Called a “love feast” by believers in the early church, the celebration came to be known by a variety of names. “Communion,” “Eucharist” (from the Greek verb eucharisto “to thank”), and most commonly, “the Lord’s Supper,” referencing the last meal that Jesus had with His disciples the night before His crucifixion.
This meal was a celebration of the Jewish Passover feast and Jesus linked His own death to the celebration. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb placed on the doorposts of the Israelites delivered them from the wrath of God and, thereby, secured them freedom from slavery, so, as Paul writes, “Christ our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7). When Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal and said “This is My body which is broken for you,” and took the wine and said “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” He was saying, “I am the One who will be sacrificed for you and, in so doing, am instituting the new covenant.” As a celebration and commemoration of this, He then instructed the disciples, and the church through them, to “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
But the church hasn’t limited the celebration to looking backward. We read Jesus describing the kingdom of God in Matthew 22 as a future wedding feast with a king and, in Revelation 19 we are given a description of the marriage feast of the lamb. The church has, thus, seen the Lord’s Supper as commemoration of the past work of Christ but also an anticipatory celebration of what is yet to come.
The Supper is also takes center stage in matters of church discipline. The participation of the meal is a not only a commemoration of what Christ has done, and an anticipatory celebration of what is yet to come, but it the means by which we celebrate our current unity as the body of Christ in our pursuit of the Kingdom and in the proclamation of the gospel. In taking the meal together we are declaring “We are one.” If something has disrupted that unity, then the meal cannot be taken in good conscience unless the matter is addressed. If someone is found to be living in sin and is unrepentant when confronted by their brothers and sisters in Christ, then they cannot be said to be living in gospel-centered unity with the local body of believers and should not be expected to take part in the meal. Instead, they would face excommunication, in other words: ex-communion. In this way, the corporate body of Christ communicates to the wandering believer “You are out of step with the gospel and out of step with us, repent, and return to Christ.” The church does this in order to protect the unity of the body from divisive influences, to protect the integrity of the church, and to protect the offending party. Oscar Cullman, the Swiss theologian, said that the most neglected verse in the whole New Testament is 1 Corinthians 11:30: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” A church cannot say that it is showing compassion to a wayward Christian by allowing them to partake in the supper when, in fact, they are opening up such a one to the potential of facing God’s discipline.
Real Presence or Mere Memorial?
In terms of what is taking place during the meal, the majority of Christians through history have interpreted Jesus’ words that “this is my body” and “this is my blood” to mean that the real presence of Christ is present at the Lord’s Supper. Not everyone has agreed that this is true, and even among those who do believe that His real presence is present there exists disagreements over what that means.
The Catholic church borrowed the philosophical approach of Aristotle who taught that every object had its own “substance” and its corresponding “accidents.” The substance is what a thing is at the core of its being. “Accidents” refer to an object’s external, perceivable qualities. The Catholic church teaches that during the Mass, a miracle happens in which the substance of the bread and wine changes into the substance of the body and blood of Christ while their accidents remain the same. They call this miracle “transubstantiation.”
Martin Luther disagreed, arguing that the substances of the bread and wine do not change, but he still held on to the belief that the real flesh and blood of Christ is present in the meal. How so? The substances don’t change but the body and blood of Christ is supernaturally in, with, and among the elements of the supper. Lutherans still hold to this understanding of the supper and they call this view “consubstantiation.”
Other Reformers disagreed with both the Catholic church and Martin Luther. Arguing that the Catholic and Lutheran views were in contradiction to the Chalcedon confession which argues that Christ exists in two natures (divine and human) and that “each nature retains its own attributes.” This being the case, Jesus’ divine nature never ceased to be divine even in His incarnation. It also means that His human nature retains its human attributes. Human nature cannot be in more than one place at a time, so it makes no sense, they argued, to say that His actual body and blood are actually present every time the supper is observed.
Two alternate approaches were, thus, pursued.
Calvin, and the Reformed churches after him, affirmed the real presence of Jesus in the meal but His presence is a spiritual presence. When Jesus gave “the great commission” of Matthew 28, he told the disciples He would be with them “always, to the end of the age.” This points to the fact that, while Jesus was in his human nature separated from the disciples, he could still be present in His divine nature. In this same way, His physical body is not actually present in the meal, but He is, nevertheless, truly present in His divine nature and it is through His divine presence that those who are partaking are truly strengthened and nurtured by Christ.
The Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli disagreed with Calvin, arguing that Christ is not present in the elements either literally or spiritually but the meal is only a commemoration of the death of Christ through which the church is reminded of the benefits of redemption and salvation. He wrote “The Lord’s Supper is nothing else than the food of the soul, and Christ instituted the ordinance as a memorial of Himself.”
