An Open Letter to Closed Communionists: A Report from the Field, Part 2

This is the second part of a series I drafted while visiting overseas workers in the month of January. In my first post I offered a challenge to the SBC regarding our support of the IMB. This post gets at an entirely different issue upon which I reflected in the international context.

A colleague and I were recently overseas and on the Lord’s day we gathered with a group of believers who meet in a home setting. We enjoyed fellowship with one another, we prayed, we sang, we read Scripture, and were exhorted from God’s Word.

We met in a room that serves as living room and dining area, and twenty or so people were gathered in that space. Of those gathered I counted six people, myself included, who do not live in this location and were, therefore, “visitors” in this assembly of believers.

I have no hesitation in calling this assembly “church.” It appears in every way to be ekklesia. There I was, a “visitor,” welcomed into the presence of this band of believers. And as we worshiped I noticed a tray with several small glasses of juice with something wrapped in towels on top. I surmised this was bread and that we would at some point observe the Lord’s Supper.

After the teaching of Scripture we were informed that we were indeed going to take the Lord’s Supper. At that point a thought occurred to me: I wondered if this assembly practiced “closed” or “open” communion. And if closed, I began to play out in my mind what it would look like for the regular attenders to ask the six of us visiting to abstain from the Table because we were not “members” of the “local church.”

I quickly learned this was not the case, as the man leading the assembly welcomed all who were followers of Christ to participate in the Supper. He gave all the qualifications to that invitation that I think are appropriate, and we observed the Supper with all the dignity, sobriety, and joy that is appropriate for the ordinance. But in that moment I continued thinking of the debates that occur among Southern Baptists regarding closed and open communion. And it occurred to me that worship in such an intimate setting highlights what is the oddity we call closed communion. Previously I had conceived of closed communion in the context of a group of anywhere from eighty to even thousands of people. And in that setting, those who don’t take the elements are not so easily noticeable. In our churches in the US we tend to take the Supper by passing trays, and it is not so evident who isn’t taking the Supper.

In the house church setting this is not the case. If in a larger setting it’s hard to notice who doesn’t take the elements, in the house church it’s hard not to notice. And in this instance, if this assembly practiced closed communion they would have said this: We have gathered today to worship Christ, God incarnate who died for our sins and rose from the dead. We rejoice in the gospel, and we all worship God together. And we are now going to participate in the central ongoing act of confessing faith and celebrating the gospel (baptism is the central initiatory act, and is ongoing in the sense that the church celebrates it with each new believer, but not ongoing in the sense that we are each baptized again and again), and we want those of you who are not “members” here not to participate because you are not a part of this church.

I hope I’m not misrepresenting my friends who hold to the theory of closed communion. It seems to me that this is a fair representation of what closed communion actually is. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, but we can’t eat together because you don’t live here.

This, it seems to me, is actually antithetical to the gospel. The gospel welcomes the stranger, and it not only crosses but obliterates boundaries. The gospel invites people of faith to unity and harmony. If this be true, then how can the central ecclesial sign of the gospel be construed to show division and even disharmony? And how does placing a fence around the Table do anything but divide the Christian community, which is made one by Christ in the Spirit, formed in unity in Christian baptism (Eph 4:4-6) and existing as one body represented by the one loaf (1 Cor 10:17).

I’ve heard it argued that the Baptist Faith and Message points toward or even demands closed communion. Perhaps that is true, though I don’t think it does. It if does, then I think the SBC should rewrite the confession to be more consistently biblical. Regardless, I think that most Southern Baptists will choose to adhere to the Bible rather than a confession on this point, and make the Table the place of grace that it is given to be.

When I teach the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper to seminarians, I am often challenged by students who have been tutored by others to object that if we practice open communion, then we can’t practice church discipline like we should.

I agree that the Table is a place where the church may enact discipline. I think, though, that some mistakenly see the Supper as locus of the exercise of discipline. This confuses what is secondary with what is primary. The Supper is not primarily the place of discipline; it is only secondarily so. It is primarily the place of grace where we remember the gospel by means of physical elements. It is an enactment of faith, recalling that Jesus died for our sins, his body broken, his blood poured out.

Discipline is evidence of God’s grace toward the unrepentant sinner by the body of Christ and, as such, the restriction of the erring brother from the Table is one means by which the church shows grace to the sinner. The notion that the church cannot have an open Table and at the same time restrict the disciplined and erring brother is ludicrous. The church can and does so. I have seen it happen. Not only can it happen, but it should happen.

The fact that we invite all who are baptized into the Church to the Lord’s Supper celebrated by the Church, in any given assembly of that Church, does not in any way prohibit a body of believers from disciplining an erring brother by withholding the elements from him.

This is more consistent with the nature of the gospel and the clear biblical call for the unity of the church. My chief concern here is that the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t exactly the model it should be with respect to Christian unity. We tend to keep those unlike us at a distance, and I think that is a great weakness. Perhaps if we get the Table right, we will be on our way to getting our relations to other Christians right as well.

A Closing Note: My friend Nathan Finn, who always reads these posts before they go live, posed a question to me that deserves to be answered. He asked why I didn’t include reference to a third option, what is commonly called “close” communion. This is a good question, and bound to be asked by others.

While open communion welcomes all believers, and closed communion restricts the table to those members of a local congregation, “close” communion, as generally described by Baptists, welcomes to the Table all believers baptized by immersion, but is closed to other believers. That is, if you are baptized by immersion, you would be welcome to the Table, even if you are not a member of a particular local congregation, but those not so baptized would be asked to abstain. So, close communion is more open than closed communion, but more closed than open communion.

I don’t hold to close communion – I prefer open communion. My rationale is as follows.

The Table is for the body of Christ – those who trust Jesus alone for their salvation and who, having called upon the Lord for mercy, are by the Spirit placed into union with the triune God and with His church (1 Cor 12:13). On that basis I would welcome all believers to the Lord’s Table (I have done so as a pastor). The Table is His, not mine; it is His, not some denomination’s; it is His, given to the Church under His Lordship. It is only our Table inasmuch as by the grace of Christ we are invited to come.

Therefore, I want to “sign” the gospel at the Table by inviting all of God’s people to eat there. I realize that this means I will eat with those who are different than I and with whom I may disagree on certain points of doctrine. But since the cross obliterates boundaries and divisions, and since the Table signs that cross, I think it is most consistent with the gospel to invite the church – the whole church – to the Table.

Of course, this makes for a less tidy meal than some may like. And, like at holiday dinners with family, little Johnny may smear his potatoes and peas on the chair, and dear old Uncle Eddie may drool food into his lap. Family meals can be messy that way.

But I’m less concerned with having a tidy meal than having a good meal. One that is most consistent with the nature of the gospel. So I’m happy to invite all believers to the Table, to allow them to exercise their conscience vis-à-vis 1 Corinthians 11, and to allow the grace of Christ to reign at His Supper.