Communion and the Pastor's Conscience

Have any of you observed a pastor who presided over the Lord’s Table but refrained from partaking of the elements himself because his conscience was bothered by some unrepentant sin?

I know we’d like to think pastors don’t sin and don’t sin the weeks before they have to preach and preside, but that is never the reality. If your pastor says differently, get a new pastor.

The requirement for participation at the Table is not sinless perfection; rather, as Calvin’s liturgy (and the Scottish liturgy based on it) instructs (“Let us understand, therefore, that this Sacrament is a medicine for poor, spiritually sick people and that the only worthiness that our Lord requires of us is to know ourselves well enough to be displeased with our sins and to find all our pleasure, joy, and contentment in Him alone.”), the requirement is that we must be sorry for our sins. Nonetheless, there are times when I have not done any of the work of repentance and remain in the clutches of that sin or bitterness or unbelief while having to do the work of preaching and presiding over the sacraments.

Assuming the sins are not disqualifying sins, what should a pastor do in that situation? Is it legitimate to preside and not partake (especially if there are no other pastors on staff to which he could defer)? Would you recommend to yourself what you would recommend to a church member whose conscience is troubled? Should he confess his sin even in a perfunctory manner to his elders before the service?


I have refrained before.

And been noticed.


I’m sure there’s a mistake or failure in it, but I am with you, dear brother. Totally. I wouldn’t say many times, but I would say any number of times I have presided without partaking of the body and blood of our Lord, myself. Not from unbelief, but fear of God. Given our form of service, it’s likely few have ever noticed. Love,

1 Like

Same here. I’ve presided and refrained. Not too often though and I don’t remember if it was noticed but it seems like it may have been. I’ve also confessed before the service on occasion as well. And sometimes the work of personal repentance begins as I lead the prayer of confession.


I’ve found the knowledge that a communion service is coming is a powerful reminder to work things out ahead of time. Especially with my wife, who is the one I am more likely to have lingering conflict with than anyone else.

I really like what’s been said above, but I’ve also urged the congregation not to self-excommunicate, especially if they are even somewhat sorrowful over their sin. Not sure where that line is though.

My gut on this, whatever that is worth, is that if the sin is not directly against someone else and there’s even an inkling of sorrow, to urge that congregant to partake. If it’s a horizontal sin, I think I’d recommend abstaining until the relationship is resolved or reconciliation is at least attempted.

My father was a PCA ruling elder. I became a communicant member at the church around the age of 10 or so. Every Saturday night before communion Sunday, my dad would remind me to prepare my heart for communion. It really stuck with me and made an impression about the seriousness of it. The table was also clearly fenced during the service. It all gave me a healthy fear of the Lord even before the Lord truly regenerated my heart (which I am convinced happened in high school).

In fact, before I was regenerate I took the Lord’s supper thinking I might die and that “faith” was probably just taking it anyway hoping that I wouldn’t die. Even though there were times I didn’t want to take it, I never wanted my dad to notice I didn’t take it. I was so proud and self-righteous. I thought he had me prepare my heart on Saturday night because the time of silent confession during the service was nowhere near long enough for me to remember all the things wrong I might have done since the last communion. I was a natural Catholic!

It’s only when I was regenerate that the Lord’s Supper actually became a joy for me. That was actually one of the evidences that helped convince me that the Lord had done a deep spiritual work in me in high school even though I had felt some stirring of conviction earlier on in childhood. Yet, after conversion, I didn’t lose that sense of the fear of God in approaching the Lord’s table. It was now rightly ordered as a believer. Even though it was a joy, it was a joy that was marked by reverence for God’s power and holiness. I’m so grateful that my dad treated the Lord’s table that way and taught me to fear God–even though, for a time, I wrongly interpreted it in the blindness of my own heart.


I would like to introduce a wrinkle here or maybe ask a question. I grew up Baptist with sincere Christian parents. They are wonderful believers. The teaching on the 1 Cor 11 passage (the Communion part anyway) was always simple and straightforward. Their teaching was always consistent with our pastor’s fencing of the Table. Communion (the Lord’s Supper) is for true confessing believers. Period.

