Treat Him As An Unbeliever

This post is a revision and update of a paper I wrote for my Systematic Theology class at Bethlehem. It is an academic paper, so a bit more technical (and quite a bit longer) than my usual blog post style, but it is the paper I have been asked to share with friends most often, so I am posting it here for easy reference.

Here is a quick summary: When we place someone under Church discipline, we ought to remove them from participation in the Lord’s Supper, to preserve clear communication to the individual, the church, and the world that we do not consider them to belong to the covenant community. Church discipline ought not be expressed by banning someone from corporate gatherings of the church, or individual meals (i.e., They are barred from the Lord’s Table, not mine.) In short, treating them like an unbeliever, means exactly that.




The theme of table fellowship frames the entire biblical narrative, occurring in the three pillars of the scriptural narrative: creation/fall, the cross, and consummation. A significant theme emerges from a study of table fellowship, concerning the associative principle. Simply put, it matters whom one eats with. Fellowship around the table reveals allegiances and establishes intimacy. In this study I aim to illuminate the relationship between a biblical theology of table fellowship and the practice of church discipline. My thesis is to confirm the historic practice that church discipline is most clearly displayed by excommunication from the Lord’s Supper. I argue for this by first tracing the theme of table fellowship within a biblical theological framework. Then, I will demonstrate church discipline by excommunication from the table to be the common understanding of the catholic church across the ages. Finally, I present my thesis in light of the theo-dramatic model of doctrine as the best synthesis of the biblical theological theme of table fellowship.

While my thesis itself does not significantly differ from the practice of the majority of Christian churches historically, the biblical theological method does offer fresh insight into church practice. I am not aware of any extended attempts to show how the theme of table fellowship relates specifically to the doctrine of church discipline.[1] The important role of table fellowship in the narrative arc of scripture escalates the substance of church discipline by presenting it as an eschatological prolepsis, not merely arbitrary ritual exclusion. This not only affects the doctrine of discipline, but also necessarily impacts the regular treatment of the Lord’s Supper among the communicants.



Two distinct themes emerge from a study of table fellowship in the canon. First, the bible presents food and drink as generous provision. They are ultimately gifts of the creator, but regularly given by human agents imaging YHWH’s character through their hospitality. Second, because food and drink are gifts, which necessarily come from a giver, eating and drinking is a relational activity. Accepting food from a provider reveals and establishes allegiance. The table becomes a place of deep fellowship, uniting parties around a common provision.

Table Fellowship in the Old Testament

The Law

Within the first chapters of Genesis, a crisis of table fellowship emerges. YHWH provides Adam and his wife with “every plant . . . on the face of the earth” for food (Gen 1:29 ESV). But rather than submitting to and accepting the conditions of the creator’s provision, thereby establishing their allegiance at his table, they dine in secret with the rebel serpent (Gen 3:5). Mankind solemnizes our treason by enacting association through eating. “By eastern standards to share a meal was to commit oneself to friendship; it was of covenant significance,”[2] and the covenant with creation was broken through friendship with the devil.

Relational solidarity over food and drink develops further through Genesis in the blessing of Abram by Melchizedek (Gen 14:8), Abraham’s hospitality (18:6-8), the pacts between Isaac and Abimalech (26:28-30) and between Jacob and Laban (36:54). But even as food unites, it also divides, as when the Egyptians refused to commit the abomination of eating with Hebrews (42:32). In Exodus, YHWH ceremonializes his covenant with Israel as seventy elders eat with God, and “he did not lay his hand” on them (Exod 24:11), though the juxtaposed very next meal includes revelry and feasting to a golden bull (Exod 32:6).  As in the garden, treachery is dramatized in fellowship at table as communion with YHWH is traded for expediency.

The significance of fellowship around the table most clearly surfaces with the dietary laws under the Mosaic Law. In the food code, Israel faced a constant reminder of their status as a distinct people.  Three times a day their meals reminded Israel that they could not associate with just anyone.  Hartley summarizes:

In following these dietary laws, the Israelites obeyed God’s instructions several times each day, developing deep in their consciousness an attitude of obedience to God. That all the people observed the laws at every meal was a mighty force of solidarity, uniting the people as God’s special treasure (Exod. 19:5). It separated the Israelites from their polytheistic neighbors and became a distinguishing mark of their national identity. . . They erect a high barrier against assimilation and amalgamation of the Jewish people, which would lead to the loss of their racial identity.[3]

Under the Sinaitic Covenant, the table served the twofold purpose of “solidarity” and “separation” for the “national identity” of Israel. The faithful Jew was faced with the task of discerning whether someone was an insider or an outsider before sharing his table. Essentially, the prerequisite to dine with an outsider is that they, at least functionally, become an insider by eating kosher.

