(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a five part series on closed communion)
Closed communion is a crucial practice for the church to follow because the gospel is at stake. This is why.
Really there are two types of people who call themselves Christians. Both have a system of belief which dominates their actions. The first theological system is monergistic. It says that God, in Christ, has done everything necessary for salvation. This type of Christian holds to the following: sin is pervasive, Jesus is God of God and Light of Light yet true man possessing a human nature derived from his virgin mother, His atoning work is both necessary and sufficient for salvation, faith, itself a gift of Jesus, grasps passively all that Jesus has done and God accounts sinners righteous for Christ’s sake through faith, the ministry is God giving the gifts of life through the word and sacrament, men are appointed by God to carry out this ministry, baptism applies the washing of Christ to the sinner regardless of age, Holy Communion applies the same forgiveness because in it the sinner is given the body and blood of Jesus to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins, God works in His children both to will and to do of his good pleasure for Christ’s sake, Jesus promises to come again and bring the faithful to heaven the place to which they were predestined solely for the sake of Christ’s work, the Holy Scriptures are God’s inerrant self revelation which guide us into all truth without any merit or worthiness in us, etc.
The second type of person who calls himself a Christian also has a system of belief that dominates his actions. Never mind that this system may not be coherent. It deviates from one or more of the articles of the faith articulated in the previous paragraph. This theological deviation disqualifies this person from the sacrament. Why? It’s not just because they are wrong. Everyone is wrong all the time. It’s not just because they hold something different than we do. Who the heck are “we” that we should be the norm of what others believe. Incidentally, our insistence that people be Missouri Synod in order to qualify for the sacrament makes us come across as a bit self normative. The reason people disqualify themselves from the sacrament when they deviate from the system of theology articulated above is that such deviation always ends up being works-righteous. “I came not to call righteous but sinners to repentance.” To the extent that we are righteous in what we do rather than in Christ and his work – to that extent we deny Jesus. When we deny Christ we exempt ourselves from his grace. Pastors are irresponsible who give freely the grace of God to those who by their unbelief have exempted themselves from this grace.
Here is the problem. There are many sincere Christians who actually hold to the monergistic Christian system above (“holding to the system” is another way of saying “faith”) but who find themselves in a church which does not. They are in fellowship with something which denies Jesus. Should we commune them? Well, that depends. If someone desires communion with no intention of doing anything about his wrongheaded fellowship then, “NO!” You would reinforce a sinful fellowship by communing them. This would apply to the ELCA visitor who wants to continue in that church regardless of the alacrity of its fall from truth. And it applies to the Roman Catholic visitor who is in your church on Sunday only because his nephew is being baptized. It certainly applies to the Methodist or Baptist who are there at the invitation of one of you members.
But if someone wants to commune because they are dismayed at their “Lutheran” church’s heterodoxy and are in some type of transition or because they sorely desire the sacrament and have grown tired of penance and purgatory then you have the makings of a wonderful and evangelical conversation. Such desperate sinners do not negotiate or demand the sacrament as their inalienable right. They plead for it as something they desperately need. And that is a request the answer to which should be informed by more than our practice of closed communion. At the same time closed communion should not be relegated to the category of some antiquated and unnecessary practice or, God forbid, an issue over which well meaning people can disagree.
Next: Why people practice open communion.