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The Dilemma of Closed Communion: Admitting that the Church is Small

Two weeks ago at the ACELC conference, I reached a startlingly epiphany during one of the lectures on closed communions. The presenter was drawing mostly from Walther, and came to this assessment towards the end: with all these standards regarding communion of whom can partake of it, one almost wish there was no Lutheran church. Then it hit me: Communion in an orthodox Lutheran church is kind of frightening.

Close communion is a struggle, mainly because we want to be liked and because it hurts our perception in the minds of our Christian churches. But one thing I’ve learned from the Scriptures and the Confession, being a Christian isn’t about being liked. Being a Christian is about walking in the light, saying what we believe, and when you live in the light, you have acknowledge where you are different from others.

The temptation here is to say that the supper is a burden to our unity with other Christians and come up with a new doctrine of the supper. This was the temptation the ecumenical movement gave into, in an effort to build the visible church on earth, or the second tower of Babel, where everyone believes something different about what they are putting into their mouths. (And in my opinion, this open table is part of why they ended up throwing the scriptures out the window, because ignoring such differences in the interpretation of Scriptures will necessarily causes us to hold it in low regard.)

But such a large communion doesn’t deal with the real problem of close communion: if you believe in it, you have to acknowledge that the church is very small, on some level. As we keep our altars tight, we feel a burden of small unity, but the truth is, that is what we should feel. We need to encourage the others to maintain their own unity while we maintain ours.

Jesus discussed this with his disciples in Luke 13:23-24 “And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, ‘Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.’” This passage shows us how we should concern ourselves: while it is good to maintain friendships with Christians in other denominations and to discuss our beliefs together, we need to acknowledge each others differences and respect each others altars. Not that we shouldn’t be encouraged if they are constantly in the scriptures, and we should go there with them. But we have to hold to the Bible’s full doctrine, as Christ has given it to us.

The Lord’s Supper is a declaration of the unity of faith, a unity that only God can give. While we can participate in the Supper, we can’t just bring in a bunch of non-dems, Catholics, Methodists, and every other denomination to our communion table and say, see? We believe the same thing, and this supper unites us. It is a paradox with the supper: it can give us unity, but we can celebrate it in such way that we make a mockery of Christ’s body. If we don’t fully agree with our Christian friends, it is better to acknowledge our disagreement and leave it at that.

Close communion is really just an admission that we are human, and that we disagree. Yes, it sounds harsh, but remember, there are lot of laws that God gives us to limit our own egos and pleasures, most notably about sexual purity. We must trust him in this matter.

More ACELC Wrapup: Close Communion, and How to Teach the Truth in Love

The one subject at the ACELC conference that sparked the biggest response from my brain was Professor John Pless’ assignment that he gave to his students at the seminary of amending a bad communion statement. It read like this “All baptized Christians who confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, examine themselves and repent of their sins, and believe that Christ is really present in Holy Communion are invited to receive the Lord’s Supper with us.” The first thing I recognized about this statement was that it put all the onus on the individual who was reading it to make sure that he or she was prepared to receive Communion, and allowed the pastor and congregation to run and hide. Many partially-educated Christians could read it and obliviously take the sacrament; good thing the church washed its hands of the matter.

Close communion can be an iron door in the face of a visitor, a relative or a friend who walks into your standard LCMS church. Non-member walks in and hears he can’t take communion? Visitors always take communion at my church. Professor Pless pointed that, it’s even harder for an ELCA member to understand why he or she can’t take communion in an LCMS church, since both bear the name Lutheran. But this situation doesn’t have to be a negative-in the grander scheme of things, close communion gives a great opportunity for a congregation to one, greet its visitors, and two, explain to them what they believe and, most importantly, listen to them about what kind of background they come from.

Many times, I have visited LCMS churches that use contemporary worship and haven’t been acknowledged; they have that vague closed communion statement in their bulletin. When I go to churches that a point of asking visitors what they believe about the sacrament, there’s always an additional conversation about where I go to church and my beliefs, and I have never left not feeling welcome. Of course, I have always been admitted to communion in those churches, so I don’t know how they would handle the member of another church body.

The responsibility of close communion is one that lies, not just with the pastor, but with the elders and congregations. At this conference, a number of pastors talked about how tough it is to have a conversation with a visitor, three minutes before a service starts, or even at the communion rail.  This is a place where the greeters and elders can be at a door and talk to guests and say, welcome to our church, and ask them about their church background, and direct them to the pastor if they wish to take communion. Granted, the words need to be said with care, and the congregation needs to have members and elders who are mature enough to speak them.

