Sunday, June 27, 2010

How open should open communion be?

All of the churches that I have been involved with during my adult life have practiced open communion. In all of those congregations all believers are invited to participate so long as the believer has trusted Christ for salvation, has a personal relationship with Christ, or has asked Him to forgive them for their sins. The exact verbiage varies among churches, however, the general theme is that the service is open to all who are Christians even if they are visitors or otherwise not a part of the local fellowship. Although terms such as “believer” or “personal relationship” can be construed in many different ways there is generally no effort made to explain or define them in any particular way during the communion service. The result is that participation is essentially open to anyone who self-identifies as a believer in Christ.

It is clear from scripture that communion is an ordinance intended for believers. The very nature of the Lord’s Supper is such that it involves participation in the body of believer’s and assumes that the participant is “in Christ” and therefore has spiritual cause to remember what He has done for them. In fact, it is impossible for a person who is not saved to actually commune with the Church in remembrance and celebration of Jesus’ sacrifice on behalf of those He has saved.

To what extent should the leadership of local congregations go to ensure that those who are participating in the communal fellowship During the Lord’s Supper are in fact believers? Many of the arguments for a closed communion are built upon the concept that it is the responsibility of the leadership of any church to ensure biblical instruction, discipline, and unity within the congregation and that these requirements extend to the communion table thus requiring a limiting of participation to those whom the leadership knows are unified in their understanding of the ordinance. The concern about such things is deepened by the strength of Paul’s warnings in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 regarding the Lord’s Table.

It is true that in certain circumstances an open communion may undermine the practice of church discipline and that a unity in appearance is not true spiritual unity, however, I am not prepared to admit that extending those instances to a normative teaching on open vs. closed communion is warranted. It is also true that the early church, at least by the second century, practiced a closed form of communion. While this fact is of a great deal of historical interest it does little to determine whether an open communion is biblical. More important to my concern is what the biblical pattern is.

Many churches have erred toward an open form based upon a desire to recognize the unity of the body of Christ. Although unity is certainly a biblical concern it is important that we do not allow our ecumenical desires to supersede clear biblical teaching (True unity being the body having one mind, resolved together in the truth rather than the mere appearance of such).

With an admitted predisposition to an open form of communion I began looking at scripture to examine if there were any clear statements that would indicate that the open form is inappropriate. For the most part I saw nothing that would necessarily require a change in my position, however, there is one significant issue that keeps coming up as I examine this subject.

I believe that a strong case can be made that communion should not be open to an un-baptized person. Such a case does not involve the ambiguity or nuanced theology that other closed communion arguments do. I believe that in the case of an un-baptized person the biblical case is much more clear that the communion will be received in a way that does not properly fulfill the biblical requirements. My conclusion follows from two main premises associated with the doctrine of baptism as I believe it is taught in scripture.