Why We Practice “Open” Communion

I appreciate the Baptist Faith and Message as a general and systematic declaration of our faith, and I agree with the majority of what it states—that’s part of the reason why I am, have been, and plan to continue to be Southern Baptist.  There is one aspect, however, that I and the church I pastor differ with—their statement on baptism in relationship to the Lord’s Supper.

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.

In general, I agree with the theological heart of this statement.  Baptism is immersion and an act of obedience symbolizing a person’s faith and new life in Jesus.  Over and over the Bible presents baptism as the first step in the life of a disciple—the Bible, frankly, does not leave much room for a non-baptized Christian.  Therefore baptism is a general prerequisite to the other activities of our Christian faith.

Yet, if we practice the letter of the BF&M in regards to this statement, we must exclude any non-baptistic believers from joining us in the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, and this is not a position I can hold.

To use Dave Miller’s language of brick walls and picket fences, most believers would view the specific practices of baptism as a picket fence.  We can look at our paedobaptist friends and say, “Brothers, you have this baptism thing all wrong,” yet still embrace them as fellow followers of Jesus.

I believe those who practice paedobaptism fail to grasp the distinctions between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.  Certainly they are right to point to a continuity between circumcision and baptism as marks of the covenant, as Paul does this very thing in Colossians 2.  They fail to realize, however, the more limited nature of the New Covenant as being with those who have God’s Law written on their hearts, who know the Lord, and who have their sins forever forgiven—in other words, how the New Covenant is solely with those who are regenerated and faithful believers.

Likewise, those who practice baptism by means other than immersion fail to display the reality Paul describes in Romans 6 of how our baptism is a sign of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection.  For all intents and purposes, when Jesus was placed into the tomb he was immersed into the ground.  When Jesus walked out of the tomb, he came out of the ground.  The only “mode” of baptism that captures the effect is immersion into and emersion out of the water.

Yet even though I believe such non-baptistic types to be wrong in their understanding and practice of baptism, in the matter of their conscious and understanding (since they do have their reasons) they see themselves as baptized and practicing baptism.  So, while by necessity of practice, we must belong to different local churches, is a difference in the understanding of baptism enough to warrant their exclusion from the “Lord’s Table” when they visit my church, especially when they do view themselves as properly baptized?

I think not.

The proclamation of the Gospel in the Lord’s Supper is the center piece of church worship (1 Corinthians 11).  It is a meal of remembrance for Jesus’ sacrifice that brought us forgiveness from sins.  As such it is solely a meal for disciples.  And as much as it is a meal looking backwards to the cross, it is also a meal looking forwards to Jesus’ return.  Jesus told his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me” and he told them he would neither eat again of the bread or drink again of the cup until he eats and drinks it new with them at the consummation of his kingdom (Luke 22:14-23, et al.).  This points to the great marriage supper of the Lamb John briefly describes in Revelation 19.

For me and my church, then, the question when fencing the table is not: “Have you been properly baptized according to my understanding?”  But rather: “Will we be eating the supper together at the coming of Jesus?”

Therefore our communion is open to all who profess to be followers and disciples of Christ.

As a concluding note: this does not mean the openness of our communion is without bounds.  The table is still fenced according to particular standards:

  1. You must be a disciple who follows Jesus in faith and repentance—as stated above, it is a meal for believers alone.
  2. You must be a faithful and active member in a truly Gospel-centered church.  In other words, even if it is just a basic understanding, you must have a proper understanding of the Gospel and Jesus.  This involves being a part of a church.  First Corinthians 11 places an emphasis upon “discerning the body” in reference to properly partaking of the bread and cup.  You must see the Supper through a selfless lens that understands self-sacrifice and the corporate nature of church.  If you have actively removed yourself from fellowship except on rare occasions, then you need to seriously question your understanding of the Gospel and have no reason to partake in a corporate Supper.
  3. You must be in good standing with your church.  If you are under discipline at or have been disfellowshiped from your church, then you have no business to partake in the Supper with mine before a process of repentance and restoration.

Comments

  1. Dave Miller says

    It would be interesting to study communion practices by region. I would theorize that in non-SBC dominant areas, an open communion is practiced more widely.

    Good article, Mike. I like hearing a reasoned advocacy of open communion. I’m sure everyone will agree and we’ll all join together for a group hug.

