Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Review of Communion: Is It Open or Closed

Communion: Is It Open or Closed, Bobby L. Sparks, Greenville, TX: Tabernacle Ministries, 2006. 9780976127048/0976127040, 48 pp. $3.95 Overview: “Reviews the Biblical issue of whether communion is open to all believers or restricted to the members of the observing church.”

While browsing the Baptist Book Store in Texarkana for printed nuggets, I ran across Communion: Is It Open or Closed by Bobby Sparks. Brother Sparks is pastor of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Texas. His lectures on the Tabernacle have been very well received, and he is also one of few modern-day Baptist debaters. Larry Ray Hafley, reporting on the “Sparks-Campbell” debate in Mississippi wrote, “Sparks is as good a debater as the Baptists have.” Because of these reasons I was excited to get the book, which had flown under my radar to this point. I grasped it up Friday and started reading it Saturday.

Sparks divides his treatise into an introduction and 7 chapters. After his introduction he defines his terms and comes quickly to espouse and defend closed communion. The first five chapters contrast open and closed communion, giving scriptural arguments for the latter and scriptural & logical objections to the former. The last two chapters finish up with a brief discussion of the similar but competing doctrine of “close communion” and proof that closed communion is the historical position of Baptists. There is a bibliography, but it is incomplete. There is no index.

On an unnumbered recto page, Sparks overplays one of the best arguments against open communion -- 1 Corinthians 5:11 -- by its unqualified use to answer the question, “Is there a passage of Scripture that clearly states in unmistakable terms that a church is not to serve communion to all people who profess to be saved?” The answer is a resounding “Yes!” I agree. But to me this starts the booklet out on the wrong foot. Perhaps for some this will be a tantalizer to draw them into the book to see why. I am afraid that for others it could be a turn-off that causes them to close the pages and set the book aside. Why? Because that verse void of its context doesn’t “clearly state the proposition in unmistakable terms”. Studied and understood, it does. Maybe that is just me, though, that will see this is a negative. If anyone is interested enough in the topic to buy this book, surely they will be interested enough to go ahead and read it.

Sparks’s view finds a powerful ally in our Lord’s institution of His Supper -- it was not thrown open to all but rather restricted to a select few. The author rightly observes, “Not one argument that open communionists urge can be based upon the institution of the Supper by Jesus (p. 8).” He returns to mention this text on numerous occasions. Unfortunately, he never addresses any concerns as to why this observance was restricted even narrower than local-church only and what implications that might have for the local-church only view.

The author provides a direct and clear answer to the oft-raised objection, “It is the Lord’s Table.” Sparks answers, “Yes, it is the Lord’s Table. To our own tables we may invite whom we will, but servants may not give out invitations to their Master’s Table (p. 34).” He further notes that “No congregation has any authority to make the door of admission into their communion any straighter (sic) or wider than Christ Himself made it.” Of course, this argument cuts both ways, and sends us back to the Bible to see how wide or narrow Christ made the door of admission. Other complaints are addressed as well, such “do not judge,” “let a man examine himself,” and the idea that closed communion is intolerant.

The author lays out a good case to show that communion is restricted. An injunction to put an immoral man from among you, not keep company with him, to not eat with him -- even if it includes social eating -- must necessarily exclude such an one from the Lord’s Table. The heresies and divisions in 1 Corinthians 11 also provide a substantial reason for restricted communion. The connection between communion and church discipline -- and that open communion effectively nullifies church discipline -- is an important reason that communion should be restricted. Nevertheless, I don’t believe Sparks always “connects the dots” as to why to extend the restrictions to local-church only and leaves us to assume the proof is met. But why is church discipline nullified, for example, if a church only admits to communion members of other churches of like faith and order holding forth the same doctrines, and faithfully exercising church discipline on heresy and immorality? An answer to these types of concerns might well be answered in his Chapter 5, “Objections Answered.” All objections to local-church only communion do not come from those who indiscriminately throw the doors wide open!

On the other hand some of the author’s objections diminish in their power, if you are familiar with some of the churches that practice closed communion. For example, in objecting to close communion -- which within two pages Sparks curiously and contradictorily says is both “some better than” and “as bad as” open communion -- the author states “Churches that allow members of churches of their denomination to sit at the table of communion also sanction immoral living and heretical teaching.” Let me tell you straight: churches that practice local-church only communion who don’t practice church discipline (and there are those that don’t) “also sanction immoral living and heretical teaching.” This is ultimately not proof of either position, but proof that church discipline needs to be re-understood and re-established.

The last chapter, “The Historical Position of the Baptists,” might provide a good finish to this work, except for the fact that the majority historical position of the Baptists is not the one for which the author argues. It is interesting, but not necessary, to establish the majority position of Baptists historically. The task is to prove the practice scripturally. Since history is not in consistent agreement with Sparks’ proposition, this chapter detracts from rather than adds to the booklet.

The purpose of the seventh chapter is “to show that closed communion has been the historical position of the Baptists (p. 41).” I don’t doubt the author believes that to be the case, but the abundance of Baptist historical records does not prove it to be so. Even the select group of quotes that Sparks includes does not prove this to be the case. I will highlight only two: [1] “For many years the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention was that communion was restricted to the local church (p. 44).” Many Southern Baptists practiced local-church communion. Others did not. As far as an official position, one must consider the convention-wide statement of faith adopted in 1925, which reads, “It [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of a church relation and to the Lord’s Supper, in which the members of the church, by the use of bread and wine, commemorate the dying love of Christ.” While one might interpret this to mean local-church only communion, it does not specifically say so. It leaves enough ambiguity for differences. Nor do any of the Southern Baptist quotes given on pages 44-47 explicitly limit communion only to members of the local church observing the ordinance. Some of the writers quoted may have believed that, but their quotes don’t necessarily say that. Saying that church membership is a prerequisite to communion is not the same as saying that membership in the church observing the ordinance is prerequisite to communion. [2] “It has been the official position of the American Baptist Association from its inception that the Lord’s Supper was restricted to only the members of each local church (p. 47).” Again, the author fails to give the evidence to prove his proposition, whether it be so or not. Rather than quoting documents “from its inception” Sparks quotes a more recent iteration of the ABA Doctrinal Statement that explicitly states what he believes. In contrast, the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833) and a 12 item addendum that was adopted by the ABA in 1924 do not clearly limit participation in the Lord’s Supper to local church members only.

I have judged Brother Sparks book rather harshly. Perhaps to some extent because I feel he is capable of much better. In the historical chapter, I just don’t understand what he was doing. For example, there were Southern Baptists who could have been quoted embracing strict local-church only communion in clearer terms, yet he does not use such direct quotes. I still recommend this book. It has some good material and high points that are beneficial to the understanding of restricted communion, and some arguments that are not spelled out as well by others. I hope some editorial attention will be attached to typographical and formatting errors (e.g. the words “Chapter Five” appear at the bottom of page 31 instead of as the heading on p. 32) before it is reprinted. It may be purchased from Bogard Press, Tabernacle Ministries or Christian

My conclusion is that this book may well fortify the faithful who already believe in closed communion, but may have too many loose ends to convince the cynical who do not accept it.

* J. W. Griffith, historian, pastor and mentor, told me that of the old preachers in the Mt. Zion Association (a local association of churches affiliated with the ABA), there was only one who advocated strict local-church only communion. By the old preachers, he meant the generation of preachers before his preacher father’s generation -- men who were born roughly from the late 1850s to the 1870s, and who passed off the scene from the 1920s to the 1940s.

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