Some Thoughts on Southern Baptists, Baptism, and Communion

When I teach Baptist history, I argue that there are three perennial debates among Baptists. The first (and oldest) is soteriological: where should we fall on the spectrum of beliefs historically identified as Calvinism and Arminianism? The second is related to the application of a key Baptist distinctive: what is the best way to articulate and defend liberty of conscience for all people? The third is ecclesiological: what is the relationship between baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and (sometimes) church membership? All three are alive and well among contemporary Southern Baptists.

LifeWay Research released a study yesterday demonstrating that a slight majority (52%) of the Southern Baptist pastors they polled believe that any professing believer can participate in communion. Only about a third of those polled (35%) believe that baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Still others advocated other positions, which are less relevant to this post. (The poll also had some interesting statistics about how frequently Southern Baptists celebrate communion, but that’s another topic for another day.)

What is interesting about LifeWay’s findings is that they suggest a disconnect between what the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) affirms and what is practiced by the majority of our churches. The BF&M says of baptism that, “Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.” This language is present in all three versions of the BF&M and is similar to language used in most Baptist confessions except the Second London Confession and its daughter confessions, all of which are silent on this issue.

So according to LifeWay Research, a majority of Southern Baptist churches practice some form of open communion, even though the BF&M affirms close communion. Frankly, I’m not surprised by these findings. I’ve long argued that most Southern Baptists, whether by conviction or apathy, practice some form of open communion. This was not the case two generations ago, but the momentum has been in the direction of open communion since at least the 1970s.

There are probably many reasons why so many of our churches have moved in this direction. Bart Barber suggests some on his blog (see also the comments by Malcolm Yarnell, David Rogers, and Ben Stratton). Steve Weaver offers a brief defense of close communion, urges churches to consider taking their confessions more seriously, and pleads with Southern Baptists of different views to work together. Dave Miller at SBC Voices reported on the study and offered his own support for open communion, though the comments section demonstrates the variety of perspectives on this issue.

I think I have an interesting vantage point on this debate as a professor who teaches Baptist history courses. As best as I can tell, a sizable majority of my students have never thought about this issue prior to my class. Once we start talking about the debate, most of them lean towards open communion and have a hard time believing that close communion advocates would restrict the Lord’s Table to a particular group (i.e. baptistic Christians). Some, however, hold to close communion and have a hard time believing that open communion advocates would depart from the New Testament example of conversion, baptism, membership, communion. I actually think LifeWay’s statistical breakdown (52% open communion, 35% close communion) is fairly close to what I’ve observed in my classes among students who offer their opinion on these matters (I’d guess my students who speak up are 60/40 in favor of open communion).

The elephant in the room, of course, is the Baptist Faith and Message. Some will argue we should revise the BF&M because the majority is out of step with the confession. Others will argue that the BF&M is descriptive rather than prescriptive and local churches are autonomous anyway, so nothing should be done with the confession at this time. Still others will argue that the BF&M offers the more biblical position and suggest that open communion churches need to revisit this issue. I would agree with the latter two positions.

I do want to mention one word about our denominational ministries, however. While the BF&M is descriptive in terms of our churches, it is prescriptive in terms of denominational servants such as missionaries and seminary professors. In other words, denominational employees are expected, in theory, to believe the entirety of the BF&M. I think it is at least worth asking if trustee boards should be allowed to grant exceptions on this issue in light of the fact that a majority of Southern Baptist churches practice communion differently than the BF&M affirms. I’ve actually argued, in print, that trustee boards should have the freedom to allow exceptions on this very issue, since it seemed to me at the time (and has been verified by LifeWay Research) that the BF&M is out of step with what most Southern Baptist churches practice.*

For what it’s worth, I’ve written fairly often on this issue in the past. I wrote a descriptive essay for Between the Times titled “Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Southern Baptists: Some Options.” I’ve also written a prescriptive white paper for Southwestern Seminary’s Center for Theological Research titled “Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.” I’ve also written a prescriptive blog post for my personal blog titled “Consistent Communion: Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper.” I would also refer you to Russ Moore’s excellent essay “Table Manners: The Welcoming Catholicity of Closed Communion.” See also the positions defended by Mark Coppenger and Paul Chitwood in “The Lord’s Supper: Who Should Partake?

