Thoughts On Closed Communion
Is the Communion Table open or closed? Since all Christians recognize the Communion Table is restricted to professing believers, at the exclusion of all unbelievers, it is safe to say that there is no such thing as a purely open Table. And, since all discerning Baptists recognize the Communion Table is restricted to professing Christians that have been baptized, at the exclusion of all other Christians, it is safe to say that there is no such thing as a purely open Table among Baptist churches. It therefore reeks of hypocrisy when the ‘Open Communionists’ accuse their brethren who subscribe to a restricted Table as being uncharitable, unkind, judgmental and legalistic. Unlike the open Communion Baptists who recognize only two restrictions on the Table (regeneration and baptism), I believe there are four restrictions—(1) An evidential profession of faith; (2) Baptism; (3) Membership with the local congregation; (4) Living as becometh a saint. These restrictions ultimately mean that the Communion Table is open only to the members of a particular church.
Rather than asking whether the Table should be open or closed, the real question is whether the Communion Table is a Christian right or a church privilege? At first, this question will appear to many as pointless. This is because many Christians do not make a distinction between Christians and the church—they use these terms interchangeably. In so doing, it is easy to understand why they believe the Communion Table should be open to all Christians, or all baptized Christians. However, if the church is something distinct from the universal grouping of all Christians, then the possibility of further restrictions on the Table should not be surprising. In order to decrease my work load of explaining the distinction between the terms Christian and church, I have chosen to quote in full the third chapter in J. A. Shackleford’s “Compendium of Baptist History”. I will then conclude my thoughts with a few closing statements.
Before proceeding further it will be necessary to examine into the meaning of the word “church.” This word has come to be used in such a broad sense that it takes in and is applied to any religious organization, or society, whether a Scriptural church or not.
By some writers it is made to “include the entire body of professed Christians.” By others it means “the spiritual congregation, or aggregate of the regenerate, including the saints in heaven, the saints on earth and the saints yet to come.” The general usage of the word at present justifies both of these definitions, but its Scriptural use does not, nor was the word so used in the time of Christ and his apostles.
In fact the word “church” is not found in the Greek New Testament, nor was it used for some two hundred years after the New Testament was written. This is one of the words which was not translated by King James’ translators, but “kept” under his third rule which required all the old ecclesiastical words to be kept and not translated. (See History of English Bible Translation, page 433.)
The English reader is, therefore, misled and looks in vain for such an organization in the Gospels, except when referred to by Christ himself in the 16th and 18th chapters of Matthew.
Dr. William Smith says the derivation of the English word church is uncertain, and that its first signification was the place of assembly, and afterwards imparted its name to the body of worshippers. It was most probably derived from the word kirk which signified a house of worship. The Greek New Testament nowhere conveys such an idea.
Where the word church occurs in the English New Testament we always find ekklesia in the Greek. The church of Christ, then, is Christ’s ekklesia. He said, “Upon this rock I will build my ekklesia,” and “tell it unto the ekklesia.” Hence if we would find Christ’s church, we have only to find his “ekklesia,” for it is one and the same thing.
We will, therefore, examine the Scriptural use of this word. Ekklesia is a compound from the preposition ek, which means from or out of, and the word kaleo, which means to call, or to call together. Hence we have the word ekklesia which conveys not only the idea to call out from, as to select from a number of individuals, but also to convene together, for a purpose. “The original Greek means a congregation, or assembly, good or bad.”—(Dr. A. Clarke.) Both ideas, the calling out and the convening together, are always conveyed by this word ekklesia.
It follows then, without the possibility of a mistake, that Christ’s ekklesia and Christ’s church were one and the same thing, and that having found his ekklesia we have found his church.
Soon after the temptations of Christ, and after he had entered upon his public ministry, he “was walking by the sea of Galilee when he saw two brethren, Simon, called Peter, and Andrew, his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers, and he said unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they straightway left their net and followed him. And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them, and they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him. “—Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-19. Here we find the first ekklesia. The circumstances of the calling comply fully with the conditions of the word ek-kaleo. Christ not only called these disciples, but he called them out from among the other disciples whom John had made, (see Luke 6:13,) and consequently called or convened them together. Thus is the idea of assembly carried out, which is always conveyed by the word ekklesia.
It will hardly be objected that these four were not a sufficient number to constitute a church, for the conditions of the word were fully complied with. We are told, however, that on the following day the Saviour called Philip.-—John 1:43. In Matthew 9:9, we have the account of his calling Matthew. Here we have the word kaleo translated call, from which the compound ekklesia is formed.
