Family Expectations

Different meals have different expectations. Fast food take-out can be eaten in front of the television or even on the ride home. You can eat as quickly as you like, with or without utensils, and with minimal communication. Family meals are different; they carry more expectations, things like table manners and social interaction. They assume you’re part of the social structure of the family.

This is also true for spiritual family meals. The Lord invites us to His Table. He’s prepared a covenant meal offering heavenly blessings through earthly food and drink. But covenants are two-sided. Christ has fulfilled the covenant requirements so that we can dine at His table, but we must still respond. Conditions must still be met. In ecclesiastical circles, this is known as “fencing the table.” This post focuses on the family expectations that are required for us to participate in the sacrament.

Baptism: Joining the Family

In order to be part of the family meal, one must first join the family. For Christians this happens through the sacrament of baptism. Like all sacraments, baptism involves the union of a sign (water) with a reality (new life, remission of sins, union with Christ). In the Old Testament, water was used for purifying clergy and laity alike as they approached God in the Tabernacle and Temple (Ex. 30:17-21; 2 Chr. 4:6; Num. 8:5-7; Lev. 14-15). This purification later became connected to rebirth (Ezek. 36:25-26) which explained the new life expressed in baptism (Jn. 3:5; Tit. 3:5; Heb. 10:22). The purpose of washing was for the remission of sins (Isa. 1:16) which was linked to both John’s baptism (Lk. 3:3) and Christian baptism (Acts 2:38).

Yet baptism is best known as the sacrament of initiation. It’s the gateway into the Church. This was the function of circumcision in the Old Testament. In Genesis 17:9-14, God told Abraham that His covenant involved the circumcision of every male. This brought all the household males into the covenant community and set them apart for holiness. Yet circumcision wasn’t a bare sign. It was connected to the “circumcision of the heart” (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 4:4), the Old Testament equivalent of new life and union with God. In the New Testament, baptism has replaced circumcision as the sacrament of inclusion and union (Mt. 28:19; Col. 2:11-12). Paul wrote, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13).

What does this have to do with the Lord’s Supper? Given the parallels between circumcision and baptism, we discover that sacrament of joining God’s family must precede the sacrament of partaking the family meal. In Exodus 12:45, a foreigner could not eat the Passover until he was circumcised. Just as only those who formally had entered into Israel could partake of the Passover, so only those who formally enter the church can partake of the Passover’s fulfillment. Since the Lord’s Supper is the family meal of the church, one needs to join the family before partaking.

Membership: Taking Your Place

Yet Baptism is only the beginning. Participation in the Lord’s Supper also requires active membership in the visible church. Some churches call this “confirmation”, others “public profession of faith”. But this requires some explanation. Here it’s helpful to distinguish the “invisible” church from the “visible” church. The invisible church “consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head” (Eph. 1:22-23; Heb. 12:22-23).[1] This is the church of all times and places, the people we’ll enjoy everlasting fellowship with. The problem is we don’t know who these people are. We accept people based on their credible profession of faith which may or may not be a window into election. Some are self-deceived and make false professions. Only God knows for sure.

But the visible church is broader. This church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion and of their children” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Acts 16:30-33; 1 Cor. 1:16).[2] It contains a portion of the invisible church, but also false members and those who’ve yet to profess their faith. For example, Paul addressed the Church of Corinth as saints (1:2) even though some of them were promoting factions (3:1-9), approving a sinful marriage (5:1-2), and denying the resurrection (15:12-19)! Our visible congregations have more in common with the church of Corinth than we realize.

What does this have to do with the Lord’s Supper? We’ve already seen how 1 Corinthians 10:16 describes the sacrament as fellowship in the body and blood of Christ. Now let’s consider the next verse: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Here, the body is the visible church with all its sins and struggles. Yet Paul addressed them as saints, those who entered through baptism, became members, and were striving to live holy lives. They have access to the “one bread” because they are part of the “one body”. They’re members of Christ through His visible church.

The Reformed tradition does not regard itself as the only body. Presbyterians don’t believe that any one branch of the visible church has cornered the market on truth. Rather, all are subject to “mixture and error”.[3] Yet all churches that teach the Gospel are considered members of the larger visible church. We welcome such members and invite them to the Lord’s table.  

But sometimes our churches receive visitors who claim to be part of the invisible church while not being members of a visible church. Some are in transition, searching for a new church home. Others may not be ready or willing to submit themselves to the oversight of a local congregation. Yet the Lord’s Supper is a visible church ordinance. For that reason, only members of a visible church in good standing should be allowed to partake.

Preparation: Eating and Drinking Responsibly

Participation requires more than baptism and membership in a visible church. It also involves preparation. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-29, the apostle discussed this under three headings: worthy partaking, self-examination, and discerning the body.

