Friday, July 11, 2014

Did the Early Christians Practice "Open Commuion?"

One of the more controversial teachings of the Catholic Church (and one not shared by many, if any, Protestant denominations) is what is called "closed Communion." This is the practice whereby only Catholics in a state of grace may receive Communion during the Mass. While this teaching might sound harsh, it dates back to the very beginnings of the Church and is a necessary consequence of taking Jesus at His word when He said, "this is my body" (not "this isn't my body, its just an oddly chosen symbol"). The earliest Christians were very vigilant in making clear this perennial teaching of historic, orthodox Christianity. Indeed, the early Christians, much like Catholic priests and bishops today, were even instructed to "drive off" notorious (i.e. public) sinners (as they are today, see Canon 915). One such man, St. John Chrysostom, born in the mid-fourth century, gave a striking homily bringing out just these points. Let's listen in (emphasis mine).
These things I say to you that receive, and to you that minister. For it is necessary to address myself to you also, that you may with much care distribute the gifts there. There is no small punishment for you, if being conscious of any wickedness in any man, you allow him to partake of this table. His blood shall be required at your hands. (Ezekiel 33:8)...  You, if you were entrusted to keep a spring of water clean for a flock, and then were to see a sheep having much mire on its mouth, you would not suffer it to stoop down unto it and foul the stream: but now being entrusted with a spring not of water, but of blood and of spirit, if you see any having on them sin, which is more grievous than earth and mire, coming unto it, are you not displeased? Do you not drive them off? And what excuse can you have?
For this end God has honored you with this honor, that you should discern these things. This is your office, this your safety, this your whole crown, not that you should go about clothed in a white and shining vestment.
And whence know I, you may say, this person, and that person? I speak not of the unknown, but of the notorious.
Shall I say something more fearful.... For he that has fallen into sin and draws near, is worse than one possessed with a devil. For they, because they are possessed are not punished, but those, when they draw near unworthily, are delivered over to undying punishment....
Let no one communicate who is not of the disciples. Let no Judas receive, lest he suffer the fate of Judas. This multitude also is Christ's body. Take heed, therefore, you that ministerest at the mysteries, lest you provoke the Lord, not purging this body. Give not a sword instead of meat....
But if you dare not to do it yourself, bring him to me; I will not allow any to dare do these things. I would give up my life rather than impart of the Lord's blood to the unworthy; and will shed my own blood rather than impart of such awful blood contrary to what is meet.
But if any has not known the bad man, after much inquiry, it is no blame. For these things have been said about the open sinners. For if we amend these, God will speedily discover to us the unknown also; but if we let these alone, wherefore should He then make manifest those that are hidden.
But these things I say, not that we repel them only, nor cut them off, but in order that we may amend them, and bring them back, that we may take care of them. For thus shall we both have God propitious, and shall find many to receive worthily; and for our own diligence, and for our care for others, receive great reward; unto which God grant we may all attain by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory world without end. Amen. (Homily LXXXII on the Gospel of Matthew)
The early Church practiced the same general guidelines in the centuries immediately following the life of Christ as it does today. The idea of an "open communion" of "merely symbolic" bread and wine to demonstrate "table fellowship" was unheard of and would have been considered sacrilegious and heretical. Our Catholic discipline surrounding reception of the Eucharist may not be presently popular, but it is the practice of the Church from the beginning.

John Chyrsostom
St. John Chrysostom, pray for us!


  1. There was a funeral mass in my small NJ town some years back attended by a variety of Christians. The priest announced that only Catholics in the state of grace could receive communion and that caused some hard feelings. It was argued that extending the invitation to all would be a comfort to the grieving,

    But all Western Christians "guard the table" based on age. Infants and young children even of active, believing members do not receive communion. (Eastern Orthodox are the exception but they have their own sets of restrictions) Typically, this reality is obscured by monthly / quarterly communion services rather than weekly / daily and "children's church" - youth are simply NOT in the sanctuary when communion is distributed.

    So, "open communion" isn't as widespread among Christians as Protestants would like to make it seem. There's nothing wrong with guarding the table, everyone does it to some degree.

    1. Well stated, Moonshadow. The questions for those arguing that the Eucharist should be given to all as a "comfort" would be, "what is the Eucharist?" and "what is the Eucharist for?" My guess is that those answers would *not* be orthodox, which is the bigger problem. Confusion over the Eucharist and its role in the Church has lead to a lot of misunderstanding.