Open Communion or Close Communion?

When it comes to the observation of the Lord’s Supper, there are three different options the local church can choose from: open communion, close communion, or closed communion. Open communion means that anyone who claims to be a Christian may receive the Lord’s Supper, close communion is the belief that only believers who have been baptized and are members of a local church can receive communion, and closed communion says that only members of that local church may receive communion. Closed communion is rarely practiced today and this was not the practice of the first century church since Paul had communion with many different churches wherever he went without having to first become a member of that church (Acts 20:7; 3 John 1:5-6).

Therefore this article will just focus on open communion versus close communion. The problem with this debate is that there were no unbaptized people claiming to be Christians in the first century since baptism immediately followed conversion and infant baptism did not exist then. So should a person who was “baptized” as an infant and therefore has not received true baptism be invited to the Lord’s Supper if they visit a baptist church?

To be faithful to Scripture, I believe the answer must be no. This is the position of the Baptist Faith and Message, the statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention. I think William Kiffin in his book Sober Discourse of Right to Church-Communion does a fine job of presenting the close communion position. In this work, Kiffin seeks to demonstrate that “no unbaptized person may be regularly admitted to the Lord’s Supper.” Kiffin’s main argument against open communion is rather simple: unbaptized persons cannot receive the Lord’s supper because there is no warrant for it in the Word of God, but rather, baptism preceded church communion in Acts 2:41-42 and to do otherwise is to violate the regulatory principle of worship.

The apostolic example laid down for believers is still binding on Christians today because the traditions of the apostles are to be passed down to future generations (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; 2 Tim 1:13; 2:2). Christians are not free to worship God or conduct church any way that they please. To do otherwise is to “cast a blemish upon the wisdom of Christ, as if we were wiser to order things than He.” The regulatory principle of worship is central to Kiffin’s argument. Kiffin adopts the succinct definition of the regulatory principle from puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs: “All things in God’s worship must have a Warrant out of God’s Word.”

Not only does God forbid worship contrary to his Word, but also that which goes beyond it. Only God himself knows the proper way in which he is to be worshiped, and he must reveal that to his people. Baptism is essential to church communion because “There is no precept directly or consequentially commanding us to receive any member without [it].”

In Hebrews 6:2, baptism is listed as one of the first principles of Christianity itself. Baptism comes first before instruction in all that Christ teaches (Matt 28:19-20). Throughout Acts, “baptism in point of order and time, is the very next ordinance to believing.” Therefore, to receive into communion the unbaptized reverses the divinely revealed order of Acts 2:41-42. Because God has chosen to make known to his people the apostolic pattern of baptism preceding church communion, Christians must obey it since “where a rule and express law is prescribed to men, that very prescription is an express prohibition of the contrary.” Open communionists therefore fall under the judgment of Christ for their human tradition which makes “void the Word of God” concerning the divine order of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Mark 7:13).

If unbaptized persons are allowed into church communion, then this would violate Paul’s command in 2 Thessalonians 3:6, “that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” Kiffin also rightly sees that church communion with the unbaptized makes baptism itself unnecessary: “For if unbaptized persons may be admitted to all church privileges, does not such a practice plainly suppose that it is unnecessary? For to what purpose is it to be baptized (may one reason with himself) if he may enjoy all privileges without it?” There are many modern false practices which Scripture does not condemn because they did not exist then. To say that an unbaptized person may be admitted to membership because the Scripture nowhere explicitly forbids such persons is an argument from silence which abandons the regulatory principle of worship.

By way of analogy, Kiffin also argues that because baptism is a sign of regeneration, and regeneration is the beginning of the Christian life, baptism should likewise be at the beginning of the Christian life. In chapter four of his work, Kiffin demonstrates that receiving the Lord’s Supper before baptism goes “against the practice of all Christians in all ages.” Not only is the evidence of Scripture against open communion, but all of church history as well. By giving the Lord’s Supper or membership to the unbaptized, the church departs from the model laid down in Scripture (Acts 2:41-42). The church must maintain the apostolic traditions because they ultimately come from Christ himself (1 Cor 11:1-2). Though paedobaptists believe that they are baptized, baptists know that they are not. An unbaptized person is an unbaptized person whether they realize it or not. Should unbelievers be allowed to receive baptism because they think that they are believers?

The practical problem we have today is that we have people walking around claiming to be Christians who are unbaptized unlike the first century church. In those passages of Scripture which speak of baptism, it is presupposed that all Christians have been baptized (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:38-44; Rom 6:1-4; 1 Cor 1:13-16; Gal 3:27; Eph 4:5; Col 2:12; Heb 6:1-2; 1 Pet 3:21). To not have been baptized, and yet claim to be a Christian, would have been unthinkable in the days of the apostles. As Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you” (Luke 6:46)? The Scriptural teaching is that baptism is the initiating ordinance by which Christians enter into the visible church while the Lord’s Supper is the sign of the continual fellowship of Christians with one another in the church. Therefore to give membership or the Lord’s Supper to the unbaptized is to go against the teaching and practice of the apostles. Because it is “the Lord’s supper,” he defines the rules for who is and who is not allowed to eat.

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