The Problem with Closed Communion: Do We Still Believe the Lutheran Confessions are Correct, or Not?
One of the most misunderstood and therefore offensive practices in the historic churches of West and East is the practice of limiting participation in the Lord’s Supper to those who have been catechized and received as communicants in a given church. The practice, known most correctly as “closed communion”* is the universal practice throughout both Western and Eastern catholic churches, including, of course, the Lutheran Church, along with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic (or Eastern Orthodox) churches. The history of this practice is well known and there is simply no denying that it has been the Church’s historic practice. (see Elert’s Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries.)
With the Reformation and the advent of the Zwinglian/Reformed/Calvinist views of the Supper (nuances of difference but finally not much of a difference), and with new understandings of what public confession of the faith meant, and the implications this has for participation in the Lord’s Supper, the entire Reformed wing of the Reformation no longer practiced closed communion and this lack of practicing closed communion spread widely wherever Reformed churches and those churches that spring from the Calvinist Reformation were established (Methodist and modern Baptist and modern Evangelicalism).
Of course, we here in the USA are literally surrounded by congregations that do not practice closed communion. Add now to the mix the fact that no liberal mainline protestant church body regards it necessary for there to be any restriction in who participates int he Supper, this is true for the liberal Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Lutheran and Episcopalian churches which are now in full communion fellowship anyway. The trend is now growing in all these church bodies not even to regard baptism to be a prerequisite for Holy Communion. The liberal Lutherans no longer insist that the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper articulated in the Book of Concord is alone the true confession of the Supper, so, in other words, all bets are off and it is, more or less, a “ya’ll come” approach to Supper fellowship, since there no longer is any certainty that in fact the actual body and blood of Christ are under the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
Sadly, even many congregations in confessional Lutheran churches think they have found a way to be more “open” about communion fellowship by putting a “statement” in their church bulletin which, in a variety of ways, puts the burden for the decision to commune, or not to commune, on the guest and visitor. Often the statements contain very intentionally vague declarations about “if you believe Jesus is truly present in His Supper” you are welcome to communion. But here is the problem: no self-respecting Christian of any denomination would likely deny that he believes “Jesus is present in His Supper” … in some way or another. And what is more, the Lutheran Confessions know of no practice by which a visitor simply presents himself at a congregations altar without first being examined to find out what it is they seek in the Supper and why they come. And this is hardly possible five minutes before the worship service begins. Let’s be honest about it, shall we? (see LC SA.2).
I’m growing more convinced that the reason that some Lutheran pastors no longer are willing to practice closed communion is because they simply are no longer are willing to insist on the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as taught in our Lutheran Confessions. They are no longer willing to regard this assertion in the Augsburg Confession to be absolutely true and binding on them and their ministry and true and binding for any and all who approach the altar for Holy Communion: “Of the Supper of the Lord they teach that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present, and are distributed to those who eat the Supper of the Lord; and they reject those that teach otherwise.” (AC X) And what is more, as we move further into the Lutheran Confessions we find very helpful ways to ascertain if in fact a person communing does confess the actual, true and real presence of the Lord Christ’s body and blood under the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Have we let convenience preclude adequate, careful, genuinely pastoral care? “Pastoral care” is not, or should not be, a euphemism for actions that reflect this attitude: “I know what our Synod’s stance is, but it seems to me to be unloving, who am I to judge what a person communing thinks or believes? I’ll take the path of least resistance and avoid confrontation and controversy.” Simply because a person says that they want to take Holy Communion is not the grounds on which to commune them. If they do not clearly and accurately believe, teach and confess the basic truths of what the Real Presence actually is all about, they should not be communed, no matter who their parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, grandparents or spouse happen to be.
The great “litmus test” questions for a proper understanding are these:
(1) Do you believe the bread and wine are the Lord’s body and blood? (see SA III.vi)
This is a test to see if the person does believe and confess the unio sacramentalis .
(2) Do you believe that the Lord’s body and blood are put into your mouth and on your tongue? (see FC SD XII.105).
This is a test to see if the person does believe and confess the manducatio oralis
(3) Do you believe all who receive the consecrated bread and wine do actually receive the Lord’s body and blood? (see FC SD XII.26).
This is a test to see if the person properly understands and believes in the manducatio indignorum et impiorum.
[Pastors, if you have forgotten the meaning and use of these three key Latin phrases, go get your dogmatics text and brush up please!].
But here’s the thing: nobody who can not faithfully answer those questions correctly should be communing, regardless of whether or not they claim to be Lutheran, let alone the casual visitor to a Lutheran congregation. That is, after faithful teaching and instruction, nobody should be admitted to the Supper who can not in good conscience say, “Yes, this if my faith and my confession.” The pastoral application of closed communion is not to be found in “making exceptions” to the confessional standards of the Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, but in discerning when and where a person may be communed who in fact does properly confess the Supper. This is where one may well find exceptions, for any number of valid reasons.
But again, there are no “exceptions” to the confessional standard. This point is sadly lost on far too many pastors, congregations and laity. In other words, just because your Methodist believing and confessing mother-in-law shows up a few times at the Lutheran church every year does not mean she is to be communed, nor the casual visitor to the Lutheran congregation who has been catechized in the Calvinist confession of the Supper, or no confession at all, is not to be communed while holding to this confession. And let’s be honest here: a few brief minutes before the Divine Service starts is hardly the place for pastoral examination and discernment in most cases.
Let it also be very clear: Where a person regularly communes and has thereby given his public witness that this is his confession, that then is his public confession. In other words, to use but one example, a person who communes at the altar of a congregation that is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is, by that action, giving public testimony that they consent with what that particular altar represents and stands for. In such a case, presenting oneself for participation in the Sacrament of an orthodox Lutheran congregation is not appropriate unless or until that person has moved away from that public confession within a heterodox church body.
And no, you do not have to require a person to read the Book of Concord. These three key truths are taught quite plainly and simply in the Small Catechism’s Sixth Chief Part.
And so, there you have it, the bottom line is simply this. All Lutheran pastors must examine their conscience and ask themselves this question: “Do I still believe, teach and confess that what the Lutheran Confessions assert about the Lord’s Supper is true, or not?”
* Yes, it is most properly “closed communion” not “close communion.” People think “close communion” sounds a bit less harsh. But here’s the point. A door is either open or closed, there is no such thing as a “close” door. The altar is open to some, closed to others. Our Lutheran Confessions make it clear the minister’s duty is both to invite and welcome some to the Altar and to turn others away (see AC XXIV.36).