Monday, July 11, 2005

Closed Communion

Imagine that you are gathered with others for worship. After the hymns and liturgy, Scripture lessons and sermon, the Pastor says, "We are ready to participate in the fellowship of the Lord's Supper. Therefore, those of you who are not baptized, or are not instructed in the teaching of the apostles and prophets, or are not part of this confessional fellowship, are now dismissed. Thank you for your interest in hearing God's Word. We pray it will bear fruit in your heart and life."
You are attending a first-century Christian worship service. This congregation is practicing closed communion. Simply stated, the practice of closed communion means that only those who belong to the same confessional fellowship–those who believe, confess, and teach the prophetic and apostolic faith–may join together in the fellowship of Holy Communion.
Refusing communion to the general public and even to erring Christians is consistent with the historic practice of the Christian Church. Through the ages confessing Christians have regarded unity of doctrine as a prerequisite for admission to the Sacrament of Holy Communion. To this day, the Lutheran Church follows the Christian practice of closed communion. Those who are not Lutherans frequently do not understand this practice and often become very judgmental in the things they say. Sometimes even Lutherans do not clearly understand closed communion and may be embarrassed that their congregation follows this practice.
The purpose of this article is to briefly explain our practice of closed communion so it may be understood by inquirers. The focus will be on three major emphases.
The practice of closed communion rises from the Scriptural understanding of the nature of the Sacrament of the Altar.
"Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said, 'Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of me.' In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying: 'Drink of it, all of you; this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.'"
These words are known as the Words of Institution, since they were used when the Lord's Supper was instituted. They come from our Lord Jesus Himself. To call Jesus Christ "Lord" is to recognize that His Word is authoritative. He is Truth. His Word is truth. His words are true. When He says of the unleavened bread "This is My body" and of the cup (wine) "This is My blood," we must take Him seriously. Therefore, in this Sacrament we receive our Lord's true body and true blood in, with, and under the unleavened bread and wine.
Therefore, we do not contradict our Lord's Word by teaching that this Sacrament is merely a meal of obedience in which we participate simply because He commands it.
We do not contradict our Lord's Word by teaching that this Sacrament is a symbolic meal in which the bread and the wine merely represent or symbolize the absent body and blood of Jesus.
We do not contradict our Lord's Word by teaching that this Sacrament is a meal in which our Lord is spiritually present and bodily absent.
We do not contradict our Lord's Word by teaching that this Sacrament is a sacrifice for sin which the pastor offers to God.
As Lutherans, we take the Lord at His Word. We do not claim to understand how the sacramental union takes place, but we dare not contradict the Word of our Lord simply because we cannot understand it. This Sacrament is the Lord's Supper. He is the Host, and we are His guests. He determines the nature of His Holy Meal. Genuine faith receives what the Lord promises and gives.
In this Sacrament, the Lutheran Church is aware that much more than bread and wine is involved. The body and blood of Jesus Christ are really present, as He himself says. Such an awareness of the nature of this Sacrament causes Lutherans to exercise great care so the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ is recognized, respected, and received in faith. To change the clear Word of our Lord regarding His Supper is both disrespectful and disobedient.
The practice of closed communion is required by the understanding that fellowship at the Lord's Table is the confession of a common faith.
Some people may not understand the unity of faith and its practical application in the Sacrament of the Altar, because they misunderstand the Biblical concept of fellowship. In our day "fellowship" means little more than friends getting together to enjoy each other's company. In the New Testament the word "fellowship" (koinonia) means "participation in a common thing."
In Acts 2:42, the "fellowship" which characterized early Christians came about because "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching...." not because they were friends (which they probably were) and not because they got together to enjoy each other's company (which they probably did). If fellowship were only a synonym for friendship and get-togethers, it would also apply to pagans. Pagans can also be friends who get together to enjoy each other's company. However, the basis of pagan get-togethers is not the apostles' teaching. Among Christians, where any part of the apostles teaching–God's Word–is denied or rejected, the very foundation of fellowship is undermined.
