The Strangeness of Open Communion: Introduction

This is part 1 of 5 in the series The Strangeness of Open Communion

The following is the first section of the paper I presented at the 2018 Steadfast Lutherans Conference at Zion Lutheran Church & School in Winter Garden, FL. I will be posting the various sections of the paper as individual posts here. 


About a year ago, a member from a neighboring LCMS congregation asked me why I didn’t commune his non-denominational friend when he visited Zion. “My friend communes with me at my church,” he said, “why didn’t you commune him? You’re really funny about that sort of thing.” “What do you mean by ‘funny’?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “you have your own way of doing things here. You’re really strict about communion. I’ve been Lutheran longer than you’ve been alive and no other Lutheran church I’ve been to does what you do.” (I wanted to say “Thanks for noticing.”) “I’m not doing anything ‘different’ here at Zion,” I said, “I’m only doing what I and all Lutheran pastors have promised to do at their Ordination. I’m not different: Your church and your pastor are different for abandoning God’s Word.” “Forget it,” he said and stormed off.

For the past three years, I’ve been a pastor in a District that practices Open Communion, although no one here calls it that. They call it Close Communion. (It’s a trick to sound Lutheran without actually being Lutheran.) Close Communion used to mean the same thing as Closed Communion, but not anymore. Open Communion is the practice of allowing individuals from different denominations commune together. This means, for example, that Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans are all communed together in the same church, even though each one holds a different belief about the Lord’s Supper (and Original Sin, Baptism, Justification, Good Works, etc.). In the FL/GA District, Open and Close Communion are different words for the same practice. I’m not sure when these unfaithful pastors began using “close,” but they liken the Lord’s Supper to a close family meal. “Every individual in a family has their differences,” their reasoning goes, “but at the end of the day we’re all part of the same family and eat dinner together.” On account of this reasoning (not the only reason, but the most quoted), everyone should receive the Lord’s Supper, regardless of their ‘differences.’ These pastors and churches pride themselves on being “welcoming,” “kind,” and “loving” to all people. Meanwhile, those who practice Closed Communion are labeled “unwelcoming,” “mean,” and “unloving.” (I’ll respond to this rhetoric later.)

“Strange” is what faithful pastors are to this world. The point of this paper, nevertheless, is to teach you that Closed Communion is not strange—Open Communion is strange. It’s strange to God, to His Church, and to every faithful Lutheran before us. Nominal Lutherans do plenty of weird things, but Open Communion is the most widespread and dangerous of those strange things.

The papers at this conference have taught us that the world finds the Church strange—My paper will teach you that the Church finds the world strange. It’s mutual. And it shouldn’t be strange that they consider each other strangers: We’re in the world but not of it (John 17). As long as we’re at home with the Word, we’re strangers in the world.

This paper is divided into two-parts: 1) “The Strangeness of Open Communion,” which will demonstrate that it is foreign to God’s Word, alien to the Church, and unheard of among the Lutherans, and 2) “Dealing with Open Communion,” which will give practical advice to both pastors and members on responding to and correcting the practice of Open Communion.

The Strangeness of Open Communion

Open Communion is strange. It’s not in Holy Scripture. You can’t find it in church history or the Book of Concord. Why? Because Open Communion is worldly. Those who practice it don’t quote Scripture, cite church history, or quote the Lutheran Confessions: This ungodly and worldly doctrine comes from their own reasoning and analogies. The fact that unfaithful Lutheran pastors don’t quote Scripture or the Confessions (which they have unconditionally [quia] subscribed to at their ordination) is a testimony that neither teach Open Communion! And they know that. Why do you think unfaithful pastors, circuit visitors, and district presidents steer the conversation away from the Bible and the Confessions? (They know where the conversation will end up!)

