(This is the fourth post of a five part series on closed communion.)
I am convinced that most pastors who practice a type of functionally open communion or who are lax in implementing a closed communion practice do so because they simply do not realize the importance of closed communion. They are unenthusiastic about restricting people from the altar because they do not understand. It’s not because they do not believe and to approach them as apostates will neither further the cause of confessional Lutheranism nor be fair to them.
The Augsburg Confession says that we commune people only after they have been examined and absolved. But let’s say a visitor comes to your church and the pastor allows this visitor to the altar even though they have been neither examined nor absolved. He does this because he believes, and probably with a great deal of experience forming his conviction, that the growth of the church depends on his communing the visitor. Pastors sincerely believe that by communing strangers they give themselves the opportunity to create a relationship with such a visitor and they will build on this relationship to place themselves into a position of mutual acceptance – a relationship which is needed in order to teach, examine and absolve such an individual. Or, let’s say that a child of the congregation has married and joined a congregation of the ELCA and continues to expect communion when they visit. The pastor communes them, often reluctantly, because if he does not, they will not return and their family, members of the congregation, may leave as well. He wants to keep these people under his evangelical influence so he communes them. In a sense he is buying time through such a decision. If a visitor leaves, sometimes even before the service begins, or does not return, then whatever chances you had of getting the visitor into your church are gone. Pastors often wish they could practice a type of closed communion but they have come to realize that it just doesn’t work in today’s world.
What shall we say about this reasoning? First, it is reasoning based upon a compassionate and evangelistic heart. If you don’t want the visitors to become part of your orthodox church then shame on you. And if you think you can accomplish this without some type of relationship then you are gravely mistaken. So the motivation is good.
But there are a couple of flaws in the reasoning even though it is motivated by compassion. First such reason is based upon the assumption that the expectation of the visitor should trump the expectations of the church. True, many visitors do expect to receive communion, no questions asked, when they visit a church for the first time. But these visitors are not people who believe in closed communion. By giving them communion without any conversation I am teaching them that no conversation is required. I am reinforcing a view that I subsequently hope to teach them out of. And I reinforce this view every time they come to the altar which, I hope, is often. I am not teaching the world to understand closed communion. I am teaching the church to accept something less.
Second, such reasoning is based on the assumption that all visitors somehow expect communion. Well that is just not so. I have Roman Catholics visit my church often. They don’t expect communion. I have Baptists and Presbyterians come to my church from time to time. They have very few expectations. They only people who expect communion with no questions asked are either members of the ELCA or people who have visited other LCMS churches and communed with no questions asked. And they have been taught such an expectation from irresponsible pastors.
I’ve seen it a dozen times. We’re taking the offering. Some visitors are sitting in the pew and reading the communion announcement for the first time. They look at each other and conclude that they should not go to communion because the announcement says that you should talk to the pastor first. After the service those who believe in closed communion come up to me all sheepish and say they should have asked first and are kicking themselves for not doing so. Those who believe in open communion are miffed at me. They wonder why they need to ask. Often they do not return. I often have no opportunity to ascertain what type of Christian they are. They seem to want to be a Christian with no loyalties and no attachments. But Holy Communion involves an attachment.
Church practice often communicates more effectively than church doctrine. We cannot practice a functionally open communion and expect people to treat our church as though we have a unique understanding of admittance to the altar. They will not.
There is one final and very compelling reason why Closed Communion should be practiced in our days. That will be the topic for next time.