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Russell D. Moore on the Welcoming Catholicity of Closed Communion
A man walked out of my church in protest. I didn’t notice it as it was happening, but he told me about it, in a note, a few weeks later. He was angered that he had been excluded. At first, I feared that maybe he hadn’t been spoken to. In a church this size, that’s certainly a possibility. Or maybe, I wondered, had one of our elderly church members looked askance at his wearing jeans or shorts? Turns out, he wanted the Lord’s Supper, and I’d turned him away.
On the Sunday in question, our visitor had observed my congregation take communion. I had explained the elements, and the act as a sign of the kingdom of Christ. I called the church to repentance from sin, forgiveness of one another, and renewed faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Then I’d done what my grandfather’s generation of Baptist preachers called “fencing the table.”
As the bread and the cup were distributed, I announced that, while all were welcome to attend our church, only baptized Christians in good fellowship with a local congregation were invited to commune. Then I defined baptism the way our church does, along with Baptists all over the world, as the immersion of a believer in water as public profession of faith in Christ.
An Ecclesial Segregationist?
That’s what did it. The man told me in the letter that he had seethed in a quiet fury and then picked up his Bible and walked out. He was a member of some non-denominational church in another city, but he’d been baptized in a United Methodist church, as an infant and by sprinkling. My refusal to welcome him to the table indicated that I didn’t really believe in “mere Christianity.”
After all, we share a common belief in all the big things. We could both recite, with full conviction, the Nicene Creed. We both hold the same orthodox commitments about how many persons God is and how many natures Jesus has. And even beyond that, we were both Evangelicals, holding to the same call to sinners as to how to be reconciled to God through the blood of Christ. All we disagree about is something as trivial, he said, as how much water you ought to pool together, and what to do with it, in the act of baptism.
Knowing my affinity with the Freedom Riders and civil rights heroes of my native Mississippi, the correspondent wrote what I’m sure he thought would sting. It was as if, he wrote, he’d been denied service at a restaurant. That wasn’t just a denial of hospitality, he reminded me, it designated him as some kind of second-class citizen in the kingdom of God. He pointed at me in his words and announced, by implication, “Thou Art the Man.” I was an ecclesial George Wallace, standing at the Lord’s Supper table.
Once I crucified my wounded ego, and considered his note, I realized he made some good points. After all, don’t I preach, consistently, that the kingdom of God is vast? Don’t I recognize as brothers and sisters in Christ those such as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Jonathan Edwards, and Walker Percy, none of whom I would recognize as biblically baptized? Would I really tell C. S. Lewis, were he alive and with us, that he isn’t qualified to commune at the Lord’s Table with me?
This man’s complaint is hardly limited to Evangelicalism. It is echoed in the voices of American Catholics of a certain kind when, in any given generation, a bishop bars the table to a Roman Catholic politician who supports white supremacy or abortion rights or some other scandalous injustice.
A Place of Profound Gravity
There’s a lot that’s quite attractive about this man’s suggested alternative, a table open to all who know Jesus, a communion as broad as the kingdom itself. But as I pondered the question more, I decided I couldn’t embrace open communion. It’s just too narrow and sectarian for me.
First of all, open communion usually rests on the all-too-typical Evangelical presumption that the Lord’s Supper really isn’t that important. Communion is, as Flannery O’Connor’s infamous socialite conversation-partner once put it, “a wonderful symbol” but that’s about it. The issue isn’t the event itself, but the insult of the exclusion, in the same way that 1950s and 1960s civil disobedience wasn’t about how great the food was at the Woolworth’s lunch-counter.
Too often in our contemporary Evangelical church culture, the act of barring a member from the table seems quaint or even meaningless. After all, who really cares if he is deprived of a wafer and a splash of grape juice?