I read this passage now and it brings questions to my mind. (Pardon the length here. And I invite thoughtful responses.)

Chapter 11 begins with teaching on order in worship especially regarding the differences and similarities between men and women. In verse 20, Paul starts in on Communion

Therefore when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper, for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk.What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this I will not praise you.

Then he adds a bit of doctrinal teaching on Communion. Verses 23-26 I think of almost as a parenthetical. This is what he wants them/us to be thinking when they/we read the next bit. This is the why of the what that he is writing about: Communion is the proclamation of the Lord’s death until He comes. (I assume by this he means the second coming.)

Everyone is probably with me so far.

Then he gets back to the teaching of the “what:”

(vv27-28) 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. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

So it seems that the “unworthy manner” is a term that looks back to verse 21. It is not about being regenerate (though Communion is obviously for the regenerate), nor is it about being in some type of sin-free state. We are not sin-free this side of glorification.

(Indeed, Paul writes in verse 32, “But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” This implies that even though we still sin, we are not condemned. We face judgement which comes in the form of discipline from the Lord. But that discipline is for our good, to save us from condemnation. It is not merely for our punishment.)

So the “unworthy manner” is specifically speaking to what verse 21 is describing: “for in your eating each one takes his own supper first; and one is hungry and another is drunk.” This speaks to taking the Communion in such a way as to negate its actual purpose - proclaiming the Lord’s death until He comes. It seems to speak to making the Lord’s Supper into my supper. “This is some good food and wine. Let’s eat, drink, and be merry.” Further this manner is selfish and creates factions within the church, separations within the body of Christ. This should not be.

Communion should be a unifying sacrament, proclaiming to each other, and to the world, Christ’s death until He returns. It is not about me; it is about Him. Taking it in a selfish manner is taking it in an unworthy manner. Taking it in a manner that shows partiality toward the rich with good food and wine and against the poor who can bring less to the “love feast” is taking it in an unworthy manner.

This is not to take away from the idea that if there is some besetting sin in the life of a believer, he should deal with that promptly. He may want to abstain from Communion - I say may, not should or must - on account of his conscience. But it may also be that taking Communion gives him a sense of unification with the Body of Christ. It may be that this is the ammunition he needs to load his gun and fight the besetting sin. And I posit that this teaching (Paul’s in the latter half of 1 Cor 11 understood in the way I have tried to outline) is aimed not at stopping a particular regenerate believer from taking Communion, but in disciplining the manner in which it is taken by all of us. It is about molding the clay, not aborting the pottery-craft.

(And I recognize that this may, at times, mean that an elder should temporarily bar someone from taking communion - if that person is taking it in an unworthy manner and does not (for whatever reason) discipline himself. )

It just has always seemed to me that Communion should be more celebratory, more of a victory feast. It has a seriousness, a gravitas, certainly. But it shouldn’t be a depressing time of defeat and guilt. It should be a celebratory time of victory over sin and death within the death of Christ.

Before I close and ask for comment, allow me to answer a possible objection and then a clarification:

I don’t mean to paint this in such a way as to negate the need for fencing the Table. I affirm that it absolutely should be fenced; and only believers - regenerate and in good standing with the the body of Christ who openly profess Christ crucified - should be invited/allowed to take Communion. And then, only in a worthy manner.

Further, this is not to poo-poo the idea that an elder administering Communion should never abstain from taking it. You have your conscience which I respect and if you feel you are taking it in an unworthy manner, then by all means abstain.

I don’t really know and I’m not an official church elder so I guess it doesn’t really matter for me. I seek understanding, hopefully preparatory understanding. I’m ready for you Presbyterians to “rip me a new one” as the rednecks used to say down in south central Kentucky. But I assume that many of you have heard/read/interacted with this thinking/interpretation in the past and probably have some great points to give to it.

(Sorry for the length. I was as brief as I felt I could be and still maintain clarity.)


