Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A DEFENSE OF OPEN COMMUNION--Robert Murray M'Cheyne

I thought the following from a famous adherent of the Westminster Confession was very helpful. Table fellowship is Christian fellowship. --Josh Brisby
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I believe it to be the mind of Christ, that all who are vitally united to Him, should love one another, exhort one another daily, communicate freely of their substance to one another when poor, pray with and for one another, and sit down together at the Lord’s Table. Each of these positions may be proved by the Word of God. It is quite true that we may be frequently deceived in deciding upon the real godliness of those with whom we are brought into contact. The apostles themselves were deceived, and we must not expect to do the work of the ministry with fewer difficulties than they had to encounter. Still I have no doubt from Scripture that, where we have good reason for regarding a man as a child of God, we are permitted and commanded to treat him as a brother; and, as the most sacred pledge of heavenly friendship, to sit down freely at the table of our common Lord, to eat bread and drink wine together in remembrance of Christ.

The reason of this rule is plain. If we have solid ground to believe that a fellow sinner has been, by the Holy Spirit, grafted into the true vine, then we have ground to believe that we are vitally united to one another for eternity. The same blood has washed us, the same Spirit has quickened us, we lean upon the same pierced breast, we love the same law, we are guided by the same sleepless eye, we are to stand at the right hand of the same throne, we shall blend our voices eternally in singing the same song: “Worthy is the Lamb!” Is it not reasonable, then, that we should own one another on earth as fellow travelers to our Father’s house, and fellow heirs of the incorruptible crown? Upon this I have always acted, both in sitting down at the Lord’s Table and in admitting others to that blessed privilege.

I was once permitted to unite in celebrating the Lord’s Supper in an upper room in Jerusalem. There were fourteen present, the most of whom, I had good reason to believe, knew and loved the Lord Jesus Christ. Several were godly Episcopalians, two were converted Jews, and one a Christian from Nazareth, converted under the American missionaries. The bread and wine were dispensed in the Episcopal manner, and most were kneeling as they received them. Perhaps your correspondents would have shrunk back with horror, and called this the confusion of Babel. We felt it to be sweet fellowship with Christ and with the brethren; and as we left the upper room, and looked out upon the Mount of Olives, we remembered with calm joy the prayer of our Lord that ascended from one of its shady ravines, after the first Lord’s Supper: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe in me through their word, that they all may be ONE.”

The Table of Christ is a family table spread in this wilderness, and none of the true children should be absent from it, or be separated while sitting at it. We are told of Rowland Hill that, upon one occasion, when he had preached in a chapel where none but baptized adults were admitted to the sacrament, he wished to have communicated with them, but was told respectfully,“ You cannot sit down at our table.” He only calmly replied, “I thought it was the Lord’s Table.”

The early Reformers held the same view. Calvin wrote to Cranmer that he would cross ten seas to bring it about. Baxter, Owen, and Howe, in a later generation, pleaded for it; and the Westminster Divines laid down the same principle in few but solemn words: “Saints, by profession, are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God—which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.” These words, embodied in our standards, show clearly that the views maintained above are the very principles of the Church of Scotland.

22 comments:

Josh Brisby said...

It can be no doubt that this is the historic Reformed view as well.

Josh Brisby said...

I would also mention another brief but strong argument for open communion. We are told in Galatians that there were two groups of Christians (call them "denominations" at first): those of the circumcision group, and those of the "free" group. Peter started backing away and would not eat with the free group and started having table fellowship only with those of the circumcision group. Yet, Paul thought it was so serious that he publically rebuked him and accused him of inadvertently denying the gospel.

Paul was saying that he should have had Table Fellowship with them, even though they were "of another group."

Hence, it seems that Table fellowship is Christian fellowship.

David said...

So just to be clear.... how far will you go? Will you let an athiest, a Jehovah's witness, a Mormon partake without stopping them? Someone who is a hanger on, but you know has made no commitment to Christ? Someone you know for a fact is cheating on their wife on a regular basis?

ang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Josh Brisby said...

David,

Welcome to The Reformed Oasis.

The position of open communion has never stated that just anyone may partake. Open communion believes that all baptized Christians who have professed their faith in Christ are welcome to the Table. In many open communion liturgies as well, the warnings for self-examination from 1 Corinthians 11 are also given.

The ones who the Table is closed to are those in unrepentant sin or non-Christians. Cults such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses are also not welcome to the Table.

I hope the information above is helpful. Again, welcome to The Reformed Oasis!

David said...

