“A proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper combines the personal self-examination with local church responsibility, Thomas White stated in a paper presented at the second conference in the seminary’s Baptist Distinctives Series Sept. 28-29.

“The hidden matters of the heart must be adjudicated by the individual, but the church bears the burden of maintaining the integrity of the ordinance,” White, vice president for student services, told participants.

From 1 Corinthians 11:28-30 he explained, “Each person bears responsibility for searching the hidden things of his or her life in order to take the ordinance properly. A person must determine and make right such things as grudges, hatred, lust, covetousness, or hidden sins. Without proper self-examination a person risks improperly taking the ordinance.”

At the same time, White reminded that Christ charged the governance of the ordinances to the local church, noting to whom the letter Paul wrote was delivered.  “Perhaps the clearest emphasis of church responsibility comes from 1 Corinthians 5:11,” he said, referring to Paul’s warning not to associate with any so-called brother who is immoral, covetous, an idolater, reviler, drunkard or swindler. “No sound hermeneutic can deny that this verse indicates exclusion from the Lord’s Supper. Why? Because the previous verses clearly indicate the supper is in mind,” White said, recalling references to “cleaning out the leaven,” “Christ our Passover,” and “celebrate the feast.”

White said the use of unleavened bread maintains the proper symbolism and follows the example of Christ.

“In today’s larger churches baking a loaf large enough for all to partake is not feasible; however, the administrator of the ordinance can have one whole loaf at the front which is symbolically broken to demonstrate the breaking of Christ’s body.”

Regarding the juice, White said, “Wisdom suggests that in American society wine should not be used because it has been the subject of strenuous debate and such debates need not occupy the mind during the celebration of the Supper,” though he noted there is nothing sinful about the use of wine for the ordinance.

“Grape juice works well for this element as the color leads the mind to reflect on the blood of Christ shed for us.” 

By pouring the juice into a few of the cups, the administrator could explain the representation of Christ’s blood being poured out, he added. White worked through various historic errors on the presence of the Lord in the elements, including:

—Transubstantiation: the belief that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, failing to view John 6:53-56 symbolically and misapplying the passage to the Lord’s Supper;

—Consubstantiation: the view that the bread and juice contain the body and blood of the Lord but the elements themselves are not substantially changed, creating a Christological problem by making the two natures of Christ indistinguishable, failing to anticipate Christ’s return, and presupposing the presence of the Savior’s body in different places at the same time; and

—Spiritual Presence: a view formed by John Calvin that appears to support a spiritual feeding for the soul, uncomfortably close to the view that grace is infused.

“The Lord’s Supper does look back to the cross in memorial, but it also looks around in fellowship and forward in anticipation of Christ’s return. Thus, a complete understanding should characterize the Lord’s Supper as a meaningful, symbolic celebration,” White said. However, although the practice is symbolic, he added that Baptists should guard against making too little of it as “mere symbol.”

He cautioned against blessing the elements as a practice too similar to Roman Catholic dogma, preferring to follow the scriptural pattern of giving thanks. Another admirable intent may lie behind allowing families to come forward together and partake of the Supper, however, White said the practice fails to understand the corporate nature of the Lord’s Supper and discouraged this newer technique.

Nor should the ordinance be celebrated, White contended, at a wedding, the house of shut-ins, portions of the church such as youth groups or Sunday School classes. “The ordinance belongs to the local church,” White insisted, defining that as the body of gathered believers.

White said the proper administrator of the Lord’s Supper must be a person who could be accepted into the membership of a given Baptist church, though he did not restrict participation to members on the church roll. 

Regarding recipients, he discussed three categories:

—close communion refers to only members of a particular local church allowed to participate;

—transient communion or denominational communion or closed intercommunion all refer to allowing non-church members to partake on the condition of like faith and practice—those who could be accepted into that particular church’s membership;

—open or mixed communion allows any Christian to partake in communion because it belongs to Christ and is thus open to all children of God.

“At the very minimum, almost every Baptist church restricts the Lord’s Supper to believers,” White said, drawing from the background of Passover which was open to those for whom it had meaning—the children of Israel.  “Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is restricted to only those for whom it has meaning—believers.”

The state of the believer is also given by way of warning in 1 Corinthians 11:27-30, White said, adding that a person who properly participates must be able to understand what it means to examine oneself and what it means to eat unworthily.

Those churches that allow young children to participate ought to take care that they understand these two matters, he added.

Moving on to consider the transient view, White said the majority of Baptists throughout history have held that in addition to being a believer, baptism was a pre-requisite to the Lord’s Supper.

“Many object that a fence should not be constructed around the Lord’s Table and that it must be open communion. However, there are only two real choices—restricted or open,” he said, with varying degrees for each category.

“Open communion consistently practiced would allow barbarians, infidels, Mormons, Muslims, unrepentant sinners, and perhaps even animals to the Lord’s Table,” he said, though no one really contends for that open a practice. Restrictions more typically involve 1) believer, 2) baptism, 3) church membership, and 4) self-examination.

“Because Baptists firmly believe that the New Testament teaches baptism should be by immersion of believers only, they cannot allow paedobaptists (those who practice infant baptism) to partake of communion,” he said. “To do so would be to knowingly affirm an errant theological view.”

White said the primary scriptural battleground on the matter is found in Acts 20:6-8, describing Paul’s trip to Troas. Questions arise over whether a church existed at Troas and whether the verses describe the Lord’s Supper. 

If the answer to both is yes, then a case may be made for transient communion, White said. Those who deny that Troas was a church typically argue for close communion. White said Acts 16:8-11 indicates Paul had visited Troas before, adding to the likelihood that converts remained with whom he later gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.

Although White believes close communion is the most consistent form and empathizes with the practice, the evidence of Acts 20 concerning Troas indicates that transient communion may be allowed for those of like faith and practice, he said. 

“Churches should maintain that believers baptized by immersion who are church members in good standing can participate in the Lord’s Supper of a Baptist church.  However, individuals must not demand participation as a right. Because of autonomy, each local church must decide whether ‘like faith and practice’ or only those on the church roll may participate in the Lord’s Supper.”

Regarding the administrator, White finds the practice of the deacons serving at the Lord’s Supper reflects the meaning of Acts 6 to reinforce their role as servants and not rulers over the congregation. As for frequency of the observance, no clear instruction is given, he said, encouraging frequent practice as determined by the local church.

He warns against the Catholic view of infusion of grace and change of the elements, the Lutheran view of consubstantiation, and the ill-defined, mystical view of John Calvin. Also disconcerting are the extremes of viewing the Lord’s Supper as “mere symbol” or a “meaningless symbol” as both undermine its importance.

“The Baptist theologian must navigate this strait and present a view which results in a meaningful symbolic celebration barren of needless mystical infusions. Such a meaningful celebration will encourage the believer to contemplate his sinfulness and our great and gracious God.”


Copyright 2006 "The Southern Baptist Texan"

Reprinted with permission.