The Consistent Practice of Close Communion—An Exercise in Christian Love
“He that eateth and drinketh unworthily
eateth and drinketh damnation to himself,
not discerning the Lord’s body.”
— I Corinthians 11:29
In accordance with God’s Word and sound Lutheran practice, we observe “close” (sometimes also called “closed”) Communion, that is, we admit to the Lord’s Table only those who are members of our “communion” or fellowship. This is not the practice of ecclesiastical snobbery or of arbitrary exclusivity, but it expresses what the Bible itself teaches about the nature, purpose, and proper use of the Lord’s Supper.
The one sacrifice or offering of Christ’s body and blood on the tree of the cross was intended for all mankind as payment-in-full for their sins (Isaiah 53:4-12; II Corinthians 5:15; I John 2:2); and in view of His perfect, all-sufficient vicarious atonement, God reconciled the world unto Himself, not charging men’s sins against them but forgiving even the ungodly (Romans 4:5) and declaring them righteous in His sight (II Corinthians 5:19). All who cling in faith to this accomplished fact have for their very own the forgiveness and righteousness which Christ purchased and won for them and the peace with God without which no one can enter heaven (Romans 5:1; I Timothy 6:12; etc.).
However, the Holy Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is NOT intended for all as is evident from the fact that Jesus “gave it to the disciples” (Matthew 26:26), not to everyone. Moreover, St. Paul expressly states that unworthy communicants partake of the Lord’s body and blood to their damnation instead of to their blessing (I Corinthians 11:27-29). Therefore, for their own welfare, we do not admit to the Lord’s Table those who are known to be ungodly and impenitent, those who have given offense and have not removed it, those who are unable to examine themselves (such as young children and adults who have not been sufficiently instructed, unconscious persons, and those who by virtue of infirmity cannot truly examine themselves and discern the Lord’s body), and those of a different faith, since participation in the Lord’s Supper is a testimony of unity in faith and confession (I Corinthians 10:17; Acts 2:42; I Corinthians 1:10; Romans 16:17).
Close (or “closed”) Communion, as noted above, is not, as many claim in self-imposed ignorance, the practice of ecclesiastical snobbery or of arbitrary exclusivity. On the contrary, it is an exercise of Christian love to administer this feast of love only to those who have carefully examined themselves (I Corinthians 11:28) as to whether they sincerely repent of their sins, confide in Jesus Christ as their Redeemer, believe in the real presence of His body and blood in the Sacrament according to His Word, desire and sincerely intend as evidence of their repentance and faith to amend their sinful lives, motivated and enabled to do so by the precious Gospel of salvation by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, and as to whether they are of one faith and confession (in“the unity of the spirit,” Ephesians 4:3) with their fellow communicants at the Lord’s Table.
Since we are unable to look into another’s heart to see whether he believes, we can judge only by one’s profession (assuming it to be sincere, Matthew 12:34b) and by one’s fruits (as to whether they comport with his profession, Matthew 3:8). Therefore it is incumbent upon Christian pastors, as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:1) diligently to ascertain whether, according to their confession and profession of faith and by their manifest works, they are truly “worthy and well prepared” (Luther) to receive the Sacrament. This diligence does not require auricular confession [“in the ear” of the pastor], as the Church of Rome mandates it, nor does it require on the pastor’s part an intrusive investigation into the lives of his sheep (I Peter 4:15d). But it does require the God-ordained relationship between the pastor and his sheep, to the intent that they “know them which labor among [them], and are over [them] in the Lord, and admonish [them], and…esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake, and be at peace among [themselves]” (I Thessalonians 5:12-13). It requires that members of a local flock “obey them that have the rule over [them] and submit [themselves]; for they watch for [their] souls as they that must give account” (Hebrews 13:17).
Moreover, God requires that the pastors themselves exercise due diligence with respect to their divinely-instituted office to “take heed unto…all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made [them] overseers, to feed the church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28), to “admonish” their members (I Thessalonians 5:12), “by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” among them, and in general to “watch for [their] souls, as they that must give account” (Hebrews 13:17; cf. I Peter 5:2-4). This is the loving oversight which Christ Himself committed to His under-shepherds; and their accountability to Him is not an option. But unfaithful pastors, who are derelict in these duties, fall under God’s curse for their inattentiveness to Christ’s sheep and are to that extent responsible for their loss (Ezekiel 3:17–21; 33:7-9; 34:2-10).