Ok, that's not everyone's definition. So your position is protestants and Catholics may come but Mormons, JWs, unbaptized and unrepentant may not. Is that correct?

Josh Brisby said...

David,

Granted, there are different local churches that work out the nuances of open communion differently, even as there are different local churches that work out the nuances and practicality of close(d) communion differently. But again, the open communion position is such that all baptized, professing Christians who are not in unrepentant sin are welcome to the Table. This of course would exclude non-Christians such as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Catholics (and Orthodox) parishioners are not permitted, by their own church authorities, to partake with Protestants. Nor are Protestants permitted--by the Catholics or the Orthodox at least--to receive communion at Catholic or Orthodox churches.

I hope the above helps. Thank you for your good questions.

David said...

"Catholics (and Orthodox) parishioners are not permitted, by their own church authorities, to partake with Protestants."

This is true, but it doesn't answer the question of whether you would let them partake if they wished to. Is this avenue closed from both sides, or only from one side? So will you let Catholics (and Orthodox) partake, if they chose?

Josh Brisby said...

David,

As mentioned, this is a nuance of open communion that different local churches work out differently. If I were on a session or consistory, I would make my vote for *no*, I would not allow Catholics or Orthodox to partake with us, because they have sadly brought much disunity to the Body of Christ by claiming that they are the "only true" church. Furthermore, Catholics and Orthodox both deny justification by faith alone, which is a vital doctrine. I do not see fellow Protestants as denying any serious doctrine of the faith, but only secondary doctrine.

But again, I respectfully think you are only touching on the nuances of open communion. I don't think your questions would disprove it (not that you are trying to disprove it). For example, at my local church, we see one of the problematic nuances of the close communion position: we invite all churches who are members of NAPARC, or other Reformed churches, to join us at the Table. However, many, perhaps even most, of the members of PCA churches do not even believe in the Real Presence of Christ at the Table. In fact, most Reformed parishioners are Zwinglian--yet we invite them to the Table. Is this not a problem with one of the nuances of the close communion position?

I also know of other URC churches that say that one must believe in the Real Presence to partake.

So, how many requirements and how far will we go to fence the Table? Everyone fences it to some degree, or should. But the question is, what best expresses the biblical position, or the mind of God on the issue? That is what we are all trying to ascertain.

I continue to think that the open communion position is the biblical position; and there can be no doubt that it is the historic Reformed position. I think the burden of proof lies on those who would take the close(d) communion position, both biblically and historically, as well as confessionally.

Thank you again for your excellent questions. It is always good to see iron sharpen iron.

Josh Brisby said...

I forgot to also add that another reason I would not allow Catholics or Orthodox to partake is that they would also be going against their own church authorities. I would tell them to respect the wishes of their church authorities.

Josh Brisby said...

And with regards to those who claim they are the "one true church," another nuance would be that it wouldn't make sense for certain Trinitarian cults, such as Churches of Christ or Seventh-Day Adventists, to partake with us either. Although we may consider others brothers by virtue of their profession and baptism, to say that they are the "only true church" would be severing the unity with the Body of Christ.

Now, I can anticipate a response to the above. I agree that, for example, we don't have unity on the doctrine of baptism with our Baptist brothers. But at the same time, I see this as a secondary doctrine. We do have unity in the gospel, and neither side is claiming that we are the "one true" church.

So granted...there are many nuances to whatever position one takes, but the open communion position seems to be the biblical, historical, and confessional position.

David said...

I'm afraid I can't see the difference between what you call open communion, and what the so-called closed communion churches practice. Your concept of who is in communion with your faith tradition and thus who you will allow to the table is hardly distinguishable from how, say the Orthodox church would do it.

You criticize Catholics and Orthodox for making claims to be the only true church, but then it sounds like you make yourselves to be the only true church by excluding them. That some of you may call yourselves "presbyterian" and others may take the term "baptists" and then commune together, is no different to some taking the name "Greek Orthodox" and others "Russian Orthodox", and yet who will commune together. You're still practicing communion as closed as any closed communion church.

And if they are in error merely by claiming to be the only true church, then so are you. You may go to claim, "yes, but they are wrong about doctrine XYZ", but then they would do the same to you. So the error was never about claiming to be the one church, the dispute was about other things. The true church question is only the conclusion drawn from doctrinal differences which you too use to draw boundaries around the true church.

Josh Brisby said...

David,

I confess I am having trouble seeing what you are saying. The open communion position has never been "anyone may come to the Table." That is a misunderstanding of the position.

