The Case for Closed Communion
by Thomas Williamson
By “Closed Communion” we refer to the policy in which only members of a particular local church are allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper when celebrated in that church.
This is in contrast to the policy of Open Communion, in which any visitors who profess to be Christians and who may be present in the service are invited to partake, regardless of their lack of Baptist church membership or perhaps lack of membership in any church; and in acceptance of any unscriptural Protestant baptisms they may have received, including those with no baptism at all.
Since Open Communion makes the mistake of admitting unbaptized persons to full church fellowship, many Baptist churches have adopted the policy of Denominational or Close Communion. This means that non-members are allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper if they are scripturally baptized members of another Baptist church of like faith and practice.
If by any chance your church practices Denominational Communion, as opposed to Closed Communion for members only, it is not the purpose of this article to find fault with your church. Rather, we desire to show a better way.
The problem with Denominational Communion is that it weakens the church discipline program of the church. I realize that some of our churches are not practicing discipline against known, unrepentant sinners in the membership, but we should be.
If a church with Closed Communion excludes a member, then that member has no right to return to the Lord’s Table until he repents of his sin and is restored to membership. But under a policy of Denominational Communion, that unrepentant excluded member can place his membership with another Baptist church, and then return to the church that excluded him to partake of the Lord’s Supper. The negative sanction against sinners, of withdrawing the fellowship of the Lord’s Table, is nullified in a church which allows Denominational Communion.
We see an example of this negative sanction in the case of the man who committed fornication with his father’s wife in 1 Corinthians 5. In discussing that case, the Apostle Paul instructed the Corinthians not to eat with such a person, 1 Cor. 5:11. Clearly Paul was not talking about the ordinary eating of meals with fornicators, since in 5:10 he states that it would be necessary to go out of the world to avoid all contact with such offenders. In the context, Paul is talking about eating at the Lord’s Supper, since in 5:8 he refers to “keeping the feast” with unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. It was necessary to deny the sinner this fellowship with the Lord’s church at the feast of the Lord’s Supper, in order that he might feel himself to have been delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit might be saved, 5:5.
Under the policy of Denominational Communion, this man might have placed his membership in another Baptist church down the road, perhaps the one in Athens, and then he would have had the right to come back to the church in Corinth and partake of the Lord’s Supper, with no logical reason to keep him out until he repented first.
Partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a serious business. Those who partake unworthily bring judgment on themselves, leading to illness or even death, 1 Cor. 11:29-30. We are not doing visitors to our churches a favor if we invite them to partake of something to which they are not entitled. In the case of our own members, we normally know whether or not they are worthy to partake without bringing judgment on themselves, but with respect to visitors from other churches, we really do not know.
When we come together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper “in the church,” it is important that we do so in a spirit of unity, 1 Cor. 11:18. This implies a united spirit among the members of the local church. In our own church we can be sure that there are no divisions and heresies of the type that the Apostle Paul forbids in his discussion of the divine plan for observing the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. But if we admit visitors from other churches, we do not really know if we still have the scripturally mandated unity or not.
We may be unwittingly admitting those who carry with them the leaven of malice and wickedness, whose presence at the Lord’s Table is forbidden by Paul in 1 Cor. 5:8.
In 2 Thessalonians 3:6 we are commanded to withdraw ourselves from the brothers who conduct themselves in a disorderly manner, contrary to apostolic tradition. The policy of Denominational Communion weakens that command, in that it permits disorderly Baptists to go to the Lord’s Supper in churches where they were not well-known, while evading any effort to make things right with the church that excluded them.
In 1 Cor. 10:17 Paul describes the partakers of the Lord’s Supper as “one body.” The one body, or body of Christ, is a reference to the Church at Corinth, 1 Cor. 12:27. The terms “body of Christ” or “one body” in the New Testament always refer to a local church, not to all Christians. When Paul refers to all Christians in all places, he uses term “family,” Ephesians 3:15. Paul never uses the terms “body” or Church” to refer to all Christians. These terms refer to the local assembly only. This will help us to understand that the Lord’s Supper was meant to be celebrated within the membership of the local church or body of Christ, not among Christians from different churches. With due respect to good men and good churches who practice a different policy, we find that the best plan for observance of the Lord’s Supper is that of Closed Communion for church members in good standing with the particular local assembly. It is more than a venerable tradition with us: it is a wise and scriptural policy.