In a provocative post, Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at my alma mater, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that Baptist churches who practice what is known as “closed communion” actually win the prize for best table manners. From what I gathered from his article, if you practice communion any other way but closed, you are doctrinally sloppy.
While I disagree with Dr. Moore’s argument, I certainly can appreciate his clarity in presenting it. There is no question as to where Dr. Moore stands on this issue. He is free, as the Teaching Pastor of Highview Baptist Church in Louisville, to “fence the table” according to how he interprets Scripture in regard to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. However, his interpretation is not binding on any other church apart from his own. One of the wonderful principles which make Southern Baptists who we are as a Convention (not denomination) of churches is that no person — no matter the position he or she holds — nor any entity — whether the SBC, State Convention, or local Association — can exercise any ecclesiastical authority over the local church.
While belief in the autonomy of the local church remains strong (as of now), there are always going to be assaults on this cherished principle. Some of those will be direct, but more often than not, most of the assaults will be indirect. While I do not believe that Dr. Moore is seeking to violate the principle of autonomy that the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists hold dear, I do believe there is always the danger of either trying to weaken autonomy or, in the case of Dr. Nathan Finn of Southeastern Seminary, to so redefine autonomy that it loses its plain and generally accepted meaning (at least as far as many Southern Baptists see it).
In his argument for closed communion, Dr. Moore relies more upon Baptist history than Scripture. I can understand why that is the case. It would be much harder to bolster an argument from Scripture which supports closed communion as the ONLY way to practice this ordinance. Of course, one could make a compelling case that closed communion — which requires a person be baptized by immersion following their confession of faith (i.e., “believers baptism by immersion”) — is one of SEVERAL acceptable models for observing the Lord’s Supper.
But, that is not the case that Dr. Moore is attempting to make. Rather, through the language he uses in his article, Dr. Moore attempts to convince all Southern Baptists that the only healthy, doctrinally sound way of taking communion is the way that he has proscribed at Highview — closed communion. However, Dr. Moore defines “open communion” in such a way that unless one has undergone believer’s baptism by immersion — regardless of whether or not the person has been “born again” — that there has been no valid baptism and therefore no opportunity to participate in the Lord’s Supper, at least in a Southern Baptist church.
I believe that Dr. Moore’s definition of “open communion” (which he views as “just too narrow and sectarian” for him), distorts how many (most?) Southern Baptists — especially outside the deep south — practice the Lord’s Supper observance. For the church where I serve as Senior Pastor, I likewise “fence the table.” Those who have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ — who have trusted Jesus as their personal Savior and Lord because of what He did on the Cross of Calvary for their sins — and have been born-again are welcome to participate. However, those who have never received Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and who have never placed their faith and trust in Him should refrain from taking the elements as they pass by. I will typically repeat those words verbatim prior to each quarterly observance of the Lord’s Supper.
I understand that Dr. Moore and others would erect a higher fence around the table. How our church practices communion is not “open communion” in the sense that anyone and everyone — regardless of their personal relationship with Jesus Christ — is welcome to partake. For Dr. Moore, there seems to be no middle ground. It’s either closed or open. And, for churches who practice open communion, Dr. Moore apparently thinks that these churches do not hold the Lord’s Supper in as high a regard as those churches which practice closed communion:
First of all, open communion usually rests on the all-too-typical Evangelical
presumption that the Lord’s Supper really isn’t that important. Communion is, as Flannery O’Connor’s infamous socialite conversation-partner once put it, “a wonderful symbol” but that’s about it. (full article here)
If I attend the church of my Eastern Orthodox colleague Father Pat Reardon, I have the right to disagree (and I do) about what happens in Holy Communion. I don’t have the right to set the terms for his congregation as to whether they should receive me at the table. The same would be true in the parishes of my Anglican and Catholic friends. And the reverse would be the case should a respected—but infant-sprinkled—Christian hero be seated in the pews of my church.
Dr. Moore’s leadership of Highview and his position on the Lord’s Supper as it is practiced in his church should be respected. But, Dr. Moore, as he has well stated, does not have the right to set the terms for any other congregation as to who they receive at the Lord’s Table. And, that’s true, not just for Eastern Orthodox or Anglican or Catholic parishes, but for Southern Baptist congregations as well. Autonomy of the local church — ya gotta love it!