A short defense of close communion

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Along with several others, I was recently invited to share my thoughts on the Lord’s Supper with SBCLife, the journal of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.  My reflections are posted here; click here to read more.

While I defend the “close communion” position, keep in mind that the Kentucky Baptist Convention is a tent big enough for the various theological positions on communion that fit within our historic Baptist confessions of faith. Each local church, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and upon the foundation of God’s word, must determine whom they will invite to join them at the table.

As I write this article, I am preparing to preach and serve the Lord’s Supper at a church holding 10 worship services each weekend on seven different campuses, in multiple languages, with combined attendance averaging more than 3,000 people. If that church practiced closed communion, which it does not, it might be pressing the limits beyond what would be acceptable to some who defend that practice. The diversity of the congregation’s ethnicity, worship times and physical locations has not, however, caused it to accept the arguments for open communion. Instead, the congregation has historically embraced the position of close communion, a position that I, too, have accepted.

Close communion — inviting baptized believers to participate — “fences the table,” but not with proverbial barbed wire. Unlike the closed communion practice of limiting the Lord’s Supper to members of a particular local church, close communion casts a broader net, welcoming to the table any who have repented of their sin, trusted in the atonement secured through the cross and resurrection, confessed Jesus as Lord, and submitted to scriptural baptism. Being a member in good standing of a church of like faith and practice is another qualifying mark typically stipulated.

The distinction between open and close communion is easy to make. Open communion invites anyone present, who claims to follow Jesus, to partake of the Supper. Though commonly practiced in churches of various denominations, open communion can be spiritually dangerous for a host of reasons. And, according to the Apostle Paul, the stakes are high. In his instructions concerning the Lord’s Supper, he wrote, “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).

Paul’s admonition is more than a strict warning against missing the symbolism of the elements. In the broader context of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul is obviously concerned about the self-centeredness, gluttony and drunkenness that had come to characterize many of the Corinthian believers and their participation in the Supper. These sins, of which the Corinthians were not repenting, led Paul to alert them of God’s impending judgment.

On other fundamental issues, open communion fails to offer the warning of 1 Corinthians 11. Believer’s baptism is a good example. With baptism being the symbol of one’s profession of faith and a clear command of Jesus, is not the rejection of it a sign of willful disobedience at the most basic level? Offering the Lord’s Supper to the unbaptized is unwise at best; at worst, it leads them into temptation. Establishing scriptural baptism as one of the fences around the Lord’s table seems non-negotiable and moves a church quickly away from the open communion position, drawing a closer circle around the table.

How tight must the circle be? With regard to New Testament exegesis, the argument for closed communion is an argument from silence. Nowhere in Scripture are churches told to refuse the Lord’s Supper to believers visiting from sister churches. Admittedly, “policing” who participates in the Lord’s Supper is easier to do when believers have the intimate knowledge of one another’s lives that should characterize meaningful church membership. Yet, the emphasis in 1 Corinthians 11 is upon believers examining themselves as they come to the table (verses 28 and 31) rather than fellow church members determining who is worthy to partake.

Most close communion churches place the burden of responsibility upon the believer by outlining the basic requirements for participating in the Lord’s Supper and then inviting those who meet the requirements to participate and asking others to abstain. Adding to those requirements the issue of membership in that local church is not scripturally warranted and would seem to harm the fellowship that members of churches of like faith and practice should be able to enjoy around the Lord’s table.

The Lord’s Supper is for believers striving to obey Scripture, symbolizing their absolute trust in the saving work of Jesus upon the cross. It can and should be enjoyed in the close fellowship of those who share in that obedience and trust.

LifeWay recently surveyed Southern Baptist churches on practices related to the Lord’s Supper.  You can read more about their findings here.

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