Can Unbelievers take part in the Lord’s Supper?
How can an unbeliever discern the body of the Lord Jesus in order to do the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner? 1 Cor. 11:29. Our Life Group struggled to understand this based on the idea that unbelievers would be welcome to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
This is a good question because the church throughout history has predominately sided with the idea that unbelievers shouldn’t take part in the Lord’s Supper. In church history the Lord’s Supper began to be viewed as almost magical; because of this, a person who was not a believer was considered to be using the “magic” illegitimately. Most Protestant churches today do not see any magic in the Lord’s Supper, but the idea of unbelievers taking part in a meal designed for the believer still seemed to be wrong. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 at first seems to bolster this position. I believe the context of the passage reveals otherwise. 1 Corinthians 11:17-32 speaks of four things the Corinthians were doing wrong – they were divided at the Lord’s Supper (17-22); they were partaking in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy way (27); they were not examining themselves (28); and they were not recognizing the body (29). The context of the entire passage reveals that all four of these things are speaking of the same offense. Verses 27-22 speaks of how the rich were not being considerate of the poor in such an unworthy manner during the Lord’s Supper that Paul says they weren’t really partaking in the Lord’s Supper (20). Paul concludes this entire section by exhorting the Corinthians to be considerate of each other “so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.” All four offenses above refer to this one offense; this is what it means “to discern the body.” Paul is clearly referring to the body of Christ when he speaks of discerning the body, as he just stated previously in 10:17 where he spoke of how the Lord’s Supper was supposed to bring unity to the body: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The actual offense being addressed by Paul in chapter 11 is the division the Christians were instigating because of their selfishness.
So how does this answer your question? The offenders were clearly Christians as verses 30-32 states. The sickness and even death is called discipline from the Lord “so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” This passage has nothing to do with unbelievers and whether they should partake in the Lord’s Supper or not. Since the Bible never addresses whether unbelievers should take part in the Lord’s Supper or not, I am not willing to add a command telling them they can’t. I do think that it can be beneficial to allow them to partake in the Supper for two reasons. First, because it is simply a memorial. There is no magic in the elements. The sin of partaking in an unworthy manner refers to believers causing disunity, not unbelievers sinning. We should tell people to examine themselves and see if there is any unrepentant sin in their life. By reminding the people to examine themselves, the unbeliever may examine his or her heart and realize his or her need for a savior. This brings me to my second reason; the Supper is meant to be evangelistic. Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” The Supper is the Gospel in pictorial form. It should be normal to have unbelievers in the service, just as the Corinthians had (1 Corinthians 14:24-25), who might be open to the gospel. As they take part in the Supper, they may realize what Jesus did for them. To tell unbelievers not to take part in the Supper would unnecessarily offend them; I say unnecessarily because the Bible never says they can’t take part. The only people judged for improperly taking the Supper are believers causing division. Don’t get me wrong; the Supper is primarily for believers, but it is not so rigid that unbelievers and children can’t take part in it.
I do understand the position of those who say unbelievers can’t recognize the body and therefore partake in an unworthy manner, but I don’t believe they are interpreting the Scripture correctly. I could be wrong, and I don’t believe this is a fundamental doctrine of the faith, so we can agree to disagree agreeably as brothers and sisters in Christ. I don’t tell unbelievers they can partake in the Supper. If they asked, I would tell them to go by their conscience (no unbeliever has ever asked me though). I don’t want to hinder unbelievers from coming to Christ, so I am not willing to make it a rule that they can’t participate.