Communion–Is it Open or Closed?

Communion:
Is it Open or Closed?

QUESTION 

“I’m confused about the communion or the Lord’s supper.  Should everyone be invited to partake of the bread and cup?  Or should it be restricted in some way?’

ANSWER 

There are many questions that relate to the Lord’s supper.  Sometimes the term used is “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42; 20:7), at other times it could be “communion” or “sharing” (1 Corinthians 10:16), or “the table of the Lord” (v. 21), or perhaps “the Lord’s supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20).  In modern usage, even “eucharist” (thanksgiving) is used.

Closed Communion Churches 

The question relates to this: Who is qualified to share in the bread and cup that constitute the elements in the communion fellowship?  Different answers have been given over the years.  Closed Communion may be defined in this way: “Though the meaning of the term varies slightly in different Christian 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)

A large number of denominations and churches practice some form of closed communion:

1.      The Roman Catholic Church

2.      The Eastern Orthodox Church

3.      Landmark Baptist Churches

4.      Southern Baptist Churches

5.      Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

6.      Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church

7.      Apostolic Christian Church

8.      Church of God in Christ

9.      Mennonite Churches

10.  Amish Churches

11.  Brethren Churches

12.  Reformed Churches (some denominations)

13.  Primitive Baptist Churches

14.  Jehovah’s Witnesses

Open Communion Churches


On the other hand, many mainline Protestant churches practice open communion, allowing visitors to partake of communion with the members of a given congregation.  They would deem this to be a sign of Christian openness, tolerance, and unity.  Open Communion  may be defined as “the practice of Christian churches that allow individuals other than members of that church to receive communion. . . . Membership in a particular Christian community is not required” (Wikipedia).

The United Methodist Church practices what it calls, “open table,” meaning that they offer communion to anyone.  According to the Methodist Church, they offer communion to all “who seek to live in relationship with the triune God and with one another.”  They affirm: “All who respond in faith to the invitation are to be welcomed.  Unbaptized persons who respond by grace to the invitation are urged to be instructed in and receive baptism as soon as possible, as a sign of the conversion that has occurred in the reception of the Eucharist.”

While some churches allow all to come to the communion service and partake, they advise non-Christians to refrain.  They may make the announcement, “We invite all who have professed a faith in Christ to join us at the table.”  Wikipedia adds this: “Open communion is generally practiced in churches where the elements are passed through the congregation (also called self-communication).  However, it is also practiced in some churches that have a communion procession, where the congregation comes forward to receive communion in front of the alter; such is the case in the Episcopal Church and most other Anglican churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the United Methodist Church.”

Those who invite others to partake of the communion rite, believe that “it is not the province of human beings to interfere between an individual and Christ.”  If individuals come to partake, “they would not be denied.  In other traditions, the concept of being ‘unfit to receive’ is unknown, and the actual refusal to distribute the elements to an individual would be considered scandalous” (Wikipedia).

Many Protestant churches practice some form of open communion:

·         Church of God (Pentecostal)

·         Presbyterian Church (USA)

·         Cumberland Presbyterian Church

·         United Church of Christ

·         United Methodist Church

·         Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

·         Reformed Church in America

·         Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

·         Seventh-day Adventist Church

·         Episcopal Church

Probably many or most of the non-denominational Charismatic Churches, Community Churches, and similar groups would also practice some type of open communion.

Some people prefer to use the term “close communion” rather than “closed communion.”  Generally this means that a church may partake of the Lord’s supper with those of “like” faith, with those who share a common denominational belief, but not with those of a different denomination.  Therefore, a Baptist may allow members of another Baptist denomination to partake, but not allow outsiders to partake.  A Catholic may allow an Eastern Orthodox member to partake, but not a Protestant.  A Mennonite may allow people from other Mennonite or Plain denominations to partake, but not non-Mennonites (or they may require membership in a particular Mennonite denomination).  I’ve heard the idea that “close communion” suggests that we partake with those who are “close” to us in fellowship and doctrine.

Although open communion seems to be the norm in many types of churches and denominations, including the increasingly popular “community church” phenomenon, there surely must be certain restrictions on the participants.  Our concern is to know what the Bible says on this issue—not what a certain denomination, church, or sect may believe or practice.  The will of God is vastly more important than the policy of man.

What Does Scripture Reveal? 

As we open the pages of the Scriptures, what do we learn about the participants in the communion?  Who was it who broke bread in the early body of Christ?

