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What is “Closed Communion” and Why Do Some Lutherans Practice It?

November 7th, 2009
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Communion-715280A traditional practice among conservative Lutherans is the practice of “closed communion.” This is a practice that historic Lutheranism shares in common with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Simply put, it means participation in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is limited to those who have been instructed in the confession and belief of the Lutheran Church on the doctrine and use of the Lord’s Supper, and have given public confession and testimony of their personal agreement with these teachings.

Lutheran congregations that, as a matter of routine and policy, admit to the Supper those Christians who are communicant members of other church bodies are not practicing closed communion, but are practicing open communion. This is not a practice that is faithful to Scripture or the Lutheran Confessions, nor in line with the historic doctrine and practice of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

This is a “hot button” issue among many Lutherans and other Christians today. It is helpful to review what previous faithful teachers of the Lutheran Church have said about the practice of closed communion. What follows is an anthology of quotes from doctrinal literature of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

Comments Regarding Altar Fellowship from Doctrinal Literature of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

C. F. W. Walther

“Anyone who does not confess the faith that the true body of Jesus Christ is truly and really present in the holy Supper and so is received by all communicants, worthy and unworthy, cannot discern the body of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:29) and so is not to be admitted to the holy Supper under any circumstances (see Gerhard, op cit., p. 222). But even one who confesses that cannot ordinarily* [Footnote to the word ordinarily: Namely, except for the case of the fatal emergency, with which we will deal later]be admitted if he is and wants to remain, not a member of our orthodox church, but rather a Separatist Romanist, Reformed so-called Evangelical or Unionist, Methodist, Baptist, in short, a member of an erring fellowship. For the Sacrament, as it is a seal of faith, is also the banner of the fellowship in which it is administered.

Mich. Mueling writes: “The holy Sacraments are symbols, watchwords, ensigns of the Christian confession of the heavenly truth, of the living faith, and of the true fellowship of the Church of Christ. So those who assent to false, erring doctrine cannot use the holy Sacraments without an evil conscience and name, indeed, without giving offense to those weak in the faith. (Dedekennus’ Thesaur. Vol. 1, p. 2, f. 364).*

Footnote: See Theses on Supper Fellowship with Those Who Believe Differently, in the Proceedings of the 1870 convention of the Western District of the Missouri Synod.

- Pastoral Theology, Drickamer translation, p. 149.

C. F. W. Walther

“The Holy Supper is one of the marks, one of the banners of the church, one of the seals of the doctrine and the faith (Rom. 4:11; see 1 Cor. 10:21; Ex. 12:48). In whichever church one receives the Holy Supper, one is confessing that church and its doctrine. There cannot be a more inward, brotherly fellowship than that into which one enters with those in whose fellowship he receives the holy Supper. The apostle says, “For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death until he come” (1 Cor. 11:26). And “For we being many, are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).

There is a big difference between once hearing a sermon with them in a strange church fellowship and participating there in the celebration of the Holy Supper. One might sometimes hear the sermon there, perhaps to become familiar with their doctrine, without participating in the false-believing worship. But the holy Communion is an act of confession. If one communes in a strange church, one is actually joining it, presenting himself as a witness for its doctrine, and declaring its members to be his brothers and sisters in the faith.

On the basis of that understanding, what is to be thought of inviting everyone present, without distinction, to receive the holy Supper, and admitting them without examination?-It is quite natural for that to be done by preachers who do not believe that the body and blood of God’s Son is present in the holy Supper and is received by all communicants; preachers who consider the holy Supper a mere memorial meal, a mere ceremony, such as the Reformed, the Methodists, and most of the Union-Evangelicals. But it is inexcusable if those operate this way who want to be Lutheran preachers and are convinced of the truth of the Lutheran doctrine of the holy Supper.”

- Pastoral Theology, Drickamer translation, p. 110-111

C. F. W. Walther

“Every preacher has the precise instructions that God’s Word gives him about the administration of the Sacrament. It is obvious that all those with whom Christians cannot maintain any brotherly faith fellowship, should also, according to God’s Word, not be admitted to the reception of the Sacrament, by which the most inward brotherly faith fellowship is established and expressed.

What are those preachers doing who admit anyone without distinction? They are proving that they are unfaithful, frivolous stewards over God’s mysteries. They are interfering wiht God the Lord in His office and setting themselves up as lords over His holy Sacrament, when they should be its ministers. If they do not come to their senses in time, woe to them forever and eternally!”

