost, those who repented and believed were baptised and added to the church that day (Acts 2:38-41). Even when Jesus called His first disciples, He called them into a group (Mark 3:13-19). To become a follower of Jesus is to become a member in His body (1 Corinthians 12:12-26). The New Testament knows nothing of churchless Christians.
To become a follower of Jesus is to become a member in His body. The New Testament knows nothing of churchless Christians
Becoming a member of a church is that church’s way of affirming that a person “walks the walk and talks the talk” — that they have truly trusted in Christ and repented of their sins. Someone who is not a member of a church is like a free agent. As one pastor says, they are like a “brick that has jumped out of the wall, a hand that cut itself off from the body, a self-made orphan”. Therefore, if a person does not belong to a church, how can we be sure that they are baptised followers of Jesus?
The Lord’s Supper is a meal for the church, not a private meal for friends. A professing Christian who does not belong to a church should come into fellowship with the body before they celebrate the fellowship of the body. As Jamieson says, “He needs to join the family before he sits down at the family table. He needs to commit to the church before he can renew that commitment in the Lord’s Supper.”
For these reasons, when our church observes the Lord’s Supper, I will say something to the effect of, “The Supper is for Christians who’ve been baptised and are a member in good standing of a gospel-preaching church.” It is our way of guarding the Supper from being partaken of in an “unworthy manner” (1 Corinthians 11:27).
A weekly brief of new resources and Scripture-based insights from our editorial team.