In I Corinthians 10:16-17, "koinonia" is the word used to express the intimate fellowship, the communion of the Lord's Table. There is the intimate fellowship or communion (koinonia) between the unleavened bread and the body of Christ and between the cup (wine) and the blood of Christ. In the Sacrament of the Altar there is also the fellowship or communion (koinonia) between Christ and the believers, as well as the fellowship or communion (koinonia) of the believers who commune at the same altar. To ignore the essence of any or all of these "koinonias" is to undermine and mock the Sacrament of Holy Communion itself.
Since fellowship at the Lord's Table means confession of a common faith, it would not be truthful for those who teach the Real Presence of Christ and those who deny the Real Presence of Christ to join one another. It would be neither faithful to Scripture nor helpful to fallen humanity if those who confess clear Scriptural teachings and those who deny clear Scriptural teachings are welcome at the same altar. Where this is permitted, people can rightly ask whether Christian teaching and practice is determined solely by God's Word or simply by human consensus.
The Sacrament of the Altar is a means of grace, a way that God offers, gives, and seals forgiveness, life, and salvation to the believing communicant. Word and Sacrament are those means of grace. "Word" accents the verbal; "Sacrament" accents the visible. The differing accents do not mean they are mutually exclusive. In fact, they stand or fall together. In Holy Communion our Lord gives His body and blood for us Christians to eat and drink to forgive our sins and keep us in the true faith. This faith is not just a warm feeling about Jesus, nor is it some lowest-common-denominator understanding about Jesus, nor is it even a correct understanding about the nature of Holy Communion. This faith is the Christian faith, the teaching of the prophets and apostles, the Gospel in all its articles. In this Sacrament we commune not only as individuals but also as the family of God united in a common faith and confession.
The Apostle Paul stresses this unity of faith and confession in I Corinthians 11:29 when he reminds Christians that in eating and drinking the Lord's body and blood, "you (plural) are proclaiming the death of the Lord until He comes." We who commune together proclaim the Gospel together. This corporate act presupposes that we share a common faith and confession. Therefore, the practice of closed communion seeks to prevent a proclamation of confessional agreement and unity in the faith where there is, in fact, disagreement and disunity.
This same theme of unity in faith runs through the Old Testament prophetic struggles against syncretism, the attempted unity of conflicting beliefs. The split between Israel and Judah was as much religious as it was political. Relationships between the two were discouraged. After the Exile, the labors of men like Ezra and Nehemiah stand out in the struggles to maintain purity and unity of faith. Their struggles were not mainly against pagans. Their struggles were mostly against those who claimed to be orthodox Israelites but who were not true to the ancestral faith.
At the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther struggled against those who added their own opinions to the Sacrament of the Altar, whether Roman or Protestant. In his letter to Frankfurt he saw clearly that open communion went hand in hand with those who refused to take the Lord at His Word. He was appalled that those of opposing beliefs about this Sacrament should commune together at the same altar–the excuse being that what happens in the individual heart, not in God's Word, is decisive–and he chastised them. It is only natural in our day, with its emphasis on the individual and its ethics based on personal feelings, that open communion is practiced. This must not happen.
In truth, the apostolic practice of closed communion continues unchanged to this day among those who agree with the apostles. However, there have always been those who want to make Holy Communion fit their own personal whims. From the errorists in Corinth to the errorists of today, open communion will be advocated and practiced by those who are indifferent to the apostles' teaching either by acting as if one's personal "faith" is superior to the Christian faith–the teaching of the apostles and prophets–or by acting as if differences in doctrine are equally valid expressions of some vague truth. It shall not be so among us.
Some have said, "You can't look into another person's heart to judge his faith." This is true. No one is admitted to or kept from the Lord's Table on the basis of our knowledge of the faith in his heart. We admit or refuse to admit someone on the basis of the faith he confesses. This involves his confession of sin, his confession of Christ as the only Lord and Savior, and his confession of the Christian faith–the apostles' teaching. Others have said, "You Lutherans think you're the only ones going to heaven." No responsible Lutheran has ever taught that. However, we certainly are trying to be faithful to the apostles' teaching, since that is the only true basis for Christian fellowship and unity.
