Recent years have seen a healthy re-examination and reinvigoration of Baptist ecclesiology. Pastors and theologians regularly discuss issues related to a regenerate church membership, discipline, and matters related to governance and polity. On the other hand, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the ordinances themselves, seem to have received less attention than they merit in a robust biblical Baptist ecclesiology.
As far back as the First London Confession (1644), Baptists rejected the word “sacrament” because of its implication that the rites are an actual means of grace by which the participant gains something more than he had already through Christ, in favor of the more accurate “ordinance” because both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are commands of Jesus to those who have already received saving grace. Additionally, Baptists have always named them specifically as church ordinances, to be observed in the context and under the authority of a local church. This may seem unimportant or inconsequential, but a nebulous ecclesiology ultimately clouds soteriology as well.
The question of who may partake of the Lord’s Supper is important precisely because it reflects on both doctrines. When a church observes communion, who is eligible to sit at the Lord’s table? Is everyone eligible? All believers? All baptized believers? Only Baptists? Only church members?
Baptists have historically debated this question with three possible answers. Open communion is the position that all believers present when a local church observes the Lord’s Supper may partake. Alternatively, the close communion view maintains that only those who are saved, properly baptized, and in fellowship with a church of like faith and order — meaning holding to the same basic doctrine as the observing church — may sit at the Lord’s Table. Finally, closed communion is the most restrictive position, asserting that since communion is connected to discipline, only members of the local church can partake.
In all candor, neither the Abstract of Principles nor any iteration of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, 2000) allows for open communion. While an autonomous church can certainly remove all restrictions for communion, it cannot do so and claim to be within any Southern Baptist confession of faith. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 defines baptism as immersion, as symbolic, as a “church ordinance” and as “prerequisite” to the Lord’s Supper which is observed by the “members of the church.”
In contrast, open communion recognizes any baptism or no baptism, any church membership or no church membership, and makes membership and participation in its responsibilities optional and immaterial. Meaningful discipline is impossible in a church that practices open communion because the church cannot withdraw fellowship when it extends the privilege of communion to anyone who happens to be present. How can a church excommunicate when it has no requirements for communicants?
Often, a pastor serving the Lord’s Supper will say something generic like, “This is the Lord’s table, not our table. We don’t have any right to deny anyone from partaking so long as your heart is right with God.” That may sound kind, but it contradicts the Baptist Faith and Message, not to mention the New Testament, on several points.
If baptism is indeed prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper (as most Baptist confessions of faith straightforwardly state), then those who were sprinkled, baptized before conversion, or baptized with a sacramental purpose are not properly baptized and do not meet the qualifications for partaking. They do not have Scriptural baptism — which is always the immersion of a believer and is symbolic upon one’s profession of faith. The observance of open communion suggests that the timing, means, purpose, and administrator of baptism are irrelevant to obedience to Christ or participation in the life of the church. While churches who claim the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as their doctrinal statement may practice either close or closed communion, open communion is impossible to reconcile with its definitions and doctrines.
Those who argue for closed communion do so on the basis of the close connection between discipline and the Lord’s Supper. In 1 Corinthians 5:11, Paul instructs the church at Corinth “not even to eat” with the offending member that they are putting out of the church. Those who believe that the Lord’s Supper is limited to members of a particular church understand this to mean that the former member who is being disciplined is ineligible to partake of the ordinance. Jesus says something similar in Matthew 18:17: “Let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” That does not mean to have no contact with that person, but rather not to “eat” at the Lord’s table.
Proponents of close communion, on the other hand, argue that just as churches of “like faith and order” recognize each other’s authority in baptism and discipline, they can similarly offer communion to a properly baptized member in good standing of a sister church. In either case, the pastor needs to be clear when he presides so that those present can genuinely examine themselves and know if they may partake.
Pastors and churches often lower the bar either because they simply do not think about the issues involved and do not realize what is at stake or, more frequently, they feel uncomfortable excluding anyone and risking hurt feelings. Both my theology and my experience encourage me on this point, however; biblical barriers exist for a reason. God put them there to keep some things in and some things out. Nowhere is that more important than in church membership and unity.
Several years ago, a lady attended our church with her sister and was present for a communion service. As I carefully described who may and may not partake, she looked at her sister and said, “Is he saying I can’t take communion?” Her sister, who had heard my explanation many times before said boldly, “That is precisely what he is saying.”
She attended for many more weeks, hearing the same restrictions every time we observed communion. Eventually she came to see me because the exclusion she felt each time weighed heavily on her. She explained that she had been in an intimate relationship with another woman and that they had been partners for more than twenty years. She wanted to know if the reason she couldn’t take communion because she was a lesbian.
As gently and kindly as I knew how, I said, “Absolutely not. You have a far bigger issue than that keeping you from sitting at the Lord’s table. You are separated from Christ and lost. If you took communion, you would be telling a lie and picturing something that is not yet true — but it can be.” I proceeded to tell her the good news of the love of Jesus as expressed by his atoning death and victorious resurrection. I explained that he is worthy of our love and obedience, that he is Savior and Lord of those who repent and believe in him.
Not only did she trust Christ that day, but her life radically changed. To this day she remains a faithful follower of Jesus and a member of the church. Sometimes when I am serving communion I see her partaking and thank God that she was offended.
Communion is about fellowship. The things we have in common — our salvation and our participation in the body of Christ — are the basis of that fellowship. When we connect communion to the local church, not only do we elevate the meaning of membership, we exalt Christ.
Hershael W. York is the dean of the School of Theology. If you have any burning questions for a professor, email firstname.lastname@example.org and we will try to get it answered in a future issue.