I thought I had been sucked into a deep black hole that transported me magically away into a previous time. What year had I been whisked away to? Was it 1920? Maybe 1950? Perhaps it was 1979, for that might be the year that sealed this moment.
My temporary time travel was brought about by a denominational printing called SBC Life. It is produced by the Executive Committee of my denomination–The Southern Baptist Convention, or as we now are now known, Great Commission Baptists. This particular edition spent most of its glossy and stylized pages on the upcoming convention meeting in New Orleans. That is not what time warped me. What got me was the “Doctrinal” article on the Lord’s Supper.
The argument of the article was for “closed” or as one of the viewpoints urged, “close” communion. Closed communion is a particularly rigid church practice that had its height during the Landmark movement in the early part of the last century. A church that practices closed communion prohibits anyone who is not a member of that particular church from observing the Lord’s Supper. In extreme cases, people are asked to leave if they are not members. The enforcement of this doctrinal stance can lead to uncomfortable confrontations with people who don’t understand why they are being confronted. Close communion is an addendum to closed communion that allows people from “like faith and orders” to partake. “Like faith and order” is code word for “other Southern Baptists.”
The opposite stance of closed communion is “open” communion which is what our church practices and what I personally believe is right. In open communion anyone who is a Christ-follower, regardless of church membership or baptism status is invited to partake. More to the point, no one is challenged if they decide to observe the meal. Open communion does not mean that we believe anyone–believer or non-believer–can or should take it. Almost all (almost?) Christ-followers believe that only Christ-followers should take it. Churches that practice open communion leave that up to the individual and do not fret about such things as when, where, and how a person’s baptism took place.
Before I go any deeper into the issue, let me affirm I believe any church has the right to set its own faith and practices. I affirm autonomy and believe that a local congregation has the right to be wrong if they desire. What I am bothered by is that no voice was given in the doctrinal article for open communion. None. I actually enjoyed the article and the different perspectives, and especially the shout out to m friend Cecil Sims (may he rest in peace) but there was no balance.
I perceive the reason for no balance is that the leadership of my denomination is still pushing a fundamentalists style agenda that consistently leaves me wanting. So, I will provide my own balance. There are many reasons to practice open communion, but some of the ones that are important to me are:
1. Hospitality is a very important concept in the New Testament. The most inhospitable thing in the world is to exclude someone from what is gong on.
2. The Lord’s Supper is an act of proclamation of the gospel, and partaking of it is a way people can affirm their belief in it.
3. Unity matters to the Lord and refusing to eat with other Christ-followers is divisive and arrogant.
4. I never want to reject someone whom Christ accepts.
One of the reasons often given for practicing closed communion is the admonition in the Scriptures for a person to examine himself or herself before eating. This admonition is coupled by Paul with a warning that if the meal is taken lightly, the person drinks and eats condemnation. People argue that by allowing a non-Christ follower to partake then they are unworthy and therefore heaping condemnation upon themselves. There are two problems with this argument. The first is hermeneutics. That often cited admonition is from 1 Corinthians 11:27-34 and it is indeed a sober admonition. The problem is it is written to believers who know exactly what the Lord’s Supper means and therefore should reverence it. The context is about believers who had taken a low view of the meal, not outsiders who had partaken of it and not known what was going on. The second problem is logical. If I believe that a non-Christ follower is already in a situation that apart from Christ they are in eternal jeopardy, then what more jeopardy could come to them?
The Lord’s Supper is not the Ark of the Covenant wherein if the wrong people touch it they die. The arguments for closed communion are based more upon belief in magic–the right thing said by the right people at the right time in the right conditions–than belief in Christ.