- Pastoral Theology, Drickamer Translation, p. 114

C. F. W. Walther

“When one says there are Christians also in false-believing churches, that indeed has its measure of truth: There are Christians in them-but weak Christians, namely such as are caught in an error without knowing it. But it is hypocrisy if they are convinced of the error, remain in the sect, and yet want to be regarded as weak. They are either lukewarm or Epicurean religious cynics…

“Therefore one who says that our evangelical Lutheran doctrine and church is correct, but nevertheless remains in the false church and does not join us, burdens himself with a serious condemnation. He then knows the way of truth all right, but does not walk in it…

- Theses on Communion Fellowship with the Heterodox, Walther, Essays, I:213.

C. F. W. Walther

“The main purpose of the holy sacraments is indeed to be tools and means through which the promises of grace are offered, communicated, and appropriated, as seals, testimonies, and pledges through which these promises are sealed. However, subordinate to this main purpose, they have also this purpose: to be distinctive signs of confession and bonds of fellowship in worship. Communion fellowship is therefore church fellowship….

“All should indeed come to preaching, but only Christians who confess the proper Christian faith with their mouth should come to Communion. Therefore one who goes to Holy Communion in a Lutheran church declares openly before the world: I hold with this church, with the doctrine that is preached here, with the faith that is confessed here, and with all the confessors who belong here. The pastor who administers the Sacrament to him declares the very same thing.

“In Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7 the Holy Spirit points out with praise how the Christians in Jerusalem and at Troas in Asia Minor showed their oneness in faith and their brotherhood in the breaking of bread, i. e., in the celebration of Holy Communion. Now then, if heterodox Christians come to our Communion with our knowledge, then they and we are hypocrites. They appear to be Lutherans, but they are not….

“As necessary and important as it therefore is to testify above all over against the Reformed and union churches [Walther's term describing the General Synod and General Council Lutherans] that the sacraments are true means of grace and pledges for our faith, yet the time has now also come when we must confess over against the unionistic Lutherans that the sacraments are also marks and bonds of worship [fellowship] and of fraternal fellowship in faith….

“A Communicant becomes a preacher in that, as I said, where he communes he declares his allegiance as to the true church. The spokesmen of the Church Council [General Council] themselves also admit that Baptism and Holy Communion are distinguishing marks of the orthodox church. It is therefore so much the more grievous and a lie in the name of God when they impress the seal of orthodoxy on those who believe differently by receiving them to Holy Communion. In an attempt to justify themselves they in return accuse us now again of excommunicating and banning, as it were, those heterodox Christians whom we refuse altar fellowship with us. But this charge is thoroughly false. We have often said, and we say it again, that there are still true Christians also in heterodox churches. But they stand under a false banner and sign. Now, we cannot and will not give them the true spiritual banner until they also with us declare allegiance to it.

“Our opponents indeed object that the Sacrament, and even the mutilated Sacrament of the sects, is a distinctive mark of confession of Christianity…But this too is wrong. For is the sacraments are marks of confession, as they are, then they are marks of pure confession.

- Theses on Communion Fellowship, idem, p. 215-217.

C. F. W. Walther

“I consider it absolutely correct not to continue forever to admit those people to Communion who live in the parish but do not want to join the congregation. I would admit them only for a limited time. This is a different matter than joining a synod. The latter is of human law, the former by divine law. Participation in Communion sponsored by the congregation is indeed the highest privilege of a member and is participation in the innermost fellowship with the congregation, yet is not actual joining. To this belongs, also according to the Word of God, the actual affiliation with the congregation in its function as the higher tribunal (Matthew 18:15-18), as well as participation in its meetings and not only those in which the Word of God is proclaimed through the public ministry, but also the mutual admonition, observance, and provocation to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25). God obviously will not only the invisible but also the visible church, as Baptism and the Lord’s Supper already show. He wills not an unregulated, random, occasional gathering together, but rather regulated congregations with church tribunals. Whoever does not want anything to do with these latter things, sets himself against God’s clear will, or if he only wants to use these benefits but without participating in the work, he is a self-seeking individual who, spiritually speaking, reuses to eat his own bread. Others are to work for him, to provide, to contribute, to stand at the breach, ad to counsel, but he himself wants to be only an idle observer, enjoying it all without work.

