by Samuel H. Nafzger
Several months after my installation as pastor of St. Paul congregation, I noticed that Evelyn, the wife of one of our faithful members, was not sitting next to her husband in their accustomed pew. On the way out of church that morning, I asked Albert where his wife was. “Oh,” he said, “every few months she feels the need to go back to her old church to receive communion.”
Albert and Evelyn, both in their 60s, had been married for about five years, each having lost their first spouse through death. “Why hasn’t Evelyn ever joined the Lutheran Church?” I asked.
“That’s a good question,” Albert responded. “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”
The next day I called on Evelyn. Within a few minutes, I had an answer to my question.
Shortly after their marriage, Evelyn had gone through two classes in Christian doctrine taught by my predecessor. But she had never joined the Lutheran church. Why? It was not because she disagreed with the Lutheran understanding of the Christian faith.
“The Lutheran Church teaches what I have always believed,” she said. “But I simply could not bring myself to join the Lutheran Church, because I promised my first husband on his deathbed that, for the sake of our children, I would never leave our church.”
At the next week’s meeting of the elders, following prayerful deliberation, a decision was made upon my recommendation that Evelyn be encouraged to receive communion with her husband at St. Paul congregation. This true story illustrates the principles that underlie the ancient practice of “closed,” or to use the term more familiar to Missouri Synod ears, “close,” communion.
Despite the simplicity of its institution, celebration of the Lord’s Supper, it seems, has frequently been attended by controversy: What is the nature of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine? Must only unleavened bread and wine be used, or may we use leavened bread and grape juice? Who can officiate at the administration of the Sacrament? What should be done with the unused elements after the worship service? How often should Holy Communion be celebrated?
But today, no question regarding the Lord’s Supper–especially in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Lutheran churches, all of which continue to practice some form of “close(d) communion”–produces more passion than, “Who is invited to attend?”
Not to welcome everyone to the Lord’s Table seems, well, so unfriendly, so ungracious, so inhospitable, so un-American, and, some would even say, so contrary to the Bible. Did not our Lord say, “Drink of it, all of you”? Did He not commune Judas, even though He knew that a few hours later Judas would betray Him with a kiss? By what right does the church place barriers between sinners and their reception of the Supper of our Lord?
In this age of high mobility, in the face of the increasing numbers of marriages across denominational lines, and because of a loss of loyalty to institutional church bodies and their classical beliefs, questions such as these have become pressing issues in many congregations.
The answers to questions about admission to Holy Communion, we Lutherans believe, must be given on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, as indeed must all answers to questions about the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. Holy Communion is not the church’s ordinance. It is the Supper of our Lord. While instructive, it is not enough to point out that the Christian church has always practiced “closed(d) communion,” or that the majority of Christians in the world today belong to churches that practice “close(d) communion.”
We must therefore ask how the Scriptures answer the question, “But who is invited to attend?”
To answer, we need to take a quick look at the New Testament accounts of the institution of the Sacrament of the Altar. The significance of this sacrament is underlined by the fact that what our Savior said and did at the time of the institution is recorded in four places: Matt. 26:26–28; Mark 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20; and 1 Cor. 11:23–25.
Note the setting for this occasion. On the night before He died, Jesus had gathered His 12 disciples together in an upper room in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Passover with them. This was the most special holy day on the calendar for the children of Israel. The Passover had originated with the deliverance of their ancestors 1,500 years earlier from cruel servitude to the Egyptian pharaoh. Despite a long series of painful plagues, Pharaoh had stubbornly refused to let the Israelites return to their homeland. Finally, God instructed Moses, their leader, to tell Pharaoh that at midnight He would go forth in their midst and kill all the firstborn in the land among “both man and beast” (Ex. 12:12).
But at the same time God provided His chosen people a way of escape from this impending catastrophe. Each household was to kill a lamb and put its blood on the doorposts of their houses. Upon sight of the blood, the Angel of the Lord would “pass over” their houses and spare their firstborn from death. Acting on these directions, the Israelites were delivered from their slavery. Saved form death by the blood of a lamb, they were permitted to leave Egypt and to return to the land promised to Abraham 1,000 years earlier.
So that they might manifest this miraculous deliverance, God commanded His people to celebrate “this rite as an ordinance for you and your sons forever” (Ex. 12:24). And when their children would ask, “What do you mean by this service?” they were told to respond with these words: “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses” (Ex. 12:27).
It was at the annual celebration of this festival that Jesus chose to give His own last will and testament.
His words are clear and straight-forward. As they were eating supper, Jesus took bread, blessed it, and gave it to the disciples. “Take eat; this is my body,” He said. Likewise, He took a cup of wine, and after giving thanks, He gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:27–28).
In 24 hours, Jesus would be dead in His grave.
Here in this Supper of our Lord, we have a succinct embodiment of the Gospel in all its simplicity–and profundity. In a setting rich in the meaning of God’s deliverance of His people through the blood of a lamb, the Lamb of God gives a testament in His body and blood in, with, and under the Passover elements of bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins.
St. Paul reports that Jesus, after giving the disciples the bread and the wine, said to them, “’Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” The apostle continues, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Paul then adds, “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” (1 Cor. 11:25–29).
What do these words from Scripture tell us about “who is invited” to attend the Supper of the Lord? Has our Lord appointed it for everyone in the world? Should the church, if it wants to be faithful to God’s intention, encourage believers and nonbelievers alike to partake–just as it welcomes any and everyone, regardless as to what they believe, to hear the proclamation of the Gospel in public worship? And if the answer to such questions is that only baptized believers in Christ are to be admitted, what does this say about the communing of infants and uninstructed children of church members? How about the communing of fellow believers in Jesus Christ who belong to churches not in church fellowship with one another?
