Open Communion: Strange to the Church

Now that we’ve seen what Scripture says about fellowship in the Lord’s Supper, we learn that Open Communion is strange to church history as well. The practice of Closed Communion wasn’t decided, it was inherited. In this section, you’ll learn that the early church not only taught Closed Communion but also practiced it.

The first confession we see concerning Closed Communion is found in the Didache (c. AD 96), also called “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” There’s debate as to whether this text was written directly by the Apostles or not. Nevertheless, this document had instructions concerning the practice of the Lord’s Supper: “Let none eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized in the Lord’s Name. For concerning this also did the Lord say, ‘Give not that which is holy to the dogs’” (Didache 9,5). Whether written by the Apostles or not, it reflects the Words of Holy Scripture clearly and faithfully. Additionally, although a man must first be baptized before receiving the Lord’s Supper, this doesn’t mean that all the baptized, without distinction, would partake. That will be shown in the texts that follow.

Another confession concerning Closed Communion is found in the writing of Ignatius of Antioch (c. AD 35-110), a disciple of the Apostle John. In his Epistle to the Philadelphians (3:2-4:1), Ignatius writes,

Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return to the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If anyone walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion of Christ. Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to show forth the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: That so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to the will of God (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians: 3:2-4:1).

Ignatius warns the Philadelphians to avoid “evil plants,” that is, false teachers sown by the devil. While commending the Philadelphians for not falling into “division” caused by false prophets, he alerts them that even if some fall away, they can return to the unity of the Church “in the exercise of repentance.” He exhorts them to avoid error, schism, and those who walk according to a “strange opinion.” Notice what follows: He speaks of the “Eucharist,” that is, the Lord’s Supper. His argument is that since there is no division in the flesh and cup of Christ, there should be no division (impurity, impenitence, error, schism, strange opinion) in the church.

Whenever the Church warns of false teachers, talk of the Lord’s Supper shortly follows, and vice versa. This is because the unity of the Church is made manifest at the altar. You cannot avoid false teachers and commune with them. Those who avoid false teachers also avoid their false unity in the Lord’s Supper. Those who withdraw and flee from false teachers are revealed as orthodox Christians; those who ignore, tolerate, and, yes, even rejoice in divisions are heterodox.

Justin Martyr (c. AD 100-165), an early church Christian apologist, was born into a pagan family.  He became a Christian around AD 130. Although most of his works are lost, his First Apology (c. AD 155) addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius remains. In this work, Justin Martyr explained the faith and argued that Christianity should be considered a legal and legitimate religion since it was not a threat to the state. While giving his defense of the faith, he explains “the Eucharist”:

[T]his food is called among us Eucharistia, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined (Justin Martyr, First Apology: 66).

Even while Justin Martyr argued for the legitimacy of Christianity to the Emperor, he did not give up the Church’s confession of the Lord’s Supper. (This is admirable. Nowadays, apologists don’t even mention the Lord’s Supper, let alone Closed Communion.) While making his confession to the emperor and to the world, Justin Martyr gives an incredibly clear and concise definition of Closed Communion: “No one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true.”

Faith is required to receive the Lord’s Supper. The faith required is not simply faith that trusts (fiducia), but faith that knows (notitia). The Church confesses that God blesses even infants with faith (Luke 1:41), but it doesn’t follow that these infants should receive the Lord’s Supper because they cannot discern what they are receiving or examine themselves rightly according to the Word of God (1 Corinthians 11). The faith required to receive the Lord’s Supper worthily is not only a personal trust in Christ, but also knowing and confessing the content of the faith and what is taught is true. Although Christians may be baptized and have faith in Christ, if that is all they know they must be taught more. They are not to receive the Body and Blood of Christ until they can believe that the things taught in the Church are true. The only way to know if someone believes the things taught in the Church is to hear his confession of faith. Without that confession, there is no way to know what someone believes.

In addition to this, the Lutheran Confessions quote John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople (c. AD 349-407), in the affirmative when he says this: [T]he priest stands daily at the altar, inviting some to the Communion and keeping back others (The Augsburg Confession, XXIV 36). The pastors in the early church didn’t simply state their practice of Closed Communion, they acted upon it. Closed Communion wasn’t simply a “policy” that they had to agree to in order to become a pastor; it was their conviction. (Sadly, many pastors in our Synod give lip-service to Closed Communion, saying they believe it, but doing whatever they want later.) They truly believed the Word of God and lived accordingly. The Apostle Paul writes, “This is how one should regard us (pastors), as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1). God gave pastors to give His Body and Blood. As stewards of the mystery of the Lord’s Supper, pastors give and withhold, loose and bind, forgive and retain sin according to the mandate of Christ (John 20).

The early church confessed their conviction of Closed Communion in practice. This is clear from what they did in church every Sunday since the middle of the second century. The Divine Service has two parts: The Service of the Word, and the Service of the Sacrament. Before anyone could enter into the church and become a “hearer” in the Service of the Word, he had to demonstrate his seriousness, dedication, and good life first. The church didn’t allow the extranei (strangers) to watch the service as a spectacle. It’s not that the early church was hiding the Word or denying the Word to outsiders, it’s that they first had to show forth their earnest desire to learn. Then, before the second part, the Service of the Sacrament, the “hearers” were ushered out of the church because they still held a different confession. Even though they were well on the road to full unity with the church, they were still not yet united. After the hearers left, the deacons closed and guarded the door, hence, Closed Communion.

Before ending this section on the early church, something else must be taught. The early church didn’t simply teach and practice Closed Communion, they also vehemently rejected Open/Close Communion! Open Communion wasn’t tolerated. Tertullian (c. AD 155-240), another Christian apologist, wrote against Gnosticism and other heretical sects. Werner Elert, in his book Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, notes that Tertullian sharply and severely rebuked those who practiced Open Communion, that is, those who didn’t make a distinction between the stranger, the hearer, and the communicant member. Tertullian writes the following:

I must not omit an account of the conduct also of the heretics—how frivolous it is, how worldly, how merely human, without seriousness, without authority, without discipline, as suits their creed. To begin with, it is doubtful who is a catechumen, and who a believer; they have all access alike, they hear alike, they pray alikeeven heathens, if any such happen to come among them. “That which is holy they will cast to the dogs, and their pearls,” although (to be sure) they are not real ones, “they will fling to the swine” (Tertullian, Prescription against Heretics: 41-The Conduct of Heretics: Its Frivolity, Worldliness, and Irregularity). 

Tertullian is exasperated at the worldliness of those who practice Open Communion. Open Communion is a false, human teaching. Rather than finding the world strange, these false teachers have embraced it more than God’s Word. They refused to make a distinction between the Christian, the catechumen, and the heathen. They refused to make a distinction between the holy and the unholy. The early Christian Liturgy shows their practice of Closed Communion—After consecrating the bread and wine for the Lord’s Supper, the pastor would lift up Christ’s Body and Blood and declare, “The holy things for the holy ones.”

The early church not only taught Closed Communion, but they practiced it. Even more, they condemned its opposite: Open Communion. The fact that the early church practiced Closed Communion and rejected Open/Close Communion is proof that God’s Word is clear. Moreover, the fact that the early church never questioned the theological foundation of Closed Communion teaches us that they knew Scripture was clear! From Scripture, they learned what it is, what it’s for, and who should receive it. It’s indubitably clear that the early church faithfully practiced Closed Communion—The burden of proof rests on those who deny this to show otherwise. The false teachers must show that the Church communed the ignorant, the unbelieving, and the impenitent. To practice Open Communion is to, in the words of Ignatius of Antioch, have a “strange opinion.”

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