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What is Close Communion?


 

Dr. Roger W. Maslin


 


      By using  this term I am not conceding that “communion” is the proper New Testament term for the recurring ordinance. That is “The Lord’s Supper.” “Close Communion” is the term in common use in popular discussion and in variations of view-point or position. The common designations are “open-communion” or “close communion.” “Open communion” may have some unspoken limitations such as not favoring unbelievers to participate. All terms using the word “communion” are historical-theological terms only. A survey of viewpoints reveal a variety of positions and definitions.


Definitions


Open, free, or mixed communion, is, strictly speaking, that which permits any one who desires, and believes himself qualified, to come to the Lord’s table, without any questions being asked, or conditions imposed, by the Church where the communion is observed. ( Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory for Baptist Churches)


Close communion is the practice of restricting the serving of the elements of communion to those who are members of a particular church, denomination, sect, or congregation. Though the meaning of the term varies slightly in different Christian theological traditions, it generally means a church or denomination limits participation either to members of their own church, members of their own denomination, or members of some specific class (e.g., baptized members of evangelical churches). Wikipedia uses “closed” instead of “close,” but their definition is of interest.


Full communion is a term used in Christian ecclesiology to describe relations between two distinct Christian communities or Churches that, while maintaining some separateness of identity, recognise each other as sharing the same communion and the same essential doctrines.(Wikipedia).


Restricted Communion is a term used by R.J. George to describe this theory that  “invites to participation in the Lord’s Supper all members in good standing in any of the evangelical Churches. It would exclude Unitarian, Universalist.”


Occasional Communion is the name George uses to describe “the theory that the Church may extend communion for a limited time, or in certain circumstances, to members of other denominations who are away from their own churches and providentially present at communion season. They may not agree with her profession, or desire to become members, but they desire the privileges of communion; or they may claim to agree with her profession, but, owing to family relationships, or absence from her bounds, they are not in her fellowship, nor do they intend to be, but they wish to commune.” (George, from Lectures on Pastoral Theology)


      To state the matter in simpler terms I would use just the terms “open-communion”, “semi-close communion” or “denominational communion” and “close-communion” which recognizes some scriptural limitations on participating. Before making a case for any of these positions, it is interesting to note the various limitations practiced by mainline evangelical denominations. Do any of these besides the Baptists have a history of “close communion?”


 Let us begin with the Presbyterians who are noted for orthodox reformed theology:


The American Presbyterian Church holds to the doctrine of ‘Close (near or intimate, not closed) Communion,’ the Lord’s Supper is to be administered to those who have been baptized and are of years and ability to examine themselves and are members of the church in good standing, either of the congregation which is observing the sacrament or of other congregations of the church. This standard of admission to the sacrament is that commonly referred to as ‘Close Communion.’” (From lectures on Pastoral Theology by R.J. George) He also contends: “that the Church is to have terms of communion; that they are to be strictly Scriptural; and that no one is to be admitted to communion except on these terms… There is no suggestion of non-essential truth in the Bible. The modern device is that only essential truth should be included in the terms of communion, and hence all who accept what are termed ‘the essentials’ should be admitted to communion. The distinction is without basis in the Word of God. In the structure of the human body, some members are more essential to life than others. It is easier to live without a hand than without a head. But a little finger is as really essential to a perfect human body as is the heart. There is also a body of divinity, and every portion of revealed truth is essential to the perfection of that body.”


The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod has a stated position on the question:


“Since the beginning of our Synod, the practice of close communion has been accepted as a practice flowing from the Scripture’s teaching on church fellowship and unity in the Faith. In 1967 our Synod adopted a formal resolution on close communion which included the following remarks, ‘the principle of close communion requires that only those who are in altar fellowship celebrate and partake of the Lord’s Supper with each other and that the celebration and reception of Holy Communion not only implies but is a confession of the unity of faith’ (Res. 2-19, 1967). This position on close communion has been reaffirmed in synodical conventions since 1967, even by the last convention of our Synod in St. Louis, Missouri Lutheran Synod.”  (statement from president)