The Lutheran confessional writings, especially Luther’s Large Catechism, provide us with some key insights as to what Scripture has to say about who our Lord invites to receive this sacrament: It is clear that God has instituted this banquet of grace for sinners. Therefore, the church’s primary concern when considering admission to Holy Communion should be, Why do so many heedlessly pass by so great a treasure? God’s command that we “do this,” our great need as guilty people, and God’s gracious promise “for you for the forgiveness of your sins” should move Christians to receive this sacrament frequently.
If we are tempted by our callous and cold indifference to forego communion, Luther suggests that we should “examine our heart and conscience and act like a person who really desires to be right with God.” The more we do this, he suggests, “the more our heart will be warmed and kindled.”
If we are tempted to stay away from the Lord’s Supper because of the weight and burden of our sin, we should remind ourselves “that this sacrament does not depend on our worthiness.” On the contrary, “we come as poor, miserable men, precisely because we are unworthy.”
The Scriptures are crystal clear. Sinners–both those who feel they have no need, as well as those who are burdened down by guilt–who have faith in Jesus’ words, “my body, given for the forgiveness of your sins,” are invited to come. Those “alone are unworthy,” says Luther, “Who neither feel their infirmities nor admit to being sinners.”
But this does not mean that all those guilty of breaking God’s Law have a blanket invitation to attend this sacrament. Alluding to St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians, Luther writes, “Of course, it is true that those who despise the sacrament and lead unchristian lives receive it to their harm and damnation.” 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.” Because this is so, says Luther, “We do not intend to admit to the sacrament and administer it to those who do not know what they seek or why they come.”
Luther’s words about communion attendance point us to a key distinction made by the Scriptures between who is worthy to commune and communing worthily.
God’s Word clearly teaches that there is nothing in us sinners that makes any of us worthy communicants–not good works, not the absence of gross sins, not even our right understanding and confession of the Gospel. Only those are worthy who have faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
With respect to communing worthily, however, the apostle says, “Let a man examine himself,” and that no one should commune “without discerning the body,” indicating that those who are unable or unwilling to so prepare themselves should not commune.
Moreover, St. Paul specifically says that taking part in this sacramental meal is a proclamation of our Lord’s death until He returns. Participation in the sacrament is itself an act of confession. We therefore should not commune with those with whom we disagree in the confession of the Gospel, lest we say one thing with our words and another with our actions. The pain of brothers and sisters in Christ not being able to proclaim together Christ’s death in Holy Communion ought to compel us not to rest until our differences in confessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ are resolved and we can join one another at God’s altar.
Understood in this perspective, the traditional time-honored practice of “close(d) communion” is seen to be simply a way of manifesting faithfulness to God’s Word and loving concern for our fellow sinners. The purpose of this practice is not to exclude people from the sacrament, but rather to see to it that the Lord’s Supper is made available to all those for whom Christ intends it.
Denominational affiliation ought never be the sole criterion for admission to the Sacrament. When we extend an open invitation to members of congregations in church fellowship with us to commune at our altars, we are simply saying that we believe this membership means that they “know what they seek” and “why they come.” While the Missouri Synod has long recognized the necessity of communing non-LCMS Christians in special cases involving responsible pastoral care,* our congregations generally ask that those unknown to them speak to the pastor before communing in their congregations for the first time, lest the congregation be guilty of encouraging someone to receive Christ’s body and blood to his or her judgment.
To assist congregations and pastors in exercising pastoral oversight with respect to communion attendance, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations recently prepared the following “Model Communion-Card Statement”:
The Lord’s Supper is celebrated at this congregation in the confession and glad confidence that, as he says, our Lord gives into our mouths not only bread and wine but his very body and blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins and to strengthen our union with him and with one another. Our Lord invites to his table those who trust his words, repent of all sin, and set aside any refusal to forgive and love as he forgives and loves us, that they may show forth his death until he comes.
Because those who eat and drink our Lord’s body and blood unworthily do so to their great harm, and because Holy Communion is a confession of faith which is confessed at this altar, any who are not yet instructed, in doubt, or who hold a confession differing from that of this congregation and The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, and yet desire to receive the sacrament, are asked first to speak with the pastor or an usher.
For further study, see Matt. 5:23f.; 10:32f.; 18:15–35; 26:26–29; 1 Cor. 11:17–34.
What a good and gracious God and Savior we have to have prepared such a feast for us! May He grant that we weary sinners may never be guilty of despising this sacrament, but receive it frequently with blessing!
* The 1967 LCMS Convention resolved that “pastors and congregations of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, except in situations of emergency and in special cases of pastoral care, commune individuals of only those Lutheran synods which are now in fellowship with us” (Res. 2-19). This position was reaffirmed in 1986 when the Synod resolved “that the pastors and congregations of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod continue to abide by the practice of close communion, which includes the necessity of exercising responsible pastoral care in extraordinary situations and circumstances” (Res. 3-08).
Dr. Samuel H. Nafzger is the retired executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations. Currently, he is LCMS director of church relations and assistant to LCMS President Gerald B. Kieschnick. This story appeared originally in the May 1993 issue of The Lutheran Witness. Copyright © 1993 by The Lutheran Witness.