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Closed communion is the practice of restricting the serving of the elements of Holy Communion (also called Eucharist, The Lord's Supper) to those who are members in good standing of a particular church, denomination, sect, or congregation. Though the meaning of the term varies slightly in different Christian theological traditions, it generally means that a church or denomination limits participation either to members of their own church, members of their own denomination, or members of some specific class (e.g., baptized members of evangelical churches). See also intercommunion.
A closed-communion church is one that (perhaps with exceptions in unusual circumstances) excludes non-members from receiving communion. This is the practice of all churches dating from before the Protestant Reformation and also of some Protestant church such as Lutherans and Baptists. Lutherans require catechetical instruction for all people, even members from other Lutheran Churches, before receiving the Eucharist while some Baptist churches require part membership while others even require full membership before participating in the communion service.
Churches which practice open communion allow all Christians to partake in the Lord's Supper, with membership in a particular Christian community not required to receive bread and wine, in contrast to pre-Reformation churches, which hold that what is received in their celebrations ceases to be bread and wine.
The Catholic Church (including all its component particular Churches, whether Latin or Eastern) practices closed communion. However, provided that "necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it" and that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, it allows those of its members who cannot approach a Catholic minister to receive the Eucharist from ministers of churches that have a valid Eucharist.1 It also permits properly disposed members of the Eastern churches and of churches judged to be in the same situation with regard to the sacraments to receive the Eucharist from Catholic ministers, if they seek it of their own accord.2 The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism warns that "due consideration should be given to the discipline of the Eastern Churches for their own faithful and any suggestion of proselytism should be avoided."3 Western Christians who do not share the Catholic theology of the Eucharist (such as those who follow Reformed Protestant teaching on the matter) are absolutely excluded. Those who do personally share Catholic belief in the Eucharist (as the body and blood of the risen Christ, accompanied by his soul and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine) are permitted to receive the sacrament when there is danger of death or, in the judgement of the diocesan bishop or of the episcopal conference, some other grave necessity urges it and on condition that "the person be unable to have recourse for the sacrament to a minister of his or her own Church or ecclesial Community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament and be properly disposed".45
The Catholic Church does not practise open communion, holding that reception of Holy Communion is reserved for those who are baptized.6 In general it permits access to its Eucharistic communion only to those who share its oneness in faith, worship and ecclesial life.7 For the same reasons, it also recognizes that in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments may be permitted for Christians of other Churches and ecclesial Communities. Thus it permits Eastern Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church (Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy and Assyrian Church of the East) to receive Communion from Catholic ministers, if they request it of their own accord and are properly disposed, and it applies the same rule also to some Western Churches that the Holy See judges to be in a situation similar to that of Eastern Christians with regard to the sacraments.8 For other baptized Christians (Anglicans, Lutherans, and other Protestants) the conditions are more severe. Only in danger of death or if, in the judgement of the local bishop, there is a grave and pressing need, may members of these Churches who cannot approach a minister of their own Church be admitted to receive the Eucharist, if they spontaneously ask for it, demonstrate that they have the catholic faith in the Eucharist, and are properly disposed.9
The Catholic Church allows its own faithful to receive Communion from ministers of another Church, only if it recognizes the validity of the sacraments of that Church, and so it never allows reception of Communion as administered in Protestant churches, the validity of whose orders it denies. Other conditions are that it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister, that it is a case of real need or spiritual benefit, and that the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided.10
The Catholic Church thus makes a clear distinction between Churches according as it recognizes or denies the validity of their celebration of the Eucharist.11 It does not allow a Catholic to receive communion in a Protestant church, since it considers that Protestant ministers are not ordained as priests by a bishop in a line of valid succession from the apostles. It applies this rule also to the Anglican Communion, a position that the Church of England disputed in Saepius Officio.
