Friday, December 18, 2009

Party Crashers Welcome

In 1977, at the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in Philadelphia, the Special Committee on the Lord’s Supper was to make its final report. As chair of the Committee, I presented the report, backed up by several members of the committee, at 2:00 AM. The major recommendation was to the effect that our denomination go on record as practicing “open communion.”

The recommendation was met with hoots and howls, and a debate more nasty than nice. After a quick consultation, the committee asked to withdraw its recommendation. That was granted, and we left. Obviously the mood of those commissioners was to preserve the status quo—the Lord’s Supper is to be only for the baptized.

That position was not unanimous. Ironically, Jürgen Moltmann’s book, The Church in the Power of the Holy Spirit, had just appeared in English that year, and fresh copies were available in the General Assembly Book Store. In two places Moltman proposes that Jesus’ invitation is a completely open one (pp.242-246), and that therefore the Lord’s Supper should be an “open feast” (pp.258-260).

In my own ministry, in spite of the requirements of the Book of Order, I have long practiced “open communion.” Before my work on that committee, I was having difficulty “fencing the Table”* by announcing that only baptized Christians were welcome to partake. It seemed to me that, as the surrogate of the Host, Jesus Christ, I was speaking words contrary to his will.

When I started my ministry, The Invitation I used (from the Book of Common Worship, 1946) began: “Beloved in the Lord, hear what gracious words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him:…” and then went on to cite Matthew 11:28-29; John 6:35, 37b and Matthew 5:6. There were not even hints of limiting the guest list. Such an invitation welcomed anybody and everybody who was hungry and thirsty enough to want to come.

Therefore, “open communion” for me is the norm. When I retired and looked for a church home, that was one of the criteria by which I made my selection—that there were no restrictions on who was welcome at the Table of the Lord.

That, for me, is the precise issue: it is the Lord’s Table, not the church’s. Because it is the Lord’s Supper, the church has no right to limit the guest list. Yet the church in its many manifestations has chosen to identify certain people as party crashers. Curiously, however, it has rarely done this in the liturgy. Rather the “fencing” of the Table is done by the governance of the church, by the establishment of rules and regulations, policies and procedures. You will find the requirements of attendance at the Lord’s Supper in the Book of Order, but not in the Book of Common Worship.

The Invitation in the Book of Common Worship, 1993 reads:
"This is the Lord's table.
Our Savior invites those who trust him
to share the feast which he has prepared."
I suppose one might say, “Aha! The invitation is only for those who trust Jesus—which means they should be baptized because that’s how people show they trust Jesus.” It is naïve to assume that baptism, of adult or child, guarantees a trust in Jesus. Baptism confers no virtue or piety. Baptism is the beginning of a faith journey, not its culmination.

An unbaptized athiest has the same claim on a place at the Table as the most trustful baptized Christian. What is required is what the Reformers called “self-examination.” (They took their cue from Paul—see I Cor. 11:28.) Should such an unbeliever “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” and feel life’s burdens weighing them down, and the person, hearing the invitation, responds by coming to eat and drink and find rest, then I’m convinced that the Lord welcomes that person without qualification.

The same self-examination, of course, is due of the most trusting Christian who is still a sinner and “hungers and thirsts after righteousness,” and may well be among those who “labor and are heavy-laden” with life.

What is missing in the efforts to “fence” the Table is an awareness of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not confined by actions of judicatories or bishops. The Spirit is not limited by ecclesiastical directives.

I believe that the Spirit is at work within and among each of us when we gather for worship, when we put ourselves in God’s way, and leave our souls vulnerable to change. I believe that the Spirit brings us together and binds us to Christ in that banquet. I believe the Spirit can and does accomplish more in human hearts than any of us can imagine—including capturing the faith of the least likely diner at the Lord’s Table.

I approach the Table trusting the Risen Christ to welcome me along with all the other sinners gathered there, without restriction.

Do you practice “open communion” in your church? If not, has the issue been considered by your governing body and clergy? How would you have participation in communion restricted?

* “Fencing the Table” is a common term meaning that some people are kept away by a “fence,” such as the requirement of baptism. Some Protestant churches still allow only members of a particular congregation or denomination to participate; Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches require participants to be baptized in that particular tradition.


  1. I have long issued an open invitation to come to the Lord's Supper to all who are weary and heavy burdened, parapharasing Jesus' words about trading burdens as well as citing the invitation that Jesus makes to all who trust in Jesus. I agree with you that nothing in scripture suggests that Jesus only "allowed" or "invited" a particular group of people to the table, particularly since he ate and drank with Pharisees, tax collectors prostitutes, and the like. Too often fencing the table has been an attempt at keeping the church pure, such as many of our current controversies seek to do, rather than point to the grace of God. Calvin certainly understood both sacraments this way and not as something the church instituted for membership into the "club." Therefore, we engage in a fair amount of idolatry, it seems to me, when we substitute church governance and rules for God's grace.

  2. Well said, Don.

    We practice open communion at our church and I have often invited people to communion by reminding them that, during his ministry, Jesus of Nazareth ate at other people's tables but here, in this place, we gather at His table. I believe I usually end with something like, "let all who seek to be fed by Him, share in the Lord's Supper."

    The Holy Spirit, which binds us together and creates us as church, cannot be hampered by our human rules. No matter how eloquently they are debated. The church is the body of Christ, not the body "as authorized by..."

    I hope the church universal comes to this same understanding and stops building fences against those who hunger to serve the church or to serve others in Christ's name... those whom individual governing/ordaining bodies find unacceptable because of their gender or sexual orientation (both biological realities and not "lifestyle choices").

    My hope is grounded in the one to whom we belong - to paraphrase the Heidelberg Catechism - and I do not believe that He will allow His table or church to be turned into a commodity available to a limited number. I see my hope lived out by the many ministers and priests who go ahead and practice open communion in defiance of ecclesiastical rules.


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