Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Question of Open Communion

The issue of open vs. close(d) communion has been a prickly one in the LC-MS for sometime. The official position of the LC-MS is close(d) communion; however, some individual congregations and people have taken exception to this position. Why? They see close(d) communion as an impediment to sharing the Gospel. According to them, they see the exclusion of people as a way of saying "we are better than you" or "you're not good enough to join us" or "your not a Christian because you aren't Lutheran." In a sense this is a valid point because it is possible for people to perceive the teaching of close(d) communion this way. However, this is no excuse to ignore the warning we are given in 1 Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 11:27-29 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. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.
This is a serious warning folks and like everything else in the Bible it is not one that we can ignore because we find it inconvenient or hard.

Now, I have heard people complain about the exclusivity of close(d) communion but never have they been a person who was previously unchurched. Everybody, who I have ever heard complain about close(d) communion is either a LC-MS'er who has family visiting that belongs to another denomination or is person who had more than nominal connections to a different denomination. These are the people that generally find it hard, because they consider themselves Christians and think that we are saying they are not. So, in a sense, the only people we are chasing off are the church shoppers.

It has been my experience that the previously unchurched appreciate the forthrightness of close(d) communion because they are worried about what to do and this answers their question. In our congregation we have devised this communion statement.
Holy Communion is a special gift of God to His people. It is celebrated here (blah, blah, blah, info on when we have communion)... Since the Lord instructs us to examine ourselves before we receive His Body and Blood, (1 Cor. 11:27-29) we ask that you reflect on the following questions:

Do you acknowledge that you have sinned and are in need of forgiveness? (Rms 3:22-23)

Has God brought you into His family by means of Baptism? (Rms 6:3-5)

Do you believe that God the Father sent His only Son, Jesus Christ to shed his blood for you and that, He has called you to Christ by the Holy Spirit? (Eph 2:4-9)

Do you believe that Jesus has promised to give you His true Body and Blood in, with, and under the bread and wine of the Sacraments? (Mt 26:26-28)

Do you believe that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins with His Body and Blood? (Mt 26:26-28)

If you were unable to answer "yes" to these questions, we would ask that you please speak with one of the Pastors before receiving communion.
I had wanted to add the proviso that they could come up to receive a blessing and should indicate so by crossing their arms and bowing their head, but I was overruled by our Senior Pastor. Not really sure why, but oh well, not that important.

Now, before we begin to take up the offering we announce that this is in the bulletin and ask people to make use of this time to reflect on the questions. I know this system isn't perfect but it does work. I have had people who went through our new member's class thank us for putting this in because it made their experience easier and I have had long time members tell me they love it because they use it themselves to prepare for communion. So, you can't tell me that close(d) communion is an impediment to witnessing. It really boils down to how you present it. As you can see we went to great lengths to always bring it back to the Bible (btw, we have Bibles in the pews so people unfamiliar with the passages can look them up.) I think this helps lessen the perception we are telling them they are unworthy and allows them to see we are serious about obeying God's word. Besides as I mentioned before in other places exclusion from communion did not impede the spread of the Gospel as evidenced by the practices of the early church where they sent the uncatechized home before starting communion (Dowley, Tim. Introduction to The History of Christianity).


Preachrboy said...

Except I don't think what you are doing is really closed communion.

While what you are doing is very common in the LCMS, it's not the official position.

Where is the concern for the mixing of confession?

In other words, could a baptist or ELCA or Non-Denom or WELS Christian answer yes to those questions, and come to your altar anyway? (I suspect, yes). This is not closed communion.

The "official" position of the LCMS is not only concerned that one communes worthily (which your questions address), but that altar-fellowship is not violated by Christians who share different confessions acting as if they.

From the LCMS website:
"The official position of the Synod is that not only are members of other Lutheran churches with whom we are in altar and pulpit fellowship invited to commune with us, but also that in certain extraordinary cases of pastoral care and in emergencies members of churches not in fellowship with us may be given Communion. The Synod stated, for example, in 1986 "that 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" (1986 Res. 3-08 "To Maintain Practice of Close Communion")."

I think the point is, that ODRINARILY, those who commune with us are LCMS members, but in EXTRAORDINARY cases, pastoral discretion is applied.

One of the problems in the LCMS today is that the concern for one's public confession is minimized and pastoral discretion is maximized, becoming a cart-blanche for open communion by the name of "close(d)".

Granted, I understand this is one of the most difficult aspects of responsible pastoral practice. I also understand it can be difficult when you are not the Sr. Pastor.

