Why Close Communion
And Not Open Communion
By O. L. Hailey, D. D.
Editor Arkansas Baptist
Little Rock, Arkansas
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized; and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and of prayers. - Acts 2:41-42.
Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you. - 1 Cor. 1:2.
BY close communion we mean that practice among Baptists in which they limit the participation in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, to those who are members in good standing in Baptist churches. And by open communion the practice of other denominations in which they give and accept invitations from members of other churches. I believe the practice of close communion as observed by the Baptists is right and proper, for several reasons.
1. BECAUSE IT IS SCRIPTURAL.
The Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance, and can be properly observed only as a church ordinance. And therefore those only who are members of a church can properly partake of it. It is an ordinance given by the Lord Jesus Christ to be observed by his churches and in his churches. And there is no instruction nor provision for extending the ordinance, or the observance of it to any other. Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of time and method of its establishment and full equipment, the Savior organized his church and prescribed its characteristics, established its laws, gave its doctrines, outlined its mission.
To his churches he gave the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, as a sacred trust, to be kept and observed till he shall return in personal presence to the earth again. And he has clearly indicated his will as to the character and qualifications of the persons who shall partake of it. I repeat he has indicated the character, thus showing that those without moral character, as for instance infants, were not prepared to partake of it; and qualifications, showing that certain experiences must precede the approach to the table.
The Bible summons all men to obey the Lord Jesus Christ. And to those who give heed these commands are given. ”Repent, believe, be baptised, do this in remembrance of me.” These occur in the same unfailing order. Where one is expressed alone, it presupposes all that go before it in this order. And where two or more occur together, they always stand, I think, in the order of their precedence, repentance preceding faith, repentance and faith preceding baptism, and repentance, faith and baptism preceding the ”do this in remembrance of me.” So that no one can begin in the middle of the series and proceed to the end without first obeying those that go before. No one could exercise faith unless preceded by repentance. I speak with respect to nature rather than time. Nor could one be Scripturally baptized until he has believed; nor properly approach the Lord’s table unless he had been previously baptized. The first active step for the sinner is repentance. The next is faith in the Lord Jesus as his Savior. Then comes baptism, and all these before the table. And since no one could be baptized without the assistance or cooperation of other parties, the Lord has provided for that. And his provision excludes the provision on the part of any others.
A little careful and discriminating thought will discover to us the reason for the order of these commands, for they are given in harmony with the nature of things. Let us examine these with reference to the last two, as just here there is some need of clear thinking. We say that no one is prepared to approach the Lord’s table until he has been properly baptized. The Savior’s commands make this true. But I think we can discover why his commands had to be given in this order, if they were to have the significance he intended to attach to them.
In baptism, as designed by the Lord, we are baptized into his death. This is symbolic of course. But symbols must represent realities. What is that reality? It is the consciousness of the death of Christ for our sin which we appropriate by a living faith. But there is at the same time another death, the death of the sinner to his old life of sin. He now is ”crucified with Christ.” And henceforth the life he lives is no more unto himself, but unto the Lord. He now for the first time has a vivid knowledge of the death of the Lord. And it so lays hold on him that he dies with him. And to represent this death, this first knowledge of his death, the man who died to sin, and died with Christ, is buried to sin, and is buried with Christ in baptism. But this death of the old life is the beginning of a new life. For he rises now with Christ to walk in a new life. Hence the Scriptures say that we were buried with Christ in baptism, wherein we are risen with him.
Now, and never before, is the believer ready to approach the Lord’s table. For at the Lord’s table he is to remember the Lord’s death, or if I may so express it, he is to reknow the Lord’s death. Baptism represents the first knowledge of the Lord’s death, and the Supper the subsequent reknowing or remembrance of it. It goes with the saying that a man could not remember what he had never known. Both his first knowledge of the Lord’s death, and his subsequent remembrance of that death are to be symbolized; the first knowledge of it by baptism and the second by the emblems of his broken body and shed blood. And it is appropriate that these symbols should have the same order of their realities. It is just this way that the Greek represents it. In English the prefix re means again, as recount means to count again. Now in English we do not use the word ”member” in the sense of ”know.” But ”re-member” in the sense of ”re know.” A* in the text ”do this in remembrance of me.”
Or again. Baptism symbolizes the beginning of the new spiritual life, or the new birth. And the Lord’s Supper symbolizes the sustenance of that life. And as we are born first and then nourished the ordinance which signifies birth ought to precede that which signifies nourishment.
