I am the kind of Baptist who would like to observe and celebrate the Lord’s Supper each and every time I worship with God’s people. I am also the kind of Baptist who wants to experience greater unity and mutual understanding among all Christians.
Thus, I was pleased and grateful to join with other Baptists at the table of our Lord on April 24 at the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship annual Spring Gathering in Stanford, Ky. Then the following day, on a Sunday, I shared a communion meal in a Baptist context at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
As I sat in the pew on Sunday morning waiting to partake of the bread and cup, I was trying to remember a time in my life when I observed the Lord’s Supper in Baptist worship services on two successive days. I was unable to recall a single instance.
For much of my Baptist life, revivals were the only occasions we gathered for worship on successive days, but the Lord’s Supper was never observed in that context. I guess it never occurred to us that a revival in the church might be – and probably should be – inextricably bound up with Jesus’ famous command: “Do this for the remembrance of me.”
In the days following this unique experience of gathering for communion with other Baptists two days in a row, I began to think about the interesting relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper in Baptist life.
Many Baptist congregations welcome to the table any who confess “Jesus is Lord,” yet more than a few of these same churches have closed membership requirements that do not recognize alien immersions – a term that refers to immersions performed outside of Baptist churches. In practice, such situations highlight the presence of a problematic two-tiered system of participation in some Baptist churches:
- Tier one: Those Christians with authentic baptism (i.e., believer’s baptism by immersion) who partake of the Lord’s Supper.
- Tier two: Those Christians who are allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper but whose baptism remains suspect (i.e., alien).
This fusion of closed membership requirements with open calls for communion ultimately reveals deficient theological understandings of baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the one universal church. If we are baptized into the body of Christ and the measure of full participation is access to the table, what does it say about us as Baptists if we invite to the table those yet to receive a true baptism?
I do not propose that Baptists today follow the troubling trail blazed by Landmarkists, who refuse to welcome Christians beyond the local church to the Lord’s table, nor do I propose that Baptists jettison believer’s baptism by immersion as the normative model (though the “immersion” part would disallow the earliest Baptists from transferring their membership to many Baptist churches since the earliest Baptists did not immerse).
I am suggesting, however, that Baptists exhibit the same openness, hospitality and unity in their baptismal practices as is already demonstrated in their communion practices. What is keeping some Baptists from reconsidering their baptismal procedures in light of their already-existing practice of open table fellowship?
Seeing as how we all are already feasting at the same table, let us begin to talk honestly and openly about “one baptism for the remission of sins.”
John Essick is assistant professor of church history at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.