The Communion Rail was Closed Today to Two Old Ladies, by Pr. Rossow

I was about to enter the sacristy to get robed up for our late service when an usher caught my attention. He told me that there were some folks who wanted to talk about taking communion. I asked him if they were LCMS members and he said no.

I walked back to the foyer and what did I behold but a pair of cute little old ladies smiling pleasantly at everyone who walked by and who continued to smile sweetly as I approached. By my best guess they were probably in their eighties. This was going to be interesting I figured.

I warmly greeted them and mentioned that the usher had said that they wanted to take communion. They nodded and proceeded to share their story. One was visiting from out of town. The other was local. Both of them were baptized and confirmed in LCMS churches but had since joined the ELCA. The one told a lengthy story about being brought up in a historic LCMS church in Chicago. They were old, they were nice, and they had LCMS bloodlines. So what was I to do.

I told them that I was really glad they were here to worship with us but that they would not be able to commune with us since we only commune those who hold the same confession as we do.  I also told them I would be happy to talk more about the matter after the service.

They kept their smiles and simply said that they understood and that churches need to have rules. They stayed for the service, sat in the second row and kept those smiles all the way through the benediction.

That was an interesting response: “churches need to have rules.” It was a response born of a generation that understands duty and responsibility. It reminds me of the way Walther talks about the work of the church in contrast to Rick Warren and other church growth gurus these days. They like talk about the church’s purpose ( a term right out of 2oth century godless existentialism) and vision and mission. These are terms that place the focus on man and his role in the church. I have a purpose. I have a vision and a mission to fulfill.

Walther on the other hand, talks about the six “duties” of the church in his pamphlet “The Proper Form of the Christian Congregation…” Duties come from outside of us. In Walther’s case, he was talking about the duties that come from God through his word. The focus is not on what we set to do as our purpose, vision or mission. Instead, the focus is on the work God gives the church to do.

 I share this for your encouragement. It would have been easy to respond with tolerance especially since these were such sweet, dear, old ladies. Tolerance is not the answer. Properly administering the gifts of God is the right approach. Laity, support your pastor in the proper closing of the communion rail as the usher did at our parish this morning. Pastors, I know it is hard. I have certainly failed on this before, but it gets easier the more you put it into practice. I encourage you to be strong. The body and blood of the Lord are precious gifts to be given out only to those we know have been properly taught the Gospel in all its articles and who have confessed the same before God and man.

I hope the two little old ladies come back. From what little they shared I got the sense that the one was visiting the other from out of town and so they thought they would go to the nearest Lutheran church. I hope it was more than that. I hope it was the beginning of their journey back to the good confession and the right reception of Christ’s body and blood.

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.


The Communion Rail was Closed Today to Two Old Ladies, by Pr. Rossow — 36 Comments

  1. Perhaps, the biggest surprise was that they sat in the second row!

    I really appreciate their response to you, that churches have to have rules. The best I ever got, from a former member/current ELCA, was, “I don’t like it, but I understand it.”

  2. Did they understand that the (1.) “rules” were based on Scripture and (2.) that their church body picks and chooses the rules they wish to follow from Scripture and (3.) that their church body has man-made rules “trumping” the Word of God? I do hope you do get in a follow up visit. As far as the “visit” in the narthex – Well done!

  3. As an Elder, I have been caught in that same predicament a few times. What makes it especially tough is when they are former members of our congregation that moved away and joined ELCA, etc. It was good that you were available to talk with them before the service, since we are in a dual-parish our Pastor barely has enough time to make it to the second service as it is. Glad to see it worked out well for you!

  4. A very cool story! Thanks for sharing it.

    A year ago, I experienced the exact same story, but with an alternate ending.

    When the two little old ladies in my circumstance explained that they came from a Dutch reformed tradition and I politely informed them that they could not commune with us, one of them started shouting loudly, “Where’s the love? I’m not seeing it here!”.

    She then proceeded to stand by the door and tell people who came in that this was not a place of love. One of my elders whispered to me: “Pastor, she’s kinda showing that you made the right call.”

