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.
Pastor David Huffstutler
Pastor Huffstutler regularly writes articles for our Sunday bulletin. See his bio on our pastoral bio page.