There are a number of requirements to take communion in a Reformed or Presbyterian church. While specifics may vary from church to church, before participating in communion a person must be baptized, must be of sufficient maturity to “examine yourself,” must not be under church discipline, and must be a member of an evangelical (or true) church. It is this requirement of membership in an evangelical church that is often questioned in our day and shall here be addressed.
First, there is no example in the Scriptures of a person outside of the church ever participating in communion. Rather, the order set before us in Acts 2:41-42 is first baptism, then being added to the church, and then participating in the breaking of bread (communion).
[Act 2:41-42 ESV] 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Then it must also be noted that when Paul writes “let a person examine himself” (1 Corinthians 11:28) he writes not to “seekers” but to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all of those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” (1 Corinthians 1:2) Paul assumes the requirement of church membership for participation in holy communion.
Further there is the command of the Scripture to “obey your leaders” (Hebrews 13:17) which is a command that requires a mutual recognition of commitment; that which we call membership. Those who are not members of a particular church are living in disobedience to the command of God. In examining themselves they should repent of this sin of disobedience, seek to join a particular church, and upon membership participate in communion.
Finally, the term “communion” has reference not only to our union with Christ but also to the union of all people in the church, the body of Christ. If a person is not united in membership to any local church he should not participate in the sacrament representing the union of Christians. If a person is not a member of the body of Christ he should not participate in the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.
For these and other reasons the Book of Church Order (BCO) in each the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church specify such a requirement of membership.
OPC BCO: It is my privilege as a minister of Christ to invite all who are right with God and his church, through faith in the Lord Jesus, to come to the Lord’s Table. If you have received Christ and are resting upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to you in the gospel, if you are a baptized and professing communicant member in good standing in a church that professes the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ, and if you live penitently and seek to walk in godliness before the Lord, then this Supper is for you, and I invite you in Christ’s name to eat the bread and drink the cup.
PCA BCO: Since, by our Lord’s appointment, this Sacrament sets forth the Communion of Saints, the minister, at the discretion of the Session, before the observance begins, may either invite all those who profess the true religion, and are communicants in good standing in any evangelical church, to participate in the ordinance; or may invite those who have been approved by the Session, after having given indication of their desire to participate. It is proper also to give a special invitation to non-communicants to remain during the service.
EPC BCO: The minister shall invite all true believers in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, including those from other congregations that are a part of the true Church to partake in the Lord’s Supper. All should be reminded of the need to trust in Jesus Christ as Lord, to repent of sin, and to covenant once more to live as followers of Jesus. Those who are ignorant in their knowledge of Christ or who are living ungodly and unrepentant lives should be warned of the serious consequences for those who unworthily partake.
While my own denomination, the Bible Presbyterian Church, nowhere specifies the requirement in its official documents, we should perhaps, in matters like this—as a continuing presbyterian church—look to the historic practice of the denomination (the PCUSA) from which the Bible Presbyterian Church arose.
There, admittedly, we find that the PCUSA did not explicitly bar non-members in the most relevant section of their Form of Government.
PCUSA Form of Government (1821, 1841, 1896, 1921, 1939, Constitution 1953): He is to warn the profane, the ignorant, and scandalous, and those that secretly indulge themselves in any known sin, not to approach the holy table.
However there are various reasons to believe that the necessity of membership in a church to participate in communion is assumed throughout both the BPC Form of Government and the historic PCUSA Form of Government.
For one, in the PCUSA, the non-member participating in communion may be considered under the term “scandalous.” His participation in the sacrament without membership places a stumbling-block in front of others, diminishing the importance of church membership.
We also find that the PCUSA Form of Government (and BPC in somewhat similar language) says, “Every church Session shall keep registers or rolls of persons admitted to or suspended from the Lord’s Table; and of the deaths, and other removals of church members.” It seems likely that “church member” is assumed in each of the categories of persons mentioned. Regardless, persons are individually admitted to the Lord’s Table, rather than leaving it as an open invite.
Finally we have the term “communicant member” or “member in full communion.” (There are no communicant non-members.) That this has reference to holy communion is clear when one considers that we call young children, who are not allowed to participate in communion, “non-communicant members.” Children who are born into the church must become full members before participating in communion. Surely the same requirement should apply to those who are not born into the church.