I am a credobaptist. It’s a fancy word which means I hold to baptism for those who profess saving faith in Jesus Christ. As opposed to those who promote infant baptism (paedobaptists), my church maintains the position of believers’ baptism. We’re not alone. There are thousands of churches and several denominations around the world who hold the same view. However, not all those churches are monolithic in how that ordinance intersects with the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. Is Communion something that any believer can partake of or should it be for those who have been baptized into the church? While this debate has appeared before with men I respect and love, I’d like to offer a few reasons why credobaptist churches should maintain baptism as a prerequisite for participating in the Lord’s Supper.
It best pictures what the Bible says about the order of the ordinances.
Taking the Lord’s Supper before one is baptized, to use an analogy I heard from a pastor I admire, is akin to copulation (a covenant keeping sign) before getting married and wearing rings (a covenant initiatory sign). In the days of the Old Testament, an individual would not be allowed to participate in the feasts if he were uncircumcised because he would not be considered an part of the covenant community (cf., see Paul’s circumcising of Timothy). There was no argument about what was going inside his heart or how pure his intentions. If he chose not to receive the sign of the covenant community, he couldn’t enjoy the sign(s) of keeping the covenant. I don’t see the spirit of that reversed in the New Testament. Indeed, to not uphold the order is to keep out of step with what we know the New Testament teaches.
It better honors the Great Commission Jesus gave the church.
The fact that Jesus taught baptism as something which happens at the beginning of our journey as disciples followed by the call to “[teach] them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20), not only gives further rise to highlight baptism as something to be done before the Supper but to actually teach people this is the case. Frankly, if baptism before Supper is the biblical pattern, then we have no other choice but to let others know this is the case. Our call is to teach what is biblical. Ultimately, this is how we disciple people, especially those raised on the Western idol of radical individualism where the person’s choice overrides the commitment to community.
It keeps us in step with how the Church Historical has treated this issue.
With a nod to the fact that the early church fathers struggled to agree on exactly what baptism did (e.g., regeneration, giving of Spirit), and that likely during the time of Irenaeus, infant baptism became popularized, thus making unbaptized believers taking communion generally a moot point.1 It still stands that, amidst the different questions about baptism, the church was overwhelmingly united in practice of making Eucharist only available for those baptized. The Didache, a first or second century document which is the earliest known written catechism for Christians, notes, “No one is to eat or drink of your eucharist except those who have baptized into the name of the Lord.” (9.5) I cite the Didache not as some water-tight authority on the sacraments,2 but to simply note that from Christianity’s nascent days, baptism necessarily preceded observing the Lord’s Supper.
Therefore, acknowledging the fact that my understanding of church history may need to be corrected, I think it incredibly significant that for essentially the entirety of church history (including the emergence of the Anabaptist and other credobaptist movements), unbaptized believers were refused the Table. In other words, while the Bible is our ultimate authority, I don’t want to be the .001% that said basically every age of the church got this issue wrong. For those who promote the idea of Lord’s Supper without baptism, either Christian leaders throughout the ages understood something you have missed about the Lord’s Supper and baptism, or you discovered something that eluded the church for 2,000 years. It’s just one more reason why more contemporary standards of church practices share the same sentiments of those used in past ages. For example, take the Book of Church Order:
It is my privilege as a minister of Christ to invite all who are right with God and his church, through faith in the Lord Jesus, to come to the Lord’s Table. If you have received Christ and are resting upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to you in the gospel, if you are a baptized and professing communicant member in good standing in a church that professes the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ, and if you live penitently and seek to walk in godliness before the Lord, then this Supper is for you, and I invite you in Christ’s name to eat the bread and drink the cup.
Compare this with the more modern statement found in the credobapistic Southern Baptist ‘Faith and Message’ (2000):
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Savior, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.
While the history of the church isn’t the ultimate argument, dissenters who allow the unbaptized to partake of the Lord’s Supper must at least engage why they have chosen a path foreign to Christian tradition.
It puts the right weight in the right place.
The struggle with adopting this orthodox, biblical, and historical decision seems to find its crux in unbaptized Christians. What do we do with unbaptized Christians who want to take the Supper? I think the bigger question surrounds not observation of the Supper but the need to be baptized. A question arises: Can unbaptized believers taking Communion violate the very spirit of the Corinthians’ directive of not observing the Table in an unworthy manner by the simple fact they have not obeyed the Lord in being baptized as a first act of obedience? Letting people know the biblical order of baptism-then-communion reinforces the rightful priority of baptism for disciples. It gives greater weight to the idea that baptism is a disciple’s initial act of obedience. (cf., Acts 2: 37-38, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'”) Consequently, baptism becomes more, not less, important in the eyes of the unbaptized. Hopefully, they see what kind of statement they need to make in baptism and the backwardness of their current situation in light of the covenant.
In the end, if our call is to make New Covenant disciples by teaching them what the Bible says in its entirety about living within that covenant, we serve well Christ, his people, and those who are yet to be his people by helping congregants understand there is only one picture the Scriptures paint of New Covenant sacraments. And that is New Covenant believers are to participate in the initiatory sacrament of baptism before participating in the reaffirmation sacrament of communion.
Therefore, I recommend that the leadership of a credobaptist church should:
- Continue to teach the biblical order and rationale of the covenant practices of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- Frame communion with the covenantal understanding that the Lord’s Supper is for “baptized believers committed to the local church.”
- Let people decide in their conscience if they can participate in the Supper in good faith without policing their views.
- Tie in baptism “next steps” whenever we have chances to talk about the Lord’s Supper.