[Image credit]

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* See Nathan A. Finn, “Priorities for a Post-Resurgence Convention,” in David S. Dockery, ed., Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Crossway, 2009), pp. 277-279.

  37Comments

  1. Brad Cone   •  

    What do you think about the language that many churches use prior to taking communion? Do you think something along the lines of “follower of Christ/believer in Christ in good standing with your local church” is enough?

  2. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Brad,

    When I fence the table, I say something like “follower of Jesus Christ who has publicly testified to faith through believer’s baptism and who is currently a member in good standing of an evangelical congregation.”

    NAF

  3. Don Henrikson   •  

    While the BFM is not prescriptive on our churches from above, I imagine that most of the open communion churches have committed to it in their own church constitutions. I would hope that some might be concerned, once they see a discrepancy between their profession and their practice revealed in the LifeWay study.

  4. Adam Shields   •  

    I would suggest that most people believe that it means something different than what you suggest it does. That doesn’t mean you are wrong. It just means that if most people do not in fact practice something that then either it doesn’t mean that or it is wrong.

    Christianity today had a post that suggested more than have of Christians are not even aware that their church has a membership status. (http://blog.christianitytoday.com/ctliveblog/archives/2012/09/grey-matter-research-few-churchgoers-know-about-membership.html)

    So what would it mean for a group of people that do not even think they have a membership to have a closed communion?

    Personally, this is one of those theological areas that I have determined that makes me no longer actually baptist in practice or theology.

  5. Mike Leake   •  

    Great article. One correction. Dave blogs/edits at SBC Voices and not SBC Today.

  6. David Jacks   •  

    Nathan, So your church practices open communion? I.e. not “closed” in the sense of only members of your local body can participate at The Table of The Lord. Or is “fencing” considered “closed”?

  7. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Don, I agree.

    Adam, I’m sorry, but I’m not following you. However, I’m sorry to hear that you aren’t a Baptist Christian anymore.

    Mike, nice catch. I corrected the error.

    David, our church practices close communion, meaning we only invite those who have received NT baptism to participate in the ordinance. See my above comment to Brad Cone, which clarifies the language we use.

    NAF

  8. Ben Stratton   •  

    Nathan,

    You forgot to mention John Floyd’s (Professor at Mid-America Baptist Seminary in Memphis)excellent article “A case for closed communion.”

    It is also at: http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=38731

  9. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Ben,

    I didn’t recommend Dr. Floyd’s article because I disagree with his position. ;-)

    NAF

  10. David Rogers   •  

    Interesting that Baptist Press did not publish any articles defending the majority position.

  11. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David Rogers = rabble rouser

  12. David (Another One) Rogers   •  

    In the Lukan account of the Last Supper, it is reasonable to conclude that Judas participated in the receiving of the bread and the cup. The other Gospels provide no information contradicting this. How should one evaluate Jesus’ allowance of Judas participating in the Last Supper Ordinance with regard to the Lord’s Supper participants?

  13. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David Rogers 2,

    I think we need to make a distinction between the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper. The Last Supper was a Passover meal celebrated one time at a particular moment in redemptive history. The Lord’s Supper is a regular celebration that is the fulfillment of the prior ceremony. (This is similar to the relationship between John’s baptism vs. Christian baptism.) So instead of focusing on who was at the Last Supper, I think we should focus on the ceremony and Jesus’ commands. We then look to the pattern in the early church for how the earliest Christians observed the Lord’s Supper to which the Last Supper was pointing. And Paul is clear that the Lord’s Supper is a celebration for professing believers.

    NAF

  14. David (Another One) Rogers   •  

    Judas was a professing believer. Shouldn’t it be reversed: the Lord’s Supper of the Church/church points to the Last Supper of the Lord?

  15. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David 2.0,

    Yes, Judas was a professing believer. But we’re not omniscient like Jesus and it doesn’t matter anyway because the Last Supper isn’t the same thing as the Lord’s Supper. The latter is based upon the former. As for pointing, I think a better way to make my “point” (pun intended) is that the Last Supper is remembered through the Lord’s Supper, both of which point to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

    NAF

  16. Stephen   •  

    Do you believe that the BF&M is ambiguous on the distinction between what you describe as close/consistent communion and local-church-only communion?

