Should I Take Communion Before Being Baptized?
Disclaimer: Reader beware! This blog will be longer than our typical post as the subject matter demands a more comprehensive response. It is as short as possible given the importance of the topic and relative lack of teaching on it in most churches.
The question of taking communion before partaking in baptism might sound silly to some. While it doesn't arise much in Presbyterian, Methodist or other paedobaptist traditions (since most members were already "baptized" as infants and thus not likely to face this dilemma), it certainly comes up within churches that practice believer's baptism. Not only do pastors face this question, but parents as well as we seek to shepherd those entrusted to our care.
So, how might we think through a proper response—given that there is no explicit text of Scripture dealing with this question and that most churches that practice believer's baptism are not under an ecclesiastical authority (such as a synod or council) which has already settled the question?
Before even getting to the question itself, we must recognize that each local church has a responsibility to protect the table (historically called "fencing the table") by clearly articulating who may and may not partake of the supper instituted by the Lord (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23). The church is not overreaching by addressing this question; in fact, it is imperative that we do so. If the apostle Paul offers a warning for those who would partake of the supper in "an unworthy manner," then churches should do the same.
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. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (1 Corinthians 11:27–29)
Who Should Partake?
Though the Scriptures lack explicit prescriptions regarding many of the logistical questions surrounding the two ordinances established for the church, they are certainly not silent as evidenced by passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. In light of the full counsel of Scripture, it seems as though wise counsel would restrict the meal to those who meet the following three requirements:
Those who trust in Christ…
…who have been baptized…
…and who are in good standing within a local church.
While the requirement of faith is already widely assumed, points two and three might seem superfluous or extra-biblical to some just now considering this question. This blog will focus on the question of baptism; but first, a word about being in good standing with a church.
Let’s consider what "being in good standing" does not mean. This does not mean that anyone who takes communion must be an active member of a particular church. For example, someone could hypothetically remove their membership from a church in order to move across the country and yet still be in good standing while they are looking for another church in a new city. Or someone could be a baptized believer but not yet through a church's membership process, and yet he would be biblically free to partake. Thus, being in good standing does not mean active church membership in all instances.
Rather, to be in good standing means that someone is not intentionally forsaking fellowship with a local body or is not under legitimate discipline by the church. If Jesus says to leave your gift before the altar to be reconciled to your brother (Matthew 5:23-24), and if Paul says to "not even eat" with brothers who are engaged in unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13), then surely someone who was engaged in unrepentant and unconfessed sin worthy of church discipline should not be invited to partake lest they eat and drink judgment on themselves (1 Corinthians 11:29), nor someone who was sinfully forsaking the regular gathering (Hebrews 10:23-25). Thus, one must be in good standing in order to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
But what about baptism? Why make that requisite when there is no explicit text to that end?
Since there is no one particular text that explicitly addresses this, evidence is dependent upon the collective weight of various biblical, theological, and historical proofs; considered together, they make a convincing argument.
Why Is It Not More Explicit?
You ever wonder why the Bible doesn't say something you think it should? What do we do in such cases? Obviously it depends on the case; how we think about what the Bible doesn't say about dinosaurs is different than how we address the question of baptism and communion.
When a concept or truth is not explicit, we need to first recognize that inexplicit doesn't mean silent. After all, things which are implicit are just as true as that which is explicit (assuming they are truly implied). For example:
The Bible doesn't even explicitly say that one must be a believer to take communion, but it is logically implied by other texts.
The Bible doesn't explicitly say that abortion is a sin, but it is logically implied by texts that say not to murder and not to sacrifice your children.
The Bible doesn't explicitly say that you shouldn't walk up to someone and punch them in the throat, but that is strongly implied by other texts about love, respect, anger, violence, etc.
There is actually a very compelling reason why the question of whether or not someone who is not baptized can take communion would not have been explicitly addressed. Basically, there is no biblical evidence for the existence of non-baptized believers in the early church. And if the idea of non-baptized believers was alien to the environment of the early church, then so would the idea of a non-baptized believer taking communion. Therefore, it is not strange that Scripture doesn't explicitly address this question. In fact, it would be really strange for it to have done so.
In other words, we should not expect the apostles to mention and weigh in on this phenomenon since it wouldn’t have naturally arisen in that context. Baptism in the first-century was immediate rather than delayed, and thus there would not have been much opportunity for someone to take communion before being baptized.
