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?

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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.

How Mark Noll’s Mind Has Changed

When I was an undergrad at Brewton-Parker College in South Georgia, I was wrestling with the question of calling and vocation. I entered college believing that God was calling me to full-time local church ministry, and throughout college I served in bivocational youth ministry and interim pastor positions. Though I loved that work (well, not so much the youth ministry), by my senior year I had a growing desire to pursue a ministry of theological education in either church history or systematic theology. To this day I see this vocation as an outworking of and completely compatible with my calling to local church ministry.

By the time I was wrapping up my M.Div. studies, Church history had won out over theology, in part because of the influence of some key teachers and mentors along the way. But an additional factor in my decision to become a church historian was reading the works of evangelical historian Mark Noll. His provocative The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind was a key book in shaping my call to theological education, while his A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada and America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln helped solidify my desire to focus my own studies on American Religious History. In the decade or so since I was introduced to Noll’s books, I’ve read numerous of Noll’s other works and always find them immensely helpful, even when I differ with some of his interpretations.

Because of my respect for Noll, I was very interested in his recent article “Deep and Wide,” which was published in the June 1 edition of The Christian Century. You can read the online version at The Christian Century’s website. The article was part of an ongoing series titled “How My Mind Has Changed,” and in Noll’s piece he focuses on how he has grown in his appreciation for Nicene Orthodoxy, older hymnody, and celebrating communion. As is so often the case, I find myself resonating with Noll’s emphases very much, even while I differ with him in some particulars (I’m way too reformational and Free Church to have much sympathy for Roman Catholic views of the Lord’s Supper). Anyway, it is an interesting read that is well worth pondering so I thought I’d pass it on to you. I hope you enjoy it.

An Open Letter to Closed Communionists: A Report from the Field, Part 2

This is the second part of a series I drafted while visiting overseas workers in the month of January. In my first post I offered a challenge to the SBC regarding our support of the IMB. This post gets at an entirely different issue upon which I reflected in the international context.

A colleague and I were recently overseas and on the Lord’s day we gathered with a group of believers who meet in a home setting. We enjoyed fellowship with one another, we prayed, we sang, we read Scripture, and were exhorted from God’s Word.

We met in a room that serves as living room and dining area, and twenty or so people were gathered in that space. Of those gathered I counted six people, myself included, who do not live in this location and were, therefore, “visitors” in this assembly of believers.

I have no hesitation in calling this assembly “church.” It appears in every way to be ekklesia. There I was, a “visitor,” welcomed into the presence of this band of believers. And as we worshiped I noticed a tray with several small glasses of juice with something wrapped in towels on top. I surmised this was bread and that we would at some point observe the Lord’s Supper.

After the teaching of Scripture we were informed that we were indeed going to take the Lord’s Supper. At that point a thought occurred to me: I wondered if this assembly practiced “closed” or “open” communion. And if closed, I began to play out in my mind what it would look like for the regular attenders to ask the six of us visiting to abstain from the Table because we were not “members” of the “local church.”

I quickly learned this was not the case, as the man leading the assembly welcomed all who were followers of Christ to participate in the Supper. He gave all the qualifications to that invitation that I think are appropriate, and we observed the Supper with all the dignity, sobriety, and joy that is appropriate for the ordinance. But in that moment I continued thinking of the debates that occur among Southern Baptists regarding closed and open communion. And it occurred to me that worship in such an intimate setting highlights what is the oddity we call closed communion. Previously I had conceived of closed communion in the context of a group of anywhere from eighty to even thousands of people. And in that setting, those who don’t take the elements are not so easily noticeable. In our churches in the US we tend to take the Supper by passing trays, and it is not so evident who isn’t taking the Supper.

In the house church setting this is not the case. If in a larger setting it’s hard to notice who doesn’t take the elements, in the house church it’s hard not to notice. And in this instance, if this assembly practiced closed communion they would have said this: We have gathered today to worship Christ, God incarnate who died for our sins and rose from the dead. We rejoice in the gospel, and we all worship God together. And we are now going to participate in the central ongoing act of confessing faith and celebrating the gospel (baptism is the central initiatory act, and is ongoing in the sense that the church celebrates it with each new believer, but not ongoing in the sense that we are each baptized again and again), and we want those of you who are not “members” here not to participate because you are not a part of this church.

