A Call for Universal Communion (among Orthodox Christians)

A Call for Universal Communion (among Orthodox Christians) March 17, 2023

A Call for Universal Communion (among Orthodox Christians)

The divisions among Christians is a tragedy and not pleasing to God. Jesus prayed to the Father than his disciples would be one, even as he and the father were one. Surely neither Jesus nor the apostles envisioned a future in which Christians would be so divided.

However, I’m a realist (maybe a pessimist) and don’t see any hope for one world Christian church. Denominations (whatever people call them) are here to stay. (See my book The Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 14th edition, Abingdon Press.) Sure, there have been amalgamations, ecumenical unions, but each one has led to some churches of the uniting denominations leaving to for their own, separate, new denomination. Trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Also, I think it’s perfectly alright for groups of Christians to have their own particular viewpoints on doctrines and practices—up to a point. That point is adherence to the Bible as God’s Word written, to Jesus Christ as God incarnate, and to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three somethings (I don’t know how we can get away from the words “three persons” but I recognize the problems with that), eternally existing and equal in every way, and salvation by grace through faith provided solely by God because of the death of his Son Jesus on the cross. And I would add the resurrection of Jesus including the empty tomb.

I simply do not understand why some denominations and churches practice closed communion. Many do. If you do not belong to them, you may not partake of the eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, communion, even if you are a devout, believing, orthodox Christian repentant of sins and seeking God’s forgiveness and sanctifying grace. To me, that is sectarianism and breaks God’s heart.

This is probably a legend, but I heard about a Catholic chaplain who was serving the eucharist to a group of school kids, teens, at a Catholic school. Some Protestant students attended the school and the chaplain forgot to tell the students that only Catholics could take the Eucharist. Some Protestant students processed forward and took the elements. The chaplain was confessing this to his bishop. He stopped at the point where the Protestant students were coming forward without knowing they were supposed to cross their arms and receive a blessing but not the bread and wine. The bishop said to the chaplain “What did you do?” The chaplain responded, “Well, I asked myself what Jesus would do.” The bishop responded with outrage “You didn’t!”

But Catholics are by far NOT the only Christian group that practices closed communion, communion only for members. Some Baptist groups practice closed communion.  So do some very conservative Lutherans and Presbyterians. And, of course, so do the Eastern Orthodox churches.

Why? The usual answer is because people of other Christian traditions, even if they are in communion with God by God’s grace, do not understand the reality, meaning and significance of communion rightly and therefore cannot take it. The irony is that in 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul warns against taking communion unworthily and singles out those who are seeking to divide the Body of Christ as those who are unworthy.

That is what I believe Paul meant and I’m not going to change my mind, so don’t bother arguing with me about it.

I have no problem with denominations; I have a big problem with closed communion. I see no need for ecumenical reunion of Christians in the sense of seeking “one visible and institutional church.”

I was once invited to an ecumenical meeting led by theologians Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. There were Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, Congregationalists and other theologians and even some bishops there. Almost all were well-known theologians and church leaders. It became clearer as the weekend progressed that Braaten and Jenson were aiming at the formation of one, visible and institutional church and that a major obstacle was closed communion. When my turn to speak came, I told them that I was a member of a moderate Baptist church that practiced open communion and that any of them could come to my church and take communion and that we would even have no problem with most, if not all, of them preaching from our pulpit.

Most of them looked shocked and even dismayed as I explained that I saw no need for “one visible and institutional church” but that I did see a need for intercommunion among true Christians of any and all denominations.

I am tremendously bothered by churches that practice closed communion. No, I’m not advocating absolutely open, universal communion without restrictions to authentic Christians. But by “universal and open communion” I mean trans-denominational communion open to all believers of any and no denominational identity.

As I see it, the scandal is not separate denominations; it’s sectarianism that manifests when denominations claim to be “the only real Christians” and/or practice closed communion. Just stop it.

*Note: If you choose to comment, make sure your comment is relatively brief (no more than 100 words), on topic, addressed to me, civil and respectful (not hostile or argumentative), and devoid of pictures and links.*

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