There has been a long-standing debate among Baptists about whether the correct position on the Lord’s Supper is close communion, where baptized members of Baptist churches other than the assembly in which the ordinance is being celebrated partake along with the host church’s members, or closed communion, where the ordinance is restricted to the members of each particular assembly only. The view of open communion is clearly unscriptural and will not be examined in this post.
Arguments for Closed Communion
The arguments for closed communion are strong. 1 Corinthians 10-11 identifies the Supper as the “communion of the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16), and the body of Christ is the local, visible assembly (1 Corinthians 12:27) to which one is added by baptism (1 Corinthians 12:13). Furthermore, both baptism and the Supper are church ordinances, and since the church is a local, visible assembly, the ordinance is naturally understood as pertaining to each assembly and its members alone. The members of the church are to discern the body (1 Corinthians 11:29) to avoid judgment. Pastor Brandenburg makes a good case for closed communion in his expository sermons on the relevant passages in 1 Corinthians, and J. R. Graves likewise makes a good case in Chapter 7 of his book Old Landmarkism.
In response to the close communion argument that the Apostle Paul partook of the Supper with the church at Troas in Acts 20, many believers in closed communion argue that there was no church at Troas at all. Others argue that the breaking of bread at Troas was a common meal, not the Supper, since the breaking of bread can be a reference to a simple meal (Acts 27:35). Furthermore, they argue that examples must be interpreted in light of precepts, not the other way around, so the precepts in 1 Corinthians require that the example of Acts 20 does not involve Paul taking the Supper with the Baptist church at Troas.
The closed communion position is very attractive, and if it has a reasonable explanation for Acts 20, its position is conclusive.
Arguments for Close Communion
Advocates of close communion affirm that Paul partook of the Supper with the church at Troas in Acts 20, so closed communion cannot be required by Scripture. They believe that, as the study here argues, it is not possible to explain Acts 20 as anything less than an assembly of a church and a participation in the Lord’s Supper. They argue that the verb sunago, “came together” in Acts 20:7, is a church assembly word, since the verb is used for church assemblies in Matthew 18:20; John 20:19; Acts 4:31; 11:26; 14:27; 15:30; 20:7, 8; 1 Corinthians 5:4 (cf. also Acts 15:6). The references to sunago in the perfect tense in Acts only speak of church assembly (Acts 4:31; 20:7, 8; cf. Matthew 18:20; John 20:19). The related word sunagoge is used for the Christian place of assembly in James 2:2. The related word episunagoge is used for the Christian “assembling” in Hebrews 10:25 in the classic command, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together.” The grammar in Acts 20:7, “the first day of the week, when the disciples came together,” is very similar to that of the church assembly of John 20:19, when “the first day of the week . . . the disciples were assembled.” Therefore, they argue, church assembly is in view in Acts 20:7, a view supported by other exegetical arguments, as well as historical evidence for a church at Troas from Scripture and early church history (see here).
Furthermore, advocates of close communion argue that the reference in Acts 20 to the “breaking of bread” is to the Supper, not just to a common meal, because the purpose of the gathering in Acts 20:7 was the breaking of bread; they “came together to break bread,” a purpose clause. In the view of advocates of close communion, the fact that the purpose of their getting together was the breaking of the bread proves it was the Supper, not a common meal. If the breaking of bread was just eating some food in this passage, it would hardly have been the reason that the church at Troas assembled. On the night before the great apostle Paul and his fellow laborers in the work of God were leaving, would they have come together, not to bid him farewell, but to fill their bellies? Would the rare, precious opportunity to be taught by and fellowship with the apostle to the Gentiles have been passed over as a reason for assembling, in favor of eating some food? Paul’s preaching was hardly a surprise. would they have been so ungodly as to have said, “we are not gathering together to hear the apostle Paul preach, but we are coming together for the more important purpose of having dinner.” Only if this breaking of bread is the Lord’s Supper is it reasonably given as the purpose for the church assembling. If the “breaking of bread” is the holy Supper of the Lord, and the church at Troas was coming together to obey that great command, “This do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24-25), the importance placed on this event as the most important part of their celebration is natural, and preaching in conjunction with a church service is expected. Coming together for the purpose of celebrating the Supper is also the pattern in 1 Corinthians 11:20, which has similar syntax to Acts 20:7. While they quite likely had a meal as well as taking the Lord’s Supper (taking a break for refreshments somewhere in the process of many hours of preaching is very natural—as it is natural to expect that they did not send the apostle and his companions away on empty stomachs—especially since Paul was going to walk to Assos from Troas, v. 13, a distance of c. 20 miles), this does not alter the fact that the purpose of their coming together and their breaking of bread referred to the church ordinance. What is more, why would they wait until the first day of the week to “come together” to eat a normal meal? Finally, advocates of close communion argue that while the breaking of bread is not always the Lord’s Supper, it very commonly—the large majority of the time—is (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; Acts 20:7, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:24; also Acts 2:42).