But back to the language of the closed communion statement. First, I would recognize the universal truth: that Holy Communion is God’s gift to the church, and His Church should administer it rightly, as it is a privilege. Because believers are making a statement that they are united in belief at Christ’s altar, only believers of the same confession should come to the same altar, and for that reason, visitors should speak with the pastor about communing.

And LCMS members, let’s consider the conscious of our fellow pastors and congregations, and be proactive when we visit them. Sending an e-mail or other communication to a pastor to let him know that we will be at his church ahead of time lets pastors eliminates surprises for pastors five minutes before a service starts.

I have had the closed communion conversation with a friend before we attended an LCMS church; this friend is an evangelical, and he understood. I simply said that our church respected other church bodies, but that kept our rails closed because we didn’t want to judge others. Thankfully, we have built an understanding over the years, and that made it easier.

But still, that leaves the ELCA question, and there really isn’t a good answer for it, in spite of the fact that now days, the ELCA has more in common with the Presbyterians and Methodists. Over the course of a relationship, this can be an opportunity to show how the ELCA and LCMS have gone their separate ways (espescially on women’s ordination and gay marriage), but ultimately, this leads to the reality that closed communion simply is a hard teaching. But maybe it’s supposed to be hard. Maybe God gave us this gift of closed communion so that we would know how precious His forgiveness is, and treasure it in our hearts. Thanks be to God.

ACELC Conference-Day 2

Yesterday (Wednesday), the statement at the ACELC conference that made the biggest impression on me was when Professor John Pless said that “closed communion goes against the cultural grain of North American Christianity”, and the first thing I thought was, Well, duh. I guess this was something that I knew to a certain degree, but when he came out and said it, it made me think about it. I like to be like, sometimes more than anything else. Being Lutheran within the context of closed communion means that, probably they are time when I will be set up not to be liked. I think I might have to deal with that.

Pless’ paper dealt with the Lord’s Supper in light of both the ecumenical movement and in terms of the more seeker driven services. Professor Pless gave one of the better presentations of a theological paper that I’ve heard, dealing with the complex subject with thought and insightful complex, and using a wealth of references. Clearly, Pless has read every major Lutheran book and paper on practical theology, and I did very well to hear his paper. Many of you would too.

Pastor James Gier presented on the topic of exceptions in admissions to closed communion, which was mostly his reading from Walther. What I took away from it was, that the Confessions, and more importantly, the Scriptures don’t say that there can’t be exceptions in cases of peril or where public confessions can’t be made (I get the sense he meant persecutions), but they really don’t leave open the place for exceptions either. Since Scripture is silent on this matter, we best be too.

However, a document from the Committee on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) basically affirmed Walther’s position on the matter, in line with the confession, but then said that the pastor had “discretion” in certain cases. That statement sounded remarkably similar to the one that allowed “lay ministers” back in the early nineties, where the Scriptures were affirmed, but then the committee said we had to bow to social pressure.

By far the most “revealing” learning experience for  me was Pastor Brent Kuhlman’s presentation on Berthold Von Schenk, a pastor who I had never heard of, but almost laughed at when I heard that an LCMS would teach as he did. Von Schenk, an LCMS pastor in the Bronx, kept all the Lutheran teachings on the Lord’s Supper, but then added a bunch of mysticism junk to them, all the while decrying Luther while remaining in the church that bore his name. As I listened to the paper, I felt sorry that Von Schenk didn’t live in the age of Oprah, because he’d found the ideal way to sell the Lord’s Supper to a mass audience: as a mystical communion where you rise to be with God. The New Agers and the Eastern Religions would have come running, and at least with the extra visibility, the educated laity might have pushed to keep him out of synod. (I’m being highly optimistic on that one).

But the one thing I took away about Von Schenk after that presentation was that, he was just a lonely guy who looked at the Anglicans around him and said, I can’t believe this. I can’t believe that the church is as small and as exclusive as the Scriptures say it is. But this is the truth. When our Father in Heaven gathers us to the wedding feast, many will be thrown out, including many who were in Christian churches. The answer isn’t to accommodate our theology; it can only be to plead for God’s mercy on their part, and know that he can save anyone. Meanwhile, we need to encourage our Christian brothers and sisters, and lead lives worthy of our calling. Thanks be to God.

I didn’t get to everything, but there’s one more day of the conference, and tomorrow, I’ll have some summary and evaluation. Now, for that long drive into Lincoln.

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