A Message from Pastor Hale
After running very low on our printed attendance cards recently, Pastor Berndt and I, with the help of the elders, took the opportunity, as we must order new cards, to fine-tune Zion’s Communion policy. While our practice and who is invited to Communion is not changing, this gives an opportunity to be more clear and upfront with visitors and prospective members. It also gives us the occasion to discuss the practical issue of how to talk to visitors and family who are not versed with our doctrine and practice – and may have never even heard of such a thing as “closed communion.”
We live in an inclusive (at least in theory) society. No one is excluded based on personal beliefs, actions, or characteristics. So many people can be downright stupefied that a church would not offer a gift from Christ (the Lord’s Supper) to all. But we are not discussing donuts or breakfast pizza between the services. We show hospitality to all, when it comes to human things that do not compromise the revealed teachings that Christ Himself gave us. We can be as loving and generous as possible when it comes to giving out earthly food. As pastors, we can pray with and visit anyone, even if they have no church or professed religious belief. We would, however, be respectful of those under another’s pastoral care. But Christian love reigns in human things, as long as good order and unity in Jesus are not sacrificed.
So what makes Communion different? That is a very divisive question within Christianity. Historically, before the days of the Reformation, it was universally confessed that the bread and wine of the Supper is Christ’s actual body and blood. This is what the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches still hold, as do we. But right after Martin Luther, many teachers and churches said that Luther did not go far enough in reforming. Almost out of spite, and in an unchristian reaction to the Roman church, false prophets denied what is a truly universal, Scriptural teaching – that Christ was serious when He instituted Communion on the night that He was betrayed. These various teachers became the forefathers of the protestant/ reformed/evangelical churches we have around us today. They have a radically different view of what Communion is, opposing not only Lutherans, but all of historic Christianity. They deny Christ’s actual words: “Take, eat; this is My body… Drink of it all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.” It becomes to them merely a symbol or reminder, and therefore, just an earthly meal.
A characteristic understanding of most all generic Protestant churches is that Holy Communion is not Christ’s real body and blood for all who commune. Some talk in the traditional language, and it may sound compatible with Lutheran teaching, but when the rubber meets the road it is offensive to most of them that the unbeliever would also receive Christ's body and blood, along with the believer. Faith and what the person is and does, not Christ’s Word, are the main thing for them. So the question of what the unbeliever receives became the litmus test for determining who has the right understanding of the Supper. The unbeliever also receives Christ’s body and blood, though not for forgiveness, but to his condemnation (1 Cor. 11).
If the Supper is not Christ’s body and blood for all who receive it, then the visible elements are not the main concern. Sure, many churches speak of God’s action surrounding or as being simultaneous with the reception of Communion, but the Supper alone is not the sole cause of forgiveness and the Spirit’s work. Usually faith or remembrance – what man does – is the focus for churches who deny Christ’s body and blood in this meal.
If the Supper is not holy in itself – actually distributing Christ’s body and blood to all – in the eyes of many churches, we should expect them to have differing views of who may receive the supper. And they do. If it is not anything for all who receive, it is nothing in itself. It cannot hurt, the deniers of Communion think, though with faith it may help. But this assumption goes against Scripture: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, 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 on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11). The Supper always does something, because it is not just a human meal. Therefore, it is not ours to offer as we see fit – we must answer to Christ in how and to whom it is served. We must not treat as common what is holy. Those churches that confess the Lord’s Supper as truly Christ’s body and blood, by virtue of Christ’s all-powerful Word, will take who can publicly receive it together very seriously. All churches affirming this truth historically have also practiced closed Communion – it is not open to all Christians. Why is it not just a personal matter for each person to decide whether they wish to receive it or not? Because Communion is not a private ritual, it is a public act, administered by publicly called ministers. It is not something Christians do at home in their basement, rather it is a communal meal received in common, hence the name “Communion.” We share something in common (Christ’s body and blood) when we take the bread and wine. This is also a public act, so it matters with whom we take it. Very few Christians would want to take Communion with a Jew, Muslim, or Atheist that denies that Jesus is the Son of God. But some supposedly Christian churches allow and celebrate unity in receiving communion with such people. They blaspheme Christ and make a mockery of Christ’s holy Supper. But how much division does Christ tolerate in this meal in which He offers Himself?
