Open Communion as Peace Making

One of the great locations of diversity among Christian traditions is in the practice of open versus closed communion. In closed communion only the faithful members of the church, however that is defined, are invited to participate in the Lord's Supper. Outsiders, even if confessing Christians, are not welcome to participate. By contrast, in traditions practicing open communion anyone in attendance is welcomed to the Lord's Table.

My tradition practices open communion. If you are in attendance at a Church of Christ worship service you are welcome to partake of communion.

(A bit of clarification. In more sectarian Churches of Christ the operating assumption is that baptized believers in the Church of Christ are really the ones who are supposed to take communion when the trays are passed. Still, this is an assumption rather than an explicit command. I've never seen a CoC communion service where visitors were told not to participate. In the more ecumenical CoC the practice is pretty straight up open communion with "everyone is welcome to the table" being a common meme.)

While there is great debate as to which practice is proper--open or closed?--I think the best theological reasons are in favor of open communion. Some of these reasons I discuss in Unclean. But let me mention one other powerful reason in favor of open communion.

Culturally and historically in many parts of the world, and in the Middle East in particular, it was and is assumed that you are to never act violently against someone with whom you've broken bread. To break bread with someone wasn't and isn't a casual affair. To break bread signals solidarity, a deep commitment that cannot be treated lightly. We might say that eating together forms a sort of covenant relationship between the two parties.

In short, eating together is a form of peace-making. By contrast, refusing to eat with someone signals hostility with the possibility of future violence still a live option. Given this, in many parts of the world people are prohibited from eating with enemies. Because if you eat with them you can't kill them.

In light of all this, there is a strong association between the Lord's Supper and peace-making. To break bread with others is a declaration of solidarity and non-violence. That the wall of hostility has been broken down in the shared meal of communion. The threat of future violence between the parties has been take away.

This, I think, is a powerful argument in favor of open communion. By welcoming everyone to the Lord's Table and breaking bread with them there we are engaging in acts of reconciliation. More, if we remember the cultural backdrop about eating and non-violence we find the Lord's Supper to be the ministry of reconciliation. The Lord's Supper isn't a ritual. It's a sociological intervention. The fact that Christians by and large have missed this point is due to the fact that we've not been aware of the cultural assumption that we are to live at peace with those with whom we've broken bread.

And if that's the case, we should break bread with anyone and everyone in the world. Just like Jesus.

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39 thoughts on “Open Communion as Peace Making”

  1. In the church I go to everyone who "loves the Lord Jesus" is welcome/ invited to participate in communion, but anyone who feels they are not able to participate/ aren't comfortable participating are invited to let the bread and wine pass without feeling uncomfortable about not taking it ..... I think thats a good balance between being inclusive, yet not having people feeling pressurised to take it.

    How do you read 1Corinthians11:27-29 "So then, 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.  Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup.  For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves."

    The other thing is children - children don't get invited to participate, I guess to avoid pressurising them .... are children invited to participate in your church?

    What we do have is a church lunch after our communion services to which all are invited .... which allows us to break bread with everyone who comes along

  2. I like the image of peace making, Richard. In my church, we had a related discussion about whether children should partake or not. My view has always been that the communion is an extension of the Passover meal which just takes on new significance in light of the cross. Therefore, my practice was always to take a larger piece of bread and share it with my sons.

  3. We've done the same thing with our boys for the same Passover-themed reasons.

  4. So the night before he was crucified, God in the person of Jesus broke bread with humanity.  When considered from a covenant of peace perspective, this has some interesting theological implications.  This requires more pondering.

  5. Children are invited to participate at our church but families make different choices. Here's the weird thing. The Churches of Christ aren't very theological or reflective. So we don't really have a robust theology of communion that is shared across churches. So the practice is all over the place.

    Regarding 1 Cor. 11. A couple of thoughts.

    First, though in favor of open communion I'm very aware of its weaknesses and of the strong reasons in favor of closed communion. This post is just a good reason I see for open communion. It's not meant to be taken as a knock-down argument. It's just one more thing to say when we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of various practices.

    Second, what I mainly wrestle with in open communion is how it doesn't help communicate the shared commitments and concerns the body has for each other, our mutual obligations and accountability to each other. So there is a part of me that would like to see a sort of two-tiered practice of communion where hospitality can be extended in welcoming the stranger in some places and a more intimate experience among committed believers. But I have no idea what that looks like. Having a meal associated with the church service where all are welcome is one way that might look.