    Those members who were privileged to see her fit of rage were not in the least bit scandalized. They walked past her and thought “Who’s the crazy lady?” and “Where’s her satchel filled with cats?” This event actually strengthened our membership’s understanding of closed communion. I came away from it dwelling on how God causes all things to work together for good. Apparently, “all things” includes angry, old, Dutch reformed ladies.

    For the life of me, I cannot understand why people get so angry over this! Put yourself in their position. How do you behave when you visit a church? Would you ever waltz into a church that is outside of the orbit of your affiliation and demand participation in their most sacred rites? Would you be anything but the proverbial fly on the wall? I’ve attended WELS and ELCA, Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches and never once felt any great urge to commune with them! Not only did I avoid communion for conscience reasons, but I also did not participate from a desire to be respectful. That’s what my mother taught me…be respectful when you are a guest in someone’s house.

    My wise elder’s comment really made me wonder: What sort of people get angry when they can’t enjoy instant full fellowship in our churches? Probably not repentant or humble people. Doesn’t their anger demonstrate the lack of a broken and contrite heart? Doesn’t their anger demonstrate that they really don’t know what’s going on? Doesn’t their anger demonstrate that they see communion as some sort of right, granted them by the U.S. Constitution rather than a sacred thing?

    People got angry at Jesus. People walked away from Jesus. People sometimes even writhed in agony as the demons within them sensed the presence of Jesus. Did this mean Jesus was not successful? Did this mean that he should “tone down his approach”? Of course not! The Word will save and the word will condemn. It’s an awesome and frightening fact. We can’t always expect to have everyone respond to us with a smile.

  5. Yeah, Rev. Trask, especially since they view the Lord’s Supper as just bread and wine, a memorial meal. So what’s the big deal about not getting that little disk of papery bread and the little sip of Mogen David? Surely they are not that tasty or filling (or necessary, from the Reformed point of view). And your Dutch Reformed visitors can still memorialize all they want in the pew.

  6. @Rev. Mike Trask #5
    What always trips me out is that people exepect to commune at our churches who would never expect to commune at a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox altar.

    Seems they want the right to define who we are rather than respect our right to define ourselves.

  7. It is painful and upsetting for people, not only because they have been taught incorrectly about the Supper (the idea that it’s a right, that as long as you’re a Christian you should be able to come to any Christian altar), but also because the lack of unity and fellowship among Christians in the world is a legitimately painful and upsetting thing. Even when people do understand, they can be upset about the real disunity that is (correctly) reflected in the lack of fellowship. But it’s also true, as this example shows, that maybe more people get it than we realize, and that some of the common worry and panic about people flipping out on us is completely unwarranted.

  8. @Rev. Mike Trask #5
    One of my elders whispered to me: “Pastor, she’s kinda showing that you made the right call.”

    Sometimes visitors (esp ex LCMSers) expect to be refused, but still test the waters to see what you’re made of. Some of those would be dissapointed if you weren’t consistant with what they knew to be LCMS position. A lifetime LCMSer quit her congregation (in anger?) and came to us. She “expected” that I would not let her commune until she rejoined there or somewhere else.

    A non-Lutheran visitor paraded up to the altar with his whole family, children and all, even after I had talked to him. Being turned down, he left in a huff. I called him later and he said. “Pastor, I now understand that you really mean what you say about fellowship. And I have come to the conclusion that I’m really a Methodist at heart and I’m going to have to find a church that I can be in agreement with.” This man got it. It was a teaching moment.

  9. @Phillip Magness #7

    Phillip, your comment reminds of the Phillipists. The Reformed traditions jumped all over the Variata, just so they could get the right and priviledge to not be persecuted by the German authorities. Still the same struggle of those who what our gifts, or more appropriately Jesus’ gifts, without the sacrifice or commitment to the beliefs. I commend the pastors who posted the stories in their commitment to the Lutheran Confessions and the Christian faith, even unto the point of death, as recited in their ordination vows. Thank you for leading us by your strong example.

  10. Pastor Rossow,

    “I told them that I was really glad they were here to worship with us but that they would not be able to commune with us since we only commune those who hold the same confession as we do”.

