Why do we practice closed Communion?

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Martin Luther preaching to the faithful

Why do we at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church practice “closed” (also called “close”) Communion? This practice may be troubling to some, especially if we must turn someone away from communing with us at our altar, but it is based on Scriptures and the historic practice of the Christian church.

In our day, many churches no longer believe in the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar. And, if the bread and wine serve only as symbols of Christ’s body and blood which were given and shed for us on the cross, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to allow all to partake of those symbols. Whether they believed or not, it wouldn’t really matter since it is counted as nothing more than a reminder or symbol of what Christ has done.

But, as the Scriptures plainly teach in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22 and 1 Corinthians 11, Christ does offer and give to all who partake of the Supper His true body and blood which were given and shed for us upon the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. As God’s people under the Old Covenant ate of the Passover lamb which was sacrificed and its blood smeared upon the doorposts and lintels of their homes (Exodus 12), so we are given to partake of the sacrificial Lamb of the New Covenant. We partake of the body and blood of Christ, “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

It may be helpful to note who was permitted to partake of the Passover meal. As we read in Exodus 12, the Passover meal was closed to all those outside of the Old Testament (or Old Covenant) faith.

We read in Exodus 12:43ff.: “And the LORD said unto Moses and Aaron, This is the ordinance of the passover: There shall no stranger eat thereof: but every man’s servant that is bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat thereof. A foreigner and an hired servant shall not eat thereof … All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you….”

When we remember that the Lord’s Supper replaced the Old Testament Passover as the New Covenant meal and that Baptism replaced circumcision and is called a “circumcision made without hands” (Colossians 2:11ff.), it may help us to understand that reception of the Lord’s Supper is reserved for those who are baptized and instructed in the Christian faith. As strangers were not permitted to eat of the Passover meal until they were instructed and circumcised into the faith of the Old Testament Church, so also attendance at the Lord’s Supper is restricted to those who have been baptized into Christ and have been instructed and confess the true Christian faith.

We might note also in regard to the Old Testament sacrifices, that God said in Leviticus 22:10: “There shall no stranger eat of the holy thing: a sojourner of the priest, or an hired servant, shall not eat of the holy thing.” It wasn’t enough to be a family member or friend.

If it was a serious offense for one outside the faith to partake of animal sacrifices which pointed ahead to Christ, how much greater an offense it must be to allow those outside of the true Christian faith to partake of the true body and blood of Christ Jesus!

And, in some cases, the Word of God included a stern warning: “And when the tabernacle setteth forward, the Levites shall take it down: and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up: and the stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51; cf. 3:10; 3:38).

Ezekiel 44:9 says, “Thus saith the Lord GOD; No stranger, uncircumcised in heart, nor uncircumcised in flesh, shall enter into my sanctuary, of any stranger that is among the children of Israel.” Those who did not hold to the faith confessed by the Old Testament Church, even if outwardly circumcised, were not permitted to enter into the sanctuary of the LORD to serve.

In Ezra 4:1ff., God’s people were approached by their heterodox and syncretistic neighbors, asking if they could help in rebuilding the temple of the LORD, and the answer of God’s people was no because these neighbors held to a mixed confession.

And whom did Jesus welcome to the first Lord’s Supper? It was His disciples who had traveled with Him and had been instructed in the true doctrine over a period of three years. They were familiar with His doctrine and professed to believe it as Jesus’ disciples.

Some may object because Jesus certainly knew Judas would betray Him and Judas is listed in Luke’s Gospel as still being present when the Lord’s Supper was instituted (Luke 22:19ff.). If Judas did partake of the Lord’s Supper, we must keep in mind that the public confession of Judas was still one of discipleship. He had not stated to Jesus or anyone else among the disciples his plans to betray Jesus; and, had Judas repented as did Peter who also denied Jesus that same night, Jesus stood ready to forgive him. It was when Judas saw that his betrayal would lead to Jesus’ death by crucifixion that he despaired of God’s grace and went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:1ff.).

As I mentioned earlier, when considering who is welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper, it is important to remember that the Lord’s Supper is so much more than just a reminder or symbol of what Christ accomplished for us on the cross. Jesus actually gives us to partake of His sacrifice for the sins of the world by giving us to eat and to drink (called sacramental eating and drinking because it occurs only in the Sacrament) of His body and blood which were given and shed upon the cross for the sins of the world. In this Supper, Jesus offers and conveys to us the forgiveness of sins and salvation He won for all when He suffered and died upon the cross.

