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Who is Worthy?- A reflection on closed communion in Lutheran churches

I do not claim rights to this image and was unable to find original source. Possibly here:

I do not claim rights to this image and was unable to find original source. Possibly here:

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.”[1] 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.

[1] 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).


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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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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.


Really Recommended Posts 10/9/15- Inerrancy, Immigration, apologetics, and more!

postI’m pleased to offer this go-round of the Really Recommended Posts to you, dear readers. I think they are about as diverse as you can get. We have Stephen Colbert on his faith, illegal immigration and Christianity, apologetics, Jesus’ view of Scripture, and Planned Parenthood on the docket today. Check them out and let me know what you thought!

Watch Stephen Colbert, a Lifelong Catholic, on Hearing a Female Priest Celebrate the Eucharist– I don’t put a lot of stock in celebrity comments about faith or politics or really anything. After all, they don’t automatically become authorities simply because they are famous. However, Colbert’s faith is quite sincere, and this whole interview is worth watching. Here’s a clip in which he talks about a female priest celebrating the Eucharist.

American Christianity and Illegal Immigration– Here’s a fairly lengthy look at the historic interaction with illegal immigration that American Christianity has had. It helps provide a historical perspective on some of the current debates regarding illegal immigration.

Apologetics Strategies: The Myth of a Bulletproof Argument– It is easy to think that, regarding Christian apologetics, we can come up with an argument that will convince everyone. Is that the case? Here’s a post on apologetic method that is well worth your time.

Jesus Viewed Scripture as Inerrant: A Reply to Kyle Roberts– A few weeks ago I featured an article arguing all Christians should view the Bible as inerrant. Here is a follow-up post in which Rob Bowman takes an extended look at Jesus’ view of Scripture.

3 Pinnochios to Planned Parenthood Supporters for Slippery Mammogram Language– The Washington Post calls out Planned Parenthood supporters for their claims about mammograms. Look, Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide any mammograms at all. Not a single one. It should not be used as a scare tactic against those arguing to defund the abortion provider.


Really Recommended Posts 6/12/15- Luther, Treecats [what!?], and more!

snowl-owl-post-arpingstoneSorry I’m a bit late today folks. I was on vacation and still catching up to some stuff after a beautiful cruise in Alaska! Anyway, this week I still got some diverse reads for you, dear friends! We have reads ranging from Luther on the Lord’s Supper to science fiction creatures, from Paley to Thomism, and even a comic! Check them out and let me know what you think!

The Lord’s Supper – Martin Luther’s Journey to the Bible– Martin Luther’s theology of the sacraments is central to his view of Christianity and the Christian life. Here’s an extended blog post looking at how he developed his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

I’m a Theology Nerd (Comic)- Yep, pretty much this. I am a huge theology nerd, in case anyone didn’t notice. This comic captures some of the reasoning behind that pretty well: if you really think there is a transcendent, loving, creator of the universe, how could we not love to learn more and more about that being?

Crossing the Heath with William Paley (1743-1805)– Doug Geivett continues his fascinating series on historical Christian apologists with one of the most famous to have ever lived: William Paley. He especially emphasizes Paley’s design argument, with a nod towards his historical arguments as well. I have written on Paley myself, and interested readers should check out my posts in the linked text.

Neo-Scholastic Essays– Edward Feser has a new book out that collects many of his essays together for your reading pleasure. Why care about Edward Feser? He is, in my opinion, the clearest thinker on Thomistic philosophy writing today. And he writes a lot. Check out his blog and be sure to look into his books as well. I’ve written on some things from Feser before.

Treecats Climb Into Children’s Hearts– David Weber is my favorite science fiction author. He’s got all kinds of awesome military sci-fi out there that you should read! Here’s a post that should warm your hearts too about his going to classrooms to share the love of literature with kids! I had the chance to meet Weber not too long ago, and I’ve written on his portrayal of women and religion in science fiction as well.



Really Recommended 1/2/15- 2014 books and movies, bread and wine, and more!

snowl-owl-post-arpingstoneThe first “Really Recommended Posts” go-round of this year has a set of diverse posts to lure you in, dear readers. As always, let me know what you think of the posts, and be sure to let the authors know as well!

The Inevitable 2014 List: Books, Movies, and TV Shows Worth Noting– Empires and Mangers is a fantastic site that features discussions of YA Literature, movies, and books from a Christian perspective. I highly recommend you follow it, and that you also check out this awesome post on some of the best reads and watches from this past year.

Why Does God Come to Us in Bread and Wine?– There is a sense of terror related to the Holy in our interactions with deity. But what does this mean for the Lord’s Supper and the way we interact as a people of God?

Everyone is Religious (comic)– Everyone has a religion. What can Christianity say to this notion?

The Case of the Shrinking Comet and the Age of the Universe– Does the rate of water loss on comets like the one Rosetta landed on mean the universe must be young? Here, an argument from the Institute for Creation Research is analyzed.

Is silicon-based life a possible alternative for carbon-based life?– One of the proposed alternative origin-of-life scenarios to try to explain fine-tuning away is the notion that silicon-based life widens the scenario. Is this the case?

Sam Harris on Christian Sacraments–Lunacy?

Sam Harris recently debated William Lane Craig on the topic “Is Good from God?” See my comments on the debate here. During the debate, Harris argued that the rituals of Christianity can be seen as a kind of lunacy. Harris said, “[Religion] allows perfectly decent and sane people  to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. If you wake up tomorrow morning thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you have lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you’re just a Catholic.”

Consider what Harris is claiming here. Basically, he’s saying that to believe a cracker becomes the body of Jesus is a kind of lunacy. Interestingly, throughout the debate he issued these veiled (or not so veiled) insults to Christians at large, and quickly retreated from them when he was called out. But that’s neither here nor there.

My contention is that Harris’ implicit argument against the rationality of the Sacraments (and Christian rituals at large) contains an implicit assumption. Once that assumption is exposed, his argument fails. The implicit assumption is this:

1) Christianity is false

Yeah, I’m serious. The reason is because the only way Harris’ argument makes sense is if one assumes a priori that Christianity is false. For consider his objection if Christianity is true. If Christianity is true, then God exists, Jesus was God, Jesus told us what would happen in Communion/the Eucharist, etc., etc. But then if Christianity is true, it is perfectly rational to hold that the uttering of certain words as part of a ritual would be causative in the sense that God said it would be. So Harris’ argument turns on the assumption that Christianity is false.

But perhaps I’m missing Harris’ point. Perhaps he is instead trying to say “Look at what you guys do! It’s crazy if it’s something else!” But again the only way this would make sense is by assuming Christianity is false. If I believe Christianity is true, then I have no reason to think the rituals involved therein are lunacy or anything other than perfectly rational worship of our God.

But it could be pressed that it does seem as though Harris’ assertion that Holy Communion would be viewed as lunacy in other contexts is in some sense correct. For were I to do the same with pancakes and Elvis, I would be seen as a lunatic. Why not the Christian too? Well, then the question would have to be what kind of evidence do we have for thinking Christianity is true as opposed to other beliefs? In short, if the Christian is epistemically justified in believing Christianity to be true, then Harris’ argument is exposed for what it is: a facile argument which shows how deeply Harris and the other “New Atheists” fail to understand the position they attack.


Image: Priest distributing Holy Communion at Holy Protection Church, Düsseldorf.


The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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