The Practice of Self-Excommunication
When I was a teenager, a girl took my heart out and stomped all over it. It not only hurt my feelings. It gave me a bad attitude. And it created a problem for me on Communion Sundays. I did not want to eat and drink judgment to myself.
The understanding I had was that, if you had bad feelings in your heart, you should not receive the Lord’s Supper. But this made me more uneasy, because I did not want my parents or their friends or my friends to know I was not communicating and to ask me questions. However, I was clever enough to come up with a solution. My church had an 8:30 service, so on Communion Sundays I would go to that service, sit in the back alone, and excommunicate myself.
In terms of Presbyterian polity, I really practiced self-suspension. I did I put myself out of the church entirely, but, I did not “communicate” at the Lord’s Table. The Session of the church had made me a communicant when I professed faith, but I made myself ex-communicant for a season.
It seems to me that this is the logical outcome of the way some ministers “fence” the Table – the way they qualify the invitation to communicate. It is not that they are telling people who have no faith in Christ, or baptized but not yet professing persons, or persons under the disciplines of suspension or full excommunication not to come.
They are asking believers to examine themselves to see if they are “worthy” (and, yes, I know that word does imply merit in Scripture or Confession, and that these ministers would deny they imply merit) to come. If believers cannot pass the test of self-examination, then they should ex-communicate themselves for the time being. Better to do that than to risk judgment.
I think that if more took this seriously, and if more had the courage to act on the instructions they are given, there would be fewer actually communicating at any given Communion service. Christians would find in their hearts sins, sins they have struggled to find the will and the power to repent of for years, relationships with family members or church members they have not been able to put right, doubts about the reality of saving faith in their hearts, and they would refuse the elements.
But, I think this is all quite wrong, and I think it is spiritually counter-productive. I do not think this kind of thing is at all what the Apostle meant when to told the Corinthians to examine themselves. Their meetings did harm than good; it was not the Lord’s Supper at all they were celebrating; they were divided into factions; they were despising one another; some of them were drunk; and, because they would not judge themselves God was judging, evidence of which was that some were weak, some sick, and others had died.
The Supper, like the reading and preaching of the Word and prayers, is a means of grace for sinners. Not just for sinners who have a “full assurance” of faith. Not just for sinners who have got their lives cleaned up well enough and long enough to feel pretty good on a Communion Sunday. Not just for sinners whose marriages and family relationships and friendships are without kinks. Not just for sinners who are sure they love Jesus more than anything.
It is for sinners who need grace – that is, who need forgiveness and who need help. It is for sinners who want stronger faith, who want to want to put sins away, who want better relationships, who want to love Jesus more. It’s for sinners who hear, “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest; take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls,” and whose hearts say, “Lord, I want to come, and believing your invitation, I will come.” It is better to come saying, “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief; Lord, I repent; help thou my lack of repentance,” than to practice self-excommunication.