Who May Come To The Lord’s Table—Eucharistic Welcome And Warning


Matthew M. Kennedy

Article ID:



May 15, 2024


May 8, 2024

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During my second year as the rector of Good Shepherd (an Anglican church), where I have served for the last 22 years, a young man around my age (I’ll refer to him as Mike, although that is not his real name) began attending services. He had an eager light in his eye and, as I quickly discovered, he was keen to learn as much as he could about the Bible and to lend his considerable handyman skills to the upkeep of the church. At the time, 2004, we were still reeling from the sexuality crisis that had divided the Episcopal Church resulting from the consecration of a partnered gay man to the office of bishop in 2003. My own parish was split between those who supported the consecration and/or just wanted things to go on as usual and a smaller group of people who recognized that the decision placed the Episcopal Church (and every parish that went along with her) outside the Christian faith. Being a new, inexperienced pastor and finding myself rather unexpectedly embattled, Mike’s hunger for the Bible and earnest zeal for Christian orthodoxy was a breath of fresh air. We quickly became friends, and he became one of my closest confidants.

One year later, in one of my saddest memories from those days, I called Mike to tell him that he would no longer be welcome to receive Communion at Good Shepherd. Several months beforehand, Mike, out of the blue, told me he planned to divorce Lisa (not her real name), his wife of two years. Lisa had not been unfaithful to him, nor had she done anything that might be construed as violating her marriage vows. Mike was just tired of her. I pleaded with him to come in and talk and to get counseling to try to repair his marriage. He refused. During the next few weeks, his attendance became sporadic. He dropped out of Bible studies and Christian education, and he resigned from all of his committees. Having tried to go to him myself, I asked a couple of vestry members, men Mike trusted, to go with me to try to persuade him to rethink his decision. He refused to meet with us. With no option left, and being estranged from our bishop over the sexuality question, I brought the issue to the vestry.1 Together, we decided that if he refused to repent and reconcile with Lisa, Mike should not be permitted to receive Communion. After the call informing Mike of the decision, we never saw him again. In the two decades since, Good Shepherd has formally barred from Communion three other members, two for slander and causing division and one for abandoning her marriage. Each decision was taken with the approval and oversight of our now orthodox bishop in the Anglican Church in North America’s Diocese of the Living Word.


There are some traditions and denominations in which such disciplinary actions are rare if not unheard of, but most do, at least on the books, have canons or regulations governing who has access to the Eucharist and under what conditions that access might be revoked. The Roman Catholic Church formally limits eucharistic participation to Roman Catholics who are not in a state of mortal sin (sins that Rome teaches kill off the state of grace received at baptism), who believe the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and who have fasted at least one hour before partaking.2 To take Communion in an Eastern Orthodox church, a person must be Orthodox and “1. Believe what the Church believes. 2. Practice the Faith by displaying the love of Christ. 3. Be in ‘good standing’ (i.e., have no obstacle that would prevent you from receiving).”3 The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) restricts Communion to LCMS members in good standing and to those in “altar and pulpit fellowship” with the LCMS.4 The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) limits access to WELS members in good standing and to members of her sister church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELS).5 To participate in the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), one must “profess the true religion” and be a communicant “in good standing in any evangelical church,” or “have been approved by the Session.”6

The loose structures of Baptist, Pentecostal, Holiness, and non-denominational churches make it difficult to render sweeping summaries. In general, these churches either limit the Lord’s Supper to those who have been baptized by immersion as adults and who are congregation members in good standing or, more liberally, allow everyone to make his or her own personal decision whether to partake. With regard to discipline, they tend to think in terms of “disfellowship” (removal from the community) rather than fencing the table or excommunication, but the causes — heresy or impenitent immorality — are generally the same.

