Communion: Open or Closed?

Who should be allowed to receive communion?

It’s a question that comes up frequently in church circles, occasionally bursting into mainstream media. Among Mennonites, the question is typically framed like this: should the Lord’s Supper be “closed” only to the baptized, or should it be “open” to the un-baptized?*

Both sides are motivated by good impulses.

The best impulse of the closed communion folks is to protect abused, violated, or at-risk people among them from being forced to share the Lord’s Table with their oppressors. The best impulse of the open communion folks is to ensure that those often pushed out of church circles are welcome to share in the full life of the church. One side wants to protect the vulnerable, the other wants to remove barriers for the marginalized.

Of course, there are less admirable impulses on both sides as well.

Closed communion churches can be motivated by a desire of the powerful to maintain the status quo, gatekeeping to keep out undesirables. Open communion churches can be motivated by a bland form of acceptance or tolerance, unwilling to hold to account those among them living lives based on abuse of power, violence, greed, or injustice.

A simplistic “the Bible is clear on this” is another less-than-admirable motivation. It’s also not true.

Closed communion churches tend to point to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians. The wealthy among the Corinthian believers had been coming to their shared meals early, filling up on food and wine and leaving nothing for the poorer Christians who had to work until late. Paul’s words are harsh and pointed: this abuse of the poor is a travesty of the Lord’s Supper, and the wealthy offenders must “examine themselves” to root out greed and inequity and “discern the body” of which all are equal members.

Yet Paul doesn’t tie his comments to baptism. Sure, it’s likely nearly everyone present at these communion meals was baptized. After all, baptism in Corinth, like elsewhere among the first generation of Christians, was probably as straightforward as professing belief in Jesus and being baptized as soon after as possible. But still, while Paul elsewhere does ground ethical appeals in baptism, he doesn’t do so with the Lord’s Supper. This could be because Paul in 1 Corinthians is reluctant to make too much of baptism: it was one of the things people were using to distinguish their partisan takes on Christian faith and life, aligning themselves with the one who baptized them. We may wish to ground communion theologically in baptism, but there’s no direct basis in 1 Corinthians (or anywhere in the New Testament, for that matter) for doing so.

Open communion churches tend to point to the stories of Jesus’ shared meals in the Gospels. Jesus became known as a “friend of sinners” and a “glutton and drunkard” because of his meals with those considered “least” and “last” and “lost” by the powers-that-be, turning patron-client and honour-shame conventions around meals on their head. He likewise told stories of God’s reign being like a meal in which those on the lowest rungs of society were welcomed. And the Last Supper, on which the Lord’s Supper is based, was a hodge-podge of disciples, sinners and tax-collectors and oft-despised Galileans themselves.

Yet the Last Supper doesn’t provide a perfect example of an “open” meal. While women disciples may have been present on the periphery, only male disciples are mentioned at table with Jesus. And yes, Jesus broke bread with a tax collector who had been on the side of Roman oppression and at least one Zealot who had been on the side of violence in opposition to Rome, but Jesus had called them to repentance and had lived and taught a radical alternative to these opposites. And sure, Jesus knowingly broke bread with both his denier and his betrayer, yet that act in itself could not keep these men from their actions. In fact, as closed-communion advocate Melissa Florer-Bixler has wryly noted, John’s Gospel pointedly states that it was “after [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him.”

No, the Bible is not as clear on open versus closed communion as we might like it to be.

Still, these biblical texts highlight at least two realities all Mennonites (and all Christians) should take to heart.

First, regardless of a church’s stance on communion, we are called both to hold abusers of power to account and to remove barriers for the marginalized. We can tie these into our theology and practice of communion if we wish, but we had better be doing more than that in our wider theology and practice as a church. If unjust oppressors only feel uneasy when it comes time for communion, or if those cast aside by society only feel welcome when it comes time for communion, we’re not doing church right.