In all four accounts of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians), Jesus clearly and plainly says of the bread, “This is My body,” and of the wine, “This is my blood.” And, if there remains any doubt about what those who commune receive, the Scriptures declare: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). Thus, when we eat of the bread and drink of the cup in the Lord’s Supper, we partake of and share in the body and blood of Christ Jesus, the Son of God who took on human flesh and blood and was sacrificed to redeem us.

And, as St. Paul points out, “whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). Such are not guilty of abusing a symbol but are guilty of not recognizing and using aright the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Hebrews 10:28-29).

We consider also St. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthian congregation for not observing the Lord’s Supper as instituted by Christ. He points out that because they did not recognize the gravity of what was being offered and given in the Sacrament, many were weak and sickly and spiritually asleep (1 Corinthians 11:30).

The Scriptures admonish us in 1 Corinthians 11:28-29: “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” Therefore, for the spiritual wellbeing of those who attend Christ’s Supper, we ask those who wish to partake of the Lord’s Supper to examine themselves, confess their sins and receive God’s absolution or forgiveness through faith in Christ. Since rightly partaking of Christ’s Supper requires a right knowledge of what Christ gives us in the Sacrament and the Scriptural knowledge and ability to examine oneself, we admit to the Lord’s Supper only those who have been instructed in the Christian faith and who can examine themselves in accord with God’s Word.

Secondly, the Scripture says: “Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?” (1 Corinthians 10:18). It is for this reason that we say and teach that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a profession of agreement with the doctrine taught and proclaimed from that altar. And, since the Scriptures go on to say, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils” (v. 21), we believe it is wrong to commune where doctrines introduced by the father of lies (John 8:44) are also proclaimed.

In fact, the Scriptures clearly tell us to mark and avoid those who teach falsely (Romans 16:17-18; 1 Timothy 6:3-5), to come out from among them (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Matthew 7:15-23), and to have no fellowship with them (2 John 8-11; Ephesians 5:11). Certainly, communing together with those of a mixed confession (part truth and part error) is not doing what God tells us to do in His Word.

So, why do we at Good Shepherd, only allow those from our own congregation to commune with us at the Lord’s Table? Let me explain.

1) We care about the spiritual wellbeing of those who come to God’s services among us, and our pastors are to be good and faithful stewards of the mysteries of God entrusted to them (1 Corinthians 4:1ff.). Therefore, we do not wish to have someone who is not baptized and instructed in the true Christian faith or who is not able to examine himself come forward to partake of Christ’s true body and blood to his damnation. We seek to instruct first and to be of aid in helping people to examine themselves before partaking of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.

2) We desire to uphold the truth of God’s Word and not compromise that truth by acting as if it doesn’t matter whether one holds to all that Christ taught and commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). Therefore, we receive at the Lord’s Table those who have had the opportunity to hear and learn the teachings of Scripture and who profess their agreement with us in accepting the true doctrine of God’s Word. And, since we cannot look at the hidden faith in the heart, we must look at the public profession of believers — do they profess to believe all that is taught in the Holy Scriptures?

A big part of one’s public profession is one’s church membership. If one is a member of a congregation or synod which persists in a doctrinal error, he or she shares in that error unless he is admonishing the error and leaves if the erring church body or congregation refuses to repent and preach and teach in full accord with the Bible. If we welcome to the Lord’s Supper in our congregation members of churches and synods which are less than faithful to all that God has revealed to us in His Word, we become partakers of those same doctrinal errors.

3) Not to practice closed or close communion is to disregard the real presence of Christ and treat the Lord’s Supper as no more than a symbol and reminder, and it is to disobey God’s commandments regarding practicing fellowship with the truth and rebuking and avoiding false teachers and erring doctrine.

4) While historical precedent alone cannot be our basis for doctrine, it can help assure us that we are in agreement with the church catholic’s understanding of the Scriptures when we review the practice of admission to the Lord’s Supper in congregations from the first century onward.

The Scriptures tell us that the believers in Jerusalem (immediately following Pentecost) “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). They continued in the apostolic teaching which we now have recorded in the Bible and summarized in the creeds. They practiced fellowship with those who continued in this same apostolic doctrine. It is in this fellowship and connected with this teaching where they broke bread (an early name for Holy Communion), and it is in this fellowship where they joined together in prayer and worship.

