What is “open” or “closed” communion — and why does it matter?

There are 33 Comments

TylerR's picture

Editor

The idea that baptism is a prerequisite to the Lord's Supper is based on a series of inferences and is not stated anywhere in Scripture. On the other hand, Jesus made it quite clear the Supper was for members of the New Covenant in Christ's blood. Please prove me wrong without employing some variation of ...

  • Acts teaches people are baptized and added to local churches
  • This means the folks in Corinth had been added to their church and baptized
  • The folks in Corinth are taking the Lord's Supper
  • This means the only people in their church who take the Lord's Supper are baptized 
  • That means everyone who takes the Lord's Supper has to be a baptized member of a local church 

or

  • If you allow professing and repentant believers to take the Supper who aren't baptized, the world will end, chaos will reign, and darkness will cover the earth (that's a paraphrase of Kiffin and Strong's views)
  • Baptism comes before the Lord's Supper
  • How can you partake of the ordinance that signifies renewal in Christ if you haven't partake of the one that's the initiatory rite into the local fellowship

Because, these are all inferences. I don't recall any baptismal prerequisites at the inauguration of the Lord's Supper. I do recall that it's an ordinance for members of the New Covenant (unless you're a dispensationalist who believes the NC is strictly future, in which case ... I can't help you!), and 1 Corinthians says it must be done reverently and repentantly. It says nothing about baptism. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

josh p's picture

I have also heard “An unbaptized Christian is a disobedient one so how could we give them the Lord’s Table.” That argument might hold after a sustained refusal to be baptized but a new believer should be welcome to partake while they await their baptism. 

Steve Davis's picture

For many years in independent Baptist churches I dutifully practiced closed communion as I was taught. As Tyler pointed out, the requirement of baptism before observing the Lord’s Table is an inference. There is a certain logic to it – baptism portraying entrance in the visible community of faith and communion portraying the ongoing fellowship and dependence.

However, I now hold to open communion in that anyone can come forward to take the elements. We don't police the Table. We don’t simply pass the plates. People come forward. The elder leading the ordinance emphasizes the necessity of the new birth and invites all believers to examine themselves before leaving their seat. If there are new believers who have not yet been baptized, I see no scriptural reason to deny them the Table. If there are believing visitors from outside the church they are invited to join us regardless of how or if they have been baptized. We do ask that parents “police” their children because we do not practice paedo-communion.  

We observe the Lord’s Table weekly. It follows the message and recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. It is also an invitation for those who are not saved to understand their need of a Savior and trust him even at that moment. Were they to do so they would be welcome to the Table. We also hold that the Table is a “remembrance” of what Christ has done and that there is spiritual benefit in the observing. In other words Christians receive something at the Table in the way of spiritual nourishment communicated in the faithful observance.There is real "participation" in the body and blood of Christ (I Cor. 10:16). 

pvawter's picture

Tyler,

I find your response here curious. You recently shared an article on church membership which was entirely based on inferences from scripture yet you demand this question be answered without appealing to inference. Maybe you can explain why this is different.

Paul

TylerR's picture

Editor

Very good question.

It's different because the Scripture doesn't imply you have to be baptized to partake of the Lord's Supper. Instead, it explicitly states it's for people who are members of the New Covenant who are repentant.

My point in my initial post was to ask whether anyone had an argument that wasn't an inference from 1 Cor 11, or some variation of a slippery-slope doomsday argument. I suspect they don't. Kiffin didn't have one. Strong didn't have one.  

However, when I administer the Lord's Supper, I challenge folks to consider whether they're truly pleasing the Lord if they (1) know they ought to be baptized, (2) and they decide to say, essentially, "bite me," or (3) they know what the Bible teaches about church membership, and (4) they're content to not formally commit themselves to a local congregation.

I won't say something like, "if you're not baptized, you can't partake." I won't do that, because I don't believe it. Instead, I use the Lord's Supper as an occasion to strongly urge people to make a commitment for baptism and membership. I'm guessing (but, of course, I'm not sure), I emphasize baptism and membership more than most Baptist pastors. I also think baptism, membership and the Supper are treated rather flippantly in many local churches across the land.

Functionally, my position is virtually indistinguishable from what most Baptists do, who believe in close communion. Theologically, however, there is a clear nuance. I just baptized a new Christian yesterday. I asked her 11 questions which, essentially, formed a church covenant as she stood in the water and waited to be baptized (listen to the first four minutes here). It was a solemn and moving way to do it, and it had an impact on the congregation. We're observing the Lord's Supper next week!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

pvawter's picture

Funny, cause what you're describing in your post sounds like you know the NT implies baptism is necessary for participation in the Lord's supper.

