Who is Invited to the Lord’s Table? A Southern Baptist Perspective. [Part 2]


This is part 2 of a series of posts advocating the practice of Close Communion in Southern Baptist Churches. Click here for part 1.

Theological Defense

Close communion stands between polar extremes: open communion and closed communion. It is critiqued on two fronts: for, while some argue that “it is the Lord’s [Supper], not the church’s, and that it is harsh, unloving, offensive, and wrong to exclude from the Lord’s Table any who belong to Him,”[1] others claim “that when an ordinance or act symbolizes or implies church relations, it is pre-eminently a church ordinance, and must be confined to the members of a particular church only.”[2] The delineation between open, close, and closed communion rests in differing definitions of two words: baptism and church.

The impetus to restrict the Lord’s Supper against those of dissimilar baptismal practice stems from a Baptist definition of baptism. This conviction—that the Biblical witness defines baptism as the immersion of a professing Christian in water,[3] in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,[4] as an act of obedience to Christ’s command,[5] an act that symbolizes the believer’s death, burial, and resurrection in Christ,[6] and an act that bears witness to the saving work of Christ—creates immediate parameters for the Lord’s Supper. Only believers “who have been biblically baptized and are in right fellowship with their local churches,” may approach the Table.[7]

This distinction is the most visible and most important result of differing definitions of baptism: paedobaptists cannot claim to have been baptized according to this definition.[8] Their disagreement with this definition—or their disregard for the importance thereof—is not an argument for participation, but rather against it. They do not believe as Baptists believe, and—more importantly—have not been baptized according to the New Testament model. Therefore, they cannot stand alongside Baptists at the Table and claim to be in unity. Defining baptism by New Testament standards, then, eliminates open communion as a viable option.

A strict definition of “church” provides the foundation for closed communion. Graves writes simply, “assembly is the meaning of the term, ‘church.’”[9] Building on this strict definition of church as the gathered assembly, which though not the universal definition throughout the Scriptures, admittedly is the authorial intent in most occurrences,[10] many in favor of closed communion seek to defend the practice in terms of church ordinance. Once more, Graves demonstrates the argument:

If the Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance, as must be admitted, and a symbol, among other things, of our visible church relations in the same particular church with which we celebrate it, then it is a violation of the truth symbolized to invite members of other Baptist churches to participate in it.[11]

For Graves, then, the Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance, and there is no church apart from the local assembly. Garrett clarifies Graves’ concerns with intercommunion: “it abrogates congregational independence, subverts congregational discipline, and is divisive among Baptists.”[12]

Absent from Graves’ definition (and that of many who practice closed communion) is any notion of “the totality of Christians living in one place,” or that of “the church universal, to which all believers belong.”[13] While the New Testament primarily refers to local bodies of Christians as churches, it uses the same term (εκκλησια) when referring to believers in a given region as well as when referring to all Christians everywhere.[14] Any practice based upon the conviction that the Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance must be held with a certain degree of reserve, for the church exists beyond the scope of any given local assembly.

Therefore, closed communion may indeed be the correct practice, however, there is also the possibility that the church ordinance is granted to the universal body of obedient believers. The driving question, then, is “Are there any instances in Scripture where the Lord’s Supper was commemorated outside of the membership of a local church?” Paul’s actions in Acts 20 may provide the needed insight to provide clarification.

2. Graves, The Lord’s Supper: A Church Ordinance: and So Observed by the Apostolic Churches, 23.

3. βαπτιζω carries the idea of dipping or immersion. “βαπτιζω,” BDAG, Logos 5.

4. Per Matt 28:19.

5. Matt 28:19.

6. Rom 6:3-5; Col 2:12.

8. Kinghorn writes, “the question which in point of importance takes the precedence of every other in the baptismal controversy ; which is, whether baptism is an ordinance to be maintained in the church ; or, whether it is one of those indifferent and unimportant things which the church has no right to consider as requisite to communion?” Joseph Kinghorn, A Defence of “Baptism a Term of Communion,” in Answer to the Rev. Robert Hall’s Reply (Paris, AR: Baptist Standard Bearer, 2006), xiii.

11. Graves, The Lord’s Supper: A Church Ordinance: and So Observed by the Apostolic Churches, 17.

13. “εκκλησια,” BDAG, Logos 5.

14. Daniel L. Akin, ed., A Theology for the Church (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 771.


  1. David,

    I am following with interest your series here, and should probably wait until you finish laying out your full argument, but will check in with a couple of observations for now:

    1. If the Lord’s Supper is (among other things) a celebration of the unity of the Body, as 1 Cor. 10:16-17 clearly teaches, is it just a celebration of the unity of the local church, the unity of all Baptist churches (i.e. “churches of like faith and order”), or the unity of the Body of Christ, which is the Universal Church? There is only one Body, not many bodies. (Eph. 4:4).

