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.


Comments

Does Jesus welcome the mentally disabled to His table? And what about infants? — 21 Comments

  1. As a father of a son with Downs Syndrome I can say without hesitation that my son had a true desire to commune! He still has a hard time completing a full sentence on his own at age 16 but at age 6 could say the Lords Prayer (not clearly mind you). Our Pastor worked with us on confirmation and he did participate in questioning Sunday.
    He has a true desire, and was never pressured to take communion otherwise. That is when you see the Holy Spirit at work.

    John

  2. My ten year old son has Autism and is non-verbal. I have created a picture exchange catechism for him to be able to demonstrate his knowledge and desire for communion. Never underestimate what a child with disabilities knows and can comprehend.

    @John Hooss #1
    One of the most precious things is when my ten year old folds his hands and bows his head when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. We pray slowly so that when we come to words he can approximate he can participate. God’s blessings to you and your son! Every pastor should take the time to teach, examine, and confirm all children.

  3. 1. Following Luther’s biblical expectation of catechesis prior to admission to the Sacrament

    2. For my part, it makes it more difficult to catechize with respect to our Lord’s teaching on closed communion

    These 2 statements still confuse me. I do not see closed communion being taught anywhere in Scripture. I know it was practised by the early church but the fact still remains that it is not supported by Scripture!

    Surely if someone confesses Christ as their Saviour and Lord and that the Sacrament is the body and blood of Jesus in, with and under the bread and wine, then why can they not partake?

  4. Rev. McCall,
    I would be interested in your picture exchange you created.
    I / we may have a use for it coming up.

    Would you be willing to share that with me? I would be interested to see what you did.

    @Rev. McCall #2

  5. Stef,

    You raise a very important question, and unfortunately, the reasons why we practice closed communion are often a mystery even to those who practice it. I’ll post something I wrote up on this topic a few years ago, but I would suggest we do have a biblical example of closed communion in Acts 2:46. They attended temple by day so they could evangelize, but broke bread in their homes as it would not have been in keeping with the nature of the Lord’s Supper (which is a communion of the most intimate kind) to celebrate it with those of a different confession.

  6. Here are some I’ve come up with on this topic. They’re a little rough/shorthand, but the content is there. Let me know if you have any further questions, and I’ll do my best to respond in a timely manner.

    The Lord’s Supper: the Church’s Sacrament of Unity

    Participation in Christ; one body; proclamation
    • Disunity in Corinth (1 Cor 11:18) contradicted the purpose and (kerygmatic) character of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor 10:16—17). Divisions of any sort contradict the nature of the sacrament.
    • Note language of participating in the (one) Christ; language of “one body”
    • Also a pure proclamation of the Gospel (1 Cor 11:26). Not possible when the Gospel is obscured with false doctrine. Heterodox doctrine threatens and contradicts the pure proclamation of Christ’s death for us, as does social & personal division. Lord’s Supper is the church’s sacrament of unity.

    Discerning “the body”
    • 1 Cor 11:29; what is the referent of “the body”?
    • Real presence; synecdoche for body & blood. Thus, the need for teaching & self-examination (1 Cor 11:28—29).
    • Allusion to the body of Christ, the church (1 Cor 12:12ff.).

    Importance of pure doctrine:
    • Doctrine is nothing other than the teachings of Christ in the Gospel; cannot have Christ apart from doctrine. Gospel, Scripture, and Doctrine: all the same thing. Doctrine is how we confess what is in the Bible, namely, justification by grace through faith. Doctrine reveals God’s righteous acts of salvation in the Gospel. False doctrine obscures the Gospel. Doctrine saves; it brings the Gospel. Great Commission’s emphasis on teaching; cf. Rom 16:17; Gal 1:8.

    NT’s attitude toward heterodoxy:
    • Acts 2:42; Rom 16:16—18; Gal 1:8
    • Open communion ignores doctrine and confession for the sake of “love”. Luther: “A curse on a love that is observed at the expense of the doctrine of the faith, to which everything must yield—love, an apostle, an angel from heaven, etc.!” (AE 27:38). The church is by definition exclusionary. All are welcome to come, but only those in Christ are part of the community.

    Formula of Concord on heterodoxy:
    “We have not been able to refrain from witnessing publicly before all Christendom that we have no part or share in their errors, be they few or many, and that on the contrary we reject and condemn all these errors as wrong, heretical, and contrary to our Christian and biblically-based Augsburg Confession (FC SD XII; 8).
    • “False doctrine is a dangerous cancer that must be cured, and if not cured, avoided,” (Gibbs, 43).