Confessional Christian congregations, including Hope, who have joined the confessional fellowship of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, understand that unity of faith and teaching is the essence of fellowship. Fellowship at Holy Communion involves the fellowship of the sacramental union, the fellowship of Christ with the believer, and the fellowship among those faithful to the apostles' teaching. Communicants confess a common faith. Such an intimate fellowship means that those who commune together confess the same thing. Therefore, those who do not confess the same thing do not commune together. Jesus is not honored when the Lord's Table is used as a way of expressing or achieving unity of faith where it does not exist. Joint communion of persons having differing beliefs, even about the Sacrament itself, is not the way to achieve unity. This is a horrible confusion of Law and Gospel. True unity in the faith confessed is not produced by ignoring basic Christian teaching nor by attempting to falsify the last will and testament of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Sacrament of the Altar is not people at work achieving their ecumenical desires. The Sacrament is God at work forgiving sin and keeping His family in true fellowship with Him and with each other.
The practice of closed communion presupposes that proper pastoral care shows loving concern for each communicant.
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself," writes the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 11:27-29.
In Corinth, some thought they could make Holy Communion fit their own ideas of what it ought to be. Paul admonishes them. Christ's body and blood are given in this Sacrament for eating and drinking. Every communicant must examine himself to determine his relationship to what God is giving in this Sacrament. Am I a sinful human being? Am I sorry for my sins? Do I in faith desire to receive the body and blood of Jesus in this Sacrament for the forgiveness of my sins? Unless a person truthfully and honestly responds positively to these questions, he eats and drinks judgment upon himself. Before the fact, Paul calls them to repentance so they do not place themselves under God's judgment. He knows that God will not tolerate anyone taking His Sacrament lightly or wrongly, even in ignorance. Like good medicine, which is to be used only under a doctor's care, the Lord's Supper is beneficial only when administered and received according to the Gospel, in keeping with God's Word.
Therefore, when the Pastor of Hope does not give the Lord's body and blood to someone unknown to him or to someone not of our confessional fellowship, he is acting responsibly as a "...servant of Christ and steward of the mysteries of God" (I Corinthians 4:1). In the Lutheran Church, looking out for someone's spiritual well-being is a positive act. Out of love for others, we do not invite them to partake in something that may be spiritually harmful to them. Nor do we pass off our pastoral responsibility by saying, "That's up to them." We do invite questions. We ask that a prospective communicant first be instructed in the chief parts of the apostles' doctrine. After this instruction, if individuals join us in confessing the apostles' doctrine, they are accepted into our confessional fellowship as communicant members of Hope Lutheran and of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.
The pastoral concern of the Lutheran Church can be illustrated in this manner. An automobile is a wonderful convenience. It is intended to be helpful to you, but it can also destroy you if you do not treat it with care. Consequently, for your own protection, our government requires instruction in the operating basics and evidence of driving ability before anyone is legally licensed to drive a car. This requirement is not intended to deprive anyone of anything. On the contrary, it is a matter of experienced, responsible persons being concerned for the physical well-being of others. Much the same attitude is found in the Lutheran Church with regard to participation in the Sacrament of the Altar. We are concerned about the spiritual well-being of those under our pastoral care and those who may desire that care.
It is a great irony that those who practice closed communion are often called legalistic and unloving. Love is not empty words. It means commitment. It means that we dare to encourage, admonish, confront. The fact that this happens does not mean love is absent. It means that Christian brothers and sisters care enough to face divisions, neither glossing over them nor pretending that division is good. We are to confess together the Christian faith, the teaching of the prophets and apostles which is the basis of our fellowship. If anyone cannot do that, the Lord's Table is not the place for practicing hypocrisy. The Lord's Table is not a place to pretend a unity that does not exist. To do so is loveless disregard for the Word of the Lord and for the spiritual well-being of other people. We at Hope, and we of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod desire to be faithful to the Great Commission and teach all that the Lord has commanded.
The practice of closed communion rises from the nature of the Sacrament, is required by the understanding of fellowship as a common confession of faith, and is a loving expression of proper pastoral care.


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