But I think this is one of those issues that we in the LCMS need to have some real frank discussions about. Because we do not teach and practice this the same.

jWinters said...

Hey Lutherama,
Interesting post. In addition to what you raise here there is the issue of to what degree "soma" is "Body" in real presence sense and to what degree it's "Body" in the sense of "gathered Body of Christ."

Pastor Chryst brings this up. Traditionally within the LCMS interpretation "soma" either means "gathered Body" or "gathered Body and Body (real presence).

I like your questions for the most part, by the way. A practical question - are you putting this on a card? in the bulletin? etc?

There are all sorts of issues to dig one's heels into here. A big issue is the semiotics of the "card" or bulletin announcement. I think that much could be done to improve the way that these things are written. I think it would even be worth it's weight in gold if we could get a Synodical think-tank to come up with a statement that was a.) clear and b.) not nasty.

Dr. Luther in the 21st Century said...

We place them on the inside cover of our bulletin.

Preachrboy, I would think that the wording of the questions would actually engender a confessional agreement. For instance, question 2 would eliminate a Baptist understanding of Baptism, besides how many Baptists would answer yes to believing that the Body and Blood are present?

And, of course, how many elcans are going to acknowledge such a thing as sin? Just me being snide.

As I have pointed out in our classes the questions were specifically worded to bring in other parts of doctrine, so they are not only dealing with the issue of the presence of Christ in communion.

Preachrboy said...

I'm not saying it's a bad start, but I just don't think it's enough.

Frankly, any communion statement which doesn't mention synodical membership, I find lacking. It is simply the shortest way to entail all the doctrinal differences which separate us from others.

Then you also have the matter of an "inonsistent" confession....

Dr. Luther in the 21st Century said...

Oh I admit by the strictest standard we can not consider ourselves closed. I am not sure what you mean by "inconsistent" confession so I am going to assume you mean people who belong to a church without agreement with the church's confession, correct me if I am wrong.

Experience, has taught me that unfortunately this is the norm rather than the exception to the rule. Few people now go to a church because of the doctrine. They tend to go because "they feel welcome." I would much rather make the call at a personal level than at corporate level. I would also pray that they seek out a church in which they were in confessional agreement. Maybe ours? ;)

Preachrboy said...

And wouldn't you agree that it's unfortunate (and wrong) for people to attend a church because they "feel welcome" and not for doctrinal reasons?

And yet, your policy enables this continuing situation by failing to confront their mixed confession (and yes, what I mean by that is that I don't see the problem answering "yes" to all your questions while also being a proud Baptist or R.Catholic or whatever)?

You take the first step in asking that they "confess" the truth, but you don't point out that they also confess error (or the danger of that). So either they really don't understand your questions, or are being dishonest. To me, this is facilitating sin.

Experience has taught me (and you too, I am sure) that many of those who would answer yes but "shouldn't", don't do so as a first step toward membership in the LCMS or your congregation. Rather, they are usually family members who would like to commune with the LCMS people who are your members.

We had a woman who was actually formally trained at Orel Roberts U., and has a M. Div, and is ordained by them, but who "grew up Lutheran" and insisted on communing with her family (who belong to our congregation). She would probably have answered yes to your questions too. Should I have communed her? (I didn't)

Communion should not be a way to welcome the outsider to the LCMS, or to encourage them to learn more about our doctrine and maybe hopefully someday join us.

Dr. Luther in the 21st Century said...

I do not see this as a case of facilitating sin. If they cannot be honest then it is their own fault. We have been clear in our position and forthright about confessing it publicly.

I would also add that the first line of "defense" (not really sure word I am looking for but it works), in maintaining confessional unity at the altar is the laity. They are the ones who have the working relationship with the guest (usually, we very rarely just get somebody off the street who isn't already Lutheran) and it generally goes better when confronting sin and confessional error when you have an established relationship. Most people will just dismiss you as judgmental, bigoted, or whatever they want to call you and just go on their merry way, when there is no relationship.

I. M. Abaldy II said...

I have to agree with Preacherboy's assessment that this falls short of closed comunion, although it fits right in with "close" enough communion, based upon AC XXIV -- The Mass. To wit:
The Mass is held among us and celebrated with the highest reverence. . . .
No one is admitted to the Sacrament without first being examined. . . .
The Mass is for the purpose of giving the Sacrament, we have Communion every holy day, and if anyone desires the Sacarament, we offer it also on other days, when it is given to all who ask for it. . . .
The pastor "stands . . . at the altar , inviting some to the Communion and keeping back others."

Statements are helpful, but they cannot stand as stewards of the feast.