1.      Acts 2:42.  Luke tells us of the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem and the first converts to Christ.  He then says that these early Christians “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).  Most Bible students believe that the reference to the “breaking of bread” here is a remembrance of the death of Jesus Christ by breaking the unleavened bread, although some would say that it refers to common meals, in keeping with the usage in verse 46.  A.T. Robertson thinks it may refer to both (Word Pictures; cf. ESV Study Bible).  Wayne Jackson states that this is the observance of the Lord’s supper because of the article: “breaking of the bread” (Acts).  Alford says that this has been the “prevalent” view across the centuries.

Who was it who participated in these four acts that are mentioned?  As we look at the previous verses, we see that the pronoun “they” (v. 42) refers to those who “received” the word of the apostles (v. 41), who repented of their sins (v. 38), who were baptized (immersed) in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins (vv. 38, 41), and who had received the gift of the Holy Spirit (vv. 38-39).  Furthermore, those who are described in verse 42 are later called believers (v. 44).  They are believers who were “together” (thus, they were part of the fellowship of saints) (v. 44).  They were the saved (v. 47).

·         We must conclude that if one has not received the true apostolic word, has not believed in it, has not repented of all of his sins, has not been immersed in Christ’s name for the forgiveness of his sins, and has not received the gift of the Holy Spirit, he would not be qualified to share in the breaking of the communion bread.  If one is not part of the fellowship of the saved he is not qualified.

2.      Acts 20:7.  This is the scripture that states Luke’s words: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…” The “we” in this verse refers to Luke, Paul, and their companions, along with the disciples in Troas in Asia Minor.  It is clear that Luke is describing what true Christians did when they met on the first day of the week (our Sunday).  As in the foregoing verse, some think of this as the Lord’s supper (Wycliffe), others consider it a common meal, while others say that both occurred on this occasion (MacArthur).  While outsiders may have been present, the gathering occurred for the purpose of breaking bread, a meaningful act for Christians.

·         We conclude that the breaking of bread is intended only for Christians and not for outsiders.  It was a sharing among members of the body in their assemblies.

3.      1 Corinthians 5:11.  Paul is instructing the believers in this passage what their attitude should be toward people who have come to Christ at one time but have fallen into various sins.  The passage reads this way: “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.”  It is obvious that Paul is restricting the Corinthian brothers from “eating” a common meal with another brother who has fallen into these sins: sexual immorality, covetousness, idolatry, reviling or slander, drunkenness, and swindling.  (Paul calls such sins unrighteousness in 6:9-10.)

However, surely it goes beyond this.  This is not an exhaustive list.  Surely we are not to eat with a so-called brother who is a thief, a violent person, a liar, as well as others who refuse to repent.  Furthermore, this restriction must not merely apply to eating a common meal but also applies to partaking of the Lord’s supper.  Prohibiting the sinning brother from partaking indicates “utter separation” and the “result was to bar the offender from the Lord’s Table” (International Bible Commentary).

·         If one has come to Christ but then chooses to participate in various sins and refuses to repent of those sins, that person should not be invited to partake of the bread and cup in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice—the very sacrifice that he is denigrating.

4.      I Corinthians 10:16-17.  Paul gives the following instruction in this passage: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?  Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?  Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.”  We can see two relevant truths there.  (1) Paul uses the pronoun “we” here to refer to himself and other Christians.  He did not envision that unbelievers or apostate Christians would seek to “share in the blood of Christ.”  (2) Paul makes it clear that only those who are members of the “one body” are to partake of the “one bread [one loaf].”  This speaks of unity and fellowship, something that is not shared with unbelievers, apostates, or the unrepentant.

·         This passage makes it clear that only members of the body of Christ may partake of the bread and cup.  If one has not become a member as Scripture reveals, he is not qualified to partake.  Further, this memorial is a “sharing” in Christ’s body and blood.  Only those who have responded to Christ’s sacrifice of His body and blood through faith, repentance, and obedience are qualified to “share” in Christ’s sacrificed body and blood.

5.      1 Corinthians 10:20-22.  Paul is showing the incongruity of a Corinthian Christian’s involvement with false gods or idols.  He warns, “I do not want you to become sharers in demons” (v. 20). He then issues this statement: “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (v. 21).  It is entirely inconsistent for a Christian to partake in demonic worship in any way.  And it is inconsistent and a gross evil for one who worships demons to partake of the Lord’s supper.  The remembrance is meant for faithful believers who are living uncompromising lives.