The truth is that their arguments for Open/Close Communion only work on the uneducated or unfaithful Christians. Sure, some congregations might know what the Bible truly teaches and still decide to reject it—These are unfaithful. (Shake the dust off your sandals and move on.) For the most part, however, it’s not that congregations are trying to be unfaithful, it’s that they were never taught what it means to be faithful. To put the best construction on it, most members believe they’re doing what is faithful and godly in God’s sight: Most believe that Open Communion is the loving, biblical, and Christian thing to do—But that’s not true. Closed Communion is the loving, biblical, and Christian practice—It’s what God says should be done, what the Church always did, and what true Lutherans will always do.

About Pastor Rojas+

Rev. Roberto E. Rojas, Jr. is the sole pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church (also known as "Zion New Life") in Winter Garden, FL, established in 1891. He attended the Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN (M.Div., 2008-2013; STM., 2013-2014). During his studies at the seminary, he participated in a year-long exchange program in the Westfield House in Cambridge, England, and also in the Seminário Concórdia in São Leopoldo, Río Grande do Sul, Brazil. He and his beautiful wife, Erica, are happily married and live in Gotha, FL.


The Strangeness of Open Communion: Introduction — 17 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this with us. It’s comforting to be reminded that those of us who faithfully battle with this issue in our congregations aren’t alone. I look forward to reading the next sections as they are made available.

  2. Thank you, brother, for your fine remarks. I do not know how anyone can read 1 Cor. 11 and then decide that “open” communion ought to be a mark of the Church. Nevertheless, it is important to the integrity of the preaching of the Gospel that we simply (?) adhere to Biblical truths even if we must suffer b/c of it. Lord, help us, and rescue Your Church today, as You have done in ages past.

  3. “Forget it,” he said and stormed off.”

    Goodbye to him and others who believe this way. Let them take their ‘offended by the Word’ minds and money offerings and go. There’s plenty of fellowships outside the LCMS to accommodate them. If the LCMS shrinks down to 5 districts instead of 35, so be it. To quote the title of an article: “It’s Time”.

  4. Using the logic of the proponents of open communion, if I were a pharmacist and I wanted to be loving I would practice open medicine. I would open the pharmacy to the public and let everyone take whatever medicine they wanted to take. Now isn’t that loving? Not even if I thought all of the drugs were placebo.

  5. @LW #4

    This is a fantastic analogy, and the fact that anyone would scoff at this analogy reveals much about what that person believes about God and the power of his Word compared to the power of the works of men.

  6. During a recent vacation we were visiting an LCMS congregation where we were prodded and cajoled, along with our Methodist vacation buddies, to “just go up to the altar for a blessing,” to which we refused. As my husband likes to say, you receive innumerable blessings during the Divine Service, and, if liturgical, another at the very end. Our practice is to commune at our church only, and perhaps one or two where we know the pastor personally, which we had explained beforehand to our friends. This prodding both confused and dismayed our friends who stood up while we remained seated, then sat back down. This, frankly, made me a little angry because I had discussed it with their “welcoming committee” prior to the service. I don’t like the practice of inviting adults to the altar to be blessed, because I think it’s both confusing and an attempt to openly offer the elements to whoever approaches the altar. Accuse me of not putting the best construction if you will, but in my particular case, it caused confusion and embarrassment. Your thoughts on this practice, Pastor?
    P.S. I, too, loved this analogy, LW#4!

  7. Wanda – thanks for sharing this. How disgusting. Please identify the congregation.

    > accuse … of not putting the best construction

    At this point, that phrase has become code-speak usually employed by someone who wants to break the 8th commandment by accusing you of breaking it.

    Do we refrain from calling common practices evil because it would be wrong to do so, or because we don’t want the evil persecution we will encounter? For my part, when I hold back, it’s often the latter.

  8. Waiting to hear a sound exegetical explanation of 1 Corinthians 4:1, 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. I honestly have never heard a convincing exegetical argument using these passages to defend closed communion as it is being espoused here. Most of the explanations I have ever heard have stretched the text past the breaking point, usually ignoring immediate context in their response. I have heard some solid appeals to tradition, which I think should and do bear some weight, but never a single convincing explanation of what are considered the key passages of scripture to defend closed communion practice as they are being espoused here. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment. Quite frankly the disdain usually seen here for other congregations seems to be far more close to Paul’s warning of eating and drinking in an unworthy manner and not discerning the body of Christ to me.