Sometimes Christians in other traditions assume that all low-church Protestants take this kind of view, but that’s simply not the case. While disagreeing with the sacerdotal theologies of many of the older traditions, Baptists (before we were to this extent washed up in the riptide of parachurch Evangelicalism) shared with other Christians a common conviction that the Lord’s Table is a place of profound gravity—much more than the kind of “communion” we might have with the Lord and with one another while talking about the Holy Spirit over coffee and doughnuts.
This is why many low-church Protestants have shared historically with their high-church brothers and sisters the conviction that the Supper must be tied to discipline (1 Cor. 5:11). The table is not just an individual reminder of the gospel; it is the very locus of church fellowship, the place where we experience Christ present in proclamation and in one another. It is here that we experience a foretaste of the wedding supper to come, and where we announce those we hold accountable to struggle with us until then. The church is “recognizing the body” of Christ (1 Cor. 11:29) by defining the boundaries of communion at the table in terms of those who are in union with Christ and who are able, should they deny him, to be disciplined.
Motivated by Fidelity
This is precisely where the closing of the communion table collides with the individualistic grain of much of contemporary American spirituality. If communion is simply an individual act of worship, albeit taken in a crowd, then why wouldn’t any church allow individuals to determine the terms by which they come?
It seems sectarian to say one can’t come to the table unless one has been baptized by immersion as a believer, unless one realizes that, for Baptist Christians, this is what baptism is. Along with Eastern Orthodox Christians, Baptists affirm that Jesus meant “to immerse” when he commanded us to baptize. Unlike the Orthodox, Catholics, and the magisterial Reformers, Baptists believe a baptism is only valid when conferred on one who is in Christ, and who professes him as Lord. Ironically, it is here, where Baptists stand the most alone, that we are the most catholic.
Virtually every Christian communion in all places and at all times, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox, holds that baptism is a prerequisite to participation at the Lord’s Table. Regardless of our differences about the sacerdotal efficacy of baptism, we all acknowledge that this, at least, marks out the boundaries of church fellowship. There is, the apostle says, “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). In this, the dividing line isn’t whether one must be baptized to take the Supper, or whether one must be part of the church, but rather, what is “baptism” and what is “the church.”
If I attend the church of my Eastern Orthodox colleague Father Pat Reardon, I have the right to disagree (and I do) about what happens in Holy Communion. I don’t have the right to set the terms for his congregation as to whether they should receive me at the table. The same would be true in the parishes of my Anglican and Catholic friends. And the reverse would be the case should a respected—but infant-sprinkled—Christian hero be seated in the pews of my church.
When Father Pat tells me I must be part of the church in order to receive communion, I can’t simply show him my baptismal certificate from Woolmarket Baptist Church. That is not how Orthodoxy defines “church.”
I think the Orthodox are wrong about that, of course; otherwise, I’d make the trip to Constantinople. And they think I’m wrong about the same, and about baptism being limited to those who know Christ and who voluntarily confess him. But both of us are seeking, within our respective convictions, to be faithful to the apostolic mandate. We are both seeking to be faithful to the one Christ and to his global church, though we disagree—for now—about how to interpret what all this means.
Divided Reality, Patient Hope
If C. S. Lewis were alive today, I hope he’d invite me for a cup of tea at the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford (as a Southern Baptist, I’m afraid I’d have to decline anything stronger). And I’d be glad to have old Jack over for shrimp Po-Boys and Barq’s root beer down on the Gulf Coast. But I wouldn’t expect to kneel with him at the Anglican altar, and I wouldn’t expect to pass him the elements at the First Baptist Church. And here in the real world, the same is true with all of us in this divided reality of global Christianity.
This doesn’t mean we don’t receive each other in Christ. It doesn’t mean we make ultimate our differences. It means we take the church seriously. And it means we long for the day when we know, face-to-face, what Jesus means when he says the word “baptize.” We hope patiently for the glad eternal morning when we’re seated at one table with one Lord and one communion, and where there isn’t a fence in sight. •
Russell D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches. He lives with his family in Louisville, Kentucky, where he serves as Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and as preaching pastor at Highview Baptist Church. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.