"Close Communion" and Lord's Supper on the Mission Field

The Heidelberg Catechism, LD 30, Q&A 81-82


Q. 81.  “For whom is the Lord’s Supper instituted? A.  For those who are truly sorrowful for their sins, and yet trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ, and that their remaining infirmities are covered by His passion and death; and who also earnestly desire to have their faith more and more strengthened, and their lives more holy; but hypocrites, and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts, eat and drink judgment to themselves.”

Q. 82.  “Are they also to be admitted to this supper, who, by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly? A.  No; for by this the covenant of God would be profaned, and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation; therefore it is the duty of the Christian church, according to the appointment of Christ and His apostles, to exclude such persons, by the keys of the kingdom of heaven, till they show amendment of life.”


Come with me to Geneva, Switzerland in September 1553. Calvin had just finished preaching and was preparing the table for the Lord’s Supper. Suddenly, a group of armed men, swords drawn, approached the table. Their leader was Philibert Berthelier, a man whom the consistory in Geneva had excommunicated. But Berthelier had influential friends in the Genevan Council who had overturned his excommunication. The consistory barred Berthelier from the Lord’s Supper; the state permitted him to come. Whose will would prevail?

Calvin stood before the Lord’s Table, his arms stretched out to block the way. “We demand that Philibert Berthelier be permitted to partake,” they cried. “We will take the elements by force if we have to,” they added menacingly, swords in their hands. “I would sooner die than profane the holy Supper of the Lord by giving them to the wicked,” Calvin announced, still blocking the table. Berthelier’s men hesitated, fingering their swords: slowly, they withdrew. No blood was shed. The Supper was administered in peace but Berthelier and his men did not partake.

Calvin understood something that the Heidelberg Catechism explains in LD 30. The Lord’s Supper is not for all men, and it must be guarded against the ungodly. Calvin “fenced the table.” The Lord’s Supper is a holy, covenant meal of fellowship of Christ and His church. 

The Lord’s Supper is as a sacrament: it is a sign and seal of important, blessed, spiritual realities, for it directs our faith to the cross of Jesus. The purpose of the Supper is to confirm visibly what we learn in the gospel: we learn from the gospel that Christ died for us to secure our salvation, which truth is visibly set forth in the Supper. We learn from the Supper that we feed upon Christ by faith, and by faith we receive the benefits of his cross. 

The Heidelberg Catechism asks in Q81, “For whom is the Lord’s Supper instituted?” To that we can ask two related questions—who may come? And who decides? And the answer is “close communion.”

The Meaning

 Close communion is the practice of permitting only some to come to Lord’s Supper. Close communion can be contrasted with two other views or practices: it is really the intermediate position between them.

The first view or practice is “open communion.” In “open communion” anyone is permitted to come to the Lord’s Supper. Of course, in open communion churches they say that only believers are permitted to come, but in practice anyone is permitted to come. The only attempt that open communion churches make to keep unworthy people from the Lord’s Supper is an ineffectual warning: “This Supper is open to all believers—if you are a believer, you are welcome to partake, but if you are an unbeliever or if you are living in wickedness, please stay away.”

Therefore, in practice anyone may come to an open communion table, and in reality many unbelievers and otherwise ungodly persons do come.  Most people who come are, of course, members of the church or otherwise known to the church. Assuming that there is some kind of membership standard, the table of the Lord is somewhat guarded. Nevertheless, if there are no elders, if there is no supervision of the lives of the members, and if no questions are asked of visitors, anyone might come. A person might walk in off the street, claim to be a Christian, and partake: but you do not know what he believes or how he lives. He could be a heretic; he could be grossly ignorant of the truth; or he could be living in wickedness.  On the other hand, he might be a sincere, godly Christian. The point is—an open communion church does not know and makes no effort to find out.

The motivation of “open communion” advocates is the sincere desire not to exclude people, for they want to be open, affirming, and welcoming of others. The argument is that, if an unworthy person comes, it is his own fault. This is especially true, it is argued, if the church warns unbelievers to stay away. Nevertheless, the church has not carefully guarded the table: the result is that unbelievers and impenitent persons eat and drink unworthily. “He that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh damnation to himself not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29). “Hypocrites and such as turn not to God with sincere hearts eat and drink judgment to themselves” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 81).