And second, Paul’s approach to baptism and communion strikes me as more Mennonite than some Mennonites. Some among us have almost made an idol of baptism and/or communion, even if we’re now more tolerant than we used to be about modes of baptism or ways of doing communion. Paul’s reluctance to make much of baptism in 1 Corinthians when he does so elsewhere is one of several examples of his ad hoc pastoral theology. Consistent, Paul was not. Or rather, Paul was guided by underlying values that overrode his commitment to particular forms or rituals.

And this, my Mennonite friends, is a very Mennonite way to approach church life. Our early Mennonite and other Anabaptist forebears were among the “radical Reformers,” striving for faithfulness to the words and ways of Jesus beyond any other form of religious (or political, economic, cultural, social) commitment.

If one congregation discerns that in their context closed communion allows them to live more faithfully to the way of Jesus, then peace be upon them. Likewise if a congregation discerns that open communion is where they need to be to follow Jesus faithfully in their setting: may they be blessed in this.

If, however, your church is making this decision out of more base impulses—powerful people gatekeeping those deemed undesirable, an unwillingness to confront injustice or abuse, even “the Bible is clear” or “it’s in our Confession of Faith” or “we’ve always done it this way”—then I encourage you to re-visit this question.

Regardless of where we end up as churches on open versus closed communion, may we be motivated by the love of Jesus, a way of love that pays special attention to the disempowered and calls to account the powerful, that seeks to orient our way of life together around God’s ways of equity and justice, so that we might all together participate in God’s reign of justice and peace and flourishing life.

*I realize there are other ways of defining “open” and “closed” communion, but for Mennonites baptism is where the line is typically drawn. I realize, too, that this debate is not confined to Mennonites, and that sometimes the question is whether a baptized member can be refused communion.

Eugène Burnand, The Great Banquet

Love Builds Up

Looking ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, I’m struck by the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.

It’s a fairly well known text, but a strange one. Paul is dealing with the issue of meat that has been sacrificed to a god or goddess in one of Corinth’s many temples. Corinthian Christians could get this meat at a discount in the local market. Should they buy it? Should they eat it? Should they eat it if someone offers it to them in their home? Should they attend a feast in one of these temples, and eat this meat there? (Should I eat it in a house? Should I eat it with a mouse?)

We all know what it’s like to live and worship together with others who have different religious sensibilities than ours. The thing that really matters to that person might not matter at all to me. But then there’s that thing which I think is really important—why can’t this person see how important it is? So much of church life is navigating these diverse sensibilities, around liturgy, mission, theology, and whether Henry should really be the one leading the singing over Zoom since God knows he can never hit those high E-flats.

The words that struck me this time are the words Paul opens with: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

How often does my knowledge, my certainty that I am right, puff me up in arrogant condescension of others? How often, then, do I miss the knowledge which is really most necessary—the knowledge of God through love? When we act in love for God—devotion to God through compassion for others—then we find we not only know God truly, we are truly and fully known by God.

Fifteen Lessons I Learned (or Learned Again) in Teaching on the Cross this Lent

Through Lent this year I taught a Bible study on “The Meaning of the Cross.” We packed a lot into four weeks! We talked about crucifixion in the ancient world and the specific circumstances surrounding Jesus’ execution on a Roman cross. We talked about the theological puzzle this created for the early Christians (“Christ crucified by humans, yet raised from the dead by God—what?!”). We talked about various explanations Christians have given through history of the saving significance of Jesus’ death (“atonement models” or “theories”). This included a particular focus on (and critique of) the dominant model in modern western Protestant circles, Penal Substitution—that on the cross Jesus took our place, taking God’s punishment for our sin and appeasing God’s wrath against us for our sin.

