(Editor’s Note: This is the first of five posts on Holy Communion by Pastor Preus.)
What is going on in the synod regarding the practice of who is admitted to the Lord’s Supper?
First of all let’s settle the question of Close or Closed. That will be the topic of this Blog.
So which is it? Do we practice “close communion” or “closed communion?” Recently I read a comment in which the writer said that he prefers the word “close” to “closed” because the former does not seem as negative. We don’t want to express that we are closed off as a group or that our altars are closed to people as though we’re a store with sign up that says “closed.” That’s too standoffish, it is claimed. It keeps people away. We want to attract people not repel them. “Closed” suggests exclusivity rather than the more politically correct “inclusivity.” Rather we want to express the closeness of the group. We aren’t closed but a close knit group. So, it is averred, we should not talk about “closed communion but close communion.”
There are three problems with this view. The first is historical. The word “closed” comes from the early church practice of the deacon, just before the service of the Sacrament, crying out “The doors, the doors, close the doors,” at which point the doors would literally be closed with no admittance granted to anyone who was merely a witness to the proceedings. The uninitiated and visitors would not only be excluded from coming forward to the altar but they would not be allowed in the room. The word “close” on the other hand, as best as I have determined is of relatively recent vintage. It comes from late nineteenth and early twentieth century Baptist sources and was ignorantly or deliberately imported into LCMS circles in the 1940s and fifties. Sources for your further study are Elert’s “Eucharist in the first four Centuries” and an article by Norman Nagel entitled “Closed Communion: In the way of the gospel; In the way of the law.” (Concordia Journal 1991 Volume 17 Number 1 pp. 20-29) in which he shows that the English Translation of Pieper’s Dogmatics simply dropped the adjective “closed” from modifying the noun “Communion”. Nagel, justifiably irked, referred to the mistranslation as “villainy.” (ibid. p. 27). At any rate the use of the word “close” seems to be more a symptom of Missouri’s parochial nature or a pious desire that reality would be different than it is. The proper and historical expression is “closed communion.”
The second problem with the expression “close communion” is grammatical. The opposite of “close” is “far.” The opposite of “closed” is “open.” Who ever heard of “far communion?” People who do not follow our practice of restricting attendance at the altar are said to practice “open Communion.” Of course this makes no sense unless its opposite is “closed communion.”
Third, the use of the expression “close communion” is theologically weak. It seems to be little more than an attempt to temper precisely what is being communicated in the practice of closed communion. In closed communion we are saying that a person must be attached to an altar of a church which is orthodox. This orthodoxy places a church in altar fellowship with other faithful congregations of the true church. The basis for this fellowship is a common confession of the truth of the Gospel and all of its articles. That’s what orthodoxy is. If someone does not enjoy this fellowship they have a problem which is easily solved. Instruct them, examine them, absolve them, connect them to an altar of a true orthodox church and commune them. If this is something they do not want or refuse then they need a word of law. “You are not welcome to the altar of the true church because you will not heed the evangelical confession of this true church. Our communion is closed to you until you are instructed and absolved in Christ’s true church.” It really has nothing to do with being Missouri Synod except that the LCMS ostensibly is a collection of true churches. By claiming that our communion is “close” rather than “closed” we switch the stress from belonging to something that is God’s to something that is ours. We are saying, “Make a commitment to our closeness and promise to be part of us and everything will be OK.” The relationship is with us rather than with the true church. It is subjective rather than objective. It is weak and not strong.
So let’s cease and desist from the expression “close communion” once and for all. Let’s speak of closed communion and at least use the same expression, define this expression the same way and discuss it. That way we have a better chance of coming to some common understanding of what our practice really ought to be.
Next time: Do we really practice “closed communion” in the LCMS.