The Communion Test
In years of attending non-denominational, evangelical churches, I grew accustomed to some version of a pre-Communion caveat: "If you have accepted Jesus Christ as your savior and are a member of the body of believers, whether this is your home church or not, you are welcome to partake of the bread and the cup. Seekers and young children can let the elements pass by." Sometimes unconfessed sin gets mentioned, too, but usually the issue is personal salvation.
I know other churches have different conventions (I was once denied Communion when visiting a mainline church, for reasons I've never completely understood), but the familiar restrictions always seemed pretty reasonable to me. That wasn't the case 250 years ago. When Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards launched "An Humble Inquiry into the Rules of the Word of God Concerning the Qualifications Requisite to a Complete Standing and Full Communion in the Visible Christian Church," his Northampton, Massachusetts, congregation fired him—June 22, 1750.
The era in which Edwards ministered saw sweeping changes in the Christian experience. In England, the Wesley brothers defied the Church of England's geographic definition of ministry by preaching all over the country and encouraging people to meet for spiritual enrichment outside the walls of the parish church. George Whitefield stirred crowds on both sides of the Atlantic into a frenzy by telling people to search their hearts for the feelings of faith. The dramatic conversions of individual men, women, and children received unprecedented attention. Membership in a church body was still important (John Wesley considered himself a loyal Anglican to his death), but the sense of "religious self" was definitely on the rise.
Edwards's "Humble Inquiry" reflected this change. He knew he was departing sharply from an older understanding of church, in which a person was automatically considered a Christian—and worthy of taking Communion—if he or she had Christian parents, participated in a Christian community, and refrained from blatantly ungodly behavior. Some ministers, including Edwards's grandfather Solomon Stoddard, wanted to open the Lord's Supper to nearly everyone, believing it to be "a converting ordinance" that might help nonbelievers come to faith. But Edwards was convinced that Scripture stood on the side of greater restriction.
"My appearing in this public manner on that side of the question, which is defended in the following sheets, will probably be surprising to many," Edwards writes in his preface. "As it is well known, that Mr. Stoddard, so great and eminent a divine, and my venerable predecessor in the pastoral office over the church in Northampton, as well as my own grandfather, publicly and strenuously appeared in opposition to the doctrine here maintained. … But the difficulties and uneasiness on my mind increasing as I become more studied in divinity and as I improved in experience; this brought me to closer diligence and care to search the scriptures, and more impartially to examine and weigh the arguments of my grandfather and such other authors as I could get on his side of the question. By which means, after long searching, pondering, viewing, and reviewing, I gained satisfaction, became fully settled in the opinion I now maintain as in the discourse here offered to public view, and dared to proceed no further in a practice and administration inconsistent therewith."
Edwards follows the preface with a meticulous description of God's work of salvation from Creation forward. He presents and answers objections from all sides to his emphasis on personal conversion, which involves more than showing up for church.
When refuting the argument that the church should be a school where people participate fully while learning to trust in Christ, he asserts, "I grant, that no other qualifications are necessary in order to being members of that school of Christ which is his visible church, than such as are requisite in order to their subjecting themselves to Christ as their Master and Teacher, and subjecting themselves to the laws and orders of his school: nevertheless I deny, that a common faith, and moral sincerity are sufficient for this; because none do truly subject themselves to Christ as their Master, but such as having their hearts purified by faith, are delivered from the reigning power of sin: for we cannot subject ourselves to obey two contrary masters at the same time."
Christians still debate how far "common faith and moral sincerity" can get you in God's kingdom. For a person like Edwards, who once resolved "To strive my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before," those qualities were only the beginning. And after all, that is the more important question—not how closely a person can toe the line of salvation, but how close he or she can draw to God.
* The full text of Edwards's "Inquiry" is online.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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