What are you saying when you don’t take communion?

I was at a friend’s wedding recently at a United Methodist church. When communion was served, about half of the people in attendance did not come forward, including a large number of people I knew to be non-denominational evangelicals. I felt hurt to see that even at a wedding we couldn’t be one body of Christ, though I recognize not everyone shares my understanding of communion.

Growing up Southern Baptist, we did communion maybe twice a year. We called it the Lord’s Supper and we did it with crackers and shotglasses. Nothing about it suggested to me that it had anything to do with affirming our unity as one body of Christ. It wasn’t until I attended a weekday Catholic mass in early 2003 when I was hit by the reality that the body of Christ is a living organism that gets recreated every time
we receive His body and blood.

Since then, communion has come to mean everything to me. It’s especially important that I share communion with people I have sharp theological disagreements with to make it clear that I don’t give myself the authority to exclude them from God’s family. I can only imagine not taking communion if I thought it was being performed disrespectfully or because I were in a state of willful disobedience to God that would make my participation in communion an open mockery. So when I see people not taking communion, I tend to presume that they’re holding back as a judgment on themselves or others (even if that’s not actually the case).

I know that Catholics and Orthodox have a particular understanding of who should receive communion based on their interpretation of Paul’s admonition not to “eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” (1 Cor 11:27). I have recently learned that some Christians believe you should only take communion in your home congregation. In the United Methodist Church, we have an open communion table because we believe that a non-believer can be drawn to Christ through the experience of communion and we don’t give ourselves the authority to determine who is and isn’t Christian.

Perhaps it was the case that those who declined to come forward at the
wedding did so because they thought that Methodism was like Catholicism and that it would be disrespectful for them to come forward not being Methodists. I just hope they weren’t expressing theological disapproval. I’m particularly sensitive to that suspicion because as a college student in an non-denominational evangelical campus ministry, I remember being told that Methodists weren’t really “born-again” Christians.

I hope that isn’t why people wouldn’t come forward for communion. To anyone who thinks that sharing communion with someone constitutes an uncritical endorsement of their theology, I challenge you to think of it as a form of evangelism. Jesus emphatically rejected the concept of guilt by association. Only He has the authority to draw the boundaries of His body. I pray that all Christians would be one at His table in the future.


25 thoughts on “What are you saying when you don’t take communion?

  1. I see this as a remnant of the Donatist controversy. At the church I serve in, we open the communion table to everyone because the validity of the sacrament depends neither on those offering or nor those receiving it, but it depends on the sacrament itself, Jesus Christ. Who are we to try and regulate that?

    • Donatism had to do with the authenticity of the Sacrament based on the offerer’s intent. The receiver’s intent has always been important vis-a-vis how the given sacrament affects them.

      Baptism can be unto damnation, etc. Otherwise the sacrament is a magic trick, the Reformer’s mocking “hoc est poc est”.

      As for who we are to regulate this, since the beginning, Christians have regulated it in love through the power given by Christ to his apostles, when he said:

      “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.”

      • That’s a creative interpretation of forgiving and retaining sin. Its a stretch to use it to justify a closed table.

      • A couple points:

        1. Not binding and loosing sins in particular, but the ability to regulate heavenly things in binding and loosing.

        “Excommunication” has a bad rap in the West. For some reason, it is often considered synonymous with “anathema”, which indicates that a person is no longer a member of a church. Sometimes connotations of damnation are even associated with it.

        However, traditional Christians excommunicate and re-communicate themselves all the time. Any act which damages one’s ability to commune with God through his body is an excommunicating act; it is alright to say to God, “I cannot bear to be with you right now, even though you can always bear to be with me.” The alternative is a lie of self-deception.

        Furthermore, Christ tells us that the holy Qurbana/Eucharist should not be offered when one is in contention with his brothers; that we should first reconcile. If one cannot say “amen” alongside his brothers, to his brothers, even, and to God, he should reconcile his contention before offering the sacrifice. This is the ancient Christian practice, as I’m sure you’ll agree. So if I say “amen” to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, declaring the human-loving God became man, and another cannot, I cannot deny that person’s human freedom by forcing false unity upon us through external con-celebration of the Eucharist.

        And finally, Christ’s teaching was to repent, and to be baptized, first. So that in one baptism and one faith, Israel could offer the spotless sacrifice. This cannot be done if there is another baptism, another Gospel, another faith. I think our main disagreement is this: You seem to see the Eucharist (the communion elements) as the ultimate sacrifice and pinnacle of worship. I would contend that the entire liturgy consecrates and offers the Eucharist on behalf of the whole world, by God’s Israel in Christ, and it is this very act which requires the faithful’s “amen” to truly take place. If there is no unity of the faithful, at least one faithful, there can be no Eucharist. No sacrifice is offered on behalf of one and for one.

        2. Dude, we’re part of a religion that takes prophetic passages way out of context and uses them to support a crucified messiah.

        I mean, that’s what we DO, man! That’s how midrash works.

        • I like a lot of what you say and basically agree with it. But based on my own (perhaps presumptuously Protestant) intuitions about my relationship with God, it has seemed more of a crime not to go forward than to go forward when I’m at my Monday mass. I mourn schism and I prefer Catholic and Orthodox theology to my own. But I will never be regular with Rome since I’m married to a woman whose call to ordained ministry I affirm. Were it not for that, I would be in full communion either with Rome or Antioch, Hail Mary’s, papal “infallibility,” and contraception-gate notwithstanding.

