Question: Why can't I break bread in my neighbour's church?

I have found some lovely Christians who are neighbours of mine. They attend a gospel hall but I’m not allowed to join in the ‘breaking of bread’ and the bread and cup get passed by me. Perhaps you could let me know if what they are doing is right or not.

Some basics first ..

As we have already discussed in “The Lord's Supper (Holy Communion)” this is a sacrament that not only enables us to remember the Lord in the way He has asked us to do but is also the closest form of fellowship Christians can enjoy together. There are generally two ways of looking at this:

  1. The Open Table:
    In its most extreme form this is where anyone can come and break bread in a church so long as they say they are a believer. Generally, the thinking behind this is that no-one can make a judgement about whether a person who claims to be a Christian is really the Lord’s or not.
  2. The Closed Table:
    This can be quite extreme as well. This is where no-one will be able to break bread or take communion until they have subscribed to a set of doctrines or agreed to a creed or code of practice (though perhaps not defined under those terms).

In actual fact, both of these are not scriptural. Before we get into that we have to get some things straight first:

  • Every person who has been saved by the Lord Jesus is immediately a member of ‘the Church’, the body of Christ. No-one can take that away and it cannot be lost.
  • The breaking of bread (or holy communion as it may be called) is primarily for the remembrance of the Lord’s sacrifice for us. However, we are told that “we, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf” (1 Corinthians 11:17). It is the closest form of fellowship we can enjoy with other Christians.
  • The breaking of bread tells the world that we are identified with Christ and His people on earth. As a result, it shows the world that a person has condemned the world and it’s rejection of the Lord. “For as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye announce the death of the Lord, until he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

So now to the nitty-gritty. We are given some very high standards in the scriptures concerning the world from which Christians should keep themselves. We have discussed the Christian’s view on the world elsewhere. We have also already seen in “The Lord's Supper (Holy Communion)” that believers in the Lord Jesus are to break bread and non-Christians are not to break bread. You would expect that a company of Christians might want to make sure someone is really a believer before they, to use a scriptural term, “lay hands on them”. In this light it is clear that an ‘Open Table’ based purely on someone’s claim cannot be scriptural when the scriptures place such an emphasis on not being linked with unbelievers. “Be not diversely yoked with unbelievers; for what participation [is there] between righteousness and lawlessness? or what fellowship of light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). To be yoked means to be in a partnership with someone like the yoke which held two oxen together in ploughing before tractors came along. So you might find that the Christians you mentioned were simply not sure yet whether you are really the Lord’s and they would hope to get to know you first and get an impression of your link with the Lord Jesus. They may not be actually refusing you but instead are taking care, knowing the holiness of the Lord.

The great sin in Corinth and lessons on church discipline

However, there is more to it than this. Paul speaks very straightly to the Corinthian church when he says “I have written to you in the epistle not to mix with fornicators; not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the avaricious and rapacious, or idolaters, since then ye should go out of the world. But now I have written to you, if any one called brother be fornicator, or avaricious, or idolater, or abusive, or a drunkard, or rapacious, not to mix with him; with such a one not even to eat. For what have I to do with judging those outside also? ye, do not ye judge them that are within? But those without God judges. Remove the wicked person from amongst yourselves.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

Just to get the background let’s consider the whole chapter. A delegation had obviously come to Paul with a number of concerns about what was going on in Corinth. Paul wrote the first epistle to the Corinthians with the aim of bringing them nearer to the Lord so that they might correct a number of problems. There was one brother in Christ who had taken his father’s wife to be his own wife. This is clearly forbidden in Leviticus 18:8 and 20:11. Paul says that not even amongst unbelievers would this sin be considered ok. The reaction of the church in Corinth seems to have been mixed. Many of the Christians there seem to have decided that it didn’t really matter what other people did in the church and did nothing about it. In principle they had adopted a very ‘open table’ approach. As long as the man was a brother and had been saved they felt that they could do nothing about the sin. Paul says “Your boasting is not good. Do ye not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). A little bit of sin, once allowed, will eventually destroy the spiritual benefit of the whole local church. They had nothing to boast about while such gross sin was permitted in their midst. It may even have been putting unbelievers off coming to Christ!