“The Episcopal standards and authorities are equally plain. The Book of Common Prayer, Order of Confirmation, declares: " There shall none be admitted to the holy communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be con­firmed "—confirmation always coming after baptism.” (Strong, Systematic Theology)


      Even the  renowned Anglican Bishop Ryle held to further restrictions concerning its observance. He said:


 “It is not right to urge all professing Christians to go to the Lord's Table. There is such a thing as fitness and preparedness for the ordinance. It does not work like a medicine, independently of the state of mind of those who receive it. The teaching of those who urge all their congregation to come to the Lord's Table, as if the coming must necessarily do every one good, is entirely without warrant of Scripture….Who are the sort of persons who ought to receive the Lord's Supper? I answer that by saying, people who have "examined themselves to see whether they have truly repented of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life--have a true faith in God's mercy through Christ, with a thankful remembrance of His death--they are in love with all men."


      The historical Baptist position on close communion is a clearly stated position. It is expressed most famously in the New Hampshire Confession of Faith:


“We believe that Christian Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer, into the name of the Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost; to show forth, in a solemn and beautiful emblem, our faith in the crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, with its effect in our death to sin and resurrection to a new life; that it is prerequisite to the privileges of a Church relation; and to the Lord's Supper, in which the members of the Church, by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ; preceded always by solemn self-examination.”


      The statements of the respected Baptist theologian, Augustus Strong, are also clear: Professor Strong, in his Systematic Theology, says:


 “Since baptism is a command of Christ, it follows that we cannot properly commune with the unbaptized. To admit such to the Lord’s Supper is to give the symbol of Church fellowship to those who, in spite of the fact that they are Christian brethren, are, though perhaps unconsciously, violating the fundamental law of the Church.


“To withhold protest against plain disobedience to Christ’s commands is, to that extent, to countenance such disobedience. The same disobedience which in the Church member we would denominate disorderly walking, must, a fortiori, destroy all right to the Lord’s Supper on the part of those who are not members of the Church.”-Systematic Theology


 


The Case for Open Communion


      John G. Wenger, a Mennonite theologian, states the case for open communion without  necessarily endorsing it in full:


“The main question associated with the observance of the Lord’s Supper is that of who should be admitted to the table. Those who practice what is called open communion state that no believer of any persuasion should be excluded from the Lord’s Supper because it is not a denominational table, it is the Lord’s table. Furthermore, they say, it is the individual who shall examine himself, not the church (I Cor. 11:28). It is also objected that close communion seems too exclusive within Christendom; it tends to be divisive within the Christian Church. It is also said that close communion reflects on the spiritual Christians of other denominations.”


      Hiscox gives a full rebuttal to these views:


“Open communion has but one argument to sus-tain it, viz., sympathy; that, with some kindly minds, outweighs all others. It has neither Scripture, logic, expediency, nor the concurrent practice of Christendom, either past or present, in its favor. But to some it seems kind and brotherly to invite all who say they love our Lord Jesus Christ, to unite in commemorating His death at the Supper. And to exclude any, or fail to invite all, seems to those sentimental natures harsh, cold, and unchristian. To them, the Supper is rather a love-feast for Christian fellowship than a personal commemoration of Christ's love by those who have believed upon His name, and been baptized into the likeness of His death. But sympathy should not control in matters of faith, and in acts of conscience.”


 


So also does A.H. Strong:


 


“Open communion must be justified, if at all, on one of four grounds: First, that baptism is not prerequisite to communion. But this is opposed to the belief and practice of all churches. Secondly, that Immersion on profession of faith is not essential to baptism. But this is renouncing Baptist principles altogether. Thirdly, that the individual, and not the church, is to be the judge of his qualifications for admission to the communion. But this is contrary to sound reason, and fatal to the ends for which the church is instituted. For, if the conscience of the individual is to be the rule o£ the action of the church in regard to his admission to the Lord's Supper, why not also with regard to his regeneration, his doctrinal belief, and his obedience to Christ's commands generally? Fourthly, that the church has no responsibility in regard to the qualifications of those who come to her communion. But this is aban­doning the principle of the independence of the churches, and their accountableness to Christ, and it overthrows all church discipline."


