WHY DO WE PRACTICE
To come to communion is to confess openly before everyone the true Christian unity we enjoy under God’s Word. It is because of this that one’s denominational affiliation matters at the rail.
Rev. Matthew W. Rueger, Author
Jan. 1, 2020
Closed communion is love for souls. The practice of closed communion is the oldest practice of the Christian Church. Unfortunately, a great many churches in our day have abandoned it. This has led to a gross misunderstanding of the practice and misrepresentation of what it’s all about.
A biblical foundation
St. Paul gives expression to the reason for the practice in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29:
"Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body."
What this passage shows us is that the Lord’s Supper can be harmful to those who might eat and drink of it in an “unworthy manner.” Such a person would “be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
Two things jump out from this. 1. There is such a thing as worthiness and unworthiness at the Lord’s Supper, and 2. It is not mere symbolism that is offended with a careless Sacramental practice, but the body and blood of Christ. If someone could offend against the body and blood of Christ and put him or herself in danger of God’s judgment, the loving Christian thing to do would be to set limits on who should and who should not commune. How can someone claiming to be part of the love of Christ allow another soul to be put danger of God’s judgment if that Christian could prevent it?
Closed communion is nothing more than the acknowledgement of what God’s Word says, namely that not everyone should commune. The term “closed” communion came from the practice of the early church. Back then, when it came to the point in the service when the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, those who were not yet properly instructed or members in good standing left the sanctuary and the doors were closed behind them. The service would continue only with those who were prepared to commune.
One of the reasons why closed communion is seen in such a negative light today is because our world doesn’t like to hear the word “no.” The perception is that if you say “no” to me, then you are assuming you’re better than me, or that I’m wrong, or I don’t have saving faith. As a pastor I’ve heard all of those responses. Actually, none of those reasons go into the decision of saying “no” to someone who should not commune. The only motivation for saying “no” is a deep concern and love for that person’s soul. I don’t ever want to knowingly put someone in danger of God’s judgment. The 1 Corinthians passage above makes it clear if the Lord’s Supper is given out improperly some can be put in such danger.
The criteria for communion
The passages from 1 Corinthians quoted before twice mentions the danger of “unworthiness.” It is essential that “worthiness” for the sacrament be established. But how can one do that? We cannot look into the hearts of others and see if they are “good enough” or if they are really believing. So how can worthiness or unworthiness be established?
The answer which the Lutheran Church has given to that question dates to the days of Luther himself. In the Small Catechism Luther wrote:
"Who, then, receives this sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are a good external discipline, but he is truly worthy and well prepared who believes these words: ‘for you’ and ‘for the forgiveness of sins.’ On the other hand, he who does not believe these words, or doubts them, is unworthy and unprepared, for the words “for you’ require truly believing hearts."
The first step in establishing the worthiness of anyone wishing to commune is establishing whether they actually believe that the sacrament does what Christ says it does. Does that person believe the Supper forgives sins as it says in Matthew 26:28? If not, then Lutheranism has always said that person does not meet the first and most basic criteria for communion and should therefore not receive the Sacrament.
2. Recognizing the Lord’s body
Again, referencing the passage from 1 Corinthians quoted before, the issue of unworthiness was linked by Scripture itself to the matter of “discerning the Lord’s body.” We believe, as Christians have always believed, that the Lord’s Supper is actually the body and blood of Christ. Unlike Roman Catholicism, we do not say that it physically changes to the point of no longer being bread and wine. Instead we believe that bread and wine remain, but that Christ’s body and blood is truly, sacramentally, and even miraculously joined to the bread and wine, and is there in it as we receive communion. We say this because this is the witness of Scripture.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record Jesus giving this Sacrament to his disciples while saying, “This is my body...This is my blood” (Matt. 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-23, Luke 22:19-20). Jesus does not say this is merely a symbol, but that it is his body and is his blood. In I Corinthians 10:16, St. Paul asks; “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?" God’s Word says this is Christ’s body and blood.
In establishing worthiness to receive the Supper we then have to ask the question, “Does that person even believe that the Supper is what Jesus says it is?” That is, do they actually believe it is Christ’s body and blood? If they do not, and see this sacrament only as a symbolic meal, then 1 Corinthians 11 says they are unworthy of the Lord’s Supper and should not commune. If they do believe the body and blood of Christ are present, then the second criteria for being able to commune is satisfied.
Because the Lord’s Supper is a meal that gives forgiveness, it is also necessary that everyone who comes to the rail be repentant of his or her sin and desire forgiveness. In Luther’s Large Catechism the Reformer wrote:
“Those who are shameless and unruly must be told to stay away, for they are not fit to receive the forgiveness of sins since they do not desire it and do not want to be good. . . . The only exception [to those who may commune] is the person who desires no grace and absolution and has no intention to amend his life.” LC V, 58, 61
Among those who would be considered unrepentant are those who insist on their right to continue sinning and who refuse to turn from sin when they are confronted about it. Also, those who refuse to forgive others are to be considered unrepentant and unfit for forgiveness as God’s Word says:
“But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses." Mark 11:26
Repentance is not about what sin a person does. It is about one’s willingness to receive Christ and turn away from sin and back to the will God.
The verse from 1 Corinthians tells us:
“Let a man examine himself and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup." 1 Corinthians 11:28
The ability of a person to examine himself must also play into the matter of whether he or she should commune. The examination Scripture discusses is spiritual examination. It involves understanding one’s sin and recognizing Christ as the Savior from that sin. It also involves trust that the Lord’s Supper is God’s chosen vehicle for bringing Christ and His saving help to the sinner. In order to examine oneself in the manner which is required for proper reception of the Supper, there has to be training in the faith and the mental ability to understand the faith issues involved.
