One of the thorniest issues any LCMS pastor has to deal with is admission to the Lord’s Table. As pastor of a congregation in the inner suburbs of a major metropolitan area that sees frequent visitors for work, military service, and vacation, I’ve had all of the following kinds of experiences, sometimes on the same Sunday:

  • Someone communes and I later realize I should not have allowed it
  • Someone refrains from communing when I would have allowed it
  • Someone is discretely asked about their church membership and/or confession but takes offense even when they are admitted to the communion
  • Someone is given a blessing instead of the Sacrament but is profoundly gracious about it

There are numerous issues at work, but the most challenging is the utter disconnect between our culture’s emphasis on individual piety vs. the concern of closed communion practice with church membership/fellowship among churches.

Photo: Catholic News Service

Photo: Catholic News Service

Thus I read with interest Dr. Robert Benne’s piece “The March for Life and the Tale of Three Lutheran Churches.” Benne—who delivered a fine paper at the LCMS Life Conference held in conjunction with the March for Life—sounds a note of displeasure regarding the communion practice of the LCMS as observed at the Divine Service before the March for Life:

What about the LCMS?   The traditionalists who prevailed in the great divisions of the late 60s and early 70s in the LCMS, chronicled dramatically by James Burkee in his Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod, purged the LCMS of theological and political liberals. The purging was done on the basis of the “doctrinal position” of official Missouri, elaborated in The Brief Statement of 1932 and the Statement on Scriptural and Confessional Principles of 1973. These statements affirm a literalist interpretation of the Bible (complete with seven-day creation), strict and narrow doctrinal requirements, and the prohibition of “unionism” with any church that does not concur with them. They deny Eucharistic fellowship to any who do conform to these narrow limits. My wife and I were refused communion at the very conference at which I was invited to speak.

Although I was the chaplain for the conference and the celebrant for that Divine Service, I did not discuss the matter with Dr Benne or his wife. President Harrison told me as we were preparing for the service that Dr Benne had asked him about communion and he had told him it would be best not to receive. I don’t know the extent of that conversation, or what all went into President Harrison’s decision, but I’m certain it wasn’t pleasurable for him to deliver that message. It may be that, upon examination, Dr Benne—and many, many others who would commune at a Missouri Synod altar on a one-off basis—might give the right answer to any doctrinal questions we would ask in determining what makes an individual a worthy communicant (see the Small Catechism and especially the Christian Questions with their Answers). But the issue is not simply a matter of the individual’s faith, but also the public confession of their church body. That’s the point of closed communion: altar fellowship is church fellowship.

It’s unpleasant, and rare indeed is the pastor who in any way enjoys turning someone away from the Sacrament. But in this case, President Harrison didn’t refuse communion to Dr Benne or his wife, so much as he could not yet recognize Dr Benne’s church body as in fellowship with us.

The Divine Service at the Life Conference was a one-off event. Where things get challenging is when the person is going to repeatedly be attending but may not be in a position to declare membership now, if ever. In certain cases, people end up regularly attending my Missouri Synod congregation regularly (either every Sunday for a few months to a year, or on repeated visits to the area for work or family) where there is no local congregation with which their home church is in fellowship (e.g., they are a member of a micro-synod). What to do? The closed communion formulations came about in a simpler age, where people moved around far less, and where there were not so many denominations.

A few years ago I had occasion to speak with one of these potential communicant’s pastor (formerly ELS) about how we should handle this challenge. He said something that I haven’t been able to shake: “Church membership is an important, but not the only, consideration in admission to the Supper.” Part of me wants to embrace that. Another part of me thinks it would just enable me to take the coward’s way out.

Nevertheless, of two things I am certain: A major realignment needs to take place in American Lutheranism; and closed communion is exceedingly challenging to maintain in a congregation where people come and go so quickly that the pastor cannot always remember who he’s admitted. I maintain the practice of closed communion in my parish, but it’s probably the least pleasant aspect of my work, and I find myself often with more questions than answers.