Growing up Southern Baptist, I learned about three different positions on who should partake of the Lord's Supper. One view restricted the Lord's Supper strictly to the members of the local church where the Supper was taking place. A second view welcomed any who professed a Christian conversion experience to partake of the Supper. The final view opened the table beyond the membership of the local church, but only to those who were members of another church "of like faith and order." The phrase "of like faith and order" was generally interpreted to signify another Southern Baptist church.
As an adult and a pastor, if I were to classify my view according to this schema, I would place it in the third category: the "like faith and order" viewpoint.
And yet, if you were to be present at FBC Farmersville when we observed the Lord's Supper, you'd never hear me utter the words "like faith and order" and would hear me say very little about church membership. Instead, you would hear me emphasize that those who partake in the Supper must be born-again believers who are free from stubborn, rebellious, unrepentant sin in their lives.
There's no bait-and-switch here: These are precisely the same point of view on the Supper, just expressed in two different ways. I avoid the way that I heard it in my childhood and express it the way that I do today for a number of reasons:
I have substituted biblical language for extra-biblical language. The biblical basis for limitations in the observance of the Lord's Supper comes chiefly from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. In the fifth chapter of that letter—a chapter whose main subject is unrepentant sin and the failure of church discipline within the church—Paul commanded the church to restore sound church discipline against unrepentant sin for the sake of the health of the church's observance of the Lord's Supper:
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Corinthians 5:6-8, NASB).
Purification was a central element of the precursor feast of Passover, and Paul reminded the Corinthians church that, in the New Testament, the Lord's Supper calls us not so much to the purification of kitchen utensils and dough, but to the purification of the believers who participate.
A few paragraphs down the letter, in the eleventh chapter, again the Apostle chastises the church for allowing the sins of divisiveness, drunkenness, and arrogance to corrupt the church's observances of the Lord's Supper. Here Paul explicitly warns of the dangers of observing the Supper "in an unworthy manner." Although in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul enjoined the church to "fence the table," in 1 Corinthians 11 Paul commanded each individual believer to examine himself and to purify his own heart in preparation for the Supper.
And so, when I speak of having been born again and of examining oneself to purify one's heart from unrepentant sin, I am speaking New Testament language. This is an important objective, in my opinion, in the execution of a New Testament ordinance. "A Baptist church of like faith and order," on the other hand, is not language found in the New Testament.
I am telling disciples WHY rather than merely WHAT. True, "Baptist church of like faith and order" is what I believe about the Lord's Supper, but it is my observation that merely telling disciples what your church believes without telling them why you believe it is a recipe for the abandonment of your principles within a couple of generations. Indeed, I would suggest that much of the present state of our churches is a symptom of this very disease.
And so, I want people to see that the Bible teaches that born-again believers should purify themselves from unrepentant sin before they partake of the Lord's Supper. I want them further to see that it is unrepentant sin to have refrained from New Testament baptism or to have held oneself aloof from biblical membership in a New Testament church. I'm happy for disciples to hold the same convictions that I hold, but I would rather that they arrive at the same conclusions as those to which Bible study has led me.
I want to show correctly the relationship between church membership and participation in the Lord's Supper. It is false, I believe, to suggest that church membership is the basis of participation in the Lord's Supper. It is a sentiment NOT FAR from the truth, but it is not the same as the truth.
The basis of participation in the Lord's Supper is not membership in a New Testament church; rather, membership in a New Testament church and participation in the Lord's Supper share the same basis: conversion and discipleship. This reality links church membership and the Lord's Supper closely to one another, but they share a peer relationship rather than a cause-effect relationship. To remain aloof from church membership is a sin. No believer should partake of the Lord's Supper while persisting stubbornly in that sin. Also, any sin that would place a believer under the hand of church discipline and would tarnish one's church membership would also jeopardize one's place at the table. Conversely, any persistent sinful rebellion that would make one need to refrain from participation in the Lord's Supper would also be grounds for the exercise of church discipline in relation to one's church membership.
