Why a closed communion table?

church bouncersOne of my biggest struggles on my journey into Orthodoxy was the closed communion table.  It seemed quite unfair that someone else could deem who was worthy to take communion, and who was not.  Infants and children in the Church could partake of it, but I as a Christian and inquirer into Orthodoxy could not. 

But I eventually learned that the idea that the communion table should be open to anyone who wants to partake is actually a very modern concept.

Communion in America in the 1700’s and 1800’s

I own a two volume Baptist Encyclopedia set that was published in the 1800’s.  I find it  interesting because I can see just how much the faith of mainline churches has evolved over the past couple of hundred years.

colonial americans prayingIn the second volume of the Baptist Encyclopedia there are statements of faith, mostly written in the 1700’s.  These were essentially creeds written in conjunction with most of the ministers in a given region.

In the New Hampshire Declaration of Faith, we find the following: “[baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of a church relation; and to the Lord’s Supper, in which the member of the church by the sacred use of bread and wine, are to commemorate together the dying love of Christ.”

In the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (adopted by the Baptist Association on Sept 25, 1742), we find a list regarding the purposes of Lord’s Supper in section XXXII.  It includes, “confirmation of the faith of believers in all of the benefits thereof.”  And it later states in part 8 of section XXXII, “All ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with Christ, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table and cannot…partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto.”

In summary: before the 20th century, baptism was a sign that one accepted the teachings of a church.  It was also a strict prerequisite to partaking in the Lord’s Supper.  Communion was not a right one could demand, but rather a privilege of church membership.

Communion in the first centuries of the church to today

justin martyr iconThere was a brilliant Christian writer who lived during the 100’s (second century).  His name was Justin Martyr and he left us many valuable writings that historians frequently use in order to understand the life and teachings of the early church.  In chapter LXVI of Justin’s First Apology, he explains the requirements for communion saying,

“And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the person 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 who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

I find it interesting that up until the 20th century, there were three commonly accepted requirements for a person to take communion within a church, whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Baptist.  They were:

  1. A Trinitarian baptism
  2. A confirmation that one has accepted the beliefs and teachings of that particular church
  3. A life that is marked by morality (in other words, you were actually expected to change your behavior to conform with the teachings of Christ when you became a believer)

With faith and love come forward

eucharistWhen I enter into an Orthodox Church and want them to change their ways, I am not only displaying my historical ignorance, but I am unconsciously stating that church is all about me and what I want.  For nearly 2,000 years, most if not all churches had what would nowadays be deemed a “closed communion table.”

Partaking of communion within a church body has -until modern times- been an assent that you have come to a place of agreement with their teachings.  At every liturgy, the priest holds the communion cup before the congregation and extends the invitation, “In the fear of God, with faith and with love come forward.”  That statement is packed with implications, but here is the gist of the requirements:

  1. One must approach the altar with a respectful fear and awe of God
  2. One must agree to the faith a.k.a. the teachings of the Orthodox Church
  3. One must have love for God and for his brothers and sisters.  The fathers of the church teach that if you have something against your brother, you are to leave the altar and go make amends with that person.  Only when we have unity amongst ourselves can we be unified to Christ..

Concluding Thoughts

If you, like me, have struggled with the idea of having a closed communion table, then I would say that firstly you are not alone.  I have no desire to make someone feel guilty for thinking that way nor am I condemning those who have a very open practice in their church.

A closed table is thought to be unloving and unwelcoming in today’s church culture.  I sometimes feel that pressure to be socially acceptable has diluted the meaning of certain foundations of the Christian faith.  It is important that we understand that an open table is a very unusual and modern concept when you consider the church as a whole.  Even the Baptist churches of a couple hundred years ago had closed tables.

I hope this research helps others as it helped me to take off my modern, Western glasses and see things in a more historical light.  The Orthodox are generally loving people and mean no disrespect, so please don’t take offense when they don’t allow you to partake of communion.  They simply have a very high view of the teachings and traditions of the early church.

UPDATE: The above historical reasons for a closed communion table were written before I became Orthodox.  Click here for a more recent post explaining the theological reasons.

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I grew up Protestant, but found my home in the ancient Orthodox Church while in my 20's. I'm now a seminary student and I keep this blog going to encourage those who are trying to deepen their walk with Christ.

17 thoughts on “Why a closed communion table?”

