Recently I have had quite a few discussions regarding the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and church membership. Historically churches have practiced the administering of the Lord’s Supper in one of three ways—open, closed, and semi-open. All three stem from a church’s interpretation of 1 Cor 11:27-30. There the apostle Paul, after reminding the church they should partake of the Lord’s Supper regularly, warns them to “examine” themselves lest they partake of the elements in “an unworthy manner” and become “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.” When this happens, he warns, “many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” Hence, taking the Lord’s Supper is a serious matter with life and death consequences.
The question, however, we have before us is what does it mean to partake of the Lord’s Supper unworthily? First, this is certainly a reference to unbelievers as the Lord’s Supper represents the taking in of Christ by faith (cf. Jn 6:41-58). Second, it is a reference to believers living in unrepentant sin; i.e., habitual sin for which they show no remorse. To do so is to make a mockery of the death of Christ, thus profaning “the body and blood of the Lord” (v.27).
However, despite these strong warnings, there are some churches which administer an open-communion. This means they do not guard the elements in any sense, but simply allow people to determine for themselves whether or not they are partaking of the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner”. By this view, anyone who is present and desires to partake of the elements may do so.
There are some churches who practice a closed-communion. These churches take the warning so seriously they only allow members of their own church to partake of the Lord’s Supper. These churches rightly sense an obligation to protect people from unnecessarily harming themselves; i.e., partaking of the elements in “an unworthy manner” and thus incurring God’s wrath. They believe the only people they can be certain are believers who are not living in unrepentant sin are members of their own church. Hence for the protection of others, they do not allow non-members to partake of the elements.
At Tapestry Community Church we practice a semi-closed communion in that we feel an obligation to warn people not to partake of the elements unworthily, but then allow each person to “examine himself” (v.28). This warning goes something like this—“If you are a believer and a member in good standing of this church or of some other evangelical church, then the Lord’s Supper is open to you. However, if you are not a believer or are uncertain of your salvation, please allow the elements to pass you by.”
The question is often raised—‘Why the connection between believing and church membership? The neglect of church membership is the most common way believers live in unrepentant sin today. Sometimes innocently. Sometimes intentionally. In either case, church membership is a biblical mandate. First, all believers are commanded to be subject to the oversight and protection of their elders (Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 5:5). Believers cannot fulfill these mandates without bringing themselves under the authority of the local body through church membership. Second, believers within the local body are commanded to hold each other accountable and to “remove from among you” any professing believer (1 Cor 5:11) for unrepentant sin (vv.2, 5, 7, 13). This removing must be a reference to church membership as Paul readily admits that unbelievers should be welcomed into the worship service and expects their presence (1 Cor 14:23). Hence, church membership is the sine qua non of church discipline. It is the thing without which there is no church discipline.
In the end, church membership is a biblical mandate. Those who steadfastly refuse to bring themselves under the accountability of the local body and the authority of the elders should--for their own safety and protection—abstain from partaking of the Lord’s Supper.