In relation to 1 Corinthians 10-12, advocates of close communion argue that the passages do indeed teach the Supper is a church ordinance, but that this fact does not eliminate the possibility that a church can allow other baptized saints to participate. They argue that it is still the communion of the body of Christ even if a tiny percentage of people who are not part of that particular body are present, just as it is still the communion of the body if unconverted people who are false converts yet are church members partake. Furthermore, many advocates of close communion argue that 1 Corinthians 10:16, because of its parallel references to the “communion of the blood of Christ” and “communion of the body of Christ,” refers to the actual physical body and blood of the Redeemer rather than to the church as the body of Christ.
A Mediating Position Between Close and Closed Communion?
While I am definitely interested in hearing comments, arguments, and interaction with the material above for close vs. closed communion in the comment section below, I would in particular be interested in hearing comments on the following proposed mediating position. This mediating position argues:
1.) The Lord’s Supper is clearly a church ordinance from 1 Corinthians 10-12, and so is properly the domain of the members of each particular Baptist church.
2.) Nevertheless, Acts 20 teaches that Paul partook of the Lord’s Supper with the church at Troas. However, this does not by any means establish that a church is obligated to let people who are baptized members of other assemblies participate with them in the Supper. It is a different thing for a church to have the option of allowing others to partake and for a church to be obligated to allow others to partake. Furthermore, the Apostle Paul was clearly right with God, was the preacher on that occasion, and was the one God used to organize the assembly in that location. Thus, the church at Troas had as good a reason to believe Paul was right with God as they did any of their own church members. It is a different thing for a church to allow a preacher from a church that it works very closely with, and one who that church knows is right with God, to participate in the Supper and for a church to allow strangers who claim to be members of a Baptist church somewhere to partake. The former allows the assembly to still take care that unworthy participation is excluded, while the latter does not.
3.) Thus, this mediating position is stricter than the large majority of churches that practice close communion, in that it only permits outside participation—if a church wants to exclude everyone other than its own members, it has the liberty to do so, and practice entirely closed communion. Furthermore, it only derives from Acts 20 the lawfulness of participation of people that the particular assembly knows very well are right with God, not anyone who simply professes to be a Baptist or a Baptist separatist. In this way, this mediating position contends that it can deal fairly both with the evidence in 1 Corinthians 10-12 and Acts 20.
Where am I on this topic? I have been a member both of churches that practice closed and of churches that practice close communion. Bethel Baptist Church, where Pastor Brandenburg shepherds the flock, switched from close to closed while I was a member there, a decision of which I was glad. As a local-only church advocate, an opponent of alien immersion, a believer in an actual succession of churches, a believer that Bible-believing Baptist churches are the only true churches on this earth and that (in this dispensation, though not in eternity) Christ’s bride is the church, I naturally really like closed communion. However, I have difficulty explaining Acts 20 in a totally closed way. Thus, at this particular time I am essentially at what I have called the “mediating position” above—more closed than the large majority of “close” churches, but more open than the strictly “closed” churches.
Feel free to try to convince me with Biblical, exegetical, and theological arguments to leave my mediating position one way or the other in the comment section—or to support me in my mediation.