Sunday, November 21, 2010

Some Thoughts on Open and Closed Communion

Over the past month or so I've been giving some thought to the issue of open and closed communion.  When I was young I attended an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church which practiced closed communion, but since that time, I've met very few Evangelicals, aside from the Plymouth Brethren, who would subscribe to that view.  Since most of us who have grown up in baptistic denominations have probably always taken open communion for granted without thinking about it too deeply, I want to present several arguments in favour of closed communion. 

Before I present the case, let me define the terms.  Advocates of open communion believe that the Lord's Supper is open to everyone who has professed personal faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.  In a Baptist context, advocates of closed communion seek to restrict the Lord's Supper to believers who have been baptized by immersion.  Some advocates of closed communion will go even further and restrict communion to members of a particular local congregation.   Although I've never been overly dogmatic on this issue, I personally think that the Lord's Supper should be restricted to believers who have been baptized by immersion.  The arguments which support this view are as follow:

1) Water Baptism precedes the Lord's Supper in the apostolic pattern

The strongest argument in favour of closed communion is found in Acts 2, although I would be quick to concede that we ought to use great caution in deriving normative patterns or doctrine from narrative portions of Scripture.  Nevertheless, the order of events in Acts 2 does seem to lend considerable support to the practice of closed communion, viz.  Repentance (v. 38) --> Water Baptism (v. 38) --> Church Membership (v. 41) -->Lord's Supper (v. 42). 

Furthermore, there is not a single example in Scripture of a believer who is admitted to the Lord's Supper before being properly baptized.  Once again, I will admit that this is an argument from silence, but it is still quite striking that nobody appears to partake of the Lord's Supper until they exercise faith and are baptized.  (ie. Ethiopian Eunuch - Acts 8:36-38; Saul/Paul - Acts 9:18;  Cornelius - Acts 10:44-47; Lydia - Acts 16:14-15; Philippian Jailor - 16:30-33)

2) Water Baptism precedes the Lord's Supper in the order of their institution

This is far less compelling, but interesting to think about nevertheless.  Jesus instituted Water Baptism at the beginning of His earthly ministry and the Lord's Supper on the same night that He was betrayed.

3) Water Baptism precedes the Lord's Supper in their doctrinal order

Among other things, Baptists believe that Water Baptism is symbolic of a believer's death, burial and resurrection with Christ.  Baptism is the outward sign of the inward work of regeneration effected by the Holy Spirit.  Whereas circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic Covenant and sealed upon the hearts of the Jewish people the tremendous promises that God had made to Abraham (cf. Gen 12:1-3), Water Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant in Christ, which seals upon the heart of the Christian the promises that God has made to us who have placed our faith in Jesus alone for salvation.  Baptism has no saving power, but it is a non-negotiable part of the process of becoming a disciple of Christ (cf. Matt 28:18-20).  The modern notion that a person can be saved and not worry about water baptism is utterly foreign to Biblical Christianity. 

The Lord's Supper, unlike Baptism is an ongoing ordinance.  Baptism is the initiatory ordinance which symbolizes new birth, whereas the Lord's Supper serves as an ongoing reminder of the broken body and shed blood of our Lord, so that our faith can be continually strengthened and nourished "as often as we eat the bread and drink the cup".

The main point is this - just as a baby must be born before she can eat and be nourished, so the ordinance symbolizing new spiritual life doctrinally precedes the ordinance symbolizing ongoing nourishment and sustainance.  To reverse this order is to confuse the doctrinal significance of these two ordinances.

4) No other orthodox Christian denomination permits non-baptized believers to partake of the Lord's Supper

Although an appeal to tradition doesn't necessarily prove or disprove anything, Baptists who practice open communion ought to at least be aware of the novelty of their practice.  Every other Christian denomination that I am aware of recognizes that Baptism ought to precede the Lord's Supper 

5) Historically, Baptists been strong advocates of Closed Communion.

The Puritan forerunners of the Baptists were strong advocates of closed communion by and large.  Before being admitted to the Lord's Table, a person was required to give an account of their conversion to the elders of the church.  This had two primary advantages:  1) It helped to protect the purity of the visible church - something which is still a great concern for Baptists;  2) It enabled the church to exercise discipline.  In the Reformed Tradition, believers under church discipline were typically barred from the Lord's Table - a practice which has almost completely disappeared today with the advent of open communion.  During the early 18th century, some Puritans such as Solomon Stoddard began to practice open communion.  This practice was strongly opposed by Stoddard's own grandson Jonathan Edwards - a doctrinal stand which ultimately cost him his pastorate!

Like Edwards and the Puritans, the earliest English Baptists practiced and defended closed communion because the majority of them believed, as I've argued above, that Baptism is a pre-requisite for the Lord's Supper.  Some editions of the First London Confession of Faith (1644) explicity endorse the practice of closed communion:  Article XXXIX - "That Baptism is an Ordinance of the New Testament, given by Christ, to be dispensed only upon persons professing faith, or that are Disciples, or taught, who upon a profession of faith, ought to be baptized and after to partake of the Lord's Supper."

Interestingly, the Second London Confession (1689) does not contain this stipulation and probably reflects a diversity of opinion among Baptists on the issue.  Shortly before the publication of this Second Confession, William Kiffin (the most important Baptist theologian of the 17th c.) and John Bunyan (author of the Pilgrim's Progress) had a lively debate about this subject in print with Kiffin defending closed communion, and Bunyan defending open communion.