    I also use this same standard when visiting other LCMS congregations. I can name a few LCMS congregations off the top of my head, where I wouldn’t commune there. I also believe, excluding the main body in the ELCA, the old demoninational safe guards can no longer be trusted when comuning at a LCMS, WELS etc.. Congregations and individuals, need to be examined on their own confession and practice. I’m hoping some day in my lifetime this will change to wear Lutherans will have a communion practice based off scripture and our confessions and not on thier own individual quirks.

  11. @Kelly #8

    Kelly :
    ] but also because the lack of unity and fellowship among Christians in the world is a legitimately painful and upsetting thing. .

    I would agree that that’s possible…..that the folks who get angry when they are not allowed to commune are grieving over the lack of unity in the church at large. I suppose that’s possible, but I’m fairly certain that there’s more to the story than that. Why are they not equally grieved at the appalling false teaching which has led to the lack of unity?

    The situation which you are proposing is kind of like a husband who has been cheating on his wife getting angry when his wife wants nothing to do with him. He’s appalled at the lack of unity…and communion. But he is not at all troubled by his own lack of fidelity.

  12. Who cares what people think or how they react. Just do your duty and tell those outside our fellowship no. It’s as simple as that. Age doesn’t matter. A child is refused communion in our churches until they are catechized. What’s the difference? No defense or apology is needed for closed communion. It’s what our Lord commands us in the Bible.

  13. Pr. Rossow,

    I’ve had several discussions about this with my friend/LCMS pastor. I think you made the correct decision in this situation. But how should it be handled when the guest does NOT announce herself to you before the service but simply appears at the rail expecting to commune? I know there’s a variance in practice (from giving a short quiz to just communing without question), but I’d love to hear your thoughts on the proper way to handle that.

  14. Andrew,

    I tend to err on the side of the Gospel. This is an area I could probably tighten up a bit but even with 600 in attendance each week, I recognize nearly everyone and know their story before they approach the table. We have a very clear communion statement in the bulletin. It is not uncommon to see visitors leave after the offering and before the Lord’s Supper.

    I have simply and as quietly as possible asked a person if they are a confirmed member of the LCMS at the table but that is rare.


  15. For what it’s worth, I’ve explained closed communion to no less than 6 friends under the age of 25 after inviting them to church. Not one of them was offended or indignant. My fellow young folk were more than anything else just curious to observe what went on and ask questions later.
    Now these were not ELCA people who assumed they knew what went on and had a right to it.

    Interesting note there, one of the six, a young lady who had visited a different LCMS church once upon a time, told me she was struck by how reverent the service of the sacrament was treated, “I could tell they really believed something was happening there,” she then expressed that she would never have gone forward unless she knew what “you Lutherans” believed was happening and believed too. She was not aware of any communion statement or closed communion policy, the reverence of the service itself told her she was not ready to jump on board with it.

    I wish I could say that my generation will be more tolerant and understanding of Closed Communion, but I fear there are a lot of young adults have been raised under the auspice that they have a right to everything and anything.

  16. PR, I have a question. Does the ELCA view the Lord’s Supper differently than the LCMS? I moved from the LCA many years ago to the LCMS. The Catechism that we used when I was a teen was the same as that used by the LCMS, as far as I know. If these ladies were as old as you indicate, they were probably even quizzed by the church body as to their beliefs before being confirmed. Perhaps I am just a flaming liberal, but I’m not sure that it would have been an error to allow their communion.
    I admire their peace of heart that led them to stay and hear the Word.
    Please help me out here.

  17. Sue,

    Yes the ELCA does teach far differently than the Scriptures on the Lord’s Supper. Let’s take one example – the most important one. For the most part, the ELCA has given up on the blood atonement. They replace it with a gospel of tolerance, peace and justice. Therefore, when Jesus says this is given for you for the remission of sins, they have a far different understanding of that. And of course, they have to – they no longer recognize what the Bible calls a sin (e.g. homosexuality). On this most fundamental level, they have given up the Lord’s Supper.

    These two old ladies, to some extent or another, have been shaped by this anti-Christian teachiing in the ELCA. They have the responsibility to seperate themselves from such an apostasizing church and join themselves to an orthodox communion. Maybe this experience of rejection at the Lord’s table will wake them up. I hope so.


