Discerning the Body: A Biblical Defense of Modified Open Communion

Posted by in Baptist Life, Bible & Theology, Church & Missions

Last week, I got into a bit of a discussion on the comment stream over at SBC Today on the subject of who should be allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper in a Baptist church, and who should not. Some of my words here are taken from the discussion over there. Some leading views advocated by Baptists are close, closed, open, and, the view I personally take, modified open communion. I do not consider myself, technically, to be an advocate of open communion, since I don’t believe the Lord’s Supper should be offered indiscriminately to anyone and everyone, nor even to all those, without exception, who profess to be Christians. Paul had some pretty serious words to say about taking the bread and the cup in an unworthy manner. And, he relates taking the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner to a failure to “discern (or recognize) the body of the Lord”:

Therefore, 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. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. (1 Corinthians 11:27-34, NIV).

*other versions translate the phrase “recognizing the body” here “discerning the body.”

Thus, I believe it is very important that we not participate in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, and that we encourage those who are participating with us not to participate in an unworthy manner. However, neither do I agree with the close communion position, which requires Baptist churches to only admit to the Lord’s Supper those who have been immersed in water after their profession of faith in Christ. And, I do not agree with the closed communion position, which requires that Baptist churches only admit fellow members of the particular local congregation in which the Lord’s Supper is being served.

Lest, for some reason, anyone think differently, let me make perfectly clear that I do think those who profess faith in Christ should be baptized shortly afterward, and that only truly born-again people should participate in the Lord’s Supper. So, I am in agreement that the normal order would be conversion, baptism, and then, participation in the Lord’s Supper.

However, when we think of the Lord’s Supper, and who should be permitted to participate, we need to think, first of all, about just what it is, and what we are celebrating, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. At the core, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial of what Jesus did for us—not of what we have done for Jesus; that is, a memorial of and witness to our salvation won by Jesus on the cross of Calvary—not a witness to our obedience to the command to be baptized, nor of our meeting the requirements for local church membership.

In addition to this, the Lord’s Supper is also a celebration of the unity of the Body of Christ, the Church. Consider the words of Paul in 1 Cor. 10:16-17:

Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

The Lord’s Supper is not just a celebration of the unity of the local church. Neither is it a celebration of the unity of all of those who have their doctrine right concerning baptism. It is a celebration of the unity of the entire Body of Christ. Paul says clearly, “We, who are many, are one body”—not many different autonomous bodies. And, when we don’t admit folks to the Lord’s Supper, we are, in effect, telling them we don’t believe they belong in the Body of Christ.

Among Baptists, the traditional understanding of the phrase “discerning the body,” in 1 Cor. 11:29, has to do with the responsibility of taking the Lord’s Supper in a respectful manner, realizing that what we are doing, at that moment, is commemorating the death of our Lord Jesus, and that it is a solemn occasion, not one for joking, jesting, or behaving in a flippant manner. Certainly, there is an important element of truth here.

In the overall context of 1 Corinthians, however, I believe that “discerning the body” also has a very important application to our stance in regard to our fellow brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, Paul links the two senses of the body of Christ—physical and mystical—and it appears that in 1 Cor. 11:29 he does so again.

The specific sin pointed out by Paul in 1 Corinthians, in relation to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, was a sin against one’s fellow members in the Body of Christ. Notice chapter 11, verses 18-22:

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. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

What was the problem at Corinth? It was primarily a problem of division within the Body of Christ. Specifically, some of the people (presumably the more wealthy) were despising those who had nothing (i.e. the poor). Essentially, what they were doing was treating certain bona fide members of the Body of Christ like second-class citizens.

One chapter later, in ch. 12, Paul develops this same theme further (vv. 12-27):

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

In the context of the specific abuses taking part in the Lord’s Supper, Paul is pointing out a particular division: that between the rich and the poor within the congregation at Corinth. He makes a special point to show that—whether we be slaves or free; members who are, humanly speaking, “less honorable,” or members who are “more honorable”—we are all part of the same Body. In the overall context of 1 Corinthians, he also decries divisions based on loyalty to certain teachers—i.e. Peter, Apollos, and Paul himself—what we might call today a denominational or sectarian spirit.

Whatever the cause behind it, though, Paul is saying there is nothing that should come between us as brothers and sisters in Christ, if indeed we are truly members of Christ’s Body. Because of this, it is vitally important for us to know, to the degree it is possible to know this side of heaven, who is a part of Christ’s Body, and who is not. And, as I understand it, this is an important part of what it means to correctly discern the Body of Christ.

How do we discern who is truly a part of the Body of Christ, and who is not? Paul, in 1 Cor. 12:13, tells us how: all of us who were baptized by one Spirit, and given the one Spirit to drink, were baptized (by the same Spirit) into one body—that is, the very same group to whom Paul addresses the letter of 1 Corinthians, when he says, in chapter 1, verse 2:

To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.

