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:
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.
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.
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:
- Ensure that only believers actually break bread.
- Judge unrepentant sin in their midst.
- 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.