Feast of Meanings – Theology of the Eucharist (Part 4)

Presidency and Participation

Okay, now let’s get real controversial. I regard the presidency issue as fairly straight forward. Though the developing church restricted Eucharist to presidency by the bishop,[1] if we really believe in the priesthood of all believers, then in theory anyone can stand up and lead the people the Eucharist. In practice though, I would suggest that the only qualifications we make for one to lead communion is that he or she be theologically informed about Eucharist, be a person whose walk matches their talk, and be spiritually mature enough to be respected by their fellow believers. I would not randomly select people from the pew to lead the Eucharist, but neither should it be restricted to sacred orders or even elders.

The question of participation is more complex and disputed. Since Justin Martyr the Eucharist has been restricted to believers.[2] Most churches practice some form of restriction in regards to the Lord’s Supper. Hence, the WCF (29.8 [1689 LBC 30.8]): “Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto”. Many Lutherans do not allow non-Lutherans to partake of the Eucharist if they do not believe in consubstantiation. According to Vatican II, a Catholic Priest can only offer the Eucharist to a person from one of the separated churches if he or she agrees with Roman Catholic teaching about the Eucharist and if a member of their own faith tradition is not available to minister to them. In the USA, some Baptist leaders like Mark Dever and Al Mohler do not give communion to paedobaptist like Presbyterian pastors Ligon Duncan or Tim Keller. Thus, for some, church discipline requires that unbelievers, “carnal” Christians, and members of different denominations be excluded from the celebration of the Eucharist. I confess that I think such exclusions simply miss the point and the scriptures overwhelmingly favor an open communion table.

The antecedent to the Eucharist is obviously Jesus’ institution of the common meal for his disciples to remember him by. The meal that Jesus had with his followers the night he was betrayed was itself a continuation of his earlier ministry where meals and fellowship were a big part of his praxis and preaching. Jesus was known for banqueting with the bad. He ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:10-11). So much so, that Jesus acquired a reputation for being “a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners” (Matt 11:19/Luke 7:34). This brought great offence to the Pharisees who could not understand why, an otherwise learned Rabbi, whom God used to do miraculous deeds, would be so unscrupulous and scandalous in the company he kept. The Pharisees were basically a religious dining club. For them shared meals were a symbol of the cultic purity and religious proprietary that defined the holiness of Israel, the way it was mean to be done (you can see the link between holiness and food even as far back as Dan 1:5-16). Moreover, it was a holiness defined by exclusion. Yet Jesus shows no fear of impurity or contamination when coming into contact with sinners, because for him holiness is a contagion that spreads and infects all that come into contact with it.[3] In Jesus’ ministry, the open meals that he shared with “outsiders” were an acted parable of the open invitation of the kingdom of God.[4] Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son, to explain to the Pharisees why he “welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2). If the “Lord’s Table” is anything like the Jesus’ practice of table fellowship, then it should exhibit the same shocking openness as to who can attend. All who are willing to come to Jesus are invited. They may come as they, but they are not allowed to stay as they are. That is because God’s grace is scandalous. It is not the table for the righteous who use the table to publicly show that they are “holy”, it is the table for sinners who know they are unworthy. This table is for the poor in spirit who need spiritual food and yearn for a banquet of grace.[5]

Another thing I find very interesting is that when Paul was on his voyage to Rome, in the midst of a terrifying storm that scared the hebbie-jebbies out of all the passengers, he interrupts their panicked behavior with a communion service: “Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. ‘For the last fourteen days,’ he said, ‘you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food–you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.’ After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board” (Acts 27:33-37). Paul seems to be doing more than offering to make some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and say grace. In Acts, breaking bread has clear Eucharistic echoes of a shared meal among disciples in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7, 11). The description of what Paul does is unmistakably reminiscent of Jesus’ own table practice including the Last Supper (Luke 9:16; 22:19; 24:30). Paul did not hand out the food to the Roman soldiers and prisoners and then shirk off into the corner for a closed service with the Christians. No, Paul gave thanks “in the presence of all” and they all ate together with the ship’s company. Consider also the effect of Paul’s actions, “they were all encouraged” (Acts 27:37). Sounds like Eucharist to me!

