A Look at Close Communion and the ARP Church
In this little spring series we’ve looked at the ARP’s older distinctives, the things that made the ARP, the ARP, and sought to explain through them to help us better understand why we are ARPs. Our goal hasn’t been that we would just woodenly readopt all these positions or to try and have weird, somewhat esoteric ideas sprung on us like a trap. We are doing this because it is always a good idea to know where we have been in order to know where we can go in the future. Besides, a lot of people are likely ARP without knowing much of our history or what makes the sign on the door different from other presbyterian churches. That being said, it is certainly possible that we may want to more openly embrace our heritage in regards to the preaching of the free offer of the gospel and our unique take on social covenanting or the other matters we’ll continue to take up in this space. Both teachings we’ve walked through I think would be good for us to reconsider (you can read more why here), yet as has been noted before there is no point in doing stuff merely for cosplay reasons. We need to be serious and bought in with everything we do as a church and as people who rest and trust in the God of our salvation in all areas of life.
In reflecting on the previous two doctrines it can certainly be said that the former was certainly more on the “I’ve heard of this before” spectrum than the latter, however, the feedback I’ve received tells me there is interest in learning more about social covenanting. We’ll get to that in future installments. So what is next? Well we are going to keep things old-school and talk about the Lord’s Supper maybe in a way you have never experienced or heard about before. The doctrine of close communion, or as it is more widely known today, session-controlled communion is one of those things, like social covenanting, that was a not really that big a deal before the last decades of the 19th century. Nearly all Presbyterian bodies held to a form of it. However, the Seceders (the “A” in ARP) held on to it a bit longer, and about the only place you will be able to experience it today in our circles is in the RPCNA (the “R” in ARP).
Close (not closed) Communion is the teaching that only those who have been baptized and confirmed by a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and have proof that they are members in good standing of a particular congregation of a particular denomination which is in fraternal relations (for us today this would mean any member of the PCA, OPC, RPCNA, EPC, etc…) with that denomination may partake of the Lord’s Table in a congregation of that particular denomination. Read that again for clarification, then come back to the start of the next sentence, it may be worth getting that principle organized in your head, I know I need to, and I wrote it. In other words if Jack and Diane are faithful members of Grace Baptist Church or St. Marks Lutheran or Emmanuel Anglican Parish and they walk into Inniskillin Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church ca. 1880 and Inniskillin happens to be celebrating the Supper on that Lord’s Day morning (or evening) Mr. Jack and Mrs. Diane would not have been granted access to the elements of bread and wine. However, if they have a letter from their session at Johnstown ARP Church or the PCA congregation meeting in Reynoldsburg they’d be gladly seated at the table.
Seems kind of harsh doesn’t it? Like a lot of things our ignorance of the reasons behind something doesn’t mean that our ancestors were meanie pants. It just means we need to take a deep breath and consider why these two fine otherwise Christian folks were barred from participating in the covenant meal at Inniskillin in 1880. Like most things if we just listen we might just learn something, we may not agree with it, but at least we’ll know where they were coming from and the reasons for why they would do such a thing which sounds so incredibly foreign to our 2023 ears.
Since each of the two previous installments have gone four posts each we’ll do the same as we get into the background of close communion, deal with the Biblical arguments for and against, and ask the question why and for what reasons did this activity cease to be a part of life in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, whether at Bethany or any other congregation that was around back in those days of doctrinal flux. One of things we will notice (hopefully) is how communion functioned in a somewhat different way than we may be used to today, and it will be good for all of us to think more about why the Supper is important and why it merits our time in working through the giving and receiving we do six times a year at our church.
As you can imagine the controversy over who and when and why we celebrate the Lord’s Supper has been a long-term bugaboo in the Christian world, whether we are talking about Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, or Baptists. There is a sense in which close communion is not a uniquely Presbyterian teaching. We’ll talk some more about that as we get into the nuts and bolts of the doctrine. It’s always helpful to know that we are not alone in teaching something. Seeing how other Christian denominations practice can give us some catholic support (small “c” catholic) when considering the place a matter may have in the life of our local congregation and in a wider denominational setting.
To close today we’ll leave with a statement given by our forefathers in 1871 on this doctrine that will help focus our minds as we get into more detail on the subject of close communion:
To guard against [the corruption of the Supper], it is necessary for the church to have explicit terms of communion, setting forth the doctrines of Christ and the worship and order of His house. These should be faithfully maintained; and the church cannot consistently admit to membership those who are hostile to her principles, nor to occasional communion at the Lord’s table those who cannot be received into regular membership. It would be very inconsistent, for example, to exclude A when he had applied to join, or to cast him out of the church because he holds a certain error, and then afterward admit him to the Lord’s table, because he has now joined and belongs to a church holding the very same error. By thus refusing communion with individuals and churches in error, we do not unchurch, but only testify against their departure from the faith, in hope that they may come to repentance according to the apostolic direction, ‘If any man obey not our word by the epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed; yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.’ – 2 Thessalonians 3:13-15.
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor, Bethany ARP Church