Why Pastors Practice Open Communion? By Pr. Klemet Preus

(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.




About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Why Pastors Practice Open Communion? By Pr. Klemet Preus — 10 Comments

  1. Pastor Preus wrote (regarding others thought processes):

    “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.”

    Wow! While I agree that this seems to be the thought process you hear from pastors excusing open communion, there’s so much wrong there that it practically defies a short response. However, I’d like to offer a few:

    First, to take liberties paraphrasing Tina Turner, “What’s reasoning got to do with it?”. As soon as you start introducing that into matters of faith, you’re headed down the wrong road.

    Secondly, if you want to bring these visitors into an orthodox church, how do you do that by introducing unorthodox practices? Kind of a dichotomy there.

    Finally, regarding good motivation, I’m reminded of the old adage about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

    The whole paragraph speaks of how easy it is for all of us, but the clergy in particular to fall into the mindset about not doing enough, or the right things to bring the sinners in and save their souls, like that’s really their purview (envision snapping fingers marking time and lost souls). The only thing we can do is practice our confessional faith faithfully, and trust in the holy spirit use that to do HIS saving work.

    At least that’s my humble layperson’s perspective, based on what I’ve been taught. Feel free to rebuke or correct me if I got it wrong.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Eric Ramer

  2. Humm. I have a question for the Brothers.
    It seems that in South St. Louis county the LCMSC churches start confirmation in 6th grade. BUT some will allow the young men and women to take Commuinion after only three months of instruction and before completing instruction. Thankfully I do not come from such a program.
    I feel this is putting the horse before the cart thinking.
    Some say this will promote better habits before confirmation. I say this is hooey, and possibly may take Communion to your damnation. Strong position I know.
    What say the Brothers?

    John Hooss

  3. How is it possible that there are currently one or more generations of pastors who simply don’t understand the importance of closed communion? Was this not addressed in seminary in past years? I think you are being too generous to these guys. How could they not know? I’m at a loss to understand it.

    A pastor I respect recently said to me that the past couple of generations of pastors like the AC but not the FC. Many are plainly receptionists, and they know they are. Has this been your observation? Thanks

  4. What do you think about the practice of having visitors ask the pastor or elder before the service if they may commune? Is it OK for an elder to find out if the visitor is an active member of a fellow LCMS congregation and make the decision on the pastor’s behalf, or should the pastor alone decide?

  5. John H.,

    I agree with you. To be able to discern the true body and blood of Christ one also needs to understand the doctrine of sin (the need for Holy Communion), the doctrine of God (the one who gives us the body and blood of His son), the theology of the cross and justification (to know how and why God forgave us), etc.

    Foregoing the proper instruction in the word should not be done for the sake of getting the kids to develop better habits of attendance at the supper. As with most of the concerns addressed on this website, this is another example of expediency trumping the truth.

    Any other pastors or other brothers have other insights?

    Pastor Rossow

  6. I looked up the passage in the AC that Pr Preus is refering to in his post:

    Article XXV: Of Confession.

    1] Confession in the churches is not abolished among us; for it is not usual to give the body of the Lord, except to them that have been previously examined and absolved.

    I assume since we have done away with (assuming here) the practice of meeting with your pastor the week before communion for examination and absolution, that today the examination is your pastors prior knowledge of your confession and ability to examine yourself, and we are being absolved earlier during the same service.


  7. Why do Lutherans have such a problem with this? Other closed communions like the Church of the Brethren don’t seem to have problems declaring closed communion; and proceed to do so unashamedly.
    I believe that the best thing to do is to have greeters/parishioners be more vigilant for visitors; and to be prepared to let the visitors know of the communion policies up front so that they are not taken by so much surprise. Certainly, there’s going to be some awkwardness “Oh. I’m usually at the earlier/later service…”
    When I visit other congregations, if I haven’t phoned ahead of time, I’ll inquire off the bat. Sometimes, the LCMS congregation like Pr Schuler’s in Cleveland’s east side will direct me to the female head elder, and then that’s far enough for me to realize that I am not in communion with that congregation.

  8. In response to the previous and non-distinct anonymous, the greeters/parishioners should be directing visitors to the pastor(s)/elder(s). As much as they are able/willing, all parishioners should want to receive visitors anyway.

  9. Pastor Rossow,
    Think about adressing confirmation and it’ss process at a later date please.

    John Hooss

  10. I would still like to know what you think about talking to the pastor before the service or a deacon or greeter talking to the person or visitor who has a desire to commune. Correct me if Iam wrong but if you have an announcement in your bulletin about only Missouri Synod Lutheran members being able to participate in communion isn’t it fair to say the deacons or elders could take care of the matter if it was just before church.

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