In regards to 1 Cor 11:17-34, much is made of Paul’s warnings about partaking in an “unworthy manner” with the result that one sins “against the body and blood of the Lord,” and also those who partake without “discerning the the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves”. I’ve heard endless communion devotionals where the leader warns about not partaking if you have some unconfessed sin, abstaining if you don’t know Jesus as your personal Saviour, letting the elements pass you by if you’re not baptized as a believer – I’ve heard them all, heck, I’ve even said this stuff myself at times. So I say repentantly now that warnings like these have absolutely nothing to do with what Paul was talking to the Corinthians about. The problem at the Corinthian meals were serious and Paul makes the point that whatever meal they think they are having, it sure ain’t the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20). It’s become just another meal at Corinth that reinforces social divisions between rich and poor. The problem is that the practice of the Corinthians fosters “divisions” between the classes because the rich members “despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing (1 Cor 11:18, 22). Basically, the rich and wealthier members went ahead and ate a meal in full festivity in the triclinium of a house, leaving no food left for the poorer members (probably slaves, artisans, day labourers, etc.), who turned up later, were given the scraps, and were probably made to dine in an adjacent area like an atrium. Let me illustrate this further.  Imagine if I held a communion service at my house where I invited the doctors, lawyers, professors, and bankers to feast on Italian herb bread and an Argentinian pinot noir in the dinning room, and then rudely told the factory workers, waitresses, brick layers, and the unemployed to eat some stale bread and watered down grape juice on the porch. That is the kind of offensive behavior that ticked Paul off. This is what it means to partake in an unworthy manner. Discriminating like this is a sin against the body and the blood of the Lord. To create divisions based on occupation, social status, patronage, and education – and to stratify participation in the Eucharist along those lines – is to fail to discern the unity of the body of Christ in the meal. Judgment here is threatened for the rich who despise the poor by treating them the same way the poor get treated at every other meal in ancient Corinth. Brian Roser and Roy Ciampa summarized 1 Cor 11:17-34 as: “Wealthy believers should honor the Lord and their poorer brothers and sisters in the way they practice the Lord’s Supper.”[6]

So when Paul says that “everyone ought to examine themselves” (1 Cor 11:28), he does not mean make sure that you’ve got Jesus’ flag flying in your heart, that your conscience is 100% pure, and that your name is on the membership roll. No, he means make sure you are not one of those rich folks oppressing the poor through the meal, because you are bringing judgment on yourself as Jesus has a special concern for the poor. The Eucharist should be marked by a manifestation of unity and common concern for each other that is worthy of the Lord. Moreover, note also that people are called to examine themselves. We are not called to be a pharisaic police force going around and determing who is and who is not worthy to come to this table. Note the wise words of John Calvin: “Those who think it sacrilege to partake the Lord’s bread with the wicked, are in this more rigid than Paul. For when he exhorts us to pure and holy communion, he does not require that we should examine others, or that every one should examine the whole church, but that each should examine himself.”[7]

It is common in the Reformed tradition to “fence” the communion table. That entails that you warn people about the danger of drinking judgment upon themselves if they harbor sin in their hears, lack full assurance, don’t know Jesus as their own “personal” Lord and Saviour, or if they are not an accredited member in good standing. The problem is that the Lord’s Table is exactly that, Jesus’ own table, he invites and qualifies people to come, and if you try to fence the table to keep people out, then Jesus will knock your fence down. Jesus did it to the Pharisees (Luke 15:1-2) and Paul did it to Peter (Gal 2:11-14). Rather than than make the folks in our churches somberly wrestle with whether they are truly worthy to come to this table, we should be telling them that the good news is that Jesus had made them worthy to come. Calvin warned of the dangers of teaching that the Lord’s Table is only for the innocent or the righteous. Calvin taught: “Certainly the devil could have no shorter method of destroying men than by thus infatuating them [with their sinfulness], and so excluding them from the taste and savour of this food with which their most merciful Father in heaven had been pleased to feed them. Therefore, lest we should rush over such a precipice, let us remember that this sacred feast is medicine to the sick, comfort to the sinner, and bounty to the poor; while to the healthy, the righteous, and the rich, if any such could be found, it would be of no value.”[8] There is a story I heard while in Scotland about how Rev. “Rabbi” Duncan noticed a young girl troubled by a lack of assurance who let the cup pass her by. He stepped down from the pulpit and handed the cup back to her. He told her, apparently in the Doric dialect, something like, “Take it lassy, it is meant for sinners such as you and I.” That’s the point. The Eucharist is the Jesus meal for all those who come to Jesus. Open communion is the tradition received from Jesus, transmitted by Paul, but unfortunately turned into a ritual reserved for the righteous in a lot of evangelical churches today. Let’s get back to Jesus on Paul on this one!

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that communion is anything goes and everyone is in. I would not receive communion from someone I knew to be committing acts of flagrant immorality or be an outright apostate. It is possible to abuse the Lord’s Table like those churches that give communion to cats and dogs.[9] What is more, in church history some pretty disgusting things have been done at communion. According to Ephiphanius, heretical groups such as the Borborites, Coddians, and Phibionites engaged in erotic group sex and then used semen and menstrual blood as Eucharistic materials.[10] Furthermore, although the Eucharist is not a meal designed for unbelievers, Paul knows about unbelievers attending worship services, yet he makes no ruling as to regards their participation in the Eucharist itself (1 Cor 14:24-25). My gut feeling is that the Eucharist is not a designated means of evangelism, it probably strikes unchurched people as a rather peculiar ritual. However, there is a sense in which the Eucharist offers us the gospel, a chance to “Taste and see that the LORD is good” and to learn that “blessed are those who take refuge in him” (Ps 34:8). The Eucharist is a place where the journey of faith can finally cross the threshold into the pastures of assent to the gospel, attachment to Christ, and assurance in the God who saves. I have a friend, who grew up in a Christian home, who came to faith through a communion service. Should we be surprised? The gospel preached in word and symbol, I would expect it to happen more often!