Yes, there is "one true church": the Christian church. But to sectarianize that with regards to communion is to set another valid expression of Christianity itself as the "one true expression" of Christianity. I am convinced that the close(d) communion position ultimately seems to boil down to "we have the right interpretation of Scripture." I think this is rather unfortunate but usually does lead that way. And it is saddening as well, because this usually prevents us from learning from our other brothers and sisters in Christ.

When it comes to Orthodox and Catholics, although they are Christian churches, they are at odds with us. To have communion with them would be like trying to make love with a spouse when the husband and the wife are upset with one another; it would hardly make sense. It would also be saying something that is not true...namely, that we were in comunion with one another, when in fact we are not.

So, for all sides it comes down to...who are we in unity and union and communion with? To say that, for example, those who believe in infant baptism are not in communion or union or unity with those who believe in believer's baptism alone, I think would be like saying that, since my wife doesn't like sushi (my favorite food), and my wife doesn't like to travel (something I absolutely love), that we aren't in unity. On the contrary, I am in full union and unity with my wife, notwithstanding our differences over food likes and dislikes, and our particular views on travel.

To close the Table from those who differ with us on secondary issues is to sectarianize our church and make the secondary issues primary. This is a disheartening consequence of the close(d) communion position.

I hope the above clears any concerns or questions you may have. Again, all sides have nuances to be worked out, but at the end of the day, I am convinced that open communion is the charitable, biblical, confessionally Reformed, historical, and indeed practical position.

Thank you again for your good questions!

David said...

"The open communion position has never been "anyone may come to the Table." That is a misunderstanding of the position."

I never made any claim about what the "open position" is or isn't, or should or should not be.

I'm basically making the observation that what you refer to as the "open communion" position, is indistinguishable from the "closed communion" position.

The door to communion with Orthodox and Catholics is locked on both sides, both your side and their side. I'm sure they would agree with your assessment that communion makes no sense because "they are at odds with us."

On the other hand, they and you do have communion with people who have minor differences with the practices of particular local bodies.

It seems like it would be less confusing if you were to argue for the closed communion position, and then spend your time clarifying the peculiarities of your position on defining who you will consider in communion with yourself.

Josh Brisby said...

David,

If it's only a matter of definition, then my position needs to be called "open communion" because it is open to all baptized Christians who have professed their faith. In my many years of being a Christian (by God's grace), I have visited and even been a member of many open communion churches. I don't know of any that would say that the open position is that it is for anyone. We all fence the Table to some degree, whether open, close, or closed.

Most of the open communion churches I've been to even precede the Table with warnings. One in particular even said "we practice open communion . . . join us if you are a member of a Bible-believing church and a member in good standing."

So, since we have already defined "open" communion in our discussion, here are the definitions of "close" communion, and its sister, "closed" communion:

"Close" communion means that anyone who holds to doctrinal distinctives of that particular local church, or is a member of a church that agrees with the other said local church's doctrine, may partake. This is the position of the church I am a member with. I love my church, and I have discussed my concerns over this with my consistory. As I mentioned above, I think this takes secondary doctrine and makes it primary, which is a serious concern of mine. It also keeps us from learning from other brothers and sisters, and it ends up saying, imho, that we are not in unity or union with our fellow brothers and sisters who differ with us on secondary doctrine. It is also, imho, impractical, b/c we allow those who don't even believe in the Real Presence to partake with us, just because they attend a Reformed church.

"Closed" communion is the position that only those who are members of that particular local church may partake.

Both the "close" and the "closed" positions I think sectarianize us from other members of the Body of Christ.

So again, what I espouse, historically, has been called "open communion." "Close" and "closed" communion are not the confessional Reformed position; they are not practical; they sectarianize, sadly; and they keep us from unity with those brothers and sisters who we only have minor doctrinal differences with. I also strongly believe the Bible is on the side of open communion.

Thank you again for your thoughts!

David said...

Your definitions don't seem to agree with the normal definitions, though apparently Baptists run with that definition.

Closed communion doesn't usually mean only members of a local body, it can mean only members of a body, denomination, sect or even a general group. That Wiki article even gives the example of "members of some specific class (e.g., baptized members of evangelical churches)"

Since you refer to Orthodox and Catholic as Christian Churches, but you wouldn't let them to partake since they are not evangelicals, it seems to me your position is better described as closed communion. And those other so-called open communion churches you refer to would be better described as "closed".

I have seen what I would call open communion. They put some bread and wine up the front, and basically say "If you're a Christian, come and get it", and nobody is going to stop anyone for partaking.

