changing lives ministry united methodist church worship

Is Communion for Christians Only?

A few weeks ago, I visited a church where this sign was displayed during communion. The method of serving was passing a tray through the aisle and taking a piece of bread and a small cup of juice, so it would not have been obvious if one chose not to partake.

United Methodists practice open communion, which to clarify, means that you do not have to be a member of the church where communion is being served or a member of any United Methodist Church to receive the sacrament.

This is different than saying that you have to be a Christian to receive, which is clearly what the church that I visited was indicating.

The official document on baptism for The United Methodist Church, By Water & The Spirit, indicates:

In celebrating the Eucharist, we remember the grace given to us in our baptism and partake of the spiritual food necessary for sustaining and fulfilling the promises of salvation. Because the table at which we gather belongs to the Lord, it should be open to all who respond to Christ’s love, regardless of age or church membership. The Wesleyan tradition has always recognized that Holy Communion may be an occasion for the reception of converting, justifying, and sanctifying grace. Unbaptized persons who receive communion should be counseled and nurtured toward baptism as soon as possible.

That last sentence is particularly tricky in practice. Do you ask people if they have been baptized before, during or after they receive the bread and the cup? Perhaps a message of this sort in a United Methodist Church would say:

If Jesus is lord of your life, please take communion. If he is not lord of your life, go ahead and take communion anyway, as you might experience a desire to make him the lord of your life, in which case we would like for you to be baptized if you haven’t already been baptized.

This is a little tongue in cheek, however I do wonder – How does your church communicate about who receives Holy Communion?

By Andrew Conard

Christian, husband, son, brother, homeowner

15 replies on “Is Communion for Christians Only?”

I’m partial to our invitation to the table that precedes confession:

“Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.”

I also think that PowerPoint slide is hideous. Why is that person covering their eyes?

Amanda – Thanks for pointing to this great resource! I appreciate the reminder from that text to not downplay the costliness of the meal and the implications of receiving.

Luke – The graphic matched the sermon series in which the church was in the middle. The picture was not at all disturbing in person as it was part of the context of the rest of the service.

Was going to say exactly what Luke said. We don’t technically practice “Open” communion, we practice qualified open communion which requires repentance and acknowledgment of Christ as Lord and Savior. Practicing Muslims, Jews, or Mormons, for example would not really be welcome at the communion table unless by the act they are renouncing those religions for the Trinitarian God.

As a practical matter, its not something I think we want to police. Can you imagine Bob Wisman’s team surrounding a visitor and demanding their credentials under threat of being hauled off to the security room for interrogation. 🙂

Chuck – I had not heard of the term “qualified open communion” although that does clearly articulate the UM position. There is indeed no way that it could be practically enforced. However, in a smaller congregation, would it be possible for the pastor to follow up with a conversation with an individual? I clearly don’t believe that withholding communion while it is being served would make sense.

I explain our “qualified open communion” just prior to the invitation that Luke quotes in order to get the context straight. I add that the invitation is extended to all. The invitation is clear on expectations. Like Chuck, I think we are servants of the table, not guardians of it. This goes back to how we interpret “open communion” with our words of introduction, clarifying how the invitation is extended. I say: “As we come to the table, we remember that this is not Atlanta First UMC’s table, it’s not the UMC’s table, it is the Lord’s Table. And he extends the invitation to all who will hear and respond in faith. Hear the invitation…”

A pet peeve of mine is going through the whole liturgy, then adding the “open table” comments just before the receiving of the bread and cup, which confuses the actual invitation with a “ya’ll come” invitation.

Guy – Thanks for your additional comments and the particular words that you use in the invitation. You are right that there is a distinction between the invitation to participate and some of the logistical instructions that may accompany receiving as a community.

I remember hearing as “water and..” was published there was heated and long conversation about this very thing, should one be baptized before coming to the table. There
was huge pushback from laity and clergy
to think we would police the table at all. Also I remember hearing something about a weslyean position of Eucharist being a “converting ordinance.” not sure that goes back to John but I like the phrase, and the idea that the Spirit doesn’t work in a particular order but might convert through any part of worship.

I should also say I see the advantage of making it very very difficult to be admitted to communion. In the early church aspirants would have to go through as much as 3 years of catachumen training before being allowed to be baptized or take communion. While it rubs our individualistic egalitarianism the wrong way, there is something to the value one places on the ritual when its practice is hard to obtain. After all the church was growing precipitously with such a practice. I’m not at all in favor of changing our practice, just pointing out that there is something to expecting excellence, and setting the bar high that tends to bring out the best in people…. and there is something to making things so easy that they essentially become uninspiring and unimportant.

I wonder, should we make ordination a simple act of just coming forward and saying I want to be ordained? In other words is there something we are saying about how highly we value communion when we make it ubiquitous and available without cost or effort? Just some questions.

I see you points. For me, the sticking point against making it harder is the story in the Bible where the thief on the cross confesses his sins (We deserve to be here for our crimes), and then asks Jesus to “Remember me when You enter your kingdom”. No debate of theology, no working towards being able to participate. Simple, true, but then again one of my favorite songs is Clay Crosse’s “Saving the World” (Comes down to a man dyin’ on a cross, savin’ the world). Just my 2 cents.

I think the early church saw Salvation as something different from admission to Communion. The two could be separated in time.

The theological arguments are largely lost on me. As a regular person, my spirit would be so hurt by this message during communion. My response to just seeing it is pretty visceral. The opportunity for anyone to respond to God’s love and grace as its offered during communion is so sweet and people are so hurting, why would anyone even speak tongue in cheek about limiting it? I am so grateful “All are welcome here.”

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