My wife and I have been refused communion on more than one occasion. In each instance it was in a Lutheran church that we were turned away. We are, ourselves, Lutherans, but the church bodies that did not commune us were different groups of Lutherans, and held that the divisions between us justified not giving us the gifts of the sacrament that Christ promised.
Here, I’d like to examine this practice of some Lutheran churches, often referred to as “closed communion.” What do the actual Lutheran Confessions say about who may receive the Lord’s Supper? That is the question which must be asked by any claiming to be Lutheran.
We believe, teach, and confess that the entire worthiness of the guests at the table of his heavenly meal is and consists alone in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ. We make his obedience and merit our own through true faith, concerning which we receive assurance through the sacrament. Worthiness consists in no way in our own virtues, or in internal or external preparations. (The Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article VII, Section 20)
The Lutheran Confessions leave no wiggle room here. What makes one worthy to receive the sacrament? Is it one’s preparation? No. Is it one’s denominational commitment? No. It is explicitly and clearly stated here: “the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ” which is itself made our own “through true faith.” Indeed, what does it mean to add the requirement of complete doctrinal agreement onto these words? Would not such a teaching be to make one’s “own virtues”–here of the doctrinal variety–what makes one worthy? It seems so. The teaching here, however, is that it is only faith in Christ’s words and works that make one worthy.
Just in case one wants to persist and allege that there may be some difficulty interpreting these words, Martin Luther himself states, in the Large Catechism:
Now we must also consider who the person is who receives such power and benefit [from the Lord’s Supper]… It is the one who believes what the words say and what they give, for they are not spoken or preached to stone and wood but to those who hear them, to those whom he says, “Take and eat”…All those who let these words be addressed to them and believe that they are true have what the words declare…
Now this is the sum total of a Christian’s preparation to receive this sacrament worthily. (The Large Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar, section 33-36)
What does Luther himself teach here? “[T]his is the sum total of a Christian’s preparation…” (emphasis mine). And what is that sum total? Simply being one who “let these words be addressed to them and believe that they are true…” Once again, we see no mention of further conditions. There is no place here for refusing communion to those who believe the words are for them. The Christian must simply take hold of the words of Christ, which promise his body and blood to them. They need not be part of a specific denomination (which would have been historically impossible or at least unlikely at this point). It is the faith of the individual that makes them worthy, not their adherence to a set of doctrinal truths apart from those affirmed about the Lord’s Supper.
What do Lutherans who turn away other Lutherans from the sacrament say about their reasoning? Here is one example, from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod:
Because the Bible teaches that this Sacrament may also be spiritually harmful if misused, and that participation in the Lord’s Supper is an act of confession of faith, the LCMS ordinarily communes only those who have been instructed in the teachings of our church and who have confessed their faith in these teachings. (LCMS FAQ, cited below)
Here we see an unwarranted limit being placed on the sacrament of communion. What makes one worthy to receive this sacrament? The Lutheran Confessions make it explicit that that which makes one worthy is faith in the words of Christ. Here, however, an addition is made: “only those who have been instructed in the teachings of our church [the LCMS] and who have confessed their faith in these teachings” are “ordinarily” communed. Yet this limit is nowhere taught in the Book of Concord.
A possible counter-argument to the above is that there were no divergent Lutherans or Lutheran groups at the time the Lutheran Confessions were written, so they couldn’t have even addressed the issue. Apart from the fact that this is historically false (for parts of the Book of Concord were written to correct others within the folds of Lutheranism), it doesn’t change the Book of Concord’s teaching on the topic. The Lutheran Confessions make very strong statements. Phrases like “the sum total” and “alone” are used accompanying what the Confessions teach in regards to worthiness for the Lord’s Supper. These phrases are exclusive. That is, they affirm explicitly that no other expectations may be added. For what else might saying “sum total” or “alone” mean?
Those Lutheran groups who have added requirements for worthily receiving the Lord’s Supper stand against the Book of Concord’s own teaching on the topic. Time and again Luther and other confessors state that the only requirement for worthiness is to affirm the words of Christ and take hold of them by faith. Any who add requirements to receiving this sacrament have made their own words supersede those of the Confessions.
 Closed communion may also refer to simply keeping communion closed to those who affirm what the Book of Concord teaches regarding the Lord’s Supper. There is a fine line between this practice and making the additions to the Book of Concord’s teaching as noted in this post. I am not addressing this less stringent variety here.
LCMS Frequently Asked Questions Doctrinal Issues- The Lord’s Supper/Holy Communion (accessible here).
Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2000).
Adhering to the Book of Concord “In So Far As” or “Because” it Agrees with Scripture?– I argue that Lutherans must hold the position that we adhere to the Book of Concord In So Far As it Agrees with Scripture.
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