The second view or practice is “closed communion.” (Our position is “close communion,” not “closed communion.”). If open communion is an “anyone may come” position, then closed communion is a “no one may come except the members” position. A “closed communion” church is a very strict church with respect to the Lord’s Supper. The church has a membership list of those who have made confession of faith and who are living in godliness. It is good to have such a list—every instituted church must have such a list to distinguish between members, adherents, and regular attendees; every instituted church should distinguish between baptized members (children and young people) and confessing adult members.  Nevertheless, such a list does not take into account the presence of visitors. For in a “closed communion” not even visitors may partake of the Supper.

The Reformed churches with which we are affiliated do not practice “open communion” (they do not permit anyone and everyone to come to the Lord’s Supper), but they also do not practice “closed communion” (they do not restrict the Lord’s Supper exclusively to their own members). Instead, they practice “close communion.”

We are convinced that “close communion” is the practice most faithful to the Bible and the Reformed confessions and safest for the church. We understand, however, that in a world of “open communion” churches this position seems extreme and even lacking in compassion. We crave the reader’s attention while we seek to explain this further.

A “close communion” church opens the Lord’s Table to two categories of persons—their own members and visitors of other churches who have received permission from the elders. In practice, this means that a visitor from one congregation, assuming that he is a confessing member in good standing, is allowed to partake if he meets with the elders beforehand to request permission. This is why a visitor is advised to come prepared, preferably with a letter from his consistory (the body of elders), if he plans to visit another congregation while they have Lord’s Supper. Usually, the Supper is granted to members of sister churches. If the visitor is from another denomination, the elders will make that judgment. For example, here is an announcement that often appears in the bulletins of “close communion” churches: “Visitors from other denominations must appear to make their request at the consistory meeting prior to communion. If we cannot administer the sacrament to you, we are not judging your personal faith; we are simply recognizing the reality that there is not at this time doctrinal agreement between our respective church bodies. Please respect our position of love in this matter.”

While “open communion” excludes the church from the decision-making process (only the individual decides) and “closed communion” excludes the individual from the decision-making process (only the church decides), “close communion” gives a role to both the individual coming to the Lord’s Supper and to the church supervising the Lord’s Supper.

First, there is a role for the individual: he must “examine himself.

He must examine himself with respect to his sins. Every Christian believes that he is a sinner: he believes in the holiness and righteousness of God, and he recognizes the holiness of God’s law. He believes that he has transgressed God’s commandments and even that he has a sinful nature: the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of “remaining infirmities” (A 81); these sins and weaknesses remain in the holiest believer, and he struggles against them. Notice that the issue is the believer’s sins, not the neighbor’s sins or society’s sins. The individual is called to examine himself, not others.

In connection with his sins, the believer examines two things. The Christian has a certain attitude to his sins—“truly sorrowful” (A81). The Christian, especially the one worthy to come to the Lord’s Table, does not love his sins or enjoy them; it is a source of great sorrow that he is still sinful. He is ashamed of his past transgressions, as well as of his “remaining infirmities.” And yet Christians also have joy: “they trust that these are forgiven them for the sake of Christ and that their remaining infirmities are covered by his passion and death” (A 81). In other words, sorrow for sin and faith are necessary in worthy partakers of the Supper.

No one might come to the Supper who is not sorry for sin, or who does not trust in Christ’s one only sacrifice as the only ground of salvation.

In addition, Christians approach the table with two desires—“to have their faith more and more strengthened” (for the Supper is a sign and seal) and to have “their lives more holy (to be devoted increasingly to God and separated from sin).

But what is this self-examination precisely and what is the purpose? Self-examination is not a morbid introspection; it is simply a test—do I believe in Jesus; am I sorry for my sin; am I living as a Christian; do I understand the meaning of the Lord’s Supper; and do I desire to be holy? Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:28, “But let a man examine himself.” The idea of the verb is “to examine with the expectation that we will be found genuine.” The meaning is not “to examine expecting to fail the test.” An unbeliever cannot examine himself, for there is nothing to examine, but we can, for we have faith, we have life, and we have the small beginning of holiness. Therefore, the result of self-examination should be that we pass the test: it should not be that we say, “I am not a Christian; I do not believe; my sins are too great.” Instead, we should repent and believe.