I may create some posts from all this down the road, we’ll see. For now, though, here are fifteen lessons I learned (or learned again) in teaching on the cross through Lent (and yes, these are tweetable!):

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #1: All atonement metaphors and models reflect the culture in which they were developed. Yes, this includes Penal Substitution. Yes, it also includes recent nonviolent models. It even includes biblical metaphors.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #2: How we understand the problem determines how we understand the solution. In the NT the root problem is not “hell” or “guilt” but “sin,” all the ways we harm others/creation. The solution? Rescue from harm, restoration to wholeness.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #3: In the OT there are many bases for God’s forgiveness of sins/appeasement of God’s wrath: remorse (Ps 32), persuasion (Num 14), repentance (Jon 3), animal sacrifice (Lev 4-6), and even killing someone with proper zeal (Num 25).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #4: There are many different kinds of blood sacrifices in the OT. Several of them had nothing to do with sin—ritual purification, thanksgiving gift, and covenant ratification, for instance.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #5: *God did not kill Jesus.* In fact, the NT consistently, emphatically declares that *humans* killed Jesus—*God* raised Jesus from the dead.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #6: Rarely if ever does the NT clearly, directly say that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s wrath, or took our punishment, or paid our penalty. One might develop a model that logically requires this, but it’s not stated.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #7: The gospel preaching of Acts describes Jesus’ death as something humans did to Jesus, not something Jesus did for us. Forgiveness of sins in Acts is dependent on our repentance, and is based on Jesus’ exaltation not his death.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #8: The gospel tradition of 1 Cor 15:3-4, including “Christ died for our sins,” was a kind of “preaching summary” of the apostolic gospel—not a full-blown theology of salvation.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #9: In the NT Jesus’ death “for us” or “for our sins” most often simply means “for our benefit” or “in relation to our sins.” Anything more is implied from its context—or read into from our context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #10: The NT uses many different metaphors to describe Jesus’ death. All of them relate Jesus’ death to “our sins” in some way. Most of them, however, don’t do this in a “sacrifice for sins” kind of way.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #11: The Gospels don’t give much basis for Penal Substitution: Jesus rejected lethal violence and punitive justice, he agreed with the prophetic rebuke of blood sacrifice, and he forgave sins freely on God’s behalf—even his own murder!

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #12: Some Jews in Jesus’ day disputed the legitimacy of the Temple and its sacrifices. All Jews soon after Jesus’ day saw repentance and acts of mercy as “atoning,” no blood sacrifice required. Jesus fits right within this context.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #13: The dominant metaphors used by Jesus in the Gospels for interpreting his death were related to liberation from oppressive powers (Passover, Exodus, “ransom/redemption,” “new covenant”).

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #14: The dominant imagery used by Jesus in the Gospels for applying his death is “identification/participation”: Jesus stands with the sinned-against, and Jesus calls us to follow him in taking up our cross.

Lessons (re)learned in teaching on the cross #15: The dominant interpretation of Jesus’ death in the NT is that it is a revelation of love: it shows God’s (and Jesus’) love for us, and it compels us to respond with love for God and for others—neighbours, strangers, even enemies.

How to put this all together? Well, I do have a few thoughts on that. As I said, I might get to developing some blog posts along those lines. In the meantime, however, you can check out a couple of past posts of mine on the cross: “The Foolishness of the Cross” and “‘Jesus Died for Our Sins’: Sketching Out Atonement.”

Gaia’s Story

Temple of Apollo, Acrocorinth in background (Holy Land Photos)

Temple of Apollo, Acrocorinth in background (Holy Land Photos)

Over the past six weeks I have been preaching through 1 Corinthians 1-3. I’ve done narrative preaching before, but in this series that was the focus: throughout the series I told the story of Gaia, a fictional woman from first century Corinth who hears Paul’s words for the first time. The story follows Gaia as she works through the implications of Paul’s words for herself and the community of Jesus-followers in Corinth.

Here are the audio recordings of “Gaia’s Story,” along with a link to a concluding post I wrote on our church blog giving some of the historical and biblical background to the story. The goal was not complete historical accuracy but historical verisimilitude, with a larger focus on speaking the essential ideas of 1 Corinthians 1-3 to a modern audience.

Episode 1: “The Fellowship of Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:1-9)

Episode 2: “Jesus is Not Divided” (1 Corinthians 1:10-18)

Episode 3: “Jesus, Crucified King” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)

Episode 4: “Jesus, God’s Wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:1-3:4)

Episode 5: “Co-Labourers with Jesus” (1 Corinthians 3:5-17)

Episode 6: “No Foundation but Jesus” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23)

Addendum: Some Notes on “Gaia’s Story”