Sunday, February 18, 2007

Thoughts on Open Communion

Recently, the practice of open communion has been a topic of discussion on several blogs (Kim Fabricius' hymn at Faith and Theology got the ball rolling, followed by posts at Connexions and Out the Door). Based on the posts and comments, it appears there's a general consensus in favor of giving communion to all who approach the altar, regardless of baptismal status, age, denomination/religion, or unrepentant sins. Richard's comments are typical:
My position on this is very clear. When I am celebrating communion, it is not my place to withhold the gifts from anyone who opens their hand to receive them. There is a place to exercise church discipline, but the Lord’s Table is not it. It should be a place of welcome and grace. No buts, ifs, howevers or maybes. All are welcome.
Similarly, Bob Cornwall (another pastor) writes:
When thinking about the “Lord’s” Table, maybe we should consider Jesus’ own dining habits — he didn’t put up barriers — so should we? I think not. If Jesus practiced an open table, then I as the one who issues the invitation must do the same.
Of course, there is much to be said for these arguments. We should never wield the sacraments like a club in order to enforce theological or moral discipline; after all, they are means of grace, not law. But I must confess that the concept of open communion, if it becomes too open, makes me a bit uncomfortable. For instance, one commentator said that he "would go a step further and welcome all people to the Eucharistic table...Christian, atheist, Buddhist...whatever." I found this rather shocking when I first read it, although I couldn't say exactly why at the time.

Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that such a wanton distribution of the sacraments violates the holiness of Holy Communion. As Rudolf Otto argues in his seminal book, The Idea of the Holy, all holy objects have both a fascinating and a terrifying quality (mysterium fascinans et tremendum). We are drawn to them become they possess the eternal, but we are also scared of them because we know that it's very dangerous to trifle with the eternal. To play with the holy is to play with fire - it could result in one's annihilation. For this reason, Paul includes the warning in 1 Cor. 11 that "if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, that person is guilty of sinning against the body and the blood of the Lord... For if you eat the bread or drink the cup unworthily, not honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God's judgment upon yourself." Thus, in my opinion, there is a legitimate danger in encouraging people (like atheists, Buddhists, or even nominal Christians) to partake of a holy ceremony that they don't really understand. And a church that is so promiscuous with the sacraments has clearly lost sight of the fact that we should always approach the altar with both joy and "fear and trembling".

The question then becomes: where do you draw the line? It seems to me that the bare minimum requires that the communicant be a baptized Christian. But I'm tempted to set the bar higher. As Hermann Stasse points out, "church fellowship has been altar-fellowship and vice versa every since New Testament times." He goes on to say:
The idea that people could be admitted to Holy Communion with whom there is no perfect peace, no unity of faith and consequently no church-fellowship, is a modern idea that was absolutely foreign to the churches of the 16th century... Such open communion, according to the conviction of the Church of all ages up to the modern world, is no communion at all, no sacrament to be justified by New Testament practice and doctrine.
Sasse's position might be extreme, but I think it's reasonable to insist that people taking communion be "in fellowship" (that is, in basic agreement) with the church where they are receiving the sacrament. Thus, a person who rejects the rejects the "real presence" of Christ in the sacrament should abstain from taking communion in a Lutheran church. Similarly, I would not feel comfortable taking communion at a Catholic mass, and not only because the R.C. church expressly forbids it. As my act of communion would imply that I agree with the self-understanding of the R.C. church (which I do not), out of respect for both them and me I would exclude myself from the table even if there was no such rule. In this way, the communion aspect of the Lord's Supper is not compromised.


Oberon said...

.......hello from across the river.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused by pastors who content that the Lord's Supper is not the place for church discipline. For most of the Church's history, that has EXACTLY been the place. And for the earliest centuries, even mere presence at the celebration of the communion portion of the liturgical gathering was denied to those who were not "initiated" -- including catechumens.

It seems to flip things completely upside down to make the communion the plaything of anyone and everyone who comes along. If someone denies that the bread and wine are the actual body and blood of Christ, I would bar his access to the sacrament. (Oh, he's welcome to a blessing, but not to the body and blood.) Similarly, if some "just doesn't know yet" whether the Gospel is true or not, let him sit with us, sing with us (if he wants), watch us. But let him remain in his pew at the time of the communion.

I'll put it baldly: The communion is not just whatever anyone wants it to be. And pastors who treat it as such are not faithful to their vows to minister to and by word and sacrament.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I haven't considered this Eucharist subject very deeply, but did Jesus die only for those already in fellowship, or did he die for everyone?


Preachrboy said...

The question becomes, then, what is "in fellowship", eh?

You are closer to closed communion than you might think, Thomas.

CPA said...

There is another argument that could be made here, a typological one, and hence not fully convincing apart from the New Testament and patristic arguments you and Sasse already made.

It is this: the Passover is given in Exodus a condition that only the circumcized shall be allowed to partake: all the circumcized and only the circumcized. Typologically reading circumcision as baptism and the Passover as the Holy Communion, you see the conclusions:

1) Communing the unbaptized is like communing the uncircumcized: a profanation of the sacrifice given to us.

2) It is not normal for the communion of the Supper to be narrower than the communion of the baptized. (The reality being that it is, I think we have to realize that all such rules between baptized Christians whether good or bad have a rules for surviving a shipwreck character about them.)

Finally, let's not lose sight of the fact that anyone who sincerely wants to can be baptized. In that circumstance, communing the non-baptized as a regular thing is communing those who REFUSE to be baptized.