    • says

      It would be interesting to study communion practices by region. I would theorize that in non-SBC dominant areas, an open communion is practiced more widely.

      It would be interesting…

      I’ve lived most of my life in Missouri, which I’d consider to be kinda SBC-dominant (though it is a bit in that dividing line area).

      The church I grew up in practiced closed communion. A church I pastored in that same town and the church I pastor now both practiced open before I even showed up with my likewise open convictions.

      The thing about these two churches that is different from my “home” church, though is that they have quite a few people from various backgrounds–who either didn’t grow up SBC, or are actually methodist or luthern, etc. and have been a part of the church for years but have never joined b/c they don’t see the need to be “baptized again”–in their words.

      I wonder how much of the history of accepting people like that as an active part of the church has shaped the practices of these two churches?

      • Dave Miller says

        SHBC (where I pastor) does not hide that we are a Southern Baptist church. On the other hand, there are probably a dozen or fewer people out of 400 or so who attend here regularly that have an SBC background or, frankly, care much about the SBC.

        We have people from a wide variety of backgrounds and many come in spite of the fact that we are Southern Baptist and not because of it. One man says, “I’m a member of this church but I am NOT Southern Baptist.”

        My theory (unproven) is that churches like mine in non-SBC dominant regions tend to view denominational identity as less important and therefore are more likely to practice open communion.

        If I came to a firm scriptural conviction of the necessity of closed communion, I’d practice it. But I agree with your reasoning. It’s not my supper; its the Lord’s supper. If you belong to Jesus, I’m not going to put up a fence that keeps you from the table.

        • Nate says

          One man says, “I’m a member of this church but I am NOT Southern Baptist.”

          Then what is he? Of course he is a saying he is a believer, but I’m assuming your church has a statement of faith, perhaps BF&M, or another. I would assume that you expouse baptist principles and that you are part of the cooperative program. All of these things, after faith in Christ, unite us (SBC’ers) with other SBC’ers for the proliferation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, thereby making him a Southern Baptist.

          I have pastored in non-SBC regions as well and I would say they view denominational identity less important, especially if you are a Southern Baptist. They dont seem to have a problem identifying the GARBs or Lutherans or non-denominationals at all.

          • Dave Miller says

            My point in that was twofold. We do not hide our SBC relationship, but most of our people have little or no interest in the SBC and its dealings. I do not hide our denominational relationship, but neither do I emphasize it much, except in the promotion of Lottie, Annie and SBC CP.

          • Dave Miller says

            And, technically, he is Southern Baptist whether he likes it or not. I’m just not going to force him to think about it.

  2. Bill Mac says

    Good words. I understand the arguments for closed communion, but in once sense it gives the impression that baptism is an obligation and the Lord’s supper is a reward. Are they both not obligations? And if so, does disobedience (or misunderstanding) in one disqualify one from being obedient in the other? In doing so we elevate baptism over the Lord’s supper and I don’t think that can be warranted scripturally.

  3. volfan007 says

    I would say that the way things should be…before taking the Lord’s Supper…should be salvation, baptism, then the Lord’s Supper. I really would have a problem with someone taking the Lord’s Supper, who would not be baptized.

    But, I’m not gonna be the Lord’s Supper police, either. Also, I’m not gonna take a lot of time during the Lord’s Supper explaining who can take it, and who cant. We observe the Lord’s Supper at our church…because it is an ordinance given to the local church to participate in together. If someone is visiting with us on that occasion, then it’s really between them and God whether they participate with us, or not. I do delcare that only baptized Believers should participate in the Lord’s Supper.

    David

    • Dave Miller says

      “I’m not going to be the Lord’s Supper police…”

      I fully agree.

      Ultimately, this is one of those autonomy issues (unless we’re employees of the SBC). My church does not have to be exactly like yours.

      David, obviously you live in an SBC dominant area, right? Do churches there usually practice open/closed/close? Is there a common practice.

      • volfan007 says

        Churches here used to be close and closed communion. There was a strong, Landmark Baptist influence here from years back. But, I’d say that a lot of them have become more open communion, except for needing to be saved, of course.

        David

          • volfan007 says

            Well, Dave, I have mixed emotions about this. I really believe that the Lords Supper is a Church ordinance. I really do believe that only saved, baptized Believers should participate. And, of course, baptism is by immersion as a symbol of faith. Soooooo…

            But, like I said, I’m not gonna be the Lords Supper police….