    You did not quote here the actual language in the BF&M describing the Lord’s Supper, which specifies the ordinance is for “members of the church.” It seems a natural reading of the articles would favor a local church only view. It could be argued that the ‘church’ in discussion of the Lord’s Supper is the universal church consisting of all regenerated believers. But the sentence immediately preceding the statement on the Lord’s Supper clarifies that church membership has believer’s baptism as a prerequisite (and all other uses of the word “member” in the BF&M discuss membership in a specific, local church).

  17. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Stephen,

    I did quote the actual language in the BF&M describing the Lord’s Supper; I just didn’t quote all of it. The “nub” of the current debate isn’t the question of local-church vs. non-local-church, but baptism as a prerequisite vs. no baptism as a prerequisite. Had the debate been the former one, I would’ve quoted the language I omitted.

    Yes, I think the BF&M is intentionally ambiguous on this area. It could be read simply to mean that one must be a member of a church, or it could be read to mean that one must be a member of the church celebrating the ordinance. I suspect this language was meant to unite as many folks as possible, most all of whom held to strict communion, but who differed on the question of whether only church members could participate.

    NAF

  18. Ben   •  

    What struck me as odd is that the survey appears to have completely omitted the “baptized believers who are members of this church or a church of like faith and practice” option. My sense is that this was the most common approach say, 20-30 years ago. It’s what I grew up understanding to be the “close communion” position, not what’s been referred to as close communion here (anyone baptized as a believer). Maybe I was misinformed.

    Perhaps someone with historical expertise in Baptist polity can clarify. Anybody like that around here?

  19. Joseph Allen   •  

    I am very new at trying to understand the BF&M and all of its theological implications…but I am confused.

    You said, “The BF&M says of the Lord’s Supper that, ‘Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.'”

    How is the Lord’s Supper a prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper? Should the BF&M rather say that Baptism is the prerequisite?

  20. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Joseph,

    You are correct. I worded the post in an awkward way, which was confusing. I’ve edited it now for clarity. Thanks for the catch.

    NAF

  21. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Ben,

    There are different nuances within the close communion camp. I think the BF&M provides a baseline definition, which is that NT baptism is prerequsite to communion. The different nuances come in because not all Baptists agree on all the finer points of what constitutes a NT baptism. The “like faith and order” language, which was very popular especially in the nineteenth century, is in part related to the debate over “alien immersions.” It is still common in many places. Churches that add that caveat to how they practice close communion are saying that credobaptism isn’t enough to qualify for communion participation (and church membership), but the credobaptism needed to be administered by a substantially theologically like-minded church.

    NAF

  22. Brett Maragni   •  

    My $.02…

    The arguments made for close communion appear to be deductive, for lack of Scriptures explicitly supporting that position.

    The arguments made for infant baptism appear to be deductive, for lack of Scriptures explicitly supporting that position.

    Could it be that close communion Baptists are being inconsistent in their hermeneutic when it comes to the ordinances?

  23. Paul Sanchez   •  

    Thank you Dr. Finn for your efforts on this topic. God bless you.

  24. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Brett,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think the comparison is apples and kumquats. Infant baptism is a practice in search of a theology to support it. Different groups of pedobaptists embrace the practice for different reasons. Most of them bring some sort of theological system to the Scriptures and then interpret the text according to their grid.

    This issue, on the other hand, is based upon the NT example. You need to understand: virtually every single Christian tradition everywhere and at all times agrees that baptism comes prior to communion and membership in the NT. The disagreement is really over what constitutes a valid baptism. So when applied to this issue, the question for Baptists isn’t “what did they do in the NT?” Rather, the question is “are we free to depart from how they did it in the NT?”

