Friday, July 06, 2012

Should you take communion if you are not a baptized believer?

(Note: this is the working out of my personal belief, not necessarily the expressed view of any local church I serve or have served.)

Should you take communion if you are not a baptized believer? Is it ok for parents/churches to allow their unbaptized but professing Christian children take communion?

My take: I think the Bible does not allow any unbaptized person to celebrate the Lord's Supper.

Here are my reasons:

1) Baptism is the sign of entering into the covenant community. Whereas under the Old Covenant circumcision was necessary to be marked as a covenant member, now the Bible expects believers to be marked by baptism when entering the Christian community (that is a believer's baptism after personal faith in Jesus).

Peter did not tell new converts to "believe and take communion," but rather "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins..." (Acts 2:38). Baptism is the outward expression of an inward reality. So too, baptism is the mark of being a truly circumcised member (not of the flesh) of God's people of faith (see Deut. 30:6). Colossians 2:11-12 put it this way, "In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead" (NIV).

The New Testament has no concept of an unbaptized believer. Believers are to be baptized. In fact, if a believer refuses to be baptized, they are disobeying a command of God. And, if someone is knowingly disobeying any of God's commands, they shouldn't be allowed to take communion. We must examine ourselves in order to celebrate the Lord's Supper. If upon examining ourselves we realize we are ignoring any of God's commands, we must repent. This would include not obeying the Lord's command to be baptized.

2) The Lord's Supper/Communion is the covenant sign of ongoing participation in the covenant community. During the Jewish Passover meal on the night of his betrayal, Jesus explained the meal's deeper meaning. The Passover was a meal pointing ahead to the true Passover Lamb (Jesus Christ). The meal finds its fulfillment in the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Now, all who are members of the New Covenant People of God are supposed to regularly take this meal in remembrance of the Messiah who has come (Lk 22:19-20).

One of the main reasons I think communion should be for those marked by baptism is that the Old Testament Passover meal was reserved for those who had been marked by circumcision. I quote a large section from Exodus 12 for your meditation:

NIV Exodus 12:43 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, "These are the regulations for the Passover meal: "No foreigner may eat it. 44 Any slave you have bought may eat it after you have circumcised him, 45 but a temporary resident or a hired worker may not eat it. 46 "It must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. 47 The whole community of Israel must celebrate it. 48 "A foreigner residing among you who wants to celebrate the LORD's Passover must have all the males in his household circumcised; then he may take part like one born in the land. No uncircumcised male may eat it. 49 The same law applies both to the native-born and to the foreigner residing among you."

3) One common and legitimate argument against this view would be something like this, "I think my child is too young to be baptized. I really want them to remember it. It is an important step, and I don't want them to be baptized without being ready." I think there is merit in this approach to baptism. It is good parenting and church shepherding to assess if there is a legitimate conversion before allowing anyone to be baptized. My only question then would be, "Is the taking of the Lord's Supper any less significant for your child?" Why would we let our children participate in the sacred ordinance of Communion and not be baptized? If a child is ready to take communion, I think they are ready to be baptized. If they are not ready to be baptized, they are not ready to take communion.

4) What should I do if I am out of line with this biblical model?

First, recognize that the Bible has separate categories for sins of omission (unintentional) and commission (intentional). Don't beat yourself up. If you understand the Gospel, you already knew you were more sinful than you could ever comprehend. There are layers and layers of sin in your life. God doesn't expose all of our sin to us at once. But as the Holy Spirit reveals sin, we repent and then press on in holiness. Christ's blood forgives both sins of omission and commission. Receive His grace.

Second, if you are personally guilty of taking the Lord's Supper without obeying the Lord's command to be baptized, repent. Go to your church leaders and request to be baptized as soon as possible. Until you are baptized, I would encourage you to not celebrate the Lord's Supper. Use the times in the worship service to pray, meditate, and look forward to the future times of celebrating this covenant meal. (Note: this is what I would encourage parents to do with their professing, but unbaptized children as well). If anyone asks why you are not taking the bread and wine, explain to them the importance of following Biblical precedent.

Third, if you are a parent, help guide your children in the ways of the LORD with the help of your local church. It is probably wise that there is no age restriction on being baptized or taking communion. For some 5 year olds, baptism and communion should not be withheld. For other five year olds, we may need to say no. And yet, churches and parents need to be careful in what they communicate to young children regarding the Gospel, conversion, and the Christian life. It is ok to faithfully test the professed faith of young children before allowing them to be baptized and celebrate the Lord's Supper. Those who believe in justification by faith don't think these practices are necessary for salvation. Your child will not go to hell if they have to wait 12-36 months before celebrating the ordinances.