Zwingli’s view has been the one adopted by most modern Baptist churches. The Baptist Faith and Message, the official confession of the Southern Baptist Convention, reflects this understanding in its Article 7: “The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.”
This was not always the case, however. Benjamin Keach, a very influential early Baptist pastor/theologian who lived from 1640 to 1704 stated in his “Keach’s Catechism” (1677) question 117: “The Lord’s Supper is a holy ordinance, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, His death is showed forth, and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporeal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of His body and blood, with all His benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.”
Keach would later be a signatory on the 2nd London Baptist Confession of 1689 which followed very closely the Westminster Confession of Faith in declaring that:
“Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then also inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually receive, and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death; the body and blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally, but spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.”
This was the most commonly held Baptist opinion until fears that this opened the door to Baptists become “Romanish” (Catholic) in their conception of the meal caused many Baptists to shy away for the view of the meal as a mere memorial.
Sacrament or Ordinance?
One will notice Keach’s use of the term “ordinance.” In different contexts, the meal will be referred to as a “sacrament” or an “ordinance.”
The term “ordinance” is most common in Baptist circles. An ordinance refers to a religious ceremony that was commanded by Jesus, passed on by the apostles, and practiced in the early church. Only baptism and the Lord’s Supper fulfill this definition.
The term “sacrament” refers to a religious ceremony that “imparts grace.” Baptists who hold to a more Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper will refer to it as an “ordinance” but they will also not hesitate to refer to it as a “sacrament.” The grace it (as well as baptism) imparts is not “saving grace,” but a “strengthening grace,” much like the grace that comes from hearing the Word of God preached.
Who may partake?
All Christian traditions agree that the Lord’s Supper is intended for and restricted to followers of Christ. But does that mean that all who claim to follow Christ must be admitted to the table?
There are three basic approaches to “fencing the table” (the act of controlling who may or may not partake of the meal):
Open—Anyone who will, who professes faith in Christ, without regard to church membership, may come to the table.
Guarded—Anyone is a member of a particular sort of congregation may come to the table.
Closed—Anyone who is a member of our congregation or our denomination may come to the table.
Open communion is probably the most common practice among Baptists. The only condition is profession of faith in Christ. According to this approach, the individual believer is the only person required to make an assessment as to whether they should partake in the meal. This comes, at least in part, from Paul’s instruction “Let a person examine himself” (1Cor 11:28).
Many Baptists, however, observe “guarded” communion inviting anyone who has professed faith in Christ, was baptized in His name, and is a member in good-standing in a gospel-believing local church are invited to partake. The added restriction of being “a member in good-standing” is intended to restrict those who are currently facing church discipline in another congregation from partaking in the meal and, in so doing, to respect that local congregation’s attempt in calling their congregant to repentance, to protect the particular person from the Lord’s discipline, and to protect the integrity of the meal.
There are some Baptists, who, focusing on instrumentality of the Supper for church discipline, go further by practicing closed communion. The concern is that, in order for the meal to truly communicate unity among its partakers and in order for the partakers to truly know whether someone should be admitted or restricted from participating, the meal should be restricted to those who are members of that particular congregation or, at the very least, those who are members of congregations within a local association of churches.
This was the most popular practice of Baptists in 18th and 19th Century America. Greg Wills notes:
“Baptists generally observed the Lord’s Supper once per quarter. Many churches required a public reading of their covenant and creed at the church conferences held before these “quarterly meetings.” They felt it appropriate that the Sunday Lord’s Supper observance followed the Saturday church conferences in which they upheld their common faith and practice by reading aloud their covenanted duties under Christ. They upheld their duties also by exercising church discipline. In these ways they sought to secure that purity which was prerequisite to a proper observance of the Lord’s Supper. To allow wickedness among them to go unrebuked and unrestrained would pervert the design of the Lord’s Supper.
They made a distinction between the church and congregation- they invited members of the church to the table and they invited the congregation to stay and observe. Baptists visiting from other churches usually participated (they called this “transient communion”). They usually took the bread and wine in their pews. They used fermented wine until the late 19th century when some Baptists began to use grape juice, or as they called it, “unfermented wine.” They used a common cup. In the early twentieth century churches switched to individual cups.
Some churches did not allow Baptists who belonged to other churches to take the Lord’s Supper with them. This was characteristic especially of Landmark churches. With all Baptists they agreed that only careful exercise of church discipline could preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Supper. But since the authority to exercise church discipline extended only to the members of the local church, the concluded that the Lord’s Supper ought to extend to the local members only. Since they furthermore had no responsibility for the discipline of members of other churches and could not ensure that transient Baptists were sound in their faith and morals, they could not protect the purity of the observance if they permitted transient communion.”