    Third, finally getting to 1 Cor. 11. I read "the body of Christ" as the church, the members of the congregation. As we find in the the letter the Corinthian church was experiencing divisions which were also being experienced in the practice of the Lord's Supper. I think that is what Paul is speaking to, the divisions, the lack of welcome at the table.

  6. In the few months before I was In Christ I attended a few services at which there was a sharing of the Eucharist. Most were closed and I therefore did not share. My expereience of the New Birth was at an open retreat at which there was an open sharing of the bread and wine. In the context of the service I  decided to receive Christ (and the elements) and thereby had a multisensory and performative experience which lead on to a dramatic spiritual encounter. Since that moment I have become an avowed advocate of the open table, and on several occasions have preferred to use a roll of bread rather than a "sinners prayer card", as the decisive point in an evangelistic conversation. I think in postmodern terms the chunk of wholesome bread is both more and also less ambiguous than the meaning conveyed in the "Admit, Beleive, Confess, Repent..." type formulae.

  7. I love the way my UMC pastor always puts it, "this might be a Methodist church, but this is God's table." When you look at it that way, it's hard to argue the closed communion side of things.  Does the Bible clearly state that only Christians who are right with God are to partake? Of course - but that's between that individual and God, not between that individual and any specific church.

  8. Hey, I need some grammar help. One of the concluding sentences doesn't sound right to me. This one:

    "...we are to live at peace with those whom we've broken bread. "

    What sounds better to me is this:

    "...we are to live at peace with those whom we've broken bread with. " But I don't think that's right.

    BTW, full confession: I'm horrible with the English language.

  9.  how about...
    "...we are to live at peace with those with whom we have broken bread."

  10. Great posting.  We have to ask if God gave the meal solely for the church or for the whole world.  What better confession of faith is there than publicly receiving the gift of God?  By all means invite the world in!

  11.  Yup.  Ending a sentence with a preposition, as in "...we are to live at peace with those whom we've broken bread with," is a mannerism up with which qb cannot put.

    Still, ye are absolved, inasmuch as ye at least ASKED the question.  qb can't count the times he's had to read putative scholar's putting gratuitou's apostrophe's in word's to form plural's.  Its a's if they never learned the Kings Engli'sh.


  12. I think I've told this story before on the blog. But when Jana first heard me preach when we were dating she said the following to me in the car on the way home: "You know, you're a pretty smart guy. But when you talk, you don't sound like it."

    Again, I'm grammatically handicapped.

  13. At the outset, I should state that I hold to a communion only of the baptized position.

    My difficulty with the open communion position articulated here is that it seems to be somewhat detached from what the Scriptures actually say about the Lord's Supper and its institution, where it is related to unity of the body of Christ, and our discerning of each other within this body, a body entered through the rite of baptism. While the meals that Jesus ate with tax-collectors and others need to be held in relation to the core practice of the Church's life, they should not be confused with it. The primary gospel background for the Lord's Supper is not to be found in those meals, but in the Last Supper and the various joyful post resurrection meals in which the presence of the risen Christ was manifested to the his disciples.

    The Lord's Supper, performed in such a manner, is a community-defining and forming practice. The problem with breaking bread with any and everyone in the Lord's Supper as this post suggests is that the Supper ceases to become the core practice of a community beyond sectarianism, but becomes a place where human sociological divisions and polarities are no longer properly dissolved, most particularly the fundamental insider/outsider division, as in open communion the Church plays 'host' to non-members, and lasting post-sectarian community is not really formed.

    In Scripture it is the practice of baptism that is presented as the means by which sectarianisms, divisions, separation, and sociological polarities are overcome (Galatians 3:26-28), which is why I believe that baptism is the prerequisite for communion. Baptism 'unplugs' us from our social substance, rendering us all both strangers and full members of the household, and thus provides the foundation for a truly inclusive community. Baptism is a practice that opposes the power differentials and polarities that would otherwise be operative. Without baptism even an inclusive meal will be shared within a community where these things are still in effect. While the Church has been very poor at practising this form of baptismally formed eucharistic inclusivity, it seems to me that this is the way that we should pursue it.

