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.

1. Baptism (combined with a confession of faith) is the biblical method of identifying with the work of Jesus Christ in the life of the individual believer.

2. Baptism is a command for all believers therefore any believer who has not been baptized is either disobedient or has not been properly instructed in the basic teaching of the faith.

I will attempt to briefly explain each of these premises and why taken together they logically restrict participation in the communion celebration to those who have been baptized.

Baptism as Identification

Most churches that practice open communion place the onus on the individual believer to consider whether they qualify for participation. If the believer self-identifies as a believer in Christ then they are allowed to participate. The leadership of the church does not attempt to evaluate or test the “claim” of discipleship made by the individual. Essentially fellowship in communion is extended to anyone who claims to be a Christian.

A careful analysis of the biblical text, however, will reveal that the method of identifying oneself with Christ and being accepted into the fellowship of the Church was not simply a confession of faith, but confession combined with baptism. The biblical pattern was that baptism followed conversion and confession and it is clear that baptism was an important part of the evangelical preaching of the apostolic church. Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:38, as well as the narratives of the conversions of Paul, Cornelius, and the Ethiopian Eunuch serve as just a few well known examples. The fact is that baptismal emphasis is present throughout the New Testament. Even Christ, who was perfect, chose as an example to us, to be baptized at the inauguration of His ministry.

It is true that narrative passages of scripture are descriptive and therefore not necessarily prescriptive. We must be very cautious about concluding that any particular narrative passage should function as a normative example for us today especially passages from transitional accounts. The evidence for baptism as the key act of identification, however, is not limited to our inductions from narrative accounts. Paul makes it clear in Romans that baptism has an identifying function:

“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.”

Paul expresses a similar idea when writing to the Colossians about their new life in Christ:

“having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

In writing to the Ephesians Paul goes beyond just the individual identification through baptism and includes baptism as one of the unifying foundations of the church’s identity as a community:

"Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all."

This communal identification is not unique to the teaching in Ephesians. Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

“For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.”

And also his reminder to the Galatian Christians:

“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

I believe a close examination of these passages, and others, demonstrate that baptism served a very important identification role both in the life of the believer and for the church as a community. There is nothing in these contexts to indicate that the baptismal teachings here are culturally dependant but rather that they touch upon deep and eternal theologically significant truths. In the early church, and still in some places today, baptism is the line of demarcation between the life of a believer and of an unbeliever. It is through believer’s baptism that a person has testified before the world and the church that they are in Christ.

Although a confession of faith may represent a true state of a person’s heart there is no biblical evidence that it was at this point that a person was able to fully partake in the communal life of the church. The scriptural assumption seems to be that all Christians are baptized Christians. I am not in any way advocating a form a baptismal regeneration. I am making a point completely separate from questions of soteriology. It is rather a question of when full fellowship in the body is offered.

In most of our churches the sole issue may be communion but in some places I think an argument could be made that the security of the fellowship itself may depend upon such a tangible and public type of confession lest the church be easily infiltrated with those wishing to destroy it. It seems consistent with the biblical teaching that the church should accept a confession of faith as complete when a person has demonstrated through baptism that they are set apart, buried and raised with Christ, in obedience to His example and the teaching of His word. An explanation of why this is so leads us to an explanation of the next premise.

Baptism as Obedient Testimony

Baptismal ministry is among the most foundational ministries that any church may conduct. Indeed, it is part of the very commission of the Church given by our Lord before He ascended into heaven:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always , even to the end of the age."

Baptizing is here closely associated with the making of disciples and the teaching of the commandments. For any church to minister without counseling a believer to be baptized would be ignoring a key portion of the explicit charter given to the church. Whatever other efficacy baptism may have and whatever other functions it may serve the fact is very plain that it is a direct commandment of the Lord to the church. A true believer should need no more justification than the knowledge that Christ commanded it in order to submit to it in humble obedience.

The Word, however, does give us additional reasons for desiring baptism. The first is that it is an appeal to a clear conscience in obedience before God. In a rather interesting portion of scripture the apostle Peter gives us some insight into the baptismal testimony:

“… baptism now saves you-not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience -through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”

Again we see the identification of the believer with Christ in baptism but Peter also explains that baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here we begin to see the connection between obedience in baptism and a transcending spiritual component to the ordinance that goes beyond the metaphorical imagery.

Additional reasons given for baptism are that there are promises of assurance associated with it (Mark 16:6, Acts 2:38, etc.).

Relation to Communion

If my understanding is correct then we have established the following points:

1. Baptism is the biblical method for testifying before the world and the church that an individual is identified with Christ.

2. Baptism is a command to both the individual believer (to receive) and to the church (to perform).

If these premises are both true then they certainly have an impact on the ministry of the Lord’s Table within our churches. The first is related to identity. Obviously communion is for believers and to knowingly celebrate the communion with those who are not identified with Christ would be a grave error. Certainly a minister cannot know the hearts and minds of each of those who are participating but if there are those who are believers who have not been baptized then it is clear that at best there has been a failure to properly instruct on the part of the church, or a misunderstanding on the part of the believer (at the worst there is open disobedience). The author of Hebrews lists washings, which I understand to be a baptismal reference, as among the basics of the faith that should be taught:
“Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.”
The argument is not that a believer must have attained some level of understanding in order to participate in communion but rather that a believer has demonstrated at least the first steps of obedience to and identification with Christ. The ordinance of communion, like the ordinance of baptism, is a distinctive act that is uniquely reserved for believers. Baptism, in as far as it is the expression of the identification of the believer with Christ logically precedes participation in communion. Baptism is also a central commandment of the new covenant and therefore must be included in the self-examination process that is a biblical requirement of participating in communion.