    Communicants as individuals & confessors
    • Who is worthy to commune vs. who should commune at our altar are two different questions.
    • One may be worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper (believe in Jesus as Lord, confess real presence, etc), yet genuine faith and personal worthiness are not the only considerations. Individuals are also confessors of the doctrine of their church body (they have publically aligned themselves with that church’s doctrine, whether they understand it or not).
    • Dangers of divorcing membership from public confession: 1) accelerates the erosion of doctrine, makes it trivial; 2) heterodoxy is seen as acceptable; 3) church membership becomes meaningless; 4) disregard for Scripture; 5) Sacrament entails proclamation (1 Cor 11:26).

    Does this mean we think everyone who is a confirmed LCMS Lutheran has a perfect understanding of LCMS theology?

    “Unless there is compelling reason to think otherwise, the pastor will assume that his members’ confession of faith, made when they joined his congregation, was sincere… When he learns that a member has a mistaken or uninformed understanding of some aspect of Christian truth, the pastor will follow the example of Paul and not arbitrarily bar this person from the Sacrament. Rather, he will teach, encourage, correct, and admonish with great patience,” (Gibbs, Admission to the Lord’s Supper, 40).

    Closed communion difficult— because it calls sinners to repentance. But it is the biblical, historic practice of the church.

  7. Would it be appropriate to allow visiting non LCMS members from lets say a Methodist or Baptist Church to go to the altar to receive a blessing from the pastor without actually receiving the sacraments?

  8. @Rev. McCall #2

    I would also be interested in seeing this visual and would love to take a look if you are willing to share. That is a terrific idea! As a Sunday School Superintendent, I am always interested in great new ways of teaching the Catechism to share with my Sunday school teachers.

  9. Regarding catechetical materials for people with developmental disabilities, Bethesda Lutheran Communities produces a curriculum for instruction, known as Building on the Rock. It includes cards that pictorially represent the 6 chief parts. Although it *may* be pricey for individuals, it might be a good pastoral or church resource. It can be purchased at the link below. Of course, YMMV with this resource, and it should be reviewed by the catechist prior to use.
    Cheers.
    https://store.nexternal.com/bethesda/storefront/building-on-the-rock–preparing-for-first-communion-and-confirmation-p77direct.aspx

  10. @Sodawood60 #7
    I would encourage you to speak with the pastor at your congregation (or wherever you are visiting), as different congregations may have different policies regarding such a practice. However, the practice Norm describes is fairly common these days in the LCMS from what I can tell (that’s our practice where I serve), but I would still encourage you to speak with the pastor beforehand (especially if he doesn’t know you) so he knows who you are and whether or not to commune you. This is what we put in our weekly bulletin for visitors at Zion:

    About the Sacrament of the Altar at Zion
    In the pew rack are Communion Registration cards which explain what the Bible teaches about the Sacrament of the Altar, which is a sign of unity in doctrine and life (1 Cor 11:26, 1 Cor 10:17—18). We desire to honor our Lord’s Word and have a deep concern for the spiritual welfare of all who gather together with us. For these reasons, we ask that any who are not yet communicant members of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to meet with our pastor for catechesis. Those not receiving the Sacrament are welcome to come forward to receive a blessing at the altar rail. Simply fold your arms across your chest as you kneel at the rail to indicate your desire to receive a blessing. The center of each communion tray contains dark, non-alcoholic wine.

  11. @Norm Fisher #10
    Norm,

    I would discourage this practice. It confuses the sacred purpose for which the faithful approach the Altar/Rail. I would not want to place a “Blessing” which does not have the command and promise of Christ along side of the clear promise of forgiveness which Christ has placed there with His body and blood.
    The guest who is not permitted to commune should not be left satisfied with less than what Christ gives. They should remain hungering for the true body and blood of Christ so that they will desire to be taught and thus be permitted to join the faithful in receiving Christ’s gifts.

  12. @Michael R. Knox #12
    Theologically, I see where you’re coming from, and I tend to agree. That’s why in my above post I encouraged speaking with a pastor prior to approaching the altar.

    @Stef #13
    You’re welcome. I’d be happy to offer any clarifications or continue dialogue, as that’s a pretty important issue. I used to struggle with closed communion because of the impression it gives people, especially given our cultural context (highly tolerant of all things/inclusive to a fault, etc.). However, I share the conviction of our confessions that this is indeed taught in Holy Scripture, so it no longer troubles me to practice closed communion. I’ve come to realize that practicing closed communion is not a matter of opinion, but of faithfulness to Christ. Pastors and congregations are not free to alter the Word of God, only to be more or less faithful to it. I would also suggest that since our Lord desires us to confess Him purely when approaching the rail, it is in fact the opposite of love to commune those who haven’t first been catechized in the pure teaching of the Gospel, examined, and absolved. The Lord bless you, +PA.

