Who May Partake of the Lord’s Supper?
Questions and Answers
Some churches allow only members of their own denomination, in good standing, to participate in the communion service. Others “open the door” to any professing “Christian” who is present to partake with them. Does Scripture address this subject?
Several points and principles may be observed in answer to this important concern. First, we would all recognize that some people would not be welcome to the Lord’s table. If a Muslim or Hindu happened to come by, we doubt that even the most liberal Protestant or Catholic leader would receive them to this service. The question pertains to professing “Christians” who would like to engage in the communion service with other members of a local church.
Second, the Bible doesn’t teach or approve of denominationalism as such. Therefore, it doesn’t address what a denomination or sect may or may not do. Thus, in one sense, the question is unnecessary.
Third, the New Testament body of believers were subject to the written Word of God and the teaching of the apostles (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Timothy 1:13). Thus they were not bound to uninspired teaching and traditions about the communion. We must go to the Word of God itself to answer our question.
Fourth, we find a scattering of teachings in the Scriptures that help us to answer the question. Let’s notice the leading passages on this subject:
1. In Matthew 26:26-29, we read:
“While they [the disciples of Christ] were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, he broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.’”
We can see from this excerpt that the communion (better, “breaking of bread”) is meant only for “disciples” or true Christians (see Acts 11:26). We can see also that those who partake of the bread and cup should be part of the new covenant and should have received the forgiveness of sins. And further, those who partake should be those who look forward toward the coming kingdom of God. Therefore, most people are not qualified or eligible to partake. (See also Mark 14:22-25 and Luke 22:14-20.)
2. In Acts 2, we have a record of the first people coming to Christ on the day of Pentecost. This is the record given: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:41-42).
This revealing passage shows that those to engaged in the “breaking of bread” (most scholars tell us that this is a reference to the Lord’s supper or “communion”) were those who had been baptized. Of course, they had believed in Christ (v. 44) and repented before they were baptized (see verse 37-38). Further, the ones who partook were ones who were “added” to the body of believers. They were not “outsiders” or unsaved people. Further yet, these ones who partook of the breaking of bread also were involved in other items of worship and living—such as learning the apostles’ teaching, having fellowship with other believers, and engaging in prayer. In other words, they were saved, repentant, believing, baptized participating Christians.
3. What was the experience of Paul and his companions in Tarsus in Asia Minor? The text says: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight” (Acts 20:7). Not only do we find from this that the early Christians met on the first day of the week (Sunday) to break bread (to remember the death of Christ with the bread and cup), but that this was the regular meeting of the body of Christ. It was not meant for unsaved people who had not come to Christ, as revealed in Scripture.
4. Another passage that speaks to this question would be 1 Corinthians 10:16-17: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” Here we see that the communion is only for those who are related to Christ Jesus in a saving way. True Christians share in the blood of Christ and share in the body of Christ—something that unbelievers cannot do. Further, we must be part of the “one body”—the one body of Christ Jesus (see also 1 Corinthians 12:13).
5. A very important passage that answers our question would be 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. We’ll not read this entire section, but simply point out that the Lord’s supper is meant only for those saved people who regularly meet together for worship (vv. 17) and for those who are part of God’s assembly (“church”) (v. 18). It is for those who partake of the new covenant (v. 25), for those who are related to Christ’s death (v. 26), and for those who are “brethren” or saved people (v. 33). In no way is this remembrance meant for unsaved people (those who have not repented or been baptized).
6. A final passage we’ll examine would be 1 Corinthians 5:11 (see also vv. 1-13): “But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” While this prohibition against eating with another Christian in sin must surely pertain to a common meal, we think that it would also reveal the mind of Christ regarding participation in the Lord’s supper as well. Thus, one cannot be guilty of these six sins (and surely other sins, as well) and then partake of the Lord’s supper. This is meant only for those who are genuinely saved and walking in truth, love, and holiness.
From all of this discussion, we can see that participation in the Lord’s supper (breaking the bread and partaking of the cup) is meant only for saved people who are walking in the will and ways of God. It is not meant for just anyone who professes to be a Christian and who happens to show up in the meeting on the first day of the week. We must guard against profaning this most meaningful remembrance.