Less confessional Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Reformed denominations generally practice “open Communion.” Despite appearances, “Open Communion” does not mean that anyone at all can receive Communion without condition or limitation but rather that members of other denominations and traditions are, under certain circumstances, welcome to receive. My own Anglican denomination, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), is probably typical of this last category. To take communion, you must be baptized, penitent, professing the Christian faith sincerely, and be in good standing in your home denomination or tradition.7


If you are unfamiliar with the practice of limiting access to Communion, you might wonder why the practice exists at all. Doesn’t Jesus welcome all sinners to His table? Shouldn’t Communion be given freely to all who desire to take it? How can any church, purporting to be the body of Christ, refuse access to people who want to come to His feast? These are very good and not uncommon questions. But before answering them, it is important to note the near ubiquity of the practice, especially within the most ancient traditions, notwithstanding differences in its application. That uniformity should give Christian critics pause. Since almost every tradition and every denomination limits access to Communion in one way or another, doesn’t it stand to reason that there might be and probably is a good reason for it? This recalls G. K. Chesterton’s famous fence analogy:

Let us say…a fence or gate [blocks access to] a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”8

Heeding the wise advice of “the more intelligent type of reformer,” let us turn to the Scriptures to see the use of this particular fence. The primary text providing the basis for both fencing the table (limiting access) and excommunicating (removing access) is 1 Corinthians 11:17–32.

The church in Corinth was the picture of ecclesial chaos and dysfunction. Factional strife, people filing lawsuits against each other, sexual immorality, incest, rebellion, disputes about head-coverings for women, proud exhibitionism with regard to spiritual gifts, and to top it all off, the Communion feast seems to have become a bacchanal. The well-off members eat and drink their fill, even to the point of drunkenness, leaving the poorer members with nothing.

In this earliest period, congregations generally met in the larger homes of wealthier members. If the form of these meetings followed that outlined by Justin Martyr later in the second century, there would be prayers, readings, and some kind of sermon followed by Communion.9 In the first century, this may have been an actual meal followed by a more formal Communion rite, or the rite may have been incorporated into the meal. Either way, it would have involved the elements of bread and wine and the words Jesus used when He instituted the sacrament on the night before His crucifixion, words Paul calls to the Corinthian’s attention:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)10

The pointed end of this reminder, as Tom Schriener notes in his commentary,11 is that the Lord Jesus Christ gave this sacrament of His body and blood to and for every member of His church, to all who call on His name. How then can people claiming to be Christians participate in the feast in Jesus’ name, remembering Him and proclaiming His sacrifice, while letting people for whom He died go hungry? How can they get drunk and stuff themselves (both sins) while their poorer brothers and sisters, who have nothing, look on?

The severity of these violations is heightened when one recalls Paul’s description of the nature of the Eucharist and its effect: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17).

However one understands “participating in the blood of Christ” and “participating in the body of Christ” through the cup and the bread, and there are many different understandings, the apostle Paul presents the Eucharist as a means by which the church, in some mysterious way, experiences union with the body and blood of Christ.12 The word translated “participation” is a familiar one to most Christians, koinonia. Often unsatisfyingly rendered “fellowship,” the word describes a deep spiritual union and oneness with Jesus’ body and blood that comes through the cup and the bread.

But notice especially the last sentence. We are “one body,” Paul says, “for” or “because” we all partake of the same bread. The causal language here takes us far beyond a mere word picture. Paul isn’t saying that the one loaf symbolizes or provides a picture of the oneness of the church. He’s pointing out that partaking of the one loaf actually causes us to be one. Receiving the sacrament, somehow, creates the union.13 In that context, the actions of the wealthier Corinthians are even more discordant. During the meal that Jesus gave to make His people one, they have indulged themselves and set themselves apart from and above their poorer brothers and sisters, holding them in contempt. That explains the severity of the apostolic warning that follows:

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. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27–32)


There are several phrases in 1 Corinthians 11:27–32 that beg explanation. What does it mean to eat or drink in an “unworthy manner”? What does it mean to “discern the body”? How do we “judge ourselves” so that we will not be judged? But before unpacking these phrases, consider the dire consequences that can come to those who disregard the warning, which came to many in the Corinthian church. Many are sick, and some have died. Paul describes these consequences as coming directly from the Lord as acts of disciplinary mercy. It is better, his point is, that God inflicts you with these illnesses and even that he put some of you to death, than it would be for Him to permit you to carry on in your present state and be “condemned,” that is, damned, along with the world.