·         Those who would compromise the ways of the Lord and indulge in anything demonic thereby exclude themselves from the table of the Lord.

6.      I Corinthians 11:17-34.  In this lengthy passage, Paul makes it clear that those who partake of the bread and cup are those who “come together as a church” (v. 18).  Literally, this is “come together as an assembly [or community, group, congregation].”  The Lord’s supper was meant for those who are part of a Scriptural assembly of saints (see also vv. 20, 33, 34).  Paul also states that this memorial is for those who are part of “the church [congregation] of God” (v. 22).  In verses 24-25, it is quite clear that when Christ gave this memorial on the night of His betrayal, He gave it to His apostles and, my implication, those who would follow Him through the apostles’ words.  (We shall not discuss the issue of the common meal or love feast in which the early Christians shared.)

·         This memorial is meant only for those who are part of Christ’s body.  If one has not become a member of Christ’s body, he is not qualified to partake (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 6:3-5).

7.      1 Corinthians 11:27-32.  In this passage, Paul is dealing with abuses in the remembrance of Christ with the bread and cup.  Paul says, “A man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (v. 28).  I’ve often heard that this shows that the Lord’s supper must be “open” rather than “closed.”  The thought is that each person examines himself, and other Christians are not to “examine” him or prevent him from partaking. 

However, this lifts the verse from the context.  As the NASB Study Bible notes say: “A person should test the attitude of his own heart and actions and his awareness of the significance of the Supper, thus making the Supper, under God, a spiritual means of grace.”  In other words, Paul is simply saying that each person must examine his heart to determine whether he “judges the body rightly” (cf. v. 29).  “He who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.”  This command is an encouragement for each person to question whether he understands the significance of the bread and cup and whether he is partaking in a worthy manner—apart from a divisive spirit and a sinful attitude (cf. vv. 18-22, 27-32).

·         If one has a carnal and sinful attitude, he should not partake.  If one has a spirit of division, he should not partake.  If one does not truly recognize the significance of the bread and cup, he should not partake.  If one doesn’t sincerely approach the memorial to truly remember Jesus and His sacrifice for sin, he should not partake.  If one doesn’t have a proper, loving attitude of unity with true believers in an assembly, he should not partake.

8.    Matthew 26:26-20; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20.  These passages refer to the institution of the Lord’s supper by our Jesus Christ Himself.  The account makes it utterly clear that He intended only His disciples, those who would be in covenant relationship with Him, to break and bread and partake of the cup.

This is seen in several ways.  The Lord said, “I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18).  This would indicate that only those who belong to God’s kingdom are rightful participants in this sacred remembrance.  Matthew’s account puts it this way: “I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom” (26:29).  Christ will drink it with His disciples (the “you” in the statement) in the kingdom, thus surely He would restrict the remembrance to His disciples.

Jesus went on to say, concerning the cup, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).  Surely Jesus only wanted those who have been forgiven of sins through His blood to remember Him by partaking of the cup.  The whole context shows that Jesus was partaking of the bread and cup with His disciples.  Many Bible scholars also maintain that Judas had already left the upper room at the time that Jesus instituted this remembrance (see The Harmony of the Gospels, Thomas and Gundry).

·         Those who are not truly disciples of Christ Jesus, who are not recipients of the new covenant, are not qualified to partake of the bread and cup.

9.      1 Corinthians 11:23-26.  The previous point referred to Christ’s institution of the Lord’s remembrance in the upper room.  Paul referred to that momentous occasion and quoted Christ’s words as follows: “This is My body which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (v. 24).  In a special sense, Christ gave His body for the disciples (the “you”) to whom he was speaking.  (Obviously, in another sense, Jesus died for all people.)  Christ also issues the command, “Do this in remembrance of Me.”  This is a command to His true disciples—not to the world, not to apostates, not to hypocrites, but only to His genuine followers.  Again, Paul quotes the Lord: “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me” (v. 25).  This was a command to the disciples of the Lord, those who would “remember” Him and His sacrifice until He returned at the end of the age.

·         If one has not become a true disciple of the Lord Jesus, through genuine conversion to Him in faith and repentance, he is not qualified to partake of the bread and cup.

What Do We Learn from This?