          • Dave Miller says

            I’m not really saying its right or good, but it seems to be the direction most groups are headed.

  4. says

    In my area I’ve run into an even more complicating factor: closed communion and limiting it to members of the particular church. This would be expressed as if you are not a member of this church body (_________ Baptist Church) you do not participate in the Lord’s Supper with us. I was a member of a church where it was sort of an open secret that the pastor held to that. I’m not good with that. When the pastoral search committee quizzed me at the church I serve now, they asked me specifically about open and closed communion in this fashion. I believe the Lord’s Supper is for any born again baptized believer in Christ. They feel the same way. I feel blessed to be in service with them.

    • says

      There’s a lot of that here in Arkansas. Technically, you can’t be an ABSC church if you accept “Open Communion,” but that’s very loosely interpreted.

    • Dave Miller says

      Used to be that way in Iowa in the 60s – probably convention-wide. I think most churches around here now lean to nearly completely open communion.

      • volfan007 says

        former,

        That’s called close communion, where only members of a specific, local church can participate. A lot of churches in the Mid South area are close, or closed, due to the influence of the Landmark Baptists of the past. The Mid South area is N. MS, NE Arkansas, W. TN, and W. KY. The influence stemmed from men like J.R. Graves, and Pendleton, and some others.

        David

        • says

          Brother David,

          It may be just a lazy typing finger or it may be that you and I, as BI brethren, disagree. I sure hope it is the later. :) Sorry, my typing finger is now lazy, there should have been a “not” in my statement about disagreeing. :)

          Seriously, you described to former atheist a closed communion. Former atheist described a classic Landmark position. Closed communion is where communion is limited to only members of that local church. C.B.Scott told me of a time where he was preaching a revival and the pastor came to him before the service to tell him they were a closed communion church. The revival began on a Sunday they reserved in the church calendar for communion. Thus at the end of the service C.B. could either step out the side door of the pulpit or sit on the front row and not be served. :) True story.

          What former atheist described as his position is “close” communion. Dr. Nathan Finn, in a paper he put out in about March or April of 2009 defined many of these positions within the context of Evangelicalism.

          Brother Dave Miller & Former Atheist,

          Would you say that baptism is a biblical requirement before taking the Lord’s Supper? Why or why not? Excuse me Former Atheist, that question was more for Brother Dave Miller, you already answered it. Help me better understand your position, if you will. How did you describe baptism to the search committee when you were asked about your views?

          Blessings,
          Tim

          • volfan007 says

            Tim,

            I did mean to say closed communion….I get those two names mixed up all the time..close…closed…they sound too close to each other….lol

            David

          • says

            In theory, since everyone should testify to the their faith in Christ immediately after or soon after salvation, all believers who come to the table should be baptized already.

            We do not live in that theoretical world. In a less than ideal world, I invite everyone who is part of the Body of Christ to join in the celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ.

  5. says

    Our pastor always cites 1 Corinthians 11:28, and indicates that admonishment applies to each one and thus does not apply to the church. And it’s not the church’s supper, it’s the Lord’s Supper.

    Hmmm … that might explain some things, come to think of it.

    • Dave Miller says

      I’m not sure self-examination precludes church-oversight, though I agree in general with you on this.

  6. Christiane says

    “Will we be eating the supper together at the coming of Jesus?”

    “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom”
    (excerpted from ‘The Didache’ circa 80-140 A.D.)

    • says

      Christiane,

      You seem to have left out one sentence from that quote. Curiously enough it was a sentence that would negate your point that it should be for anyone. The very next sentence of “The Didache”, or also known as “The Teaching of the Twelve” is

      But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs.”

      Also you will note “The Didache” is adamant that baptism is by immersion.

      Blessings,
      Tim

      • Christiane says

        Hi TIM ROGERS,

        I was responding to a portion of Mike’s post.

        But I did leave out something. It was the first part of what is known to be one of the earliest prayers of the Church, this:

        “”Concerning the broken bread:
        ‘We give Thee thanks, Our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou hast made known to us through Jesus, Thy Servant. To Thee be the glory for evermore.
        As this broken bread was scattered over the hills and then, when gathered, became one, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy Kingdom.’ ”

        –The Didache, 9: Eucharistic Prayer [written circa 50-120AD]. With the exception of St. Paul’s Eucharistic Prayer in 1 Corinthians 11:23-27, this is the earliest known prayer of the Church spoken at ‘the breaking of the bread’.