Nathan, when I was in seminary the church I attended hosted Robert Rayburn (see Tim’s article for more on Pastor Rayburn). The seminary students were invited to meet with Pastor Rayburn. Pretty quickly the conversation turned to the topic of paedocommunion. Rayburn lamented that the reformed church had made the Table into a morbid, negative, and individualistic experience. Of course, he was advocating for paedocommunion which, by definition, is a repudiation of the need for self-examination prior to partaking. I told him that I agreed with him that joy should be part of the meal—we are after all partaking of the body of the Lord that was broken for us—but that we mustn’t ever forget that it is a meal that can kill. Approaching the Table with proper sobriety (helped along by the proper fencing of the Table) was undoubtedly required by 1 Cor. 11. I think at that point he made a point similar to yours—that the issue the Apostle Paul was addressing was one of division in the church. The conclusion he and other paedocommunionists come to is that judging the body rightly has nothing to do with individual spiritual knowledge. Rather, to judge the body rightly has to do with not being disruptive at church. So, as long as you are at peace with the brethren—no matter what age—you meet the criteria.

And in one quick stroke, they’ve erased the necessity of fencing the Table, removed what they regard as the morbid and negative element of thorough self-examination, radically reducing the requirement for worthy approach to the Lord’s Table to whether or not you are being disruptive at church gatherings. I suppose that might help with the joyfulness of the supper…but only if repentance is understood to be a morbid and negative element of the Christian life. Perhaps instead of viewing the context of 1 Cor. 11:23-34 in light of the few preceding verses, the whole letter up to that point ought to be considered. The exhortations to the church by the Apostle would put their minds on not merely disruptive behavior at the worship service but factions, hatred of authority, pride, fleshliness, boasting, incest, lawsuits, prostitution, marital intimacy, lust, fornication, homosexuality, effeminacy, idolatry, adultery, thievery, covetousness, drunkenness, causing weaker brothers to stumble, grumbling, sacrificing to demons, disorder in sexuality.

So, while I agree that we should “celebrate” the Lord’s Table, those who live in Vanity Fair, saturated in entertainment, don’t need help in adding joyful celebration to their life. We need help in the opposite direction, just like the Corinthians who knew how to twist terrible situations into something they could celebrate—even incest.

Take notice of the combination of sobriety and joy in Calvin’s Table liturgy:

We have heard, my brothers, how our Lord administered His Supper among His disciples, and in this He shows us that strangers, that is, those not of the company of the faithful should not be admitted. Following this rule, therefore, in the name and by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, I excommunicate all idolaters, blasphemers, despisers of God, heretics, and all who form separate parties to break the unity of the church, all perjurers, all those who rebel against their father and mother and against their superiors, all fomenters of sedition or mutiny, quarrelers, fighters, adulterers, fornicators, sexual deviants, thieves, lovers of money, plunderers, drunkards, gluttons, and all those who lead a scandalous life; declaring to those that they are to abstain from this holy table lest they pollute and contaminate this sacred food, which our Lord Jesus Christ gives only to His servants and faithful ones.

Therefore, according to the exhortation of the Apostle Paul, let each one test and examine his own conscience, to know whether he truly repents of his faults and is sorry for them, desiring from now on to live in holiness and in conformity with God; and above all, whether he trusts in the mercy of God and seeks his salvation wholly from Jesus Christ; and whether renouncing all hostility and malice, he has the good intention and the courage to live in harmony and brotherly love with his neighbors.

If we have such a testimony in our hearts before God, let us not doubt in the least that He acknowledges us to be His children and that the Lord Jesus is speaking to us, bringing us to His table and offering us this Holy Sacrament, which He delivered to His disciples.

And since we are conscious of much frailty and misery in ourselves, as well as not having a perfect faith, but that we are prone rather to unbelief and distrust, so that we are not entirely dedicated to serving God and with such a zeal as we ought, but we have instead a battle daily against the lusts of our flesh; nevertheless, since our Lord has granted us this grace of having His Gospel engraved on our heart, so that we might resist all unbelief, and He has given us the desire and longing to renounce our own desires to pursue His righteousness and holy commandments; let us all be assured that the sins and imperfections that are in us will not prevent Him from receiving us, nor from making us worthy to share in this spiritual table. For we do not come insisting that we are perfect or righteous in ourselves, but rather, seeking our life in Jesus Christ, we confess that we are dead. Let us understand, therefore, that this Sacrament is a medicine for poor, spiritually sick people and that the only worthiness that our Lord requires of us is to know ourselves well enough to be displeased with our sins and to find all our pleasure, joy, and contentment in Him alone.