  1. What happens when a person knows they aren’t fit, morally sufficient, or just plain prepared enough to even darken the door of an Orthodox parish church? Local Orthodox priests around here have, after all, spoken openly about many activities they close off from those deemed unworthy, even shutting out some to mere observers. These include communion which is understandably closed, but also arts classes, group lessons and so on, which are closed to those that don’t measure up. Therefore on taking inventory, one could easily self-exclude to avoid hostile glances or other opprobrium, just to ensure the peace at such activities, including worship. After all, who wants to offend God?

    Going further, how does a person cope, while being an absolute failure in everything, who is too guilt ridden to even approach prayer because of being too sin filled to even approach God, because God cannot tolerate sin, especially at high levels?

    Closed communion an issue? Seriously? I can easily understand, and support closed communion. Reasonable people wouldn’t want to bring down a lightning strike upon any church. Consider what happened to St. Peter’s Basilica on the night Pope Benedict resigned.

    I rest my case.

    1. Hi Joyce, welcome to my blog.

      I appreciate the seriousness with which you approach communion, worship, and other similar activities. I agree that none of us is worthy of communion, of worship, or even of prayer. Upon a very serious introspection, we can find that even our “good deeds” are riddled with impure motives (we want to be noticed, we want to impress God, we are prideful, we want to look good, etc)

      I would just add one note of caution though:

      The Apostle John states in his first Epistle, “Love is perfected within us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

      There is a healthy sense of unworthiness in which we approach God with awe, faith, love, and respect. But there is also an unhealthy feeling of unworthiness, which separates us from fellowship with God.

      Not approaching God in prayer, worship, etc due to feelings of unworthiness is actually an egocentric perspective. It displays a low view of the power of God’s grace and His ability to sanctify those whom He loves. When we do that, it is actually because we are so focused on ourselves that cannot see the work of God in our lives.

      That false sense of humility is a dangerous trap in which many of us can become ensnared in our pursuit of piety within Orthodoxy.

      I appreciate you and your comment, Joyce, as you bring up some good points. May the mercy and love of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

      1. Perhaps I was a wee bit unclear then, particularly when speaking of not approaching God in prayer. I do approach, pray often, and do so with a healthy dose of fear, a clear sense that I am unworthy to be there, and profound gratitude that God is far more forgiving than any human I’ve ever encountered. I am gobsmacked that I can be in front of a God that ought never be seen with, or in proximity to, a person who is filled with sins. I know God is a forgiving and loving God who deeply desires my prayers and praise. Yet, there are moments when the weight of all of it gets a bit much, and then thanksgiving for forgiveness of sin comes to the fore. And yes, no matter how unworthy I am, I pray.

        Reading about Church fathers, there are moments when the Saint openly admits what is true of all of us, which is we are all great sinners, and some of the greatest of saints are/were the greatest of sinners. I believe it was when I first encountered and appreciated this was when I closely read St. Andrew. My reaction was, “whoa, wait a minute there — none such as he could possibly be such a sinner.” And it was then I realized that no matter what, I never deserve to have my own prayers heard, for I am far less worthy than the holy men and women who have gone before me. That my prayers are heard makes me grateful and humbled.

        It is precisely because i am so unworthy that I am so grateful for the love of God, and the openness granted that allows me to pray. It is because I am so undeserving that I must constantly be on alert against easy sins, and strive to overcome what can be a natural response to situations that will, inevitably, result in much guilt. Friends laugh when I say I’ll be confessing a lot after I clear this mess up. Little do they know… And, dreading disappointing makes me put more effort into overcoming my own sinful nature.

        When I was a very little girl, my mother taught me that no matter where I am or what I do, God knows all and cannot be evaded. (Think David the Psalmist meets the Protestant ethic, arriving on scene complete with a surveillance system that puts any totalitarian state to shame. Mum knew how to achieve obedience.) But, that surveillance is more for our own good than for God’s. God doesn’t need any of us when all is said and done, and none of us is worthy or deserving of His love or forgiveness, even as both are given to us in measures too great to comprehend. That we are wanted by God is the mystery.

        Oh, and the lightning strike? I was being flippant. Honest.

        1. The bit from your childhood that you shared reminds me of my own. The whole God seeing me at all times and knowing about every bit of wrong that I do.

          The Great Big Benevolent Spy in the Sky has been replaced with a more subtle and more Orthodox view of God though. In this view, the Trinity dwells within me, praying within me, singing within me, filling me with breath and movement, showing me the beauty in creation and in others around me.

          1. My own experience was God lovingly watching everything we do and knowing our every thought, good and bad. I never thought of God watching my every move as anything but a kindness and benevolence, with ready assistance to prevent wrong, and immediate help when needed, if only as a sounding board. After all, how could a God knowing when a sparrow falls, knowing every blossom growing, be anything but helpful in situations when one is stuck, kind when one confronts meanness, or helpful in everything else, except you still had to study to pass that math test (lol).