If a church said "join us if you are a member of a Bible-believing church and a member in good standing", that's openish, depending on whether "bible believing" is really the local codeword for some particular brand of Christianity. For example, sometimes King James only churches think that bible believer means someone who uses the KJV. Does the person saying "bible-believing" really intend to include Catholics? I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't mean to include them. So while the language might sound "open", the actual reality might really be "closed".

BTW, would your no Catholic or Orthodox stance exclude church fathers from hypothetically partaking at your church? If Augustine, or Chrysostom or Athanasius could be magically transported here, do you allow them?

Josh Brisby said...

David,

With respect, I don't believe that one Wiki article is substantial enough to call into question the generally accepted definitions across the Christian community. Even in the article it agrees with what I state are the generally accepted definitions, although it allows for others.

I'm trying to understand what you are attempting to get across in our discussion. If what you are trying to say is that I fence the Table to some degree, I grant that, as I always have. All three positions fence the Table to some degree.

Out of curiosity, do we know each other? I know a few Davids, and one is on the consistory of my church.

As for your hypothetical regarding transporting some of the Fathers in time, that would depend on whether or not they agree with the anathemas of Rome toward us at Trent. Rome did not anathematize us until Trent. If Augustine, Chrysostom, et al, agreed with the anathemas, then it would hardly make sense to partake with them, since that would be fairly equivalent to making love with a spouse while all the while they were saying "damn you" or were upset with each other.

But, if they didn't agree with the anathemas, then yes, I would partake with them, since we would be in union with one another.

David said...

We don't know each other.

The general point I'm making is that it seems a little odd that you are saying that you are an advocate of the "open" position, but when I ask you what that entails, it turns out to be the same as the classical "closed" position, as practiced by catholic and orthodox.

Why is Trent the deciding factor since you have excluded Orthodox, and they don't subscribe to Trent?

Josh Brisby said...

David,

The Orthodox have anathematized us as well, in some of their lesser known later councils.

David said...

These lesser known councils wouldn't quite reach the level of dogmatic teaching though. And I'm sure many protestant declarations of similar significance take a mutual stance. For example, the WCF says that monastic vows "are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself." I'm sure an Orthodox would find this as offensive as whatever council you are referring to. I mean, you are not going to be taking communion at a church where you know that they believe your entire lifestyle is a "sinful snare in which no Christian may entangle himself", nor could you really consider yourself to be in communion with such a group.

It seems like you should probably take responsibility yourself for who you won't commune with, rather than blaming it all on the other side.

Also, no council anathemas technically apply to protestants. Anathemas are grounds for excommunication, but since protestants are not in communion in the first place, they are not actually applicable to them.

You might say that's a technicality, however, would you accept into church membership someone who doesn't accept your full confession of faith? It sounds like you are a Presbyterian, so would you accept a baptist dispensationalist arminian into full membership? If so, then in 20 years time your church may not be presbyterian anymore because all the members could end up being something else. If you won't, then you are practicing anathema, whereby non-adherence results in no church membership. You would do this so that your church remains distinctly Presbyterian, and doesn't drift off into something else. Not because you necessarily hate baptists or arminians or <.... whatever>.

Josh Brisby said...

David,

Since this thread is already getting rather long, this will be my last response. You are welcome and free to have the last word and post any final thoughts you have.

One of my purposes in life is dialogue with other Christians, toward a mutual understanding, and to listen to one another. I have Catholic and Orthodox friends, and, although we are not in communion with one another, I strive to dialogue with them and understand them. I think this is part of contributing to Jesus' prayer that one day, we would all be one and brought to complete unity, so that the world may know that He was sent by the Father.

No offense, but your statement that anathemas don't apply to Protestants is just plain wrong. It is true that Vatican II considers us "separated brethren," yet Rome cannot revoke her own dogma. The anathemas of Trent still stand. Unfortunately, this will always be a major wall in dialogue. Sadly, Rome seems to always want to dialogue with other Christians, but it is always under the guise of "return to the true church...return to Rome." This discourages me greatly.

To answer your final question, yes, I would accept into membership a fellow Christian who is in unity with me, whether Baptist, paedobaptist, or whatever; but this does not have to take away the identity of *what kind* of Christian I am, nor does it have to detract from the Confessions of Faith that I subscribe to. I see both pros and cons of both the strict subscription position, as well as the moderate subscription position.

Thank you again for the dialogue, and for the iron sharpening iron. You are always welcome here at The Reformed Oasis!

Anonymous said...

"It can be no doubt that this is the historic Reformed view as well."
On the basis of what evidence do you make this bold claim?