Open Communion

Open Communion

The Table Church practices open Communion, open even to those who don't follow Christianity. When we offer Communion we say, "Anyone who seeks the grace of God is welcome to this table."

Traditionally there have been 3 positions on whom is allowed to participate in Communion:

  • Open (available to anyone who wants it);
  • Fenced (those who are Christians); and
  • Closed (available to those within a particular denomination, common in Catholic and Lutheran circles).

Early in church history (around the 100-200's) "fencing the (Communion) table" was common. In fact churches would at times erect a physical barrier to divide those who had been baptized and those who had not yet. Communion was available to those who had gone through 6-12 months of training on the Christian faith and received baptism. While this sounds exclusive today, keep in mind that for the first three centuries of the church's existence, being known as a Christian could cost you your social status, ability to trade in the marketplace, and even your life. It was not a decision to be taken lightly.

This practice of fencing the table was widespread (with some exceptions). John Wesley—who founded the Methodist movement—was among the first modern reformers who practiced an open table (though how open people debate today. Scholars have to get their PhDs in something!) He saw the ministry of Jesus as available to anyone; the Last Supper was made available even to Judas. And Jesus made communion-like meals available to thousands—look at the similar language of the feeding of the 5 and 4,000: "Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, and broke it;" or look at Jesus' meal with the 2 disciples on the road to Emmaus, 2 disciples who had walked away from Jerusalem due to their lack of belief.

What About 1 Corinthians 11?

1 Cor 11 certainly needs to be taken into consideration. In short, this passage is about wealth inequity in the church.

Here's the passage:

17 In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good.18 In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it.19 No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. 20 So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21 for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. 22 Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you? Certainly not in this matter!
23 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment.32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.
33 So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together. 34 Anyone who is hungryshould eat something at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions.

The context of the discussion starts in vv. 17-22. Paul states that the Corinthians' gatherings, "Do more harm than good" because "there are divisions among you." These divisions are between the rich and the poor. "For when you are eating, some of you [the rich] go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry [the poor] and another gets drunk [the rich]. Don’t you [rich] have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?"

To the extent that Communion becomes a way to show off who has wealth ("Look at this sumptuous food and wine we can afford") and who does not ("We have crumbs and juice"), then the church is having Communion in "an unworthy manner."

Verse 27 is confusing, because Paul combines the two primary New Testament metaphors for Christ's body: 1) Bread and Wine as Jesus' body and blood; and 2) The Church as the body of Christ. Paul says, "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup [i.e. Communion] in an unworthy manner will be answering for the body and blood of the Lord [i.e. the church itself, see 1 Cor. 12]." In other words, if you start eating a feast of Communion (Christ's body-as-food) and ignore the people who are right there (Christ's body-as-people), you're missing the point.

Moreover, this chapter does NOT say that God is striking people dead because they eat communion "unworthily," even though that's how many of us have been taught to read it. Rather, Paul is pointing out the extreme inequity between the rich and the poor in the church. The wealthy who eat "without honoring the body of Christ" (v. 29) are being high-capacity consumers, ignoring the rest of the church, specifically the poor. This is why people are growing "weak and sick and some have even died." It's not God killing people for taking Communion who aren't "supposed" to. It's because the wealthy keep eating, and the poor keep starving. That's why Paul is so upset. Getting Communion so badly wrong could literally mean lives are the line.

That said, now that we are no longer anxious about God striking us down because someone ate Communion who wasn't supposed to, this allows us to look at Jesus' examples with clear eyes. Jesus had a reputation with eating with the wrong kinds of people. The Last Supper itself was offered to a man who was about to deny him (Peter) and a man who was in the middle of betraying him (Judas). Why then should the church get the authority to decide who's "allowed" to receive Communion or not? I think the answer is clear: it shouldn't.