This peer relationship between the Lord's Supper and church membership is why it is so nonsensical and unbiblical for any church to be both open communion and closed membership. If it is a matter of unrepentant sin to refuse New Testament believer's immersion, then how dare a church set aside 1 Corinthians 5 and open the Lord's Table to the unrepentant?! If it is not a matter of unrepentant sin to refuse New Testament believer's immersion, then how dare a church withhold church membership from a brother or sister over a mere personal preference?!
By using the Lord's Supper to emphasize those things that are also the basis of New Testament church membership, I am able to underscore rightly through this ordinance the themes that lead our church to a better understanding of church membership as well.
I'm pretty sure that "Baptist church of like faith and order" no longer means what it once did and is, due to contemporary circumstances, a more complicated position than the one that I am now articulating. The one big advantage one might offer for just using the phrase "Baptist church of like faith and order" is simplicity. It only takes seven words to say it. Jargon is popular for a reason—it always represents a shorter, simpler way to communicate complex ideas among people who share common inside information.
But are we all really confident which are the "Baptist churches of like faith and order" any longer? The rise of the crypto-Baptists and the rise of the pseudo-Baptists have changed our Southern Baptist reality, greatly complicating the idea of "like faith and order."
Crypto-Baptists are all of the churches out there that eschew public identification as Baptist churches. Some of these are genuinely Baptist. Not a few, having the benefit of being early church plants with little institutional history, are more solidly Baptist in their ecclesiology than are some of our established churches. So, when somebody in your congregation hails from something like "Alive Fellowship of the Cross," how do you know whether that is or is not a "Baptist church of like faith and order"?
Pseudo-Baptists are all of the churches out there that are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention (and may even have the word "Baptist" on their signs), but are not Baptist ideologically or ecclesiologically. Indeed, even without quibbling over where a church ceases to be Baptist, we can agree that the diversity with regard to church membership alone has completely destroyed any possibility of our regarding membership in another Southern Baptist church as a basis for participation in the Lord's Supper. Imagine that the Jacobs family visits your church and you refuse church membership to them because they are sprinkled Methodists. Now, imagine that the very next week they go to a Southern Baptist church across town and obtain membership in that church without being baptized. They visit your church the third week and find you observing the Lord's Supper. Are they members of a "Baptist church of like faith and order"? If they are, does that really mean ANYTHING?
Any Southern Baptist consensus that may once have existed on matters of ecclesiology is broken. Presuming upon it for something as significant as participation in the Lord's Supper is foolhardy, in my opinion.
It is so much simpler and more understandable, I believe, simply to state that only those who have been born again and are, as far as they know, not in open rebellion against any command of Christ should partake of the Supper.
I want to avoid giving my church members a free pass. I have long believed that the great weakness of tying participation in the Lord's Supper to membership in a "Baptist church of like faith and order" is the suggestion it places into the minds of my members that, being members of our congregation, they need not give their participation in the Lord's Supper a second thought. Heavens no! The command of scripture is for self-examination, and this command appeared in a letter sent explicitly to the members of a local congregation.
Even in a context of robust church discipline, church members are vulnerable to secret, hidden sins. It is my responsibility in preparing the flock for the Lord's Supper to call upon every person in the room to entertain the possibility that she or he may not be ready to receive the Lord's Supper. Are they estranged from a brother or sister? Are they fighting with the Lord over some sin in the recesses of their hearts? Have they refused New Testament believer's immersion? Are they church-hoppers who remain aloof from and uncommitted to the disciplined commitments of biblical church membership? For all of those for whom any of these things are the case, they should get their hearts right with the Lord immediately and obey, or else they should abstain from the Supper.
I want to preach before the observance of the Lord's Supper in a way that causes every disciple to ask "Is it I?" of the Lord before they sup with Him.
Simply saying, "Those who are not members of Baptist churches of like faith and order should not partake," is insufficient, in my opinion, to accomplish these objectives. It is an inferior approach, I believe. And so, I would encourage all of you who are pastors to say more rather than less when you prepare a congregation to come to the Table.