One also has to consider that, in such a case, withholding Holy Communion is not something absolute, it is not declaring that such a one is unworthy, it is not a ban, but only a suspension, as is the case with one who becomes aware of the fact that his brother has something against him (Mt. 5:23-24). It is not a question of exclusion from offering a gift, but rather has to do with the necessary proceeding fulfillment of a condition for a God-pleasing offering. But in any case, the church order always ought to leave the pastor some leeway to prolong the time according to certain circumstances and certain spiritual conditions. For love must always be the empress of all church order and law, but conversely freedom may not be used as a cover for wickedness, in this case for greed, for improper conduct, and for injury inflicted on the church.”

- from Walther Selected Letters in Selected Writings of C. F. W. Walther (Concordia Publishing House, 1981), p. 124-125

C. F. W. Walther

“Our pastors accept only such people into the congregation, for attendance at Holy Communion, who believe in the Word of God and want to be Lutherans and live a Christian life. We do not have anything to do with religious syncretism and with false church union. Our pastors also will not admit anyone to Communion attendance who has not first come to them for announcement, for we will not cast holy things before dogs nor pearls before swine, which is something the Lord so earnestly forbade us. The people should not think that thereby we want to exercise lordship over them, for we detest from the heart every type of clerical authoritarianism and all popery, and on this account we have already had many a battle and suffered much. But we want to build up proper Lutheran congregations which stand on solid ground, and not merely loose aggregates of human beings which may hold together today and dissolve tomorrow.”

- Letters, ibid., p. 69.

George Stoeckhardt

Commenting on 1 Corinthians 10:16-18, Stoeckhardt wrote: “Through our participation at the Lord’s Table we express our most intimate communion with Christ. That we many are one body, eat one bread, is not meant to prove that the true and body and blood of Christ are in the Sacrament. Such a conclusion one must not draw from the “for” (hoti-v. 17) which does not refer back, but sets up a new claim. As there is but one bread, one loaf, from which we eat, so are we who are eating of this loaf one body. The eating of one and the same bread of loaf unifies us to one body. So this is a new thought: Our participation in the Lord’s Supper is a public profession on our part that we are not only in fellowship with Christ, but that we also are in fellowship with those with whom we commune at the Lord’s Table. We all eat the same bread, the body of Christ. Through that ct we indicate that we belong together. All of us Christians who in the Lord’s Supper eat the body of Christ and drink His blood present ourselves as one spiritual family. What they eat and drink together, Christ’s body and blood, ties them together more closely than the bonds of blood. They declare themselves as brothers and sisters in Christ. Upon this Bible passage do we base our ecclesiastical dictum: Altar or Communion Fellowship is Church Fellowship. …

“This passage strikes a crushing blow at unionism. To admit the heterodox to our Communion and so to our church fellowship is a contradiction in itself. For those that approach the same altar together profess to be one, one in all points of Christian doctrine and practice, while in reality they disagree. It would be shameful hypocrisy on our part if we would have those to join us at the Lord’s Altar, when they actually profess a different faith than we do.”

- Exegetical Lectures on the First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Translated by H. W. Degner (Fort Wayne: Concordia Theological Seminary Print Shop, 1969), p. 60-61.

George Stoeckhardt

“A Christian congregation is an assembly of believing Christians and so presumes that those who wish to join likewise are Christians and possess a certain measure of Christian knowledge. And where that is lacking it instructs them through the pastor in Christian truth before accepting them. And a truly Lutheran congregation will not welcome into membership Reformed, United, and such like, who are totally indifferent to matters of doctrine in the hope that later on, after they have spent a little time in the Lutheran Church, they, too, will become good Lutherans. A Lutheran congregation is a fellowship of Lutheran Christians and therefore expects those who wish to join to some extent to be familiar with true doctrine and when they transfer from an unorthodox church, to take this step of inner conviction, and wherever lacking, to receive the necessary knowledge before being accepted.”

- From Potpourii, Translated by Erwin Koehlinger from Der Lutheraner 49 (Fort Wayne: Concordia Theological Seminary Press, n.d.), p. 297.