Therefore, based upon Paul’s teaching that “…whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.” And that “a man must examine himself…” it seems to follow that an un-baptized believer should not participate in communion not having made even the first appeal for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ through baptism which is commanded and exemplified by our Lord.

When looked at from this perspective there can only be three types of un-baptized people with regard to communion:

1. Those who do not believe in Christ and are therefore not to participate because they have no part in Christ.

2. Those who do believe, who are in disobedience and therefore cannot claim to be participating in a worthy manner.

3. Those who either have not been properly taught or have not properly understood. Admittedly, this is the complicated scenario, however, given the seriousness of the warning that Paul gives it would seem wise to err on the side of caution with those who have not yet comprehended the basic teachings lest the church unwittingly participate in error.

I recognize that many might wish to argue that not all references to baptism, including those I have cited, are necessarily references to the “rite” of baptism in water. I am aware that many argue that in certain cases baptism refers to a spiritual state. I do not believe that such readings follow the plain and natural reading of the text, however, even if they do it does not change the conclusion because clearly the “rite” of baptism is seen as an expression (and confession) of any such inward spiritual immersion in Christ. Again, my argument is not about the relationship of baptismal washing to salvation but rather upon what criteria is the church called to recognize the confession of one who claims to be joined to the community of believers. I submit to you that a very strong case can be made from the New Testament that confession accompanied with baptism is the point at which a new believer is accepted fully into the visible community of faith.

I am sensitive to the unity of the body beyond the bounds of just the local church but after considering the subject I also believe that communion should be restricted to those who have been baptized. At the very least this would be a minimalist approach in teaching that baptism is a commandment of God and is the first tangible step, after faith, of identifying with Him. This is not a question of salvation but rather a question of fellowship and obedience.


  1. I too have been studying this extensively...more on the what is 'communion' (Koinonia or Fellowship) in relation to the 'breaking of bread' meeting of the saints, and what is its effect on how we see the church meeting today, local and global.

    This comment by I. Howard Marshall might actually conflict with your findings above...

    "The New Testament says nothing about any particular conditions for participation in the sacrament beyond a willingness to come to Christ in faith and with love for other believers.The Lord's Supper today should be open to all who wish to feed on Christ and profess faith in him. This implies that unbaptized believers may take part, although it would be normal for such persons to undergo baptism without delay. It also means that there should be no barriers of age; what matters is faith and an understanding of what is happening appropriate to the age of the participant."

  2. My thought is that in the apostolic church "a willingness to come to Christ in faith" would be expressed in baptism. It seems to me that the assumption in the N.T. is that baptism was an initiating rite so would come before participation in the Lord's table.

    I could be wrong about this and would have to see how Dr. Marshall supports his view specific to baptism.

  3. I am so glad God left you smart people in charge of who is and isn't a Christian. I am so glad I removed my self from Calvinist teachings and all this theological nit picking. Reform theologians remind me of the pharisees Jesus was up against, looking down their snouts at everyone who were not chosen to be holy, and therefore unworthy of the grace of God they had experienced. I am so glad John got it right when he described Jesus as the lamb that takes away the sin of the world, not just the frozen chosen. Follow some of us into the prisons and the streets and start sharing the real grace of God with the lost. Tell them of the hope and Love that Christ showed on the cross for THEIR sins, not just how blessed you are that God chose you. Give some folks hope. All this nit picking just makes good talk, but does nothing to tell the lost there is hope in Jesus Christ. God is not willing that any should perish, but for ALL to come to repentance. For God so loved the WORLD, not just calvanists. I pray God give the reformers as much love for the lost as they have for analizing the bible and people in general, setting up criteria for who is and isn't a child of the Most High. I think some worship the book, more than the one the book is about. You got all the laws and rules down, but where is the love for Jesus. and the lost?

    1. First, I applaud your concern for communicating the love of Christ to all sinners. I agree with you on this and if we are to learn anything from the Scripture, it will be a love of God and fellow man.

      It seems your criticism of me involves certain assumptions about my faith, which is what you imply I am doing. The post had nothing to do with who was or wasn't a Christian. It was really about Church discipline and being faithful to the Word of God.

      I do not believe there can be any tension between a love of God and a love of His word. I am confident that if we truly understand the Word we will be passionate about evangelism, as you clearly are. We obviously have different views on certain matters but I pray that if you ever heard me preach or witness you would agree that I am committed to offering "folks hope and love for the lost".

      I wish you had not commented anonymously so that we could have interacted on this further. Feel free to email me at if you want to engage further.

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  5. To Anonymous: Calvinism if understood correctly does not allow for a pharisaic attitude. In fact, it brings the believer to utter humility before the God of the Bible. The reason for this is simple: He does all things after the counsel of His own will not ours, and because we are saved by the grace of Christ there is no room for boasting in ourselves. As the apostle Paul said, we are His workmanship, created in Jesus Christ for good works, therefore, we cannot boast or glory in our salvation. Moreover, I see you quoted from the gospel of John. I guess you forgot to read the the third and sixth chapter? I suggest you humbly kneel before God and ask for enlightenment before you read it. Maybe then you will understand the Grace of God in truth. God bless.