The practice of “CLOSE” COMMUNION
In order to understand our practice of close communion you need to understand what the
Bible teaches about Holy Communion.
THE SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION: 23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes. 27 Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. 28 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. 30 For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. 1st Corinthians 11:23-30 (NKJV) (See also: Mark 14:22-25; Matthew 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-20)
✏ In the words of Holy Scripture we have just read you discover the Lutheran understanding of Holy Communion. We believe that just as our Lord said: ‘This is both His true Body and Blood, as well, since scripture refers to the consecrated bread and wine as still being bread and wine we also believe that these elements are also present. In other words we take our Lord at His Word. We take Christ literally.
This is called the REAL PRESENCE (The Lutheran, Biblical view): Namely that in the Lord's Supper we receive the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, in, with, and under the bread and the wine. The words of our Lord leave no room for doubt. Our Lord clearly states that this IS His body, and that this IS His Blood. The word IS denotes reality not symbolism. For instance the Canadian flag symbolizes Canada. Yet the Canadian flag is not Canada. This real presence is clearly taught in the Bible.
✏ In Verses 23 and 24 of 1st Corinthians 11 the Greek grammar makes this clear. On this point Luther writes: “It is no longer mere bread of the oven but bread of flesh or bread of body, that is, bread which is sacramentally one with Christ's body.”
✏ As well we can point to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 which referring to the bread and wine talks of ‘a sharing (or participation) in’ the body and blood of Christ. The word ‘sharing or participation' refers to having a part in a common thing. In Communion we share or have a ‘part' of Christ!
✏ Probably the clearest example of the real presence can be found in the last verses of 1st Corinthians 11:27-30. Here we read that the one who partakes of the bread (body) and wine (blood) in an unworthy manner receives judgment upon himself. That judgment St. Paul warns us consists of sickness and even death. If we return for a moment to the illustration of the flag perhaps, this may become clearer. If you were to take a shotgun and blast the Canadian flag - that would show great disrespect for the flag and the country that it represents. You might even be charged with a crime. However, the flag is merely a symbolic thing. It is not Canada. The attack is not personal. It is impersonal. You are merely attacking Canada in a symbolic way.
● If however, you were to take the same shotgun and walk into a shopping mall and start blasting Canadians you would find quite a different response. You have now attacked the reality. You have attacked Canada in the person of those people. The consequences are far greater because the attack is personal. This is a ‘real’ not a ‘symbolic’ attack. In much the same way we find people speaking ill of our Lord, mocking Him, and even despising His Word. These impersonal attacks show great disrespect and certainly have consequences. However, we do not find immediate, direct consequence like sickness and death.
● However, in the case of Holy Communion St. Paul warns of some grave consequences for misusing Holy Communion. Why sickness and death? It is simple. When you misuse Communion you are attacking our Lord Jesus personally. He is truly present in the bread and the wine. Luther puts it this way: “At Creation God ordained that the sun must daily rise and shine and give light and warmth to creatures. Just so the Lord Christ also ordained and commanded that in His church His essential body and blood are to be present in the Lord’s Supper, not merely in a spiritual but also in a bodily and yet incomprehensible manner.” (What Luther Says 2472)
✠ OTHER VIEWS: While Lutherans believe in the REAL PRESENCE taking the teachings of Holy Scripture literally - other Church bodies do not. Human Reason is used to ‘explain' what we believe is an ‘unexplainable mystery.'
ROMAN CATHOLIC: The Roman Catholic view is sometimes called ‘Transubstantiation'. This is the view that sometime during the ‘consecration of elements' the bread and the wine are ‘changed into' the body and the blood of our Lord. Scripture however, clearly refers to the consecrated bread and wine as bread and wine thus stating that they are still present.
Luther writes: We do not say that His body is made out of the bread; but we do say that His body, which was made and came into being long ago, is present when we speak the words: “This My body.” For Christ does not command us to say: This is to become My body, or, Turn this into My body, but, “This is My body.” (What Luther Says 2482) As well Lutherans reject the view that in the Sacrament of the Altar we ‘re-sacrifice Christ.’
