I’ve been teaching on the Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper now for several weeks in Sunday Morning Bible class. Over and over again the discussion turns to our practice of closed communion. There seems to be great misunderstanding about this practice among even conservative Lutherans. “We practice it, but we have no idea why” seems to be the general feeling. People have asked some great questions, and it has given me the chance to highlight some of the main reasons for our practice. Here is a summary of what I have taught so far on the issue:
- Closed Communion is practiced out of faithfulness to Christ’s Word and out of love for the souls of communicants. When you read 1 Corinthians 11, it becomes immediately apparent that Paul is displeased with divisions at the altar. “When you come together, I hear there are divisions among you.” There should not be division at the Supper. For Christ is One, and His body is One. To admit someone who has not first been instructed and examined as to his or her faith and confession is to introduce potential division at the one place where the greatest unity is to be found.
- Practicing closed communion is the ecclesiastically responsible thing to do. Should someone who does not agree with our common confession, or worse yet, someone who is in doubt or denies the very thing that he is receiving, come to the altar and receive Holy Communion, it could be spiritually harmful to the one receiving it. It is, after all, more than just bread and wine that is received into the mouth of each communicant. It is the true Body and Blood of Christ. It is the holy thing, and we have no authority to give it to whomever we please. St. Paul says that if anyone eats of the bread or drinks of the cup in an unworthy manner, he will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of Christ, not guilty of sinning against mere bread and wine. Better to err on the side of caution, and see to it that the stranger who comes to your altar is catechized first. Otherwise, you may be, to use the language Matthew’s Gospel, casting pearls before swine.
- To those who would be offended by this practice, or think that it is a new or novel thing that we are doing, or just some remnant of our “German” heritage, do some reading. You will find plenty of literature that will tell you just the opposite. As early as the second century, Justin Martyr indicates that no one was allowed to eat of the Eucharist unless they have first been washed (baptized) and unless they agree with their teaching. It is also necessary that they are not living a scandalous life, contrary to the Word of Christ. Already in the Book of Hebrews, it is clear that Jews who did not believe in Christ were not allowed to eat from the Christian altar. “We have an altar from which those who serve the Tent have no right to eat.”
- We make a public confession when we receive Holy Communion at a Church’s altar. We are declaring our agreement with the confession of faith made by that church. This is why a member of an LC-MS congregation ought not receive the bread or the Cup of the Lord from anyone other than a properly called and ordained LC-MS pastor unless he wants to join that church. And this is also why we do not admit to the altar someone who has not been formally received into communicant membership of our church or another LC-MS congregation. Even if someone says before church, “Pastor, I agree with everything you have just told me. I believe the same thing you do,” it would still be unwise, in my opinion, to say, “Fine, come to the Supper.” If that person truly does embrace our common confession of faith, in all its articles, then (to use the words of one of my members today), let him prove it by leaving a heterodox church and joining ours.
- Communion Fellowship is Church Fellowship and vice versa. There are people I know who are not in the LC-MS that agree wholeheartedly with me on the fundamental articles of Christian Doctrine. And yet, because our churches and pastors have not officially extended the right hand of fellowship to them, I don’t believe that I have the authority to be “selective” in whom I commune, all other factors being equal.
I’m sure there are other points that will be brought up in the course of our dialog. I hope that I can offer a sound explanation to those in our congregation who still struggle with this practice. These are just a few of the things we have covered so far. Most of all, I have tried to emphasize that this is truly a loving practice. Out of love and reverence for Christ and His holy Sacrament, and out of love for the souls of communicants, we invite to the Lord’s Supper members of Immanuel and sister congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and affiliated church bodies.