We decided to take communion together as part of a recent fellowship meal at the church. As the staff was thinking through the logistics of doing something like this, one of the things we discussed at length was how people could graciously refuse to participate. We believe communion is only for believers, so what about visitors who joined us for the meal, but didn't trust in Christ? What about our children?
This made me think about a newspaper article I had read a few years ago about a pastor at an Episcopalian church who faced a similar situation. A man she knew who was not a believer came to the church with his dog. When it came time for communion, she had a choice to make. In the end, she decided to give communion not only to the man, but to his dog, as well, as a way of being friendly and welcoming.
Both our staff and this other pastor had to decide what to do with a church boundary. Things like communion are marks of Church membership, and participating in them together reaffirms our commitment to, and involvement with, each other as part of the people of God. But what do you do when there are outsiders in your midst, those to whom you want to express the love of God and those who you desperately hope become part of the people of God, but who currently aren't? The other pastor mentioned above decided that the best way to show God's love as she understood it was to lower the boundaries. Our staff decided that the best way to show God's love was to keep them up.
You see, we decided that a church's boundaries are actually an act of love towards those outside. The Church exists because God is redeeming a group of people in the midst of a world in which all people need redemption. The Church becomes a witness and town crier, if you will, on behalf of that redemption. As Christians we say to the world, "By God's great mercy, we have been made right with Him! Come be made right, too!"
Maintaining boundaries is part of that mission of mercy. We have absolutely no right to tell anyone they can't become part of God's people ... but we also have absolutely no right to tell them they can do so on terms other than what God has established through His Son. In fact, it would be not only incredibly arrogant to do so (after all, it's God's and not our community), but also incredibly cruel! Church boundaries draw a distinction between those who have trusted Christ and those who have not -- not in order to tweak noses at those who are not believers, but rather to plead with them to trust Christ, as well.
If we let those who have not trusted Christ have membership at Highland -- to take communion, to vote on church business, to serve as deacons or committee members -- then it would, in fact, mean that we did not love them as God loves them. It would mean we were more concerned about offending them or losing their attendance than we were about the state of their soul. It would mean the unpleasantness of hard conversations outweighed the care we felt for them. It would mean we let them believe they were right with God without Christ, which is impossible. It would mean that through our actions we had assured them that they were right with God, when in fact they were still God's enemies.
So as strange as it sounds, we maintain boundaries like communion participation and membership classes at Highland not only to protect our church, but also to love those outside the church. We want all to feel welcome and loved to be sure, but ultimately we want each to be welcomed by God someday into His kingdom and to understand the depths of His love -- the love that drove Him to die on a cross so that we could indeed become part of His people!