Francis Pieper

“On the one hand, they are not permitted to introduce “Open Communion”; on the other hand, they must guard against denying it to those Christians for whom Christ has appointed it… (p. 381)…To keep the pastor from denying the Lord’s Supper to those weak in Christian knowledge, or frightening timid souls away…the person registering should not be subject to rigorous examination, but be induced by way of a friendly interview to reveal the state of his Christianity and to tell what the Lord’s Supper is and why he desires to partake.” (p. 387). [This statement from Pieper has been mistakenly quoted to modify the practice of close communion in regard to members of heterodox church bodies. For Pieper clearly states in the same section in his dogmatics:]

“Furthermore, since Christians are forbidden to adhere to teachers who deviate from the Apostolic doctrine (Rom. 16:17: “Avoid them”; R. V.: “turn away from them”), it is self-evident that members of heterodox churches must have severed their connection with the heterodox body and have declared their acceptance of the true doctrine before they may commune with the congregation. Fellowship in the Lord’s Supper certainly is fellowship in the faith or church fellowship…Walther is right in holding that by practicing “Open Communion” a pastor becomes “an unfaithful, careless, and unscrupulous shepherd….The ‘admission as guests’ involves a self-contradiction. When Lutherans synods in America indeed wanted to cling to the rule, “Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants only,” but then wanted exceptions to the rule granted, they were again making admission to the Lord’s Supper a matter of human caprice and were thus in fact dropping the divine rule.”

- Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, III:385-386.

John Fritz

“In our Lutheran Church we practice close communion, insisting that only members of the Lutheran Church in good standing be permitted to partake of the Sacrament…When a person communes at the altar of any church, he thereby, by a public act, confesses the faith of that church and at once enters into fellowship with those with whom he communes. …There is no closer fellowship than that of the Communion table. “The heterodox shall not be admitted to the Sacrament. He who does not believe that Christ gives us His true body and blood in the Sacrament and that these are received by the mouth of the communicant, whether he be worthy or unworthy, does not discern the body of Christ, 1 Cor. 11:29, and shall under no circumstances be admitted to the Sacrament. But even he who confesses the true presence of Christ’s body and blood shall not have the Sacrament administered to him if he is not, and will not be, a member of the true Evangelical Lutheran Church, but desires to remain a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, or a member of anyone of the other Reformed churches, unless it be that he is at the point of death….It must be remembered that he who communes at the altar of a church thereby confesses the faith of that church (Abendmahlsgemeinschaft ist Glaubensgemeinschaft). We have a right to assume that those who commune at our Lutheran altars confess the faith of the Lutheran church. The Lord Himself demands that every Christian should believe all the Word of God and not only some of it, MT 28:20. See Synodalbericht d. Westl. Distr., 1870 [Walther's Theses on Communion Fellowship].

-Fritz, Pastoral Theology, St. Louis: CPH, 1932, p. 135.

Edward W. A. Koehler

“While we use the Sacrament primarily to be assured of the grace of God and be strengthened in our faith, we also confess our faith when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. “For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death until He come,” 1 Cor. 11:26. Going to Communion, we confess by this very act that we trust for grace and salvation in the merits of Christ’s death, and that we personally regard the doctrines of the church, where we commune, as the true teachings of the apostles, Acts 2:42. At whose altar we worship, his religion we confess. 1 Cor. 10:18. For this reason a person who is known to be an unbeliever, or who does not agree with us in the confession of our faith should not be admitted to our altar. Neither may a Lutheran commune in any church which according to its public confession upholds false doctrines…

“The Lord’s Supper was instituted for Christians. Christ gave the Supper not to the general public promiscuously, as He fed the five thousand, John 6, but to His disciples. In the Apostolic Church the Gospel was preached to all that would listen, but the Sacrament was given to baptized Christians only, Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 11: 20; 10:176.

- Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine, River Forest: Koehler Publishing, 1939

Ottomar Krueger

“Whereas the Lord commanded His disciples and church for all times to come to evangelize the world by baptizing them and teaching them, and opened the preaching of the Gospel and Baptism to all human beings. He celebrated the Lord’s Supper in closed company of the twelve; the attendance was restricted. Thus today also, Holy Baptism and the holy Gospel are distributed, preached and applied publicly to all who have a desire, but the Eucharist is for those who already believe, who can examine themselves for their spiritual worthiness or unworthiness, and to those who can testify by participation of the unity of their faith…

“We insist therefore that there are certain groups of people who cannot be entitled to partake of the Lord’s Supper in our church or with us at the altar…In the Old Testament no stranger who was not united with the Israelites in their faith and belief was permitted to eat the Passover with them. Therefore we contend today that the Lord’s Supper in our Lutheran churches is not to be administered to those of a heterodox faith, be that what it may. …

“The Lord’s Supper is a testimony of the unity of our faith, and going to Communion together means a fellowship which we have with all participating. Those who partake together enter into a most intimate communion according to 1 Cor. 10:17 and 21, where we are called one bread and one body, and in verse 18 the apostle asks: “Are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?” There can be no denial of this intimate relationship into which we are brought and confess to stand when we partake of the Lord’s Supper together.

