Tag Archives: Lord’s Supper

A Must-Read Paper on the Lord’s Supper

by Matt Pinson

Cory Thompson, pastor of First Free Will Baptist Church of Poteau Oklahoma, presented a well-researched paper on the meaning and participants of the Lord’s Supper entitled, “The Lord’s Supper as Meaningful and Open.” The main use of this paper for Free Will Baptists is his discussion of open communion, a historic, distinctive confessional commitment of Free Will Baptists.

Thompson explains that this has been the main division on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper between Free Will Baptists and Baptists from Calvinistic historical backgrounds (this would include those once-saved, always-saved Baptists who do not subscribe to all five points of Calvinism, but who nonetheless emerge from a denominational background of confessional Calvinism).

Most Baptists have historically held to closed communion, not opening the Lord’s Table to those who have not been properly baptized. Free Will Baptists of the Palmer movement in the South, Freewill Baptists of the Randall movement in the North, and the American General Baptist movement, on the contrary, have practiced open communion, opening the Lord’s Table even to those orthodox believers who have received effusion or aspersion as either infants or adults. This doctrinal development in America is interesting, given that there was no consensus on this question among Baptists in seventeenth-century England, with both General (Arminian) Baptists and Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists having both open and closed communionists in their fellowships.   

Thompson discusses the drift of non-Arminian Baptists toward an open communion stance but explains that this is borne more of theological drift than of doctrinal study and conviction. There is, however, a revival of interest among Baptists in closed communion, owing to that movement’s retrieving their confessional tradition of faith and practice. The drift, however, has not been confined to non-Arminian Baptists or those from closed-communion backgrounds. We have experienced it as well. Thompson states:

The transition of many traditionally closed communion Baptists is likely not due to the exegetical and theological validity of the open communion view, but to the rise of consumerism, pragmatism, tolerance, and liberal drift in the church.  And if the closed communion churches are drifting to open communion, where are traditional open communion churches drifting?  It is not unusual to attend a Communion service where the importance and sacredness of the event is undermined by no discussion of the gospel the elements represent, no call for self-examination, or it is conducted in hurried or cavalier manner. Unfortunately, this scenario is commonly reflected in churches holding the open communion position. The historical significance and theological meaning of open communion is in danger of being lost. The term was once equated with a hospitable orthodoxy, accepting all gospel-centered believers to the Lord’s Table.  Now it is associated with watered-down and liberal theology. With this in mind, it is necessary to articulate a biblical, theological, and meaningful view of open communion in order to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Table (42).[1]

Thompson presents an engaging, scholarly doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, the best Free Will Baptist presentation, in my opinion, in the past century. He begins with an exegetical treatment of his topic. From the New Testament passages on the Supper, Thompson defends a traditional Baptist understanding that eschews real-presence or sacramental understandings of the practice, but is not a bare memorialism. Thus, the Lord’s Supper richly and beautifully remembers, symbolizes, and reenacts Christ’s substitutionary atonement and its salvific benefits, but it is also a corporate communion of the faithful that proclaims the gospel, “ensures the regular rhythm of repentance and faith,” and focuses on the church’s eschatological hope. Thompson rightly chides recent authors for underemphasizing the communal aspects of the Lord’s Supper. He includes my own writing in this admonition, and he is right: we have been guilty of not emphasizing enough the public, communal aspects of the Eucharist.

One of the most significant features of his exegetical section is his treatment of the “examine yourself” language in 1 Corinthians 11, especially in the context of open communion. “It is wrongly assumed by some open communion advocates,” he argues, “that the call for self-examination is only an individual concern or a person is their sole judge, therefore, no administrator or congregation reserves the right to forbid” (51). But he argues that this is a misinterpretation of the passage. This gets to the heart of the most important part of Thompson’s paper, where he probes the Free Will Baptist open communion view and attempts to reinvest it with its original intent.

Thompson rightly argues that open communion has devolved in much recent practice into an individualistic doctrine that basically says that it is between the individual and God whether or not the individual has a right to participation in the Lord’s Supper, unless he is under church discipline. Even converts who have never been “baptized”[2] under any mode may be permitted to the Table in this view: This is between God and the individual believer, and individual belief and conversion is the only prerequisite for participation.

