Saturday, April 14, 2018

Open communion

I was recently asked if I thought baptism should be a precondition for communion. This goes to issues of open communion, closed communion, and fencing the table.

1. Scripture doesn't explicitly make baptism a prerequisite for communion. However, the reasoning is that baptism is logically and chronologically prior to communion inasmuch as baptism is the rite of initiation. It signifies entrance into the Christian life, whereas communion is for church members. Part of the ongoing, communal life of the church. Therefore, it makes sense that baptism should precede communion.

2. That can be a teaching opportunity. If a professing Christian or would-be communicant hasn't been baptized, that's an opportunity to discuss the nature of the sacraments, and how they're interrelated.   

3. Some denominations practice closed communion. For instance, I've attended confessional Lutheran churches. Since I don't meet their qualifications, I don't go forward for communion. That doesn't offend me. I don't feel excluded, even though I disagree with their sacramentology. I knew what to expect going in. No hurt feelings. 

I once attended a service at a breakaway Anglican church. There the condition for communion was membership in a church in apostolic succession. I don't believe in apostolic succession. Moreover, I found that requirement funny in context. Here was a splinter group with the most attenuated, artificial claim to be in apostolic succession.

4. For denominations that practice closed communion, enforcement can be tricky. Depends in part on the size of the church. If, in addition to the regulars, they have guests, the ministers know nothing about the guests. 

5. Historically, some Reformed churches grilled prospective communicants, then issued them a communion token to preauthorize them to take communion:

That's one way of fencing the table. One extreme.

6. It also depends in part on the format. When I attended a PCA church, it was the generic grape juice in plastic thimbles and bits of bread in trays passed down the pews from one parishioner to the next. Not much opportunity for policing who partook. 

7. The rationale for closed communion and fencing the table is the hazard of taking communion unworthily (1 Cor 11:27). Paul's says that may result in condemnation, illness, or even fatal illness. 

Policing communion depends on how unworthy communicants are defined. In liturgical churches, that's associated with communicants who don't subscribe to the real presence. But in the original context, it arguably has reference to parishioners mistreating fellow parishioners. "Body" is a double entendre for the church/congregation as well as the bread/communion element. Paul alternates.  

8. Some churches practice open communion. In principle, the minister could issue a warning. But how realistic that is depends on the frequency of communion. If a church has communion every time it meets for worship, it isn't very practical for a minister to issue a warning each time before communion, since that requires an explanation regarding what it means to take communion unworthily, and that prefatory explanation would be longer than the time it takes for the whole congregation to take communion. 

9. So it's basically an honor system. You abuse communion at your own risk. If some communicants spontaneously combust during the service, that might be an ominous giveaway!

10. There are some notoriously impenitent churchgoers who should be refused communion. But they usually attend theologically lax churches where that's no impediment to the Lord's table or membership in good standing. 

1 comment:

  1. The church I go practice open communion, inviting all protestants. But I think that maybe a letter of the pastor of the church should be necessary. I am thinking in enter in a confessional Lutheran Church. The closeness of communion somewhat bothers me, because they say that there is Christians in all denominations, including catholicism, and they say that communion is a very important mean of grace, but at the same time they deny the communion.