THE REFORMED: The Reformed Churches believe that only the ‘bread' and the ‘wine' (or in some cases grape juice) are really truly present in Holy Communion. The presence of our Lord's Blood is understood to be a symbolic presence, or, as some put it, a spiritual presence. In other words they deny the real presence. Most of these Churches would say that while the bread and wine represent a spiritual truth they are not that truth. With communion being symbolic it cannot convey the forgiveness of sins. Thus the emphasis in most Reformed circles is not on forgiveness, but rather on the importance of remembering what Christ has done for us. Often what is arrived at is some sort of Remembrance Meal with no sacramental aspects. Since they believe it is a symbolic meal they often serve communion to any professing Christian. The problem here is that the Reformed have taken the liberty to change the clear meaning of Scripture. If our Lord had meant to say “This bread symbolizes My Body” I believe He would have said it. He didn't. He said this IS. Dr. Luther writes: “Whoever says that the little word “is” means as much as “represents” is speaking mere fiction. No person can ever prove this meaning in as much as one place in Scripture.” (What Luther Says 2488)
CLOSE COMMUNION: Close Communion is the practice of our Lutheran Church, to allow only those who meet certain criteria to commune. This practice is in accord with the historic practice of the Early Church and the apostles, as well as being in accord with our responsibility to administer the Sacrament as our Lord has instructed. It is after all the LORD'S SUPPER not the Churches Supper. Close Communion is the practice of only allowing those who:
✏ Have been given basic instruction in the Christian [Lutheran] faith.
✏ Confess that Christian [Lutheran] faith as their own belief.
✏ Recognize the REAL PRESENCE of our Lord in the Sacrament.
✏ Are able to examine themselves.
✏ Are not living in manifest or impenitent sin.
* to partake of the Lord's Supper in our congregation. While many may view this practice in negative judgmental terms the real motivation is LOVE. We not only seek to be true to our Lord's commands concerning His supper. But, we also desire to share with these people God's blessing not His judgment. We will look at close communion as it relates to our Horizontal and Vertical relationships.
THE HORIZONTAL RELATIONSHIP (Fellowship with other believers)
✠ “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?” 1st Corinthians 10:16-18
✠ When we talk about the Lord's Supper, we are talking about the most important aspect of ‘fellowship.' In Holy Communion we are joined together with one another as well as with our Lord in confessing a common faith. (Unity of the Faith) The Unity of the Spirit (simply being a Christian), is not sufficient for this type of fellowship.
✠ When you come forward to commune at our altar you are making a public statement of your beliefs. You are saying that you believe in the Triune God, and in the other scriptural teachings of the Christian [Lutheran] Church. You are telling all concerned that this is your Church and its beliefs are not only biblical but they are your beliefs. In a like manner when you commune at the altar of a congregation with whom we are not in fellowship you are publicly stating to them that you are in essential agreement with them, or that the differences between your beliefs and theirs do not matter.
✠ To a greater or lesser degree to join in this, the closest bond of fellowship within Christianity, without having true fellowship is saying that God's Word and what it teaches is not really that important. Here the ‘visible' appearance of fellowship seems to be considered more important than the ‘actual' fellowship itself.
THE VERTICAL RELATIONSHIP (Fellowship with Christ)
✠ “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar?” 1 Corinthians 10:16-18
✠ As we saw earlier our Lord tells us quite plainly and simply that in Holy Communion we partake of His Body and Blood. This ‘Communion' with Him is a very wonderful and powerful Mystery. Used in accordance with our Lord’s instructions, it conveys many blessings. Misused, it conveys God's judgment. Used by one who is ignorant or who misuses it, it can cause great sorrow and pain. Think of an electrical cord that is plugged into the wall with the wires at one end being bare. There is a lot of power there. If you know what you are doing you can hook it up to a light and it provides great benefit. If you don’t know you run a very real danger of electrocuting yourself. Here is another example. One might liken Communion to driving an automobile. (Obviously another bad example!) An automobile is a very powerful instrument. Used by one who knows what he is doing it can do great things. However, because it is also dangerous, before you are allowed to ‘drive' you must past a test that demonstrates your ability to drive. (This does not make you a responsible driver. It simply ensures that you have the ability and knowledge you need to drive.) As a Christian congregation God has entrusted us with the sacrament of Holy Communion. It is our duty and responsibility to give a ‘driver’s test’ (confirmation) to make sure that people know what they are doing, as well as to make sure that they can examine themselves and thus commune to their benefit instead of their damnation. As we discussed earlier Scripture warns us that some have died from misusing the Sacrament. As a Church we do not wish to become God's instrument of wrath upon those who come to our altar unprepared. (This does not ensure that those who take the Sacrament are prepared. That is between them and God. We are simply seeking to ensure that as far as we know they are prepared.)