Paul makes clear that we are not to mix in fellowship with the sins listed above, even if they are seen in a brother in Christ! God judges those outside the church but the local church/assembly is to judge sin within itself. The result is that they obviously made an appeal to the brother concerned and when he didn’t repent they then followed Paul’s advice to remove this wicked person from their church.

Notice that this person had not lost his salvation and that he was still therefore a member of ‘the Church’ and of the body of Christ. However, he had been removed from his privilege of fellowship with the church on earth. Happily, we find in 1 Corinthians 2 that the brother was grieved and repented with great sorrow so that Paul writes to persuade the Corinthians to take him back into fellowship with them again or else people might not see them demonstrating love to their brother in Christ and not get a right sense of the love of God.

This made it quite clear that a local church has a responsibility to judge sin and ensure that it is not associated with the glory of their saviour. So this might be another reason why a church or assembly might be cautious about letting you break bread immediately. They don’t know if you are involved in one of the sins listed in the passage above.

Living with widespread error in Christendom: Paul’s advice to Timothy

One other reference to make is in 2 Timothy chapter 2: “But profane, vain babblings shun, for they will advance to greater impiety, and their word will spread as a gangrene; of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; men who as to the truth have gone astray, saying that the resurrection has taken place already; and overthrow the faith of some. Yet the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, The Lord knows those that are his; and, Let every one who names the name of the Lord withdraw from iniquity. But in a great house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also wooden and earthen; and some to honour, and some to dishonour. If therefore one shall have purified himself from these, in separating himself from them, he shall be a vessel to honour, sanctified, serviceable to the Master, prepared for every good work. But youthful lusts flee, and pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:16-22).

By the time Paul wrote this second letter to Timothy times had moved on during which the enemy of our souls, the accuser of the brethren (i.e. Satan) had worked his way between the relationships of the saints causing some to depart from the truth and leave the Holy Spirit's teaching through Paul for something else. We have some of their names here and it appears that a large number in the Asia Minor assemblies (modern day Turkey) had followed after Phygellus and Hermogenes and the erroneous doctrine they were teaching.

Nevertheless, there were some who were still true to the Lord. These were the ones the Lord appealed to in the first few chapters of the Revelation whom He called 'overcomers'. An overcomer was a person whom the Lord was pleased to bless with each of the rewards He mentioned; who had remained true to Him, living in His presence in simplicity regardless of the direction others had taken whether believers or unbelievers. The Holy Spirit directs believers everywhere to remain true to the Lord and to continue to call on Him with others out of a pure heart.

If others decide to follow men and their doctrines, to set up religious systems which deny the Lord His place as Head of the Church, the Holy Spirit the freedom to work and remove the separation of the saints from those who are not saints, then the word is to withdraw from iniquity. Such iniquity was evident in the early church as it tried to carry away the saints from the Lord. Paul warns the Corinthians that Satan can appear as an angel of light and his servants as ministers of righteousness (2 Corinthians 11v13-15). Therefore, those who wanted to be true to the Lord separated from the Christians that had followed Phygellus and Hermogenes so that they might continue to serve the Lord without hindrance and also witness to the followers of these men the seriousness of the situation before the Lord.

This letter to Timothy, Peter's letters, the letter by James, Jude and to the Hebrews were all written about this time and warn against slipping away from Christ and the glory found in Him, encouraging the saints to be strong to the end. John later on speaks very plainly of those who had taken up 'gnostic' teaching within the church opposing the apostles, denying the Christ come in flesh (see 2 John).