That, it seems to me, is wonderfully joyful not because it avoids self-examination but precisely because it promotes it. Seeing our sinfulness we are made hungry for Christ and Christ alone—like the prodigal who, after confessing his sin to God and his father, receives the fattened calf.


I find Calvin’s explanation in his Institutes helpful as well. The attention (and the proportion of attention) he gives to each part is instructive: self-examination (which I don’t think in 1 Corinthians 11 can be separated from our relationship to our fellow believers; it’s not only that but it’s certainly not less than that), and genuine communion (division rather than disruption is the Apostle’s point).

By this, as I understand, he means that each individual should descend into himself, and consider, first, whether, with inward confidence of heart, he leans on the salvation obtained by Christ, and, with confession of the mouth, acknowledges it; and, secondly, whether with zeal for purity and holiness he aspires to imitate Christ; whether, after his example, he is prepared to give himself to his brethren, and to hold himself in common with those with whom he has Christ in common; whether, as he himself is regarded by Christ, he in his turn regards all his brethren as members of his body, or, like his members, desires to cherish, defend, and assist them, not that the duties of faith and charity can now be perfected in us, but because it behoves us to contend and seek, with all our heart, daily to increase our faith. - Calvin’s Institutes, (ch. 27, sec. 40 in the Beveridge edition)

Even in the liturgy above Calvin’s excommunication clearly refers to those who are not Christians rather than Christians who have fallen into sin in one of those areas.

I’m sure this is addressed in Church Reformed, but my copy is in the US. How far should fencing the table go? Assuming one warns the congregation against participating in an unworthy manner (which in 1 Corinthians 11 is something Paul is warning believers against doing), which I think would include two parts: are you in a right relationship with both God and his people. Is it merely verbal? Do you structure the communion meal so that those presiding are in a position to physically withhold the elements from those who should not partake? Would you say it’s necessary to restructure the meal so that the elements can be withheld?


Thank you for this post. I have been helped by God to see my own sinful heart even more as I presided over the Table. I am grateful for you, brother.


I affirm this.

And also I recognize that my line is reasoning could be taken to an extreme of pedocommunion. But it need not necessarily do so. I’m not in danger of striking out on my own path and starting some new denomination based on this understanding of the Lord’s Table.

Just thinking and figuring out whats and whys. I appreciate your response.

Brothers, there is a great need to be firm in our interpreting of 1Corinthians 11 since the paedocommunionists have made a complete mess of it. The “body” that is not being discerned is “the church,” they say, then turn around and accuse historic reformed Protestants of failing to discern the body by not welcoming infants to the table. “They are part of the unity of the body of Christ,” they declare, “and you are violating that unity by banning them from participating.”

So there we have both the denial of the historic meaning of “body” (which was always the failure to distinguish between this meal and all other meals, and thus between Christ’s body as bread and all common bread) and and the historic meaning of the sin of failing to discern that body (which was always the sins dividing the church up to and including the feasting and drunkenness at the table, itself). To hold that the sin being condemned here is only the division right there at the table is hermeneutically and exegetically ludicrous when things as basic as incest were constantly present at that table.

Read the context, men. Then read our fathers in the faith.

This is simply one more of their innovations muddying up the clear water of historic church doctrine and practice. That they have been successful in misleading so many about the proper meaning of this passage of Scripture is one more indication of the lack of discipline among us today, refusing to judge living men in a time of decadence by dead men in times of reform and continuity with that reform. Calvin is merely typical of historic interpretation:

He adds the reasons because they distinguish not the Lord’s body, that is, as a sacred thing from a profane. “They handle the sacred body of Christ with unwashed hands, (Mark 7:2,) nay more, as if it were a thing of nought, they consider not how great is the value of it. They will therefore pay the penalty of so dreadful a profanation.” Let my readers keep in mind what I stated a little ago, that the body is presented to them, though their unworthiness deprives them of a participation in it.