  14. You know, I am a grammar person--English grad student, occasional freelance copy editor, etc.--and I don't see a problem with ending with a preposition from time to time. I wouldn't do it often, but I will point out that Churchill said the line qb quoted ("This is nonsense up with which I will not put.") was to show how absurd the whole thing could be. (Of course, that is not the only paraphrase Churchill could have chosen. For instance, the common ammendation to saying, "This is nonsense I will not put up with" is saying, "I will not put up with this nonsense," so Churchill's point is a little weakened.)  I generally do the one that is clearest, favouring not ending on a preposition when they are equally clear. But if you're trying to improve your grammatical powers, then I suppose this is good practice.

  15. The priest currently at my Anglican church frequently declares open communion, but has stopped doing it as often since the bishop sent out a notice saying that the policy of the Anglican church is closed communion. Now he only does it on high holy days (for maximum impact? or because there are usually more visitors those days?).
    My thoughts are that, first, the Bible actually says very little about a formalized practice of communion; while there are lots of communion-like precedents, there aren't really any Eucharists. So it is hard to just pull something from Scripture and say, "See, here are the codes for communion." This isn't a Levitical practice. Instead we're left to work out a practice that seems reflective of God's attitudes towards Church, communion (more generally meant, like unity or community), and humanity. Universalists are going to lean towards open, then, because their picture of God is different; turn-or-burn types will be more closed; and so on. (Also, I'm sure a tradition-change axis is in play as well.)

  16. Let me add that, in my experience, open communion has been less peace-making than your post implies. Rather than saying, "You are welcome to this family meal because we do not separate you from ourselves," the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message is, "The church is a vending machine and you get to partake in this completely individualistic rite at your own discretion." The phrase I've heard, over and over, is "This is Christ's table. We neither invite anyone nor bar anyone from it."

    So a strong view of "peace" (not mere individualistic tolerance) may require some form of recognition of you as a member of the family, as someone who can be actively invited to a table that is really about community.

  17. There should indeed be a second "with", but "with those with whom ..." is pretty fragmented; I would prefer putting the second 'with' at the end as you suggested: "with those whom [specifiers]". There is a superstition that you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition, but actually that applies to Latin word order (I believe), not to English. But if you're going to use "whom", maybe you should stick to the nitpicky rule? Be that as it may, if it were (subjunctive!) me, I would recast the whole thing, putting the impact word at the end: "When we break bread with people, we are to live with them in peace." 

    On topic, as an addled teenager with Episcopalian friends, I came to service but resisted communion. When I did take my first communion in my mid-twenties, the blood was dark red port in a gold-lined silver chalice, and I can still remember how it swirled and caught the light. It was years later when I was baptized and more years after that before I became a committed Christian. I think that God moves various peoples' hearts in various ways, and we should give Him whatever space He thinks best.

  18. But the Lord's Supper was not originally served to people who were baptized in the modern sense. That is, apparently Communion has precedence over Baptism. ??

    Also Leviticus 19:34 "You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And any number of places in the Law where "strangers" are mentioned.

  19. They didn't.  Or -- they forgot.  OMG.  People are too lazy even to pronounce dipthongs anymore.  It's now "strenth" instead of "strength".

    Given the quality of today's media, including all manner of professional speakers and broadcasters who should know better, qb must indeed be one frustrated man.  Even the estimable Lionel Ritchie wrote the line -- "just you and I", when "me" was the proper use, and it wasn't even in the service of a rhyme.  This is the single most common mistake I hear.  "I" is now considered correct usage in all contexts, presumably because it "sounds" correct, when at least half the time the word should be "me".

    Sam has given up all hope, and just shrugs now and says to himself -- "Language is a fluid thing".

  20. I agree. We should get out of the way. And get out of the business of deciding who is or is nor worthy to be welcomed by Christ at his table. His grace is extravagant and, yes, that means if will often be wasted.

  21. Good points. To clarify a bit, I'm saying that open communion should be a sign of peace-making. But as you point out, it largely isn't. For lots of reasons, the individualism in particular, but I also think we've lost a sense about what breaking bread meant in Jesus's day.

  22. thanks for this reminder Richard. since the gospel is fundamentally an act of peacemaking/reconciliation both baptism and Eucharist are ways in which that reconciliation is made concrete by the Spirit in the formation of a body. On Sunday I am preaching on "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies". Given Jesus adoption of the good shepherd role it seems to me both appropriate to read psalm 23 in the light of this with the enemies eating at the table, and also to see this as a nice representation of the current work of the Spirit in the Eucharist, constantly making friends out of all of us enemies and breaking down all the defensive barriers we bring to the meal.