The Prophets & Writings

The former prophets develop the trajectory established in the Torah concerning food, with some notable development. In keeping with the previous theme, table fellowship reinforces solidarity. Saul suspected David’s flight upon his extended absence from the king’s table (1 Sam 20:18). In a glorious reversal, David extends his table to Saul’s grandson, the crippled Mephibosheth, inviting him to “eat at my table always” (2 Sam 9:7). As Mephibosheth “ate at David’s table, like one of the king’s sons” (2 Sam 9:11), we find a rare OT occurrence of extending the fellowship of eating and drinking to one’s enemy. This account may serve as the canonical backdrop from the poet-king’s imagery, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemy” (Ps 23:5). But table fellowship may also indict, as when Elijah slays with the sword all those who “eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kgs 18:19, 40).

The development in the theme of table fellowship in the prophetic commentaries is twofold. First, The latter prophets speak of food and drink regularly as spiritual metaphors. Jeremiah charges Judah with rejecting the “fountain of living water” and turning to “cisterns, which hold no water” (Jer 2:13). The prophet recounts his own call in terms of eating: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy” (Jer 15:16). Isaiah likewise offers YHWH’s invitation to “come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters,” where they may purchase “wine and milk” to illustrate “hearing” (Isa 51:3), “seeking,” “calling,” (51:6), and returning (51:7). Rice comments, “[Isaiah] makes it clear that it is not mere intellectual cognition he desires, but a chewing and digesting, an inner appropriation in which the total self is involved.”[4] But the same curious development begun with David’s invitation to his natural enemy occurs with the guest list for Isaiah’s inclusive call. The invitee “who has no money” (55:1) seems an unlikely guest. How can outsiders be invited into something as intimate as table fellowship in the midst of a cultural and legal scenario where mealtimes are explicitly exclusive? The second part of the development addresses this tension.

In addition to using food and drink as metaphors for spiritual appropriation, the latter prophets point toward an eschatological banquet. Isaiah prophesies a banquet “on that day” full of “rich food full of marrow” and “aged wine well refined” (Isa 25:6-9). This banquet includes the swallowing up of death and the wiping away of every tear. Isaiah shocks his readers by including, not only the Jewish people, but “all peoples” (25:6). This multi-ethnic Messianic feast brings together “all peoples,” “all nations,” “all faces,” and “all the earth,” into a single cry, “This is our God!” (25:9). Blomberg contends that this passage “by common agreement. . . is the single most influential passage for the development in both Second Temple Judaism and early Christianity of the idea of a Messianic banquet.”[5] It appears that the Messiah’s table will extend beyond the ethnic divisions that separated Jewish mealtime fellowship under Moses.

But the prophets also depict another eschatological banquet with an equally inclusive invitation. Ezekiel warns of a day when YHWH shares his table with birds and beasts to feast on the “flesh of the mighty” and drink “the blood of princes” (Ezek 39:17-30). Block remarks,

While most ancient Near Easterners could speak of sacrifices as food prepared by humans for the deity or for deceased royal ancestors, seldom, if ever, were humans invited to participate in communion meals with deity. At most, the king would eat of the food presented in sacrifice, but this is a far cry from Ezekiel’s imagery of an indiscriminate host of animals dining at Yahweh’s table. By contrast, the biblical writers expressed remarkable freedom in their portrayal of Yahweh hosting banquets for earthly guests.[6]

So on both accounts of eschatological feasts, the radically indiscriminate hosting seems to stand in conflict with the restrictions under the dietary law, which makes the table restrictive. Rather than understanding the intimacy associated by table fellowship as eradicated, perhaps the prophets foresee new criteria for the insider/outsider distinction in the eschatological age. Certainly, the welcoming of gentiles and animals to the table implies an end the age when one must become (or at least function as) Jewish to eat with YHWH and his people.


Table Fellowship in the New Testament

The Gospels

In the intertestamental period, the exclusivity of table fellowship intensified. “If shared meals in the OT typically marked off close friends or co-religionists from outsiders, even while acknowledging an ideal age in which the ground rules would differ, the period between the two testaments saw Judaism develop an even clearer nationalist or ethnocentrist emphasis.”[7] So the practice of Jesus to eat with tax collectors and sinners stood out as radically counter-cultural. Sanders rightly sees this practice of Jesus in the gospels in light of the messianic banquet motif of Isaiah 25. He argues that by eating with sinners Jesus was making a “propleptic indication that they would be included in the kingdom: the meal looks forward to the ‘messianic banquet’.”[8] The strength of Sanders’ proposal is the emphasis on the proleptic tie to the eschatological banquet. However, Sanders rejects the originality of Jesus’s own purpose statements surrounding his meal practices, “I have come to call sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).[9] Given Jesus’s declaration we see universal calling, but not universalism. By declaring all foods clean (Mark 7:19), Jesus was changing the criterion for table fellowship, and thereby resolving the enigma of non-Jewish participants in the messianic feast. Jesus does not require clean eating, but pure hearts. In fact, by sharing his table with sinners and calling them to repentance, Jesus believes “his purity can rub off on them. . . that cleanliness . . . is more catching than uncleanness.”[10]