To administer the Lord’s Supper indiscriminately, namely, to anyone and everyone who expresses the desire to have it without due regard for the nature, purpose, and proper use of the Sacrament according to Scripture is irresponsible with respect to the watchfulness (Hebrews 13:17) required of pastors by the Chief Shepherd, reckless concerning the safety of the souls of the communicants (I Corinthians 11:27), wanton in utter disregard for the warning issued by the Lord’s Apostle to unworthy communicants (I Corinthians 11:29), and therefore callously unloving to them who should be able to trust Christian pastors, “as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (I Peter 4:10), not to do anything to harm them. Christ Himself did not give the gift of His true body and blood to unbelievers; He gave it to His “disciples” (Matthew 26:26); He did not give it to those whom He knew to be ungodly and impenitent, to those who were not reconciled to one another, to those who did not love one another, to those who were not one with one another, to those who were not agreed in the doctrines of His Word; for He had specifically instructed them on all these points beforehand (John 17:9; Matthew 5:24; John 13:34; 17:11; 8:31-32; etc.) AND well knew their hearts.
When we admit to the Lord’s Table only worthy communicants — not “worthy” in the sense of deserving or meriting anything, but as coming in a fitting and suitable manner, having examined themselves (I Corinthians 11:28) as to their God-wrought repentance, faith, and discernment of the Lord’s body (the Real Presence), as to their willingness, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit, as the fruit of true repentance and faith, to amend their sinful lives, and as to their unity with us in doctrine and practice — we invite them to partake of what is often called “the visible Gospel” or “the tangible Gospel” of comfort and of the assurance of the remission of sins offered, given and sealed to all communicants in the words: “Given and shed for you for the remission of sins,” blessings received not merely by eating and drinking but by faith. This is as loving a gesture to fellow believers as we can make, as the Lord Jesus lovingly laid down His life and gave His body and blood into death out of love to poor sinners “that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
It is NOT loving, however, to invite people to eat and to drink the body and blood of Christ to their “damnation” or “condemnation” [the same word in the Greek, (I Corinthians 11:29)]. This is done deliberately when communicants are invited to the Lord’s Table who are known to be ungodly and impenitent, who have given offense and have not removed it, who by virtue of insufficient instruction, unconsciousness, or infirmity are not able to examine themselves according to St. Paul’s injunction (including those who reject the Real Presence and therefore do not “discern the Lord’s body” in the Sacrament, I Corinthians 11:29), and those who are of a different faith, inasmuch as joint communion is a testimony of unity in faith and confession (I Corinthians 10:17; cf. Acts 2:42). When a pastor knows such things “up-front” and yet admits a person to the Lord’s Supper, he does spiritual harm to a communicant who is unworthy and unprepared, even though the communicant himself may be unaware of his “unworthiness.”
The same can be done through carelessness, inattentiveness to duty, or just plain laziness (cf. Isaiah 56:10) on the part of pastors whose accountability for souls (Hebrews 13:17) they take lightly. While they do not deliberately give the Lord’s Supper to a person to his damnation, they make it all too convenient for the unworthy and unprepared communicant, even out of ignorance, to “eat and drink damnation to himself” (I Corinthians 11:29). In such cases, the spiritual harm could well have been avoided, had the pastors been diligent and faithful as “stewards of the mysteries of God” (I Corinthians 4:1-2).
Such lack of concern for the spiritual welfare of communicants is evident when pastors commune visitors to their services whom they do not know and whom they have not personally encountered. Surely, if he knew in advance that a visitor intending to commune were a Presbyterian, who denied the real presence of the Savior’s body and blood in the Sacrament, the pastor would not commune him; for such a visitor would not be “discerning the Lord’s body” in the Sacrament, nor would he at all understand the nature, benefits, power and salutary use of the Lord’s Supper.
Likewise, if the pastor knew that a visitor intended to partake of the Sacrament who was a Roman Catholic, who regarded it as “a real though unbloody sacrifice of the body of Christ for the sins of the living and the dead” (the definition of the Roman Mass), who denied the presence of bread and wine in the Sacrament, who thought it a meritorious good work to “go to Mass,” and who believed that Christ’s “one offering” (Hebrews 10:10 and 14) on the tree of the cross was insufficient to pay for the sins of mankind but that it had to be repeated again and again in the Mass to atone for sin, surely the pastor would not commune such a person.