            I know, it wasn’t what most folks think of when they define Calvinism. Yet, if you read original Calvin, there’s much more than what modern culture attributes to the Swiss lawyer, and we were Scottish/Swiss Presbyterians, going back centuries.

            We were taught that God knows all that will happen, but still lets every individual chooses what they will do. He knows the outcome, but is not like Big Brother in his watchfulness, nor does God manipulate the outcome. There is no smackdown, but only help and good that comes from this, and for that reason, we were taught to pray without ceasing and to make every thought and deed a part of our prayers. We weren’t taught the Trinity singing within us as such, but were often admonished to know a Bible verse or three to cover every situation, which made it more of an action coming from us to God.

            I’d like to learn more of this “Trinity within” viewpoint, which I don’t understand as an Orthodox person. Yet. My own learning was we act, God reacts, and the Trinity was largely outside of us, except for a possible indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which could be lost depending upon the misdeed in question, but then regained upon repentance. Perhaps we are really saying the same thing, just in different ways.

    1. For a moment I reveled in a vision of theologian/lawyer John Calvin, running through the streets, accompanied by throngs carrying pitchforks, torches and copies of the Institutes.

      But seriously…I have no idea of what exactly you mean by the more extreme forms of Calvinism. Foreordination? Or, it’s nearly identical twin of predestination? Calvin taught only God’s knowledge of all events and actions. God knows all that has, will and could happen from the moment the Universe was created to the very end of the ages. Knowing however, is not the same as controlling events as I have understood Calvin. Just because God knows the result means that mankind makes the decisions and the foreknown outcome results from in man’s actions, not controlled in all by God.

      Now, that might be extreme Calvinism. I don’t know. Then again, I don’t know much about Theosis yet either. I’m still a beginner at this.

      1. I too am a beginner, Joyce.

        I’ll also admit that I know little about Calvinism except from what I’ve heard of others going through it. However, the thought of John Calvin and a throng of others rioting with pitchforks in one hand and the Institutes in other other is quite funny 🙂

        1. Perhaps moreso when considering Calvin’s followers, the Presbyterians, are often referred to as “God’s Frozen People.”

          Kid you not.

  2. Yikes, very out of date. I think it is rude. I think one should be at least trying to walk in humility and rightly before God, but membership in the church is pushing luck too far for me. Interesting points about church history, but then again, the church fathers also thought women shouldn’t be speaking in church.

    1. Lana, I had the exact same mentality regarding communion up until this year. This was one of the biggest roadblocks to me entering the Orthodox Church (which happened officially about a month ago). The Orthodox perspective on communion is completely different than what I grew up with. I felt they were going way too far in keeping people who honestly believed in Jesus away from the Eucharist. But now it is something I understand much better.

      I avoided the theological argument for a closed communion table because it is something that I am still learning. For the time being, I appealed to only history. We can argue that the apostles and the entire church had it wrong for 1900 years, but that doesn’t say much for the Spirit’s ability to guide the church or the apostles ability to understand Jesus, which then throws the person of Jesus into question and thereby all of Christianity.

      Regarding how some theologians have addressed women speaking in church, I can sympathize with you. Aside from St Paul, I’m not sure which “church fathers” you are referencing. I would just caution people not to use that as a red herring and thereby dismiss the vast wealth of wisdom as the Holy Spirit has lead the Church over the past 2,000 years.

  3. There are serious omissions from this article on the Orthodox View of Closed Communion.

    First and foremost is the unchristian way that Eastern Orthodox churches readily and routinely ex-communicate and anathematize each other – without a proper Synod.
    Parish Priests are judge, jury, excecutioner – and they will have to answer to Our Lord for refusing practicing Orthodox to partake of something freely given them.

    Ex Communications are not supposed to be done by a parish priest – they are actually done by the PERSON themselves – and to ex communicate an entire church – a large Synod must be held with every Patriarch and every Bishop agreeing that a church be excommunicated.

    everyone says closed communion out of love – but everytime I’ve seen it or experienced it it is done out of superiority and judgement and is very mean spirited and done to scare and impress those about the table of the Power the priest has over others (as if he were better than them) – Priests are supposed to be servants.

    May God save the souls of judgemental priest who act like policeman guarding a cache of gold instead of The Body and Blood of Our Lord – who gave the gifts freely – he did not
    ask the apostles if they were worthy (was Judas denied the first Communion?) He did not judge them – now we judge.

