Why every church should practice “open” and “closed” communion

Does your church practice “open” communion or “closed” communion? 

That’s not an unusual question for people to ask. The terminology isn’t completely clear, but by “open” communion, people usually mean that all believers are invited to partake of the Lord’s Supper. “Closed” communion usually means that only members of that local church can partake. Sometimes there’s a middle position called “close communion”, where people who are church members in similar churches may partake. It gets at a very practical issue, and one of some importance to the life of a congregation. Advocates of “closed” communion often fear that “open” communion lends itself to consumer Christianity. Advocates of “open” communion often fear that “closed” communion leads to a narrow, sectarian mindset. I think both concerns are valid.

But more basically, I think the question itself is unhelpful. Rather than bringing clarity, it reveals a basic confusion about the Lord’s Table. It’s like asking: “should your front door be open or closed?”. The whole point of a door is that it does both: it opens and closes! A door that doesn’t open is a wall, and a door that doesn’t close is a hole. The same is true of the Lord’s Table. It’s not an either/or choice, but a both/and. 

In other words, the Lord’s Table is to be “open” and “closed” at the same time. It’s open to some and closed to others. This is exactly why Jesus gives his church the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16:19; 18:18). When the church preaches the gospel, she opens and closes the kingdom. She opens the doors wide to sinners who trust Christ, and she shuts the door in the face of the impenitent. Jesus clearly expects his church to do both – “to bind” and “to loose” (16:19; 18:18). He doesn’t leave admission to the church and her sacraments down to an individuals’ choice. My personal conscience isn’t the “key” to the kingdom. Christians don’t turn up at church on a Sunday carrying their own, personal set of “kingdom keys”! Jesus has given his “keys” to the church. 

That means someone’s admission to the Lord’s Table cannot simply rest on their own personal choice. It’s not just “between them and their Lord”. Of course, Paul talks about self-examination at communion in 1 Cor 11:28, “let a person examine himself” – not an elder or congregational examination. But Paul is clear that the church has the duty to stop an impenitent person “who bears the name of brother” from sitting at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 5:11-13). That means that, ultimately (on earth, not in heaven!), the church decides who comes to the Table.

Now, how that cashes out on any given Sunday, with visitors and strangers turning up at a church service, could vary from place to place. But it is important that whoever is administering the Lord’s Supper recognises what they’re doing. They’re holding a set of keys, which need to be used carefully. To simply leave all questions of admission down to the individual’s choice is irresponsible, like leaving the front door to your house wide open. But Jesus calls us to use the keys so that his Table is both opened wide to citizens of his kingdom, and closed shut to the spiritual DIY-ers, lone rangers, and the ignorant.

That’s why faithful administration of the Lord’s Supper requires both “open” and “closed” communion.