Thompson argues that this is a move away from the historic view. Rather, the original intent of open communion was to allow orthodox Christians who differed on the doctrine of baptism to commune at the Lord’s Table. The idea was that one’s error on the meaning and mode of baptism should not keep him from being able to commune as a true believer at the Lord’s Table. Thus the import or the slogan “Baptism no bar to the Table” is not saying that it does not matter whether one is baptized or not, but that if one has been “baptized” in a church that does not practice believer’s baptism by immersion, he or she can still be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.

Thompson cites John J. Butler, the foremost theologian of the Randall Movement of Free Baptists in the North. Butler argued that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be limited to those “who are in regular standing in any evangelical church” (58). He averred that “it is the duty of all persons, on obtaining a hope in Christ to become connected with some visible church; if they refuse or neglect to do so, they live in disobedience, and one living in known disobedience cannot be recognized as a Christian” (58). Membership in a local congregation “affords prima facie evidence of Christian character and entitles one holding it to the communion in any evangelical church.” Butler says, “The practice of some in allowing professed converts before uniting with the church . . . is to be condemned.”[3] To be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, one’s membership should be in a congregation that holds “both theoretically and practically the doctrines essential to salvation.”[4]

Thompson also cites the 1834 Randall Treatise, which states: “It is the usual practice of our connection, at the time of communion, to invite all Christians of good standing in any evangelical church, to partake with us; as, in general such persons only are known as true believers.”[5]

(Thompson was researching open communion in the Palmer movement but was unable to include it in the paper in time for his presentation. In subsequent correspondence, I shared with him that the Palmer movement was in agreement with his position. One instance of this that I shared with him was the section on “What Free Will Baptists Believe—and Why” in Thad Harrison and J. M. Barfield’s History of the Free Will Baptists of North Carolina.[6]) As Thompson summarizes, “When the congregation approaches the Lord’s Table the administrator should warn unbelievers not to partake, lead the congregation to self-examination, and invite all Christians who are members in good standing of a gospel-centered church.”

Thompson has presented the Free Will Baptist Church with an outstanding introduction to the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper from a confessional Free Will Baptist vantage point. His primary contribution to the Free Will Baptist conversation is his insistence that, even as we advocate open communion, we need to restore the meaning and significance of this beautiful practice in the worship of the church. Furthermore, we need to question whether individualism has moved us toward a “me and Jesus, we got our own thing going” approach to open communion and move back to the doctrine’s original intent as inviting all Christians in good standing, regardless of their denominational affiliation and thus their doctrine of the meaning and mode of baptism, to the Table of Our Lord. (I think we need to try to persuade Mr. Thompson to writing a doctoral dissertation on this topic.)

Thompson is part of a widespread movement of younger Free Will Baptists who want to engage in “renewal through retrieval” in an attempt to renew and reform the Free Will Baptist Church by retrieving the best of our Sufficiency-of-Scripture-saturated tradition. Every Free Will Baptist minister interested in this vital project should read this paper.  


[1] Page numbers follow the listing in the Symposium Digest.

[2] The reason I place “baptized” in quotation marks is because Baptists believe the Bible teaches that only believer’s baptism by immersion constitutes authentic baptism.

[3] John J.  Butler, “An Examination of the Terms of Admission to the Lord’s Supper,” in The Free Communionist or Unrestricted  Communion of The Lord’s Supper With All True Believers Advocated; And Objections of Restricted Communionsts Considered: In Four Essays (Dover:  Free Will Baptist Connection, 1841), 41-44. Italics added by Thompson. 

[4] Butler, Natural and Revealed Theology, 428. 

[5] 1834 Randall Treatise, 110.

[6] (Ayden, NC: Free Will Baptist Press, 1898), 155-78.

2017 Symposium Recap: Joshua Colson on Calvin’s View of the Supper

 Matt Pinson

Josh Colson presented a well-written paper at the 2017 Theological Symposium on Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper. The purpose of the paper was to study Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper and make applications to the Protestant debate on the Supper, with special reference to the General/Free Will Baptist tradition.

Colson briefly discussed the main views against which the Reformed churches were reacting. He summarized the Roman Catholic understanding of transubstantiation, which sees the bread and the wine in the Supper as being transformed into the body and blood of Christ when the priest consecrates it at the celebration of the Mass. He also considered the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper, that, although the elements are not transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ, Christ’s body and blood are still really, mysteriously present in the elements.