Other notable Baptists who have defended closed communion include Benjamin Keach, John Gill,  A.H. Strong,  T.T. Shields and Mark Dever.   One of my Baptist heroes who defended open communion was Charles Haddon Spurgeon!


  1. Hi John,

    Had you read the post (part 1, 2) on 9 Marks' blog a few years ago about the historical lead up to today's debate over closed communion (they changed their blog provider, and now the formatting on the post is poor, unfortunately)?

    Anyway, I lean to the closed communion position as well. I think this issue goes hand-in-hand with the membership question as well, of whether or not to allow adults who'd been sprinkled as babies, who refuse to be baptized, into the membership rolls.

    Though, there are differences, I'll agree. It seems to me that your point in this entry is to say that a person should get baptized, and that you're not touching the paedobaptist membership in a credobaptist church issue. But that's confusing since I thought that was what Bunyan and Kiffin were disputing.

    Either way, let me bring it up: The thing that I find difficult is that by excluding them from membership is that it's technically because they're under discipline. Yet, they're invited to preach in the pulpit, they participate in conferences together. I don't like the idea of treating them as though they're under discipline, but I'd prefer to be consistent than pragmatic.

    What do you think? The Piper/Bunyan position is equally unsettling of allowing an unbaptized person in the congregation rolls.

    Thanks. Oh, and good article by the way. I like the third argument, that baptism is an initiation rite, while communion is a rite of reaffirmation of the covenant.

  2. Cool musings, John. Many of the Churches of Christ that I have worshiped with typically have a closed-member/open-visitor practice, which, I'm convinced, is a consequence of not wanting to "police" those who visit to worship with us -- a common difficulty since we practice weekly Lord's Supper observance. Unfortunately, it adds up to a double standard, but one that most have either knowingly or unknowingly dismissed.

    In addition to your points, I'm inclined to agree with closed practice because of the parallels between the Lord's Supper and both the Passover and the Messianic feast theme from the OT. I.e., if the Lord's Supper is an "intermediate" meal between the Passover and what I believe will be the final Messianic feast, all of which are celebratory in nature, what is there to celebrate for those who have neither professed faith nor been baptized? Also, 1 Cor. 10:18 brings up the point of participation in the sacrifice. If one shares in the Lord's Supper and hasn't professed faith in the efficacy of the sacrifice, exactly what is the nature of his participation in the Supper?

    Anyways, that's just my $0.02. Still, I'd love to discuss this more with you. Blessings, brother.

  3. Hey Peter, thanks for your comments. I think you're right that closed membership and closed communion are very closely related, but they really are two different issues. My denomination (The Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists) practices closed membership (ie. immersion is a pre-requisite to church membership), but to my knowledge most member churches practice open communion. Some other baptistic denominations like the Associated Gospel Churches (AGC) practice both open membership and open communion. Historically, Baptists who have argued for closed membership have typically argued for closed communion as well in order to be consistent(Kiffin is a good example of this - although you are right that the primary issue in the debate between Kiffin and Bunyan was open vs. closed membership). T.T. Shields of Jarvis Street Baptist argued that the practice of open communion among Baptists was really a slippery slope to open membership. The danger in a denomination like the AGC which has an open membership policy is that you could theoretically have unbaptized (or improperly baptized) deacons and elders which I don't think any of us would really want!

    I feel a lot stronger about closed membership than I do about closed communion and personally believe that Piper is wrong on this particular issue - although I'm sympathetic to his concerns. If I was a pastor, I personally would not feel comfortable admitting a paedo-baptist into membership. This doesn't mean, however, that I wouldn't extend a great amount of Christian charity to my Presbyterian brothers - after all I have more in common theolgically with a lot of conservative Presbyterians than I do with many Baptists! So basically - I feel the tension too between sound doctrine and Christian charity, but at the end of the day I still believe that paedo-baptism is unbiblical, a misunderstanding of the covenants, and that it has a very detrimental effect on the purity of the visible church.

  4. I have been thinking of this issue lately of closed vs open communion, which is why I found your blog, and it has been helpful. But I still have many questions and concerns.
    Most churches I've attended in my life have had open communion (Baptists and Evangelical); but one time I had invited a lost friend to church, and he partook of communion bc the pastor (as is usual in many churches) simply said "if you are not saved, etc., please don't partake." Well, that puts people in a position where they are pressured to either 'stick out like sore thumb saying I'm not saved over here' - which most will never do....or to take communion when they are not saved - which they should not do. It simply is not, I think, an adequate, reasonable "guard" against unbelievers partaking of the Lord's Supper. But then, I didn't really know what better way it could be done either. So I thought of those who have members of that local church only go up after the service to a separate room for communion, but then, that would be to exclude people genuinely saved (and baptized). But it seems it would take much time to have people give testimonies first...what if there were 25 visitors that day all saying they were saved, baptized, and wanted to partake?
    I'm not sure if I'm for closed communion or not, but I cannot believe certain arguments some make against it - like this "that is judging people's hearts and playing God" How can that be a reason to not hear a testimony to see if a person (as best you can tell) is saved and fit for communion? We do that very thing when we examine people for church membership... is it 'playing God' then? well, if so, let us stop that! But if not, it isn't 'playing God' when applied to communion either.