New Horizons

Church Membership and Participation in the Lord’s Supper

Brett A. McNeill

You may wonder why we in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church believe that a person must be a member in good standing in a Bible-believing, evangelical church before he or she may partake of the Lord’s Supper. That’s a good question, and one that I’ve been asked many times. Our practice strikes many people as new and unusual because the more common practice in North American churches is to leave the decision whether to participate up to each individual.

Why then do we require people to be members in a local church before they may come to the Lord’s Table? In a nutshell, we believe that is what God requires. That may seem to be a bold claim, so let me try briefly to defend it. If this answer is a bit long, I apologize, but a good question deserves a good
answer.

Christians and the Local Church

First of all, consider that membership in a local church is a necessary part of scriptural Christian living. In Hebrews 13:17, God commands, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” This command is not describing some vague sort of relationship. It is describing a relationship that is clear-cut both to the sheep and to the shepherds.

It is this clear-cut relationship that enables a Christian to be a good sheep. How can a Christian obey this command unless he or she knows exactly which leaders watch over his or her soul as those who must give an account?

It is this clear-cut relationship that enables a leader to be a good shepherd. A good shepherd must be like the Good Shepherd and know his sheep by name (John 10:3). He must be able to number them, so that he can see when one is missing, in order that he might lovingly pursue that wandering sheep (Matt. 18:12; Luke 15:4; cf. Acts 20:28).

And it is this clear-cut relationship that helps to protect the sheep from the Evil One. A sheep that gets separated from the flock is in grave danger.

The Supper and the Local Church

God’s Word not only binds Christian living to the visible local church, but also binds the Lord’s Supper to the visible local church. 1 Corinthians 11 may well be the best known and
clearest passage that gives instructions on the Lord’s Supper. Many, however, tend to skim over the beginning of that passage. Paul begins his treatment of the Supper by saying, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat” (vv. 17–20).

We could say a lot about these few verses, but for now notice especially how Paul says that when the church gathers for worship, it is necessary for there to be a visible identification of those who are “genuine” and those who are not. The word “genuine” has lost much of its significance in modern parlance, but it means “tested, approved, or certified by an authority.” Paul is saying that one big reason why the Lord’s Supper exists is to make clear who it is who has been certified by those in authority. In other words, a big reason why the Lord’s Supper exists is to visibly manifest those whom the elders deem to have a credible profession of faith.

The problem with the believers in the church at Corinth was that they were using the Supper to distinguish between those who were rich and those who were poor, rather than those who were formally recognized to be genuine and those who were not. To be sure, the passage does go on to say that the individual must also examine himself (v. 28), and he must certainly do so, but we must not take that out of context by overlooking how this passage begins. The Lord intends for his Supper to manifest those who have been approved by the leaders of a true church to be credibly professing believers.

The Supper and Discipline

In that light, notice how God’s Word closely ties the Lord’s Supper to church discipline. Matthew 18:15–20 lays out the process of church discipline for us. If a professing Christian is believed to be in sin, the brother or sister who has an issue with that believer is first to go privately to that person and plead for repentance (v. 15). If that believer will not listen, then the one with the issue is to return with one or two witnesses (v. 16). But if that person still won’t listen, the matter is to be taken to the church (v. 17). The question, however, is, “Which church?” The only reasonable answer is the church to which that person is accountable.

The consequence for not listening to the church is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector (v. 17)—or, as 1 Corinthians 5:9–13 puts it, to refuse to eat (the Lord’s Supper) with such a person. We are not subject to the decree or discipline of every local church, but only to the decree or discipline of the church to which we are in submission (i.e., of those leaders who watch over our soul). It should be a great comfort to each of us to know that the Arminian church down the street does not have the authority to excommunicate us.

This, however, also means that every believer who comes to the Lord’s Table must have a church that can make such a pronouncement. There must be a way to follow this process outlined in Matthew 18, or else that person is beyond the discipline of the Lord and can only remove himself or herself from the Lord’s Table. But the Bible does not allow that option.

To summarize: God says that each follower of Christ must be in some sort of official submission to leaders (where both parties have agreed to the relationship), must have been approved by the leadership of a local church in order to participate in the Lord’s Supper, and must be currently under the accountability of a church, so that discipline can be followed if needed (in accord with what the Lord instructs in his Word).

Churches of varying denominations held to this understanding and practice for centuries. Sadly, this view has gradually faded until it has all but disappeared from the church in our day. It is so much easier for churches just to leave it up to the individual. We know the temptation all too well—even having seen folks get upset and leave over this very issue.

But the deciding factor is not what is easier. We are bound by conscience to submit to what we are persuaded is God’s clear teaching in Scripture. We know that our practice goes against the grain of the common practice of most modern churches. That makes it all the more challenging, not only for us to adhere to it, but also for many to submit to it. It takes a firm trust in the Lord to submit to this, while waiting to go through the membership process.

If you are waiting to be received into the membership of a local church, I pray that the Lord will sufficiently strengthen you during this time. He is our comfort and our strength, and he promises to be with us in the midst of hard times.

The author is the pastor of Reformation OPC in Olympia, Wash. New Horizons, April 2015.

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