Nevertheless, the apostle Paul introduces the positive side to all of this. While a believer is to separate from iniquity and refuse to have any fellowship with the iniquity even in the Church, they are to continue to instruct and plead with those who are not calling upon Him in pureness of heart. All believers call upon the Lord, but the exercise is whether we are calling upon Him out of a pure heart. In 2 Timothy we see the need to maintain our unity with the Lord and with those who "call upon the Lord out of pure heart"; denying iniquity a place but still appealing in love to those who are not free from that iniquity.

This may be another reason for Christians being cautious about permitting others to break bread with them straight away. They don’t know whether you are a member of an organisation or indeed another Church that is engaged in, or actively permits, iniquity and is therefore displeasing the Lord. Given that the breaking of bread is the closest form of Christian fellowship they would be effectively in agreement. It is important that groups of Christians remember both of the points that Paul mentioned. “The Lord knows those that are His”: There are believers all round the world and ‘the Church’ is wider than any denomination or grouping of Christians. Secondly, “withdraw from iniquity” and seek those who “call on the name of the Lord with a pure heart”: they must uphold the standards of the Lord in His church.

Conclusion

I have outlined three reasons why a church/assembly may not break bread immediately with someone who claims to be a believer. They have a responsibility to:

  1. Ensure that only believers actually break bread.
  2. Judge unrepentant sin in their midst.
  3. Withdraw from iniquity where it is found, even in Christendom.

This is why I said that I felt that both open and closed communion’s are wrong. I am going to refer to what I am saying as a “Guarded Communion”. Every believer is a member of ‘the Church’ and so no-one should insist on the acceptance of a doctrine, creed, etc. before someone can take communion/break bread, but there are some things that we need to be cautious about.

There is another side to think of. You as a believer have been a testimony of the Lord Jesus to friends, neighbours and relatives. If you started to take communion with a church or Christian group which, unknown to you, was allowing some sin or iniquity to go unjudged then your own testimony of Christ to others may be affected and they might assume that you agree with it and reject your gospel appeals to them.

In all these things, whether as an individual or as a church, Paul gives Timothy some advice:

“Those that sin convict before all, that the rest also may have fear.  I testify before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, that thou keep these things without prejudice, doing nothing by favour.  Lay hands quickly on no man, nor partake in others' sins. Keep thyself pure. ...  Of some men the sins are manifest beforehand, going before to judgment, and some also they follow after.  In like manner good works also are manifest beforehand, and those that are otherwise cannot be hid” (1 Timothy 5:19-25).

It will become clear before very long what the state is of a person or Christian group. Some sins will be obvious, the effects of others may be seen after a while. There is a need to ‘keep ourselves pure’ from sin both individually and as a church. Paul said to Timothy that he was not to lay hands on someone (a sign of approval) quickly so that he might not be partaking in someone else's sins as a result of his link with them.

Therefore, a Christian group or church should, out of a concern for how it represents the Lord and for the spiritual growth of those in the church, should guard against sin and iniquity. So also should we have as much concern for our own individual life with the Lord. However, they should place no further barriers to Christian fellowship than what is clearly set out in the scriptures we have discussed.

I apologise for the long response but I hope this shows how Christians practising these principles are acting out of good motives, based on the scriptures.

The purpose of our salvation was to free us to worship.

Our salvation has a purpose. It is to give us liberty (2 Corinthians 3:17), joy, peace (Romans 15:13), righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21) and to bring us near to God (1 Peter 3:18). We could enjoy none of these things if we had to continue to worry about whether our lives were good enough for God. It is also to make us into worshippers in spirit and truth (John 4:23 and Hebrews 9:14). We could not worship if we doubted the greatness of God’s love for “perfect love casts out fear”.