The intrusion of the eschaton in the meal habits of Jesus culminates in the last supper. Craig Blomberg’s masterful study on Jesus’s table fellowship looms over any discussion of the subject matter since, but he deliberately excludes the Lord’s Supper from his discussion, since so much literature already exists concerning the Eucharistic tradition.[11] However, it seems curious to exclude the pinnacle of Jesus’s meal sharing practice, namely the last supper, from a study of Jesus’s meals with sinners. It is in this climactic meal that Jesus resolves the tension of his inclusion of sinners. Repenting sinners are welcome at the Lord’s Table by virtue of his body given and new covenant in his blood. And while Sanders and Blomberg are correct to see all of Jesus’s recorded meals as typological of the eschatological banquet, the upper room is the only place Jesus verbally affirms the connection between this meal and the future feast. Jesus announces, “I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom” (Matt 26:29, Mark 14:25, Luke 22:18). Jesus wants his disciples to view their participation in this meal as an expectation that they will join in the eschatological meal.


Acts, Epistles, and Revelation

Luke portrays the apostolic church as hospitable people in Acts. David Pao argues that the Lukan motif of table fellowship is “precisely the means through which the Word of God can be proclaimed,”[12] and appears to lead to the Lord’s blessing in Acts 6:1-7. Pao reads Peter’s character as the foil by which Luke emphasizes table fellowship as central to the gospel’s proclamation among the Gentiles (see Acts 10:9-33, Gal 2:11).

Especially pertinent to this study is Paul’s treatment of the discipline of the immoral man in 1 Cor 5. Paul’s injunction against the church echoes the purity requirement of the Israelite community.[13] Paul does not care to create an exclusive supper club, but rather does not want the witness of the community or the assurance of the sinner to be confused by the church’s voluntary association with one who “bears the name of brother” as such (1 Cor 5:11-13). The community lines are drawn at the table border. The church demonstrates the exclusion of the unrepentant so-called brother by “not eating with such a one.” Denial of table fellowship is not an extreme example, as might be implied by many modern translations (do not even eat), but is rather “the substance of the exclusion.”[14] Schwiebert helpfully argues that over-translating the prohibition (“even eat”) confuses the fact that the meal is the locus and focus for inclusion and exclusion, not an extremity. Below I argue that this out to be viewed as the covenant meal signifying eschatological communion, rather than ordinary dining.

The apocalyptic vision of John picks up the eschatological banquet mentioned above. In the seven letters, Jesus twice uses the incentive of table fellowship to motivate the churches in Asia. He will provide “some of the hidden manna” to the one who conquers (Rev 2:17) and will “come in and eat” with the one who “hears [his] voice and opens the door” (Rev 3:20). Again, the ground rules for eating with Jesus no longer concern the dietary laws, but heart circumcision. The narrative concludes with the two eschatological meals mentioned in the prophetic writings. The blessed are invited to the “marriage supper of the lamb” (Rev 19:9), and the uninvited, the kings, and the mighty men become food for the birds in the “great supper of God” (Rev 19:17-18).


Biblical Theological Summary

The question from Genesis to Revelation becomes: Whose table will you belong to? Those who eat at the table with the serpent will be consumed, but those who accept the call for repentance and eat at the Lord’s Table will participate in the great heavenly feast and enjoy table fellowship with the Triune God and his covenant people forever. The work of Jesus does not eliminate the exclusive nature of table fellowship seen in the OT, rather he transforms the requirements from an ethnic identity to the obedience of faith.



Early Church

It seems to be the tendency of the early church to err on the side of conservative in admission to the supper table. The Didache restricts communion to the baptized,[15] and Justin Martyr to “the man who believes that the things we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration.”[16] It is important to note that Justin sees a direct link between believing “the things we teach are true” and the obedience of enacting that faith through washing, which seems to be a reference to water baptism. This will be important in the dramatic model of theology Vanhoozer proposes (discussed below). Irenaeus speaks of the heretic Cerdon who was “excommunicated from the assembly of the brethren,”[17] though there is no explicit link to the Lord’s Supper, it would appear that this would be at least included in the dismissal from the assembly.