We have examined the leading passages dealing with the breaking of the bread (or the sharing in the body and blood of Christ).  We have concluded that certain persons may partake of the bread and cup of the Lord:

1.      Those who have received the apostles’ words.

2.      Those who have believed the gospel message.

3.      Those who have repented of their sins.

4.      Those who have been baptized (immersed) into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.

5.      Those who have received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

6.      Those who are part of the congregation of Christ.

7.      Those who are members of the body of Christ.

8.      Those who are saved and are living together with others who are saved.

9.      Those who do not have unrepentant sin in their life.

10.  Those who recognize the significance of the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ.

11.  Those who are not involved in anything demonic.

12.  Those who seek unity and shun division among true believers.

13.  Those who are willing to partake of the bread [loaf] and cup according to Paul’s instructions.

14.  Those who are willing to examine themselves before partaking.

15.  Those who are partakers of the new covenant of Christ.

16.  Those who belong to the kingdom of God.

17.  Those who are disciples of Christ.

18.  Those who have a communion or intimate fellowship with Christ Jesus.

We can see that there definitely are qualifications to partaking of this memorial to Christ’s death. Not just anyone is qualified to participate in this holy memorial.  Not just anyone—from any religious connection, belief system, or any compromised lifestyle—is permitted to join in this sacred memorial.  Certain ones are excluded:

1.      One who has not believed the words of the apostles about Jesus Christ.

2.      One who has refused to repent and forsake all of his sins.

3.      One who has not been immersed into the name of Jesus Christ.

4.      One who has not been baptized for the forgiveness of sins.

5.      One who has not received the Holy Spirit.

6.      One who has not been saved.

7.  One who is living in unrepentant sin, including immorality and worldliness.

8.      One who does not recognize the significance of Christ’s sacrificial death.

9.      One who does not discern the body of Christ rightly.

10.  One who partakes of demons in any form.

11.  One who refuses to be in unity with true and consistent believers.

12.  One who is not part of the kingdom of God but who remains in the kingdom of darkness.

13.  One who is not a disciple of Christ Jesus.

14.  One who is not a partaker of the new covenant of Christ.

15.  One who has no true and intimate communion with Jesus Christ.

Scriptural “Closed” Communion
vs. Denominational “Closed” Communion
 

Hopefully, we can see the wide gulf between the closed communion that is practiced in the world of Christendom and that restricted communion which Christ wanted in His body.  In the case of Christendom, certain organized institutional denominations have formulated ecclesiastical doctrines and confessions of faith and by these they exclude those who will not conform to their denominational standards.  They refuse to allow people—even professing Christians—who are not part of their denomination to partake of communion that is administered by their pastors, ministers, and bishops.  This is a denominational exclusiveness that dictates communion policy.

Ironically, if the apostle Paul were to visit many denominational churches of our day, he would be excluded!  If Peter were to visit a Catholic or Orthodox church, he would be forbidden to partake since he is not a Catholic or Orthodox!  If John the apostle were to visit a Landmark Baptist Church, he would not be allowed to partake, since he is not a Baptist!  Moreover, Peter, Paul, and John taught many truths that would not be accepted in most religious organizations of our day.  They, themselves, would not be able to accept many of the dogmas and doctrines taught in the creeds, confessions, disciplines, and rule books of many of the contemporary professing “Christian” churches!

On the other hand, surely the apostles would be stunned at the openness of many contemporary denominations.  They would be shocked to notice that people who believe different doctrines, live with different moral standards, dress in bizarre ways, and have extremely liberal views can all sit down and proceed to remember the Lord’s death as one.  The key is to be united with the Lord Jesus and if this is missing, there is no way that varied people can have spiritual unity (cf. Ephesians 4:4-6 speaks of this).  In this way, the Lord’s supper becomes superficial and an empty ceremony.

Return to the New Testament Practice 

The question began about the restrictions that should be in place for the Lord’s supper or communion remembrance.  We have seen that the early Christians did restrict who was qualified to partake of the bread and cup.  We have concluded that in our day, certain ones should not be invited to partake of the communion remembrance in a worship assembly.  We have also seen that modern denominations and churches who teach a kind of “closed” communion fail to really practice the kind of communion that our Lord instituted.

This New Testament practice began to change shortly after the first century apostolic period.  However, even in about the year AD 150, Justin Martyr gave three qualifications for participation in communion: identity of belief, Christian baptism, and moral life (Wikipedia).  Here are his words: “No one may share in the eucharist [thanksgiving=communion] except those who believe in the truth of our teaching and have been washed in the bath which confers forgiveness of sins and rebirth, and who live according to Christ’s commands” (First Apology, 66).

