Is “open or closed communion?” the right question?

One of the graces in COVID is that it has pushed us hard to think about some key aspects of church life such as “What really is gathered worship?” and “What are the priority ministries of a church in the week?” There has also been quite a bit of discussion about when, how and why we share communion. This is good because something that we may simply participated in without much though before now has to be thought about carefully.

One of the traditional questions about communion has been about whether or not you practice an open or closed table. What do we mean by that?  Well an open table communion means that anyone who is attending the service is welcome to choose for themselves whether or not they wish to participate.  A closed communion is one that is restricted in someway.

Now, here’s the thing. The vast majority of evangelical Christians already accept that there are restrictions and controls on communion. I say “vast majority” because I did get a dressing down from a visitor once because at communion we had explained that participation was for those who loved the Lord and were in good standing with their fellow believers. This person had a kind of mystical view that eating the bread and wine would do something for those participating with and therefore if they did not get to eat then they would miss out on God’s grace.

However, the majority position is that communion is for believers in Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 11 which offers the most extended version of teaching on the matter involves a call for the church to come together and to ensure that those participating are able to discern the body correctly. What does that phrase mean? Well in the context both of the problems at Corinth and the next chapter I would suggest that “discerning the body of Christ” means both an awareness of who Christ is and what he has done for us so that we recognise him as head of the body and an awareness of each other and how we are connected together in the body.

On that basis, I want to suggest that communion is for those who have put their trust in Christ and belong to his body. This means that however you organise such things, they should be recognisable as a member of a local church, Two further implications arise from this. The first is that Scripture makes it clear that the means by which we publicly and externally indicate our profession of faith is through baptism. The second is that people under church discipline are separated out from the body (1 Corinthians 5).

When we think carefully about it, communion is for those who love the Lord Jesus, have made that public profession of faith in baptism and are members of a local church in good standing and not under discipline. In other words Communion is restricted, there is a fence around the table. It is closed. It is not that this is about trying to prevent people receiving the grace available from communion. It is that 1 Corinthians 11 also makes clear that those who come presumptuously or carelessly are not in some neutral position, simply failing to receive the benefits but that communion has a form of judgemental role too so that the affect on those who eat and drink in an unworthy manner is negative not neutral.

The question then is not about closed or open communion, restricted or unrestricted but how we go about policing those important restrictions and who takes responsibility.  Now, in some churches the responsibility lues firmly with the elders and they police the table very  closely. This happens in different ways.  This might include requiring people to bring a letter from another church and/or being interviewed prior to attending communion as a separate service to the main gathering of the church. In some churches, communion happens directly after the main service so that those not taking part are expected to leave at that point. Finally, if you function with a communion rail and a pastor/elder/vicar gives out the bread and the wine directly into the hands of communicants then there is another way of controlling who comes.

For most gatherings, such things would be difficult to do. Firstly, I think many of us would find ourselves increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of communion being separated out from the main gathering and secondly, the expectation in 1 Corinthians 14 is that meetings will be public with unbelievers present.

However, I don’t believe that this removes responsibility from elders to take care of those coming in to our meetings. So how do we go about this?  Well, first of all, I would suggest that if you are just planting a church, think carefully about when you start to publicly gather and when you start to include communion within the gathering. An event where the pastor and his wife on their own eat the bread and drink from the cup whilst everyone else watches on might be many things but it is not communion!

Secondly, teach over time about these things. What does it mean to believe in Christ, to be baptised, to belong to the church and to take communion? There should be a general expectation within the congregation of what is involved and they should have a grasp of the Biblical reasoning.    This links to my third piece of advice which is to do the thing which got me into trouble with the visitor that day. Take time in the service to explain to people what communion is, who it is for and who it is not for. 

Whilst this also leaves a level of personal responsibility with those coming, I think that is not unreasonable. After all, we can only see externals and cannot read into their hearts.  However, it does make clear to them whether or not they should be participating. It aligns with the nature of authority that elders have in the church which is not from physical power to compel but rather is a teaching authority. Finally, I believe it gives others in the congregation such as stewards to act and not to be pressurised. For example, when someone is insisting on receiving the bread and wine whom we know not to be a Christian, to be in public sin and/ or we know to be at logger heds with another then those stewarding need to have the confidence and the backing not to take the bread and wine to them.

 It also makes things clear for those situations where parents decide to insist that their children receive communion. Now, mark my words carefully here. My issue is with parents insisting not with children receiving. This is because I hold to believer’s baptism not adult baptism. So, I personally would be overjoyed to see children receiving the elements providing they have also of their own accord without prompting professed their faith and been baptised.

Finally, I would talk to people. Elders should feel free to do this as part of discipleship and pastoral care. So, whenever I saw someone taking communion or getting their kids to take it, I would find a moment to gently talk with them, not aggressively or judgementally but to say “I saw you took communion for the first time today, is that significant?”  This would lead either into a further conversation about the Gospel or about the importance of baptism. Similarly, if someone suddenly does not take communion who normally would or if there are people you know to be baptised believers not taking it, then that might prompt a gentle conversation too.  You may find that it is simple as a hygiene thing “I had a cold this morning” or “the thought of drinking from that cup after 50 other people with bits of bread and spittle in it.” You may at that point chose to change your methods for sharing bread and wine.

“So then, my brothers,[k] when you come together to eat, wait for[l] one another— 34 if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.”  (1 Corinthians 11:33)

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