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.