Open & Closed Communion
In some congregations and denominations of Christendom, they have what is called “closed Communion.” This means that if you do not belong to their congregation or denomination, you cannot take communion in that place.
The restriction is ancient. That needs to be said. It goes back as far as the Apostolic Fathers at the end of that first century. “You must not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who are baptized in the Lord’s name.” So says the Didachē, the oldest catechism there is. Justin Martyr says, “nobody is allowed to partake of the food we call Eucharist except those who believe that the things we teach are true, and has been washed with the washing that is for the forgiveness of sins and rebirth, and is living as Christ enjoined” (First Apology 66).
As part of the order of worship, a note is sometimes included that is called “Fencing the Table”, which reminds people not to take communion if they are not members in good standing.
I confess that I have found that disturbing. There have been times when I have been visiting the other parts of God’s family, when I have been asked not to partake because I do not belong. I feel a deep sadness of heart, because I do belong to the whole church, because I belong to God. And when I am “dis-membered” by any part of God’s family, I feel the walls that divide us made even higher.
The churches that I have participated in all my life, have declared its communion services “open”. Open to all who follow God. Open to anyone who professes to be a Christian.
But some of us have wanted go one step further, as John Wesley did, and create a communion table “open” to anyone who even desires to become a Christian, whether or not they have been baptized. John Wesley knew that communion could be a convertingsacrament as well as a confirming sacrament. Communion could serve as a means of grace for even the non-Christian. It may well be the reason a communion rail serves also as a place for an altar call in some of our churches.
In one letter John Wesley writes:
- That the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God to be a means of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities.
- That the persons for whom it was ordained are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls to the image of God.
- That as much as we come to his table, not to give him anything, but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary but a desire to receive whatsoever he pleases to give.
- That no fitness is required at the time of communicating but a sense of our state, our utter sinfulness and helplessness, everyone who knows he is fit for hell being fit to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.”
A friend of mine confesses to eavesdropping on a conversation. He remembers Robert Webber relating a story from his early time at Wheaton. He had decided to drop in to a 5:00 pm Eucharist service at a small Episcopalian church near the college on a Friday afternoon. There were a few people in attendance and when the priest gave the invitation for people to move forward to receive the elements, one fellow sitting near the front, who was very inebriated, staggered up to the rail and the priest served him. The man then stood and staggered back to his seat. This really incensed Robert and after the service ended he sought out the priest and confronted him. He said to the priest, “Do you know what you just did?” The priest replied, “No, what did I do?” Robert said, “You served that man communion while he was drunk!” The priest tapped Robert in the middle of his chest with “a long bony finger” and said, “You’ve got a problem.” This made Robert all the more angry. He said, “I’ve got a problem! I’ve got a problem! You are the one serving communion to drunk people!” Robert said the old priest looked at him and said quietly, “You’ve got the wrong view of the church. You want everyone all cleaned up before they come through the door. But the church is God’s hospital for society. And the elements He has provided for healing of society are the water, oil, wine, bread, and prayer.” And with that he stuck that long bony finger in the middle of Bob’s chest again and said, “You need to change your view of the church.” Robert said that stopped him right there and all he could say was, “Wow!” Robert related how that did change his view of the church. He came to the place that when people would come to him for counseling or help he would always tell them to “flee to the Eucharist”. Grace upon grace! What a glorious gift from our Father.
Jesus served communion, we presume, to Judas the betrayer, to Peter the deny-er, and to ten other disciples who were cowards. Sinning saints? True of all saints! As the ancient liturgy says “Whosoever will, let him/her come and take this sacrament to their comfort and humbling kneeling, make their humble confession to Almighty God.”
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be Thy name.
Thy Kingdom come;
Thy will be done,
In earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil.
For Thine is the kingdom
And the power and the glory, Forever.