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by John Hutchins

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Tyrel Bramwell. Come In, We Are Closed. Reverend Raconteur, 2018. 146 pp. Paperback, $9.99. ISBN: 978-1717081858.

come in we are closed tyrel bramwellOn All Saints Day, we remember that ever since our Lord ascended into heaven, he has been sending his Holy Spirit to gather, sanctify and strengthen all who believe in him. We thank him that in spite of our diverse backgrounds, in Christ we may “attain to the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:13). Tragically, it often appears that the Christian church has more disunity than concord. Two weeks ago, the Russian Orthodox Church broke communion fellowship with the Greek Orthodox Church. Whether in history books, current events or personal experience, closed communion (the practice of giving communion to those of similar beliefs, but withholding it from those of other beliefs) may strike the modern ear as backward and divisive. As possibly the first fiction book written explicitly about the topic, Come In, We Are Closed describes closed communion as central to Christian doctrine and challenges the modern reader’s assumptions and experiences.

Pastor and author Tyrel Bramwell engages the reader using the Socratic tradition of a fictional dialogue between the speaker (a truth-seeker) and a mentor (who explains closed communion). Bramwell illuminates the chance encounter between the two with vivid sensory descriptions and character development. The seeker asks the questions we all have, and the mentor, who has a few surprises of his own, exudes a warmth that is at once familiar and peculiar. As a skilled storyteller, Bramwell orchestrates the prose to both entertain a wide audience and underscore the message. Come In, We Are Closed is a refreshing story in a field dominated by monochrome theological books, carrying the reader along with the characters as they explore closed communion together.

Come In, We Are Closed mentions some of the disparity between 21st century American evangelicalism and other Christian traditions. In particular, the early church practiced communion very differently than we do today. Picture a church that distributed the Lord’s Supper behind closed doors and posted guard, both against visitors who believed false teachings and against the authorities who would execute practicing Christians (Didascalia, c. 230 AD). Or picture a church where the words “Take, eat: this is my body” were a mystery the new believer could only hear after 40 days of prayer, fasting and catechism, baptism on Easter morning, and rejoining the congregation for first communion (First Apology of Justin Martyr, c. 155 AD). We admire the faith and example of these persecuted Christians, and we also see they practiced communion exclusively: however well-meaning, those who were heterodox (that is, they held to different doctrines than the church did) were not allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper. Even today, the majority of Christians outside America belong to church bodies (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and some “confessional” Protestant churches) that practice closed communion.

In a sense, Come In, We Are Closed holds a mirror up so that the reader may consider his or her reaction to closed communion, both in theory and practice. The mentor poses questions such as “Why do you find [open communion] welcoming?” (p. 66). Through this mirror, Bramwell leads the reader to consider the nature of Jesus’ death, the ministry of the gospel in the church and his or her own presuppositions. The truth-seeker’s challenges to closed communion often center on the universality of God’s love: if Jesus died for everybody and salvation is for all who believe, why would a church not make communion available for everyone who believes, regardless of what church tradition they belong to? These objections are important and Come In, We are Closed addresses them with scriptures and analogies.

The mentor in the story brings up well-known Scriptures about the Lord’s Supper including 1 Corinthians 11, Matthew 26 and John 6, as well as lesser known verses such as Hebrews 13:10 and 1 Corinthians 10:16-22. These Scriptures suggest that an exclusive unity of faith accompanies the sharing of Jesus’ true body and blood.

In a conversational tone, Come In, We Are Closed portrays communion as a rehearsal for the wedding feast of heaven—at the wedding rehearsal we must be invited, send back the RSVP, and wear the right clothes (p. 29). The mentor also compares it to the gym: in communion the Christian exercises the “faith muscle” of taking God at his word to receive a miraculous promise, even when God’s ways seem ordinary on the surface (p. 113). Although imperfect, these analogies help the reader begin to comprehend God’s unfathomable grace, as well as the importance of unifying around a profession of Jesus’ presence in the Lord’s Supper.

The title Come In, We Are Closed succinctly describes the goal of closed communion. A church which only distributes the supper to those with a common confession of faith is in fact beckoning visitors to a more complete fellowship, instead of contenting itself with a fellowship consisting in smiles and small talk. The cross does not leave us in our sinful lives, it transfers us to fellowship with his people (the saints) and transforms us into holy people (sanctification). “Believe it or not, closed communion isn’t meant to keep folks from participating in the Lord’s Supper, but to get them to His Table where they can receive God’s gifts” (p. 20). It teaches that doctrine matters, that unity of faith is really possible and that Christ sets apart our lives and relationships as holy. It challenges our western claims of entitlement, equal opportunity and self-determination. Most importantly, closed communion brings Jesus’ body and blood, broken and shed for us, into our mouths and into our life together in order to strengthen our faith and love.

Come In, We Are Closed also recognizes examples, both past and present, where some have wielded closed communion for political power or abuse. Churches that practice closed communion must carefully guard against the temptation to use the “keys of the kingdom” as political tools. Communion is Christ’s free gift. Any pastors or priests who keep believers from the altar for their own control are no better than the Corinthian Christians Paul criticizes for shutting out the hungry believers.

The characters discover that, in spite of its misuses, closed communion is an ancient and salutary practice that seeks to communicate the truth of the cross.  No matter the reader’s own background or view on communion, Come In, We Are Closed gives an important perspective on the Lord’s Supper: God gives abundant love and singular faith to unite Christians together.