People are often surprised when they hear that some churches permit only baptised believers to partake of the Lord’s Table. Some think that this is a strange and even harsh practice. There are, however, biblical and historical reasons for requiring baptism before partaking of the Lord’s Supper.
The Biblical Reasons
1. There is a biblical order.
In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20, the proper order of the ordinances is implied in Jesus’s command: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”
Several things should be noted about this passage. First, the command is grounded in Christ’s authority. Second, believers are called to “make disciples” and then baptize them according to the Trinitarian formula. Third, it is only after this conversion and baptism that disciples are taught to “observe all that Christ commanded.” Surely communion is understood as one of the many things that Christ has commanded. So the order is baptism before observance; baptism precedes communion.
Acts 2:41–42 states the proper order even more clearly: “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In these verses, individuals believe (“received his word”) prior to their baptism. Only after baptism did these new believers become part of the community, participation in which included “the breaking of bread,” a common New Testament designation for the Lord’s Supper. Again, baptism preceded communion.
2. The Lord’s Supper has a biblical meaning.
- The Lord’s Supper is for Christians only. It is a family meal that celebrates having already partaken of Christ and being in fellowship with His people (1 Cor 10:16–17).
- There are penalties for unbelievers partaking. They eat and drink judgement to themselves, if they partake of the Table, while not having partaken of Christ. (1 Cor 11:27–31)
- The Lord’s Supper is a corporate, family meal, administered by the church. It is not something we partake of privately at home.
- Because the church administers the Lord’s Supper, the church is responsible to make sure that only Christians partake of the Supper. The biblical way for the church to know if people profess to be Christians is not if such people claim to have prayed a prayer, but if they have testified publicly of their faith in Christ through believers’ baptism. Believers’ baptism is the public declaration of faith in Christ.
The Historical Reasons
Almost no churches in Christian history have allowed unbaptised people to partake of the Table. The modern confusion on this matter comes from infant baptism. Since Romanists, the Eastern Orthodox, and some Reformed churches baptise infants, almost all churchgoers partake of communion. That is, since no one in those traditions is viewed as unbaptised, (since everyone is baptised as a baby) all children, teenagers and adults partake. All of these churches believe that they are allowing only baptised people to partake of the Supper.
Baptists reject infant baptism as valid baptism. Biblical baptism is the baptism of disciples who confess Jesus Christ. Baptism comes after this profession, not before. Therefore, Baptists do not believe that someone who was sprinkled, dipped, or even immersed as an infant has been baptised. Most Baptists regard the mode of baptism as essential to the rite, and do not regard affusion as the proper mode, and regard those who have been sprinkled as unbaptised. Only once such a person has been scripturally baptised, is he permitted to partake of the Table.
Historically, this can be found in many Baptist statements of faith:
The first modern Baptist confession was written by the General Baptist John Smyth in 1610. Entitled A Short Confession, it says:
The Holy Supper, according to the institution of Christ, is to be administered to the baptized; as the Lord Jesus hath commanded that whatsoever he hath appointed should be taught to be observed (Article 31).
The First London Confession, was published in 1644 and revised in 1646. It says:
That Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispensed only upon persons professing faith, or that are Disciples, or taught, who upon a profession of faith, ought to be baptized and after to partake of the Lord’s Supper (Article XXXIX).
The New Hampshire Baptist Confession of Faith, from 1833, says
We believe that Christian Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer, into the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost; to show forth, in a solemn and beautiful emblem, our faith in the crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, with its effect in our death to sin and resurrection to a new life; that it is prerequisite to the privileges of a Church relation; and to the Lord’s Supper, in which the members of the Church, by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ; preceded always by solemn self-examination (Article 14).
But why can’t someone who is not baptised but believes he is a Christian partake of the Supper?
The Lord’s Supper is not a private, individual ordinance. There are plenty of things a person can do if he thinks he is a Christian: read the Bible, pray, attend church, etc. But if he wants to partake of the Lord’s Table, which the church is charged to administer, it is not enough that he believe he is a Christian. The church must also believe he is a Christian. The church comes to believe this when he testifies of his faith in Christ to the assembly of believers, who then baptise him upon his profession of faith.
But what of those churches that allow the unbaptised to partake?
Each church must answer to its own Lord.
What if a person wants to get baptised? Can’t he partake of the Lord’s Table in the meantime?
If a person has delayed getting baptised for several months or years, then it would seem strange to be impatient to partake of the Supper as soon as possible. Let the biblical order prevail: let a person submit to believer’s baptism, and partake immediately after that. If someone is desperate to partake of the Table, then let him be desperate to be baptised. The church will not delay a man’s baptism unnecessarily.
What if people feel offended when they can’t partake of the Supper?
This is understandable, no one wants to feel excluded. The bigger question is: why don’t people feel offended when they have not been baptised? Why don’t people feel offended when they haven’t publicly identified with Christ? Often, we want the privileges without the responsibility. We want the privilege of eating with the family of God, but we don’t want to submit to the family of God. Let a person humbly consider the biblical pattern, and he will conclude that he needs to obey Christ’s command to be baptised. Pride will take exclusion personally, feel offended, and remain defiantly unbaptised. Humility will see the beauty of the protection of baptism, and request it as soon as possible.
Restricting the Lord’s Table to baptised believers is a protective and obedient practice. It protects unbelievers from judgement. It follows the biblical order. It upholds the meaning of the Table as a family ordinance. It upholds the idea of a church made up of believers only. Though it is inevitable that some will feel offended, we trust that it will provoke many to good works: the good works of obeying Christ’s command to be baptised, and then of observing His command to remember His death.