I hope I’m not misrepresenting my friends who hold to the theory of closed communion. It seems to me that this is a fair representation of what closed communion actually is. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, but we can’t eat together because you don’t live here.

This, it seems to me, is actually antithetical to the gospel. The gospel welcomes the stranger, and it not only crosses but obliterates boundaries. The gospel invites people of faith to unity and harmony. If this be true, then how can the central ecclesial sign of the gospel be construed to show division and even disharmony? And how does placing a fence around the Table do anything but divide the Christian community, which is made one by Christ in the Spirit, formed in unity in Christian baptism (Eph 4:4-6) and existing as one body represented by the one loaf (1 Cor 10:17).

I’ve heard it argued that the Baptist Faith and Message points toward or even demands closed communion. Perhaps that is true, though I don’t think it does. It if does, then I think the SBC should rewrite the confession to be more consistently biblical. Regardless, I think that most Southern Baptists will choose to adhere to the Bible rather than a confession on this point, and make the Table the place of grace that it is given to be.

When I teach the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper to seminarians, I am often challenged by students who have been tutored by others to object that if we practice open communion, then we can’t practice church discipline like we should.

I agree that the Table is a place where the church may enact discipline. I think, though, that some mistakenly see the Supper as locus of the exercise of discipline. This confuses what is secondary with what is primary. The Supper is not primarily the place of discipline; it is only secondarily so. It is primarily the place of grace where we remember the gospel by means of physical elements. It is an enactment of faith, recalling that Jesus died for our sins, his body broken, his blood poured out.

Discipline is evidence of God’s grace toward the unrepentant sinner by the body of Christ and, as such, the restriction of the erring brother from the Table is one means by which the church shows grace to the sinner. The notion that the church cannot have an open Table and at the same time restrict the disciplined and erring brother is ludicrous. The church can and does so. I have seen it happen. Not only can it happen, but it should happen.

The fact that we invite all who are baptized into the Church to the Lord’s Supper celebrated by the Church, in any given assembly of that Church, does not in any way prohibit a body of believers from disciplining an erring brother by withholding the elements from him.

This is more consistent with the nature of the gospel and the clear biblical call for the unity of the church. My chief concern here is that the Southern Baptist Convention isn’t exactly the model it should be with respect to Christian unity. We tend to keep those unlike us at a distance, and I think that is a great weakness. Perhaps if we get the Table right, we will be on our way to getting our relations to other Christians right as well.

A Closing Note: My friend Nathan Finn, who always reads these posts before they go live, posed a question to me that deserves to be answered. He asked why I didn’t include reference to a third option, what is commonly called “close” communion. This is a good question, and bound to be asked by others.

While open communion welcomes all believers, and closed communion restricts the table to those members of a local congregation, “close” communion, as generally described by Baptists, welcomes to the Table all believers baptized by immersion, but is closed to other believers. That is, if you are baptized by immersion, you would be welcome to the Table, even if you are not a member of a particular local congregation, but those not so baptized would be asked to abstain. So, close communion is more open than closed communion, but more closed than open communion.

I don’t hold to close communion – I prefer open communion. My rationale is as follows.

The Table is for the body of Christ – those who trust Jesus alone for their salvation and who, having called upon the Lord for mercy, are by the Spirit placed into union with the triune God and with His church (1 Cor 12:13). On that basis I would welcome all believers to the Lord’s Table (I have done so as a pastor). The Table is His, not mine; it is His, not some denomination’s; it is His, given to the Church under His Lordship. It is only our Table inasmuch as by the grace of Christ we are invited to come.

Therefore, I want to “sign” the gospel at the Table by inviting all of God’s people to eat there. I realize that this means I will eat with those who are different than I and with whom I may disagree on certain points of doctrine. But since the cross obliterates boundaries and divisions, and since the Table signs that cross, I think it is most consistent with the gospel to invite the church – the whole church – to the Table.

Of course, this makes for a less tidy meal than some may like. And, like at holiday dinners with family, little Johnny may smear his potatoes and peas on the chair, and dear old Uncle Eddie may drool food into his lap. Family meals can be messy that way.

But I’m less concerned with having a tidy meal than having a good meal. One that is most consistent with the nature of the gospel. So I’m happy to invite all believers to the Table, to allow them to exercise their conscience vis-à-vis 1 Corinthians 11, and to allow the grace of Christ to reign at His Supper.