      • “But I will never be regular with Rome since I’m married to a woman whose call to ordained ministry I affirm. Were it not for that, I would be in full communion either with Rome or Antioch, Hail Mary’s, papal “infallibility,” and contraception-gate notwithstanding.”

        What do you mean by ordained ministry?

        • In the United Methodist Church what that means is that she is charged with preaching, ordering the life of the church, and administering the sacraments, something which would never be acceptable to those who understand priests to be icons of Christ. I understand and agree with many things about Catholic and Orthodox theology. I can’t go along with that one piece of it because I know that she’s called and I support her 100%.

      • Ah, I see.

        Well, from the Orthodox Christian perspective as I see it, the only thing that would be problematic would be administering the sacraments.

        Tough issue, tough issue.

        What is contraceptiongate?

        • The whole drama about getting insurance companies to pay for contraception and the Catholic church’s objection to having their hospitals and non-profit agencies fall under these requirements. What I was saying is that’s not a deal-breaker for me. In any case, in my circumstances, the best I’m going to be able to do is continue to learn from the rich theological heritage particularly from the East and try to find a means of implementing Orthodox liturgy and spiritual practices both in my personal spiritual life as well as in the life of my congregation.

  2. For methodists, even when someone is serving communion whom you don’t judge to be in right standing with God, it’s still communion. Sacraments are God’s work of grace among us. God gives the love, the grace, the reconciliation – we, including the celebrant, are participants and are fed at the feast. Christ is the host at the table, not Rev.Smith.. Take comfort in the fact that it’s the Lord’s table, the Lord’s supper, and not anyone else’s. Also, don;t let what you perceive as sin obstruct you from God’s grace. God uses us sinners everyday for the sake of the Kingdom.

    • Yes! Thanks for the correction. I need to reword how I phrased that sentence. I don’t think my sin as a recipient or the unworthiness of the pastor can undermine the efficacy of God’s sacrament. However I wouldn’t partake of communion if it was performed in a way that was farcical. I also think that doing it while in a state of willful disobedience to God is going to impact my ability to receive the grace that is there for me.

  3. When it comes to communion, I definitely favor the UMC’s understanding of it over the other denominations of which I have been a part. When I was part of a UMC church and the pastor explained to me that anyone could take it because something could happen to them while doing so, I just though it was so great to actually be that open. To me, it truly was an open table.

    • The way I feel is that everything we do is evangelism because everything has the potential to help someone fall (more deeply) in love with Jesus.

  4. Without knowing any of the people involved, it’s impossible to say why they didn’t take Communion. It is entirely possible they didn’t know whether it would be appropriate for them to do so (though when I’ve been in UMC settings that’s usually pretty clear), or they may be unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable with going forward and dipping the bread in the cup (especially if the presider used the word “intinction”; nobody knows what that means), as most non-denoms are really crypto-Baptists.

    Of course you may be right and they may have been expressing disapproval, or at least distinction. But part of the unity of the table, to me, is giving people the benefit of the doubt.

  5. Don’t take it personally Morgan! As a Methodist married to a Catholic I can tell you that my husband does not take communion at my Methodist church because he is not a member. In this area of the country, within the Catholic community, the rule is, if it is not your home church, you are not allowed to take communion, even if it is a Catholic church. There are other denominations that teach something similar to that idea.

    • I think that may be a misunderstanding. One of my friends is a soon-to-be Catholic priest and I’ve gone to probably a half dozen Catholic churches with him. He’s taken it every time and when I’ve traveled with Catholics to Basilicas and Cathedrals they have too.

  6. People who dictate those who should and should not take communion based on 1 Cor. 11:27 are doing so out of sheer ignorance and proof-texting. Placing the passage within context, it reveals that Paul was frustrated with those wealthy believers in Corinth who, at the agape feast, ate all of the food (not bread and wine, since the Eucharist used to play a much larger role in the early Church), leaving nothing for the poor. “Don’t you have food at home?” Paul asks. “If so, why don’t you eat there so that those who have none can eat here?” It’s when greed and gluttony become the cause for taking the Lord’s Supper that we are “taking condemnation unto [ourselves],” not any other phony reason that we use to exclude our brothers and sisters.

    • Totally agree. That’s why I feel okay taking Catholic communion subversively every Monday at the cathedral in DC.

    • Actually, the oldest reference to closed communion outside the canonical Scriptures doesn’t use that “prooftext”. It is probably the Didache, the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles.

      The recovered version reads:

      “But let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptised in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

      As for your dismissal of Paul in Corinthians, I sympathize with it, because this passage is indeed often reduced to a mere out of context proof. However, Paul’s admonition to examine ourselves can indeed be applied to different contexts. Not that we should treat the Scriptures as if they are infallible or anything, of course.

      Early Christians had a tradition of closed communion and only used holy texts to support that tradition, not found it.

      • The scripture reference in the Didache is interesting and it makes sense. Though I recognize that the Holy Spirit makes the sacrament efficacious, I also think that our experience of its benefits depends on where our hearts are when we partake.

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