Do We Really Practice Closed Communion in the LCMS, by Pr. Klemet Preus
(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of five posts by Pastor Preus on Holy Communion.)
In May of 2007, a graduate of the Ft. Wayne seminary named Clint Stark produced a paper based on a questionnaire which he had sent to all pastors and seminary students in the LCMS. The questionnaire sought to ascertain the worship practices of the pastors of the synod including their practice of admitting people to the altar. Almost half (46.2 % or 3000 respondents) of those polled actually responded. This is a remarkably large number and provides data which have a high degree of accuracy. This is what Rev. Stark found.
In the question about admittance to the Lord’s Supper Rev. Stark gave five options to the question: “Who do you admit to the Lord’s Supper?” These options were: “Baptized Christians, Lutherans, Only members of the LCMS and her sister synods in good standing, Those who confess the real presence, Anyone sincerely desiring to commune.”
Now such polls inevitably evoke protests from all quarters because the person writing the questions has not nuanced them so precisely as to capture the subtleties of 6000 different practices in the synod which correspond to the 6000 pastors of the church. But let’s just forgive Brother Stark if he had to limit the number of responses to five rather than 6000. What he discovered is that 50.2% of the pastors in the synod actually restrict communion to those with whom we are in fellowship. And over a third (35.53%) of the pastors apparently give communion to anyone who believes in the real presence. Setting aside for the sake of discussion that the confessions of the church do not use the expression “real presence” and that it seems to be of Reformed origins let’s just analyze the responses.
First, no other option of the five received even 10% of the vote. So the two dominant practices of our synod are: 1) communing only those in fellowship with us and 2) communing anyone who accepts the real presence.
Second, we are hopelessly divided on the issue. Someone from the ELCA would presumably believe in the real presence. So would most Roman Catholics. Even Calvinists accept the real presence of Christ’s spiritual body and blood in the sacrament. So, many people are admitted to the altar at one LCMS church who are not at others.
Third, this is a practice where emotions run high and there is lots of discussion often angry. We really should try to agree.
Fourth, while Rev. Stark concedes that none of the options on the questionnaire is precisely the synod’s position, it seems obvious to me that admitting “only members of the LCMS and her sister synods in good standing” does reflect the historic view of the synod much more closely than any of the other options. It also seems quite obvious to me, regardless of my own personal views, that giving to all who believe in the real presence is not the official practice of the synod.
Other data from the survey are worthy of comment. In the following districts less than 25% of the pastors actually practice closed communion which is the official position of our synod. Atlantic (23.33%), CNH 25.42%), Florida Georgia (20.83%), New Jersey (23.08%), Northwest (21.28%), Southeastern (20%), PSW (19.39%). These are all districts on the coasts. Now let’s be honest. The district presidents of these districts are supposed to carry out the will of the synod in their district. They are the ecclesiastical supervisors. Here is a divisive issue where vast numbers of their pastors simply don’t do what is the will of the synod and the DPS seem to be doing nothing at all. What kind of oversight is that? At the same time we should also recognize that these errant DPS did not get us into this sad state of affairs. What has happened over the decades is a type of civil disobedience in which pastors know our practice but simply do otherwise realizing that no one will actually do anything about it except perhaps some radical conservatives whining a bit.
Given the size of the group which defies the synod’s position it seems that we are well beyond the point of enforcing policy unless we are willing to accept the consequence which would inevitably occur – division. Perhaps these DPS realize this. I could suggest that we dialog but it seems to me that we have done that for the last half century. I could also suggest that we decide what our position is and simply expect people to follow it. But we have tried that almost a dozen times as well.
I will tell you what will not work. It will not work for leaders of the church to pretend that we are a united synod. People have strong views on the subject. Mutually exclusive and widely diverse opinions and practices are prevalent in our church body. We cannot expect peace unless someone figures out how to bring us together.
Those districts with the highest number of pastors who practice closed communion are Central Illinois (78.26%), Iowa East (85%), Montana (92.86%), North Dakota (83.33%), and Wyoming (84.85%).
Next time: The importance of Closed Communion.