✠ The practical applications of these important principles are seen in what the Church calls Close Communion. The Lutheran Church did not develop this practice but simply continued what the early church had begun.
The Early Church: In the Didache we find a pointed reference to the distinction between the ‘church' and ‘dogs.' The reference to ‘dogs' is to the un-baptized or non-Christians. It states: “But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs." Later on in the same document a distinction is made between those in the church who were allowed to commune and those who were not. “Anyone at variance with his neighbor must not join you until they are reconciled, lest your sacrifice be defiled.” It was also necessary to first “confess your sins” so that your participation in the Eucharist might be ‘pure.'
The Church Fathers: In the writings of the Church Fathers we find two types of people who were to be refused the sacrament: 1) Those who were public unrepentant sinners. 2) Those who taught something that detracted from Christ's person or word, or failed to heed his voice in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. These teachings of the apostles and the church fathers led to a service which was literally closed to those who were not ‘communicant members.' In point of fact they were asked to leave the building during the service. If you were traveling and wished to commune you had to show proof that you were a member in good standing in a recognized Christian body.
The Reformation: Dr. Martin Luther writes: “It terrifies me to hear that in one and the same Church or at one and the same altar both parties are to find and to receive one and the same sacrament and the one party is to believe that it receives nothing but bread and wine, while the other is to believe that it receives the true body and blood of Christ. And I often wonder whether it is credible that a preacher or shepherd of souls can be so hardened and malicious as to say nothing about this . . . If such a person exists, he must have a heart harder than any stone, shell or adamant; he must in fact be an apostle of wrath . . . . Whoever therefore has such preachers or suspects them to be such, let him be warned against them as against the devil incarnate himself.” (What Luther Says 2522)
The Lutheran Confessions speak not only of discerning the Body and Body of Christ in, with and under the Bread and Wine but also of those who are manifest and unrepentant sinners. Luther in the Large Catechism writes: “ . . . those who are wanton and dissolute must be told to stay away; for they are not prepared to receive forgiveness of sin, since they do not desire it and do not wish to be godly. But the others, who are not such callous and wicked people and desire to be godly, must not absent themselves, even though otherwise they be feeble and full of infirmities . . .” (Large Catechism)
Galesburg Rule: Adopted by the General Council of Lutheran Churches in 1875. (This council was comprised of most of the North American Lutheran Synods which held to the Unaltered Augsburg Confession [UAC] the LCMS expressed some reservations with some aspects of the General Council and did not join).
The rule, which accords with the word of God and with the confessions of our Church, is:
✏ Lutheran pulpits for Lutheran ministers only; Lutheran altars for Lutheran communicants only.
✏ The exceptions to this rule belong to sphere of privilege, not of right.
✏ The determination of the exceptions is to be made in consonance with these principles by the conscientious judgment of pastors as the cases arise.
✠ Thus we can see that our practice of Close Communion is firmly rooted both in Holy Scripture and in the history of both the Christian Church at large and in the Lutheran Church in particular. We must always remember that this position does not imply that we are somehow ‘better’ Christians than others. We need to remember that we have taken it out of a concern for others:
✏ First, it helps us fulfill our desire that people who receive the Sacrament receive Christ’s Body and Blood to their benefit not to their harm.
✏ Secondly, it shows to other Christians how important God's Word is to us. And it points them to that Word through which we find true Christian Unity.
✠ Donald Deffner in a tract entitled “Why Close Communion” sums it up well: “So it is not that a Lutheran congregation wants to bar fellowship from the blessings of the Eucharist when they practice Close Communion. It is not that they want to be separatistic, or set themselves up as judges of other men. The practice of close Communion is prompted by love and is born of the heartfelt conviction on the basis of scripture alone that we must follow Christ's command. This means refusing the Lord's Supper to those whose belief is not known to us. It is not showing ‘love' to allow a person to do something harmful, even though he may think it is for his own good. It also means that if they are members of a Christian body which departs from the full truth of Scripture in some of its doctrines, that we must not minimize the evil of this false teaching by opening our fellowship to any and all Christians who err in the faith.”
Copyright 2012, Rev. Mark Danielson (part of his Christian Discipleship Class)