One 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.
In 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
There 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:
- A Trinitarian baptism
- A confirmation that one has accepted the beliefs and teachings of that particular church
- 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
When 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:
- One must approach the altar with a respectful fear and awe of God
- One must agree to the faith a.k.a. the teachings of the Orthodox Church
- 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..
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.