After The Upper Room’s gathering this past Thursday, a few of us sat around talking theology. Soon the topic turned to the question of who make take communion in our worship gatherings. One person pointed out that she didn’t like the requirement in the Book of Order that only those who have been baptized can come to the table (W-2.4011). Another person countered that one should not receive the nourishment of the community (Lord’s Supper) without having properly entered the community (Baptism). Thus the conversation began to feel like the proverbial question about the chicken and the egg: which comes first?
I think it is a good question, and here are the several reasons why:
(1) In a post-Christendom context, few people understand the meaning of baptism. The unchurched and dechurched have no understanding of the theological logic behind the Book of Order’s requirement, and thus are more likely to be offended by it than curious: What do you mean I’m not welcome to eat that bread? To such a question we then have to choose how we respond: No, you’re not welcome – get out. OR Well, let me first explain why baptism is important . . . I think we need to answer by explaining baptism, and we need to learn how to do this well.
(2) Our logic about this, as Presbyterians at least, is inconsistent. We baptize infants as a sign of God’s unconditional prevenient grace, but don’t think that same prevenient grace can apply to The Lord’s Supper. In a good number of cases, we are not faithful in calling these baptized infants to confirmation as they grow older. So we end up with a whole bunch of baptized unbelievers. They meet our Book of Order’s requirement to take communion, but haven’t consciously chosen to follow Jesus. On the flip side, because people come to faith more often through para-church ministries, or youth groups, or personal evangelism, than through worship services in institutional churches, we end up with a bunch of people who are unbaptized believers. They have the faith to come to the table, but don’t meet the requirement. Interestingly, while reading Moltmann again today, I realized that his logic is also inconsistent, but in a reversal of the Presbyterian illogic. For Moltmann infant baptism cannot be justified theologically (Church in the Power of the Spiritp. 239, see 236-242), but the invitation to the Lord’s Supper should be “an invitation which is as open as the outstretched arms of Christ on the cross” because “it is the Lord’s supper, not something organized by a church or denomination” (pages 246 and 244). In that logic, an explicit confession of faith is necessary for baptism, but not for communion. What would it look like to have a consistent logic about one’s profession of faith and the reception of the sacraments?
(3) In a missionary context, a case can be made for emphasizing adult baptism: it’s dangerous to risk producing more baptized unbelievers, perpetuating Christendom in a post-Christendom world. But can the same case be made for restricting communion to those baptized? If we learn from the early church here, who celebrated communion behind closed doors and locked out those not yet baptized, we might be able to make that case. They were living in a missionary context. They knew the love of the open outstretched arms of Christ on the cross. But they believed the Supper needed to be treated as sacred, a time for those who have been united with Christ in baptism to be nourished by partaking in his body and blood.
While I sympathize with Moltmann, I don’t think the open table is an appropriate missiological step. Might raising the bar for our understanding of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper be better? I think it might create more dedicated disciples, who then practice mission more faithfully, leading to both stronger discipleship and more engaged evangelism. To do so requires more than the Book of Order, though – it requires that all followers of Jesus become more faithful, educated, and dedicated in their discipleship.