The Reformation

Leading up to the Reformation, the fear of unworthy participation in the Lord’s Supper coupled with the doctrine of transubstantiation had led the Roman Catholic church to withhold the cup from the commoner. This practice provoked deep consternation from the Reformers who insisted that the Lord’s Table be open to all the members of the Christian Church. Calvin did not hold punches, “The symbol of the blood, which, denied to lay and profane persons (these are titles they apply to God’s inheritance [1 Peter 5:3]), was given as a special property to a few shaven and anointed men.”[18] But who should be excluded? Calvin viewed the proper celebration of the Lord’s Supper to include dismissing the non-communicant from the assembly.  He proposes the following procedure:

The Supper could have been administered most becomingly if it were set before the church very often, and at least once a week. First, then, it should begin with public prayers. After this a sermon should be given. Then, when bread and wine have been placed on the Table, the minister should repeat the words of institution of the Supper. Next, he should recite the promises which were left to us in it; at the same time, he should excommunicate all who are debarred from it by the Lord’s prohibition. Afterward, he should pray that the Lord, with the kindness wherewith he has bestowed this sacred food upon us, also teach and form us to receive it with faith and thankfulness of heart[19]

Notice that Calvin does not view those debarred from the Lord’s Table as unwelcome into the assembly at large. The unrepentant are most certainly welcomed to the preaching of the Word in the general assembly. Excommunication expresses itself at the locus of the Lord’s table fellowship. It follows that the doctrine of the church concerning non-communicant members (including the ex-communicant) withholds from them the bread and the wine, but not the preaching of the Word.



Kevin Vanhoozer has proposes a dramatic approach to theology instead of one primarily concerning philosophy. He contends, “The drama of doctrine is about refining the dross of textual knowledge into the gold of Christian wisdom by putting one’s understanding of the Scriptures into practice.”[20] The church’s theology will be expressed visibly through enacted obedience to her beliefs. “The sacraments,” writes Vanhoozer, “are external aids—holy props—that nourish and strengthen faith.”[21]  And especially with the Lord’s Supper, the dramatic symbolism communicates:

There is nothing particularly dramatic about having dinner with friends. Nevertheless, Jesus invested the meal with profound symbolic significance, hearkening back to Passover and to covenant renewal (Exod. 24:11) and looking forward to a covenantal meal of cosmic scope: the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19). What would otherwise be an ordinary meal is transformed by virtue of Jesus’ theo-dramatic imagination into a compelling symbolic act,[22]

The faith-strengthening the sacrament of the Supper supplies lies in its dramatic and symbolic nature. The sacraments are unique to the preached Word in that they provide in themselves an opportunity to really participate with the dramatic display and obedience of faith: “the sacraments facilitate a theodramatic participation in the eschatological action through faith’s attestation of the work of the Son and Spirit.”[23]

But what does this real participation by sacrament have to do with discipline? If Vanhoozer’s is correct, the church’s job is to corporately represent through dramatic performance the realities we believe in Christ. And while the world remains fallen, the church must guard the message through self discipline when behaviors significantly malign the message. “To excommunicate is to exclude someone from fellowship and from participation in the sacraments. It is therefore to exclude someone from the drama of redemption, or at least from the company of players if not from the play itself.”[24] To fail to remove an unrepentant offender from the table does damage on at least two accounts. First, it confuses the watching world as to the sincerity and purity of the Christian message. Second, it does great harm to the offender by allowing him or her to continue participating in the drama that depicts the community’s belief that he or she will participate in the eschatological supper of the Lamb.

In this light, church discipline and excommunication from the table become loving acts by which the church seeks to speak truth. Jonathan Leeman describes the communicative nature of discipline:

The individual may still, ironically, profess to be a Christ follower and a citizen of Christ’s kingdom, but the profession sounds fraudulent, so the church corporately determines to withhold the bread and cup of Communion. The individual is ex-Communion-ed. If the believer continues in unrepentant sin, the covenant between body and member formally ends as an expression of the fact that the individual’s belonging to the new covenant of Christ appears to be false.[25]

The church does not attempt to establish an exclusive supper-club, but the sacramental drama speaks clearly to the hearers. When miscommunication arises, discipline seeks to correct it. “Church discipline,” then, “is a clear implication of Gospel-centered love” by “removing affirmation so that self-deception no longer reigns.”[26] The prolepsis inherent in the table fellowship of the supper links it with assurance of salvation.[27] So when the church loses confidence in a person’s salvation, after repeatedly spurned warnings, the dramatic removal from the table communicates corporate concern for the eschatological reality awaiting that person.