  23. A few observations I would like to make from the Disciples of Christ perspective. Open communion can operate in the Churches of Christ in a way on Sunday mornings that obscures the political or doctrinal machinations of a movement or congregation in the rest of its public life. A congregation that seems to offer open communion, implicitly, but wouldn't associate with a community of believers that ordains women ministers, practices instrumental worship, baptizes infants, accepts (in an even ambiguous way) homosexual members, or acknowledges the legitimacy of the Eastern Orthodox or Catholic church  persons, really doesn't offer open communion. Their open communion position is really pretty deceitful. 

    But let me take that a step further from a pacifist perspective. There are more than a small number of Christians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries. In the last ten years, it is far from a controversial perspective to say that wars with any of these countries produce an outlandish number of unpredictable, and unintended civilian casualties. Simply look at the number of unarmed, noncombatant civilians from these countries that have become casualties of war. I would assert that it isn't a very radical position to say that even going to war with any of these countries, with the immense possibilities of death present to Christians in these countries, poses a real problem to Christians in America that claim an open communion position. It's one thing to say that you will give the Eucharistic meal to a community of people. It is another to say that you will not take ANY strategy of violence against their neighbors for any reason, for any cause, or for any goal. Given the number of Christians in the Middle East, I don't think that a posture of 'Open Communion" can be held with any integrity amongst a Church that ever affirms, or even accepts, war against Middle Eastern countries. Don't give yourself a pat on the back for saying that you will offer me a sacramental sandwich, but absolve yourself of guilt for dropping missiles around my community. In this way I think that, in our current global situation, only pacifists can claim a position of "Open Communion" with any moral consistency or moral integrity. Of course, this is a very conservative moral bar to defend. Jesus didn't say to love Christians, or to forgive believers: he extended the moral circle to even unbelievers and enemies. A Church that will allow violence against any human group is like an "Open Communion" buffet restaurant with very aggressive bouncers outside that will be open to violence, at any time or place, if the principalities and powers that sign their pay checks communicate that such force is necessary as a requirement of patriotism, freedom fighting, or nationalistic fear.

    In the end, let us remember that the "Last Supper" is a meal that occurs before the Golgatha, and that the host of this meal is a non-retaliating meal giver. The bread and the cup is the body of the archetypal non-warrior. The tearing of his flesh, and the spilling of his blood is contingent not upon a symbol, or an abstracted concept, but a human body that could have offered himself as a fighting soldier but chose the path of the nonviolent martyr. To accept this gift as the embodiment of divine grace, and the apogee of divine movement in history, and yet reserve freedom for the gun, the bomb or the sword, is to tragically misunderstand the moral fiber and eschatological hope of a community that doesn't just doesn't eat the bread--but is willing to be the broken bread before whatever Empire or Power that wields violence with messianic purpose.

  24. The Anglican church has closed communion?  Closed to whom?  I'm Presbyterian myself, but I attended an Episcopal school and, for a time, an Episcopal cathedral, and it was always explicit that communion was open at least to all baptized Christians.

  25. As a Presbyterian, I was baptized as an infant.  I did not take Communion until after I was confirmed as a member of the church.  The following year, the PC(USA) changed its rules so that baptized children "who were being nurtured in the faith" could partake, and the decision was basically left up to their parents, and yes, the theological reasons for this talked about the "covenant people" into which we baptize infants.  One explanation I once heard was something along the lines of, "You don't refuse to feed children until after they learn table manners.  They learn at the table with their family."  

    Technically, Communion in the PC(USA) is open to *all baptized Christians,* for the reasons Alastair Roberts mentioned above, but the announcement in worship specifies that "This is the Lord's table; our Savior invites those who trust him to share the feast that he has prepared."  I figure that means if you want it, take it, and let God's grace work.

  26. Tomorrow, one of my favorite meditations in the "52 Weeks at the Table" series goes live at New Wineskins, one that features a reading from Psalm 23 (as someone pointed out above).

    The Table is about reconciliation. I don't see a reason in scripture or life a reason why it should not be a place where a newcomer or child is introduced to Jesus. I can't imagine Him being stingy with His body or blood; with His very life.

    I can't think about this subject without remembering the story on NPR about how Sara Miles was introduced to the Table .... wish I could paste in an URL, but it's worth going to and searching for her name.

  27. When folks talk about the Table as a point of introduction, I always remember this NPR piece by Sara Miles, "Strangers Bring Us Closer to God."

