Communion: Where to draw the line?

Aug 1, 2017 by

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One Sunday morning some years ago, I leaned against the back of a church pew, and with tears in my eyes confided to a friend.

This woman is a sincere Christian, even though she’s not a member of our congregation. She tries to dress like us, and faithfully comes to church. Yet she’s not allowed to have communion. Why? Isn’t Christ’s sacrifice for her, too?

My friend was taken aback. “But we have to draw the line somewhere!” she said.

I let the subject drop for the sake of peace, but those words bothered me. We have to draw the line somewhere. Even if that “somewhere” came at a terrible cost to other Christians?

This morning I read through 1 Corinthians 5 again, and noticed this verse:

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler — not even to eat with such a one. (1 Cor. 5:11 ESV)

“There is the line!” I thought. This verse does not refer to unbelievers, by the way. It’s talking about people who profess to be part of the brotherhood of faith, yet willfully engage in a sinful life. I don’t even think it’s so much the individual sins that are the issue — we all have sinned — but the refusal to confess and repent, the duplicitous heart, the pretending to be good when we don’t love Jesus and our core is thoroughly rotten.

The separation that this woman experienced then, I am now also facing, and it’s hard for me to process. More than anything else, I desire the Lord. I’m not perfect by any means, and I get depressed about my own failures sometimes. Still, I can honestly say that I long for a growing relationship with God. Yet I am not allowed to have communion in certain church groups, because I am not an official member of their congregation (or an identical one). People I have known and loved for years do not welcome me to their communion table.

This makes me question. Is it because a.) congregations like this don’t follow the Bible’s parameters for who is part of God’s church and thus eligible for communion or b.) am I actually someone who is duplicitous at heart, a sinful, immoral, greedy person?

This “closed communion” (where only specific church members can participate) is an issue that is much bigger than individuals, and I’m not trying to blame any of my friends. I think most of them would still see me as a genuine Christian. Yet I can’t help but feel the cognitive dissonance between what is verbalized and what is practiced. And practice has a way of shaping the way we think and relate, beyond what we might be aware of. Closed communion tends to drive wedges between superior Christians who are Us, and lesser Christians who are Them.

Some people seem better able to live with the dissonance than I am, but I still believe this fracturing of Christ’s body is debilitating for everyone, especially in the turbulent times we live in. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Mark 3:24).

These dividing lines are extremely painful to out-of-the-shrine Christians like me, and I feel they also take the emphasis away from what communion really is — a covenant with Christ. Jesus, you gave your life for me, and now I give my life back to you. Christians coming together to remember Christ’s sacrifice, to humbly offer themselves to God, is a powerful spiritual experience.

“Is Christ divided?” Paul asked the Corinthian church when they quarreled about who was most important (I Cor. 1:13). I wonder if he would say the same words to us today over our attempts to section off who qualifies for communion and who doesn’t.

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor. 10:16-17 ESV, emphasis mine)

We are one body, experiencing the mercy of a holy God.

I plead with you, consider what message your current communion practice communicates to other Christians. Look for ways to reduce the dissonance if it exists. Life is too short for division within the family of Christ.

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7 ESV)

Rosina Schmucker lives in Medicine Lodge, Kan., and has Amish-Mennonite background. She blogs at Arabah Rejoice, where this post first appeared.

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  • Chad Miller

    I wonder if our desire to guard the communion table – gives us a sense of superiority and control – two things which seem at odds with the message of Jesus. At the time of the early Anapbatist there was much corruption in the church – and misuse of the table – we are not living with the same realities.
    If the table is place we’re the hungry are feed, the wounded healed and everyone one ia welcome – who do we think are to keep people from encountering Jesus in this ancient and central practice of the church.

  • John Gingrich

    Don’t forget when you are excluding anyone from communion for any reason that Jesus himself at the first communion did not exclude Judas the betrayer from the bread and the cup.

  • James Foxvog

    I know that some Mennonite groups call it “close communion” rather than “closed”. The idea is that you only have communion among the group where you have accountability, only when you know that the quoted 1 Cor 5.11 isn’t being violated. I don’t agree, but it’s good to understand this viewpoint.

  • Daniel Hoopert

    I appreciate your sensitivity, Rosina, to the situation you described, and to the Scriptures. There are commentators who believe that the passage in 1 Corinthians 5, about not even eating with certain people, applies to the Lord’s Supper. In my opinion, that passage does not have to do with the Lord’s Supper (or communion). That passage is about removing a person from a congregation because of unrepentant sin. Part of that separation is to even eating with that person (I anticipate people saying that we need to love such people back to repentance (or we should not even judge people to be unrepentant) by acts of kindness. I think that in this matter, Paul is urging removal so that the person will turn back to God – Paul even writes of turning “this man” over to Satan, so that his “sinful nature” (NIV) may be destroyed, but his spirit saved on the Day of the Lord). I think that the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 is to the point – Paul tells the Corinthians to examine themselves, and so [after examining themselves and correcting their ways that are sinful] they are to eat the bread and drink the cup. He warns them that those who eat and drink without discerning the Lord’s body, by that eating and drinking bring judgment upon themselves. Discerning the Lord’s body could mean to recognize that Christ died as a sacrifice for our sins, and that we must keep that in view. I think it may be more likely that Paul is telling the Corinthians that they need to rightly discern the place of fellow believers in the congregation, and how they are treating them. He had told them that their gathering together did more harm than good. He tells them near the end of this unit that when they come together, they should wait on one another. So what is it to eat and drink unworthily, and what about the judgment of which Paul writes? I think that to eat and drink unworthily is directed to believers who have not dealt with known sin, but especially of believers who are knowingly hurting fellow believers. The judgment of which Paul write here is judgment that God will bring (“that is why some of you are weak and sick, and some have died”).