What used to be common practice in the Lutheran Church in years past has become a practice that is now a doctrine, which confessional Lutherans have to defend. With the casting aside, or at very least a compromising of the fellowship principle of Scripture as outlined in 1 Corinthians 1:10 and Romans 16:17,18 the practice of “close” communion is now an archaic practice. Public opinion and compromise has replaced Scripture as the determining factor. “Open” communion, which operates on the principle of “ya’ll come,” has replaced the principle of unity of faith and confession as an operating principle. In our congregation and throughout the Church of the Lutheran Confession is still practiced what the confessional Lutheran Church of years past practiced. That of course, in itself, does not make the practice correct. However, we believe that the practice was and is firmly based on Scripture.
Whereas Jesus has told the Church, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them . . .” (Matthew 28:19), He has not told the Church to go out and commune the world. When He instituted the Lord’s Supper, He instituted it within the intimate circle of His disciples. The Lord’s Supper is just that, His Supper, not ours. We do not have the right to change what is His as though we know better than He who gave it.
The practice of “close” (some call it “closed”) is not a judgment on the heart or the salvation of people who are denied the Lord’s Supper at our altar. But it is practiced for compelling reasons. First of all, Scripture teaches it. Secondly, the Sacrament instituted for blessing ( Forgiveness of sins and eternal life) and the comfort of the penitent sinner can be received to one’s judgment (1 Corinthians 11:29). Thirdly, inherent in the word “communion” is the expression of oneness. This oneness is recognized, not by the faith of the heart, but by the confession of the mouth. We have to assume that people who belong to a given church or church body believe and confess what that church teaches or they would not be part of it. If the public confession of that church is not in keeping with Scripture and we believe ours is, it is dishonest to suggest that we are in “communion” when we are not. Again, our practice is not a matter of judging heart; it is a matter of honesty.
The 1943 edition of the catechism which we use (The old LC-MS catechism, 1943) asks: To whom must the Lord’s Supper be denied? It answers, ” The Lord’s Supper must be denied –
A. To those who are known to be ungodly and impenitent .
B. To those who have given offense and he not removed it.
C. To those who are not able to examine themselves, such as children and adults who he not been sufficiently instructed, and persons who are unconscious.
D. To those of a different faith, since the Lord’s Supper is a testimony of the unity of faith.” (Original emphasis)
This practice of the old LC-MS was also the practice of other Lutherans who now make up the ELCA. We have not invented a new doctrine or practice, but have maintained the old! The practice of “close” communion is an exercise of evangelical love and concern for the Truth as well as for the communicant.
We can understand why lay-people of other churches may have a difficult time understanding our practice. If the teachers and pastors of the church have lost the fellowship principle it follows that the people will not understand it.
We suspect that much of the misunderstanding of the practice of close communion is based in a lack of understanding of the Sacrament itself. The Sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood was given by the Lord for the strengthening of faith and for the assurance of divine forgiveness. The body of Christ, given for you” and the blood of Christ “shed for you” in, with, and under the bread and wine is a seal of our Lord to us. In other words, in the sacrament it is not we who are doing anything but receiving. It is the Lord who is giving. The blessings of the sacrament come to us not because of merit on our part – if we had such merit we would not need it- but because God is gracious and merciful, compassionate and forgiving.
And just because He wants us to derive the blessing inherent in it, He Himself gives the warning, ” He that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation (Judgment) to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:29). A faithful pastor cannot in good conscience give the sacrament to someone whom he does not know, and thus be a purveyor of possible judgment to the communicant. (If there are members who have spoken all the correct words and publicly confessed agreement with the congregation before the altar, he will receive them to communion. If one comes as a hypocrite, God is His judge. The pastor and the congregation are absolved of the “blood” of such a person). Further, since communing together is a witness of the unity of faith and understanding, a pastor cannot distribute the sacrament to some whose public confession and faith he does not know. Further, he must also be concerned lest he offend fellow confessing Christians through indiscriminate distribution of the sacrament. Surely the easy thing would to be to adopt “open” communion.” Then fewer visitors to the service might be unhappy and more might be inclined to come back again. But the easy way is not always the right way. Furthermore, the confessional Lutheran pastor has to live with his conscience and answer before God for his actions. Where that conscience is bound by God’s Word, “open” communion is not an option.
We are always ready to show and explain our practice to such as ask. But please do not expect that a faithful pastor or congregation will bend the Word. However we also believe in the power of the Word. We believe that when people who earnestly desire the sacrament carefully think about the sacrament as well as what Scripture says about it both with respect to its blessing and its judgment they will agree, however grudgingly it may be, that the practice of “close” is the Scripture way because it is the Lord’s way. If we strip away all personal opinions and simply let our practice reflect what God speaks in His Word, blessing will follow.