(I say this as someone who first communed in a Vinyard church before I was baptized. I was baptized a few weeks later in a Prebyterian church in part because the Vinyard pastor didn't seem to be respond to my desperate request to be baptized.)

Thomas Adams said...

Good discussion, folks. With regards to what anonymous #2 said: of course Christ died for everyone, not just those select few in fellowship. The Church acknowledges this fact in the Eucharistic liturgy when it sings the Agnes Dei: "Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world." However, it doesn't follow from this that the Lord’s Supper should be open to everybody. Not all aspects of the church’s ministry are the same. The Church reaches out to the entire world in the proclamation of the Word, and it brings new members into fellowship in baptism, but in the Lord’s Supper it looks inward (and upward) to the “communion of saints”. So I think a church can still practice closed communion without giving up the idea of universal atonement.

Preachrboy – While I think closed communion is preferable to wide-open, no-limits communion, my personal position is somewhere between these two extremes. For instance, I believe that all Lutherans, regardless of denomination, should be able to celebrate communion together. My problem with the LCMS/WELS approach is that it limits fellowship to its own denomination, which strikes me as too narrow. So in terms of what “is enough” for church fellowship, I would set the bar lower (but not as low as current ecumenical standards).

CPA – The typological argument is certainly an interesting one that I had not considered before. I also like your statement that “communing the non-baptized as a regular thing is communing those who REFUSE to be baptized.” Viewed this way, it’s not so much that Church is failing to being inclusive, but that some individuals are refusing one sacrament while participating in another.

Clint said...

See William Cavanaugh in Torture and Eucharist for an interesting discussion of "discipline" and Eucharist. As for who shall receive, the use of the means of grace in the ELCA goes from font to table- the baptized receive communion. Of course, it can happen in any church or at least many churches that sometimes an unbaptized person will receive communion anyway, possibly due to the table being hospitable. But abusus non tollit usus. Just because this happens sometimes doesn't mean you make it a rule. Once you learn an unbaptized person is coming to the table of the Lord, you instruct them and prepare them for baptism!

P.S. an after-thought said...

Open communion has always been a meaningful thing for me. So by open, I mean what is done in the Lutheran church I attend: there is the confession and forgiveness, the words of institution are said, and then something like this is said, "The Lord invites you to his table." or "All believers are welcome."

We have people of many denominational backgrounds and membership attending. This approach clearly explains what communion is all about, but the final decision is between the person and the Lord.

We don't really know what is in someone's heart or if their mind and heart are elsewhere during the service, so just because someone is "Lutheran" doesn't mean that they understand the Lutheran view of the sacrament anyway.

I remember a incident that bothered me quite a bit. I was to be in a wedding. Almost everyone in the wedding party was Lutheran, but a couple were non-believing Lutherans. At the rehersal, the pastor asked each of the wedding party about their church background, so if they were Lutheran, it was OK to take communion. Not if they were believers. The baptist in the group was extensively questioned about her beliefs before she could commune.

I took communion on 2/22 from a pastor from a "close communion" denomination. There was confession and forgiveness declared, so I felt that I wasn't taking it "unworthily." I wrote about trying to find a church with communion on Ash Wednesday on my blog this week, and the irony of finding it with another group.

Thomas Adams said...

Clint - I'll make sure to check out Cavanaugh's book. I also want to make it clear that my misgivings about open communion have little to do with enforcing church discipline. Instead, I’m more interested in safe-guarding the distinctiveness of the Lutheran understanding of Lord’s Supper, which has become increasingly important to me. I really feel that this doctrine, by avoiding the errors of both Roman transubstantiation and Reformed memorialism, is a significant Lutheran contribution to the church catholic. This doctrine is inevitably marginalized when our churches, in their desire to be ecumenical and inclusive (both noble intentions, by the way), simply ignore the differences that exist. It sends the message that it doesn’t really matter what people think about the sacrament.

That said, I basically agree with P.S. that enforcement comes down to a matter of conscience. I don’t believe that people should be required present a Lutheran membership card, or pass a test, before being admitted to the altar. As P.S. points out, there are many Lutherans who don’t understand their church’s understanding of the sacrament. The best approach is probably to include in the bulletin a statement saying that “we invite all baptized Christians who believe in Christ’s real presence in the bread and wine,” and then leave it up to the individual. This solution isn’t perfect, but it preserves the church’s identity while avoiding the sort of offensive confrontation that P.S. describes at the wedding (interestingly, based on anecdotal evidence, it seems like the closed communion issue primarily arises at weddings. Is this why communion has not been celebrated historically at Lutheran weddings, to avoid nasty incidents?)

David said...

Great discussion--

As you and a few other folks have said, it is a matter of conscience. When we invite those who are baptized to the table, how do we know what is truly in their heart? If we can't take their word for it, then we are just as guilty of contempt for the sacrament as the one who falsely partakes.

The Lord's Supper is a celebration. It is a lavish feast where sinnful people come to be close to God and receive nourishment for their faith, forgiveness for their sins, and wholeness in their brokeness.

For these reasons, I feel that those who are in fellowship with the Church, that is the Body of Christ on earth, should be invited and welcomed to the table, for being in fellowship means being one of God's faithful people, connected to Christ in baptism.

Ross said...

I've often noticed that people tend to "self-censor" themselves out of communion. Most often, the issue is not "Should we withhold the sacrament from someone who is desiring to receive grace?" Rather, it is "How do we let people know that grace is for them?"

Maybe my view is a bit skewed, but I don't think that we have a problem of too many people partaking in the Lord's Supper. We have a problem of people not feeling up to participating.

Am I way off?