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Q. Should an Unbeliever Partake of Communion?


Brother *******,

I don’t think that one should require that a person be a believer to attend a Bible study (church related or not), or even to attend a church (i.e. preaching or teaching) service. It seems to me that when the New Testament Epistles were written, it was assumed that there would be some folks present who were not believers (1 Corinthians 14:22-25; 2 Corinthians 13:5). And what better opportunities to hear the gospel (and see it in action)?

It does seem dishonest for this fellow to privately confess that he is an atheist, and yet continue to give the appearance he is a believer. He seems to want to have his cake and eat it too. If this fellow has been a principled “man of integrity” it might be good to challenge him concerning his integrity, because his actions are hypocritical (Jesus, and Paul, had much to say about -- Matthew 23; Galatians 2:11ff.).

If he were to confess his unbelief to those in the study, it will be a challenge to the believers to deal with him in love, and in a way that draws him toward faith. And it will be difficult for him as well.

If he is really an unbeliever, then he is not subject to discipline, as would be the case for a believer (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

A friend of mine, with even more years of ministry experience, has told me that sometimes a person “renounces his faith” because of some serious sin in his life. This might happen, but I’m not so sure it is the most common reason for renouncing one’s faith. [I have seen one fellow who had professed to be a believer renounce his faith so that he could then pursue an illicit relationship, outside his marriage. I think he really was an unbeliever, who grew up in a Christian home and played the role of a believer for a time.]

The communion issue is perhaps the most troublesome one. I don’t recall a specific text which clearly forbids an unbeliever to partake of the bread and cup. These texts get as close as one can:

27 Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. 28 But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly (1 Cor. 11:27-29).

In the context, and given the particular language used, Paul’s emphasis here is not on one’s spiritual state, as much as it is on the manner in which on participates at communion. In Corinth, some of the believers were “drunk and disorderly” when they partook (1 Corinthians 11:20-22). Surely this is an “unworthy manner” of participating.

[I might add, somewhat parenthetically, that John the Baptist did seem to refuse to baptize those whose sincerity was in question:

Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 “Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham. 10 “The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:5-10).

“I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30 But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. (Lk. 7:28-30 NAU)

Having said this, I would think that this man should have the integrity to refrain from partaking of the bread and the cup, knowing that his partaking of them does not symbolize his relationship with Christ. Thus, I would hope that when the cup was passed, he would refrain from partaking. Naturally, this will likely raise some questions (and some eyebrows). At this point, he would likely need to declare his unbelief.

To persist in partaking of the elements, knowing you don’t believe in what they symbolize seems wrong to me.

I guess that I would encourage this fellow to keep coming to the study, but to be honest about his atheism, and thus to refrain from partaking of the bread and wine when passed to him.

Since I can’t precisely cite a biblical text for this, it should probably be regarded as my opinion, and should be regarded as such (1 Corinthians 7:25, 40).


Bob Deffinbaugh

Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

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