Consider the following passages in Acts:
But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed. (Acts 8:12–13)
Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:35–38)
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; (Acts 9:17–18)
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. (Acts 10:44–48)
Whereas the idea of a non-baptized Christian is understandable to us, it would have been utterly foreign to the early church. We wouldn't expect the apostles to comment on complexities that aren't naturally arising in their contexts. Therefore, if anything, rather than allowing the meaning of communion to be profaned or obscured, perhaps churches should instead rethink their approach to baptism by stressing the biblical urgency, necessity, and immediacy of the call to identify with Christ in the water. Rather than inviting people to join us at the table, we should first persuade them to join us in the water.
With this in mind, let's consider the question of baptism and communion through the following lenses: biblical, theological, and historical.
Biblical: Old Testament Types and Shadows, and New Testament Order
The Old Testament is properly read as a shadow pointing to the substance revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 8:5, 10:1). Though the events in the Old Testament were historical realities, they were written down not merely as a record of those realities, but also as examples and instruction for the Church (1 Corinthians 10:11).
As it relates to the question of baptism and communion, there are a number of shadows that provide interesting insight into a particular pattern. For example:
The Israelites ate of the manna only after having passed through the waters of the Red Sea (1 Corinthians 10:1-5).
The priests offered sacrifices only after having been cleansed in the waters of purification (Leviticus 16).
The Passover meal was explicitly restricted to those who had been circumcised (Exodus 12:43-51).
This latter one is particularly helpful as there is an intentional parallel between circumcision and baptism (Colossians 2:11-12), and between the Lord's Supper and Passover with the original institution of the meal taking place at Passover—Jesus Himself being the better Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Both the shadow of baptism in the crossing of the Red Sea and the sign of the Old Covenant (circumcision) preceded sacrifices and feasts; none who failed to pass through the waters of the sea were allowed to eat the manna, and no uncircumcised person was permitted to eat the Passover, thus establishing this compelling pattern and principle.
When it comes to the New Testament, it is helpful to note that there exists a very distinct order to the depiction of baptism and communion. Though these texts are descriptive rather than prescriptive, it is also true that every descriptive text possesses certain prescriptive elements—even if they are not as evident on the surface.
Here are a few examples:
Christ and His disciples were baptized before partaking of the supper.
Paul was baptized and then took food to be strengthened (Acts 9:18-19). It is likely that this would have included his first participation in communion.
Within the context of the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), baptism is foundational and primary as the visible and formal entrance into the covenant community.
There is a certain order to the early Church’s ministry. Early converts were baptized first and only then were they instructed and assembled together to break bread and pray (Acts 2:41-42).
These are not just picking and choosing texts at random, but instead represent a universal and unanimous pattern of Scripture. It should also be noted (again) that the lack of an explicit text in this case is not an argument against requiring baptism before communion; instead, it serves as a strong defense of that established order, given the historical context of the first-century and the immediacy of baptism.
Theological: Protection of the Ordinance
Baptism within American evangelicalism can often portray a diluted and distorted reality. Rather than being viewed as the beautiful, mandatory and formal entrance into the covenant community, it is often seen as arbitrary, optional, and inconvenient.
However, if we take the command to be baptized seriously (as we should according to Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38), failure to submit to this command ought to be interpreted as sinful disobedience. Though the heart behind the disobedience might be motivated by fear, ignorance, apathy, laziness, or a thousand other impulses, it still boils down to a failure to submit to the good and gracious command of Christ.
All overt and unrepentant sin is to be confronted in love, with grace, and truth. Therefore, it would seem necessary for the elders and pastors of a local church to lovingly engage those who have failed to submit to the commands of the Lord in this area. Biblically, this discipline, if unheeded, could progress all the way to excommunication—which includes the command to “not even eat with” one who claims to be a Christian and yet lives in blatant disobedience (1 Corinthians 5:11). What message are we sending if we not only tolerate, but even encourage those who have failed to submit to the call of baptism to partake with us in this sacred meal?
There are consequences to the sin of believers. In 1 Corinthians 11:27-32, the apostle Paul writes of those who are taking the bread and cup in “an unworthy manner.” Though Paul does not explicitly expound upon what this phrase entails, it seems likely to involve unrepentant or habitual sin at the least; for, he contrastingly commends self-examination, judgment, and discipline (vss. 28-32). Failure to be baptized would certainly qualify as unrepentant or habitual sin and would, therefore, seem pertinent to this passage. If so, this implies that encouraging an unbaptized person to partake of communion would be to invite him to “eat and drink judgment on himself” to such a degree that the Lord might even discipline with sickness and death (vss. 29-30).