        You are correct about what follows. The ‘triple immersion’ is still practiced by the eastern Orthodox Churches today, including some that are in union with Rome (eastern liturgical rites).
        The ‘triple immersion’ is beautiful to witness ( it honors the Holy Trinity also) and is from the very first years of the Church.

  7. Christiane says

    Hi TIM ROGERS,

    You mentioned that I had ‘left out’ something, and said this:

    “Curiously enough it was a sentence that would negate your point that it should be for anyone.”

    It is known that the early catechumens were admitted to the first part of the Service (of the Word) and had to leave before the second part of the Service (communion);
    until after a year of instruction, they were baptized at Easter and received into ‘full communion’ with the Church.

    My own personal wish is simply that God’s will be done and that Christ’s last prayers before He was crucified will become reality for the whole of Christianity in time.

    To ‘take communion’ implies union with Christ and with the Body of Christ . . . the first Christians, as well as all the Christians of faith who live today, and all who will live in future . . .
    the word ‘communion’ implies unity into the Body of Christ, and it is what I think is a meaning that most Christian people understand. This meaning of unity in the whole Body of Christ is clearly implied in that ‘Didache’ eucharistic prayer also.

    • says

      To ‘take communion’ implies union with Christ and with the Body of Christ

      And only those who realize that repentance from sin and personal, conscious faith in Christ is needed for salvation have this “union with Christ and with the body of Christ”. if someone believed that God accepts people from other faiths, such as mormons or muslims, then they do not believe the gospel and are not Christians.

  8. Jeff Straub says

    Too bad that this is not the mainstream of historic Baptist theology. Sure some Baptists have argued this view starting with Bunyan who was sort of a Baptist–there is debate here. The reality of this view is that it misses the importance of immersion as THE DOOR to the church. No other form is baptism, despite what others may call it. But this is the way of the Baptist world these days, unfortunately! There is a robust body of historic Baptist literature that argues against this view.

    You say “Yet, if we practice the letter of the BF&M in regards to this statement, we must exclude any non-baptistic believers from joining us in the fellowship of the Lord’s Supper, and this is not a position I can hold.”

    Can you demonstrate any example of an unbaptized person in the NT who took communion? Oh you say, how do I know that all who partook communion in the NT were baptized (aka immersed)? Because the Lord’s Table was an activity of disciples, which by definition starts with water baptism, (Mt 28:19-20). Oh I am not discounting conversion. Au contraire . . . conversion and baptism were so closely connected that the latter was evidence of the former . . . cf. the story of the Ethopian eunuch.

    I will admit that I would prefer less restrictions at the table. But then its not my table is it? So until the Lord says that someone other than a disciple is qualified to partake, I’ll stick with the historic Baptist or rather Biblical view! This is the Lord’s Table and he sets the terms for participation.

    • says

      The reality of this view is that it misses the importance of immersion as THE DOOR to the church.

      On the one hand I agree with the idea that immersion is the only proper baptism.

      On the other hand, to take what you say here and carry it out to its logical conclusion would be to exclude all non-immersed Christians as a part of “the church.” That gets into dangerous and arrogant implications.

      We might consider them mistaken breathren, but they are breathern nonetheless…and Jesus isn’t going to exclude them from the ultimate supper–since as you say it is his table–so why should we exclude them from ours?

      • Jeff Straub says

        Well, because the Lord’s table is a local church ordinance. Indeed there may be any number of genuine in the universal body but these would be impossible to discern except by Christ himself. The mechanism He gave us to discern true disciples is baptism which according to the NT was immersion, and not some other self-determined form.

        The Lord’s Table is not a universal church function. In other words, it would be improper to have the Table at a camp, on a trip to Israel, in your back yard, unless any one of these were a local church meeting. FWIW, I hold a Phd from Southern under Tom Nettles, 2004. I teach Baptist History and Theology in a seminary, but we do not have communion in class. Communion belongs to the churches and they are responsible to fence the table. For what its worth, virtually every church, regardless of denomination, fences the table somehow. If we argue that baptism is the sign of discipleship as Mt 28:19-20 indicates and communion were a privilege of disciples as the NT seems to imply, then we must follow the Scripture here, not sentimentality. Is my Presbyterian friend wrong with his infant baptism. I think so. How do I help him by ignoring his error when I invite him to the Lord’s Table and he is not being obedient to the clear teaching of Scripture?

