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Holy Communion or Unholy Chaos?

October 21st, 2007
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How is it possible that the most holy night of our Lord’s life has
given rise to dissension and disunity in Christendom? How can it be that our Lord’s sacred meal has become the cause of turmoil, confusion and a splintering of fellowship among Christians who trace their theological ancestry to Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva or Zurich?

What should the church’s response to this disunity be? There are two
options. The first option is the response of historic Christianity: To
lament the disunity, to pray and to work for agreement, but until genuine
agreement is reached, to avoid communing together in order to avoid giving expression to a unity that does not yet exist. The second option is the response of the Ecumenical Movement: To assert that in spite of a lack of unity in the confession of the truth faith, Christian churches commune
together. The Ecumenical Movement’s use of the Lord’s Supper as a tool toward union has turned Holy Communion into an unholy chaos.

The New Testament and Early Church Understanding of Fellowship
Historically, the Christian church did not recognize the
distinctions we know of today. The individual Christian was not considered a
"free agent" when it came to where he communed. The early church clearly
understood that church fellowship was a matter of a church’s corporate
confession, not merely an expression of an individuals personal opinions.
Thus, Arians did not receive the Sacrament at a congregation that stood for
Nicene orthodoxy and Athanasian Christians would not commune at Arian
altars. The early church recognized that church fellowship and the
expression of that fellowship was always a matter of fellowship in the means
by which Christ creates and sustains His church-the preaching of the Gospel
and the administration of the Holy Sacraments. Unlike our present age, any
question about what an individual Christian believed, or stood for, was
decided based on where that person regularly received the Sacrament of Holy

This was the early church’s understanding because it is the Biblical
understanding of fellowship in the Faith. The early Christians were
"fervently devoted to the apostles’ doctrine, and to the fellowship, to the
breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Historic Christianity has
known true fellowship only and exclusively in the objective reality of the
fellowship God creates and sustains through His Word and His Sacraments. Our
fellowship is first with God, and then with one another (1 John 1:7). Thus,
the first Christians gathered around the Word (the apostle’s doctrine) and
around the Eucharist (the breaking of bread), in the context of an orderly
pattern of liturgical worship (the prayers).

Because fellowship in the church is always a matter of common
reception of the Lord’s gifts, the church recognized that divisions were not
to be permitted at the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord’s Apostle, St. Paul, made
that point clear when he scolded the Corinthians for their disorderly
worship practices and slovenly use of the Lord’s Supper. "It is not the
Lord’s Supper that you eat" (1 Cor. 11:20). Thus, if there is disunity in
confession at the altar, how can there be true communion? St. Paul taught
that fellowship in what is eaten at a given altar is clearly a fellowship in
what that altar represents and stands for (1 Cor. 10:18). To eat at an altar
representing error is to have fellowship in that error. What is more, Paul
declared that the cup blessed in the Lord’s Supper, is nothing less than
fellowship in the very blood of Christ Himself, and the bread distributed is
a fellowship in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-16). Thus, whoever eats
this bread or drinks of this cup in an unworthy manner is guilty of
profaning the very body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:27).

For both New Testament and early Christians, fellowship in the Lord’s Supper
was fellowship in the actual body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, thus,
says St. Paul, "we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one
bread" which is "the body" of the Lord. (1 Cor. 10:17; 1 Cor. 11:27). The
ancient church had a beautiful expression for this. Before the Sacrament was
offered to the people, the priest would say, "The holy things for the holy
ones" (ta hagia tois hagiois Greek: tav a{gia toi`~ aJgivoi~). The early
Christians clearly understood that church fellowship is always fellowship
first in the holy things of Christ which alone make us His holy people.
What then of the Apostle’s assertion that Christians are to examine
themselves before they commune (1 Cor. 11:28,) and his further assertion
that Christian ministers are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor.
4:1)? Orthodox Christianity, of both East and West, has always held that
these two important truths require a practice that is known as closed
communion. The expression "closed communion" comes from the ancient church
custom of dismissing those who were not eligible to receive the Sacrament
before the beginning of the liturgy of the eucharist. The dismissal of
non-communicants would occur and then a deacon would cry out, "The doors!
The doors!" The church doors were then literally closed. Closed communion is
the practice of limiting participation in the Lord’s Supper to those who
have been catechized and examined in the truths of the Christian faith and
who have promised to believe, teach and confess what the church in which
they will commune believes, teaches and confesses. Thus, for the New
Testament and Early Church, altar fellowship was church fellowship and
church fellowship is most visibly and tangibly expressed in altar

Reformation Understandings of Fellowship
Luther was concerned that communicants be examined carefully in
order to determine if they understood what the Lord’s Supper actually is and
what is given in the Supper. Luther regarded participation in the Lord’s
Supper as an act of confession of what one believes. So did Calvin, who
wrote in his Institutes that it was an outrageous act to permit those who
had not confessed the true faith to commune (Institutio IV.12, 5). When
Christians in Strasbourg signed the Wittenberg Concord thus formally
embracing the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper, Reformed Christians in
Zurich did not permit their students to receive the sacrament in Strasbourg.
In 1580 it is reported that Reformed preachers in Oldenburg required
communicants to confess that the Body and Blood of Christ were not present
in the Holy Sacrament.ii

Many Christian churches today view the Lord’s Supper, at best, as
only a way for Christians to commune "spiritually" with Jesus Christ who is
present only in heaven. Furthermore, many believe that the presence of
Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar depends on the faith of the individual
communicant. These views are found in the teachings of both Zwingli and
Calvin. Therefore, most Evangelical and Protestant Christians today do not
believe, as Luther and the Lutheran Confessions clearly do, that in the
Lord’s Supper the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of
Christ which is present, distributed and received into the mouths of all who
receive the Blessed Sacrament.iii

Echoing the famous words of John Calvin in the Zurich Consensus,
most Protestant churches today would assert:

It is particularly necessary to reject every idea of a local presence. For
as the signs are present in this world and are perceived with the eyes and
touched with the hands, so Christ, as man, is nowhere but in heaven and is
to be sought in no other way than by the mind and the understanding of
faith. For this reason it is a perverse and impious superstition to enclose
him under elements of this world.iv

It is precisely this "perverse and impious superstition" that is
taught by Apostolic Scripture, confessed by early Christian orthodoxy, and
still asserted as the only proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper by
Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and confessionally orthodox Lutheran
churches. When the claim is made (usually by Calvinists) that Lutheran and
Reformed Christians are not disagreeing that Christ is present in His
Supper, but only disagreeing over "how" He is present, one need only compare
the following quotation from Luther’s Brief Confession to Calvin’s remarks.

I consider them all as belonging together . . . who will not believe that
the Lord’s bread in the Supper is his true, natural body, which the godless
or Judas receive orally as well as St. Peter and all the saints. Whoever, I
say, will not believe this, will please let me alone and expect no
fellowship from me. This is final.v

To this day, orthodox, confessional Lutherans assert that Christ is
actually present in the sacramental bread and wine, according to both His
human and Divine natures, even as He promised to be when He took bread and
said, "This is my body." Why did the Lutherans in the 16th century refuse
church fellowship with both radical Zwinglianism and also moderate
Calvinism? Why did they refuse to do this even when within their own ranks
they were willing to tolerate a variety of theories on how Christ was
actually present under the bread and wine of the Eucharist? Because the
Lutherans insisted on only one thing: namely, the acknowledgment that the
body and blood of Christ are actually and truly present under the bread and
wine of the Lord’s Supper.

My point in asserting the clear difference between Lutherans and
Reformed is not to anger my Reformed and non-Lutheran friends, but rather to
indicate that there are in fact very serious differences between us, not
trifling and inconsequential "diversities" in opinion. The same can be said
about differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Lutherans, with all
evangelical Christians, reject the Roman Catholic teaching that the Mass is
the unbloody, propitiatory sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood for the
forgiveness of sins, of both the living and the dead. This is our most
important disagreement with the Roman church over the Lord’s Supper.
In spite of our differences with Rome, few Christians committed to
true reconciliation of doctrinal differences would disagree with the
statement found in the Roman Catholic Church’s new catechism. "The more
painful the experience of divisions in the Church which break the common
participation in the table of the Lord the more urgent are our prayers to
the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may
return."vi The point to be made, and defended, is that the precious gift of
our Lord’s Supper has been turned into unholy chaos with the advent of the
modern Ecumenical Movement. This is the second option for responding to
differences in the understanding of the Lord’s Supper, the option to which
we now turn.

