(With the Christmas holy-day approaching and with the greater number of visitors we'll be having for divine service, I thought it might be good to post this recent newsletter article:)
The above question is one of the toughest for the average Lutheran to answer. At first glance it seems so contrary to our basic Christian instincts. Doesn’t Jesus welcome all people? Didn’t He die for everyone? Isn’t forgiveness and salvation something that is not dependent on anything in us? Isn’t it all God’s grace, anyway? Why shouldn’t we let people come to the Lord’s Supper who want to do so?
The answer to the above question comes from God’s own Word. First of all, not everyone who receives the Lord’s Supper receives it to their benefit. Some are actually harmed by it because they do not have the right faith. 1 Corinthians 11:29 states, “He who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” Those who do not believe that the true, literal body and blood of Christ are being distributed, who believe that Communion is a just a remembrance ceremony using mere bread and wine, would eat and drink to their own condemnation according to this verse. To eat and drink in an unworthy manner is to eat and drink without penitent faith in the Lord’s real presence or in the promise of forgiveness attached to His real body and blood.
So then, first of all, out of love for our neighbor, we cannot simply let anyone come to the Lord’s table without first being sure they hold to this belief for their own good. Unfortunately, many Christian bodies–such as Methodists, Baptists, and non-denominational groups (to name just a few)–reject Christ’s true body and blood in His Supper. To admit them to the Lord’s table would be to dishonor Christ and fail to love our neighbor.
Second of all, God’s Word clearly teaches that we are not to have fellowship (communion) with false teaching. The Lord’s Supper is the highest and most intimate union that we have with one another as Christians on this earth. To permit a rejection of Christ’s Word into that intimate fellowship would be to love something or someone more than Christ. No one is saying that people from other church bodies aren’t Christian; we are not judging their heart or whether or not they will go to heaven. However, in these other church bodies there is false teaching that threatens saving faith, like a little bit of arsenic mixed in with otherwise good food. To overlook that false belief and say, “You can commune with us anyway,” would be to say that part of Christ’s Word doesn’t matter or that we can do without it. But what part of the Gospel can we safely sacrifice? Should we accept to communion those who reject infant baptism? those who say that good works contribute to our salvation? those who pray to and put their faith in the saints? those who ordain women as pastors? those who say that some parts of the Bible aren’t true and are not God’s Word? those who say that homosexuality is OK? those who water down the faith to be relevant to pop culture? It’s not just some esoteric ivory tower theological point that’s at stake but the very Gospel of Jesus Himself.
Once again, on the surface having open communion seems like the tolerant, inclusive, loving thing to do. But in reality it is the opposite of love for God or our neighbor. If we truly love our neighbor, we will want them to be freed from all false teaching. The temptation for us to compromise is high when it involves a relative or a guest whom we don’t want to offend. But God’s Word must be our highest love; for it brings Christ to us and gives His gifts. Since the Lord’s Supper is the Gospel, we want to administer it in the most faithful and loving way possible.
The practice of the early church backs up this practice. There was false teaching and heresy also in the days of the apostles and their successors, as well. And so when someone wanted to commune at a place other than their home church, they would actually get a letter from their pastor to give to the pastor in the city where they were going, certifying that the bearer of the letter held to the true faith. Apart from that, someone would not be allowed to Communion. (See Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries by Werner Elert.) No one had the prideful notion that they had the “right” to commune wherever they wanted. This was a privilege given by Christ and administered by pastors who were given to be “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1).
And of course the practice of the early church reflected Scriptural admonitions: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Jesus said, “. . . teaching them to observe all things which I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19). “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house” [“House” in this context might refer to a house church.] (2 John 10). The last two verses apply especially to not welcoming preachers and others who teach falsely. But the principle remains the same. No false teaching is to be accepted alongside Christ’s truth, for Jesus said, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6; see also Galatians 5:9). Like yeast, once a little false teaching takes hold, it can spread throughout everything else the church teaches and practices. One only needs to look at the compromise that has occurred in many church bodies (including some areas of our own Missouri Synod) to see evidence of that.
Finally, we shouldn’t forget that closed communion is also practiced within the membership of a congregation, too. Our Lord says in Matthew 5 that we should seek to be reconciled with those who may have something against us, whom we need to confess wrongdoing toward, before we go to the altar. We should not go to Communion if there are grudges that we’re holding on to or vengeance that we’re seeking toward our neighbor. Being reconciled with God in Christ at His table also involves seeking peace with our neighbor, especially if that neighbor will be kneeling with us at the communion rail.
Pastors must sometimes refrain from communing their own members who are behaving impenitently, openly holding on to their sins, refusing to humbly turn to Christ and seek His mercy. Jesus said in John 20, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Sometimes a person needs to be barred from the Lord’s table to show the severity of their sin, that they might be brought to true repentance and seek the forgiveness the Lord gives with His body and blood.
So to sum up, the practice of closed communion is based on love for God and His Word and love for our neighbor, that they may receive and abide in the truth of Christ and His testament. It’s not a “we’re better than you” sort of thing. Rather, it is a practice which seeks to treat the body and blood of Christ as the holy, divine gifts that they are.