- The Abiding Word, III:468-469.

Commission on Theology and Church Relations

Inasmuch as Communion fellowship Biblically embodies the confession of a common faith (1 Corinthians 10:17; Acts 2:42)-for it is a theological definition of the one true faith, not a sociological-empirical description of whatever faith a group finds itself agreed in-it is necessary for the church to guard itself from doctrinal fractures of that fellowship (1 Tim. 1:3-11). To indiscriminately admit even well intentioned people to Holy Communion is neither to honor God nor love our fellowmen (1 Cor. 11).

Scripture requires both a knowledge of the Lord’s Supper sufficient for its proper reception and a contrite faith which trusts Jesus’ word. It is neither loving nor responsible for a pastor or church to sacrifice theological considerations for social pressure or custom. If, for example, an individual is admitted to Holy Communion simply because he is a relative or friend of a member, and that person participates in the sacrament to his/her judgment (1 Cor. 11:29), the officiant will one day be asked to give an account of his sacramental stewardship (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-8).

Lutherans vigorously reject a view of the Lord’s Supper which would claim divine blessings for those who receive the Lord’s Supper in a merely ritualistic fashion…Also rejected by the Scriptures and the Confessions is that observance of the sacrament which would use it merely as a tool toward closer human fellowship rather than as a thankful celebration of that Christian fellowship which God has given. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians details the abuse which occurred when men sought to serve their social goals rather than the Lord who instituted the Sacred Supper…

Thus there is a great continuity of concern from our Lord’s words of guidance to His apostles, though Paul’s admonitions in the epistles, through the practice of the early church, to the practices of the Reformation church and of confessional Lutheranism today.

The catechetical enterprise, whether of the Didache or Luther’s Catechism, is not non-Biblical legalism but rather Biblical realism (1 Cor. 11:17ff). Its aim is not the exclusion of certain individuals from the sacrament, but the honoring of God’s Word and the true benefit of a fallen humanity.

Close Communion (Note: While the term “closed communion” has a longer history (cf. W. Elert, ch. 7) and is regarded by some as theologically more proper than “close communion,” the latter term, which has been used in more recent history by writers in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, may also properly be employed as a way of saying that confessional agreement must preceded the fellowship of Christians at the Lord’s Table. Whatever term is used, it is clear that the LCMS’ official practice is consistent with the historic practice of the church, which has regarded unity of doctrine as a prerequisite for admission to the sacrament (cf. 1967 Res. 2-19).

The practice of refusing Communion to certain Christians and the general population at Lutheran altars is called close Communion. This practice serves the Gospel, and even those refused, by its reverence for our Lord’s last will and testament….It is a desire to honor and obey the word of Christ which has led Christians to reserve the sacrament for those who share that desire and understanding [belief in the Real Presence]. Chemnitz, with Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, specifically defends the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper against the errors of human interpretation in various Christian fellowships of his day.

Since fellowship at the Lord’s Table is also a confession of a common faith, it would not be truthful for those who affirm the Real Presence and those who deny it to join one another. Their common Communion would indicate to the non-Christian community that the last will and testament of Christ could be interpreted in contradictory ways. Indeed, the non-Christian might rightly ask whether it was Jesus’ word which determined the church’s position and practice or simply a human consensus.

Therefore it is true that “No one who truly accepts the Real presence as the very Word of God can grant a person the right to deny it and to commune with him at the same table. Just so, no Presbyterian, for example, who declares that there can be no real eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ, could really want to receive the Supper at an altar where just this impossible thing to him is confessed and taught.” [Hamann, Studies in Holy Communion, p. 12].

Close communion seeks to prevent a profession of confessional unity in faith where there is, in fact, disunity and disagreement. It would be neither faithful to the Scriptural requirements for admission to Holy Communion (1 Cor. 11:27ff; cf. 10:16-17) nor helpful to fallen humanity if the Christian Church welcomes to its altars those who deny or question clear Scriptural teachings.

