Nuance is dead. In our polarized, politicized society it seems that you’re either one extreme or another. Take immigration, for example. To hear the media pundits tell it, you’re either a amnesty-affirming liberal who wants open borders and a green card for everyone or a racist conservative who wants tightly closed borders and a swift boot to every foreign-born individual in the country. There is such a thing as a nuanced position.
What about in the local church? Without nuance, churches must either be openly welcoming and affirming of everyone or narrow-minded, intolerant, judgmental spewers of hatred. Allow me to propose a nuanced position.
Who’s welcome at Poquoson Baptist? It depends on what we’re welcoming individuals to.
Everyone is welcome to attend our worship gatherings. Gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, white or black, Mac or PC, Christian or atheist, American or not, it doesn’t matter. No matter who you are or where you come from, the doors to our worship gatherings are open to you. Much like a hospital should treat anyone who’s sick, our church worship gatherings should be open to anyone who’s contaminated by the sickness called sin (in other words, everybody).
Some are welcome to receive Communion. Even though everyone is welcome to attend our worship services, not everyone is welcome to receive the meal we call “Communion,” or “the Lord’s Supper.” This is a meal reserved for (1) Christians who (2) have made their Christianity public through baptism. Let me unpack those two requirements for you.
Why should only Christians be welcomed to receive Communion? Because the communion meal is an outward symbol of an inward reality. A wedding ring doesn’t make you married, it merely symbolizes that you are married. In the same way, Communion doesn’t make you a Christian, but symbolizes that you are. Therefore, the non-Christians who attend are worship services are invited to receive Jesus, and then (after they make their profession of faith public through baptism), the next time we celebrate communion they’re welcome to receive it with us. It makes little sense for a non-believer to partake in a symbol of Jesus’ body and blood if they haven’t received the real thing. Much like it makes little sense to wear a wedding ring before you’re married.
Why should only baptized Christians be welcomed to receive Communion? This one’s a little trickier to unpack. The Old Covenant with Israel featured two symbols that said to the world “I am a part of God’s covenant community.” These two symbols were circumcision and the Passover meal.
If a Gentile wanted to join the covenant community of Israel, he could do so first by receiving the initiating symbol of circumcision then by receiving the renewal symbol of the Passover (Exodus 12:43-49). What God’s people couldn’t do was reverse the order. Circumcision was the sign that said “I am a part of God’s covenant community,” an initiating symbol, and Passover was the sign that said “I am still a part of God’s covenant community,” a renewal symbol.
Think of it this way: you wouldn’t have a ceremony to renew your vows with your spouse unless you had made the vows in the first place. Circumcision was like the recitation of vows on your wedding day, and the Passover meal was like the vow renewal ceremony.
In the New Covenant, baptism becomes the new initiating symbol (like circumcision in the Old Covenant, see Colossians 2:11-12) and the Lord’s Supper becomes the new renewal symbol (like the Passover in the Old Covenant, see Luke 22:14-20). In other words, baptism is the symbol that shows the world you are a Christian and the Lord’s Supper is the symbol that shows the world you’re still a Christian.
That’s why unbaptized Christians are not welcome to receive the Lord’s Supper. Not because they’re inferior, but because it makes little sense to renew your vows before you’ve made them in the first place.
Some are welcome to church membership. Even though everyone is welcome to attend our worship services, and baptized Christians are welcome to receive Communion, the circle of those we welcome into membership is even narrower. Why? Because we only welcome into church membership baptized Christians who agree to submit to the love and leadership of the church (Hebrews 10:23-25; Hebrews 13:17).
Why the additional requirement? Because a local church is the place where we care for another as family (Galatians 6:1-10). This includes discipling one another, encouraging one another, confronting one another when necessary, supporting one another, and more. We cannot do any of those things with an individual who is not willing to submit to the love and leadership of the church.
In our context, those baptized Christians who agree to attend our Discover Class and submit to our church covenant are welcomed into church membership.
Some are welcome to church leadership. Everyone is welcome to attend our worship services, baptized Christians are welcome to receive Communion, and baptized Christians who agree to submit to the love and leadership of the church are welcomed into church membership. But the list of those welcomed into church leadership is even narrower. Why? Because Scripture clearly articulates a specific set of qualifications for those serving in the offices of pastor (1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) and deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13).
So who is welcome to Poquoson Baptist Church? The answer is nuanced. All are welcome to attend our gatherings, some are welcome to receive communion, even fewer are welcomed into church membership, and fewer still are welcomed into leadership. Why? Because we are people of the book. We don’t set the rules, we submit to the great Rulemaker who loves us so much He sent His Son to die so we don’t have to.