Colson followed this discussion with a summary of the Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper, which is known commonly as the “memorialist” view. He described Zwingli as advancing a view of the Lord’s Supper that emphasizes “this do in remembrance of me” to the exclusion of any consideration of the presence of Christ in the Supper.

The paper then explained Calvin’s view, which differs from all the above views and says that Christ’s body and blood are spiritually present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Colson sees Calvin’s view as a via media (middle way) between Luther’s and Zwingli’s views.

Though the historical summary was helpful, the most thought-provoking part of Colson’s paper was the application section. His comments were particularly applicable for Free Will Baptists since he quoted from some English General Baptist sources that seem to espouse a view of the Lord’s Supper that sounds closer to Calvin’s “spiritual presence” view than to a mere memorialism. Colson rightly quoted John Hammett’s clever statement that often the modern Evangelical and Baptist (mis)understanding of the Lord’s Supper is an over-reaction against “real presence,” resulting in “real absence.”

The application part of Colson’s paper justly brings into question the way many modern Evangelicals have relegated the Lord’s Supper to an unimportant, rote practice that is unceremoniously and often unthoughtfully tacked on to the end of a service occasionally, one that robs the ordinance of its reverential, ritual significance in the life of the church. Colson was effective in making the argument that our Free Will Baptist ancestors approached the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with far more gravity and far more spiritual preparation than many modern Evangelicals.

“This line of thinking,” Colson argued, “has reduced the Supper and the other ordinances of the church to ‘bare’ symbols—a far cry from the traditional Baptistic understanding of the ordinances noted earlier. The key, then, is not to strip the ordinances of their spiritual significance (i.e., explain how Christ is not present); rather, Baptists should state positively how Christ is present in the Supper and the other ordinances which He and His apostles instituted.”

This is, unfortunately, a not-uncommon occurrence. One often hears a sermon before a baptism or before the Lord’s Supper describing what the ordinance is not rather than what the ordinance rightly and powerfully and beautifully is. Colson and others might wish to examine the rich history of “preparatory sermons” which were practiced by Puritans of various types and by Free Will Baptists (including my own ministerial grandfather into the 1980s), which were designed to prepare the congregation for “rightly” eating the Supper of the Lord together. Interestingly, the Puritan minister and poet Edward Taylor turned some of his own prose preparatory sermons into exquisite poetry; such poems reveal a great deal about the significance that was attached to preparation for this regular ritual observance—both by the Puritans generally and by our English General Baptist ancestors also. (I owe these insights to my colleague Darrell Holley.)

While space and topic did not call for it in this paper, in a future study, Colson will no doubt want to probe more deeply the Zwinglian doctrine of the Lord’s Supper—which is certainly more than “bare memorialism.” The key difference between Zwingli (and the early Anabaptists and Baptists that followed his lead) and Calvin was not that the former denied that Christ was spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper. Instead, it was Calvin’s unfortunate sacramentalism that they balked at—the view that the Supper was, in some way, a vehicle of saving grace, as seen, for example, in the Heidelberg Catechism’s statement that in the Supper we are “nourished to everlasting life.” Zwinglians (and Anabaptists and Baptists) have usually avoided this sort of language. Nonetheless, when at their best, they have always wanted to stress that Christ was indeed present in the Supper—indeed, in all of the appointed practices (ordinances) of the church when properly prepared for, when properly observed, and when properly used as obligatory liturgical “dramas” presenting in powerful symbolic form some of the most profound doctrines of the faith.

Mr. Colson has served us very well by forcing us to think deeply about the Lord’s Supper and our practice of it. Prayerful reflection on these matters will no doubt motivate Free Will Baptists to treat the Supper with the awe-filled reverence and dignity and spiritual mystery that historically accompanied the ordinance in our tradition. In this—as in so many other areas—right thinking will lead to right acting, and then right acting will reinforce right thinking. With the right preparation, all the teachings of the Lord for His Church—including the Lord’s Supper—can result in theological instruction and spiritual nourishment. We can begin to see the Supper truly as communion: on the horizontal level, as a communion of Christ’s people together and, on the vertical level, as a communion with the Lord Himself in a spiritually nourishing feast, a feast which compels them to remember the sacrifice of His body and blood, and the spiritual change that sacrifice has wrought in their lives.

Joshua Colson: Calvin’s View of the Supper