    NAF

  25. David (Another One) Rogers   •  

    One thing that has to be remembered about the Baptist Faith and Message is that it is a minority confession voted on by a minority of Southern Baptists. That is not a criticism but a recognition.
    The confessions were not composed by a survey of contemporary Baptists but by a committee appointed by the leadership of the Convention. These persons were selected by a mix of criteria and not by a representative spectrum of the actual demographic of the Convention. (If it were representative, the vast bulk of the committees would be members of small churches 200 and less. It would also have a criteria of having DOM’s making suggestions regarding who should be appointed. This is a rarity for all SBC committees. I suspect that many of the national SBC decision makers come from those with ambition to speak out beyond the local sphere. I do not intend that as a charge of “pride” but actually a suspicion of extrovert personality type.)
    The Baptist Faith and Message was voted on by those who attended a particular Convention meeting and that was partially affected by location.
    In all the churches of which I have been a member, the Baptist Faith and Message is rarely, if ever, discussed, taught, or made reference to. The nuances of the language is lost on many, including pastors.
    The Baptist Faith and Message was accepted in bulk by the messengers of a particular Convention meeting partially due to an affinity to the leadership who appointed the committe and the outspoken leaders who composed it.
    I don’t recall that the Baptist Faith and Message when it was presented to the Convention and voted upon was reviewed, read, and taught point by point to the messengers at the meeting. (If it was I would like affirmation of it.) The presentation of it was as a bulk document and voted on. There may have been discussions regarding portions, but I am unaware that the whole was read and taught. I suspect that many voted without reading it.
    I believe many Southern Baptist pastors preach with no intentionality in systematically reviewing and coordinating either the Scripture’s teachings or a Baptist theological understanding.

  26. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    David,

    I agree completely that the BF&M was only voted on by a minority of Southern Baptists. That’s the way our polity works, on this and every other issue wherein the “official” Southern Baptist view is involved. That’s why the confession is broadly descriptive, but prescriptive only for certain denominational servants.

    One area of push-back. When the revised BF&M was presented by the committee back in 2000, this very issue (the terms of communion) was debated from the floor. A messenger challenged the confession, arguing that he was open communion and that he didn’t know many Baptists who were close communion. He even said some of the leaders on the platform practiced open communion. Richard Land spoke for the close communion position, on behalf of the committee. A motion was made to amend the language, and it failed overwhelmingly. So the folks in Orlando, at least, weren’t ignorant of this issue. They affirmed close communion “eyes wide open.” Having said that, the messengers definitely represented a minority of Southern Baptists, which is perhaps why this LifeWay Research study stands out so much.

    NAF

  27. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Jim,

    Thanks for the links. I have great appreciation for the local-church-only position, though I’m not quite there. But I definitely see the appeal and rationale for the view. Thanks again.

    NAF

  28. David (Another One) Rogers   •  

    Nathan,

    Thanks for the correction. That is good to know.

  29. David Rogers   •  

    RE: the vote on the 2000 BF&M

    Back a couple of years ago, I posted the following comment on a discussion of this question over at SBC Today. Here is a copy of that comment:

    My commentary on the audio of the debate over the BF&M 2000:

    1. The way Jim Goodroe’s amendment was stated was, in my opinion, unfortunate. It would have effectively amended the BF&M to support “open communion” as defined by Tim in comment #14. I believe a well-informed convention would have been much more amenable to a wording allowing for freedom to practice close, closed, open, or modified open communion. And, this is what I would personally advocate. The exact wording would have to be studied and worked on, though.

    2. It was not a propitious moment to present such an amendment. The overwhelming spirit of the 2,000 convention at large was in general support of the CR, and reluctant to go against any recommendations of the committee, whatever they might have been. The key issues being discussed centered around the role of women in the church and home, and the wording of the preamble. The close/closed communion issue was not even on the radar screen of the vast majority of those attending. Mr. Goodroe’s motion pretty much blind-sided everyone. The vast majority were interested in moving quickly through the discussion and report, and approving the new BF&M presented by the committee, without distracting complications.

    3. Although I was not present in the actual meetings of the committee, nor did I ever discuss this particular point with my father before he died, my impression is that the matter of close/closed communion was probably not dealt with extensively in their deliberations. I could be mistaken on this. If someone who was actually on the committee wants to weigh in on this, I would be most interested to hear their perspective on this. In any case, the words of my father, at around minute 43 of the audio, are telling, in my opinion:

    “Our statement does not deal with the issue that has been spoken of.”

