Who is Communion For?
Anabaptists have through history practiced “closed Communion” or “close Communion”. In “closed Communion”, only members of that specific church will partake in Communion together. “Close Communion” allows those of “like-minded faith” to also partake with the congregation.
I personally attend a church that practices “close communion”. As a young believer, I never questioned this. But as I got older and saw how this affected other believers who worshiped with us but did not dress or practice everything that the rest of the congregation did, and I began to wonder about it. I saw the hurt and rejection in their eyes, and I wondered why Communion had to be refused to them. I decided to go to Scripture to see what God’s Word says regarding Communion. I already knew what our church taught, I knew why they had this particular tradition, but I wanted to see what the Bible itself had to say regarding Communion. I wanted to know why Communion was only for certain believers but not others.
The Body of Christ
From the following verses in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, two things stood out to me.
“16. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?
17. For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.”
This phrase in particular seemed to leap out at me: “For we being many are ONE bread, and ONE body: for we are ALL PARTAKERS OF THAT ONE BREAD…”
The first thing that I concluded was that we as Christian believers are all part of the same body of Christ. Different denominations may be different parts of the body, but we are all part of the same body of Christ. We are not many different bodies of Christ. He has only ONE body.
The second thing that I saw is that there is only ONE bread. We are all partakers of that ONE bread. No matter where you partake communion in, when a fellow believer who is part of that ONE body of Christ offers you the communion bread, it represents the same ONE bread that is offered everywhere– in every denomination. That ONE bread represents Christ’s physical body being broken for us. No matter what denomination, all who believe the Bible agree that Christ laid down His life for us and we do this in “remembrance of” Him. (Luke 22:19)
As I read these verses, I also wondered if there was another aspect of Communion that we have missed. Could it be that the Church, spread over the world, who now represent Christ’s body, is also supposed to remember that they are all ONE body– because of what He did– as they partake in the communion bread?
Denominations have differing viewpoints regarding what partaking in Communion does for the believer. Some believe it is a holy ritual that you must partake in order to “stay saved”. Some believe Jesus is physically part of the elements; some believe He is spiritually part of the elements. Mennonites take the view that the elements represent what Christ did only in a symbolic way. But all denominations believe that we remember how Jesus’ body was broken for us and we remember with gratitude that He laid down His life so that we could be forgiven for our sins.
1 Cor. 11:24-26
And when He had given thanks, He brake it and said, Take, eat: this is my body which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also He took the cup, when He had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lords’s death until He comes. (Emphasis mine)
So if all believers have a common belief that we are remembering what Christ has done for us (regardless of differing views of the elements– which is all extra-Biblical anyway), why can’t we just all remember together? Do we as Mennonites believe Christ’s body was broken for only certain believers and not others? If not, than why can we only remember what He did with certain believers and not all?
In both close and closed Communion, we give the bread and wine to only those who believe the same and dress the same as we do. Closed Communion requires that you believe the same as I –on pretty much everything. Close Communion is a little less rigid. Basically, it says you must be Mennonite. (And for conservative groups, that includes only Mennonites that wear a head covering.)
All churches that practice close or closed Communion, can give you a good explanation of why they do, but none have a Scripture reference to back themselves up with. And regardless of their reasons, when another believer visits our church and we do not allow them to participate in Communion with us, this is the unspoken message they receive (or perceive that we are telling them): “We don’t really believe that you are a member of the body of Christ, regardless of what you tell us. You must be a Mennonite in order to prove to us that you are really part of the body of Christ.”
Is this really what we believe? Is this the message we want to give them?
The only other time that Mennonites refuse to give someone communion is when someone is excommunicated. A person who is willfully sinning and refuses to repent–even when they have been confronted (following the Matthew 18) gets excommunicated (following 1 Corinthians 5). Are we equating anyone who is not Mennonite with this?
The passage in 1Corinthians 5 that speaks of excommunication was the source of the schism between the Amish and Mennonites in 1693. Disagreement over whether we are to only withhold Communion or whether we are to socially shun anyone who refused to repent of outward sin was the source of the split.
Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be an new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators: Yet not altogether with the fornicators of this world, or with idolaters; or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then ye must needs go out of this world. But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such a one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
We are not to keep company with, we are not to eat with, and we are to put away from ourselves people who claim to be believers but live in obvious sin.
Whether the phrase “with such a one no not to eat” is speaking of communion or a social meal, the rest of the verses are just as important. If this is speaking of communion, then the rest must also be followed. We are not even to keep company with such a person.
If we have people in our midst that are believers, but we refuse to give them the communion cup because they aren’t members, or because they don’t wear a covering, we cannot use these verses as the reason we are refusing them because we aren’t following all of it.
If it is not speaking of eating communion bread and only speaking of eating a meal together, we must still follow the rest of the commands. We are to “put away from among” us that wicked person. They should not even be in our midst.
1 Cor. 11:28-29
But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
Does this apply to all believers or only Mennonites? Aren’t we all accountable to God when we participate in Communion? If we have hidden sin in our lives, we “eat and drink damnation” to ourselves. Not to others.
So what are we afraid of when we refuse to give the communion cup to other believers who are not Mennonite? Do we have a fear of what other Mennonites will think? Are we afraid if we give the cup to someone with hidden sin that God will punish us?
Does the possibility of a Mennonite with hidden sin in their lives feel safer to us than a non-Mennonite with possible hidden sin?
Why We Turn Others Away From Communion
One of key factors in the way Mennonites practice Communion today can be traced back to the meeting that took place in 1693, when Jacob Ammon called for a meeting with the other Anabaptist ministers of that region (Switzerland). The issues that he wanted to discuss were mostly all agreed on by the other ministers. Only the issue of social shunning was met with such confrontation and disagreement that it caused a schism.
One of the things that Ammonn wanted to discuss was whether those that did not “follow God’s Word could be saved”. During this time, there was still persecution, but many were sympathetic to the cause and helped them. But even while they were sympathetic, they were not willing to join their group and get re-baptized –whether out of fear of their lives or lack of belief. Jacob Ammonn believed they could not be saved if they did not join the Anabaptists– thus should not partake in Communion with them.
So the conclusion of that discussion was, if you are not Anabaptist, you can not be saved.
Today most Mennonites would cringe at that. Most of us don’t believe that we are the only ones that will be in heaven. Some of us would even say the conclusion of that discussion was wrong.
But taking a closer look at what that discussion entailed brings some understanding as to why they came to that conclusion. What set Anabaptists apart from the rest of the world at that time? They were the only ones that practiced adult baptism upon the “confession of their faith”.
Jacob Ammonn may have had a good point in questioning whether someone who claimed to be a believer in Christ but was afraid to get baptized was really saved. That, after all, is the whole point of baptism. It is an outward symbol of what has happening inside. It is stating publically that “I am a follower of Christ”. But today in America that is not really an issue. Believers get baptized without fear of persecution and it is a normal occurrence.
So now we still hold to the tradition of withholding Communion from anyone who is not Anabaptist –even though those circumstances have changed. What sets Mennonites apart today from the rest of the world? It is usually the dress and head coverings that most conservative groups focus on today. So when we still come to the same conclusion of withholding Communion from those who will not join our group, we make our decision according to the head covering and our dress. And we draw that conclusion because that is our tradition.
But now, we no longer have a valid point in it all. Though we still withhold Communion from those who don’t believe as we do, most of us would never view those people as being unsaved or think they should be excommunicated. Yet we treat them as such by refusing to give them the Communion cup. We have carried our tradition for so many centuries without stopping to ask ourselves why we do this because we just naturally do what our fathers have always done.
Withholding Communion from someone who refuses to get baptized makes sense. Withholding communion from someone who doesn’t dress like us does not.
Could it be that it is time for a some new reformation in our conservative circles on the issue of communion? I believe it is time we align ourselves with what Scriptures say about Communion and repent for the areas that we have fallen away from truth.