Examination. Who Does That?
Remember when you used to have to register for Holy Communion the day before? Probably not. It was at one time a common practice, and in keeping with the concept of examination:
No one is admitted to the Sacrament without first being examined. (AC XXIV, 6, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions)
The Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved. (Ap. XXIV, 1, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions)
The idea of Communion registration wasn’t limited to Lutherans, as this quote from the Anglicans’ 1559 Book of Common Prayer illustrates:
THE ORDER OF THE
ADMINISTRATION OF THE LORD’S SUPPER,
So many as entend to be partakers of the holy Communion, shall signifie their names to the Curate over night; or els in the mornyng, afore the beginning of morning prayer or immediately after.
And if any of those be an open and notorious evil liver, so that the congregacion by him is offended, or have done any wrong to hys neighbours by word or dede ye curate havyng knowledge therof, shal cal hym, and advertyse hym, in any wise not to presume to the Lordes table, until he have openly declared him self to have truely repented, and amended his former naughty lyfe, that the Congregation may therby be satisfyed, whych afore were offended, and that he have recompensed the parties, who he hath done wrong unto, or at the least declare him selfe to be in full purpose so to doe, as sone as he conveniently may.
The same order shall the Curate use with those, betwixt whome he perceyveth malice and hatred to raigne, not suffering them to be partakers of the Lordes table untyll he know them to be reconciled. And if one of the parties so at variance, be content to forgeve from the botome of hys hart, all that the other hath trespassed agaynste him, and to make amends for that he hym self hath offended: and the other partye wyll not be perswaded to a godly unitye, but remain stil in his frowardnes and malice: The Minister in that case, ought to admit the penitent person to the holy Communyon, and not hym that is obstinate.
Today, Lutherans aren’t always as interested in preventing the “evil liver” from partaking of God’s holy things. Sign a little card, throw it in the offering plate, and you’re good to go.
But the “evil liver” is not the only person that should not be communed. Briefly, Francis Pieper (in Christian Dogmatics, v. 3, p. 383) invites to the Lord’s Table those who 1) Have been Baptized; 2) Are able to examine themselves; 3) Believe the words of institution (which rules out the Reformed, for instance, and others who don’t share our confession); 4) Must not first remove a public offense. The purpose, then, of Communion registration is for the pastor to ascertain who it is that is worthy to receive Christ’s body and blood according to these criteria – a simple task with parishioners whom he knows well, and not so simple for complete strangers. The beauty of registration is that it guards against “surprises” at the Communion rail. (It also guards against too little or too much bread and wine remaining afterwards, and demonstrates to the parishioners the seriousness with which we take the Lord’s Supper.)
Paul warns in 1 Corinthians 11:29 that eating and drinking unworthily invites judgment on oneself. The preceding verse instructs a person to “…examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” So there is a personal responsibility that comes along with receiving Christ’s body and blood. My blue-covered 1986 Catechism says we are to examine ourselves to see whether we are sorry for our sins, believe in our Savior Jesus Christ and in His words in the Sacrament, and plan, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to change our sinful lives. (Hint: Section 4, “Christian Questions with Their Answers,” in your Small Catechism is a good place to turn for self-examination.)
Your pastor also has a personal responsibility as he communes the congregation. Walther addresses this in Vol. 4, No. 1 of Der Lutheraner*, here translated by Rev. Joel Baseley:
But some might now be saying, what should a preacher do in order to satisfy his conscience? On this I will now let our Luther speak here. Namely, this man writes on this in his paper: A Christian Manner of Going to the LORD’s Table from the year 1523: “In this one must employ his manner, or follow the order that applies to Baptism, namely, that first he present himself to the bishop or parson, whoever they are, if he wants to receive the sacrament so that he might learn their names, and might know what kind of life they lead. Then, if they request it, he should not yet admit them until they have given an answer for their faith and especially the appropriate answers to the questions as to whether they understand what the sacrament is, what it gives and why it’s needed, and for what use they employ it, namely, if they are able to say by heart the words of institution and their meaning, and show that they are going to the LORD’s table for the sake of their sins, with a troubled conscience or a fear of death or plagued with other tribulations of the flesh, the world or the devil, so that they hunger and thirst to receive the Word of grace and salvation from the LORD himself through the office of the servant so they are comforted and strengthened; as Christ has given and instituted such things out of inexpressible love in the LORD’s Supper with these Words: Take and eat, etc.
…Then, when the parson or bishop sees they understand all this, he should also thereupon shift his attention to whether they prove their faith and knowledge by their life and their customs – for even Satan understands all these things and can also speak of them….”
It should be obvious from Luther’s words that proceeding to an out-of-town Communion rail unannounced isn’t acceptable – nor is it acceptable for the pastor who does not know you to commune you without examination. Walther warns against pastors who practice open Communion in the same Der Lutheraner article:
Such preachers first act against the command of God: “Do not become partakers in the sins of others.” 1 Tim. 5.22. For whoever can impede sins and not only does not do so, but himself promotes it, he makes himself a partaker of their sin. Now if those preachers could just as well often hinder that frightful sin of unworthily receiving the holy LORD’s Supper, but they rather promote those sins through their frivolous invitations so they even encourage them, oh, what great accountability will they bear for that someday! How terrified they will be someday when God will reckon to their own account all the guilt against the body and blood of Christ which those unrepentant and falsely believing people, admitted by them with no examination, have heaped upon themselves. Luther writes in his instructions for the church visitations: “No one should be admitted to the sacrament unless he is heard individually by his parson as to whether he is fit to go to the holy sacrament. For St. Paul says, 1 Cor. 11.27, that they are guilty of the body and blood of Christ who receive it unworthily. Now not only is the sacrament dishonored by those receiving it unworthily, but rather also by those who negligently give it to the unworthy.”
To this we add that a preacher thereby sins especially severely since through this he makes himself an unfaithful, careless, unscrupulous care giver (Seelsorger) of souls….
Your congregation may no longer have Communion registration the day before, but there should be safeguards in place to prevent an unworthy person from communing. If you’re having an open and unresolved squabble with a fellow parishioner – examine yourself and forgive and receive forgiveness from that other person. If you don’t, expect your faithful pastor to pull you aside and forbid you from communing. You might be surprised or shocked – even maddened. His action will also prevent you, and him, from committing an even graver sin, by sinning against Christ’s body and blood. To have such a faithful Seelsorger is a tremendous blessing. Speaking the words of Christ, he performs Christ’s alien work, convicting the old Adam, that evil liver, of his sin. He then proceeds with Christ’s proper work, giving to you the words of eternal life. “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. …Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
*Rev. Joel Baseley monthly sends out his Time In a Bottle Newsletter, which contains a complete translation of an individual issue of Der Lutheraner, the Walther-era Lutheran Witness, along with a brief commentary on the issue translated. I suspect he’d add you to his subscription list if you ask him nicely. You can email him at email@example.com