At chapel this morning I was confronted again with a tension I grew up with, something I’ll call the “worthiness factor” in taking communion. My faith tradition practiced “closed communion” which simply meant that the communion table was typically open to only members of that church who were in “right standing” with God and their fellow believers. This is based on an understanding of 1 Corinthians 11 in which Paul instructs the believers to not eat the bread or drink the cup unworthily.
The dean of the chapel made the rather startling comment at the onset of the service that there were some of us in the audience who were unworthy to participate in the Lord’s table. He then proceeded to announce that if any of us felt worthy of the bread or cup we ought not to come. For the unworthy—those aware of their constant need for grace—the table was open.
Perhaps the real problem lies with those who translate “unworthily” as being “unworthy”. A better rendering of that text might be “in an unworthy manner.” This is clearly seen as Paul elaborates about those who ought not to eat or drink—those who fail to discern the body of Christ.
Furthermore, is it Biblical to discern whether or not another person is “worthy” to commune? Can one see into another person’s heart? It’s easy to be externally aligned and offer acceptable words at a “preparatory service” while all the time be callous toward the body of Christ.
Closed communion presupposes that we have jurisdiction over those within our own church and must thus take responsibility for those who commune. But do we commune with those we think are worthy or do we commune based on self-examination? Only the latter is Biblical (see 1 Cor. 11: 28-32). And how does one explain Jesus offering the bread and wine to Judas—one that He knew was in desperate need of grace at that moment?
But there’s even a greater tension I’ve wrestled with in practicing closed communion. Something that stems primarily from my personal experiences within the broader body of Christ.
In Southeast Asia I would often travel to speak in a variety of settings. Often I was invited to commune with believers who didn’t share my denominational background or practice Christianity exactly as I did. Having refused the bread and cup offered to me would have been akin to committing sacrilege.
Why would Jesus throw a banquet in His honor and then not show up to celebrate it with all His children?