A common belief.  A common faith and baptism (immersion).  And a common lifestyle in Christ Jesus.  There is more to it than this, but this is a good place to begin.  These same qualifications are found in the new covenant writings we have examined: Scriptural belief in the truth of Christ and His words, true immersion into Jesus Christ, and living an obedient life before the Lord according to the Scriptures.  Those same qualifications should prevail in our own day.

The breaking of bread must be held in high honor as a deeply spiritual observance.  Truly saved brothers and sisters must regard this regular, weekly, significant, spiritual memorial as very important to their life in Christ.  It is the occasion to draw near to the Lord Jesus whom they trust and love, who has saved them by the offering of His body and blood on the cross, and it must not be compromised in any way.  It is deeply grieving and even repulsive to think of compromising, hypocritical, worldly, unregenerate, unbelieving, secularistic, and false professing “Christians” partaking of this holy observance.  Paul the apostle solemnly warns the Corinthians that one who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner will bring judgment upon himself or herself (1 Corinthians 11:28-32)!  This must not be trifled with or observed superficially!  Serious consequences await one who will profane the Lord’s remembrance!

Another point we must not overlook as we consider this issue of whether the breaking of break is to be closed to outsiders or whether it is open to all.  It is this: This remembrance of the Lord’s death and sin-sacrifice is centered in the Lord Jesus Himself—but it is not limited to Him.  While He is the focus of our attention and devotion at this time of remembering Jesus’ death, we do it in the presence of other brothers and sisters who are likewise joined to Christ.  It is not a lone act, meant for the privacy of one’s home.  It is always seen as an occasion of fellowship (koinonia, joint participation, sharing, fellowship).

This is seen in a number of different texts.  In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul refers to the cup which “we” bless being a “sharing” in the blood of Christ.  Also, the bread which “we” break is a “sharing” in the body of Christ.  The apostle then links this to the fellowship more directly: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (v. 17).  It is a memorial for the body as a whole.  1 Corinthians 11:17-34 emphasizes the communal aspect of this memorial, for it is meant to be shared by true believers in the body of Christ.  Acts 2:42 likewise emphasizes the sharing aspect of the breaking of bread.  Because of this, we cannot encourage partaking of this memorial as a lone individual, or even in an assembly where all of the believers are not participating, or even taking the elements to the sick, away from the body of believers.

Since breaking of the bread and partaking of the cup is meant for the gathered body and not the world, we can see once again that this memorial is closed to unbelievers and to apostate or compromising Christians.  Jesus Christ limits the participation to those who are in a living, vital, and saving relationship with Him.  All others are excluded.  All others partake at their own spiritual peril.  All who are living in sin partake of the elements in a way that brings condemnation to themselves!  Proverbs 15:8 says that “the sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD” (see also 21:27).  Surely, when a sinful saint or an unbeliever partakes of the bread and cup, it is an abomination to the Lord.  Proverbs 28:9 says that when one turns away from God’s word, “even his prayer is an abomination”!

Surely, when one is in sin, his sharing in the bread and cup is an abomination to our holy God!   Anyone who dares to break a piece from the unleavened loaf or dares to place the cup to his lips—when his life is not pure, clean, holy, and right—is an abomination before God.  Anyone who presumes to share in the memorial of the Lord when he is living a hypocritical, compromised, and unrepentant life, surely incurs the wrath of the Lord!

We must admit one matter at this point.  Most churches and denominations make a practice of observing the Lord’s supper or communion rather infrequently.  Some observe this as a religious practice only once a month, once every six weeks, once in a quarter, two times a year, or even once a year!  In contrast, the early believers regularly gathered for the express purpose of remembering the sacrifice of their blessed Lord Jesus, evidently each first day of the week (cf. Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:18, 20, 26, 33, 34; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2).  Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century testifies that the church in his day continued to meet each first day of the week to break bread, and other writers may be cited in the same regard.  Since contemporary denominations partake of communion quite infrequently, and it is generally very impersonal and perfunctory, we can see that the denominational teaching on “closed communion” will not greatly affect the regular practice of the church.

Many other issues related to the Lord’s supper could be profitably studied and examined:

·         When should the communion take place?

·         How frequently should it be observed?

·         What elements should be used?

·         What is the significance of the bread and cup?

These matters must await another time.  For now, let us recognize the teaching of Christ and the apostles, found in the New Testament writings, and let us see the contrast between this and common contemporary practices in the professing “Christian” world.

Richard Hollerman

 

 

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