2. BECAUSE IT PRESERVES DENOMINATIONAL INTEGRITY.
The Baptist denomination is held together by no ecclesiastical or episcopal organization. We are so many units of the same kind and as a denomination we are what we are because we believe something definite and distinctive. I might perhaps be allowed to say we hold a circle of views and convictions that differentiate us, from all the world, and so from all religious denominations. Our conception of what the Lord intended us to be, and desires us to be now, requires practices which characterize us. The very basic principle of our organic life is unfaltering obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that this is the truest and worthiest thing we can do; the wisest and best; the safest and most effective way to serve him, and to serve the world. For Jesus said, ”if ye love me keep my commandments.” And he said also, ”In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrine the commandments of men;” and again he asks, ”Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?”
Let no one think that we are willfully perverse, or that we do care nothing for the opinions, feelings or good will of others. We covet their highest good and their favorable opinion. But our convictions are imperative and they limit us. Are we charged with placing limitations on others? We have first placed them on ourselves. We ask nothing of anybody that each one of us has not personally performed. The Lord’s table in Baptist churches is open to all the world. But there is only one way to it. And whomsoever you see at the table in a Baptist church has come the same way. Try the Lord’s appointed way, repent, believe and be baptized and preserve an orderly walk, and you will find no bars across your way.
But we are asked to change our practice. Were we to change our practice, we should be compelled first to change the contents of our faith. But to change the contents of our faith, would be to change our very denominational nature, or constitution. And to do that would be but to make another and a different denomination. For our faith is a unit, which would be destroyed by a change. And Baptists do not believe that the multiplication of denominations has ever been conducive to the best interests of the Lord’s cause, nor the salvation of the world. Nor do we think such a change in our denomination would contribute to that end. But to abandon the principles which require close communion as a Baptist practice would destroy our denomination as such. And I do not think that even those who plead for open communion would ask it at that cost.
3. BECAUSE IT IS THE KINDEST AND MOST CHRISTIAN PROTEST WE CAN OFFER TO THOSE WHO DEPART FROM THE TRUTH.
It is remarkable that there should be occasion for saying that Baptists believe, and greatly rejoice in believing, that there are many, very many excellent Christians who are not Baptists. We heartily wish they were Baptists. And we are led to believe that many of them could become Baptists without any very great sacrifice of principles or convictions. And we believe convictions ought to control men.
Now many of these dear people seem to desire Baptists to so far depart from their practices as to eat the Lord’s supper with them, and invite them to eat with us. They have perfected an organization which they call a church and they are not satisfied until Baptists also recognize it as such. And because of the intimate relation between baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they perceive that to acknowledge one is practically to acknowledge the other. So they seek recognition at the table. We believe that it was a departure from the truth to organize any one of these. And that every one of these organizations hold and teach error. But at the same time we hold another cherished doctrine, which is known among us as Liberty of Conscience. We have always contended for this. And we believe it to be as much a right of other men as Baptists. So we can only enter our protest against their unscriptural organizations and the error which they teach. And the practice of close communion is the kindest and most Christian way in which we can do so. For by confining the Lord’s Supper to our own fellowship and refusing to accept their invitations we effectually manifest our dissent from their views and practices, and yet in no way interfere with their utmost freedom. This is no railing accusation. It is as mild as it can be made, and leaves them the utmost freedom of conscience. This practice of close communion is not of our own choosing, while it is most agreeable to our ideas of right. If there had been no other organizations started and asking to be recognized as churches, the terms would probably never have come into use. But they must properly conclude that for us to recognize them at the Lord’s table would be to recognize them as churches.
But is it not worthy of remark that this complaint is always urged against the Baptists, as if Baptist recognition was of special value? Who ever heard an open communionist complain about the close communion of any except Baptists? And yet Baptists are not the only close comnunionists. But they seem to feel especially the lack of recognition by the Baptists. To the thoughtful student this is a very significant concession to the claims of Baptists to be the true churches of the Lord.
4. BECAUSE TO EAT WITH THOSE NOT PREPARED TO COME TO THE LORD’S TABLE WOULD BE TO ENCOURAGE INDIVIDUALS TO THEIR OWN CONDEMNATION.
For whosoever eats this bread and drinks this cup when he is not prepared to do so, brings condemnation upon himself. The revised version of the New Testament puts it thus:
”Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body.” One who is not regenerated could not possibly discern the body as broken for him, or the blood as shed for the remission of his sins. One not baptized is not prepared to ”do this in remembrance” of the Lord, as we have seen before. Now if Baptists, by invitation, or by accepting the invitations of others should encourage such persons to partake of the emblems in this way, they would encourage such to bring condemnation upon themselves. And in so far as they influenced them, would be parties to their sin. There are other reasons why I believe that the practice of close communion is right rather than open communion. But with these I submit the case.