This raises an important question. Since God Himself, through the apostle Paul, issues such a dire warning against taking Communion in an “unworthy manner,” shouldn’t the church do all in her power to preserve the health and lives of her members by ensuring that this does not happen? Ours is a culture obsessed with safety, with warning labels affixed to all manner of innocuous items and devices, from blow dryers to pizza boxes. One would think ecclesial safeguards, limiting access to holy and, therefore, truly dangerous elements, would be met with gratitude rather than suspicion or rancor. But this is a cynical age.

One more point must be made before drawing out the meaning of the terms in question. Note that while there is a particular form of unworthiness in view in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul’s warning extends beyond the particular. It is principle in nature. “Whoever” eats or drinks unworthily, he writes. “Anyone” who eats and drinks without discerning the body, he warns. The Corinthian Christians are experiencing the application of the principle in their particular locale for their specific violations, but their particular violations do not exhaust the categories of “eating and drinking unworthily” or “without discerning the body.”

Nevertheless, the particulars do help flesh out the principle. The well-off parishioners, reveling in their excess, making themselves gluttons and drunkards, exalting in their plenty before the faces of their poorer brethren and in the presence of the Lord Himself and at His table fall within the Old Covenant category of committing a high-handed sin. “A high-handed sin is one a professing believer commits boldly and defiantly, not caring about the consequences and feeling no guilt about it once committed. It is a sin people commit fearlessly as they shake their fists, literally or figuratively, at the Lord.”14 There is a considerable difference between the person who drinks too much but who also acknowledges his sin and hates it and confesses it and comes to the Communion rail seeking Jesus’ mercy and help and the person with the same sin who comes without remorse, without seeking mercy and help, without any desire to be free or with any regard for the holiness of God or the great cost Christ paid in His body and soul to offer sinners the sacrament of his body and blood.

To the former, to the penitent sinner, as Martin Luther points out, the Lord is always gentle and merciful. For Him, there is always a place at the Lord’s table.

If you feel that you are unfit, weak and lacking, where will you obtain strength here? Do you mean to wait until you have grown pure and strong, then indeed you will never come and you will never obtain any benefit from the holy communion. This is the right use of the Lord’s Supper, serving not to torture, but to comfort and gladden the conscience. For by instituting it for us, God did not intend it to be poison and torture to frighten us….The Lord’s Supper welcomes those who perceive their frailties and feel that they are not pious, yet would like to be.15

But to the latter, as Luther, once again from the same passage, points out, the Eucharist “is poison and death to those who approach it with insolence, who feel no weakness, frailty, or distress to impel them, who act as if they were pure and pious from the start.”16 To eat and drink in an unworthy manner is to eat and drink with defiant impenitence.

There is debate about what it means to fail to “discern the body.” Does Paul mean the body of Christ as the church or the body of Christ as the sacrament? Does he mean that the attitude toward the poor represents a failure to understand the nature of the church or does he mean that the same attitude is a failure to show reverence toward the sacrament of the body of Christ? But the debate revolves around a false dichotomy. Paul has already written in 1 Corinthians 10 that when a person partakes of the bread of the Eucharist, she participates in the body of Christ and then, in the very next sentence, he writes that by partaking of the eucharistic body of Christ, a person and the whole church become the body of Christ. To approach the sacrament defiantly is to both blaspheme Christ, who offers Himself at the table, and to pour contempt on His church, which He joins to Himself at that same table. This explains the command that we should “judge ourselves.” That is, acknowledge and confess your sin and come to the Lord’s table for help, and you will find no judgment there, only compassion, forgiveness, and grace.