The reasons for the practice of close Communion are often misunderstood by Christians who have been accustomed to an “open Communion” policy. In a tract entitled, “Why Close Communion?” the rationale for the practice of close communion is explained in this way:

“So it is not that a Lutheran congregation want to bar fellow-saints from the blessings of the Eucharist when they practice Close Communion. It is not that they want to be separatistic, or set themselves up as judges of other men. The practice of Close Communion is prompted by love and is born of the heartfelt conviction, on the basis of Scripture alone, that we must follow Christ’s command. This means refusing the Lord’s Supper to those whose belief is not known to us. It is not showing love to allow a person to do something harmful, even though he may think it is for his own good. It also means if they are members of a Christian body which departs from the full truth of the Scripture in some of its doctrines, that we must not minimize the evil of this false teaching by opening our fellowship to any and all Christians who err in the faith. [Deffner, Why Close Communion?, 1955, p. 14.] In keeping with the principle that the celebration and reception of the Lord’s Supper is a confession of the unity of faith, while at the same time recognizing that there will be instances when sensitive pastoral care needs to be exercised, the Synod has established an official practice requiring, “that pastors and congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, except in situations of emergency and in special cases of pastoral care, commune individuals of only those synods which are now in fellowship with us. By following this practice whereby only those individuals who are members of the Synod or of a church body wiht which the Synod is in altar and pulpit fellowship are ordinarily communed, pastors and congregations preserve the integrity of their witness to the Gospel of Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures and confessed in the Lutheran confessional writings.

[Note 28: Res. 2-19. See also 1969 Res. 3-18 and 1981 Res. 3-01. Cf. Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, III, p. 381. Pieper begins his discussion concerning who is to be admitted to the Lord's Supper by stating: "Christian congregations, and their public servants, are only the administrants and not the lords of the Sacrament...On the one hand, they are not permitted to introduce 'Open Communion'; on the other hand, they must guard against denying the Sacrament to those Christians for whom Christ has appointed it." To be sure, a heavy responsibility rests on pastors in making decisions as they evaluate those exceptional cases of pastoral care where persons who are members of denominations not in fellowship with the LCMS desire to receive the Lord's Supper. However, part of the pastor's responsibility in such situations involves informing individuals desiring Communion also of their responsibility regarding an action which identifies them with the confessional position of the church body to which the host congregation belongs and their willingness to place themselves under the spiritual care of the pastor in that place]. As congregations practice close Communion, much care should be taken and energy expended in articulating the rationale of this practice. An evangelical and winsome effort should be made to present the Biblical claims, so that the church’s posture does not appear to be a mere institutional accruement. Procedures for admitting guests to the Lord’s Table should be such that the appearance of unknown communicants at the altar is minimized as much as possible. Further, the Office of the Keys is less than faithfully exercised when admission to the sacrament is granted to all who come to the altar regardless of their faith and congregational and/or denominational affiliation. The practice of “open” Communion renders it difficult, if not impossible, for church discipline to be exercised in a way that honors the ministrations being carried out by those to whom the responsibility of spiritual care for a member of God’s flock has been entrusted (Heb. 13:17; cf. John 20:22-23; Acts 20:27-28; 1 Cor. 4:1-2).

- Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper, 1983, pp. 19-23.

Mueller and Kraus

“Because altar fellowship is the most intimate expression of confessional unity, those who commune at the Lutheran altar are those who are in complete confessional agreement and fellowship with the other communicants. This practice, referred to as close communion, is an evangelical expression of the Lutheran church’s love for the communicant and for Christ’s supper. We do not wish to allow those who are not members of our confessional fellowship to be misled or confused by their participation in the sacrament at our altars. As Fritz points out, “Abendmahlsgemeinschaft ist Glaubensgemeinschaft.”

- Pastoral Theology, St. Louis: CPH, 1990.

Prepared by

The Rev. Paul T. McCain

February 1997 edition

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  1. November 7th, 2009 at 13:31 | #1

    I had spoken to a LCMS pastor (as did my Father-in-Law) prior to my marriage, and received authorization to receive the sacrament in the LCMS congregation whenever I visited. At that time, I was a member of the ALC. After my marriage, the practice continued, as it did some 7 years later when I entered the seminary. On Easter Sunday morning, the first Sunday after receiving a call to a congregation of the ELCA (but not yet ordained), I was refused the sacrament. I was not even given the opportunity to make statements of adherence, but was flatly denied, as the pastor saw me sitting in the pew and informed me that I would not be welcome at the Lord’s table.