TylerR's picture

Editor

I think baptism is important. But, I don't think it's necessary for the Lord's Supper. I merely use it as a convenient time to encourage folks to become baptized, if they are not. You should be baptized, but it isn't a requirement for the Lord's Supper.

Do you have an argument for why it is necessary? I'm well aware many Baptists would disagree with me, but I posted my thoughts anyway. What is your own response, beyond one sentence comments (smile)?

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

pvawter's picture

I'm comfortable with the clear implication of baptism and church membership as prerequisites for the Lord's supper, just as I'm comfortable with the implication of church membership itself in the NT.

I do SI on my phone which usually causes me to limit the length of my responses, btw. B-)

Larry's picture

Moderator

Instead, it explicitly states it's for people who are members of the New Covenant who are repentant.

On what NT basis do we say that being a "member of the New Covenant who is repentant" is the only requirement?

In the NT, how are "members of the New Covenant" identified? How is repentance expressed in salvation? It seems to me that there is no NT evidence of one being a "member of the New Covenant" other than baptism. Is it an inference? Perhaps, but it seems a pretty solid one. The idea that inferences are bad theological method is suspect, at the very least. 

Where in the NT is anyone taking communion without being baptized? It's a small sample size to be sure, but there are no indications of unbaptized people being considered believers is there? 

TylerR's picture

Editor

You;ve briefly presented a solid case for an inference. I appreciate it. Inferences are not necessarily bad. But, they're clearly less reliable than didactic, explicit teaching or the necessary implications of that teaching. That's not too controversial of a statement, is it?

You're objectively "identified" as a member of the New Covenant by regeneration and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. You should, ideally, externally show this objective reality by (1) living a holy life with the motivation to please God, and (2) by joining a local congregation, and (3) by following the Lord in believer's baptism. But, the Lord's Supper isn't about baptism. It's about the New Covenant. If folks who followed close communion wanted to be consistent, they'd do the following:

  • Only baptized, repentant Christian can partake
  • The baptism must only be by immersion
  • The Christian must also be a church member

Basically, the only consistent way to implement a conviction that the Supper is for Christians who are obedient to join a church and undergo believer's baptism is to adopt CLOSED communion. This makes the Supper more about membership and baptism than the Supper, and seems at odds with Jesus said the point of the ordinance is. This is my primary objection. This is why I use the Supper as an occasion to strongly urge people to consider membership and baptism, but I don't announce them as prerequisites.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

I'm going to try the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of my story:

My husband and I experienced some extremely unpleasant things in a church where we'd been deeply involved members for many years. My husband has yet to heal his wounds or overcome his doubts or whatever. It's been about 6 years, and we have yet to join a church. As a matter of fact, he seldom attends, so I go alone. I've chosen up to this point not to join a church without him, so I've been excluded from the Lord's Supper lo these many years. 

It's super awesome to sit in church and weep because I'm not allowed to participate, even though in every way that matters to God, I'm in obedience. To put a really fine point on it, I think any One-Size-Fits-All solution when it comes to issues like this (with no clear commands) is beyond insipid, short-sighted, and insensitive.

Ron Bean's picture

Here are some other faces: The new believer who is in a church in Maine with no baptistry, in the winter with lakes frozen, and other churches won't let you borrow their baptistry because its only for their members. Or the new believer who is a terminal cancer patient and can't be immersed. Or the 200 pound plus quadriplegic......and on and on. One-Size-Fits-All doesn't fit.

Add to this that when it comes to fencing the table, few churches make their fencing a memorable statement and very few, if any, physically fence the table. Let's face it, how many of us have actually forbidden to serve someone? 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

TylerR wrote:

Inferences are not necessarily bad. But, they're clearly less reliable than didactic, explicit teaching or the necessary implications of that teaching. That's not too controversial of a statement, is it?

Not at all controversial as I see it.  This is key to much of applying scripture.  Implication is done by the speaker (or, in this case, the text).  Inference is done by the listener/reader.  In the case of reading the Bible, this is someone making a biblical application for himself.  That's perfectly legitimate (and pastors certainly preach many of their inferences from studying the Word), but it has much less weight than textual implication or outright clear teaching/statement/command.

Dave Barnhart

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Ron Bean wrote:

Add to this that when it comes to fencing the table, few churches make their fencing a memorable statement and very few, if any, physically fence the table. Let's face it, how many of us have actually forbidden to serve someone? 

While "physical fencing" may be uncommon, it's definitely done.  While forbidding to serve someone is not something I've seen, I've attended a church where for the Lord's Supper, the audience was dismissed, with members asked to stay, at which point the Lord's Supper was celebrated.

