"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What's first, the Baptismal or the Table?

A question that comes up in both credo- and paedo-baptist communities is "Should a person be baptized before taking Communion [the Eucharist]?" This might be represented visually above as: "Does one need to come to the baptismal fount before one comes to the Table?"

This question comes up in both Baptist and paedo-baptist communities when baptism is delayed, for age, Catechesis or a special season of baptism, such as Easter. It comes up in many Episcopal Churches with open communion, where everyone, even unbaptized people are welcomed to take the Eucharist. The situation in all places arises: If a person has faith and seems to understand what the significance of the Supper is, why have them wait or deny them the Supper merely because they are unbaptized?

Many times this is left in the realm of personal conscience, which one can see in places where the question is asked, usually the answer most preferred is "As long as you're doing this from your heart and you love Jesus, you're okay. "

Against such an answer, suggesting a rigid priority may seem "legalistic" or nit-picky. However, I believe there are good Biblical, Confessional, Catechetical and Historical reasons for only allowing baptized Christians to partake of the Eucharist.


Historically, the earliest and consistently repeated answer of the Church throughout history has been to delay partaking the Eucharist until after Baptism. One of the earliest documents of the Church, outside the Bible, was the Didache which was a manual of sorts for accepting new converts into the Church. The instructions make very clear:

Didache 9:5: "Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized."

The reasoning may sound rather harsh: "for the Lord has also spoken concerning this: 'Do not give what is holy to dogs.'" (9:5) This merely points out that the Eucharist is considered the meal of the Church, and one was not considered a part of the Church, and so not a Christian, until Baptism. There are no instances in the first millenium of the Church where partaking of the Eucharist was allowed before being baptized.

This is way the major Reformation faiths always place teaching about Baptism before the Lord's Supper. Baptism is seen as initiatory rite, and the Supper as a rite of fellowship. Before one joins the community, one cannot have fellowship with that group. To have fellowship is to be a member, and baptism is the rite of membership for someone to be in that community.


The Scriptures display a heavy weight towards Baptism necessarily coming before Communion. Firstly, Baptism precedes the Supper in notable places in Scripture's teaching and narrative. In Acts 2, Peter offers Baptism (2:38) before we have an account of the first Christians breaking bread (2:42). The Gospels record the Baptism of John before the Last Supper. Paul speaks of acknowledging Baptism (1 Cor 10:2) before the Supper (1 Cor 10:3 and following). This is logical, for we must be united to Christ (Rom 6:4) before we can participate in him (1 Cor 10:16).

But why? What's the big deal?

The Scripture's main way of explaining the sacraments is through the story of redemption of Israel. We are told of the baptism Israel experienced in the sea (1 Cor 10:2). We are also told of Israel eating manna in the wilderness, pointing to the Supper (John 6). It is simple observation to observe that Israel experienced baptism in the sea before eating the manna. Israel did not eat manna from God before the sea. And I think this is the most important point for how the sacraments teach us about the reality of the Christian life and salvation.


Israel did not need food from God before the sea, for their slave owners in Egypt gave Israel food. The episode of the baptism in the sea for Israel irrevocably severed the connection between Israel and their slave owners. After the baptism in the sea, although Israel often wanted to go back and were unthankful to their Redeemer God from Egypt, Israel no longer could take food from their former slave owners.

For us to insist on Baptism before the Supper requires a high sense of what Baptism is. Baptism in the early church often included a ritual of exorcism and a question to the person presented for Baptism, "Do you renounce Satan and all his works?" This is because Baptism was an important entry into the church and break from the world of Satan, just as crossing the sea was an important event for Israel as forming of a common people of the baptism and breaking from the world of Egypt.

This is why Baptism ought to proceed the Supper. Baptism should be an instrument of teaching entry into the covenant and community of faith (Acts 2:38-39) and the Supper should be an instrument of teaching the lasting need of continual sustaining by God (Psalm 104:14-15; John 6). To allow eating the Supper before Baptism teaches a dual loyalty and dual mastery the Scriptures do not. One cannot eat the manna from God while under the slavery of Egypt. One also cannot eat the food of Egypt after being redeemed by God. If baptism teaches the need of new birth, and the Supper the need of spiritual feeding, one must be born before one can eat. To allow the Supper before Baptism teaches that one can be enslaved to Satan and receive the saving benefits of God. In other words, it confuses the person who eats while unbaptized for it does not conform to Jesus who taught one must either be for or against him. "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. " (Luke 16:13) One cannot be identified with Egypt and eat the manna of God. One cannot be slave to Satan, and receive the blessings of God. One must be identified as a slave to God in order to receive His benefits. One must be in covenant with God in order to receive the benefits of that covenant.

That is why I believe, like the picture above, one must go to the baptismal before one can go to the table. It is not a matter of legalism or nit-picking, but a matter of what Scripture teaches and what we teach with the catechetical tools that God gives to us with Baptism and the Supper. Do we teach a dual loyalty to two slave owners? Do we teach service, loyality and identification to Sin, Satan and what Egypt represents can continue at the same time as receiving taking what identification with God, Christ and His Righteousness gives us?

Or, do we teach that God fully redeems us from our former slave owner, though a Stockholm Syndrome may still exist, we identify and receive our sustenance from our Redeemer and new Master, Jesus Christ? The matter should not be too difficult, however, for if we determine that a person is ready for the sacrament of the Eucharist, then they are certainly ready for the sacrament of Baptism. Just let them be born before they eat, and let God be their slave master before they take food from Him.

No comments: