The following letter was written by a friend of mine and forwarded to me. I thought it was so good that I asked if I could publish it, knowing that the topic of “closed communion” is an oft-discussed— and oft-misunderstood— topic among Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike. Though I have long been meaning to write something about it, myself, I cannot imagine that anything I might have to say would do as much justice as what here follows.
Without launching into too much fulsome adulation, I would be remiss if I did not at least mention that this particular friend, who was a fellow-traveler at Hillsdale College, was very influential in helping me “rediscover for the first time” the Evangelical faith confessed by the Lutheran Church, which I have come to believe is none other than the true catholic and orthodox faith “once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3). God bless him.
(Nota Bene: boldface emphases and formatting are mine.)
In the past several weeks, a number of different friends and family from various circles of relationships have asked me about the practice of closed communion. In more than one conversation, I promised to send an email, point someone to resources/historical texts, or explain the Church’s historic position on this evangelical practice.
Rather than write multiple emails, I’ve decided to just send out a brief letter that I think will address questions that have come to me from several different circles. Some of you are included because I know you are interested in topics of this sort. I do of course invite anyone to write me back directly. However, I prefer to avoid subjecting everyone to a mass email string that he/she may not wish to receive. Instead, my hope is that this email will facilitate discourses on this topic, irrespective of your tradition, position, or current practice. I will of course explain and defend the Church’s historic practice in what follows— I don’t pretend to speak without a view. However, I will not include any dubious or idiosyncratic information.
Two major resources for considering this practice:
- Eucharist and Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, by Werner Elert
- The Lord’s Supper in the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series, by John R. Stephenson (esp. Chapter 8 – “Our Sad Divisions”)
These are both Lutheran sources. The first is an historical-theological argument; the second, a dogmatics text. Both will take you into the major primary texts on this matter, as well as recent discussions. Let me start, though, with an ecumenical source. Here’s John Calvin on the importance of unity in doctrine:
For everyone to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper, without distinction or selection, is a sign of contempt that the Lord cannot endure. The Lord himself distributed the supper to his disciples only. Therefore anyone not instructed in the doctrine of the gospel ought not to approach what the Lord has instituted. No one should be distressed when his Christianity is examined even down to the finest point when he is to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. It should be established as part of the total state and system of discipline that ought to flourish in the church that those who are judged unworthy should not be admitted. (John Calvin, “Letter on Various Subjects” in the book Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice; SOURCE)
Now, since he has only one body, of which he makes us all partakers, it is necessary that all of us also be made one body by such participation. The bread shown in the Sacrament represents this unity. As it is made of many grains so mixed together by such great agreement of minds that no sort of disagreement or division may intrude. I prefer to explain it in Paul’s words [1 Corinthians 10:16-18]. (See footnote #26 on that page for Calvin’s citation of patristic sources on closed communion beginning with the Didache.)
Rather than attempt a comprehensive account of this practice, which would be impossible and no one would read, in what follows I will proceed by addressing particular statements and objections that seem to represent the crux of the matter as it has been raised to me in recent discourse(s). I’ll start with a few ancillary points in order to clear up the field.
1. Closed communion is an “elitist” practice that says some Christians are better than others.
This statement comes up in various forms, but in most cases it simply lacks any theological content. I address it first because it has come to me most recently. The Scriptures don’t have any terms that approximate “elitist”. More importantly, the question for any pastor celebrating the Lord’s Supper and for any laymen receiving it is this: Does God bless this act and promise his mercy and forgiveness by means of it, or does he condemn this act and promise his judgment? (1 Corinthians 11)
If God blesses “closed communion”, the fact of its being “elitist” would be either untrue or a great compliment. If God condemns “closed communion”, then its “elitism” is the least of its problems. One might argue, logically, that God condemns closed communion because of its “elitism” which would make it the greatest sin, but someone would need to find an exegetical basis for that claim. At the heart of any theological claim is the assertion the God’s blessing or judgment rests upon a given teaching or practice. When I say, “It is wrong to teach that baptism does not save,” that is shorthand for, “God rejects the notion that baptism lacks His saving authority and He is offended by such teaching.” That is the content of the statement “it is wrong.”
Wrong and right are statements, ultimately, about the personal disposition of God toward His teachers. This is clear from many places, but Ezekiel 34 is a good place. Consider the consequences for the shepherds who have pastured themselves on their sheep— it involves God’s personal judgment. Likewise, Paul invokes God’s condemnation on those who teach against his Gospel. The point here is that ad hominem epithets like “elitist” are empty. God either blesses and approves a teaching and practice, or He does not.
2. Closed communion is a Lutheran practice.
For limitations of time and space, I won’t offer a comprehensive historical demonstration of the practice of excluding (a) non-Christians, (b) catechumens, (c) impenitent sinners, and (d) heretical teachers and their followers from communion fellowship. For purpose of this discussion, I will assume that such exclusion has always been the universal practice of the Church. This is an historical claim that anyone can observe. The Mediterranean Sea has also been present in roughly its current location for all of recorded history; any common map can show that. I won’t argue this point here. (That said, for reference you can trace from Acts 15, 1 Corinthians 5, 2 Corinthians 6, the Didache, St. Justin Martyr’s Apology I, Tertullian Ad Uxorem II.5, the Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom, etc.; it should also be noted that virtually any scholarly history of the ecumenical councils concludes major narrative by pointing out that some number of bishops or teachers “broke fellowship” (cf. Leo Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils)— in other words, schism, i.e., the act of separating from fellowship in the catholic faith, is the action of unbelievers and misbelievers.)
The question is not, “Should closed communion should be practiced?” but rather, “Where do we place the boundaries?”
By universal, I mean that it was practiced everywhere from the earliest churches, that such a practice was the assumption of all ecumenical theological discourse until the twentieth century, and that it remains the practice of the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and the churches of the Augsburg Confession (i.e., “Confessional Lutherans”), and still exists in some form in all churches. For instance, even the most modern-minded Protestant will acknowledge that impenitent sinners cannot commune. Likewise, Anabaptists who regard the Lord’s Supper and Baptism as important symbolic ordinances, but not sacraments, nonetheless make baptism a prerequisite for communion: raised as an Anabaptist, I was considered a Christian on the basis of my sinner’s prayer, but still excluded from the Lord’s Table until after my Baptism at age thirteen. The Church did not deny that I was a Christian. And yet, until my baptism, they considered me unprepared for sharing in the Church’s common things. This is nothing if not “closed communion.” Virtually all Churches have this practice in some form, not least because Christians have always recognized that reception of the Sacrament of the Altar is, at minimum, a unique act of the Church in its sacred community and not a common/profane act to be done by anyone and everyone. The question, then, is not, “Should should closed communion should be practiced?” but rather, “Where do we place the boundaries?”
Historically speaking, closed communion is the praxiological assumption that makes any of the ecumenical councils relevant. What does it mean to condemn Arianism except that Arius and his followers will be excluded from the fellowship of the Church?
3. If you exclude people from communion, you are saying that they are not Christians. In order to do this, you must be saying that all non-Lutherans are condemned.
This statement is a misunderstanding that assumes the meaning and basis for communion prescribed in “low-Church” traditions, and then takes offense because of that assumption. That is, in the broadly Zwinglian traditions, one must “be a Christian” in order to “commune.” Hence, it is assumed that anyone excluded is having her Christianity denied. In reality, the person who reasons this way has merely assumed his premises, i.e., begged the question.
The requirement for being a Christian is baptism. All Christians believe and are baptized into the Name of the Holy Trinity. However, communion fellowship is not primarily a matter of the individual Christian. Fellowship is established between ecclesial bodies on the authority of their presiding ministers (episkopoi). Exclusion of a given Christian from participation does not necessarily entail the claim that such a person is “not a Christian.” Rather, it entails the claim that the pastor who presides does not have confidence that such a person is receiving the appropriate pastoral care necessary to ensure worthy reception of the sacred mysteries.
The heart of closed communion, for any reason, is the evangelical concern to maintain faithful shepherding of the sheep for the sake of their health and salvation. This care occurs at least in three main ways:
- By ensuring true teaching: Most basically, it occurs when pastors preach true doctrine and administer the sacraments faithfully. If the Church publicly condemns the preaching of your pastor, it excludes you from communion because you are not receiving appropriate pastoral care needed to guarantee your safe and worthy reception. True teaching is the most basic form of pastoral care. Christians tend to run in groups. For this reason, we tend to use shorthand, “Lutherans and Catholics aren’t in fellowship,” we might say. That is shorthand for the more precise claim that the pastors of those Church bodies have issued mutual warnings against the teaching of the others’ parishes. Roman Catholic pastors have counseled their people to stay away from Lutheran pulpits because their doctrine is not safe, and vice versa. Each side does this out of concern for their sheep. It does not mean that Roman Catholic priests say that Lutheran parishioners “aren’t Christians”; it does mean that because Roman Catholic priests believe that Lutherans are Christians, those priests have an evangelical duty to point Lutherans to the one true Church in Rome. The breaking of fellowship is always done for the sake of the sheep and not to hurt or insult them. Likewise, this is done out of respect for the biblical admonition that Christians be of one mind in the celebration (1 Corinthians 10).
- By ensuring purity of life: Pastoral care entails the regular admonition to make right use of Word and Sacrament. A pastor may not condemn the public teaching of your Church. Perhaps you are a confessional Lutheran. But, you haven’t been to Church in months; you don’t read the Scriptures or pray, and you maintain open grudges against members of the congregation; your name isn’t on the rolls as a regular attendee at any particular parish. If so, a faithful pastor will likely counsel you to meet with him prior to reception and correct these issues. He will call your previous pastor and ask if you’ve been disciplined in some way; he’ll check your catechesis. This is closed communion. This discipline of the table ensures that all parishioners receive faithful and regular care, and it prevents parishioners from running from the admonition of their pastors— a dangerous habit of our modern mobile society. (Want to live with your boyfriend? Just go down the road to the next guy. He’ll commune/marry you.)
- By preserving the unity of the Church: With respect to closed communion on the basis of Church membership, this is primarily a corporate act that occurs first between pastors and thus by implication through them, to parishioners. You can see this principle at work in the New Testament. When Paul goes up to Jerusalem and receives the right hand of fellowship from the Apostles, he does so because they are unified in their teaching. The fellowship of the Apostles means that they will mutually teach and commune their respective sheep. Conversely, when Paul says that anyone teaching a Gospel other than his should be anathema, he refers to the teaching of other teachers. 1 Corinthians 3 warns that pastors who build on the foundation of Christ with wood, hay, and stubble will see their work consumed, though they themselves may be delivered. So, episkopoi who keep an honest confession refuse to engage in altar-fellowship with teachers they regard as false. Prime example: the 311 Fathers of Nicaea rejected the doctrine of Arius. This meant that they would not let them teach in their pulpits, nor celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar with them. Now, suppose that you were a Christian in Arius’s Church— would you go commune and learn from a pastor who had just condemned your own pastor? Would you even want to be present? How disloyal you would be, in Arius’s eye! Do you think Arius would be pleased? Of course not. Likewise, assume that the Nicene Fathers were correct. The whole point of condemning Arius was to ensure that parishioners are not deceived by false doctrine. Your pastors refuse fellowship with Arius in order to preserve you from his heretical teaching. This is a work of evangelical love and pastoral duty. A pastor who encourages his people to partake in error is unfaithful to his own people and confused in his own doctrine; that, or he has come to a very late, post-ecumenical movement epistemology that regards positive truth-claims as verbal approximations of mysterious truths which cannot thus be dividing, because language itself is an indifferent matter. Most people on this thread reject such a proposition, but I want to acknowledge it in fairness. After the linguistic turn, many are simply offering this as a tertium quid to this whole discussion.
In fine, communion is “closed” out of respect for the authority of pastoral relationships in every Church body. For example, if you are a Presbyterian, you probably know that Lutherans reject Limited Atonement and teach a crypto-Catholic doctrine of the sacraments that claims each person actually eats the very body and blood that was crucified on the cross. For this reason, your faithful Presbyterian pastor counsels you to be not a Lutheran, but rather a faithful Presbyterian and enjoy the eating of Christ’s body as a spiritual food, not in a cannibalistic Thyestean ritual. When a Lutheran pastor refuses to commune you, he does so in part because he knows that your pastor would not approve. He knows that eating means that his Church’s confession becomes your confession. However, the Lutheran confession is not your confession, and so he doesn’t allow you— by virtue of accident or ignorance— to offer a false or confused confession, which would violate the commandment not to lie and the biblical mandate that we be of one mind and able to give an account of the hope that is in us. If he allowed this, he would also be violating his oath as a steward of the mysteries (cf. Latin, sacramentum), whose job it is to administer them in accordance with Scripture and the canons/bylaws of his communion (1 Corinthians 4:1).
The heart of closed communion, for any reason, is the evangelical concern to maintain faithful shepherding of the sheep for the sake of their health and salvation.
By analogy, many of you have close friendships across denominational lines. You know that your friends, being Roman Catholic, accept the papacy and the Council of Trent, Vatican I, (maybe) Vatican II, etc. When their children come to visit and participate in your family devotions, you probably don’t remind the children that the Pope is Antichrist, that the Roman Catholic doctrine of Justification is in error, and transubstantiation a medieval invention of vain philosophy. No— you save those kinds of inter-confessional polemics for the discourse of the grownups, and you encourage the children to go back to their parents for their catechesis. If a child asks you the meaning of a verse, you probably tell the child an answer that his mother and father would approve; if you offer your denominational interpretation, you flag it as such. Well, “the Lutherans understand Christ’s statement, ‘on this rock I will build my Church’ with reference to Peter’s confession because…; but you are Roman Catholic, and so your parents believe it to be a reference to the Pope.” You do this out of respect for the authority of the parent and loyalty to your mutual friendship.