The Ecumenical Movement’s Understanding of Altar Fellowship
The 20th century Ecumenical Movement began with a missionary
conference in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. This beginning stage reached its
culmination at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948
in Amsterdam. During these earlier years a concern for consensus in doctrine
was much more discernible than today. After 1948 the WCC began to distance
itself from attempts to resolve doctrinal difference. As the WCC’s own book
on the subject notes, "The Orthodox and Roman Catholic [churches] emphasized
the need for unity in faith and tended to favor a methodology of . . .
theological conversations, even as others were stressing solidarity in the
social-political crises of the day."vii In more recent years, the WCC
concedes that the emphasis is now on pluralism, that is, "the dialogue of
cultures and ideologies within the now-global church"viii Then comes this
remarkably candid statement, "Until 1968 (or thereabouts), diversity was
seen more as a problem to be resolved than as a characteristic of genuine
unity (despite the frequent assertions that ‘unity does not mean
uniformity’). This began quickly to change."ix

The Ecumenical Movement views the Lord’s Supper as a tool to
strengthen and develop an understanding of fellowship in the faith that is
not seen as "uniformity but a communion of rich diversity." Furthermore, the
Ecumenical Movement is intent on "eliminating polemic and [furthering]
mutual understanding, reconciliation and the healing of memories" (emphasis
added).x In spite of pious protestations to the contrary, one is hard
pressed, considering the evidence of the unholy chaos in ecumenical
arrangements that exists, to view such a claim as anything other than a call
to simply "forget" those memories that stand in the way of fellowship. These
"memories" are, for confessionally sensitive Christians, the living voice of
Jesus in the church today, who says, "This is my body." What the Lord has
said can not be forgotten, overlooked, marginalized, or downplayed for the
sake of unity.

This brings us to today. To illustrate the unholy chaos of the
Ecumenical Movement one need only review the most recent ecumenical
decisions by four American Protestant denominations. In August of 1977 the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America declared itself to be in full
communion with the Presbyterian Church-USA, the Reformed Church in American
and the United Church of Christ. The formula of agreement that brought about
this sweeping union of Lutheran and Reformed churches acknowledges that
agreement in what the Lord’s Supper actually is was not the basis for full
communion, a contradiction apparent to all but those who support these
ecumenical decisions. Thus we read from the text of the agreement:

"It has not been possible to reconcile the confessional formulations from
the sixteenth century with a ‘common language which could do justice to all
the insights, convictions, and concerns of our ancestors in the faith’ (A
Common Calling, p. 49). However the theological conversations recognized
those enduring differences as acceptable diversities with regard to the
Lord’s Supper…affirming that those differences are not church-dividing,
but are complementary"xi

The differences that exist, and have existed since the 16th century,
are no longer viewed as divisive. The Ecumenical Movement’s commitment to
embracing diversity, rather than resolving differences, has born full fruit
here in the United States with this sweeping ecumenical agreement on the
part of Lutherans and Reformed churches.

The two-fold response to divisions among Christians remains yet
today. Christians may either devote themselves to serious dialogue and an
honest wrestling with differences with a view toward resolving them, or they
may simply agree to disagree, reconciling their diversity and embracing it
as a part of what it means to be the church.

While it is true that our Lord prayed that we might all be one,
first He prayed that we would be "sanctified" and "consecrated" in the truth
that is known only from the Word of God, which is truth itself (John
17:17-18). Holy Communion or unholy chaos-these are the two options facing
all churches. Faithful churches and faithful Christians will never embrace
disunity. Our Lord does not want His Blessed Sacrament turned into an unholy
chaos of division, at the very moment, and in the very meal, where He joins
Himself to us and thus permits us to express our innermost unity in the
truth of His Word. These words of Christ, "This is my Body," etc. still
stand firm against all who would deny them or doubt them. May God grant His
church the grace to remain steadfast in the truth of His Word.


i Perhaps the best treatment of the early church’s view of church
fellowship, particularly as it relates to the Lord’s Supper, is Werner
Elert’s Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries,
Translated from the German by Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing
House, 1966). This book, presently out of print, will be reissued this

ii See the magisterial article on Supper Fellowship in Martin Wittenberg,
Church Fellowship and Altar Fellowship in the Light of Church History,
Translated by John Bruss in Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology
(Reformation 1992) Vol. I, No. I, pgs.23-57.