Rather, in BOTH cases, the pastor should lovingly explain to such visitors why he cannot in good conscience accept them at the Lord’s Table, and why, by denying them the Sacrament, he is exercising love toward them (cf. Leviticus 19:17) by not permitting them to receive it to their damnation. While indeed some (and in all probability many) might miss the entire point of love, as well as obedience to the Lord’s Word, as motivating the pastor’s refusal to commune them, their ignorance of doctrine in the matter should not be allowed to pressure the pastor, out of a false sense of love in “political correctness,” to violate the truly Scriptural practice of Close Communion.
More difficult for even many “Lutherans” to accept nowadays is the refusal to commune visitors who profess faith in Christ and even in the real presence, who may indeed be members of some “Lutheran” congregation and synodical fellowship, but who are not of the same faith and confession (I Corinthians 10:17; Acts 2:42; Amos 3:3; I Corinthians 1:10; Romans 16:17, etc.). Sadly, back in 1872, when the matter of close Communion was being discussed in connection with altar fellowship (joint Communion) among Lutheran synods in America, Dr. Charles Porterfield Krauth of the General Council expressed what later would become known as “The Galesburg Rule,” namely, that “Lutheran altars are for Lutheran communicants only.” While it was an effort at establishing “close Communion” as the accepted Lutheran practice, Krauth’s statement was too simple and too vague in using the term “Lutheran” for the sake of brevity. There were so many exceptions that “the rule” was no real rule at all; and “Lutheran” did not really signify “orthodox in faith and confession, in doctrine and in practice.” Today the name “Lutheran” encompasses so many different standards of doctrine and practice in so many widely differing fellowships that Luther himself would not recognize it! The so-called “Galesburg Rule” TODAY is basically meaningless; and close Communion in Lutheran churches, while often PROFESSED as being their practice, is rarely adhered to with consistency, as surveys of thousands of Lutheran pastors clearly show. Such cases as “pastoral emergencies,” for example, are often cited as “exceptions” to the rule, as if reception of the Lord’s Supper is necessary for the salvation of a dying person.
Thus far we have discussed close Communion as an exercise of love particularly toward the communicant himself. But it is also an exercise of love toward the Lord our God, toward His precious Word, toward the sanctity of the Savior’s Sacrament as He instituted it, and toward “the doctrine which is according to Godliness” (I Timothy 6:3). For indifference in doctrine and practice, in this instance with reference to the Lord’s Supper, demonstrates just the opposite. “The first and great commandment” (Matthew 22:38),“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (v. 37) requires that we disengage our minds from any and all rationalism regarding the Holy Supper (Cf. Zwingli at Marburg). It requires that we honor Jesus’ own words as expressing precisely what they say, namely, “This IS My body which is given for you…This is My blood of the New Testament which is shed for you.”
Love toward God requires that we observe Christ’s Supper as HE instituted it and not according to our own choosing (“THIS do…” Luke 22:19). It requires that, out of gratitude for our redemption, we do it “in remembrance of [Him] (I Corinthians 11:24), “[proclaiming] the Lord’s death til He come (v. 26) and recognizing that His Supper is NOT a perpetual sacrifice to be offered again and again “for the sins of the living and the dead” (R. C.) but that “by one offering He hath perfected forever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14), fully satisfying God’s justice for the reconciliation of the world (II Corinthians 5:19). Love toward God requires that, all speaking the same thing, with no divisions among us, “be[ing] perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (I Corinthians 1:10) and “continu[ing] steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship,” we observe “the [th`/]breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42) together in unity as “one bread and one body, for we are all partakers of that one bread” (I Corinthians 10:17).
May God graciously grant, by the effectual working of His Holy Spirit through the Means of His Grace, that we continue to value, treasure and consistently practice the Scriptural observance of “close” or “closed” Communion in our congregations — out of love to those who desire to partake of the Sacrament, out of love to those who observe our practice as a pure trumpet sound in the battle to maintain true orthodoxy (I Corinthians 14:8), and especially out of love to Him who “first loved us” (I John 4:19) and gave Himself for us an offering and a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God (Ephesians 5:2) as “the propitiation for our sins” (I John 2:2; Romans 3:24-25) and instituted His Holy Supper “in remembrance of [Him]” (Luke 22:19), so that we gratefully proclaim His death (I Corinthians 11:26) and what His vicarious atonement wrought for us and for all mankind (II Corinthians 5:19).
— D. T. M.