There is no biblically mandated age for that biblical training to take place. Our congregation usually confirms children after 8th grade, but we have confirmed children younger than that. The tradition of 8th grade confirmation was chosen because that is an age when the Church felt most children were mature enough to understand both the nature and the gravity of the Sacrament.
Regardless of age, however, there does need to be proper instruction of the one wishing to commune so that the Lord’s Supper, the Christian life of repentance, and the basic teachings of God’s Word are understood. This means plainly that those who have not had such training should not commune. We would not expect those raised in different denominations to have been trained in Lutheran doctrine or to hold to our understanding of Christ’s Supper. That is not to say that we think that person is going to hell. It is to say that they are not properly prepared for the Sacrament until such time as they have been properly instructed.
“...Many voices in our present context assert that all truth is relative and that all perspectives are equally valid. Standing against the culture, Christ’s church must hold firmly to the truth that doctrine – propositional truth – will be either true and good, or false and evil. Many people including members of our own congregations, will be baffled by this classic approach. When we encounter these reactions, we must be prepared to explain ourselves in winsome and patient ways. We must also continue to hold high the standards for our own catechetical instruction of doctrine. Abbreviated programs of instruction, either for the young people or for adults, that neglect the teaching of Lutheran doctrine will only accelerate the slide into an indifference to God’s revealed truth in Holy Scripture." (Admission to the Lord’s Supper: A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, November 1999)
This also means that should someone suffer from a debilitating mental disease that robs him or her of an ability to understand the basics of the faith (with regard to repentance and the Lord’s Supper), they should probably not commune. That does not mean they are not forgiven or somehow lack the Holy Spirit and Christ’s grace. It simply means that they are no longer able to meet the biblical criteria of one who can examine themself.
5. Unity of faith
This final issue more than any other has proven to be the most controversial. Communion is more than just a personal or individual act between God and the communicant. It is the most public corporate act of the Church and clearest expression to true Christian oneness under the Savior’s grace. At the communion rail one is saying, “I believe the same thing as is taught at this altar. I submit myself to this teaching and this Gospel. So I am one with everyone else standing at this rail.” It is as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4:1-6, “One faith, one Lord, one baptism.”
To come to communion is to confess openly before everyone the true Christian unity we enjoy under God’s Word. It is because of this that one’s denominational affiliation matters at the rail. The reason there are different denominations is because there are different understandings of God’s Word. Division of doctrine is the heart of denominational division. As a member of a denomination a person is saying, “This is my faith. This is my doctrine.” It would make no sense for someone who believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament to belong to a denomination that saw the Sacrament as only a symbolic meal. So the assumption that is made is that when one belongs to a Methodist, or Baptist, or Lutheran church they accept the doctrinal confession and understanding that defines their denomination.
The communion rail is not the place to “agree to disagree.” At the Lord’s Supper we are confessing a true and genuine unity of faith. If a person cannot say they are truly united with us in the confession of our altar, then they would be violating the oneness we confess there. If that person actually does agree with us and our confession, then, in order for things to proceed “decently and in order”, he or she should go through the necessary steps for joining an LCMS congregation prior to their communing.
So who can commune?
The standards to which we hold everyone are consistent with God’s Word. We ask that only those commune who:
1. Recognize that in the Lord’s Supper forgiveness is given
2. Believe that it is Christ’s body and blood in the Supper
3. Are repentant of all their sins and are forgiving toward others
4. Are able to properly examine themselves and have been instructed in Lutheran doctrine
5. Demonstrate their unity under our doctrine by belonging to an LCMS congregation or one of the congregations in
fellowship with the LCMS
In 2007, the LCMS declared fellowship with the AALC (American Association of Lutheran Churches). Members of the AALC are therefore welcome to commune at LCMS altars. They, with all visitors wishing to commune, should request admission to the Sacrament from the pastor prior to the service so that he can establish that the necessary criteria for admission to the Table have been met. There are also nearly 30 other Lutheran church bodies throughout the world that are in fellowship with the LCMS. We have been privileged to have members of the Lutheran Church of Kenya and the Lutheran Church of Lithuania commune with us in recent years.
Holding to criteria such as these for all those wishing to commune is intended to ensure that the Sacrament is used as Christ instituted it. It is clear that misuse of the Sacrament can harm souls – so who is admitted to the table and who isn’t is of the utmost importance. Love for the wellbeing of others sometimes necessitates saying no. Other times we are pleased to be able to say “yes” and enjoy full communion with our brothers and sisters of other congregations.
Saying “no” is never intended to suggest that the person in question lacks faith or isn’t going to heaven. It is simply recognizing that for the present moment the biblical criteria for communing together have not been met. Hopefully it will encourage the one who wishes to commune to take the steps necessary to be admitted to the Table with us. Once those steps are taken and all the criteria are met, then we will joyfully receive that person at the Supper of our Lord with us, and give thanks that they are one with us under the same confession, doctrine, and grace of Christ.
For further reading:
Admission to the Lord’s Supper: A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, November 1999.
Elert, Werner. Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, trans. N.E. Nagel. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1966.
Sasse, Hermann. This is my body. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977.
Sasse, Hermann. We Confess the Sacraments. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985.