    McCain response: You are a pastor in an erring church body, one which has, through its ecumenical agreements, effectively denied the Lutheran Confessions in practice, in regards to the Lord’s Supper and host of other issues. As a public representative of this church body for you to commune at a LCMS altar would be a public confession of a public unity in truth, when in fact there is none. As a lay member of a non-LCMS congregation you never should have been communed as a matter of policy.

  2. Pr.Schroeder
    November 8th, 2009 at 15:12 | #2

    FWIW: I began reconsidering open communion after reading a First Things article by Jon D. Levenson, Professor of Jewish Studies,entitled,”The Problem of Salad Bowl Religion” in 1997. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/09/002-the-problem-with-salad-bowl-religion-44
    I had not thought of that article till I read Pr. McCain’s selections on close communion. It was the last two paragraphs that woke me up from my open communion slumbers:

    “This problem with the religious “salad bowl” is not without its counterparts in religions other than Judaism. The analogy may not be precise, but I recently heard a minister from a liberal Protestant denomination tell how moved he was when, after years of visiting a Roman Catholic monastery, the abbot unexpectedly invited him to join the monks in taking communion. One must wonder whether the minister did not misinterpret his experience. Without having accepted the Roman Catholic theology of the Eucharist—without having subordinated himself to the community authorizing the action—was he a communicant in a Roman Catholic Mass or was he only impersonating someone taking communion in a Roman Catholic Mass? The difference is not merely one of communal identification, although it has enormous implications for communal identity. It is a question of the larger structure of norms, including norms of faith and authority, that give a ritual its meaning in any tradition.

    The most important question is not where various practices come from. No set of ritual performances is pure and primordial. The key point is where the practices end up: in what structure of authority have they become embedded, and in the service of what affirmation do they now stand? And will that authority still be obeyed and will that affirmation still be made when the price of doing so is inconvenience, monetary loss, personal anguish, persecution, or martyrdom? Hyphenated obedience is no obedience at all.”

  3. Jonathan
    November 9th, 2009 at 08:15 | #3

    I thought that even the Southern Baptists practice closed communion.

  4. Chryst
    November 9th, 2009 at 11:46 | #4

    Quite common in our LCMS are the churches that practice a form of open communion which goes something like:

    As long as you can agree with this statement:
    (Apostles Creed)
    (Something about the Real Presence)
    (Sometimes something about being “Lutheran”)
    then you are welcome to commune….

    People who support this type of practice are vehemently opposed to denominational membership holding any sway in the question of who may commune. They sometimes sarcastically refer to an “LCMS ID card”. Granted, this is a “closer” communion than the ELCA’s “Y’all come”, or “If you commune at your church you are welcome here” or sometimes “Baptized Christians”. But it’s still not what the LCMS officially teaches and has historically practiced. I’d call the alternate LCMS approach “Close as in Close Enough” communion. Many call it “Open”. Many who practice it call it “Close” or “Close(d)”. But it is the main reason I prefer the term “Closed” for the historical and on-paper position of the LCMS. I’m curious where this alternate, yet very common LCMS approach (that I described above) comes from. Does anyone know where or how?

    McCain: Absolutely correct. I have read many, many, many of these kinds of “disclaimer” statements re. admission to the Supper and I have been saddened to read any number of them that contain comments about the Real Presence that would be able to be affirmed by any good Calvinist. It would be interesting indeed to read a statement that would put forward the key questions that the Lutheran Confessions themselves indicate are the real “litmus tests” on the question of the Real Presence: “Do you believe that the consecrated bread being given into your mouth by the pastor is the body of Christ? Do you believe that you are receiving, into your mouth, the body of Christ? Do you believe that this is not a spiritual, or figurative, presence, but the true and substantial body of Christ under the bread and wine? Do you believe that everyone receiving the consecrated elements is actually receiving Christ’s body and blood, regardless of what he/she believes about them?” Now, of course, this is far more than should ever go into a bulletin, and points out the reality that the question about who does, or does not, commune at a Lutheran altar is not merely a personal decision to be made by the potential communicant, but I think that the fact that we do not put the questions that the Book of Concord demands be answered faithfully is telling.

