It seems like the issue of reception keeps coming up. So I thought I'd write down some notes about it. I've already laid out what I think about reception ("Thoughts on reception"), but I'm not sure I did a good job of referring to Scripture. So I'd like to establish in just a few paragraphs what Scripture has to say about reception. Yeah, like that's possible...
The first thing we need to establish is that not everyone is supposed to be at the Lord's Table. Scripture specifically says we're to exclude some: 1 Corinthians 5 discusses putting believers out of fellowship who deliberately and unrepentantly persist in sin. What does it say we should do in this case?
- to have nothing to do with such a person (v. 11)
- not to eat with such a person (v. 11)
- to remove such a person from among ourselves (v. 13)
This is only about removing someone from fellowship who is living in known sin. So no, these verse don't apply to someone who just walks in off the street. But it does establish the general principle that we aren't supposed to have everyone at the Table. There is at least one complete class of people we're specifically told to exclude. Not to exclude such people is sin.
So we've established the principle that the Lord's Table isn't for everyone.
The next question is, why shouldn't we allow this person to the Table? The question is answered easily in 1 Corinthians 5:6–8: "a little leaven leavens the whole lump". What does that mean? It means that sin spreads. It's possible for an entire gathering of the Lord's people to become defiled by the sin of one person.
This isn't an isolated statement in Scripture. The Scriptures mention it explicitly in other places:
- 1 Timothy 5:22 commands not to "partake in others' sins"
- 2 John 10 & 11 say that you "partake in [a false teacher's] wicked works" just by allowing him into the house, or greeting him
But can we really apply a principle like that to the assembly? Isn't it talking about individual social interactions? That's not really a reasonable interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5. But if we want to argue about it, we have more of God's thoughts on fellowship in Revelation 2 & 3. In the message to the assembly in Pergamos, the Lord Jesus says He has two things against them:
- they have those who hold the doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14)
- they have those who hold the doctrines of the Nicolaitanes (Revelation 2:15)
We could go on. We could discuss Jude. We could talk about Romans 16. But in the end, it's an indisputable fact that the Lord takes our associations very seriously. The Scripture explicitly warns against becoming a partaker in someone else's sins, and Christ judges the assembly specifically in terms of the people they allow in fellowship.
But there's more. The Lord's Supper is not an individual thing. What does the Scripture say? "[W]e, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:17). No, it doesn't mean we become one Body by eating the one loaf. The context makes that clear. What it means is that we announce our "One Body"-ness by eating that one loaf. Why do many Christians refer to the Lord's Supper as "Communion"? Because that's what 1 Corinthians 10 calls it. By eating the Lord's Supper together, we are demonstrating our communion.
Now we see why the Lord takes it so seriously to have an unrepentant fornicator in the assembly: the entire assembly is expressing unity with that man whenever they sit at the Lord's Supper together.
So let's talk about unbelievers for a moment. Do we believe they are part of the One Body? Of course not! It's only by baptism of the Holy Spirit we become part of the One Body (1 Corinthians 12:13). So then we're lying if we announce "One Body"-ness with an unbeliever, aren't we?
So we have the general principle that it's possible to become a partaker in someone else's sins. And we have some specific examples of how that works: things like inviting a false teacher into the house, or greeting him. And we have the explicit command that the assembly is to put unrepentant sinners out of fellowship: we're to have nothing to do with them, and we're specifically told not to eat with them. And we have the judgment of the Lord Jesus, that allowing people with false doctrine to be part of the assembly is a serious sin. So we can say with complete certainty that there are several reasons to exclude someone from the Lord's Supper. And in fact, Scripture makes it clear that if we don't exclude them, we come under the Lord's judgment (Revelation 2:14–16).
But what about 1 Corinthians 11? People have pointed out 1 Corinthians 11:28, "a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup" (NASB). People have taken that to mean that it's up to the individual to decide whether he ought to take part in the Lord's Supper. I suppose the verse might be taken that way, but I don't think it fits the context very well. Why would I say that? Because just six chapters earlier, the Scripture specifically commands we're not to eat with unrepentant sinners. Does the Lord's Supper count as eating? Of course it does! And 1 Corinthians 10 makes the point that in eating the Lord's Supper, we're expressing communion with each other. So 1 Corinthians 5 explicitly forbids eating with someone, can we then understand 1 Corinthians 11 to mean that it's up to them whether they partake of the Lord's Supper?
1 Corinthians 11 isn't saying that anyone who comes along is responsible to decide for themselves whether they ought to eat and drink: that would mean that the entire discussion in 1 Corinthians 5 is meaningless. It means that 1 Corinthians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11 together read something like this, "Have nothing to do with that person, don't even eat with them. But really, leave it up to them to decide whether they eat with you..." When we put it that way, it sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?
1 Corinthians 11 is addressing the people who are in the assembly. This is a known group of people, and we know that by v. 23. They were ones to whom Paul had already given the truth of the Lord's Supper. He knew them, they weren't strangers. And he says to them that they ought to be judging themselves, because it's by self-judgment that we escape God's judgment.
The concept of an "open table" doesn't stand up to Scripture. But there's another question: what is our test of fellowship? If not everyone's allowed to the Table, then who should be allowed?
I've pointed out before that the test of fellowship isn't loyalty to the group: the test is loyalty to Christ. I'm not by any means condoning a sectarian membership. But I am saying the uniform testimony of Scripture is that God holds the assembly responsible for who's eating the Lord's Supper. And Scripture plainly states that this relationship can be defiling to an assembly.
As a final note: I wrote several years ago about reception ("Thoughts on reception"), but I didn't know then that J. N. Darby wrote something very much along the same lines. It wasn't for quite some time I found it, but Darby's paper "Principles of Gathering" is excellent. It's on STEM Publishing, and it's worth a read.