The biblical-theological theme of table fellowship should enhance the church’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, specifically as it relates to the controversial and neglected practice of church discipline. As we trace the intimacy associated with eating and drinking in someone’s presence, the invitation to dine at YHWH’s table through Jesus should amaze participants every time they participate in the bread and cup. YHWH himself, through the person and work of Jesus, welcomes us to his table, though formerly enemies and estranged from God by ethnicity and by sin. The universal call to repentance for fellowship at the Lord’s Table shames attempts to establish barriers not imposed by Jesus himself. So, our communion tables ought to be as open as the Lord’s was.

However, the eschatological enactment of the table means the church must dare not extend the table beyond the limits established by Jesus of faith and repentance. We lie to the world and to one another when we communicate acceptance to those who visibly have no confidence of participating in the great wedding supper of the Lamb. To excommunicate someone means we remove them from the Lord’s Table, but not from our lives, the preaching of the Word, or even our individual tables. Paul warns the church not to eat with the unrepentant professor, lest the purity of their ranks be misconstrued. Do not eat with the sinner in a way that would communicate their acceptance at the Lord’s Table. At the same time, Jesus’ own habit of calling sinners to repentance at his table can certainly mark the believer’s posture toward outsiders. After the church has removed the offender from formal recognition, why would you continue to judge one who is now, by definition, the outsider? Paul makes it clear that is not our purpose (1 Cor 5:12-13). Our call to hospitality ought not preclude unbelievers; in fact, the hospitality of the church makes gospel ministry thrive (see above discussion on Acts 6:1-7).

I have argued that too much is at stake in the communicative nature of table fellowship to allow unrepentant people to participate in a self-deceived eschatological enactment. I believe, however, that failure to focus on the Supper in our doctrine of church discipline has led to a kind of all-encompassing exclusion of disciplined people that bars those we suspect of self-deception from the very means of grace we would extend to all others we believe to be outside the family of faith—gospel proclamation. Discipline is given to the church as an act of love. Therefore, we corporately remove table privileges of the unrepentant in order to clearly mark them as outsider, in hope of their quick restoration, not only into our fellowship, but also into the greater Fellowship at the end of the age.

Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb
These are the true words of God.


[1] The link between table fellowship through Lord’s Supper and the doctrine of discipline is hinted at in many of the bibliographic sources cited in this paper, but is never presented as a distinct study.  The closest to this study is Jonathan Schwiebertt’s exegetical article, which comes to the same conclusion in the text 1 Cor 5:11 that I see traced through the canon. Johnathan Schwiebert, “Table Fellowship and the Translation of 1 Corinthians 5:11,” Journal of Biblical Literature 127:1 (2008):159-64.

[2] Joyce G. Baldwin, Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary, (Downers Grover: Inter-Varsity Press, 1978), 83.

[3] John E. Hartle, Leviticus, (Dallas: Word Books, 1992), 163.

[4] Gene Rice, “Dining with Deutero-Isaiah,” JRT 37.1 (1980): 23.

[5] Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 68.

[6] Daniel Block, The Book of Ezekiel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 474.

[7] Craig Blomberg, “Jesus, Sinners, and Table Fellowship,” 41.

[8] E. P. Sanders, “Jesus and the Sinners,” JSNT 6.19 (1983): 27.

[9] See Sanders, “Jesus and the Sinners,” 6.

[10] Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 128.

[11] Blomberg, Contagious Holiness, 31.

[12] David Pao, “Waiters or Preachers: Acts 6:1-7 and the Lukan Table Fellowship Motif,” JBL 130 (2011): 143.

[13] See Deut. 13:5; 17:7, 12; 21:21; 22:21, 22, 24; Judg. 20:13

[14] Jonathan Schwiebert, “Table Fellowship and the Translation of 1 Corinthians 5:11” JBL 127:1 (2008), 164.

[15] “But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord hath said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 380).

[16] Emphasis added. Justin Martyr, First Apology, in ANF, 1:185.

[17] Irenaus, Against Heresies, in ANF, 1:417.

[18] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Battles; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1425.

[19] Calvin, Institutes, IV,xvii,43.

[20] Kevin Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 21.

[21] Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 410.

[22] Ibid., 411.

[23] Ibid., 412.

[24] Ibid., 425.

[25] Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (9Marks; Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 221.

[26] Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love, 221.

[27] This concept is developed further in the context of Puritan theology by Matthew Westerholm, “The ‘Cream of Creation’ and the ‘Cream of Faith’: The Lord’s Supper as a Means of Assurance in Puritan Thought,” PRJ 3:1 (2011): 205-22.


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