  9. A thought on the apt analogy: it also therefore utterly falls short for the pastor simply to inquire: “Are you a member of the LCMS?” And then proceed to commune a person upon an affirmative answer. How does this fit with the practice described and lauded in our Symbols of not distributing the sacrament to anyone who has not been examined and absolved? I think sometimes that we have use “closed communion” as a way of salving our guilty consciences, for we know that we are not following the practice that we say we will uphold when we assert that “all my preaching, teaching, and administering of the Sacraments” will conform to the Book of Concord. I think making closed communion a sort of shiboleth can deflect from restoring among us the wonderful pastoral care that our Symbols assume and describe. FWIW.

  10. @Weedon #9

    So, as a worker in the IC, how would you suggest pastors, who stand in the stead of Christ and hold the keys – to open and close the gates of heaven – on behalf of the church, handle the strange circumstances of the Koinonia project, where pastors who deny the order of creation, and who believe that women’s ordination is not against scripture, expect to commune because they are on the roster, and have taken the same external vows as the rest of us?
    Asking for a friend.

  11. Pastor Winter,

    Sorry, not going there with you here on an online forum, but I’d certainly welcome the opportunity to continue our discussion face to face, should God give us the blessing of meeting again.

  12. I was taught our Communion practice is correctly called “CLOSE Communion.” I notice in this thread the term “CLOSED Communion” is used. Which is correct? Is there a difference? Are the terms interchangeble? How does Law and Gospel apply to the topic?

  13. @Ginny #13

    The following endnote from page 40 of the 1983 CTCR document Theology and Practice of the Lord’s Supper may help:

    [24] While the term “closed Communion” has a longer history [than “close Communion”] (cf. W. Elert, ch. 7) and is regarded by some as theologically more proper than “close Communion,” the latter term, which has been used in more recent history by writers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, may also properly be employed as a way of saying that confessional agreement must precede the fellowship of Christians at the Lord’s Table. Whatever term is used, it is clear that the LCMS’ official practice is consistent with the historic practice of the church, which has regarded unity of doctrine as a prerequisite for admission to the sacrament (cf. 1967 Res. 2-19).

    So, there is no universal agreement in the LCMS about the terms “close” and “closed” Communion. Official LCMS documents seem to use the terms interchangeably, while most confessional pastors feel that “closed” is (as the endnote stated) “theologically more proper”.

  14. @Ginny #13

    Good question. Comment #14 by Rev. Robert Fischer gives the LCMS view of it here.

    “Close” and “Closed” Communion WERE interchangeable. But many pastors confuse Christians by changing the meaning of “Close” to mean “Open.” This happens here in the FL/GA District quite often. Many pastors have taught a different meaning of the words. They say,

    • Closed Communion—You can only commune at your own local congregation
    • Close Communion—You can commune with those who are “close” to you, theologically (Reformed, Baptists, etc.)
    • Open Communion—You commune people of other religions

    When I arrived here at Zion, there was so much confusion concerning the word “close.” It wasn’t only my predecessor who taught that “close” means “open,” but it was a teaching that neighboring churches in the same Circuit and District were taught as well. Whether this was taught out of malice or ignorance, I don’t know. But the bottom line is that they did not teach the true meaning of “Close Communion.” They taught that there was some 3rd option, or a 3rd way, between Open and Closed.

    Even though the meaning of “Close Communion” was once interchangeable with “Closed Communion,” it’s not that way anymore. In my paper, I am addressing the word as it is used now today.

  15. Thank you Pastors Fischer and Rojas. I love theology and appreciate your clear teachings.

  16. @mbw #7
    An email address, name, and reason for needing it would be helpful. Since we did not feel it was the time or place to confront this practice, I do not believe that publicly sharing the name is a right practice either.
    I was simply asking if inviting everyone up to the communion rail, even for a blessing, is a good idea and might in fact contribute to the problem of open communion.

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