By David Pyles
There are various views in the denominational world concerning what is proper participation in a communion service.
Some believe it should consist only of members of the local church. This view seems overly restrictive to me, but I recognize the right of any church to have such a policy and will say nothing here against it. Another view is that communion should consist only of those of like faith and practice. This has been the traditional view of Primitive Baptists. They have communed only with members of the local church or members of other Primitive Baptist churches. I shall call this view “close” communion. The third view maintains that communion should be open to all who would wish to participate. This is called “open” communion. In some instances, those holding this view may impose restrictions on participation, but they are still considered as practicing open communion so long as there is interdenominational participation.
The practice of close communion is commonly charged as being unreasonable, unsociable and bigoted. It is especially criticized in this ecumenical age in which doctrinal differences are considered to be of no significance and individual rights have been expanded to include even the right to be wrong. Because of its unpopularity, close communion has been abandoned for open communion in many denominational churches. However, I hope to show that close communion is in fact required by biblical principles. Those who practice open communion are either ignorant of these principles or are unduly concerned about pleasing man.
The supporting evidence for close communion begins with the very first communion service. None were present at this service but the Lord and His Apostles. Though the Lord Jesus commonly preached to multitudes of mixed doctrinal sentiment and mixed character, this was not the composition of the first communion. The participants to this service included only believers of like faith and practice. This suggests that the congregations to which we preach and the congregations with which we should commune are not necessarily the same.
We may conclusively establish that a preaching service and a communion service may differ in composition simply by considering the commandment of Paul to the Corinthians:
I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. – 1 Cor. 5:9-11
There is certainly no commandment prohibiting us from preaching to fornicators, covetous, etc; rather, it is our understanding that the purpose of preaching is to lead these offenders to repentance, but we are commanded that with such we are not to eat. Bible expositors are varied in their opinions concerning the extent of the word eat, but they nearly all agree that it at least includes communion. Hence, this scripture clearly establishes the principle that communion is not a service to be made open to the general public. It is not the same as an ordinary worship service in this regard.
This idea is carried further by examination of the first communion services occurring after the resurrection. These were described with the words:
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 stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. – Acts 2:41,42
The communicants here consisted only of those who had been baptized and added to the church, and who continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship. There is not a hint of scriptural evidence that these qualifications were ever changed for any valid New Testament communion thereafter. There is no scriptural evidence that any valid communion ever included unbaptized individuals or those who had departed from the Apostle’s doctrine. Indeed, there is scriptural proof to the contrary.
In his reprimand of the Corinthians for their abuses of the Lord’s Supper, the Apostle Paul began with the words:
Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. – 1 Cor. 11:17-20
These verses and the context in which they are found verify that Paul was discussing what the Corinthians considered to be the Lord’s Supper. Paul declared that in fact it was not the Lord’s Supper but was nothing more than a farce. A crucial feature of the last sentence (i.e. vs 20) is the word therefore. It connects Paul’s rejection of the Corinthian communion service with what he had said before. It is the Greek word oun which W.E. Vine defines as, “a particle expressing sequence or consequence…” The Corinthian communion was rendered void as a consequence of their schismatic state and the heresies they sanctioned. In subsequent verses, Paul further charged them with reducing this service to a common meal and a drunken spectacle. These abuses also contributed to the invalidation of their practice, but the presence of the word therefore in verse 20 implies that divisiveness and heresy were the root causes of the Corinthian downfall.
The implications of these verses are clear: If there is what pretends to be a communion service, but there are some participants who believe in infant baptism while others reject it, or some reject the doctrine of predestination while others affirm it, or some advocate human means in eternal salvation while others denounce it, or some support unscriptural institutions while others oppose them, and when these differences are otherwise considered as tests of fellowship and grounds for denominational distinction, then this service is not the Lord’s Supper. It merely pretends to be the Lord’s Supper and should be rejected by anyone claiming to be apostolic in practice.
Notice also that Paul later said in the same context:
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. – 1 Cor. 11:28,29
This fully corroborates what has already been said. A man who has not repented and has not submitted to baptism obviously has not examined himself sufficiently. The same may be said of man who has not continued steadfastly in the Apostle’s doctrine and fellowship (Acts 2:42). Such persons are at risk of communing to their own condemnation, and to admit such persons to communion is to be an accomplice to their destruction.
