If we understand communion rightly, it is a communal meal. It is not something we do on our own but corporately as a body. It means that I am not merely there to examine myself alone but am to examine myself in relation to the wider body. Likewise, the body is affirming together that those who eat the supper are in right standing with one another.
Just before I became pastor of Oldham Bethel Church, I was careful to try and outline some of things I intended to do. My goal in doing that was simple. I wanted to explain some of things I was going to do and give the church the opportunity to say I was not the man for them if they did not want me to do them.
One thing I was clear on was the need to overhaul our membership structures. The church did have a membership but it bore little to no relation to either baptism or communion. It was my stated intention to make baptism the marker of entry to the church and communion the mark of ongoing right standing within the fellowship. In other words, no baptism; no membership. No membership; no communion. Baptism and communion were both now to be signs of membership.
I was always amused, sometimes bemused, by those who advocated strongly for an open table. I distinctly remember a discussion with one church member who had vociferously rejected any prospect of restricted communion. I pointed out that the church already restricted communion to professing believers and I only intended to make that clearer by permitting those whom the church could affirm as believers to the table. The member remained entirely unmoved and I determined not to push it any further. Not long after that discussion though, this same member approached me after the service in a state of vexation. The conversation went something like this:
‘I am worried about some people taking communion.’
‘Why is that?’
‘I’ve seen people taking communion and I’m not sure they’re Christians!’
‘Right? But that is the system you fought me tooth and nail to maintain – the one where we leave it up to people to decide whether to take communion with no regard for what anybody else may think.’
‘Yes. But they shouldn’t be taking it!’
‘Because they’re not Christians!’
‘I know. But what do you want me to do about it when we have an open table?’
‘You should stop them.’
‘On what ground?’
‘On the ground that they’re not a Christian.’
‘But they say they are a Christian.’
‘But I don’t think they are.’
‘Nor do I. That is why I haven’t baptised them and welcomed them into membership.’
‘So why are you giving them communion?’
‘Because you insisted that we invite everyone to partake of communion who professes faith. Would you like to support restricted communion?’
‘Oh no! We don’t want that.’
‘So what do you want me to do about it?’
‘… well… I… it’s just not right!’