        Now either the Scripture is clear on immersion or it is not. You have to decide. But you cannot open the table up to whoever you wish unless you have clear NT instruction. The only non-baptized disciple I can think of in the NT was the eunuch, unless we want to argue that there were likely lots of others who failed to be baptized . . . something, that if true, the Scriptures are strangely silently about.

        There is a robust body of Baptist literature on this topic. The reality is that with the rise of religious liberalism in the mid-19th century, one of the things that fell by the wayside was the careful administration of the ordinances.

        One final note. If you grant open communion, you must also grant open membership on the same logic, which is exactly what John Piper attempted to do at Bethlehem back in 2006. Soooooo, if you wish to be charitable (this was one of the arguments for open communion used by Robert Hall Jr.), then why stop with the table? Open your membership up to genuine Christians, regardless of their baptism.

        Jeff Straub

      • Jeff Straub says

        One additional thought. I got side tracked when writing the original reply.

        Just because one practices open communion does not mean one is a liberal. Spurgeon did and wasn’t. BUT liberals typically remove all fences in the church, and thus practice both open communion AND open membership.

  9. Christiane says

    There is door that leads into the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. Christ was born at this site, according to tradition.

    The door is named in His honor . . . it is called ‘The Door of Humility”

  10. Peaches says

    FWIW…I live in a highly SBC area and open communion is the norm. My church practices open communion and does not limit the table to those who have been immersed although they would never allow a follower of Christ who had not been immersed to be a member of the church.
    I suspect few of our members care very much about what happens in the SBC and even fewer identify with the SBC in a serious way.

  11. Benji Ramsaur says

    Jeff,

    How do I help him by ignoring his error when I invite him to the Lord’s Table and he is not being obedient to the clear teaching of Scripture?

    I understand what you are saying, but I wonder if it ends up proving too much.

    The closed communion argument comes across to me almost as if some folks think Matthew 28 says make disciples –> baptize them –> communion (instead of the observance of “all” of Christ’s commandments.

    Should I not teach a Presbyterian, if present, the new commandment of Christ because he has not yet been baptized (for example)?

    • Jeff Straub says

      No of course not. You teach him the truth of immersion among other things. But if he wants to be obedient, then he must be immersed if indeed immersion is what is commanded. He may of course do other things first, but immersion is a sign of discipleship.

      How did the early church know who was “among them” when they chose the first deacons in Acts 6. Those of the “them” all had one thing in common–as I tell my students–wet hair! Do you think that non-baptized individuals became deacons when so much emphasis was placed on water baptism?

  12. Benji Ramsaur says

    The reality of this view is that it misses the importance of immersion as THE DOOR to the church.

    I am not sure if this can be exegetically established.

    Acts 2:41 simply talks about believers being baptized “and” being added. It does not say anything about baptized believers being added via baptism (although I do believe baptism properly comes first).

    Also, if one insists that a believer must be baptized in the church and insists that baptism is the door to the church, then I think one is left with an inconsistency.

    Is the believer about to be baptized in the church or not?

    If he is, then he is already “in” the church and thus baptism is not the doorway into the church.

    If he is not, then he is not being baptized “in” the church.

    • Christiane says

      “See where you are baptized, see where Baptism comes from,
      if not from the cross of Christ, from His death.
      There is the whole mystery:
      He died for you.
      In Him you are redeemed, in Him you are saved “
      (St. Ambrose)

      • Christiane says

        Galatians 3:27

        “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”

    • Jeff Straub says

      Baptism was the door to the visible assembly not to a building. See my comment above. The gathered assembly was instructed to chose from “among them.”

      To say that this cannot be exegetically established I would readily concede. But then the Trinity can not be exegetically established either. But this does not mean that there are not good theological arguments for both. So we use BOTH exegesis and theology to establish Bible doctrine. Both work in harmony and not antithetically, though we may not, in our finite minds, be able to understand their correlation.

    • Jeff Straub says

      One more thought. Technically, one is baptized BY the assembly (through it representative) as a means of identification with the assembly. Now I understand that the apostles were doing the baptizing before the church was technically started (unless you hold to landmark sensibilities), but once the churches were established they added to themselves disciples via water baptism.