[1] Ignatius, Ep. Smyrn. 8.1-2.

[2] Justin, Dial. Tryph. 66.

[3] Cf. Craig L. Blomberg, Contagious Holiness: Jesus’ Meals with Sinners (Leicester: Apollos, 2005).

[4] Cf. Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, 104-8.

[5] The chronology of the institution of the Lord’s Supper is difficult to determine as to precisely when Judas Iscariot left the house (see Matthew 26; John 13), but Judas was probably at the meal when Jesus instituted the Supper. If so, what does that mean for our theology of who can come to the Lord’s Table?

[6] Ciampa and Rosner, First Letter to the Corinthians, 541.

[7] Calvin, Institutes IV.1.15. See also (IV.17.41) where Calvin wanrs about the view that no one may partake of the Supper except the righteous and the innocent.

[8] Calvin Institutes IV.17.42.

[9] Read the story about St. Peter’s Anglican church in Toronto (http://www.care2.com/causes/dog-receives-communion-at-church.html).

[10] Epiphanius, Panarion 25-6.

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  • NF

    Wonderful!
    Comments on the participation of children?

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your email. I am out of the country until August 10 and will not have access to the internet to return emails while away.
      All good wishes,


      Joel Willitts, Ph.D.
      Associate Professor in Biblical and Theological Studies
      North Park University
      3225 W. Foster Ave
      Chicago, IL 60625
      773.244.5714
      http://www.patheos.com/community/euangelion

  • NF

    Wonderful!
    Comments on the participation of children?

    • Anonymous

      Thank you for your email. I am out of the country until August 10 and will not have access to the internet to return emails while away.
      All good wishes,


      Joel Willitts, Ph.D.
      Associate Professor in Biblical and Theological Studies
      North Park University
      3225 W. Foster Ave
      Chicago, IL 60625
      773.244.5714
      http://www.patheos.com/community/euangelion

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  • Anonymous

    Sensible presentation.

    I was brought up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In all the churches I’ve attended (university, graduate school, afterwards) the congregation have been invited to confess their sins before communion (the Eucharist) is offered. In two of the churches the pastors have stated that communion was offered to all believers who believed they were worthy to partake. I recall one stating that it was [part of] the church’s mission to invite, not to debar.

    You probably know that the Disciples view the elements as just that: unleavened bread and wine (some congregations use grape juice). Many of us believe that we are changed (but not the elements) in the sense that having confessed our sins and partaken of communion we are reminded of the Last Supper, Jesus’ self-sacrifice for our sakes and then renew our commitment to follow his teachings. This is not part of an official doctrine, the Disciples having minimal requirements for what they understand as necessary for salvation: public profession of belief and baptism by immersion.

    When a discussion arose in Sunday School about the practices of various denominations concerning communion, I recall our teacher saying that the phrase “straight is the way, narrow the gate” had nothing to do with celebrating the Eucharist, and that differing practices had arisen because various church fathers and their successors had expressed certain views, which he, at least, felt were valid for those who were members of that particular confession. He also observed that we should respect their views, as no group of Christians had a monopoly on the truth or wisdom and that we should look for the beliefs we held in common rather than those that distinguished the Disciples from other Christians.

  • Anonymous

    Sensible presentation.

    I was brought up in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). In all the churches I’ve attended (university, graduate school, afterwards) the congregation have been invited to confess their sins before communion (the Eucharist) is offered. In two of the churches the pastors have stated that communion was offered to all believers who believed they were worthy to partake. I recall one stating that it was [part of] the church’s mission to invite, not to debar.

    You probably know that the Disciples view the elements as just that: unleavened bread and wine (some congregations use grape juice). Many of us believe that we are changed (but not the elements) in the sense that having confessed our sins and partaken of communion we are reminded of the Last Supper, Jesus’ self-sacrifice for our sakes and then renew our commitment to follow his teachings. This is not part of an official doctrine, the Disciples having minimal requirements for what they understand as necessary for salvation: public profession of belief and baptism by immersion.

    When a discussion arose in Sunday School about the practices of various denominations concerning communion, I recall our teacher saying that the phrase “straight is the way, narrow the gate” had nothing to do with celebrating the Eucharist, and that differing practices had arisen because various church fathers and their successors had expressed certain views, which he, at least, felt were valid for those who were members of that particular confession. He also observed that we should respect their views, as no group of Christians had a monopoly on the truth or wisdom and that we should look for the beliefs we held in common rather than those that distinguished the Disciples from other Christians.


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