Thursday, March 24, 2011

Admission to Communion

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about Admission to Communion:

Q: When visiting a Christian church, who is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper? Is this the same for all types of churches? If not, what accounts for the differences?

One ancient prerequisite for participation in Communion that is still typically followed by most churches today is that the person has received a Christian Baptism “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

The reason for this is that Baptism is the means of initiation into the church. Whether it is a child who is baptized first, then instructed, or an adult who hears the Word and believes it before being baptized, Baptism is the beginning of participation in a Christian congregation.

The age one first participates in the Lord’s Supper varies widely among different types of churches. Some Christians begin allowing children to participate in Communion immediately after Baptism. Others begin later after a brief period of instruction about the meaning of the Sacrament, while others wait until a child has been fully instructed in all doctrines of the faith and gone through the ritual of Confirmation before they begin to participate.

The matter of which may participate in the Lord’s Supper has been a subject of great controversy in recent decades, but this has not always been so. In the earliest years of Christianity, complete doctrinal agreement was a requirement for Christians to join together in Communion, and separation was maintained until they resolved their disagreement.

The Apostle Paul addresses the subject in 1 Corinthians 10-11 and Romans 16:17, and in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus instructs His followers: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Although Jesus was talking here about the sacrifices of the temple, there is a long history among Christians of also applying this teaching to participation in Communion. Most often, this teaching is applied to those who have a grudge against or an ongoing dispute with a fellow Christian, but it applies equally to Christians who hold different doctrinal positions.

Jesus desires for His Church to experience unity (John 17), but not a unity where Christians agree to disagree about doctrinal questions (Philippians 2:2). Instead, He desires that they come to agreement by submitting themselves wholeheartedly to the teachings of the Bible.

Because of this, it was the almost-universal practice of Christians until the twentieth century to only participate in communion with those with whom they held complete doctrinal agreement. In spite of this, Christians of various denominations today have differing policies regarding who may participate in the Lord’s Supper in their congregations.

Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches have a strict policy of closed communion (meaning that only those from their tradition may commune in their congregations); however, no consistent pattern exists concerning policies among non-Catholic denominations. Different denominations within the same tradition (for example, different types of Lutherans or different types of Presbyterians) may have completely opposite policies regarding communion participation.

Typically, if a church or denomination believes that the Lord’s Supper forgives sins and is really the body and blood of Jesus, and if they believe that Christian doctrine is a matter of divine truth with one correct position, then they often maintain a closed communion policy, where only those with whom they agree doctrinally may participate.

On the other hand, if a church or denomination either believes that doctrine is a matter of human opinion with various correct positions, or if they
believe that Jesus body and blood are only spiritually or symbolically present in the Lord’s Supper and that it does not forgive sins, it is possible that they maintain an open communion policy.

Since the practices regarding communion participation vary so widely among the different denominations, the safest path to take when visiting an unfamiliar church is to arrive a few minutes early and ask the pastor if you would be allowed to participate in that particular congregation.

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