Dave Barnhart

Don Johnson's picture

1 Cor 11:28 NAU But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

That is why I am for open communion. It isn't a church responsibility.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

pvawter's picture

Don,

I completely agree, which is why I do not "fence" the table other than to teach what the scripture says about the ordinance and strongly encourage each one to examine themselves and determine their fitness to participate in the supper.

Paul

Larry's picture

Moderator

First, a methodological issue and then a doctrinal issue.

But, they're clearly less reliable than didactic, explicit teaching or the necessary implications of that teaching. That's not too controversial of a statement, is it?

Not too controversial, but I am not sure I would draw the distinction you have between inference and necessary implication. Implication and inference are typically author/receiver distinction. Some inferences can be better than others, to be sure. But the WCF idea of "good and necesssary consequence" seems to play a role here, to me at least. Assuming we have rightly studied the Scripture, inferences are pretty solid. Many are necessary implications.

Basically, the only consistent way to implement a conviction that the Supper is for Christians who are obedient to join a church and undergo believer's baptism is to adopt CLOSED communion. This makes the Supper more about membership and baptism than the Supper, and seems at odds with Jesus said the point of the ordinance is. This is my primary objection. This is why I use the Supper as an occasion to strongly urge people to consider membership and baptism, but I don't announce them as prerequisites.

I think this gets to the broader issue, namely, ecclesiology and what is the Table about. Perhaps this is a fundamental difference. We have to determine scripturally what the table is about. Only then can we decide how, when, and who to invite to participate in it.

If the table is about your personal relationship with God and your personal remembrance of the cross, then I you can do it one way. You don't even need a church for it. Pop the cork on your wine and break open the crackers and go for it. If, however, the table is an ordinance of the church to demonstrate the unity of the church in the gospel, then we do it differently.

1 Cor 10-11 paints a picture of the table as an act of the body to profess their unity in Christ and eating unworthily or improperly is not just about you, but about the body. We see that in the fact that the command was given to a church as the church. It was something they were to do together. In other words, it is not just their unity with Christ and them having an individual moment with God in the midst of others. It is rather their unity with the body of believers who share that Christ. So if, as 1 Cor seems to say, communion is an ordinance of the church to demonstrate the unity of the body in Christ, how can those who are not in unity with the body partake to demonstrate a unity they don't participate in? And how can one be in unity with the body when they have not yet confessed Christ in the scriptural manner? Or how can one be in unity with the body when they are intentionally not in unity with the body, even if they have reasons of conscience?

To allow unbaptized believers is to make one ordinance optional while the other mandatory. It is to allow those to claim remembrance when they have yet to confess participation and identity with Christ. It is to teach that communion is necessary but baptism isn't. It is only highly recommended, even encouraged. And what does church discipline mean in open communion? Virtually nothing.

I think closed communion is probably the best form, and the one I would be most comfortable with. But I don't force that view on others. We don't police it so we leave it up to people's conscience, by and large. 

But again, I wouldn't draw the distinction between the Supper being about membership and baptism more than the Supper. Jesus said the point is to remember him by it and to confess the unity of the body in it. How shall one remember something that they have not participated in, and how do we know they have participated in it apart from their public confession of it through baptism? 

I think we have minimized ecclesiology to the demise of the ekklesia and to the harm of the people in the ekklesia. While people of equal good conscience can differ, I think we need a more robust ecclesiology, particularly in this day of individualism.

BTW, Hiscox in his Principles and Practices of Baptist Churches addresses this topic in a helpful way. It would be worth reading, even if one doesn't agree with it .

 

TylerR's picture

Editor

Larry:

Thanks for your comments. Many people link open communion (i.e. only for members of the New Covenant) with a slide into ecclesiastical sloppiness. In fact, everyone does. That's not a valid argument. If someone wants to be careless and flippant with their ecclesiology, and cheapen membership, the Supper and baptism, they'll do it - whether their doctrinal statement specifies closed communion or not!

I've read remarks on ecclesiology and the Supper from Hiscox, Bauder, Erickson, Strong, McCune, Kiffin, Bunyan, Theissen, Hovey, the Roger Williams Heritage archive (which includes many, many, many books on Baptist polity), Leeman, Hammet, the NAC books on the Supper and baptism, and the standard anthologies of primary source documents from Baptist history .. and others I can't recall off the cuff. I get the arguments. I've read them. Folks should consider them ... then, adopt open communion!

And, let's be very honest with each other (as Ron suggested earlier) - despite what your doctrinal statements say, who here actually practices closed communion, or even close communion by specifically warning folks that only folks baptized by immersion can partake of the Supper?