 


“Open com­munion logically leads to open church membership, and a church member­ship open to all, without reference to the qualifications required in Scripture, or without examination on the part of the church as to the existence of these qualifications in those who unite with it, is virtually an identification of the church with the world, and, without protest from Scripturally constituted bodies, would finally result in its actual extinction.”


 


 


The Case for Semi-close or Denominational  Communion


 


      Granted that the scripture alone should be our guide in all matters of faith and practice and should define the limits of participation at the Lord’s Table as well, this is the only occasion for the practice of what has been called “inter-church communion” or “denominational communion” or “semi-close communion.” The Scripture account is given in Acts 20:4-8. B. H. Carroll describes the account:


 


“The Lord’s Supper was administered probably by the church at Troas, and all the context shows that these visiting brethren from sister churches participated in all particulars of that supper…as a matter of right, only the church could administer the supper, and only the members of that church could claim as a right to participate, but inasmuch as visiting brethren and sisters are of like faith and order, that on invitation they might participate.” (B.H. Carroll An Interpretation of the English Bible, vol.12 The Acts p.363)


 


      At this point in the history of Christianity there were only New Testament churches. There were no distinguishing labels of separate and contrary beliefs. They were just a body of baptized believers and probably without any  formal membership rolls. They were of “like faith  and order” until heretical ideas caused the multiple divisions we have today. So this instance should be understood in this light.


 


The Case for Close or Church-communion


 


      The case for this practice, for the Baptist, is supported by the clear statement of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith which requires “the immersion of a believer” as a “prerequisite to the privileges of a church relation and to the Lord’s Supper in which the members of the church, by the sacred use of bread and wine are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ, preceded always by solemn self-examination.” It is also supported by the statements already quoted from the Baptist theologian, A.H. Strong. But more than this it is supported by the following scriptural support:


The divine order of Acts 2:41,42 “Then they that gladly received his words were baptized; and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls, and they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine(teaching) and fellowship and in breaking of bread and prayers..” The expression “breaking of bread” may designate an ordinary meal as it it does in Acts 20:11, Luke 24:35 and as it likely does in Acts 2:46. In this latter verse the expression is connected to the act of “eating their meat” and most naturally suggests the act of sharing common food for a meal. But in Acts 2:42 it is most natural that it describes that act mentioned in Acts 20:7 and in I Cor. 10:16 “The bread which we break, is it not the participation in (not communion of) the body of Christ.” This participation is only symbolic of our continued appropriation of Christ by faith. The Scripture clearly suggests a divine order- (1) Responding to the Gospel, (2) Baptism into a church fellowship, and (3) Observing the supper with that fellowship.


Paul’s statement that it is impossible to observe the Lord’s Supper when there are divisions in the congregation (I Cor. 11:17-21) can only have meaning and significance in a situation where the members are logically the ones participating. To insist on the participation of people who are not of like faith and order is only to invite and enlarge division. The problem of divisions can only be dealt with inside the local congregation. The church cannot discipline those outside its membership. The Corinthian church had the responsibility of correcting a scandalous situation before they could actually “eat the Lord’s Supper.” Until they did it was just pretense.(“This is not to eat the Lord’s Supper”-AV. “It is impossible to eat the Lord’s Supper.” ASV)


Paul’s command to discipline the immoral persons include cutting them off from the privileges of the Lord’s Supper- “with such an one, no not to eat.” (I Cor. 5:11) Paul makes it plain that this action has to be limited to “them that are within.” God judges those on the outside but the church (here the church at Corinth) has the responsibility within, “Therefore put away from yourselves that wicked person.” (I Cor. 5:13) The church has no control or power of discipline over the person outside its own membership. The implication is obvious- only those who were subject to discipline could properly partake of the Supper. This is not to deny the necessity of self-examination which is another matter entirely.


