08 January 2009

A Thought or Two on Closed Communion

The laity hate it, by and large. And they are right to do so. They sense, as every Christian must in his heart, that our Blessed Lord never MEANT for this - table set against table, Christian divided from Christian, and scandals galore foisted upon the Church. When faithful pastors insist on the importance of the practice, it needs to be done always with the deep humility that confesses: "Nevertheless, it should not be so; it is only so because of our sin."

Faithful Lutherans practice a closed table. It is not permitted for those who contradict the apostolic faith we have received to share the table with us; you cannot be saying "yes" and "no" at the same time. In Christ, it all "yes" and "amen."

But the fact that we must, to be faithful, practice a closed communion in the current circumstances does not at all mean that being faithful entials SETTLING for a divided table and a divided Christendom. God forbid! We CANNOT settle for denominationalism! It is contrary to both the letter and the spirit of our Confessions - breathing as they do the spirit of our Lord's great high priestly prayer: "That they may all be one."

Rather, the pain of the divided table should impel us to pray more fervently, to honest self-examination for any ways we have fostered the Church's division by pride and arrogance, and to seek above all to lead the way for all Christians to enter into that stance of faith that simply says: "Yes!" to the Words and Promises of Christ by our own joyful submission to Christ.

"This is my body, given for you." "Amen!"
"This is my blood shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins." "Amen!"

When we can all bow before the truth of these (and all) of our Savior's words, without equivocation, then the days of the divided table and the divided Church will be at an end. How can any Christian not long and pray for that day?

The righteous indignation of many of our people will be soothed if they realize we pray with all our hearts and will do whatever it takes to work towards the realization of what we sing:

Let not Thy good Spirit forsake us;
Grant that heav'nly minded He make us;
Give Thy Church,
Lord, to see
Days of peace and unity;
O Lord, have mercy!


WM Cwirla said...

The laity will hate things for a variety of reasons: 1) It wars against their old Adam; 2) it contradicts their own personal convictions; 3) they don't understand; 4) they are not convinced it is Scriptural and therefore from God.

I've learned in my years as a pastor that the laity have a remarkably good nose for what is good news and what is not. Perhaps they smell something that isn't quite right here.

William Weedon said...

Your last sentence, William, is what I was trying to get at. They know that something's not right. We all feel it, I suspect. But we're not sure what else to do given the blatant contradiction of our Lord's words and gifts. Faith can't fellowship at the Table with unbelief. Unbelief doesn't have a chair at this table.

WM Cwirla said...

Yup. Faith and unbelief. Would that it were as black and white as that, eh brother?

Dcn. Carlos Miranda said...

Dear Pastor Weedon, I am trying to get my arms around closed communion, but I fail at each attempt. I stumble when I ask how much must be agreed upon by Christians in order to commune at one table. Is belief that the commandments are true and good, the creed and its gospel correct, and knowing Lord's Prayer enough? In addition having faith that our salvation rests in God's grace alone, through Christ’s merits alone, how many nuances of theology must be understood. The young usually have a very basic knowledge of the faith, yet they are allowed to commune. And what about the great saints who commune with us in heaven, would they be barred from our table on earth? Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, could not unless they were not part of our denomination. I am not trying to be polemical, just airing the places where my understanding of closed communion seems to fall short- please help me understand it better.

Dcn. Carlos Miranda said...

Dear Pastor Weedon, I am trying to get my arms around closed communion, but I fail at each attempt. I stumble when I ask how much must be agreed upon by Christians. Is faith that our salvation rests in God's grace alone, through Christ’s merits alone enough? Is belief that the commandments are true and good, the creed and its gospel correct, and knowing Lord's Prayer enough? Just how many nuances of theology must be understood. The young usually have a very basic knowledge of the faith, yet we would not deny them a seat at the table. And what about the great saints who commune with us in heaven: Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Cranmer, would they be barred from our table on earth unless they are part of our denomination. I am not trying to be polemical, but simply airing the places where my understanding of closed communion seems to fall short; please help me understand it better.

Scott Larkins said...

Calvin and Cranmer are right out!

Jim said...

You don't invite people into your house, then eat in front of them without serving them as well.

That leaves TWO options, however, not just one, to remedy the situation.

The option that gets all the attention is, of course, feeding the visitor.

But there's another option that the early church practiced: Don't have the visitors (or catechumens) around during meal time. I.e., visitors participate in the first part of the service, and then are dismissed prior to moving into the celebration of the Supper.

Just like in our households: No one thinks it's inhospitable to have someone over for the afternoon, and then to end the visit before the family's dinner.

The problem with our common practice, IMHO, is that by not dismissing the visitors (and catechumens) we engage in what is almost by definition an in-your-face form of inhospitality, i.e., eating in front of the visitor without breaking bread with them.

That, I believe, is what everyone reacts negatively too, because everybody knows that it is the epitome of inhospitality.

So yes, closed communion, but closed communion without offense -- let's dismiss our visitors and catechumens from that part of the service.

Past Elder said...

Right on Jim!

That's exactly why they called it the mass of the catechumens and the mass of the faithful, before Vatican II got a hold of things.

I'd only add the nuance that we are all catechumens in some sense, some formally before their baptism and profession of faith, and all of us continue to grow by the Word through reading and preaching after, so we all benefit from that.

Just like the family members don't come out after the visitors leave, but all are present to-gether.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

I do wonder if the Church would spare offence by asking people to leave the service before it is actually over. Some practices die for good reason.

Greg said...

I appreciate your thoughts, Jim, and the historic practice the you mention. I wonder, however: is any confession of the Gospel ever without offense? I would fear that this line of reasoning could lead us to avoid other preaching and teaching that could be offensive to those who have not yet been catechized (WMC's third reason).

Greg said...

Pr Weedon,
From one pastor to another, I appreciate you stating clearly an idea that I had been trying to get accross to my last Adult Instruction Class. I hope you don't mind a link to your post on my blog.

William Weedon said...

The Orthodox (both Eastern and Western rite) have a solution to the hospitality matter: the antidoran. Blessed bread is given to all who are in attendance, but the Holy Eucharist itself is reserved for those who have been admitted to the Orthodox Church.

Fr. Carlos,

It would require a LONG post to answer that, and I'm on my day off, and so will try to get back to it later. What I will refer you to, and invite you to ponder, are these words from Justin Martyr's first apology:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. [ch. 66]

William Weedon said...


Thanks for the kind words, and, please, help yourself!

Dcn. Carlos Miranda said...

Pr. Weedon, I don't want to take up your day off, but just for clarification. I'm in full agreement at all that the partakers of the eucharist must believe & live out the essentials of the faith just as listed by Justin Martyr. However, I am equally sure that many who do so are in various denominations. My question is, "should the denomination the single thing that opens or closes the table?"

William Weedon said...


I don't believe in denominations! Or said another way, I'm a Lutheran Christian because I believe denominations are of the devil himself. To use your example of Cramner, I couldn't commune the man who wrote the most beautiful English liturgy ever not because he was Anglican per se, but because he won't say "Amen" to the Lord's Words that give the Supper: My body, my blood, for you, for the forgiveness of sins.

On denominationalism, I'd recommend these thoughts from Krauth:

“The Right Relation to Denominations in America,” in Lutheran Confessional Theology in America, 1840-1880, edited by Theodore G. Tappert (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972):

From the first quarter of the nineteenth century there has been a general breaking down of the old landmarks in this country. Popular and influential forms of embodying union sentiment have become more and more common. We have Sunday School and Tract Unions, union revivals, union prayer meetings, the Evangelical Alliance, Young Men’s Christian Associations, all involving compromise on the [basis of the] principles of individualism and all tending to laxity and indifferentism.
The world has been coming into the church with its easygoing policy. There has been a large influx of unworthy professors [of the faith], a relaxation of discipline, a spirit of social complaisance taking the place of principle. ... The struggle of indifferentism was at first against making the doctrines in which “the Evangelical denominations” differ a test. But the struggle at this hour is against making any doctrines a test. Denominationalism with spread sails filling in the gale of unionism, and without pilot or helmsman, is bearing full upon the rock of absolute individualism. When the rock is fairly struck, the vessel will go to the bottom. (pp. 112-13)

A Zwinglian may admit that a Lutheran is not in fundamental error; a Lutheran cannot admit it in regard to a Zwinglian. To claim that what is really but bread and wine is Christ’s body and blood may be a great absurdity -- but it is the result of too absolute a trust in his word -- it is the superstition of faith. But to say that what he really tells us is his body and blood is but bread and wine implies lack of trust in his word -- it is the superstition of unbelief. ... They have a metaphor to literalize; we accept a verity deep as the incarnation itself, a verity involving the incarnation and involved in it.
It has pleased them sometimes to represent the whole matter as a dispute about mere phrases. We are agreed, they say, about the thing, but the contest is kept up about words. If this be so, and as we believe that our words are necessary to guard the thing, why will they not consent to our words? To us it is no logomachy. If it be so to them, why do they not give up their “mere phrases”? And where did those who attempt to make us odious for insisting on our faith in regard to the Lord’s Supper ever engage to be silent in regard to their own? The history of the controversy from the beginning shows how eager and persistent the Zwinglians and Calvinists were in urging their own doctrine and assailing ours. The plea for liberality to be shown on our part meant freedom for themselves to hold and teach error without wholesome moral correction from us. It means all through, We will rob you of your faith if we can, and if we cannot we will insist that you shall at least think it of little account. (pp. 124-25)

Nevertheless, there have been men on both sides of the sea who within our church, accepting its privileges, the honor of its name, perhaps eating its bread, have met the challenge to specification. Some on the broad ground of rationalism have said that the Lutheran Church has failed in the very fundamentals of religion -- the doctrine of God, of sin, of salvation, and of the Saviour. It ought to have been Socinian and Universalist. There is no line possible if we accept individualism as the test. If a man can be a Lutheran who thinks our church has failed and whose guide to that in which it has failed is that he thinks so, where can you stop? If we admit that it can be done in one article, who shall settle which one? If with more than one, how many? If with some, why not with all? If with one set this year, why not with another set next year? And this is no logical imagining. This is the exact ground actually taken by the consistent men of the position of which we now speak. There is no firm ground between strict confessionalism and no confessionalism. All between is hopeless inconsistency. (pp. 127-28)

Our church does indeed rest its relations to the denominations around us on its conviction that its system is in all its parts divine, derived from the Word of God and in accordance with it. And there are those who object to this position, not that they charge any specific error on our church -- they waive even the consideration of that question -- but that in general they assume that we are not prepared to treat any system as throughout divine. A system, they say, may be divine, but we cannot know that it is. We see in part, we know in part. It is not probable that any one denomination has all the truth on the mooted questions. We think we are right. Others think they are right, and they are as much entitled to assert the possession of truth for themselves as we are for ourselves. The church is still seeking: the church of the unknown future may perhaps see things in their true light.
This is bringing into theology what is a pet theory of the philosophy of our day under the title “agnosticism,” which presses our ignorance until it makes of it a sort of omniscience of negation. There are no such vices in the world as the affectations of virtue. Sanctimony apes sanctity, prudery apes modesty, masked egotism apes humility -- and on the basis of universal ignorance man offers himself as a universal sage and systematizes ignorance in many volumes.
It is true that the church on earth is imperfect and that in its best life, and because of it, it ever grows. But it must have a complete life to have a constant growth. An acorn is not an oak, but the vital force in the acorn is that which makes the oak and abides in it. The question here is, Has the church reached such a clear, binding faith on the great vital questions, not only of individual salvation but of her own highest efficiency and well-being, as justifies it in making them a term of communion and of public teaching? The question is not whether it can reach more truth, or apply more widely the truth it has, but whether what it now holds is truth and whether by seeking more truth by the same methods it can be assured of finding it.
The Old Testament has been teaching for thousands of years, the New Testament has taught for two thousand years, and yet it is pretended by those who profess to hold [to] the clearness and sufficiency of Holy Scripture that no part of the church of Christ, not even that part which they declare they hold in highest esteem, has reached a witness which can commend itself to human trust or can tell whether it has failed or not. ... If the divine truth has no self-asserting power, sufficient to dispel doubt, how shall we reach any sure ground? Shall we say that all nominally Christian systems are alike in value, or that if they differ in this no one can find it out? This on its face seems self-confuting, but if we had to confute it, we could only do so by showing that God’s Word is clear on the points on which churches differ. If we do not believe that we are scriptural over against Rome, we have no right to be separate from Rome. If the churches divided from us do not believe that they are scriptural, they have no right to be divided from us, and if we have no assured conviction that we have the truth, we have no right to exist. This agnosticism is at heart unbelief, or despair, or indolence, or evasion of cogent argument.
Of all Romanizing tendencies the most absolute is that which puts the dishonor on God’s Word and on the fundamental principles of the Reformation implied in this view. It may be safely asserted that ecclesiastical bodies will not claim less for themselves than they are entitled to, and when it shall be said that no part of the churches of which the Reformation was the cause or occasion even pretends to have an assurance of the whole faith it confesses, then will men regard Protestantism as self-convicted and, if they do not swing off to infidelity, will say: Rome at least claims to have the truth, and if truth is to be found on earth it is more likely to be found with those who claim to have it than with those who admit they have it not. To sum up, we say Rome is fallible, the denominations are fallible, and the Lutheran Church is fallible: but the Romish Church has failed in articles of faith, so have the denominations; the Lutheran Church has not. (pp. 129-31)

There is no body of Christians on earth more remote from all the pretenses of Donatism, in its letter or its spirit, than the Lutheran Church. There is none which is so large and liberal in all things which are really in the sphere of the liberty of the church. Contrast its largeness of view in things indifferent with the pitiful littleness of ultra-Puritanism on the one side and Puseyistic ritualism on the other. Mark her scriptural candor in regard to special forms of church government as one example of a spirit illustrated in manifold forms. Our church is inflexible in nothing but in the pure Word and pure sacraments and in what they involve. (p. 132)

When the Lutheran Church acts in the spirit of the current denominationalism it abandons its own spirit. It is a house divided against itself. Some even then will stand firm, and with the choosing of new gods on the part of others there will be war in the gates. No seeming success could compensate our church for the forsaking of principles which gave her her being, for the loss of internal peace, for the destruction of her proper dignity, for the lack of self-respect which would follow it. The Lutheran Church can never have real moral dignity, real self-respect, a real claim on the reverence and loyalty of its children while it allows the fear of the denominations around it, or the desire of their approval, in any respect to shape its principles or control its actions. It is a fatal thing to ask not, What is right? What is consistent? but, What will be thought of us? How will the sectarian and secular papers talk about us? How will our neighbors of the different communions regard this or that course? Better to die than to prolong a miserable life by such compromise of all that gives life its value. ... We have among us a sort of charity which not only does not begin at home but never gets there. It is soaring and gasping for the unity of Lutherans with all the rest of the world but not with each other. It can forgive all the sects for assailing the truth but has no mercy for the Lutherans who defend it.
When there is official fellowship between those who hold the higher and positive position and those who hold a lower and negative one, the communion is always to the benefit of the lower at the expense of the higher. For however the holders of the higher view may protest as to their personal convictions, the act of communion is regarded as a concession that the convictions, if held at all, are not held as articles of faith but only as opinions. If a Socinian and a Trinitarian commune, each avowing his own opinion as neither changed nor involved, which cause is hurt and which benefited? It looks equal, but Socinianism, whose interest is laxity, is advantaged; Trinitarianism is wounded. It gives fresh life to error; it stabs truth to the heart. Contact imparts disease but does not impart health. We catch smallpox by contact with one who has it, but we do not catch recovery from one who is free from it. The process which tends to the pollution of the unpolluted will not tend to the purification of the evil. (pp. 135-36)

Dcn. Carlos Miranda said...

A very helpful answer, thank you.

Past Elder said...

I always admired the way the pastor I served as an elder handled it. Before distribution, he would say something like this to make clear that closed communion is not to judge hearts but precisely the opposite:

We practice the Biblical practice of closed communion. Since we cannot and do not judge hearts, we can only go by the public affiliations people make. Therefore, we invite all communicant members of this congregation, of any congregation in WELS, or a synod in fellowship with WELS, to come forward for Communion.

Anonymous said...

^ That is an excellent way of putting it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"The laity hate it, by and large. And they are right to do so." Blessed Father, I would submit to you that many of the laity follow the logic and reasoning of W.C. Fields. When he was on his deathbed, a friend found him reading a Bible. When asked why, Mr. Fields responded "I'm looking for loopholes".
Many times when a parent has a son or daughter who has joined another denomintation, they try to point out that they were confirmed at our church and still believe and confess the same things that our church does.
My response is simple: Whey, then, do they belong to a church that believes, teaches and confesses otherwise?

A former Vicar

WM Cwirla said...

"The laity hate it, by and large"
So do most pastors, but for different reasons.

"Why, then, do they belong to a church that believes, teaches and confesses otherwise?"

Often for domestic tranquility, convenience, good programs, cool music (name your brand). Rarely for theological reasons. Hence the big divide between clergy and laity on this issue.

Clergy deal with communion corporately and objectively. Laity tend to deal with it personally and subjectively. Rarely do they meet.

Fearsome Pirate said...

When we can all bow before the truth of these (and all) of our Savior's words,

And all the doctrinal resolutions of the Missouri Synod...

William Weedon said...

Don't EVEN get me started on the folly of Missouri's "doctrinal resolutions," Josh!!!

John Hogg said...

As an Orthodox Christian, I'd like to affirm what Pr. Weedon said. It is possible to practice closed communion, consistently, without causing too much offense to others.

During all my time as an inquirer into Orthodoxy, and then as an Orthodox Christian, I've always found this to be the universal practice. I've been to Church in many different countries and I've never been refused communion once they know that I'm Orthodox, nor have I ever seen a non-Orthodox Christian communed. That's true of America, Greece, Russia, Ukraine, England, Mt. Athos, Guatemala... everywhere.

And yet, I've seen hardly anyone offended with this practice, and seen much less complaining about it than I did when I was a Lutheran. I'd attribute that to two factors:

1) The policy is ancient and consistently practiced, and thus not personal. The Orthodox Church has *always* practiced closed communion, since Apostolic times. Because it's consistent, there's no judgment call to make. If closed communion is practiced subjectively, and the pastor/priest has to figure out whether or not to make an exception, figure out what's in a person's heart, etc, then being refused can always be seen as a personal thing, because the pastor *could* have made an exception for them.

2) The antidoron, or blessed bread. There is a separate bread for people who are not communing, left over from the ancient Agape Feast of the early Christians. Since most people who would be offended by not receiving communion also don't have a high understanding of the sacraments, I think this helps prevent any possible offense.

Perhaps if Lutheran pastors are worried about causing offense, they should apply the policy uniformly, and in the process, actually cause less offense to visitors? Also, blessed bread has a very long history in the West as well as the East, so perhaps it could be revived? It does work.

Grace and peace,
Rd. John

Jim Huffman said...

Fr. Gregory,

I think your thoughts are on the mark. We've found that most who are plainly taught what is received in the Sacrament do not want to commune when they don't believe. (Several Baptist friends come to mind -- they were horrified when I explained what was taught. Their question was not, "Can we commune?," but, "We don't have to, do we?"

Past Elder said...

Amen to that. Once one understands what's a stake, why would one want to commune where Communion is something you don't believe.

The antidoron is a great practice -- except when you have no idea what this is all about! That's what happened to me after mass at a Melkite Church in Miami. I had no idea what to do -- take it, not take it, is it expected that I take it or expected that I not take it, what are they doing with trays of bread on the way out, let me just try to slide out of here unnoticed. I didn't leave offended, but bloody uncomfortable! A word of explanation to those who have never seen or heard of it -- which was me at the time (1980s) -- would really have helped.

