Three labels describe how churches practice communion with respect to who participates or not: unrestricted, restricted, and strict. We know them more commonly as open, closed, and close.
Unrestricted or open communion allows anyone who professes belief to participate in a church’s communion. It is unrestricted and thus open to all who profess Christ. We have three interrelated objections to this view.
First, if no restrictions are given, then baptism is downplayed because it not necessary to this communion. No one knows whether or not a given participant may or may not have been affirmed in his or her salvation (which is pledged in baptism – cf. 1 Peter 3:21) by the host church or some other church. Second, if no restrictions are given, then church membership is downplayed as well. Opening communion to someone who is not baptized and thus not confirmed by other believers in their salvation functionally says that the affirmation of other believers is not important to one’s salvation. Open communion thus devalues the notion of formal unity in a local church. Third, unrestricted communion downplays the role of church discipline. If a participant’s baptism and thus the affirmation of salvation by other believers are not necessary for communion, then the continued role of other believers in keeping the participant accountable for godliness is not necessary either. Were a participant to be living in persistent, open sin, the unity expressed in open communion (1 Cor 10:16–17) would be false, since persistent, open sin requires a church to exclude the individual from its fellowship since such a one is no believer at all (e.g., Matt 18:15–18; 1 Cor 5:1–11) or, at best, a sinning brother who has forfeited his right to fellowship in general and thus communion in particular (2 Thess 3:6, 14–15).
Restricted or closed communion allows only members of the presiding church to participate in communion. While this practice theoretically guarantees the purity of the ordinance, the NT suggests a better option is strict or close communion, which allows for a church to open communion beyond its own membership to other Christians who are members of a church of like faith and practice. We see this option in the practice of Paul who was mostly accountable to Antioch (cf. Acts 13:1–3; 14:26–28) and yet participated in communion at Troas (Acts 20:7, 11) and Corinth (1 Cor 11:23) and likely all the churches he visited.
Stated in brief, close communion assumes baptism, which assumes a profession of Christ and the confirmation of that profession by a church who administered that baptism. This church would then be responsible for ongoing accountability, which assumes church membership and even church discipline if necessary. A proper observation of communion through strict or close communion carries with it the safeguarding of these important features of our theology of the church.
The Meaning of the Word Church and What It Means for Us Today
Our word church is comes from the older kirk (Scottish) or kirche (German), which in turn derives from the Greek adjective kuriakos, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The Greek term directly behind our word church, however, is ekklesia, a combination of the preposition ek (“out of”) and the verb kaleō (“to call”). Ekklesia could refer to those who have been called out of something, and, as applied to believers in the present age, it refers to people who have been called out of this dying world to be part of the church, the body of Christ.
Ekklesia is used four ways in the NT. Ekklesia can be used generally to refer to a gathering of people. For example, Israel was the ekklessia in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), and Ephesus had a pagan ekklesia that protested the preaching of Paul (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Of the 114 times the NT uses ekklesia, these four uses are the only ones that do not refer to the church. The remaining 110 uses can be divided into three categories and refer somehow to the church.
First, ekklesia can refer to the universal church, that is, all of the saints in this present age, whether in heaven or on earth. We see the concept of the universal ekklesia the title “the church, which is His body” (Eph 1:22–32), composed of “all the members of the body… baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:12–13). It is not just those in one local church or the other but all those in the ekklesia for which Christ died (Eph 5:25).
Second, ekklesia can refer to a local church, such as “the church at Antioch” (Acts 13:1) or “the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2).
Third, ekklesia can refer to the entire church on earth at a given point in time. Paul once “persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13), obviously more than a single, local congregation. Similarly, when ekklesia is used in the plural, it can likewise refer all the churches on earth at once. Certain commands apply to “all the churches” (1 Cor 7:17; 14:33) on earth at any given point in time.
Theoretically, if all the true, local churches indeed belong together as the one church and body of Christ, we should be able to perfectly get along. Unfortunately, there is great divide in understanding many important passages in Scripture, which has led to scores of denominations today. The choice one is left with is to limit one’s message and increase their connections or to decrease their connections but have a high level of commonality with others by means of a confession. For the sake of practicality in relating to others and in accord with my own doctrinal convictions, I encourage opting for the latter of the two.
For those who are truly our fellow Christians, we should strive to have what level of fellowship we can. And for those who are sister churches in both cardinal doctrines and distinctives, we should strive for fellowship all the more.
 For the discussion below, see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998), 1041–44, and especially Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, Volume 3: The Doctrines of Salvation, the Church, and Last Things (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2010), 199–200.
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.