Hebrews tells us that God gave us strong encouragement which would give us hope that is to be a steadfast and sure anchor in our lives. “In which it was impossible that God should lie, we might have a strong encouragement, who have fled for refuge to lay hold on the hope set before us, which we have as anchor of the soul, both secure and firm, and entering into that within the veil, where Jesus is entered as forerunner for us, become for ever a high priest according to the order of Melchisedec” (Hebrews 6:18-20). We have been given access into God’s presence through the veil of separation between God and Man because of the Lord Jesus’ work on the cross. The veil was torn from top to bottom when the Lord died. It would not be a secure nor firm anchor if that anchor could slip and our encouragement and salvation be lost.

We are also told that as a result of the Lord’s work we have been given God’s Holy Spirit to indwell us. The Holy Spirit could not be in us if we had not been made holy. We are unable to be holy in our own strength, but the Lord’s blood has cleansed us and we now are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The Holy Spirit within us is the evidence of our salvation (see Ephesians 1:14). Hence, Paul spent some time in 1 Corinthians telling them that as their bodies were already temples of the Holy Spirit they should be aiming to live holy lives. Their bodies had not ceased to be temples because of their failings but they were not representing truly the holy nature of the divine person who was indwelling them and indwells every Christian.

So, it would be impossible to fulfil the purpose of our salvation if we were still trying to make ourselves good enough for God. God has given us the Holy Spirit so that we might rest assured in His love and in the certainty of His salvation. We are then free to simply enjoy His presence and worship Him with free and joyful hearts.

We are clothed in Christ and there is no condemnation any longer.

The scriptures below all demonstrate that salvation in the Lord Jesus is complete. By trusting in Him we have been redeemed so that we might enjoy a new life in His presence immersed in His love.

“There is then now no condemnation to those in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, that he that hears my word, and believes him that has sent me, has life eternal, and does not come into judgment, but is passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).

Jesus “who himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, in order that, being dead to sins, we may live to righteousness: by whose stripes ye have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

“Herein as to us has been manifested the love of God, that God has sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9).

“Herein has love been perfected with us that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, that even as he is, we also are in this world” (1 John 4:17). We have boldness in the day of judgement and not fear. Why? Because our sins are gone.

The Lord Jesus’ has made the ultimate sacrifice. As our great high priest, He has offered up Himself and laid down His own perfect life to save us. We are saved because God is satisfied completely in Jesus as our substitute. To say that we could ever lose this salvation is to imply that God could ever value His Son and His sacrifice less. Scripture is clear that the Lord Jesus died to remove our sins and make us free to serve and worship God in joy and peace. The Lord Jesus has restored the link of fellowship between God and Mankind so that we might enjoy eternal life even now (see John 17:3). We could not do this if we were required to keep the Law to gain salvation. This was the Law that the whole nation of Israel was unable to keep.

However, this does not give us license to live in sin. Paul tackled this very suggestion in Romans chapter 6. A Christian loves the Lord who saved them so much that their one driving desire is to serve Him and be for His will and pleasure. Our old wants and desires are to be crucified with Christ so that we no longer live in sin. “Knowing this, that our old man has been crucified with him, that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin” (Romans 6:6). Instead, we are told to “have your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth; for ye have died, and your life is hid with the Christ in God. When the Christ is manifested who is our life, then shall ye also be manifested with him in glory” (Colossians 3:2-4).

The result of full salvation.

So, our salvation cannot be undone because it is not based on us at all but solely on Christ and God’s valuation of His life and sacrifice. May we live in the liberty that comes from being where the spirit of the Lord is and, while keeping ourselves unspotted from the world, be here for His glory and praise. God has completed the whole work of salvation Himself on our behalf in the person of His Son. Now His desire is that we should know Him as He knows us (see 1 Corinthians 13:12) and enjoy the rest into which He has brought us. May our lives be filled with the spirit of worship, without fear, echoing words like these:

“O depth of riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable his judgments, and untraceable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor? or who has first given to him, and it shall be rendered to him? For of him, and through him, and for him are all things: to him be glory for ever. Amen”

(Romans 11:33-36)

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