    2. Is this unity based on common agreement on the essentials of the gospel, or common agreement on secondary matters (such as the timing and mode of baptism) as well? There is a difference between gospel-centered Christian unity, and denominational uniformity (see Rom. 14).

    3. Also, the argument about the Lord’s Supper being a “church ordinance” appears to be based on circular reasoning to me: “The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated within the confines of a local church because it is a church ordinance; and it is a church ordinance because it is celebrated within the confines of a local church.” There was no way in NT times to celebrate the Lord’s Supper outside of the confines of a local church, at least not if we understand the church to be the believers gathered together in any one particular location at any one time. It should also be remembered that there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that the “local church” in several places mentioned in the NT likely consisted of the conglomerate of believers meeting in a series of “house churches” within the same city.

    4. While I am relieved you ultimately appear to recognize the problem of Graves’ working definition of church, it is alarming to me that Graves would even be cited as a valid authority on this issue.


  2. Mr Rogers (just to avoid confusion),

    Thanks for your thoughts. While I understand the case you present for the invitation to all who agree on “the essentials of the gospel,” I do think that there are levels of participation.

    There appears to be a significant intimacy present in the Lord’s Supper – between the participants and their Savior, as well as among the participants. Because we, as Baptists, are so very unique in our definition of baptism (and as a Baptist, I would claim that we are so very correct in that definition), and we maintain that the Lord’s Supper exists for those in submission to the Lord, can we knowingly invite those in disobedience to the command of baptism? Can we truly claim to be in intimate fellowship? Can they truly claim to be “of us?”

    There is a degree of struggle here for all of us. No Baptist (that I know of) wants to be divisive and declare that all other non-Baptistic denominations are disobedient to God’s command, but if we are confident that this is the Biblical definition of baptism, we must willingly state such. We must do so in love and humility, but we cannot shrink back from our conviction that infant baptism simply is not Biblical baptism.

    If a member of my church were to refuse baptism (an incredibly unlikely scenario due to my insistence that baptism is a prerequisite for church membership), they would immediately be put under church discipline and refused from participation in the Lord’s Supper. Should a pastor knowingly invite someone to participate in the Lord’s Supper who would, according to the church’s agreed-upon definition of baptism, be subject to church discipline as the result of their disobedience to the Scriptures?

    Due to the seriousness with which I interpret 1 Cor 11:27-31. I simply cannot in good conscience. My conviction, as you’ll see in tomorrow’s post, regarding the extent of the invitation to the Supper is one tick shy of closed communion. I believe that it should take place in the local church and that only members in good standing in that given assembly have a right to participate in the meal. However, out of courtesy, that assembly should extend an invitation to those who may be present who are of similar doctrinal convictions, and members of churches of like faith and practice.

    You raise good, significant points, and yet, ultimately, I remain convinced that open communion is simply not a Biblical option for those of the Baptist expression of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, I also recognize that my position, while once the majority view, has fallen from favor and is statistically the minority view (even if still clearly espoused in the BFM2000).

    Blessings and thanks for the observations.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful answer and the chance to dialogue about this. It is helpful for me as I seek to identify any holes in my way of thinking, in case I need to adjust it.

    It appears to me that the basis of your argument here in your comment hinges on two things: 1) the supposed requirement of a relative level of intimacy of those participating in the Supper; and 2) the supposed requirement of the relative ability to correctly ascertain who is and who is not a true believer.

    I do not see, however, in Scripture, any specific instruction given related to these two assumptions. It does say that one ought to examine him/herself before partaking. And it does say that we are not to share communion with those we know to have been placed under corrective discipline. But other than these two particulars, I don’t see where the NT in any place places the onus on the local church to determine who is and who is not a worthy participant in the Supper.

    I think you would agree that there is not a checklist, like the old offering envelopes, that we run through to determine if someone is a worthy participant or not: “Attended Sunday School? Check. Gave tithe? Check. Witnessed to so-and-so many people this week? Check. Okay, you can take the Lord’s Supper, then.” But is close communion not a similar situation–as if we had a checklist with two questions: “Have you had legitimate believers baptism? Check. Are you not currently under corrective discipline from the church at which you are a member? Check”? Thus, it seems to me, other than the question of corrective church discipline, it is up to each individual to examine him/herself.

