[Editor's Note: This summer we at BtT are featuring old but good posts for your reading enjoyment. Look out for an all new BtT in August 2014. This post originally appeared on August 16, 2008.]
Students of history know that there are two long-running debates among Baptist Christians that began in the mid-17th century and continue to the present day. The first debate has been common among many groups of Protestants: Calvinism versus Arminianism. The second debate is almost totally unique to Baptists: the relationship between baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This is a topic that I have written on in the past. While I do not believe this debate is the most important issue facing contemporary Southern Baptists, it is nevertheless an important question that is worthy of our attention. We might consider this a necessary excursus that develops from my previous article on baptism.
Until the rise of the parachurch movement during the mid-20th century, most Christians have argued that baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. All agree that this is the order portrayed in the New Testament and makes good logical sense because virtually everyone believes that baptism marks the public entrance into the church, though obviously there is considerable debate about the proper mode and subjects of baptism. Until the late 1800s, a majority of English Baptists argued that baptism is prerequisite to communion. In North America, with the exception of the Free Will Baptists, most Baptists argued for the chronological priority of baptism until the mid-20th century. In some places in the American South and Southwest, this view is still almost universal. The idea that baptism is prerequisite to participation in the Lord’s Supper has been called a number of names, including closed communion, close communion, strict communion, and restricted communion.
But from at least the second generation of Baptists, there has been a minority report that has argued that regeneration alone is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. Over time, this minority report has become majority practice among Baptists in both Britain and (probably) America. The view that all Christians can participate in the Lord’s Supper, regardless of their baptismal status, is most often called open communion, though it is a modified form of open communion because the ordinance is still restricted to believers. Only liberal Baptists (and other Christians) invite all people to the table, irrespective of their spiritual condition.
There are many noble reasons for holding to an open communion position. Proponents argue that the ordinance is intended to signify the unity of believers in Christ, so to forbid some Christians from participating in communion puts a breach in Christian unity. Others argue that allowing unbaptized (non-immersed) Christians to participate in communion is a sign of brotherly love that may help convince some of them to eventually submit themselves to New Testament baptism. Some concede that closed communion appears to be the New Testament practice, but argue that since we live in a world where more than one practice is called baptism, the charitable thing to do is allow Christians who we believe are unbaptized to participate in communion. Open communion advocates often point out that it is the Lord’s Supper, so who are we to tell those who belong to the Lord that they cannot participate in the ordinance?
Though I am sympathetic to the desires behind these arguments, I think closed communion is the more consistent position. The Lord’s Supper is surely a picture of our unity in Christ, but advocates of non-New Testament baptism are the ones who severed that unity with the advent of infant baptism and other practices foreign to the biblical record. Baptistic Christians are not the ones who are sectarian in the matter of baptism, though we are (at the moment) in the minority among professing Christians. To quote the Baptist Faith and Message (2000):
Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people. Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.
The hope that inviting unbaptized Christians to the Lord’s Table may convince some to be biblically baptized is dangerous logic, in my opinion. This is the same logic used by colonial New England pastor Solomon Stoddard when he argued that communion could be a “converting ordinance,” so unbelievers should be invited to the Table. The result was not mass conversions, but a church filled with unregenerate members. I suspect that churches that practice open communion in hopes of changing the minds of pedobaptists will find that they make lots of pedobaptist friends, but few of them submit to believer’s baptism by immersion.
The argument that we should be charitable because we live in a world where a plurality of baptismal practices prevail seems particularly weak. The fact that there is one Lord, one faith, and many baptisms in our contemporary context does not change the biblical record. Obedience to Scripture seems more important than contrived unity, which would be the case with any unity that is based on a practice not commended in Scripture. I personally think open communion is such a practice. And concerning the idea that it is inappropriate to ban Christians from the Lord’s Table, I would respond by agreeing that it is the Lord’s Table, which is why it is of utmost importance that we practice the ordinance in the way the Lord has willed it to be exemplified for us in His Word, lest we find ourselves disobedient to the Lord.
This discussion is not exhaustive, and there are several other arguments that could be made (from both sides), but in keeping with the theme of this series, I think the most important reason to reject open communion is that it seems to make the ordinances inconsistent with the gospel. To be more specific, open communion severs the ordinance that marks our formal entry into the gospel community (baptism) from the ordinance that signifies our ongoing sanctification within the gospel community (communion). The picture of the gospel painted by the ordinances is smudged whenever we treat baptism and the Lord’s Supper as practices that are virtually independent of each other. Baptism marks the public beginning of the Christian’s life in the community of the gospel, the church. Communion marks the Christian’s ongoing identification with that gospel community and the Lord who formed her. For this reason, I prefer to call the view that baptism is biblically prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper consistent communion, because it is only in this practice that the ordinances are truly consistent with the gospel they portray.
In closing, I am not convinced that one’s view of the relationship between baptism and communion should be a bar to cooperation among Baptist Christians. Though I affirm consistent communion and am a member of a church that requires baptism before communion, I believe that my church can cooperate with sister churches that have a different understanding of this matter. But the fact that this issue is (in my opinion) secondary in nature does not render it unimportant. Baptists desire to be obedient to all that Christ commands, so it is incumbent upon us to discuss this matter biblically and charitably, in the hopes of one day arriving at greater consensus on this issue, for the glory of God and the health of our churches.
[Note: I have previously addressed this topic in a more substantial manner on behalf of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can click here to read that White Paper, titled "Baptism as Prerequisite to the Lord's Supper."]