It is no different with closed communion. Good pastors practice this mutual respect for the sake of good order in their Churches and faithful catechesis of all people. We do not deceive people into our Churches by having them practice first and learn the meaning later. No faithful teacher does this. And, quite frankly, the marketeering and parishioner-poaching of modern mainline denominations is as much a disgrace within the low-Protestant churches as it is outside of them. Ultimately, it serves to undermine everyone’s witness to the Gospel, “and the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles on account of [us]” (Romans 2:24; Isaiah 52:5). A pastor who refuses to identify false teachers and stay away from them is unfaithful and builds with wood, hay, and straw.
All pastors have a duty to warn the faithful against false teachers. Any pastor who refuses this duty is unfaithful to his oath and will answer to God for it.
The Scriptures regularly enjoin the entire congregation of the faithful to avoid false teachers. St. Paul does this in Romans 16:17: “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.” The Epistles of St. John command that anyone who does not remain in “the teaching” of Christ should not even be allowed into your house (2 John 10). Surely, St. John does not expect that a pastor will commune such a person. Notably, in 1 John he spoke of the doctrine of the Incarnation. As many know, this doctrine because the subject of all manner of intra-confessional debate that has direct analogy to modern questions.
Some will argue that modern disagreements on “small things” like the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament, or other secondary matters like Predestination or ecclesiological teaching, somehow do not rise to the level of these fundamental early dialogues. That assumption is wrong. Any modern history of the first four ecumenical councils will attest to the seeming endless “hairsplitting” on the doctrines of Trinity and Christology. Likewise, the New Testament uses the term “doctrine” in the singular whenever speaking of the Faith. Only when Paul refers to “doctrines of demons” does the plural form appear. It is not appropriate to say that we can agree on “the big stuff” but harbor all manner of disagreement on other “secondary” things while still communing. Such a position is the invention of the modern ecumenical movement beginning in the early twentieth century; yes— it took the Church almost 2000 years to come up with that idea (cf. Stephenson, 149ff; Calvin quote, above).
All pastors have a duty to warn the faithful against false teachers. Any pastor who refuses this duty is unfaithful to his oath and will answer to God for it (cf. 1 Corinthians 3). As a faithful steward of the mysteries, a pastor is faithful to the often difficult task of publicly objecting to false doctrine. This task began with Jesus, the Good Pastor, who laid down his life for his sheep. Christ warned against false teachers who would say “Lord, Lord, etc…” (Matthew 7:21-23), and He taught the Apostles also to do the same. Hence, St. Paul warns against those who teach the doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1); he warns against the “super apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5), and he warns against even angels who should teach other than his doctrine (Galatians 1:8). He says that divisions must come among you in order that the true may be proved (1 Corinthians 11:19). Likewise St. John commands not even to give hospitality to those who deceive you (2 John 10).
The pastoral refusal to commune those who abide in traditions that teach false doctrine are being faithful to these commands from Our Lord and His apostles. By refusing to commune me, for instance, an Orthodox priest says, “Hey, I’m sorry but it is not safe for you to believe, teach, and confess this-and-such error. As a called and ordained minister, I am obliged to tell you this, and not ignore the stumbling stone that is in your way.” Certainly, as a Lutheran, I may disagree with the Orthodox priest. I may hold that the doctrine of justification is the article by which the Church stands or falls; for that reason, I will ignore the priest’s warning. Still, I will admire and honor the priests’ concern to keep me in the one True Faith, and I will not commune. I will not take offense. The priest actually honors me, my pastor, and Christ by maintaining the separation which has been erected as a result of the mutual disagreement between the teaching of his Church and mine. The need for this discipline is a sad reality of the Church for its entire existence, but perhaps most obviously seen in the First Seven Ecumenical Councils.
I planned a bunch more content— an exegetical look at all the passages that enjoin unity of teaching, avoidance of false teaching, pastoral admonition of sinners, etc. I ran out of time and energy. The above should be enough to advance the discourse.
If you take away central points from the above, I hope they are these:
- Closed Communion is not an idiosyncratic or recent practice. Open communion is.
- Closed communion does not mean that a pastor denies your Christianity.
- Closed communion is a corporate or ecclesial matter that presumes mutual respect of another ministerium; it is not simply a private question.
- A pastor who excludes you from communion respects your pastor; that’s [partially] why he asks you to abstain.
El Friendo de Trent