by: Pastor David Huffstutler
There are three labels that describe how churches
practice communion with respect to who participates
or not: unrestricted, restricted, and strict. We know
them more commonly as open, closed, and close.
Unrestricted or open communion allows any
believer to participate in a church’s communion. It is unrestricted and
open to all who profess Christ. We have three objections to this view.
First, if no restrictions are given, then baptism is downplayed because it
not necessary to this communion. No one knows whether or not a given
participant may or may not have been affirmed in his or her salvation
(which is pledged in baptism – cf. 1 Peter 3:21) by the host church or
some other church.
Second, if no restrictions are given, then church membership is
downplayed as well. Opening communion to someone who is not
baptized and thus not confirmed by other believers in their salvation
functionally says that the affirmation of other believers is not important to
one’s salvation. Open communion thus devalues the notion of formal
unity in a local church.
Third, unrestricted communion downplays the role of church discipline.
If a participant’s baptism and thus the affirmation of salvation by other
believers are not necessary for communion, then the continued role of
other believers in keeping the participant accountable for godliness is not
necessary either. Were a participant to be living in persistent, open sin,
the unity expressed in open communion (1 Corinthians 10:16–17) would
be false, since persistent, open sin requires a church to exclude the
individual from its fellowship since such a one is no believer at all
(e.g., Matt 18:15–18; 1 Cor 5:1–11) or, at best, a sinning brother who has
forfeited his right to fellowship in general and thus communion in
particular (2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14–15).
Restricted or closed communion allows only members of the presiding
church to participate in communion. While this practice theoretically
guarantees the purity of the ordinance, the NT suggests a better option
is strict or close communion, which allows for a church to open
communion beyond its own membership to other Christians who are
members of a church of like faith and practice. We see this option in the
practice of Paul who was mostly accountable to Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1–3;
14:26–28) and yet participated in communion at Troas (Acts 20:7, 11)
and Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:23) and likely all the churches he visited.
Stated in brief, close communion assumes baptism, which assumes a
profession of Christ and the confirmation of that profession by a church
who administered that baptism. This church would then be responsible for
ongoing accountability, which assumes church membership and even
church discipline if necessary. As we have seen, a proper observation of
communion through strict or close communion carries with it the
safeguarding of these important features of our theology of the church.
All quotes ESV. Articles by Pastor Huffstutler are at davidhuffstutler.com.