To the “open communion” advocate self-examination is enough, but we insist that the church has a much greater role through her appointed officebearers. In Q 82 the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Are they also to be admitted…?” “Admission” implies active permission on the part of some authority. We ought to imagine the Lord’s Table with a spiritual gate: that gate is opened and certain people are permitted to partake of the elements of the Supper. But at the same time, certain people are warned to stay away, and God has placed authority figures (officebearers) to keep certain people away.

A true church practices Christian discipline, which involves a number of steps, the last of which is excommunication. If someone can be excommunicated, he must also previously have been communicated, that is, officially admitted to the Supper. This occurs in Reformed churches when a young person makes confession of faith: before this he was a “baptized member,” but on making confession of faith he becomes a “confessing member” and is admitted to the Lord’s Supper. This also occurs when an adult joins the church: he is baptized upon his confession of faith (if not lawfully baptized beforehand) and is admitted to the Lord’s Supper.

But a member can also be placed under discipline and even excommunicated if he walks impenitently in sin. A visitor, however, who is not under the church’s jurisdiction, can neither be communicated nor excommunicated.

In A 82 the Heidelberg Catechism makes this explicit: “it is the duty of the Christian church, according to the appointment of Christ and his apostles, to exclude…” In “open communion” churches, people are expected to exclude themselves. Certainly, it happens that certain people do exclude themselves—usually people of sensitive consciences, who perhaps should not exclude themselves—but the church, insists the Heidelberg Catechism, must be active in excluding. And since not every member acts as an authority figure in the church, God has given authority to certain men in the church to admit or exclude, but these men do not admit or exclude according to their own whims and preferences. The elders admit whom Christ admits and they exclude whom Christ excludes.

Three categories of people must be excluded according to the Word of God. Christ excludes them; therefore; and if Christ excludes them, the church must not admit them.

First, in Q 82 the Heidelberg Catechism mentions “they… who, by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly.” Second, A81 mentions “such as turn not to God with sincere hearts” (or simply “the impenitent”). Third, A 81 mentions “hypocrites.” Of those three, the church through the elders is responsible to exclude the first two categories of people: they show by their confession (what they profess to believe) and life (how they live) that they are unbelievers and ungodly. They might even protest that they are Christians, but their lives prove otherwise. The other category—hypocrites—is more difficult: a hypocrite must not come to the Lord’s Supper, but the elders cannot be expected to identify hypocrites. A hypocrite who comes to the Supper despite warnings from the church perishes, but God does not hold the church responsible for the hypocrite.

 The Necessity

 “Close communion” (as opposed especially to “open communion”) is necessary because of the holiness of the Lord’s Supper.  The Lord’s Supper is not a common meal. That was actually the error of the Corinthians. The members of the churches in Corinth brought their own food and treated the supper like a congregational picnic. However, they were uncharitable, with the result that the rich members ate too much and became drunk with wine, while the poorer members were hungry and thirsty. Such conduct was inappropriate, especially at the table of the Lord.

Paul insists that there is a stark difference between ordinary meals and the Lord’s Supper. A meal might take place after the Supper and after the worship service, but the Lord’s Supper itself is holy. “When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor. 11:20)—a congregational picnic is not the Lord’s Supper. “What? Have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? Or despise ye the church of God?” (v. 22)—Paul’s concern is not the building, but the people. Paul sharply rebukes the people: “Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse” (v. 17). “What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I praise you not” (v. 22).

The Lord’s Supper is a meal in which believers enjoy fellowship with Christ. Therefore, it is important that only believers are permitted to partake. An unbeliever is not indifferent to Christ; in reality, he is Christ’s enemy. Sin makes an unbeliever the enemy of Christ, for he loves what Christ hates (namely, sin) and he hates what Christ loves (namely, holiness). Unbelievers—even if they appear religious—despise the cross of Christ: either they do not believe that he suffered and died for sinners, or else they do not believe that his death was necessary or sufficient to accomplish salvation.  Consider one who offers to God his supposed good works instead of or in addition to the sufferings and death of Christ; such a man despises Christ’s work.