iii Thus, one reads in the Lutheran Formula of Concord, "It is not our faith
which makes the sacrament, but solely the Word and institution of our
almighty God and Savior, Jesus Christ, which always remains efficacious in
Christendom…so whether those who receive the Sacrament believe or do not
believe, Christ nonetheless remains truthful in his words when he says,
‘Take eat, this is my body.’ This he effects not through our faith, but
solely through his omnipotence." (Solid Declaration, Article VII.89)

iv Jean Calvin, Zurich Consensus, translated by Ian D. Bunting in The
Journal of Presbyterian History, Volume 44 (1966), pp. 56.

v Quoted in the Formula of Concord, X.33.

vi Catechism of the Catholic Church (English Translation, United States
Catholic Conference, 1994; Liguori Publications, pg. 353).

vii See Michael Kinnamon and Brian Cope, eds. The Ecumenical Movement: An
Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (Geneva: World Council of Churches
Publications 1997; First published in 1997 jointly with Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI), pg. 4.

viii Kinnamon, pg. 4.

ix Kinnamon, pg. 4.

x Kinnamon, pg. 453.

xi Ecumenical Proposals: Formula of Agreeement (Chicago, Ill.: Evangelical
Lutheran Church in America, 1996), pg. 21.
Holy Communion or Unholy Chaos?

Written for and published by "Modern Reformation" Magazine
Copyright 1998, Paul T. McCain
May be freely reproduced for local parish use

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Jen
    October 21st, 2007 at 21:54 | #1

    Okay, I don’t understand something. Perhaps this article should have answered it, but it didn’t do the trick for me.
    What is the Eucharist? Jesus said that it was His body. He said it was His blood and as often as we drink it, do it in remembrance of Him. Where did He say that doing it was also a way of outwardly declaring that you 100% agree with the theology of those you take it along side of? When did it become a sign of fellowship?
    I read in the Book of Concord (I just read it for the first time a few weeks ago) that (I’m paraphrasing) the minister’s virtue or method of distribution is inconsequential as to whether or not the body and blood are present. In other words, the minister can’t do it wrong, or be unworthy to distribute it and therefore render it merely bread and wine. To me it would seem that the faith of those I commune along side of should also be inconsequential. It’s God who is working through it, right? Can disunity thwart God’s means of Grace?
    Does my question make any sense?

  2. October 22nd, 2007 at 07:41 | #2

    Excellent article, Rev. McCain!
    I have heard from others about the rubric of the deacon and “The doors! The doors!” but I have never seen it cited. From where does this rubric come?
    Is the date for the ELCA/PCUSA union Aug. 1977, or was it ’97?

  3. Brian Westgate
    October 23rd, 2007 at 12:39 | #3

    Jen, the standard texts for who may commune at the Altar are Romans 16:17-18 and I Corinthians 10-11. St. Matthew 28:18-20 seems to be in the background of these passages, I think. Basically it comes down to this. Just as light and dark don’t get along, neither do right and wrong. After all, God doesn’t get along with Satan, and the angels don’t get along with demons.

  4. Erich Heidenreich, DDS
    October 23rd, 2007 at 22:09 | #4

    I think you’re confusing several different questions, all of which have different answers.
    1. What makes a valid Sacrament
    2. Who should commune at all
    3. Who should commune together
    The faith of those you commune with cannot invalidate the sacrament. An unbeliever doesn’t invalidate the sacrament by his unbelief. He simply changes the effect from forgiveness, life, and salvation to one of harm and death. He should not commune at all.
    The question of who should commune together is not a matter of invalidating the Sacrament or taking it to one’s own harm. It is a matter of church fellowship. You ask, where does God’s Word address this? Very straightforward in 1 Corinthians 10, verses 16-21:
    “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, the many, are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread. Behold Israel after the flesh. Are not those who eat of the sacrifices also partakers of the altar? What then do I say? That the idol is anything, or that an idolatrous sacrifice is anything? But I say that the things which the nations sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. And I do not desire that you should have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of a table of demons.”

  5. Brian Westgate
    October 24th, 2007 at 14:49 | #5

    Here’s a link to a paper by Prof. John T. Pless on the topic.

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