    I think since there was no actual change proposed on this particular point, and the focus of the changes proposed by committee was on other issues, it is likely that no significant prior discussion took place on the committee in regard to this point.

    4. Personally, I think that Richard Land’s defense was rather weak. His main point, as I understood it, was that, since practically all other denominations require “baptism” for admission to the Lord’s Supper, then Baptists should, as well. Only that, what other denominations consider to be baptism, we do not.

    Here is a link to the audio file, if anyone is interested in listening for themselves.

    http://www.baptist2baptist.net/b2barticle.asp?ID=77

  30. Matthew Boyd   •  

    I am currently serving overseas in S. Asia where this aspect of the Lord’s Supper causes little to no debate. Primary reason being that once someone identifies themselves with Christ and is baptized is when that person is looked at as an obedient follower of Christ, which puts them in the proper place or New Testament order to partake in the Lord’s Supper. Here if you ask who can take the Lord’s Supper, you will almost always hear back, “baptized believers.”

    In S. Asia the bigger controversy is with who can administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Most say ordained pastors or leaders, neither of which I see biblically. My focus with these leaders and believers is to take them to the Bible so that they allow God’s Word to speak, not mine.

    But the Lifeway findings here are not surprising as I have struggled with my own position on this. Overall enjoyable and well written post by the man that taught me Baptist History.

  31. Brett Maragni   •  

    Nathan,

    Excellent thoughts in your response. I especially agree with your first paragraph regarding interpreting “the text according to their grid.”

    But when you say that the true question is “are we free to depart from how they did it in the NT?” I have only one question in response…

    Since when did we as Baptists place description at the same level as prescription in NT interpretation?

  32. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Matthew, It’s good to hear from you, brother. I pray the Lord is richly blessing your ministry in South Asia.

    Brett, a fair question. Historically, Baptists have argued that to make a distinction between description and prescription in terms of NT ecclesiology is to make a false distinction. So I remain convinced my question is better than your’s, though your’s isn’t a bad one. I’m not comfortable picking and choosing which elements of NT church structure and practice are merely descriptive and which are meant to be prescriptive. So I’ll just do what they did and hope that’s the best policy.

    NAF

  33. Brett Maragni   •  

    Nathan,

    Thanks for your willingness to dialogue. Regarding the history of Baptists disregarding distinctions between description and prescription, I either missed that in my seminary studies, or forgot…the latter being more likely. :-)

    I’m not trying to be contentious, but I wonder if you would answer these questions…

    Do you believe, say, Sinclair Ferguson or R. C. Sproul is disqualified from approaching the Lord’s Supper?

    And, if so, would you refuse them participation in the Lord’s Supper at your church? (recognizing if they were to visit your church during a Sunday in which you were celebrating the Lord’s Supper, they might voluntarily abstain from the celebration in respect to your local church position)

    Again, I’m not trying to be contentious, I’m just really trying to understand how you practically apply this doctrine.

  34. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Brett,

    Not disregarding the distinction; it’s there. Just disagreeing that such a distinction is evident in terms of ecclesiology. If that’s the case, then in theory, anything goes. How do we decide which is which?

    Yes, I’m arguing that I would not invite pedobaptists to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Even famous ones whom I respect. The reason is because they have not submitted to NT baptism. This is, in fact, the practice of my church, which practices close communion and asks those who haven’t testified to their faith through believer’s baptism to refrain from participating with us.

    NAF

  35. Gerald   •  

    You must be baptized to be a Christian, let alone receive Holy Communion. Regardless of whether or not one professes belief at time of baptism is irrelevant, you are baptized to be saved, not baptized because you are saved. Jesus said you must be born again of water and the Spirit. This means baptism!!!

  36. Big Bob   •  

    What a joke… what a joke… and you wonder why the church is losing ground to Satan?

    You spend time (our most precious commodity in this realm) trying to discern who should be allowed to follow the Lord’s direction that communion is to “Do this in remembrance of me.” He didn’t qualify that directive.

    Why don’t the Baptists put up a “No Trespassing Unless You Are A Baptist” sign on your church door? That, in essence, is what you are saying to those who are not of Baptist faith when they are in your church on communion Sunday.

    Sign me, “An ex-Baptist and most thankful of that fact.”

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