Therefore, it would be gross profanation of the Supper for an unbeliever to eat and drink the bread and wine, or for a church to permit him to do so. The bread and wine symbolize the broken body and shed blood of Jesus: shall one who does not trust in Christ alone for salvation partake of such holy things? The action of eating and drinking symbolizes faith in the crucified Savior as well as participation in and union with the benefits of Christ. Shall an unbeliever who does not eat Christ and drink him by faith partake? Shall an unbeliever who is not a member of Christ—but estranged from him—partake? Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 that such a person is “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord,” and that he does not “discern the Lord’s body.” He is guilty because he despises that which represents the body and blood of the Lord, and he does not discern the Lord’s body because he views the elements of the Supper as ordinary or common bread and wine with no spiritual significance. At the same time, the Lord invites his believing friends to come: warnings should not frighten believers from the Lord’s Table. Perfect holiness is not required, but godly sorrow, true faith, and a sincere desire for holiness are required of worthy partakers of the Supper.

“Close communion” is also necessary for the welfare of the body—without it the wrath of God is “kindled against the whole congregation” (A 82). This is the answer to the “open communion” advocate who argues that when the unworthy person partakes the guilt is entirely his own. The Heidelberg Catechism warns about God’s wrath “kindled against the whole congregation.” The Bible teaches the principle of “corporate responsibility.” God does not only judge individuals, but he also judges groups: for example, when Israel sinned as a nation, God judged the whole nation; even today God judges whole churches for the apostasy of some of the members. Think only of the example of Achan in Joshua 7. Israel was defeated at Ai because of the secret, unconfessed sin of Achan. How much more is God’s kindled when known sins are tolerated in the congregation!

That is why church membership is so serious—an individual or a family might be faithful, but if the church is not in its preaching, sacraments, and discipline, the individual or family suffers with the whole church. Christ removes the golden candlestick (see Rev. 2-3) so that a church is no longer a true church, and he calls his faithful ones to come out of such a church.

This principle applies to the church today as well.

When a minister preaches false doctrine, the individuals and families who tolerate that false doctrine suffer the consequences; often, God cuts them off in their generations. Hosea 4:4: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children.”

When a church profanes the covenant of God by permitting unbelievers and the impenitent to partake of the Lord’s Supper or when the church deliberately baptizes unbelievers and their children, God judges the whole congregation. God does not simply cut off the guilty members; he visits the whole congregation in wrath. God’s wrath does not necessarily take the form of damnation and curses: often it comes in the form of bitter chastisements or what Scripture calls “the rod.” For example, God speaks in Haggai 1:6: “Consider your ways: ye have sown much, and bring in little; ye eat, but ye have not enough; ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink; ye clothe you, but there is none warm; and he that earneth wages earneth wages to put into a bag with holes.” God speaks in Micah 6:9: “The Lord’s voice crieth unto the city, and the man of wisdom shall see thy name: hear ye the rod, and who hath appointed it.”

This principle of corporate responsibility is also illustrated in 1 Corinthians 11 where we see that (because of the actions of some) the wrath of God was kindled against the whole congregation. In verse 30 Paul describes the effects of God’s judgments in Corinth. “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” There was sickness in the congregation—much sickness. Some members had even died—they had fallen asleep. (This does not mean that sickness is always traced back to unfaithfulness at the Lord’s Supper, but churches and people should examine themselves—consider your ways!). Paul interprets this as “judgment:” “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (v. 31). Nevertheless, he does not interpret it as damnation, but chastisement. God chastises his people to discipline and correct them in love: “But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord that we should not be condemned with the world” (v. 32).

The elders have a role to play, therefore—when they are unfaithful in their calling to admit faithful ones and to exclude unfaithful ones from the Lord’s Table, they expose the whole congregation to the chastising hand of the Lord. When they open the Supper to everyone without making any effort to be discriminating, they expose the whole congregation to the chastening hand of the Lord.

It is not enough for the members to say: “Let them come; if they are unbelieving and impenitent, it will be on their own heads.” Instead, the elders must examine the members: are the people in attendance eligible to be members; do they believe the doctrines; do they live in godliness and in obedience to God’s commandments? Then the elders should admit them to the table.

Are the people in need of instruction? Then the elders should prepare them by instruction and then admit them to the table. Are they in need of rebuke so that they repent? Then the elders should rebuke and admonish them, and when they repent, they should admit them to the table. But the elders must not abdicate their responsibility—the holiness of the Supper and the purity and faithfulness of the church are too important.