  18. Sue – By joining the ELCA the women embraced that church’s confession (even though it may have changed over time from what it was when she was confirmed – by her membership she confessed what the ELCA confesses). It is not the same confession as the LCMS and the ELCA teaching and practice on the Lords Supper is not the same as the LCMS.

    One thing I would like to correct in the comments above. Many have talked about the ELCAers feeling entitled to communion. This is a bit off base. I know because I grew up and was confirmed in the ELCA and spent a good part of the last decade getting my parents out of the ELCA. It is not a feeling of entitlement, it is a failure to understand the office of holy ministry. To the ELCA communion is something between the individual and God. If I am taking it (and it is taking not receiving for the average ELCAer) in an unworthy manner, that is not your problem pastor. God and I will work that out between us without your help.

  19. @Joe Olson #22
    If I am taking it (and it is taking not receiving for the average ELCAer) in an unworthy manner, that is not your problem pastor. God and I will work that out between us without your help.

    I’ve had LCMS pastors defend “open communion” with that excuse.
    “It’s on their heads, not mine, if they shouldn’t come.”

    [I don’t think that’s what the Book says.]

  20. @Rev. Mike Trask #14

    Pastor, I know this from experience. Some people get angry because they have a feeling of entitlement; many have been told their whole lives that anyone who is a Christian should be able to celebrate at the altar together, and feel that by denying them access, you are denying that they are a believer. But don’t paint everyone as simply angry. I joined the Lutheran church as a young adult, and even when I understood and agreed with the communion policy, I was grieved during my catechesis that I couldn’t partake– and yes, largely because of the realization of false teaching that has led to the lack of unity in Christ’s church. My husband and I went to visit my parents’ Baptist church once after we were married. I knew that they were upset that we didn’t commune with them. It is likely that they were also distressed at that visible evidence of disunity in the church at large, and possibly distressed because they felt that my husband and I were adhering to false teaching.

    Having said that, I do understand what you mean as well. An upset parishioner once challenged my husband with: “How would you feel if your daughter had joined the ELCA and you couldn’t commune with her anymore?” My immediate reaction was that I’d be deeply distressed if my daughter aligned herself with a church that taught God’s Word falsely. The communion aspect would of course bother me, but only because of the doctrinal schism that it signifies. There is need for pastoral sensitivity (not compromise, but understanding) in these issues of family members deserting the orthodox faith.

  21. My LCMS congregation purchased our building in the early 60s from a large Lutheran congregation (now ELCA) which had built a new building. Here is a story that was told to me by an older lady, and a member of our congregation with whom I have built a strong friendship. An older group of ELCA members who had been confirmed in our building when it was owned by the former congregation visited one of our services and requested communion. Our current pastor gave them a similar answer and explanation that Pastor Rossow has recounted. My older friend (who is a dear, lovely, warm-hearted, pietistic lady and not a friend of closed communion) described the visitors as crushed due to being denied communion in their former church building. I do not like to contradict my older friend, but another older lady who was having lunch with us, did it for me, so I was relieved. It got me to thinking, what if I stopped by my childhood home, now owned by people outside my family, walked in, and asked them to fix me dinner? Not a perfect analogy, I know. I used to be an Episcopagan, and joined the Episcopal Church when they practiced closed communion, so I am used to the practice.

  22. @Rev. Mike Trask #5

    Another thought on the Dutch Reformed ladies. I was born into that tradition, or at least one of the versions planted in “New Amsterdam” by the Dutch in 1628.

    Based on the (erroneous) catechism of my upbringing, I would have never dreamt of asking to commune in a Lutheran church. We got “consubstantiation” and all kinds of other stuff hammered into our heads.

    One strike on the Dutch Reformed lady for not knowing her “own” confessional position, such as it is. Two strikes on her for not knowing how a Missouri Synod Lutheran would view her request. And a third strike on her for an angry response.

    By God’s grace, some of us were brought out of the churches tied to our ethnic roots and into Lutheranism.