First, Paul warned, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). But what does this mean? Everyone is unworthy by the simple fact that everyone is a sinner. Yet the sacrament is still offered to sinners striving to be saints. Rather than describing a merit-based worthiness, Paul was focusing on public worthiness. In vv. 17-22, the apostle rebuked the church. Their divisions were spilling over into the sacrament and its accompanying love feasts. Some were left hungry, humiliated by their fellow members.[4] Others got drunk. How could they celebrate the “one bread” when they weren’t acting like “one body” (10:17)? Paul went as far as to say, “When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat” (v. 20). That’s quite an indictment! They were consuming the outward edibles, but not the heavenly reality. It’s hard to imagine this happening in the twenty-first century church. Yet our modern day congregations also struggle with division and partiality. So we need to make sure we’re partaking worthily.

Second the apostle said, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (v. 28). Unlike worthy partaking, self-examination is a private matter. Each Christian must take personal inventory before coming to the table. But this raises some questions. How much self-examination is necessary? Where does one draw the line? Some who are overly self-critical may excuse themselves from the sacrament altogether. Burdened by tender consciences and unrealistic expectations, their introspection can lead to despair. But this wasn’t the apostle’s goal. This sacrament isn’t a prize for the virtuous; it’s fuel for overcomers! Christ offers Himself to struggling sinners, not perfected saints.  

Self-examination needs to be informed by scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke against sinful anger as the root of murder. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:24-25). Why would Jesus mention the altar? Because in the old covenant, that was the place an Israelite went to be reconciled with God. However, the Lord wasn’t interested in empty sacrifices. He desired the sacrifices to match the sincerity of the sacrificer. So Jesus provided some guidance: before seeking reconciliation with God, seek reconciliation with each other. You can’t force reconciliation, but you can make the effort. Even if reaching the other person is unrealistic, you can desire reconciliation.[5] If sinful anger is the root of murder, then removing the sinful anger is an expression of love. What are you bringing to the Lord’s table? Sinful anger, bitterness, hatred? Deal with it first. Then come and partake of the meal that assumes reconciliation with God.

Self-examination also doesn’t exclude the decisions of church officers. The church still has a responsibility to judge its own, especially when its members are blind to their sins. Earlier in First Corinthians, Paul addressed a flagrant case of sexual immorality. He wrote, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor. 5:11, emphasis added). The sinner may have been incapable of examining himself, so the church needed to intervene in order to preserve its peace and purity.

Finally, Paul cautioned, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29). The question is which body? Was he referring to Christ’s risen body in the sacrament (1 Cor. 11:24) or His spiritual body in the church (1 Cor. 10:17; cf. 12:13)? The first requires a doctrinal understanding. Partakers need to grasp the meaning of the Lord’s Supper and other basic teachings. The second involves a relational understanding. Participants need to see themselves as part of a larger community. These options aren’t mutually exclusive. Preparation requires knowing what we believe and how that knowledge affects community living.

These aren’t trivial matters. Members of the Corinthian church were judged for their lack of preparation (1 Cor. 11:30-31). It’s safe to say their judgment was extraordinary; we shouldn’t fear for our lives every time we come to the table. Yet it demonstrates the gravity of communion and the necessity of preparation.

This is something the twenty-first church needs to remember. In place of division, we should seek harmony. Instead of carelessness, we should practice self-examination. Rather than ignorance, we should pursue discernment. Then we’ll be prepared to eat and drink responsibly.

 Previous Articles in This Series:

  1. Soul Food and Spiritual Drink
  2. Theological Flavors

Ken Golden is the organizing pastor at Sovereign Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Davenport, Iowa. He is also the author of Entering God's Rest: The Sabbath from Genesis to Revelation--And What It Means for You and Presbytopia: What It Means to Be Presbyterian.

Related Links

Entering God's Rest by Ken Golden [ Paperback | eBook ]

What Is the Lord's Supper? by Richard Phillips

Feeding on Christ in the Lord's Supper, according to Calvin and the Westminster Confession by Wayne Spear [ Audio Disc | Download ]

Communing with Christ in His Supper by C.J. Williams [ Audio Disc | Download ]

The Puritans on the Lord's Supper by Joel Beeke

  1. Introduction
  2. Papal Errors in the Lord's Supper
  3. Christ's Presence in the Lord's Supper
  4. Biblical Simplicity in the Lord's Supper
  5. Qualifications for Admission to the Lord's Supper
  6. Right Reception of the Lord's Supper
  7. Hindrances and Benefits of the Lord's Supper


[1] WCF 25.1.

[2] WCF 25.2.

[3] WCF 25.4: “This catholic [i.e., universal] church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

[4] Cf. Mathison, Given For You, 230: “Archaeology has revealed the kind of houses that could have been used for Christian gatherings in the first century Corinth had dining rooms that could only accommodate a maximum of nine or ten people. Those who arrived late would be forced to go to an atrium that served as an overflow room. In the first century Roman Empire, it was also customary for a host to keep the best food for himself and those guests who belonged to the upper classes. The lesser food and scraps of the better food would go to the lower-class guests. If this is what was going on in Corinth, Paul’s words are understandable. The rich members of the church were showing contempt for the poor members of the church. In showing contempt for any member of the body of Christ, they were showing contempt for Christ himself.

[5] David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 66: “It would be inconceivable for Galileans, for example, to halt sacrificial proceedings, to return to Galilee, to search out the offended person and do whatever is necessary to bring about reconciliation, and then to return to the temple in Jerusalem and pick up the sacrifice where they had left off.”