Notice that, for Paul, the “church of God in Corinth” is one and the same with all “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy,” that is to say, every single born-again believer in the city of Corinth. Notice, also, that he does not treat them as an independent group unto themselves, but rather as a local representation, or expression, of a broader group: “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Along with most Baptist students of Scripture and church history, I agree that, in the context of the NT, it would have likely been very rare, if not impossible, to find individuals who had been baptized by the Spirit yet who had not yet been baptized appropriately in water. However, in the context of today, due to the tragedy of divisions and false teaching within the Body of Christ, sadly, that is no longer the case. There are many paedobaptist brothers and sisters in Christ who, though mistaken (as I understand it) in their understanding and practice of water baptism, have, nonetheless, been baptized by the very same Spirit as we (as Baptists) have. And, when we attempt to discern the Body, and we notice there is not an exact correlation between the group of all those who have been appropriately baptized in water and the group of all those who have been baptized by the Spirit, we come to the conclusion that the group of those who truly comprise the Body of Christ is made up not just of those who have been baptized both by the Spirit and in water, but rather, of all those who have been baptized by the Spirit.

Now, it is true that, if someone has studied out what the Bible teaches on baptism, and has come to the understanding that Jesus has commanded them to be baptized in water, and yet, in spite of this, has not yet followed through with what they understand, then they are living in disobedience, and need to get their baptism on the right side of their salvation. In such a case, we need to warn them about the danger of participating in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner, which includes allowing any known, unrepented of sin in one’s life, no matter what that sin may be. At the same time, however, an objective consideration of the reality present in Christendom today leads us to the conclusion there are many authentically born-again Christians, who are sincerely endeavoring to be obedient to Jesus in everything, including baptism, yet, for one reason or another, understand baptism differently than we do as Baptists, and, as a result, have not been immersed in water subsequent to their profession of faith in Christ.

Some claim that maintaining a practice of close communion serves as a good opportunity to proclaim to the unbaptized their duty to be obedient to Christ’s command, causing them to reflect on the reason for their exclusion from the Lord’s table. However, while this perspective may have an element of truth to it, two wrongs do not make a right. I personally agree that it is wrong for believers not to be immersed after professing faith in Christ. And, I agree that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is indeed an opportune moment to remind people of their need to be obedient to the command to be baptized. But, at the same time, on the basis of my understanding of Scripture, I also believe it is wrong to deny true believers—whether they have been biblically baptized or not—access to the Lord’s Supper, which is a celebration of the unity of the entire Body of Christ, not just a part of it. There are other ways to proclaim to the unbaptized their need to be baptized, without, at the same time, despising the unity of the Body of Christ, by denying them a place at the Lord’s table.

The question has been raised, how someone who is presiding the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the context of a Baptist church can follow through with what I am saying here, without, at the same time, being disloyal to the Baptist distinctive of believers baptism by immersion. However, I don’t think this is necessarily a problem.

The following is an example of what I have said, when I have presided the Lord’s Supper:

“The Bible teaches that, before partaking of the bread and the wine, we are to examine our hearts. I believe this includes examining ourselves to see if there is any known sin we have not confessed, or for which we have not repented. Before sharing together with us in the Lord’s Supper today, I ask, and indeed, urge you to examine the condition of your own heart before the Lord. If the Holy Spirit convicts you of any sin, please make it right before Him before partaking in the Lord’s Supper. This is a very serious matter. The Word of God says that some, in the congregation in Corinth, had “fallen asleep” (that is, they died) as a result of not taking this admonition seriously.

I would also add that, in our congregation, we believe that Jesus commanded each believer, after truly repenting of their sin, and placing their faith in Christ, to seal their surrender to Christ by means of believers baptism, or being immersed in water, after having been saved, in obedience to the Lord’s command. If you have not been obedient to Jesus’ command to be baptized, I urge you to not put off any longer doing so.

At the same time, I am aware there are some who have sincerely repented of their sin, and placed their faith in Christ alone for their salvation, and yet, believe, as they have examined Scripture, that their baptism before they were saved is an authentic and biblically condoned baptism. Though, in this congregation, we believe and teach differently on this matter, we consider the Lord’s Supper to be a celebration of the unity of the entire Body of Christ, not just of those who agree with us on this particular matter.

In any case, I urge you to carefully and prayerfully study the Scripture, and examine your own heart on this matter. If you are convicted you need to be biblically baptized, don’t put it off any longer. If you, before the Lord, have a clear conscience about being obedient to the Lord’s command in this area, then follow, before the Lord, the dictates of your conscience.

In any case, if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and are attempting, to the best of your ability, to serve and obey Him, we warmly embrace you, and accept you as a fellow member of the Body of Christ.”

*What do you believe about who should participate in the Lord’s Supper?

*What is the practice in the churches in which you have been a member, and/or the churches you are aware of?