  28. It is open to all baptised Christians. But that's still partially closed. Open communion--fully open communion--would be open to non-baptised Christians as well (of which there are a bunch--for instance, the Salvation Army doesn't baptise). Of course, there are Anglican celebrants who sometimes communicate the non-baptised (unbaptised sounds to me like you've revoked someone's baptism), often simply because they do not check whether the communicants have been baptised. My priest said today that there have been times (during weddings, for instance), when the Shia Muslim woman who has come up for communion has probably not been baptised (and that's really the least of the heteropraxy here), but unless he knows for sure that she's not a baptised Christian, he won't make a fuss. Most priests, even the ones who strongly support closed communion, operate along these lines to some extent.

  29. Not to mention that one might want communion to be open to everyone, including non-Christians. I don't know that I'd use the phrase "open communion" unless literally anyone could receive communion.

  30. Good post.  But are you not saying we need to first "get" the implications of the open table for the sake of it being a truly open table?  This seems to me to get it backwards.  The table needs to be open so the bread and the cup can "get" us and have our hearts and minds transformed.  It is only in looking away in the sacrament that a church can even hear and understand the irony that you mention above--celebrating the victory of the cross but then denying it by taking up arms and saving ourselves.

  31.  This reminds me of the practice I saw in an Eastern Orthodox Church I visited.  They have the Eucharist, which they believe is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, and that part is closed communion (because really, is it "communion" if you don't actually believe what they believe about what they are consuming? Seems pretty unkind to demand access to their Holy Mysteries if you just think it's a shared meal of bread and wine. Same goes for Catholic Eucharist).  They also have, though, a blessed bread that all present may share.  IIRC it's called antidiron.  So they have a way for those who would not be admitted to communion, to nevertheless break bread with the community.

  32. This also brings a deeper understanding to what Jesus spoke to Judas as they broke bread together...

  33. The pastor of a small congregation where I attended was faced with a choice one Sunday back in the 1970s. The Viet Namese family our congregation had sponsored had attended our service once a month out of respect for our support. They were practicing Buddhists whose children were educated in Christian schools in Viet Nam. On the final Sunday of our sponsorship, the family rose, en masse, near the end of the communion distribution and approached the altar. The pastor inwardly gulped, knowing his choices were limited and neither was going to be "all right." If he denied the "non-Christians" communion, he would insult them; if he granted them communion, he was going to be in trouble with some of the old salts in the church. In the day long before bracelets declaring "WWJD," he asked himself that same question, and he knew that Jesus would not deny any person. He gave communion to the adults and blessed the children, just as he did with every other family in the church that morning. Yes, he was chastised by old timers and officials. No, he never regretted his decision.

  34. I don't know about peace-making....just bow your head. consentrate on our Saviour and don't worry abour who is taking communion....that's not for me, a human, to determine or judge.

  35. I feel like an idot posting something so simple here after reading some of the other posts, but i am encouraged by the fact that we seem to have more deep thinkers around than I would have thought.  WWJD  he would have offered bread to anyone who asked.  We spend too much time being religious and forget to just follow, the example we have before us.  In reference to the pastor giving communion to the Buddist family, I have welcomed Muslims to the table and had no doubt it was the right thing to do.  And yes there were some objections, but those same folks objected to most things that didn't fit "the old ways."  We and the church need to look more to the future, and less to the past.

  36. Richard, thanks for opening up this question. In the congregation I serve (I happen to be an ELCA Lutheran pastor serving an Episcopal congregation) we often use this form of invitation to the table, which comes from the Iona community.

    "This is the table, not of the Church, but of the Lord. It is to be made ready for those who love God and for those who hope to love God more. So, come, you who have faith and you who have doubts. Come if you have been here often, and come if you have not been here long. Come if you have followed, and come if you have stumbled. Come, because it is the Lord who invites you. It is Christ’s will that those who seek him will meet him here at his table. Come!"My approach to this: How can I tell, when serving Communion, whether somebody I have only just met is truly seeking Christ, or is confused, or is being disrespectful?  I can't. That's up to Christ. My liturgical job is to serve the meal.I know some traditions say that I shouldn't serve people unless I am sure they are truly seeking Christ.  I maintain that I still can't tell for sure, even if I've known them for years. I'm not sure even they can tell for sure. The discernment of eligibility gets even more dodgy when eligibility is an outward sign of belonging to the ingroup.I'd rather answer before the judgement seat for serving too many people than for turning anyone away.

  37. That's lovely...I admit I've never really seen the point of communion at all, but this makes sense. I could see that.

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