Let me spare you the time - some do, but most don't. Why not? It's either because most folks don't care about ecclesiology, or they don't feel close or closed communion is really appropriate. I'd be interested in people's thoughts on this one. Functionally, most Baptists I know do open communion, no matter what their doctrinal statement says!

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Larry's picture

Moderator

Thanks, Tyler. A quick rejoinder of sorts. 

Many people link open communion (i.e. only for members of the New Covenant) with a slide into ecclesiastical sloppiness. In fact, everyone does. That's not a valid argument.

I think the slide precedes opening communion. IMO, communion is open because ecclesiology is weak. We don't have a robust view of the church and the ordinances. We think them personal and optional rather than corporate and mandated. But I admittedly am a bit of a curmudgeon who thinks that ecclesiology is pretty weak generally speaking across evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

I am not sure why you call that invalid, and I am not sure if you mean invalid in an argumentative sense or unconvincing to you. I would be interested. The idea that a slippery slope argument is a bad one seems too easily accepted to me. I don't think it is invalid. It may be unconvincing and a bad argument. But if X leads to Y, and Y is bad, then X could be judged to be at least an unwise decision in some cases. I don't think we can make a categorical claim about a whole line of arguments.

It seems like from the beginning you were determined to rule out arguments of various kinds, but the net result of that would be to eliminate an awful lot of orthodox theology and depends on making connections based on the study of the Scriptures as they relate to each other.

I am reminded of an old line I used to hear in administering communion that "This is the Lord's table, not ours." I find that now to be a disturbing and weak statement, particularly coming from a Baptist church.

who here actually practices closed communion, or even close communion by specifically warning folks that only folks baptized by immersion can partake of the Supper?

We do. I tell people that to participate they need to be trusting in Christ alone for salvation, have publicly confessed that by baptism (which is immersion), and formally committed to a local church, preferably this one. I say, "If that is not you, we would ask you to let the plate pass by you and then talk to me afterward." My guess is that most churches of "our stripe" at least say that.

I am reminded of an old line I used to hear in administering communion that "This is the Lord's table, not ours." I think that 

It's either because most folks don't care about ecclesiology

I think this is true. I think a great many people today are focused on the individual rather than the corporate. It has fostered the consumer mentality in church.

As I said, I think we go to the Bible to determine what the Lord's Supper is, and then build our practice on that. And that is what I find deficient here. Where have you used the Scripture to establish what communion is, and who the Bible pictures as partaking in it? 

Perhaps that a longer thing than you want to do, and that is fine. I would suggest, however, than until you do that, I don't think have made an argument. 

TylerR's picture

Editor

 A few things, then I must continue my quest to craft Philippians 2:1-11 into a 35 minute sermon:

  • I think the "open communion = fruit of a cheap ecclesiology" argument is bad, because it imputes bad motives to folks who hold it. I don't think many people would have accused Bunyan (who believed in open communion) of having a cheap ecclesiology, but he suffered for his Baptist convictions! I don't have a cheap ecclesiology, either. But, to be sure, many folks do have a cheap ecclesiology - no matter what their doctrinal statements say about open, close or closed communion. 
  • You asked, "Where have you used the Scripture to establish what communion is, and who the Bible pictures as partaking in it?" I don't have time to write much here and now, but you can find my views on the Supper sketched out in my sermon notes from a recent message on the topic, here. Because these are sermon notes, I didn't intent it to be a theological treatise, but it's comprehensive enough to get the point across. 
  • I am glad you're consistent with your position on communion. I've never been in a church that has taken your position, although I've read a lot of fire-breathing, big "B" Baptists who say it ought to be that way! 
  • There is an assumption that open communion = jettisoning of church membership and baptism. Not at all; I think that's a confusion of categories. My church takes believer's baptism and church membership extraordinarily seriously. I just baptized a lady after my wife and I spent eight weeks meeting with her individually to study salvation, explain what church membership is, and answer questions from her.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

It's been my experience that almost all churches practice open communion in spite of their stated doctrinal positions. 

At Communion they'll say:

-This is only for believers in Christ who have been baptized (possibly adding by immersion, and/or into the fellowship of this local church.

-Perhaps adding not under the discipline of a local church

-Perhaps even adding a warning that partaking in an unworthy manner can bring illness or death.

Then they make the Table available to everyone with the caveat that each individual must examine himself before he participates.

Say what one will, in the end close or closed communion  "looks" like open communion.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Jim's picture

Ron Bean wrote:
Say what one will, in the end it [close communion] "looks" like open communion.

^^^^ 

I agree with Ron on this!