The primary way that the church over the ages and still today communicates this principle to the people of God is by fencing the table and restricting access to the table for those who remain defiantly unrepentant. To say, for example, that a person must be baptized in the Triune name, profess faith in Jesus Christ, and not be under church discipline to receive Communion is, in effect, to say, “You cannot come to the Lord’s table without submitting and entrusting yourself to the Lord and His promises and His rule.” When a person, like Mike above, sets out to defy Christ and, after a process of pastoral intervention,17 refuses to acknowledge his sin or seek mercy and help, then it is dangerous for him to receive the Eucharist. To give him Communion might communicate to him and the whole church that his present course is fine and good. That would do him great damage spiritually, lending him a false sense of security that militates against repentance. Physically, it may also lead to severe illness and death. Far from a loving and Christlike thing, admitting a defiant and unrepentant person to Communion may lead to his death or, worse, to his everlasting condemnation. This is why The Book of Common Prayer admonishes priests in the ACNA, “the Priest shall allow those who are penitent to come to Communion, but not those who are obstinate.”18

But — even more importantly — it is the church’s duty and calling to glorify and honor Christ her Bridegroom. He was blasphemed and mocked on the cross for our salvation. Now he sits at the right hand of the Father, and all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him (Matthew 28:18). The church cannot treat the sacrament of His body and blood as a light and casual thing by knowingly giving it to those who hold Him in contempt. Jesus Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, and the church must offer Him “acceptable worship, with reverence and awe for,” as the author of Hebrews writes, “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28–29).

The Reverend Matthew M. Kennedy (M.Div, VTS) is the rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, New York.



  1. The vestry is a council of elected lay-leaders who mind the financial assets and resources of the church and who also support and advise the rector.
  2. “Who Can Receive Holy Communion?,” Catholic Answers, accessed May 2, 2004,
  3. “Who Can Receive Communion in an Eastern Orthodox Church?,” Saint John the Evangelist Orthodox Church, August 11, 2020.
    https://www.saintjohnchurch.org/receive-communion-orthodox-church/; cf. Fr. Charles Bell, “Why Non-Orthodox Are Excluded from the Sacrament of Holy Communion,” Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, December 14, 2008, https://www.goarch.org/-/why-non-orthodox-are-excluded-from-the-sacrament-of-holy-communion.
  4. “FAQ’s: The Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion,” The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, accessed May 2, 2024, https://www.lcms.org/about/beliefs/faqs/doctrine#lcms.
  5. “Guest and the Lord’s Supper,” WELS, accessed May 2, 2024, https://wels.net/faq/guest-and-the-lords-supper/.
  6.  The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America (Memphis, TN: Office of the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, 2023), chapter 58–4, accessed May 2, 2024, https://www.pcaac.org/bco/.
  7. The Book of Common Prayer (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019), 143, 147–148.
  8. Quoted in “Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking,” Farnam Street Blog, accessed May 2, 2024, https://fs.blog/chestertons-fence/.
  9. Everett Ferguson, “How We Christians Worship,” Christian History Institute, 1993.
  10. All Scripture quotations are from the ESV.
  11. Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 320–24, Kindle.
  12. Editors’ note: For a summary explanation of four views of the Lord’s Supper, see Michael Ross, “The Sacrament of the Supper,” Christian Research Journal 35, no. 02 (2012), available at https://www.equip.org/articles/sacrament-supper/. 
  13. For a deep reflection on this causality and its outworking in the Western church, see Henri Cardinal de Lubac, SJ, Corpus Mysticum: The Eucharist and the Church in the Middle Ages, trans. Gemma Simmonds, CJ (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2007).
  14. “The Sin Offering,” Ligonier, May 27, 2010,
  15. Martin Luther, “Confession and the Lord’s Supper,” III, Luther 500 Years of the Reformation, accessed May 2, 2024, http://reverendluther.org/pdfs2/Luther-Confession-LordSupper.pdf.
  16. Luther, “Confession,” III.
  17. In accordance with passages like Matthew 18:15–20 and Galatians 6:1.
  18. The Book of Common Prayer, 143.
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