Some advocates of open communion have defended themselves by misusing Paul’s commandment that a man should examine himself. It is their claim that this means it is not the place of the church to render judgment in the matter but that self examination is alone sufficient. This is an unreasonable claim because Paul elsewhere commanded the church not to eat with fornicators, idolaters, etc (1 Cor. 5:9-11), from which it is clear that the church has a right and obligation to assert discretion in the matter. When Paul enjoined people to examine themselves, this was a statement of what they should do as individuals, but it is a universal principle of scripture that when individuals neglect to do what they should do, then the church and its members have a right and obligation to correct them or censure them.
Open communion is furthermore a violation of clear scriptural commandments that we are not to endorse or sanction heresies or those who promote them. Such commandments include:
Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. – Rom. 16:17
The word avoid obviously does not mean to mistreat them, or to omit them from our prayers, or to deny them the usual measures of gospel correction. It means that we are to avoid anything that might be reasonably construed as approbation of their error. What then could be a more flagrant violation of this commandment than to commune with them? If the word avoid carries any significance at all, then surely it includes communion.
The Greek word from which communion is translated (koinonia) basically means “fellowship” and is so rendered in numerous places in the Bible. Therefore, to commune with a heretic either means to fellowship the heretic or else the service has been changed from what the Bible intended it to mean. Accordingly, to commune with a fornicator, idolater, etc, either implies that the offender is being fellowshipped or else it implies that what we are calling “communion” is not in fact what the Bible means by communion.
Some will surely say that fellowshipping the individual is not the same thing as fellowshipping his doctrine. While I allow that this could be the case in certain activities, it cannot be the case in all activities. Observe that John said:
If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed. For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds. – 2 Jn. 10,11
Thus we learn that there are circumstances in which fellowship of an individual implies fellowship with the doctrine and deeds of that individual. If the communion service is not one of such circumstances, then I fail to see where the text could ever be applicable. If John would state the above concerning a blessing upon a heretic, then surely he would have strenuously objected to communion with a heretic. I realize that John would not have us to mistreat such individuals, and that Paul commanded us to use meekness when instructing those who oppose themselves (2 Tim. 2:25), but this is not the same thing a fellowshipping them. The Bible clearly teaches that we are not to fellowship heresy. Communion is most definitely fellowship. This is what the word means.
By a “heretic” I mean anyone who does not believe what John called this doctrine. Now upon what basis is any denominational line drawn except for a charge of departure from this doctrine? This is the basis claimed by everyone who has erected a denominational barrier. It is therefore inconsistent to draw a denominational line against an individual but to then commune with them. Either the denominational line is wrong or the communion is wrong.
Accordingly, this doctrine must include everything viewed as essential to soundness and that would therefore serve as a basis of denominational distinction. This includes not only beliefs concerning doctrine but also concerning church practice. If two denominational bodies are equal in all such essentials, then they should not be divided. If they are not equal in all essentials, they could not commune with each other.
This implies that for all practical purposes Primitive Baptists should commune only with Primitive Baptists. When the full spectrum of doctrines and practices is considered, there is no denominational body that is equal to Primitive Baptists in all essentials.
This view will be judged as hard and unreasonable by many, but I contend it is required by biblical principle. Even those who believe in close communion wish to please others, to be accepted of others, and to refrain from offending others. These are all good characteristics, but they are not to be exercised without limits. To any who would be unduly influenced by such concerns, I would urge that those who stand by scriptural principle are never to be blamed for the divisions that exist between people. Where people are divided, it is generally because some have chosen to follow preference instead of principle, or to follow convenience rather than conscience. Principles unite people. Preferences divide people. As long as people exist, there will be some who prefer blue over yellow, and others who prefer yellow over blue. Some will prefer fish over beef, while others will prefer beef over fish. Therefore, whenever a man bases his religious beliefs and practices merely upon his personal preferences, then be sure that conflict and division will ensue, because there will surely be another man preferring another way. We do not practice close communion because it is our preference. We practice close communion because we feel constrained by scriptural principle to do so. As this practice is based upon scriptural principle, it is a point around which people can be united. Open communion is the product of human preference. This being the case, it is not only hypocritical in that it pretends a state of unity that does not exist, but it will actually tend toward further disunity.