 The Implications

 The first implication of this is, because the presence of elders is required for the administration of the Supper, the Lord’s Supper is not ordinarily administered on the mission field before organization into a church institute. According to the Heidelberg Catechism supervision of the Supper is “the duty of the Christian church” (A82). The duty is particularly that of the elders, men elected to rule in the church. Without elders, a group of believers is not an instituted church—it is a fellowship.  

A fellowship is a group gathered through missions: a fellowship has regular preaching of the Word and baptism with a view to the organization of a church, but ordinarily a fellowship waits until organization before Lord’s Supper is administered.  This was the practice of apostolic missions; in Acts 13-14 we read of Paul’s first missionary journey, at the end of which he ordained elders: “And when they had ordained elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord on whom they believed” (Acts 14:23). Paul writes to Titus, a missionary: “For this cause left I thee in Crete that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee” (Tit. 1:5).

Elders thus ordained supervise Lord’s Supper, admitting some, excluding others.

But where do elders come from—the calling church does not impose men upon the fellowship of believers in order to make them an instituted church. Such men must be faithful members of the fellowship, trusted by the other members, and willing to serve in the position of elder.  Paul writes of this in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13. Notice the calling of the members with respect to their elders. First, “know them which labour among you.” (That presupposes that the elders live among the people); second, recognize the elders’ authority (“[they are] over you in the Lord”); third, esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake (it is called “labour,” which refers to hard, toilsome work); and fourth, receive their admonitions in grace and peace (“and admonish you… and be at peace among yourselves”). If elders are so esteemed, it makes their work so much easier and more joyful. It gives the elders great joy to see the members walking in truth; it grieves them highly when the members walk in disobedience, in disharmony, and in folly.

Is it possible for elders of the calling church to supervise the Lord’s Supper on the mission field? Yes, in certain situations it is, but it is not ideal. The elders would have to make regular journeys to and from the calling church so that they get to know the people in the fellowship. In some calling churches (the church that oversees the mission and sends the missionary) there are very few elders, perhaps only two. If these men are quite old or in poor health, they find it difficult to travel and to arrange regular visits. The elders of the calling church must determine that the group as a whole has reached spiritual maturity before they would make a decision to permit Lord’s Supper on the Mission Field.

But there are also implications for the mission group, for it is not only the work of elders. Everyone in the mission must prepare himself and his family spiritually. If we did have Lord’s Supper here, only certain people would be eligible to partake—those who agree with the doctrine and life of the calling church. The question is: do you agree with us in our confession of the truth? Have you read and studied the Three Forms of Unity? Do you need instruction on any point of doctrine? Are you open to such instruction and willing to learn? Are there practices in your life, work, and family, such as working on Sundays, which need to change?

And especially the men must consider the need for elders. To organize into a church institute men are needed who are sound in doctrine, mature in faith, godly in life, and wise in character. Men are needed who are willing to work hard (regular meetings, family visitation, evangelism, and other work. Paul says, “Labour”). In small churches, office bearers serve for long terms, sometimes for decades: ideally, they should not have to, but they do. Do we have such men, willing to put in the hours to be elders and deacons? Are the women prepared to have their husbands become such men?

Since we have not reached that point, we wait; we labour patiently; we pray; and we trust in the Lord. We have the chief means of grace. Although the Lord’s Supper is important, it is not the chief means of grace: Reformed churches have always viewed the preaching of the gospel as the chief means of grace. Therefore, the purity of the preaching must be the chief concern of someone looking for a church. In an ideal world, the believer looks for a church where the preaching is pure and the sacraments are faithfully administered.  But if the believer has to choose, which in our day of spiritual departure he must do, he should choose pure preaching even if he has no access to the Lord’s Supper. His family will be stronger in a faithful Reformed mission fellowship, where he hears pure preaching from the Word of God and has catechetical instruction for his children, than in any evangelical, Arminian, Charismatic, Pentecostal, Dispensational church, even if in the weaker church he has access to the Lord’s Supper.

If all Christians who really took seriously the Word of God joined a Reformed mission, instead of remaining in weak churches, and submitted themselves to the instruction of such a Reformed mission, Reformed missions would be organized into instituted churches with the Lord’s Supper much more rapidly.

In the meantime, the Lord will sustain such a Reformed mission by His Word.