For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he also took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26 ESV)
Debate in Baptist Life
Since the dawn of the church, Christians have followed Paul’s instructions to observe the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance. Churches of virtually every denomination commemorate the death of Jesus Christ by drinking from the cup and eating of the loaf. This practice—known commonly as communion, the Eucharist, and the Mass—is generally referred to in Baptist churches simply as the Lord’s Supper.
When the church observes the Lord’s Supper, believers remember the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross, pledge themselves to persevere in the faith and their community, and look forward to the day in which they see their Savior face to face. Baptists have been unified in these emphases of the Lord’s Supper, while wrestling through the ages to come to a general consensus regarding the proper recipients of the meal.
Few suggest that non-believers should be welcome to partake of the cup and the loaf, for it is commonly understood that this is an ordinance given to the church—that is, the believing body of Christ. Beyond this, however, it must be asked: should unbaptized believers be welcomed? Should the non-Baptist be welcomed to the Supper in a Baptist church?
This was the primary debate in the late eighteenth century among the British Particular Baptists. The discussion pre-dated this period, but in light of the revivals of Wesley and Whitefield, “strengthened bonds of fellowship across denominational divisions sharpened the desire for wider terms of communion.” Friendships had developed across denominational lines and, as a result, Baptists had become increasingly inclined to invite paedobaptists (those who advocate and practice infant baptism) to the Lord’s Supper. The practice of inviting all believers, regardless of denominational affiliation or doctrine of baptism, is known as open communion.
The importance that one attributes to baptism, then, plays a major role in determining his position on the Lord’s Supper. Herschel Hobbs rightly claimed that, “Christian groups generally are agreed that baptism must precede the Lord’s Supper.” Thomas White notes that this emphasis does not distinguish between Baptists and paedobaptists at all, rather “the real issue of difference between paedobaptists and Baptists is not the Lord’s Supper but the doctrine of baptism.” Thus, those opposing open communion argue that those who have not been baptized in a Biblical manner—that is, they were not immersed upon their profession of faith, but were instead sprinkled as infants or not baptized at all—cannot drink from the cup or eat from the loaf, because they are in disobedience, and Paul warns those who might approach the table unworthily (1 Cor 11:27-31). This appears to be the most natural interpretation of the Baptist Faith and Message, which states, “being a church ordinance, it [baptism by immersion] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.”
Proponents of open communion, however, argue that such a position is rude and betrays the spirit of fellowship that should exist between all believers. Historian Greg Wills presents the dilemma facing Baptists: “close Communion resulted from the logic of the letter of Scripture, but open Communion resulted from the charity of the spirit of Scripture.”
Close communion is the practice of extending an invitation to the Table to all of those of similar faith and practice—that is, those who have been baptized in the Biblical manner: immersion of the believer. Such a practice effectively limits the invitation to the Table to other Baptists who are distinguished by such a definition of baptism. Though this seems to be the most widely held position throughout Baptist history, is it Biblically defensible to invite those with memberships in other Baptist churches to the Table in a church not their own?
Perhaps no Baptist has contributed more to the defense of closed communion—the practice of restricting the Lord’s Supper to the members of a particular local church—than J.R. Graves, a leading voice among nineteenth-century Baptists. His position rested on the belief that “the Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance, and, as such, can only be observed by a church, as such, and by a person in the church of which he is a member.” This practice is closely tied to an emphasis on church discipline, because churches inviting those of common faith and practice may unknowingly allow “members of other churches currently under discipline to participate in the Lord’s Supper.”
Merely a cursory look at Baptist history identifies these questions as significant and demanding a Biblical and thoughtful response. This series will advocate for close communion by examining the theological and Biblical evidence, and will conclude with the implications of leading Southern Baptist churches in this manner.