  13. My confusion is that the Sacrament by definition, is instituted by God as a prescribed or established ceremony to be taken by Christians.

    As far as partaking of this Sacrament is concerned, the Scriptures, when setting out the qualifications for partaking, only tell the individual to examine himself. I see no mention of any examination by the clergy as an entrance into partaking.

    Apart from Luther or anyone else’s writings and musings, are there any Scriptural grounds for the clergy to examine anyone or to withhold the Sacrament – except of course for sin/s – as in the Corinthian fellow who got too close to his mom?
    Even the warning given in Corinthians is to the individual who partakes in an unworthy manner, not to the clergy for giving communion to unbelievers or wrongly believing believers.

    Even from the verses you gave me earlier, without a bit of gymnastics and eisegesis, I can not see this clerical approval requirement in order to partake.

  14. @Stef #15
    Examination and proclamation are bound up in the celebration of the Sacrament’s very nature (1 Cor 10 & 11). Both examination and proclamation presuppose instruction, a task that is one of the primary biblical expectations of a pastor (e.g., Titus 1:9), as is absolving sins (John 20:22-23). All Christians share in this activity according to their vocation (a husband absolves wife, a parent a child, etc.), and all have the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel (1 Pet 2:9). But for the sake of order (1 Cor 14:40), the pastor is the one called by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28) to serve as steward of His mysteries (sacraments!) of God (1 Cor 4:1).

    The Sacrament was given for the very purpose of communion/unity/fellowship; it is not purely a matter between Jesus and individuals. We commune with “angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven,” (Heb 12:22). The Sacrament is communion with Christ, but it is also an expression of the confessional unity that is shared by those who are (visibly) present at the altar (1 Cor 10:16-18).

    See also http://seelsorge40.com/2013/11/23/we-catechize-before-we-commune/

  15. Ok, so I examine myself and, of course, find myself with sin – who do I go to for the words of absolution and forgiveness but the pastor and from here he picks up if I know the proper Gospel or not.
    I could pick holes in that but it sort of clicks in place for me – sorry, trying to get over 30 years of Assembly of God teachings here! – so I will leave it to percolate in the old brain as it makes sense to me.
    And how do I examine myself, as in, against what standard? and so there is that presupposition that I am doing it against proper and correct doctrines, which would be the Small catechism, BoC etc – ok, got it!

    Yeah, I get the Sacrament as not being something I do on my own whenever I feel like it, it is a communal rite and so on as per Acts 2: 42.

    OK, let me think it through some more then.

    Thanks for your patience!

  16. @Stef #17
    Remember, the pastor should be concerned with catechizing, and that goes not only for himself, but all of his people, no matter how well they know our doctrine or not. We never get to the point where any of us lack catechesis, as it’s a life-long process. If there are deficiencies with the penitent’s view of the Gospel, the pastoral response should be to catechize, not to use examination to play excommunication detective.

    There are two different types of examination: there’s the examination the pastor performs on behalf of the congregation during catechesis, and then there’s the self-examination during confession of sins that prepares one to confess. In order to do that, you can do no better than to focus on the Ten Commandments, which, as a mirror, reflect to us our failure to live as God would have us. This advice is given in Lutheran Service Book, page 292, and they also suggest the penitential psalms (6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143) may be prayed prior to confession.

    Glad to hear you’re coming along! This isn’t the most friendly sounding doctrine in the world, but it is taught in Scripture, so to do away with it in the name of love would actually produce the opposite result.

  17. Who is the referent in I Corinthians 11 with respect to “eating and drinking to excess”? Answer: Not infants. When will the remnant of the Reformation break out of the sixteenth century? We have so many additional patristic texts, access to libraries via the internet, etc. since that time. “Unto much is given, much is required”.

  18. I’m not sure its fair to say infant Communion runs parallel to open Communion. Adults of different confession have clearly rejected the truth whereas infants are being presumed faithful in keeping with the Spirit’s work. This same ethical distinction is why abortion is murder and the death penalty is not.

  19. So what of my youngest daughter. She is nine-years-old and profoundly developmentally disabled? She couldn’t possibly understand even the basic concepts of the faith and could communicate any understanding she might have as she is nonverbal and knows on the most basic sign language, which she can’t even use correctly. I might very well be a member of an LCMS church but for this one issue. The church we attend communes infants and so will commune my daughter. While I don’t agree with excluding typical infants, I could submit to their waiting until they can understand and affirm their belief in the faith. But a rule that would exclude someone like my daughter would exclude for her entire earthly life. Do you really believe that this would be Jesus intent?

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