Confessional Lutheran churches, including the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, practice closed communion and require catechetical instruction for all people before receiving the Eucharist.12dead link1314 Failing to do so is condemned by these Lutherans as the sin of unionism.15dead link This teaching comescitation needed from 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 which says, "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 share the one loaf" and Paul's teaching of fellowship in 1 Corinthians 1:10, "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought." These Lutherans also take seriously God's threat in 1 Corinthians 11:27,29 that "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 this cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself." Therefore, the belief is that, inviting those forward who have not been first instructed would be unloving on the church's part, because they would inviting people forward to sin.16 This is described as akin to letting someone drink poison without stopping him 17
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the largest Lutheran Church in America, however, does not practice closed communion, but rather "eucharistic hospitality."18 In terms of guests receiving the Sacrament, according to this practice, the burden of decision of admittance to the Sacrament is not on the host congregation, but on its guests. The invitation to the Sacrament is extended to "all baptized persons," along with "a brief written or oral statement in worship which teaches Christ's presence in the sacrament." In terms of members receiving the Sacrament, reception of the Sacrament is always to include "continuing catechesis [which] include[s] instruction for Holy Communion," but this is not a prerequisite for first communion, and even infants may be permitted to receive the Sacrament at or after the service of their baptism.1819
The Eastern Orthodox Church, comprising 14 or 15 autocephalous Orthodox hierarchical churches, is even more strictly a closed-communion Church. Thus, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church attending the Divine Liturgy in a Greek Orthodox Church will be allowed to receive communion and vice versa, but a Protestant, Nontrinitarian Christian, or a Catholic attending an Orthodox Divine Liturgy will be excluded from communion, although they may otherwise fully participate in the worship service. In the strictest sense, non-Orthodox may be present at the Divine Liturgy only up to the exclamation "The doors! The doors!" and ought to leave the church after that. However, this attitude has been relaxed in most Orthodox churches; a non-communicant may stay and participate in the Divine Liturgy but may not partake of the Eucharist.20 Thus, while in certain conditions the Catholic Church allows its faithful who cannot approach a Catholic minister to receive the Eucharist from an Eastern Orthodox priest, the Eastern Orthodox Church does not admit Catholics to its Mystery of the Eucharist. At the very end of the Divine Liturgy, all people come up to receive a little piece of bread, called Antidoron, which is blessed but not consecrated, being taken from the same loaf as the bread used in the consecration. Non-Orthodox present at the Liturgy are not only permitted but even encouraged to receive the Antidoron as an expression of Christian fellowship and love.
Some Baptists practice closed communion even more strictly than the Catholic Church, Lutheran Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. They restrict communion (or the Lord's Supper) to members of the local church observing the ordinance. So thus, members from other churches, even members of other local churches of the same Baptist group are excluded from participating in the communion. The Strict Baptists in the United Kingdom derive their name from this practice. In the United States, it is usually, but not exclusively, associated with Landmark ecclesiology. For a similar practice by some others, see "Close Communion", below.
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Seventh-day Adventist Church, Exclusive Brethren, the Apostolic Christian Church, the Church of the Brethren, Mennonites, Amish, some Anglicans, the Church of God in Christ, the Church of God of Prophecy, and some other churches in the Reformed tradition such as Calvinists also practice closed communion. Jehovah's Witnesses hold that only the 144,000 should receive communion. Other nontrinitarian Christians that practice closed communion include the Church of God (Seventh Day), Christadelphians, and Oneness Pentecostals.22
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints serves communion to its members only although without forbidding others to participate, but the Community of Christ (formally the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) practices open communion.
Among the modern descendants of the Anabaptists, the Amish, Old Order Mennonites and Conservative Mennonites all practice what they term close communion, restricting communion to members of a local congregation only.
The term close communion normally means the same thing as closed communion. However, some make a distinction, so the terms can be a source of confusion.
The most prominent distinction (which in some circles may be called "cracked communion") is one where a member of a congregation holding the "same faith and practice" as the hosting congregation (generally meaning being a member of a congregation in the same or a similar denomination) may participate in the service, but a member of another denomination may not. For example, a Southern Baptist congregation practicing close communion might allow a member of another Southern Baptist congregation to participate, on the premise that both congregations are of the "same faith and practice" as they are both in the same denomination. Similarly, the Southern Baptist congregation might allow a member of an Independent Baptist congregation to participate; though the congregations are of different denominations the differences between them are mainly in the area of church organization and not in doctrinal issues, thus falling under the "same faith and practice" rule. However, the congregation would thus exclude a Catholic, on the basis that Baptists and Catholics are not of the "same faith and practice".23
The Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia allows communion to those who can assent to the first three terms of its Covenant of Church Membership, and discuss this with the elders ahead of time. They don't appear to distinguish the term "close communion" from "closed communion", though.