Again, if baptism is a command, then failure to participate in the ordinance is sin. As such, it is to be lovingly and graciously engaged for the glory of God, the health of the local church, and the good of the individual.
Though the biblical and theological evidences would instruct us to restrict communion to baptized believers, there is a potential “exception” that would seem wise to recognize when considering the topic of paedobaptism (infant baptism). Though in some sense credobaptists would argue that the "baptism" of our paedobaptist brothers and sisters is not a biblically valid form, it might seem wise and good to exercise grace in this area and to wholeheartedly welcome them to the table. Rather than a compromise on our convictions, this is instead a recognition that one who was “baptized” as an infant is not refraining from baptism primarily from sinful rebellion, but from theological conviction. Though they have not been baptized in the full sense, they have at least been “baptized” according to their own convictions.
What of those who are recent converts? In such cases, the biblical imperative is clear. Be baptized! If someone who has trusted Christ, but not been baptized, is anxious for communion, then they should likewise be anxious for baptism. Once you have been immersed in the water, then you are surely welcome at the table, but first things first.
This should be especially important for parents of children who have professed faith and yet not been baptized. As you help to shepherd your child through the legitimacy of their profession, this should be a guiding principle: if you are not certain that they are ready for baptism, then you are not certain that they are ready for communion. When they are ready for one, they are ready for the other.
Historical: Considering the Traditions and Truths Handed Down
In light of these biblical and theological considerations, the church has rather universally guarded the table by restricting it to baptized believers (though the identification and definition of “baptism” has shifted over time between paedobaptist and credobaptist understandings).
Though not ultimately authoritative, the voices of history and tradition are helpful and important guides for the church today—particularly when there is unanimous consensus among those of even differing theological perspectives. Consider the following voices:
The Didache 8.5 (written between 50-75 AD): “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized into the name of the Lord, for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: ‘Do not give what is holy to dogs.’”
Justin Martyr, First Apology 65 (written between 160-170 AD): “And this food is called among us [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing.”
Charles Spurgeon, Fencing the Table Sermon #2865 (preached on January 7th, 1904): “You, as sinners, have to exercise faith in Christ before you have anything to do with believers' baptism; you have to come to Christ himself before you are qualified to come to the Lord’s table. As soon as you have, by faith, received Jesus Christ himself as your Savior, the tokens and emblems of his death will become instructive to you; but until Jesus Christ is wholly yours, hands off all these holy things!”
New Hampshire Baptist Confession of 1883, Article 14: “We believe that ChristianBaptism is the immersion in water of a believer, into the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost; to show forth, in a solemn and beautiful emblem, our faith in the crucified, buried, and risen Savior, with its effect in our death to sin and resurrection to a new life; that it is prerequisite to the privileges of a Church relation; and to the Lord's Supper, in which the members of the Church, by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ; preceded always by solemn self- examination.”
Southern Baptist Convention 2000, Baptist Faith and Message, Article 7: “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.”
The above is just a small sampling of the overwhelming tradition handed down to the church by our ancestors who, rather unanimously, fenced the table by requiring baptism. The fact that Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Orthodox, Reformed and Baptist traditions all agree on this topic is a very compelling argument since there are very few other things upon which they all agree.
As communion is the meal of the church and baptism is the formal and visible entrance into the church, it is wise to guard the table by requiring baptism as a prerequisite to communion.
Unfortunately, modern evangelical culture has reconstituted baptism as optional—or at least to be pursued at one’s own comfort and convenience. Protecting the table is thus a biblically-valid manner in which to drive home the necessity of obedience to Scriptural commands and the essential importance of baptism. Otherwise, churches are in danger of subtly communicating that one can receive the benefits of the gospel without submitting to the demands of the gospel.
In the end, the question really isn’t “Can those who have not been baptized take communion?” but, rather, should they? Is that really what is best and most biblical? Does that really most honor God and the general trajectory of His word? Why would we encourage someone to walk in the gray when there is no danger in advocating for something so black and white as baptism?
If a local church is to reverse the pattern and practice of the Church universal, there should be compelling exegetical reasons to do so. In the absence of these, we would do well to follow the patterns and principles of Scripture and our fathers, in the order that they have established for the health and vitality of the church and the glory of God.
The Bible is clear that believers are to leave an offering before the altar if they have any hindrance or burden between them and another believer (Matthew 5:23-24). How much more should they abstain from taking of the bread and the wine when baptism remains a burden between them and Jesus?