So Jesus continued until the twelve were called, whose names were as follows: Simon, surnamed Peter, and James, the son of Zebedee, and John, the brother of James, whom he surnamed Boanerges, which is the Son of Thunder, and Andrew and Philip and Bartholomew and Matthew and Thomas and James, the son of AIpheus, and Thaddeus and Simon the Canaanite, and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him.—Mark 3:13-18.
Having given a brief account of the calling of the disciples, it is proper to inquire from what class of persons Jesus selected them, as the word signifies that they were called out from other individuals. Nothing would be more absurd than to suppose that John would be sent to prepare a people to receive Jesus, and that having prepared a vast number for accepting him, the Son of God would select his disciples from among those who had rejected the teachings of John. If he selected his disciples from among those who accepted John’s teachings, and he evidently did, then he selected such as had been baptized at the hands of John. Luke expressly declares that “all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.”—Luke 7:29,30. “And when it was day he called unto him his disciples, and of them he chose twelve, whom he also named apostles.”—Luke 6:13.
It must be remembered that all whom John baptized were the disciples of Jesus, for John made no disciples unto himself. It is certainly plain, to any thinking mind, that Jesus selected disciples, or called them out from among the numbers who were baptized by John, and who had been prepared to receive him. It has been denied that the twelve were baptized, but the conclusion from the above evidence that they had been baptized by John, is irresistable.
There can be no doubt that these twelve disciples were Christ’s ekklesia, or church, because (1) he called them; (2) he called them out from the rest of the disciples; (3) they were convened together from time to time and associated together continually. They were, therefore, in the fullest sense of the word, an ekklesia, and therefore constituted Christ’s church. Throughout the entire New Testament the word church is used in this sense, always a body of baptized believers, called out and convened together.
The first recorded meeting of the first church is given in the fifth chapter of Matthew, when the Saviour preached unto them that ever memorable sermon “on the mount.” This was unquestionably a church meeting, for it was a meeting of the church, “apart from the multitude.” “And seeing the multitude he went up into a mountain, and when he was set his disciples came unto him, and he opened his mouth and taught them.”
There may have been others present besides the twelve, but the presence of others of his followers would have made it none the less a meeting of the church, for we are told that “his disciples came unto him and he taught them.” From this time they journeyed with Jesus almost continually, while he prepared them for the great work which was so soon to be committed into their hands.
Shackleford identifies the church as a local congregation of baptised believers following the commands of Christ. It should be noted, (1) the congregation (church) Christ organized during His earthly ministry had a small membership of thirteen souls—even though there were at that time many other ‘baptised believers’; (2) it was this congregation (church) that had been invited by Christ to the upper room where He instituted the Communion Table—even though He could have invited other believers for the occasion; (3) before He instituted the Communion Table, He exercised ‘church discipline’ by dismissing (excommunicating) Judas—Judas at this point had been singled out by Christ as living contrary to a saint; (4) when the Communion Table was instituted, Christ united the remaining members of His congregation (church), reminding them of their Head and Redeemer.
After Christ ascended to heaven, the eleven disciples (members of Christ’s congregation) returned to Jerusalem. This little congregation (church) that had been organised by Christ had grown to 120 members during the forty days the resurrected Saviour walked the earth. When the day of Pentecost had come, more than 3,000 souls were saved, and the same day they were baptised and added as members to the congregation (church). However, there were no purpose built facilities for such a large congregation to gather. Henceforth, this massive community of baptized Christians began meeting in one another’s homes—these were small house congregations (churches). These house churches eventually became autonomous congregations, whereby each congregation (church) became a self-governing body, under the headship of Christ, with an under-shepherd to guide, and a fully functioning membership that made up the ‘body of Christ’. Each local congregation was the ‘body of Christ’, representing on earth temporally, what will one day be gathered as one in heaven when Christ shall appear in the air. However, until Christ comes again to gather His people as one large local congregation, the congregation (church) that now exists on the earth is expressed in small local congregations of particular memberships, where those persons join together around the Communion Table, unifying in gospel truth and maintaining godliness by the exercise of biblical discipline.
I believe the Communion Table is restricted to the particular members of a local congregation (church), because it is an ordinance instituted by Christ for the local church (congregation). It is around the Communion Table, the members of a local congregation (church) promote unity, maintain discipline and remember their commission. Of what value are these benefits to a visitor? A visitor (baptized Christian) should feel the urge and longing to receive these benefits from his/her own local congregation (church family).
In closing, I would challenge the open Communion Baptist churches with consistency—if they believe non-members should be permitted to sit at the Communion Table, then they should be as open and charitable by permitting them to also participate in the other business of the church (electing officers, deciding finance, exercising discipline, etc).
Jared Smith served twenty years as pastor of a Strict and Particular Baptist church in Kensington (London, England). He now serves as an Evangelist in the Philippines, preaching the gospel, organizing churches and training gospel preachers.