    Also, though this might also be turned on its head and used as an argument against large congregations, it is practically impossible in many large congregations today for there to be the type of intimacy to which you refer here. In a congregation of several thousand, for instance, the long-term member who sits on the other side of the auditorium from me is for all practical purposes just as much of a stranger as the first-time visitor from out of town.

    Actually, I kind of like the idea of normally celebrating the Lord’s Supper in smaller, more intimate groups and settings. It captures the family feel of communion much better. But that, for me, does not invalidate the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in larger settings.

    Also, there are those with whom I have a fairly intimate relationship who are paedo-baptist believers–or, at least, I have as much, if not more, evidence, in the case of some of them, based on my knowledge of their Christian confession and lifestyle, for believing they are true believers than I do for many “anonymous” credo-baptists who sit on the opposite side of the auditorium from me in my mega-church. On what basis do I invite the one and dis-invite the other?

    1. Dialogue is helpful here because it allows for us to both clarify and seek clarity. My concern with the paedobaptist is not whether or not they are a genuine believer. I may have misled you. I take no issue whatsoever on the question of the validity of their faith. Like you, I have a good number of paedobaptist believers that I count as dear friends, and like you, I “have as much, if not more, evidence…for believing that they are true believers.” I am not accusing non-Baptists (non-credobaptists) of failing the test of faith, but rather, that of obedience to the clear command of Scripture.

      I would assume that as a Baptist, you would agree that the first step in obedience to Christ is to follow the Lord in believer’s baptism. Should a new convert delay this step of obedience for a brief time (perhaps for a time of instruction, such as a new believer’s class), we might not take offense. But, should he or she persist in their delay (which has now morphed into refusal) in following this step of obedience, we would (at the very least) have some concern that they are remaining in disobedience to the clear instruction of Scripture.

      At that point, as a pastor, I understand my role as undershepherd to demand that I prevent he or she from eating or drinking judgment upon themselves. Yes, Paul’s instruction is that they examine themselves and not that their pastor give his nod of approval, but would we sit idly by as they defied God in another manner? If we take Scripture seriously, and our role as the overseers of the flock, we must take action to protect them – even at times from themselves. (This pertains to any ongoing act of disobedience, not just the refusal to follow Christ in believer’s baptism.)

      My critique of those (within Baptist circles) who advocate for open communion is that they abandon the Scriptural ground from which to call new believers to the Biblical command to believer’s baptism. In the attempt to remove even the potential that baptism may be understood as a first-tier doctrine, they tend to make it a third-tier, preference. Granted, not all do this (and fewer would admit to doing so), but this has been my experience.

      Additionally, they undermine the importance of baptism as a prerequisite for church membership. If one need not demonstrate an initial willingness to follow our Lord’s command to be baptized, what confidence can we have that they are willing to submit themselves to the rest of the Holy Scriptures? There are churches that openly invite those baptized as infants and/or those who have been baptized upon their profession of faith. Whatever else can be said about these churches, they cannot be called a Baptist church.

      Further, these advocates typically struggle to connect the importance of church discipline with the Lord’s Supper. Is there a checklist? No, clearly not. But, if we take God’s Word seriously, we must take sin seriously. If we take sin seriously, we must take church discipline seriously. If we take church discipline seriously, then it will affect the manner in which we observe the Lord’s Supper.

      Finally, regarding the question of “the supposed requirement of a relative level of intimacy of those participating in the Supper.” I do indeed see Scriptural warrant. As Dr. John Taylor’s paper presented to ETS last year (“The Meal is the Message: The Community Meal as Symbol and Proclamation in First Corinthians”) argued, the Lord’s Supper was “a missional event, a purpose which is fulfilled when it is celebrated within the unified loving environment of the church’s common meal.” This was the original picture of the Lord’s Supper. It was not, Biblically, an add-on to a worship service, but to a time of fellowship around a common meal shared by the assembly. Those gathered would certainly include those not of the assembly, but the memorial was a witness to them, not something to which they were invited to participate.

      I do feel, at this point, it right to note my objection to your statement regarding “where two or three are gathered,” in the post to which you linked in your original comment. I do not accept the interpretation that claims this as a church, but rather, this is specifically in reference to church discipline and authority. Thus, when I write the word “assembly,” I do mean it as a recognized gathering of like-minded believers as a church. (And, as a good Baptist, I’m convinced that the New Testament knows nothing of a believer who was not immersed upon their profession of faith.)

      I hope that I would not be incorrect in calling you a friend. We may disagree on these things,and we do so as brothers in Christ. I pray the tone of my comments are received in the spirit in which they were typed. Thank you, David, for sharpening me by asking these questions.

      May we both continue to search the Scriptures with a willingness to submit ourselves to them.

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