All that to say, if your child has expressed faith and there are no doubts to true conversion, why withhold the ordinances? Worst case scenario is that the child and you are both wrong. At the point you think the conversion is not legitimate, you simply tell your child to quit taking communion and let them know that their "immersion into water" was not really a believer's baptism. Later, upon true conversion they should be baptized properly and begin taking communion as a believer in Christ.

I'm still working through these ideas. As such, comments, other Scripture references, and critiques would be warmly accepted.


Matt Wolf said...

Your view certainly fits into the OT model of circumcision without a doubt. I wonder though (not having fully thought this through) whether there could be a difference here between OT circumcision and NT baptism. Yes, they are both initiatory rites, but there are several differences as well...such as method and time of occurrence (for us credo-baptists). Could there be more differences? Could this be one of them?

Also, I want to know if this impacts your leadership as a pastor? Does this view lead to you having a closed communion? This occurs in many baptist churches today and has occurred throughout history. I believe the term is "fencing the table."

Right now I wouldn't agree with you (but I could think and study a lot more on the subject). Off the top of my head I thought of how Jesus even served Judas, the betrayer. Almost as if Jesus took a "taste and see" approach with all who would follow him.

I've had Jewett's Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace & Schreiner's Believer's Baptism on my 'to read' list for quite some time...maybe we should pick one of those to read (if you haven't) and discuss some time?

Craig Blomberg said...

Here is an email response I received from my former professor Dr. Craig Blomberg from Denver Seminary (used with permission):

Finding the right balance between making the sacraments/ordinances important and yet no so important that they cause unnecessary conflict is a tough challenge in the 21st century church, given our legacy of both believers’ baptism and paedobaptism. I, at least, would not want to do anything that would either suggest that paedobaptists are somehow in serious disobedience to Scripture, given the plausibility of the biblical case for their perspective (as long as baptism is not a prerequisite for salvation), or that would diminish the importance of baptism altogether and the fact that I chose as a young adult to be immersed in a baptistic context even though my parents had given me infant baptism.

By “taking the plunge” in a Scottish Baptist context, I was challenged by their historic policy of rarely baptizing pre-teens. I have, since then, heard probably as many stories of people baptized as very young “believers” (roughly ages 4-9) who later recognized that nothing really “took” at that age, so that they counted their true conversion coming much later (or left the church altogether much later). On the other hand, I have close friends who did believe, were baptized, and it “took” and they have had an unbroken track record of walking with the Lord throughout a long life since. So what are parents and church leaders to do?

One difference between baptism and the Lord’s Supper is that a person is usually baptized only once (or only once in a way they recognize as “the real thing,” and by themselves or in a service with only a handful of others. The Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, is offered to an entire congregation and done so repeatedly, hopefully with some frequency. So one question worth asking is what are we communicating to the child when we repeatedly tell them “you can’t take Communion yet,” even if they are sincere about trusting in Christ to the extent that their age makes that understanding possible? On the other hand, how do we best communicate to candidates for baptism that this really is a commitment for life, that they should no more renege on than marriage vows, regardless of life circumstances or feelings. Add to that the public testimony that (I think) should go along with baptism, which is also different from what happens at the Lord’s Supper.

Our older daughter Beth knew the Lord (as best as Fran or I or anyone could tell at the very latest by age 8, and probably well before that. But the only way baptism was every administered in the church we attended at that time was in a baptistry a good ten feel above the platform from which the pastor preached, looking out over a good 1000 people at one time—very intimidating for many people considerably older than she was! Because we didn’t believe she had to be baptized to be saved, we did not push it on her. We wanted it to be something that would come for her own initiative. But neither could we or she see any reason for withholding the Lord’s supper from her, and we did not. Interestingly, at one summer church picnic in the field behind the parking lot, the jr. high pastor decided to have a baptismal service in a hot tub and baptize a dozen or so people of all ages, but esp. a bunch of middle-schoolers. At this time Beth was eager to be baptized and far less intimidated.

More in next post...

Craig Blomberg said...

Part 2 from Craig:

One way to solve the problem is to have a denomination-wide practice. If you’re Catholic, first communion comes at about age eight after catechetical instruction preparing children for it. Confirmation comes several years later and, of course, you were supposed to have been christened as an infant. But in so many evangelical churches that are conglomerates of people from a variety of denominational backgrounds (and none), do we really want to divide (as inevitably will happen) over these issues? I am increasingly appreciating those churches that teach about the rationale for and allow people to choose between infant and believers’ baptism and tie taking the Lord’s Supper solely to a credible profession of faith. My own preference would be for believer’s baptism but I understand the rationale, especially in the evangelical Presbyterian or Reformed version, for paedobaptism. After all, one of your key arguments in the blog is based on the parallels between circumcision and baptism. Frankly, I just don’t see those parallels as very close at all, other than each being an initiation rite. When you read Col. 2:11ff. carefully, you see that what is being compared is literal circumcision with a circumcision done without hand, which can’t be baptism but must be salvation.