We live in a period of time in which individualism is huge and the centrality of the church is almost non-existent. One casualty of this unfortunate arrangement is that coming to the Eucharistic Meal is seen almost solely as an individual’s personal choice, not as a matter of the official ministry of the church. As a campus pastor of mine put it to unbelievers at our Friday night para-church meeting: “When the bread is passed, if you feel God tuggin’ on your heart, go ahead and partake.” What does an unbeliever (even if he “feels God tuggin’ on his heart”) have to do with the Lord’s Table?! This is all quite misguided. It is wrapped up in the unseen errors of our own day, and it is a practice is not only largely missing from the history of the church, but is roundly condemned throughout the whole of that history. Finally, offering the holy Meal to people before they are baptized is not just contrary to church history, but is contrary to a sound reading of Scripture.
As to church history, and in order to keep this post reasonable in length, let one example suffice. This one example is from one of the earliest pieces of non-canonical Christian literature still extant, the Didache. Very little is said of Communion, but this is included: “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs.'” Thus, from the very early days of the Christian church, it has been customary to serve the Supper of Thanksgiving (that is, of course, what “eucharist” means) to the baptized alone, but why? Is there a biblical reason for this long-standing practice?
There are really two reasons (as I see it) that the Eucharist should be served to the baptized and not the unbaptized. The first has to do with the differing natures of the two sacraments, and the second has to do with the connection of Baptism and the Supper in the NT to Circumcision and Passover in the OT.
The nature of Baptism differs at various points from the nature of the Eucharist. Baptism in the NT is tied (among other things) to new life, union with Christ, and initiation into the church (Rom 6:1-4; Titus 3:1-7; 1 Cor 12:12-13 – for starters). The holy Meal is (again, among other things) the sign of feeding, growth, and covenant renewal (1 Cor 10:15-17; 11:23-34). Baptism is the sign of rebirth and initiation, the sign of union with Christ. Communion is, well… COMmunion, a sharing of union with the others who also share in it. The union of Baptism necessarily precedes the communion of Communion. That is, one needs to be included in the body of Christ before one participates in the shared life of that body. One should be sacramentally born before one takes sacramental food.
Compelling as all that is, I think there is a more impressive argument to be made. The difficulty with this second argument is that it assumes that one understands that there is a link between OT Circumcision and NT Baptism, and also a link between OT Passover and NT Communion. That there is a connection between Communion and Passover is not difficult to spot, as Jesus instituted the Supper at a Passover meal (Mt 26:17-29). The nature of that connection is more difficult, as is the connection between Circumcision and Baptism. However, the two following passages should be enough to show that there is a connection, even if (just like in the case of Passover and the Supper) the nature of that connection is not easily grasped.
Colossians 2:11-12 links Circumcision and Baptism conceptually by linking them grammatically: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” In short, we, Gentiles, have been Circumcised in our Baptisms, for the shared substance of both signs is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Galatians 3:23-29 explains how believers, through faith Jesus Christ, the Seed of Abraham, become children of Abraham. Paul ends with these words: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” In baptism we put on Christ and are counted as Abraham’s children. What is the OT sign of being a child of Abraham? Read Genesis 17, if you can’t remember. The sign was Circumcision. In the NT, that sign is now Baptism.
Okay, so if in their central substance Baptism is linked with Circumcision and the Eucharist is linked with Passover, then we can proceed to show how, in the OT, in order to participate in the Passover meal, one needed to be circumcised. Exodus 12:43-49 says:
And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it, but every slave that is bought for money may eat of it after you have circumcised him. No foreigner or hired worker may eat of it. It shall be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house, and you shall not break any of its bones. All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. If a stranger shall sojourn with you and would keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised. Then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person shall eat of it. There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.”
So, in the OT the sign of initiation into the covenant community was necessary to participate in the shared meal of communion of the life of that community, the same should hold true in the NT (unless the NT changed this general requirement, which it does not).
Baptism has been required for participation in the Eucharist from the very earliest days of the Christian church. This practice is likely drawn from the thousands of years of practice in the Jewish church and also from the nature of the Sacraments themselves.