I can see the value and find closed communion a defensible position. It would work for a small church. 

Jim's picture

https://kentbrandenburg.blogspot.com/2017/11/church-autonomy-pastoral-au...

 Closed allows for separation.  Separation is intended for purity.  Purity is purity in the belief and practice of the truth, including the gospel.  If you are not protecting your church from a false gospel, but you do protect your church from close and open communion, then you are missing the point of being closed.

I know people who are close in their communion, whose church is far more pure than those who are closed communion.  I know those with closed communion with false worship.  Communion with God is more important than communion with other church members.  If you are not aligned with God in worship, the qualities of your worship are ungodly, then you've got a bigger problem the wrong practice of communion.  I know those with closed communion, who allow in those who preach another gospel.  They won't allow someone outside of their church to join them in communion, but they have communion with someone who preaches a false gospel.  In as simple terms as possible, that's messed up.

Church autonomy, pastoral authority, and closed communion are the truth.  However, I would rather fellowship with someone who emphasizes the truth, all of it, except for those three, than the one who treats those three like they are more important than the truth and the gospel.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Tyler, Thanks for the response. This is quick and then I will move on.

I think the "open communion = fruit of a cheap ecclesiology" argument is bad, because it imputes bad motives to folks who hold it.

I don't think it is about motives at all. I think it is about doctrine. The practice, I am sure, is held with the best of motives (as expressed even here). 

I don't have time to write much here and now, but you can find my views on the Supper sketched out in my sermon notes from a recent message on the topic, here. 

Fair enough.

There is an assumption that open communion = jettisoning of church membership and baptism.

I don't think it is a jettisoning of it. I think is to make optional and the other mandatory and to miss the point of the ordinances (to go back to the doctrinal issue).

Larry's picture

Moderator

Say what one will, in the end close or closed communion  "looks" like open communion.

But it doesn't sound like it, and it actually isn't, particularly in cases of church discipline where you exclude someone from the table.

Ron Bean's picture

What we do speaks louder than what we say. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Editor

What is the New Covenant about? What do Jesus' words at its inauguration tell us about who the Supper is for, and what the focus is? What do they tell us about who is eligible to partake? By verbally fencing the table and excluding Christians who aren't church members and aren't baptized by immersion, are we losing focus? Are we keeping the Supper about the Supper, or are we shifting it to two other critically important, but different issues? 

  • Will Jesus drink the fruit of the vine (no doubt, a Welch's kind of fruit) with New Covenant members, or merely with those who have been baptized by immersion and joined a Baptist church? 
  • Was Jesus' body given for all His elect children, or for merely those who have been baptized by immersion and are members of Baptist churches?
  • Did Jesus command His disciples to continue observing the Supper in remembrance of His body, which was given for them ... or in remembrance of believer's baptism and local church membership? 
  • Was Jesus' blood poured out only for believers who have been baptized by immersion and are members in good standing of Baptist churches, or for everyone who is a member of the New Covenant? 

We all know what the answers are. 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

pvawter's picture

Tyler,

You make a very strong case against the necessity of baptism, church membership, and even active participation in the church. After all, we'll all drink with Jesus in the kingdom. Why do we need the church at all?

Seriously, your arguments are the exact ones used by those who routinely spurn the church and oppose any spiritual accountability. I'm sure that's not your position, but you're making a good case, imo.

Paul

TylerR's picture

Editor

This is precisely the kind of assumption I argued against earlier - open communion doesn't mean someone denigrates church membership, baptism or the Supper. You can review my sermon notes on these relevant topics, and see for yourself that is not the case! I'm disappointed in your remarks. They impute a cheap ecclesiology to me, just because I disagree with close communion. We can do better than that, can't we? 

There are plenty of people with fine doctrinal statements about ecclesiology who have a cheap view of the church. I'm not one of them. Interact with my last post. Answer the questions, and ponder the implications. Consider what Jesus said the Supper is about, and who it's for. Really think about it. Set aside the "standard Baptist answer" you've been taught - at the inauguration of the Supper, what did Jesus say the Supper was about, and who it was for? 

You know the answer ... and it has nothing to do with baptism by immersion by a Baptist minister upon a profession of faith, or local church membership in a Baptist congregation. 

Ironically, my front page article tomorrow will be about believer's baptism, what it means, and why it's important! 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ron Bean's picture

Tyler has a point when he noted:

at the inauguration of the Supper, what did Jesus say the Supper was about, and who it was for? 

I suppose if one were a hyper-dispensationalist (and I knew one) who would say that Jesus' instructions, being before His death burial and resurrection and the establishment of the local church were given before the Church Dispensation. SMILE 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

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