    Interesting sidenote: the now very liberal Reformed Church in America denomination of my youth is one of those in “fellowship” with the ELCA. Talk about an odd couple, at least based on historical confessions. But it’s not odd based on either group’s view of Scripture.

    Thanks for sharing the memory.

  23. If I can reverse this – what should those of us do this Christmas when we will be visiting family and going to a non-LCMS (even non-Lutheran) church that offers communion. My wife grew up Disciples of Christ and they don’t even have people come up to the altar – they simply have the ushers go down the aisles and send down a board with (literally) oyster crackers and another with grape juice. I can easily pass it by and I doubt anyone would notice, but what is the proper response since DC’s don’t believe in anything close to the real presence (but the church is a really nice Romanesque cathedral-type edifice, sot ath has to be good, right? ;))

  24. Yes, just because a church offers to let you participate in their rites certainly doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to… and they shouldn’t make you feel obligated! I mentioned earlier how I visited my parents’ Baptist church w/ my husband, and we didn’t commune. The ushers passing the plate down just held it in front of us, looking flummoxed that anyone would deliberately refuse to partake! If we had partaken, we’d have been publicly stating that we are in agreement with their teaching of communion, just like those who commune at Lutheran altars are in public agreement with the teachings of the Lutheran church. It’s not always easy, and it distresses me to think how many Lutherans might partake in non-sacramental churches, not realizing that it’s against our policy and confession. It would be nice if other churches at least acknowledged the existence of closed communion, you know?

  25. I think Pastor Rossow handled this well.

    I’ve had to deal with this same situation – people who used to belong to the LCMS (sometimes even raised in the congregation I serve) and now belong to a church of a different confession who expect to commune here. I’m continually amazed that people see no inconsistency between what they say they believe in their heart (“I’m still LCMS in my belief!”) and what the denomination to which they now belong confesses. Or, if they do see the inconsistency, it does not trouble them. Either they claim the differences are not significant or, if the differences are significant, they can say, with a clear conscience, “Well, I don’t believe THAT stuff.”

    I think that closed communion would be much easier to explain and practice if people took seriously their church membership. To join a church is more than becoming part of an organization. It is to confess what that churches confess. If the faith which you believe in your heart differs from the faith confessed by your church, you need to either change the faith in your hear or change where you worship. However, in our individualistic society, I don’t know how to help people see the communal aspect of faith.

  26. As tough as it can be at times to say no, its not as hard as saying yes and then getting backed into a corner with ‘you let them go to communion, why won’t you let me?”

  27. I would rather belong to a smaller congregation that stays true to God’s word and upholds the clear teaching of Scripture than to belong to a large wishy-washy “can’t we all get along” crowd. If we are to make true Christians, we have to be true Christians. Those who complain about being refused communion do not fully understand communion whether because of loose teaching in a different denomination or because of ignorance of Scripture. If they want to know more, they can always ask. We do not do harm to the sheep to perhaps snag a goat.

  28. Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (the Didache), 9:2; 14:1, circa 90 A.D.:

    Regarding the Eucharist … Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist but those baptized in the name of the Lord; to this, too, the saying of the Lord is applicable: Do not give to dogs what is sacred.

    On the Lord’s own day, assemble in common to break bread and offer thanks; but first confess your sins, so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, no one quarreling with his brother may join your meeting until they are reconciled; your sacrifice must not be defiled. For here we have the saying of the Lord: In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a mighty King, says the Lord; and my name spreads terror among the nations. [Mal 1:11,14].

  29. In the end it will be better for us all to do what Christ said and did than Pruess or Paul (men not perfection). I am sure those little old ladies will be claimed as his for asking for Christ’s sacrafice for their sins. I am also pretty sure that they are in better shape than Pastors whose duty it was to care for them, protect them in Christ and turned them away. That’s corporate religion not Christianity.

    Pastor that was probably a Widow’s mite style test for you. If this is honarable why not start every service with how many sinners who sought Christ we turned away.

  30. Dan Ditto,

    Do you hold any doctrinal standards? Do you think Paul or Peter had any doctrinal standards? Please share with us what the minimum is that a person should hold to.


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