Here are some continuing thoughts on the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper.
Question: Who should participate in the Lord's Supper?
1. The Scriptural witness is that when someone become a Christian he should be baptized (for the clearest model, see the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch after confessing his faith in Christ in Acts 8:36-38).
2. The Scriptural witness to the early church is that when people were converted under the apostles’ preaching they were baptized and then “added” or joined to a local, visible church.
Acts 2:41 Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.
Acts 5:14 And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.
3. Scripture assumes that believers will be part of local churches.
To be a Christian is to be a member of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12). To be a Christian means being part of a church that assembles for worship and fellowship (1 Cor 16:1-2; Heb 10:24-25) under the leadership of church officers (1 Thess 5:12; Heb 13:17).
4. The Lord’s Supper is a perpetual ordinance commanded by the Lord to be observed by the church until Christ comes (1 Cor 11:23-26).
5. The Lord’s Supper is to be hosted by the local church.
It was hosted by the church at Jerusalem (Acts 2:42) and by the church at Troas (Acts 20:7). When Paul wrote to “the church of God” at Corinth (1 Cor 1:2) concerning the Lord’s Supper, he begins, “when ye come together into one place” (1 Cor 11:20). He tells them, “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you…” (v. 23). Paul assumes the Lord’s Supper is being celebrated in a local church by the members of the local church under the leadership of local church officers.
6. Given the Scriptural context in which the Lord’s Supper was observed, we can assume those who participated were (1) believers; (2) baptized; and (3) members of local churches.
7. This does not mean, however, that only the members of the particular local church which is hosting the Lord’s Supper were permitted to partake of the ordinance.
Paul, a member of the church at Antioch, broke bread with the church at Troas when he visited them (Acts 20:7), and Paul’s letters indicate that there was mobility among his apostolic associates who visited various churches (e.g., 2 Cor 7:13; Gal 2:1; Phil 2:25; 2 Tim 4:11; etc.). Undoubtedly, this would have included participation in Lord’s Day worship and the Lord’s Supper.
Baptist theologian J. L. Dagg (1794-1884) refers to this as “transient communion” in his Manual of Church Order:
In primitive times, the members of different local churches associated with each other, as members of the great fraternity. Paul was doubtless welcomed at the Lord’s table, by the disciples at Troas. This transient communion is now practiced. The Lord’s supper is properly a church ordinance; but an individual, duly qualified to be admitted to membership in a church, may be admitted for the time as a member, and received to transient communion, without any departure from the design of the institution (pp. 213-214).
Note that Dagg assumes that these “transient” guests in other churches are local church members.
8. The Lord’s Supper not only involves fellowship or communion with Christ, but also communion or fellowship among believers.
In 1 Corinthians 10:16, Paul sums up this twofold dimension of the Lord’s Supper when he writes, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” He continues in v. 17 to stress what we could call the “social” aspect of the Lord’s Supper: “For we being many are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread.”
9. The church is charged with overseeing the Lord’s Supper and warning partakers of the spiritual dangers of improper participation (see 1 Cor 11:27-32).
It is reasonable to assume that the way this oversight was best exercised was if the church officers were familiar with those who attended the table, because they were members of the local church. When members of other local churches were present, they came with the recommendation of their home churches. In fact, it was apparently common practice to send “epistles of commendation” from one church (or apostle during the apostolic age) to another to vouch for the standing of a person (cf. Acts 28:21; 1 Cor 16:3; 2 Cor 3:1; 8:23; etc.). This also meant that those under proper discipline could be excluded from the table (see 1 Cor 5:4-8).
10. Historic Baptist theologians made a distinction between baptism, as an ordinance of Christ, and the Lord’s Supper, as an ordinance of the church.
Here is how John Gill (1697-1771) describes baptism and admission to church “communion” (or fellowship, which would include participation in the Lord’s Supper) in his A Body of Practical Divinity (emphasis added):
As the first covenant, or testament, had ordinances of divine service, which are shaken, removed, and abolished; so the New Testament, or gospel dispensation, has ordinances of divine worship, which cannot be shaken, but will remain until the second coming of Christ: these, as Austin [Augusine] says, are few; and easy to be observed, and of a very expressive signification. Among which, baptism must be reckoned one, and is proper to be treated of in the first place; for though it is not a church ordinance, it is an ordinance of God, and a part and branch of public worship. When I say it is not a church ordinance, I mean it is not an ordinance administered in the church, but out of it, and in order to admission into it, and communion with it; it is preparatory to it, and a qualification for it; it does not make a person a member of a church, or admit him into a visible church; persons must first be baptized, and then added to the church, as the three thousand converts were; a church has nothing to do with the baptism of any, but to be satisfied they are baptized before they are admitted into communion with it. Admission to baptism lies solely in the breast of the administrator, who is the only judge of qualifications for it, and has the sole power of receiving to it, and of rejecting from it; if nor satisfied, he may reject a person thought fit by a church, and admit a person to baptism not thought fit by a church; but a disagreement is not desirable nor advisable: the orderly, regular, scriptural rule of proceeding seems to be this: a person inclined to submit to baptism, and to join in communion with a church, should first apply to an administrator; and upon giving him satisfaction, be baptized by him; and then should propose to the church for communion; when he would be able to answer all proper questions: if asked, to give a reason of the hope that is in him, he is ready to do it; if a testimony of his life and conversation is required, if none present can give it, he can direct where it is to be had; and if the question is put to him, whether he is a baptized person or not, he can answer in the affirmative, and give proof of it, and so the way is clear for his admission into church fellowship. So Saul, when converted, was immediately baptized by Ananias, without any previous knowledge and consent of the church; and, it was many days after this that he proposed to join himself to the disciples, and was received (Acts 9:18, 19, 23, 26-28)….
Dagg, likewise, notes that when the church admits a person into membership it “authorizes his participation of the communion. The church, as an organized body, with power to receive and exclude members according to rules which Christ has laid down, is responsible for the exercise of this power” (Manual of Church Order, p. 221).
The proper Biblical order, then, would then be: (1) belief; (2) baptism; (3) admission to church membership; (4) admission to church privileges, including the Lord’s Table.
11. The assumption of church membership as a prerequisite for participation in the Lord’s Supper is reflected in the Baptist Catechism and Spurgeon’s Catechism.
In Spurgeon’s Catechism, for example, note the intentional order in which the questions are composed:
Baptism (Questions 75-78)
Church Membership (Question 79)
The Lord’s Supper (Questions 80-82)
Question 79 asks, “What is the duty of such as are rightly baptized?” and answers, “It is the duty of such as are rightly baptized, to give up themselves, to some particular and orderly Church of Jesus Christ, that they may walk in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (proofs: Acts 2:47; 9:26; 1 Pet 2:5; Luke 1:6).