  5. November 9th, 2009 at 12:58 | #5


    To McCain: Responses to your questions. “Do you believe that the consecrated bread being given into your mouth by the pastor is the body of Christ?” YES
    “Do you believe that you are receiving, into your mouth, the body of Christ?” YES
    “Do you believe that this is not a spiritual, or figurative, presence, but the true and substantial body of Christ under the bread and wine?” YES
    “Do you believe that everyone receiving the consecrated elements is actually receiving Christ’s body and blood, regardless of what he/she believes about them?” YES

    So I can commune in an LCMS congregation?

    McCain response: No, Pastor Janssen, you would not. The point of my comments was simply responding to the comments of Pastor Chryst. None of us believe that a “bulletin blurb” is sufficient pastoral care regarding admission to the Lord’s Supper. While we can rejoice in what you claim to believe, the fact that you remain a pastor in an erring church body stands in stark contrast to what you say you believe. I would be interested in seeing/reading your public statement renouncing the ecumenical agreements of the ELCA, particularly those in which such severe compromises on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper were made. There is more here than merely a cognitive assent to a certain set of truths. There must follow also a consistent public confession. The fact that you continue to commune at a public altar of a church body that teaches so wrongly is of concern, and in keeping with the Eucharistic discipline of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, as evidenced in both East and West for millennia, would preclude you from communing at an altar of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.

  6. Jonathan
    November 9th, 2009 at 13:51 | #6

    I think these close(d) communion statements in bulletins are like “end-user license agreements” in computer software–they’re a ‘contract of adhesion’ that carries an ‘assumption of the risk’ liability waiver clause. I guess these statements are intended to make us not appear too snobish by just saying “LCMS-only welcome–all others please refrain.”

    That said, however, one such version that I thought was pretty straight forward went something like this: “Lutherans believe that in the Lord’s Supper are distributed to communicants Christ’s true and real body and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine, given and shed for the forgiveness of their sins. Participation in the Supper here in this congregation means that you agree with and you believe all of the the teachings of the Lutheran Church [here, omit "--Missouri Synod" so as not to be too descriptive of which body is worthy of the title 'Lutheran]. Baptized Christians who agree are welcome to commune.”

  7. Mark Schroeder
    November 10th, 2009 at 08:57 | #7

    Some observations on close communion and it’s possibility (as an ELCA pastor, I know it’s only a remote possibility):

    1. I would think that if a pastor were to practice close communion it just might increase pastoral conversation with newcomers which just might result in catechesis. Yes, this is work, but it is the pastor’s proper vocational good work: to teach the Word of God as correctly confessed in the Lutheran Confessions. A statement in the bulletin is just too easy (but in the ELCA, such a statement is almost a signal of confessional orthodoxy these days). And with a congregation properly understanding close communion it would signal to a newcomer: The Sacrament of the Altar really matters to these people. It’s not just a ‘happy meal’. I know close communion could be to simply exclude but I think it’s actual purpose is fidelity to Scripture and the possibility of teaching Christ Jesus which would result in three responses for newcomers: 1. Further deepening of Faith already there; 2. Coming to Faith in Christ Jesus; 3. One would just walk away shaking one’s head (cf. St. John 6: 66-68).
    2. Holy Communion has not only the vertical dimension but a horizontal dimension and when you put those two lines together Holy Communion is cruciform (cf. 1 Corinthians 11: 26). In the responses above it is only the vertical dimension that is addressed: “me and Jesus”. But Holy Communion is 3D. We confess the horizontal dimension of the faith delivered to the saints once and for all (Jude 1: 3). If we are not discerning the Body of Christ, and going about with our own practices as the Corinthians were doing, then we are inviting death. (1 Corinthians 11: 30). Pick and choose Christianity and we are not living the Holy Communion of the unity of faith and doctrine. It seems to be the Corinthian church knew pick and choose Christianity. And per the Prof. Levenson quote above: if I receive Holy Communion in another church body then I am tacitly assenting to their doctrines, for instance, in the Roman communion: papal infallibility, Mary’s bodily assumption, etc. It’s a witness: a false one. And yes, even between two major American Lutheran church bodies, that both bear the name Lutheran: we’ve been going down two separate paths for sometime now. We are not in doctrinal unity at all.
    3. In this era of the Self when individual choice is regnant in post-modernism resulting in “salad-bowl religions” (see above), “cafeteria Catholicism” and the emergent church, close communion is a call to live according to the Word together as His people standing together in the Faith. As a godly practice close communion is counter-cultural. It goes against the post-modernist grain. It’s salty. But if salt loses it’s saltiness, then…

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