The earliest use of close communion comes from a mistranslation of the Lutheran theologian Franz August Otto Pieper's Christian Dogmatics. The term has since spread, although both the first edition and later translations corrected the error to "closed communion." 24
Complex reasons underlie the belief. In 1 Corinthians 10, it is written: "The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, one body: all that partake of one bread." Since all Christians are now no longer of a unity that would allow common celebration of the Eucharist between them all, the bread being a visible sign of union, communion is not taken together between separated Churches and communities. Additionally as described in 1Co 11:29: "For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body." It is deemed better to prevent outsiders from taking communion than to risk them taking communion "unworthily". Catholics thus see the communion as sinful for those who do not recognise the Real Presence or who are otherwise 'unworthy', i.e. who are not in the 'right place' to accept the Eucharist (free of mortal sin). Christian communities that keep close communion often also have accountability within those members that partake of the communion, so that they do not run afoul of this problem. Such communities will also delay taking communion until the members (the church body) can take communion in Christian unity, as required by 1Co 11:33 "Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another."
Justin Martyr indicated that the second-century Christian Church had three requirements for sharing in the Eucharist: identity of belief, Christian baptism, and moral life. "No one may share in the eucharist except those who believe in the truth of our teachings and have been washed in the bath which confers forgiveness of sins and rebirth, and who live according to Christ's commands" (First Apology, 66).
Corporate responsibility is another argument often used in favour of closed communion. The Heidelberg Catechism, for example, says that those who "by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly" are not to be admitted to the Lord's Supper, for then "the covenant of God would be profaned, and his wrath kindled against the whole congregation." Church leaders are obliged to do all they can to ensure that this does not happen, and hence "exclude such persons... till they show amendment of life," (Q & A 82).
In Protestant theology, a fenced table is a communion table which is open only to accredited members of the Christian community. Fencing the table is thus the opposite of open communion, where the invitation to the sacrament is extended to "all who love the Lord" and members of any denomination are welcome at their own discretion.
The phrase goes back to early Scottish Calvinism, where the communion table literally had a fence around it, with a gate at each end. The members of the congregation were allowed to pass the gate on showing their communion token, a specially minted coin which served as an admission ticket and was given only to those who were in good standing with the local congregation and could pass a test of the catechism. Examples of this kind of church furnishing are still to be seen in a very few highland churches.
The phrase "fencing the table" is also used metaphorically for other kinds of group demarcation and restrictive practices.
Many Scottish Protestant churches used to give tokens to members passing a religious test prior to the day of communion, then required the token for entry. Some US and other churches also used communion tokens.
- Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §2
- Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §3
- Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 125
- Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, 131
- Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §4
- Code of Canon Law, canon 842 §1 and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 675 §2
- Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §1 and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 671 §1
- Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §3 and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 671 §3
- Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §4 and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 671 §4
- Code of Canon Law, canon 844 §2 and Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 671 §2
- Communion of Non-Catholics or Intercommunion
- "Closed Communion" @ www.lcms.org. Retrieved 2010-01-17.
- Understanding Closed Communion, stating "Therefore, our Congregation and our Denomination practices what is called ‘close or closed Communion’, meaning that before you take Communion at our Churches, we ask you to take a Communion Class first to properly learn what Communion is all about.", by Archive.org
- Holy Communion - A Guide for Visitors
- Christian Encyclopedia: Unionism. Retrieved 2010-01-17.
- "Communion-both "close" and "closed" | Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod". WELS. Retrieved 14 October 2013.
- "| Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod". WELS. Retrieved 14 October 2013.
- Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament, ELCA, 1997).
- At what age do ELCA congregations allow members their first Communion?. Retrieved 2010-01-17.
- Timothy Ware, "The Orthodox Church" 1963.
- Finn, Nathan (September 2006). "Baptism as a Prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper". The Center for Theological Research. p. 10.
- Text from Minister to Minister, Sept. 1997 - Gerald Kieschnick, President Texas District
- A closer look at close communion - Confessional Lutheran perspective
- Close Communion: Its Basis and Practice, a Confessional Lutheran view, by Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Library
- Closed Communion - Apostolic Christian Church view
- Ecclesiology and Communion - Eastern Orthodox view
- What about Fellowship Official Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod statement regarding closed/close communion
- The Biblical Practice of Closed Communion (PDF) - a Lutheran church-Missouri Synod view
- The Case for Closed Communion - a Baptist view
- Covenant Communion - a variation of the Closed Communion emphasis
- The Lord's Supper - Mennonite / Anabaptist view
- Close Communion - American Presbyterian view
- Why does the Catholic Church have a closed Communion? and Who can receive Communion?- Roman Catholic view
- Relative part of the Roman Catholic Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism
- Terms of Communion - Reformed Presbyterian / Associate Presbyterian / United Presbyterian views