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