    1. Hi John,

      It sounds like you’ve had some negative experiences, or at least heard about a negative experience someone else had, regarding the Orthodox Church. I’m sorry to hear that and I sincerely wish you healing in your journey. All of the things you mentioned are quite foreign to my experience in Orthodoxy and from my readings as well. My own journey into Orthodoxy, and those of nearly everyone else I know, has been one of healing and deepening of the faith.

      I don’t doubt at all that there have been parish priests who have set themselves up as “judge, jury, executioner” as you mentioned. Unfortunately, spiritual abuse happens in the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and very frequently in the Protestant churches (I hear stories almost every month from others, which I believe has to do with how widespread Protestant churches are here in America and also the complete lack of accountability inherently present in many Protestant churches in which the pastor only answers to himself).

      May God save all of our souls for we are all a very broken and sinful people. God bless.

      1. You have not addressed the ex-communications between the churches.

        My attitude about me is – if they can’t see the value in me – and don’t want me to commune with them – then it shows their true character and I forgive them because
        they are proud men – and are not acting as Christ would. Did Judas receive communion? Did Jesus restrict Judas?

        I don’t know what your church is OCA, GOA, ROCOR … whatever … but if you are unaware I could do the research for you and show you countless examples of uncanonical excommunications perpetrated by your own church – but I’d rather not because you seem content there – just know for certain that your Religion is not perfect and they have grievous errors one of which is to judge others so harshly at a communion table – something that the Lord gave them freely but they restrict even their own brethren – even other Orthodox Faithful.

        The decision to commune should be done by a large enough Synod that the entire church agrees – something that has not happened in America yet but is long overdue. The problem is that the Churches entrenched in foreign powers and Patriarchs who perpetrate this may actually decide that the uncanonical acts they perpetrate are valid and then chose a very grave sin indeed – I’m afraid that is precisely what they’d do.

        1. Hi John,
          You’re right, I did not address excommunications. I prefer to not publicly discuss things that I honestly don’t know anything about. I’m really not interested in digging up gossip about others either.

          In my first conversation with an Orthodox priest I was really skeptical. I said that the authority structure seemed like it is (or at least could be) full of corruption and political appointees. To my surprise, the priest only agreed with me and furthered my argument. He said he was quite sure there were men appointed due to church politics rather than the ability to lead others spiritually. Yet despite all of that, God moves powerfully through His Church.

          I suppose if I am looking for a perfect church then I might as well sit on my butt until the second coming, because as soon as I join it, then it will no longer be perfect. But if we are looking to join others in their brokenness and recognize our own deep brokenness as we move together toward healing in Christ, then we might actually get somewhere.

          Regarding the closed communion table, I don’t think I can give you an answer that you’ll find satisfactory. The church has always been this way due to apostolic instruction (1 Cor 11). While in modern times we have reinterpreted that passage and the apostolic tradition to mean that each person should decide for themselves whether they should partake of communion, this “open table” mentality is a modern phenomenon that feeds off of our culture’s beliefs in relativism and individualism.

          It is an issue that upset me for a long time and I almost didn’t become Orthodox for that exact reason. In fact, I didn’t become Orthodox until some time after I had found a peace about not being able to take communion.

          However, I didn’t join the Orthodox Church so that I could partake in communion with them, nor because I was looking for the perfect religion or church. I joined it because I kept encountering God in it, in a very real and powerful way. My life was literally changing to the point that my wife looked at me one day and said, “You’re not the same person that I married several years ago.” And she meant that as a compliment 🙂

  4. You seem like a very Christian and loving person. I am grateful for that – and the healing nature of this conversation.
    My pride is definitely hurt about Mainstream Orthodoxy and their attitude toward my Orthodox Church – Pride of course is a sin and I am a sinner – I want unity and union and I am hurt and bitter by this wrongful excommunication.
    The Ethnic Churches are not 100% christian and are not immune to heresy themselves and to say that the only milk they emit is pure is ludicrous.
    If everyone jumps off a cliff and it is a heresy to jump off a cliff – it does not erase the heresy for everyone to agree say that we all need to jump off cliffs.
    No man alive can say they know for sure the Will of God – nor can they say with certainty that the way they run their religions is 100% the way Christ would – doing that is the antithesis of what Christ came and did – by what I can ascertain from the Scriptures.
    By the way – who is causing the divisions as per Corinthians ? – I tell you brother that it is not my church as we are in unity and communion with all Orthodox but it IS the mainstream Orthodox who have created this division that they stubbornly refuse to fix.
    Thank you for engaging me … rather than running out this thread to infinity and inflaming the passions of being right = I would rather continue this conversation in a more private setting (like email).
    God is with Us!

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