Does Jesus welcome the mentally disabled to His table? And what about infants?

"The Marriage of the Lamb"by Schnorr von Karolsfeld
“The Marriage of the Lamb”
by Schnorr von Karolsfeld

I’ll lay my cards on the table right at the outset. As to the question about whether Jesus welcomes the mentally disabled to His Table, the Scriptures answer with an emphatic “yes!” But as  to the question about infants, they answer by saying, “not yet.” More on this in a minute. But to begin with, it’s important to note that the question is not, “Whom should we commune?”, but “Whom does our Lord welcome to His table?” We are not at liberty to commune those whom our Lord has forbidden from His table, nor deny those whom He has welcomed.

It’s no secret that we lack of concord in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod today over this question. We have closed communion, open communion, infant communion, and even close communion (whatever the heck that means). It’s really time we get our act together. If the Sacrament of the Altar is one of the Six Chief Parts (and according to the most recent edition of the catechism, it still is), it really behooves us to achieve concordia in our doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper.

The basic question here is “whom does our Lord welcome to His table?” The answer to that question will, in turn, guide our practice. Following St. Paul’s cue in 1 Corinthians 11:29, The Apology to the Augsburg Confession says, “The Sacrament is offered [by the Lord] to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved,” (Ap XXIV.1). A few things to note here: 1) a desire for the Sacrament is prerequisite for admission to the Lord’s Table. Nobody should be force-fed. If there is no indication that somebody actually desires to receive the Sacrament, they should not be communed, regardless of age or mental capacity. 2) Examination and Absolution are also prerequisite. This, I believe, is the crux of the matter for the Church today.

What is meant by “examination and absolution?” The infant communion crowd wants to argue that examination and absolution takes place at Baptism. And in one sense, they are correct, for our liturgy includes an examination, and Holy Baptism itself is Absolution. However, this cannot be the “examination and absolution” that Melancthon had in mind when writing the Apology. Luther’s words in his preface to the Small Catechism, which we also hold to be an orthodox expression of the faith, must be taken as normative for our interpretation of Ap XXIV.1. There Luther says, “Those who are unwilling to learn the catechism should be told that they deny Christ and are not Christians. They should not be admitted to the Sacrament, accepted at sponsors at Baptism, or practice any part of Christian freedom,” (11).

It must be admitted there is a difference between someone being unwilling vs. unable to learn the catechism. In the case of the former, Luther’s words stand as-is. In the case of the later, we certainly wouldn’t deny that one is a Christian (for faith is not primarily a cognitive activity, but is a gift received by the Holy Spirit), but this does not remove the expectation of catechesis prior to communing that is evident in both Scripture and our confessions. For prior to Luther’s forbidding the sacrament to those who are unwilling the catechism (11), he repeatedly stresses the connection between catechesis and the Sacrament in the preface to his Small Catechism:

“Yet, everyone says that they are Christians, have been baptized, and receive the holy Sacraments, even though they cannot even recite the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed or the Ten Commandments,” (3); “You command the Sacrament in one form and insist on your human laws, and yet at the same time you do not care at all whether the people know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, or any part of God’s Word. Woe, woe to you forever!” (5). 

Following Luther’s biblical expectation of catechesis prior to admission to the Sacrament, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has begun to encourage congregations to commune individuals prior to confirmation (but after catechesis) by commending the rite “First Communion Prior to Confirmation” to the Church (LSB Agenda, p.25—27). In the notes to this rite, the Agenda says the following:

This rite is intended to be used to admit to the Lord’s Supper baptized children who have not yet been confirmed. Candidates for admission to the Lord’s Supper have learned the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. They have received careful instruction in the Gospel and Sacraments. Confessing their sin and trusting in their Savior, they desire to receive the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of their faith in Christ and their love toward others,” (25).

Does the Lord invite the mentally disabled to His Table? So long as we can examine and absolve them, the answer is yes. What does such examination entail? According to our confessions, the basics of the faith, the catechism: knowledge of the Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Gospel & Sacraments. A desire for the Sacrament and the ability to confess their sin.

This is why the Lord says “yes” to communing the mentally disabled, but “soon” to infants. Knowing the basics of the faith as set forth in The Small Catechism is certainly within the grasp of  most mentally disabled individuals, but not of infants. Yes, Luther says, “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” in his discussion of The Sacrament of the Altar in The Small Catechism. And we ought to admit that even infants can have faith in these words, for the Holy Spirit creates faith when and where He wills through His Gospel and Sacraments (The Augsburg Confession, V).

But remember, Luther is keeping things as simple as possible in The Small Catechism, and a narrow understanding of these words (“that person is truly worthy and well prepared…”) to the exclusion of catechesis (which is assumed in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, 11:29, Ap XXIV.1, and by Luther himself in his preface) is not in keeping with our Lord’s will. Infant communion is therefore explicitly rejected by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as the rite in Agenda testifies. What’s more, if Luther’s words (“That person is truly worthy and well prepared…”) are understood apart from catechesis, then we are in error when we exclude any Christians (particularly those of the real-presence stripe) from our altars. In fact, Reformed Christians would argue that they are the ones who have faith in these words, and that it is we who have misunderstood them, turning what our Lord intended as a symbol into an act of cannibalism. In this respect, the argument for infant communion runs parallel to its close cousin, open communion.

It’s time we get our act together as Synod, actually walk together (in practice, not just in theory), and respect our own doctrine and practice. Far too many churches in the LCMS have aberrant communion practices, and often little or nothing is done to correct them. Meanwhile, many faithful pastors suffer for teaching closed communion at the hands of congregations that are used to doing things however they please. If our Agenda has misinterpreted Scripture and our Confessions, then we need to repent and fix that immediately. If not, pastors and congregations should be held accountable when they go their own way. It makes it more difficult to catechize with respect to our Lord’s teaching on closed communion when all anyone has to do is look around at the other congregations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and see something very different in practice.

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