I like to have a set of simple, common-sense rules that help life run smoothly. Things like “don’t keep people who cause drama around,” or “don’t spend time where you’re not welcome.” I have not been to a church that practices closed communion in a while, but the last time I did I was keenly aware just how unwelcome I was. I left before the service ended, and frankly I don’t think I would visit there again.
I am defining closed communion as any practice that excludes fellow baptized Christians from participating over doctrinal differences. This is usually rationalized as “protecting” people, and I am sure many people buy that, but I am convinced that this practice is in reality about protecting the egos of those enforcing it.
Consider the following observations.
1. Nowhere in scripture is this recommended
Usually closed communion is defended by quoting a section of 1 Corinthians 11:
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (ESV)
That does sound pretty bad. However, when in context it sounds even worse for those who don’t want to make space at the table for visitors or those who are different. The issue actually being addressed in this passage is specifically people who are going ahead and partaking in communion with no concern for other people. To avoid partaking in an “unworthy manner,” Paul recommends “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (verse 33). Be considerate, be welcoming, look out for your fellow Christians to make sure they get to participate.
It is supremely ironic that this passage is used to justify excluding others.
2. It’s literally not what Jesus did
Go have a look at the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the gospels. Ever notice who is there? Judas is, and Jesus knows all about the betrayal thing. So if even Jesus himself doesn’t bar Judas from participating, where do modern-day denominations get off excluding others over petty doctrinal differences?
3. Closed Communion wasn’t a concern of early Christians
One of the earliest church teachings on communions is found in The Didache, which may be as old as the first century. This document is revealing about the the concerns of the organized church during early tradition development. Regarding the Eucharist, the Didache instructs to not let A) non-Christians and B) two quarreling people participate together. These are a couple common-sense rules for a peaceful Christian celebration.
No sign of concerns over petty doctrine differences.
4. Closed communion was invented for political reasons
So when does closed communion show up if not in scripture or in the earliest church teachings? Someone more expert in church history may be able to think of an earlier example, but the earliest I am aware of was at the first ecumenical council: The Council of Nicea.
Here several people were excommunicated over the Arian controversy, and this was enforced by the Roman Emperor. Not by Christ, not by Paul, not by the early traditions. Constantine did not want inconvenient arguments in the church, and it seems that littler denominational tyrants have seen the advantage to such a solution ever since.
Now, I’m as happy as the next guy to recite the Nicean Creed, but frankly I’m not sure that this sort of political move has ever been the right response to people with questions about it.
So suffice to say that I find it extremely refreshing to be a part of a church these days where all Christians are truly welcome. We have a great line in the Anglican liturgy: “The gifts of God for the people of God.” That means all Christians being welcome at the table, and all egos being checked at the door.