The symbolism of the one loaf is limited to the particular church participating. (I Cor. 10:17) The one loaf mentioned here is not only symbolic of the one offering for sin, but also the unity of the body partaking of the Supper- “For we many are one loaf, one body; for we are all partakers  from that one loaf.” Or RSV, because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the same loaf.” Obviously, their practice was to observe the Supper with one loaf and I presume as the people broke off a piece of the bread, it symbolized their constant dependence on the work of Atonement finished by Jesus, and their recognition of perpetual need of Him as Saviour.


 


The Case for Close Baptism


 


      The problem of “close communion” has not so much to do with the Supper as it does with baptism. Most  of the historic denominations recognize in some way that baptism precedes the recurring practice of partaking of the Lord’s Supper. The real issue focuses on the validity of baptism by sprinkling or some other substitute for immersion of the believer.


 


“But inasmuch as they hold that sprinkling as well as immersion is baptism, their communion is more open, and that of Baptists is more close, by the difference between their views of baptism and ours, and by that difference only.” (Hiscox)


      DR. BULLOCK, a Methodist divine, says:


“Close communion, as it is generally termed, is the only logical and consistent course for Baptist churches to pursue. If their premises are right, their conclusion is surely just as it should be.” And he commends the firmness of Baptists in not inviting to the communion those whom they regard as unbaptized. He says: “They do not feel willing to countenance such laxity in Christian discipline. Let us honor them for their steadfastness in maintaining what they believe to be a Bible precept, rather than criticize and censure because they differ with us concerning the intent and mode of Christian baptism, and believe it to be an irrepealable condition of coming to the Lord’s table.”- What Christians Believe.


“The obligation to commune is no more binding than the obligation to profess faith by being baptized. Open communion, however, treats baptism as if it were optional, while it insists upon communion as indispensable.” (Strong)


.Conclusion


 


      Since the reality does not correspond to the historical and biblical support for “close communion, and church discipline is rarely practiced, how do we account for the reality of a widely practiced “open communion?” We have a heard a lot about “dumbing down” in the educational arena. There has also been a pretty thorough “dumbing down” of the appreciation and meaning of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in ecclesiastical circles. It has even been taken out of the church as a church ordinance and made a social religious nicety in informal fellowship circles. Three powerful influences may account for it. They are ecumenicalism, interdenominationalism, and sentimentalism. Seeking the lowest common denominator in order to achieve unity and numbers may be a practical tool, but it is not honoring to the sacred Scriptures. Those governed by sentiment or sympathy will look upon church communion as narrow. Strong has an appropriate answer:


 


“The choir is not narrow because it does not include those who can only  make discords, nor is the sheep fold intolerant that refuses to include wolves, nor the medical society that excludes quacks, nor the church that does not invite the disobedient and schismatic to its communion.”


 


      How then are we to deal with shallow reality? Does the church have any more responsibility than to teach the Scriptures on the subject? They certainly have that responsibility in the Great Commission. But as to inviting, remember it is the Lord’s Table.


 


“It is the Lord's table, and not ours; therefore we have no right to invite any but such as the Lord has designated. If it were our table we could invite whomsoever we would. As it is, we must obey the Lord at His own table.”(Hiscox)


 


      But going beyond that, as to “barring” or “prohibiting,” it doesn’t work in church growth situations. Many worshippers act upon their own sentiments and nothing else matters. They will participate anyway. “Policing” the table can detract from the worship experience to the extent that the unity is lost and a spirit of legalism would prevail. At that point “close communion” really does become “closed communion.” Let other denominations, that are not of like faith and order as ours, practice their creeds and disciplines and let us render them respect, and honor their worship and practices by not violating their intentions or creeds. We do not have to participate in those situations, nor is it proper. If New Testament faith is followed by New Testament baptism on the part of every believer, every Christian would be a member of a New Testament church and would thus have a place where he could repeatedly and properly observe the Lord’s Supper and preserve the unity and discipline of the body participating.


 


(Related Article, Sacrament, Eucharist, Communion, or Lord’s Supper?)