And, it is clear from historical records that churches did not practice open communion. In fact, those who were not baptized and confirmed members of the congregations were asked to leave after the service of the Word, and the doors were closed before the service of the Lord’s Supper began.

The Lutheran Confessions, contained in the Book of Concord — confessional statements to which you have placed me under oath before God to uphold — teach the practice of closed Communion. For example, The Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV: Of the Mass, states: “5] The people are accustomed to partake of the Sacrament together, if any be fit for it, and this also increases the reverence and devotion of public 6] worship. For none are admitted 7] except they be first examined. The people are also advised concerning the dignity and use of the Sacrament, how great consolation it brings anxious consciences, that they may learn to believe God, and to expect and ask of Him all that is good. 8] [In this connection they are also instructed regarding other and false teachings on the Sacrament.] This worship pleases God; such use of the Sacrament nourishes true devotion 9] toward God. It does not, therefore, appear that the Mass is more devoutly celebrated among our adversaries than among us.”

Luther in his Large Catechism explains: “In the same manner as we have heard regarding Holy Baptism, we must speak also concerning the other Sacrament, namely, these three points: What is it? What are its benefits? and, Who is to receive it? And all these are established by the words by which Christ has instituted it, 2] and which every one who desires to be a Christian and go to the Sacrament should know. For it is not our intention to admit to it and to administer it to those who know not what they seek, or why they come.”

Closed Communion is still practiced today among those churches and church bodies that hold to the real presence. The pastors of ELDoNA practice closed communion, allowing only communicant members of their fellowship to partake of the Lord’s Supper in their congregations.

Though upheld in varying degrees of strictness, the larger synods which still uphold the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture practice or uphold the practice of closed communion in their congregations. Though one can find a variety of Communion practices in the LCMS, the synod’s official position is to allow only members of LCMS congregations, or of church bodies in formal fellowship with the LCMS, to partake of the Lord’s Supper in LCMS churches.

I might add here the fact that being a member of one of these more conservative church bodies includes an agreement not to take Communion outside of one’s church fellowship. Thus, a member of an LCMS, WELS or ELS congregation would be breaking his or her agreement with his own church body by taking Communion in our church or another congregation outside of his or her own fellowship. And, at least historically, pastors respected those fellowship commitments and would not commune those of another fellowship (except, possibly, in the case of an emergency) but would direct these members to their own congregations and pastors.

A difficulty we face in our congregation at the present, since we are not in any formal fellowship with other churches or church bodies, is that practicing closed Communion limits us to welcoming only our own members who have been instructed and professed the true faith. Should we enter into fellowship with another church or fellowship of churches, those allowed to commune at our altar would include communicant members of these other congregations, as well.

With all of this said, practicing closed communion is not always easy to do. It is painful for a minister of Christ to have to turn someone away from the altar and ask for the opportunity to first instruct so that both the minister and those desiring to partake of the Lord’s Supper can be assured of a right understanding of the Lord’s Supper and a common confession of the true faith.

And, as I indicated above, there might be exceptions, such as giving Communion to one who is on his deathbed and cannot be served by his own pastor, even though he has not been able to be fully instructed and make a public profession of his faith, or to one who is admonishing his church or church body in regard to error and has temporarily suspended fellowship until the outcome of his attempt to correct is known. We don’t, however, wish to go against God’s Word and make emergency exceptions into the general rule or practice. Where there is no emergency, we seek to instruct first and be sure that those coming to the altar know what is being offered and given there and that they also accept and agree with the doctrine proclaimed among us.

Not to practice closed or close Communion is to treat the body and blood of Christ as a common thing, to elevate our own opinions and preferences above what God has revealed in His Word, to disregard the Word of God regarding the practice of church fellowship, to fail in truly caring for souls by instructing them in the true doctrine of the Lord’s Supper before communing them and to be dishonest and unfaithful to our own profession and subscription to the Lutheran Confessions as a pastor and as a Christian congregation. In so many ways, not to practice closed Communion would be not only unLutheran but unChristian.

May God help us to be faithful to His Word and to treasure the Lord’s Supper and all that He offers and gives to us by means of this Sacrament!

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