(Infant) Baptism and The (Open) Table?

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.

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3 comments
  1. Suzanne said:

    Well, I’m old enough that I remember when children were not invited to the table until they had been through communicants (now renamed confirmation) class and made their profession of faith. So the invitation to the table was clearly for those who professed faith in Jesus Christ with the understanding that profession included baptism (and confirmation of infant baptism).

    I have to agree with you that the Lord’s Supper should not be undertaken lightly and is a participation in what we believe and have professed. To follow Moltmann is possibly to betray our responsibility as pastors by leading folk to take the table too lightly (1 Cor 11:29), or to cheapen the meaning. If the Supper is really a sacrament of Union with Christ, what does it mean to include those who are not joined wit Christ? If someone has professed Christ, why would they not be baptized?

    so, I’m with you — informed participation is the best bet. Let me know how that works for you in today’s inclusionary world.

    BTW, you could do like the early church and some Orthodox and just kick out everyone who isn’t a member before you do communion… Of course that might be seen as a little over the top.

  2. Dan Thayer said:

    I believe that we Presbyterians have been way to individualistic when considering these questions.

    I don’t think infant baptism makes sense as a sign of God’s prevenient grace to an individual. If that were the case, why not baptize the whole world? Instead, infant baptism is a sign of God’s grace to the church, His covenant people. The infant is understood to be a part of this covenant by virtue of being born and raised in the church. Today we have infant baptism but have virtually no ecclesiology in practice. It’s all between an individual and Jesus. This combination makes no sense.

    The Eucharist is an action of the church, and the church is not merely a gathering individuals who believe in Jesus. Instead, it is an organic entity bound together and united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is the body of Christ. It doesn’t make sense to invite those who aren’t members of His body to participate in it. Baptism at least has to be part of this. Otherwise, what does baptism mean?

    I think talking about the boundaries of the table is a great time to emphasize the corporate nature of the church and push back against individualism.

    But I think we also need to take seriously Paul’s warning in Scripture (referenced by Suzanne) that those who take the Sacrament unworthily are subject to God’s judgment. Do we really believe the Bible? If so, we should legitimately be worried about more than making people feel unwelcome. Incidentally, our Book of Confessions affirms this (3.23, 5.204). And even the Book of Order talks about the need for faith in Jesus before taking communion (albeit in its typically wishy-washy fashion).

    I hope this doesn’t sound like I am ranting against you, Chris. I agree with you, basically. I am just frustrated with the current state of the discussion of these issues within our denomination.

  3. mikegehrling said:

    Chris, thank you for your concern for aninimity, but I don’t mind identifying myself as the “one person” who supported fencing the table by making baptism a prerequisite. Just to clarify (and to provide some context): we were talking initially about my ordination service and the note in the bulletin that “all baptized Christians” were welcome to participate. Although it’s true that my home church typically includes this in their regular bulletins, I made a point of including in my ordination service bulletin. Just to throw a monkey wrench into this conversation, my primary intention was not to “fence” the table (though I support that), but rather to make the table more open in that context. Very few at my ordination service were not baptized, but a lot of them were Roman Catholic, and (I suspect) had major hesitations coming to the table. By inviting “all who are baptized” I was inviting them by pointing to our common baptismal identity in Christ. (Whether or not they accepted the invitation is a whole different matter…)

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