Christ is not divided – He is one. But actual Christians here on earth are divided in what they say and confess about Christ, unfortunately. Yet Communion is more than the strengthening of personal faith – it says something to take Christ in common with others. In communing together, we are making a statement about the content of our faith (the teaching of Christ), not just our personal faith. Scripture says that communing without thinking of or preserving unity in Christ is not really the Lord’s Supper: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord's supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal” (1 Cor. 11).
On the positive side, we are also told in 1 Cor. 10: “I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” We demonstrate our unity with each other when we receive the one Christ in His body which was given unto death and His blood which was shed for us. So Lutherans have always seen Communion as the highest form of fellowship, which expresses unity in the things of Christ.
But where there is not unity in the teaching of Christ, we should not say or pretend there is. And since we do not judge the hearts of people, nor personal faith (which we cannot see or judge), we must go on one’s public confession or statement. How do we know what a Christian stands for and what teaching he approves of? Must we administer a lengthy theological test on all aspects of the Christian faith before Communing with someone? No, church membership is a simple and quick way to signal our beliefs. It says to the world what we believe. Though of course there will be hypocrites, we expect and assume that all people agree with what their church teaches. A person who disagrees with his own church is inconsistent – and is really saying two different things about the one Christ. May that not be among God’s children! So our closed communion policy is not about us or our personal relationships, it is about Christ and His teaching. Fellowship is not determined by laypeople or pastors. It is done at the church level – for us by the official representatives of our synod. And so membership is not merely a human thing, it is divine, insofar as it expresses what we confess about Christ. It is shorthand to refer to what is taught in our churches and how the Lord’s sacraments are distributed.
C.F.W. Walther, the first president of our synod, taught that Communion fellowship is Church fellowship – and vice versa. This means that to take Communion at an altar is to make the teaching of that church one’s own, just like membership expresses. It is not just a statement about your beliefs on the Supper by itself (though it includes that too). Communing with other Christians publicly is a public statement about Christ – and we know believers by their teaching and fruit. We cannot judge people’s hearts and minds – God does – but we are told to judge others’ teaching: “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting” (2 Jn.). To love the truth of God more than human acceptance is obedience to Christ.
Our new Communion statement also positively states that no one is excluded from the possibility of communing. Thanks be to God, one’s beliefs and confession can improve and be corrected by God’s Word. So we want all who desire to receive Christ’s body and blood with us to have the opportunity to do it in a way that is God-pleasing and based on God’s Word, not merely human emotion. Only instruction in the Word, which is free of charge, and membership, where one says that our church’s teaching is his own, is needed. But remember, unity is not about our action or attracting, it is God the Spirit’s work to teach, convict, and move one to confess Jesus as Lord and His Word as true. So this unity in Christ is precious and well worth safeguarding among us. It is out of love for Christ and His Gospel, not intolerance or hate, that motivates genuine Lutherans to preserve Christ’s Supper and the unity it professes.
It is Christ’s will that we be united, but a unity apart from, or in place of, God’s Son who died and rose, is not a real unity. We rejoice that we have Christ’s Holy Supper and it remains His. It not only signals unity among us, but fosters such unity by the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. Our Lord invites sinners to Him and would have us receive His Supper according to His Word and our public confession of Jesus. Amen.
Zion’s Communion Statement:
Because communing together in the Holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood presupposes unity in Christ’s doctrine, we cannot invite all guests to the Lord’s Table. Only members in good standing of a church in official fellowship with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are invited to commune at this altar.
Those who eat and drink our Lord’s body and blood unworthily do so to their great harm. Holy Communion is also a confession of the faith which is confessed at this altar Any who are not yet instructed, in doubt, or who hold a confession or membership differing from that of this congregation and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod are asked not to commune with us until instruction can take place and your confession in God’s Word fully matches our teaching and practice. Please speak with a pastor or elder if you have questions or would like to find out more about the path to communion fellowship with Zion.