Every now and then this question pops up when people visit churches that are different than their own. Over the past few years I’ve fielded the question with people curious about Anglicans, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics. So I figured it was probably time I wrote down my general answer to this question over all.
Consideration #1: What rules are you accountable to?
Some Christian churches actually answer this question for you right off the bat. For example, if you’re a Roman Catholic you’re forbidden from participating in invalid (or illicit) sacraments, which includes all Protestants and Anglicans (see Canon 844). The Eastern Orthodox Church also has a similar law.
Most of the rest of us don’t have a specific church law or policy concerning this questions, but it never hurts to check with your pastor, elders, governing documents, and such. If you’re a member of a church, locally or denominationally, you want to be faithful and obedient to it as the Scriptures demand.
Consideration #2: what rules does the church you’re visiting have?
Once again, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and similar churches in that vein have strict rules about being in communion before participating in communion. It’s not as trite as a grumpy “members only” attitude, but it’s one of real spiritual concern: the Body & Blood of Christ is for those who are properly prepared to receive them, and if you’re not a recognized part of their church communion then they can’t in good conscience assume you have the same faith & belief as they.
Some other churches also practice a similar form of “closed communion,” and most of the time there will be a flier in the entry way or pew, or a note in the bulletin, or even an announcement in the worship service itself explaining what their rules are.
The most common requirements for receiving Communion shared by the largest number of Christian traditions is Baptism. If you have not been baptized, then you’re not a full member of the Church yet, and therefore should not be sitting at the Lord’s Table as if you’re already a member of the family.
Consideration #3: lex orandi lex credendi
That’s a Latin phrase meaning “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” This is your final line of decision-making regarding participating in communion at other churches. Assuming your home church permits you to participate in the one you’re visiting and the one you’re visiting permits you to join in, there is one final question you should ask yourself before going forward: do I believe what these people believe? This can be approached in two steps.
#1 – Do we agree on the basics of the Christian faith?
Depending on your specific tradition, this might be analyzed in different ways. What core doctrines do you need to agree upon in order to trust that they are properly Christian? Do they believe the same thing about the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Christ, the authority of Scripture, the doctrines of salvation, as you? Are there any concerns you have with the theology of the church you’re visiting, and is it enough to make you suspicious of their orthodoxy?
If yes, then you should probably not participate in communion with them in the same way that you would not say “amen” at the end of a prayer that you find heretical or blasphemous.
If no, then there’s just one last question to ask yourself.
#2 – Do we agree on what Communion is?
Listen to the prayers and statements leading up to the administration of Communion. Do you agree with those prayers? If you can say “amen” to them with a clear conscience, then go ahead and receive.
But if you think they crossed a line, prayed something you consider untrue about Communion, or left out something you understand to be a critical part of Communion, then you should probably not participate by receiving.
It’s all about honesty.
I don’t write this to encourage legalism and judgmentalism; rather this is all about honesty. For example, if you are a Christian, you don’t believe in worshiping Mother Nature. Thus, if you’re visiting friends and they offer a prayer to Mother Nature, you would not say “amen” at the end, or otherwise assent to what they’re doing. That doesn’t mean you’d be rude and interrupt them, just that you’re respecting the boundaries between you and them. It’s the same with Communion at different churches; you want to be honest about what you believe, and have the integrity to respect what others believe when you disagree. If you have a problem or concern or a question, you can always ask afterwards, or even before the service if possible.
So, again, this is not to encourage suspicion, but honesty about how we live out our theology.