William Weedon said...


Reader John is Fr. Gregory's son.

Fearsome Pirate said...

Pr Weedon, what I found out in seminary that "Scripture and the Book of Concord" is defined by LCMS doctrinal resolutions. I don't see how this is avoidable, either, not when you take an "everything Scripture teaches" stance. At some point, you will run into two parties interpreting the same Scripture (or the same passage in the Confessions) in non-compatible ways without either one obviously, blatantly running roughshod over the text.

For example, you can find people in the LCMS arguing both sides of the Semper Virgo. You'll find people saying that Scripture teaches it, and others saying that it says quite the opposite. If we follow the "all teachings of Scripture" principle consistently, both parties are morally obligated to excommunicate each other, and the Synod is going to have to take sides.

In order to enforce everyone seeing everything the same way, you're going to end up with an endless pile of judicial decisions and a Byzantine mountain of dogma, I mean doctrinal resolutions.

William Weedon said...


I may be simplistic on this, but I have become convinced that the key to Lutheran unity (if such can ever be achieved) will only be when we can agree that the Ecumenical and specifically Lutheran Symbols of the BOC SUFFICE for the full confession of our faith. And what is not confessed in them, one may hold in the area of theological opinion, but cannot make church dividing of Lutherans.

Before you bring up, what about women's ordination, let me point out that the same Symbols simply reject out of hand any doctrine or practice that is novel in the Church. "Nothing in doctrine or practice contrary to the catholic church or even the Roman Church as it is known by its ancient writers."

Missouri has embarked upon an impossible task in this constant "refining" of dogma and I am thankful that it does NOT reach the level of our ordination vows. I have been pledged to confess and uphold the teachings of Scripture as these are confessed in the Book of Concord. That leaves PLENTY on my plate without getting into these other squabbles.

Which is a way of saying: Krauth was right; I wish Walther had listened on this point.

William Weedon said...

P.S. On SV, the question for me is simply whether or not this has been the teaching of the Church and is it affirmed in our Symbols. I agree, as you know, with Luther, Chemnitz, and Gerhard. It's not an article of faith - Basil was right, on that. But the argument that Scripture unquestionably teaches the opposite is untenable. If the Scriptures are not clearly in opposition, why should I overturn the consensus of the Church's tradition on the question?

Fearsome Pirate said...

I have become convinced that the key to Lutheran unity (if such can ever be achieved) will only be when we can agree that the Ecumenical and specifically Lutheran Symbols of the BOC SUFFICE for the full confession of our faith.

I agree.

But the argument that Scripture unquestionably teaches the opposite is untenable.

Maybe to you, but not to everyone else. I ran into someone on Facebook arguing that Scripture teaches SV and that it should be an article of faith. Whether or not Scripture actually does address a certain topic doesn't matter, as long as there exist people who think it does.

The fundamental problem is that "Scripture says" must be said by men, at which point it becomes "I think Scripture says." The "all teachings of Scripture" principle really is "Everything I and my party think Scripture teaches." So if "all doctrines of Scripture" is the criterion of fellowship, then you're conscience-bound to mutual excommunication whenever your interpretation of Scripture is incompatible with someone else's.

So, for example, I'm aware you believe in SV. I don't, because I think Matthew is pretty straightforward on this one (I'm aware of the counterarguments and think they're wrong--I'm making a larger point, not trying to start an SV debate). So, since I believe that Scripture teaches that Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage, by the "all teachings of Scripture" principle endorsed by LCMS theology, were I a pastor, I would be conscience-bound to excommunicate you.

I wouldn't do that, though, not because I think Scripture doesn't actually weigh in one way or the other, but because I think you can disagree with me on interpreting this part Matthew without corrupting the life & preaching of the Church.

But that means I disagree with the LCMS Doctrine of Fellowship, which means we're conscience-bound to excommunicate each other again!

William Weedon said...

Josh, it's just one point on which Synod is broken. Since we are functionally at the point of Krauth again, I'd suggest we need to go back and HEAR what the man said when organizing the General Council.