Saturday, October 27, 2007

More Thoughts on Closed Communion

I've been delving into Robert Jenson's theology of the sacraments, as found both in his Systematic Theology and in Visible Words (1978). I hope to write a post outlining his overall sacramentology soon, but for now I will simply share his thoughts on the open vs. closed communion debate:
"Disagreement about the interpretation of Christ's presence has been a profound and continuing occasion of the church's disunity, especially at the table itself. There is a terrible irony in this; since in fact Christ's presence as the bread and cup is not separable from the unity it creates as those who share the meal.

Many rationalizations have been attempted, all of them sophistical. The simple case is this: if I and my group celebrate the Supper, and do not admit you, this is excommunication; and if we indeed belong to the body of Christ, as we claim merely by our celebration, it is excommunication from the body of Christ. If you then otherwise celebrate the Supper with a group of your like, we are bound to maintain that this celebration is a mere attempt, in which Christ is not present. If we fail to maintain this, either we are merely being inconsequential, or we revoke our right to exclude you in the first place.

There is no middle ground. If you acknowledge that I belong to the church, you must admit me to your Supper. If you will not admit me to your Supper, you should not then talk about my nevertheless being your 'fellow in Christ.'" (Visible Words, 113)
It is worth noting that Luther held essentially the same position as Jenson, although to much different effect. For Luther, the anti-sacramentalists, whether Reformed or Anabaptist, were genuine heretics and not Christians in the least, as dramatically emphasized by his refusal to accept Zwingli's hand in Christian brotherhood at Marburg. So Luther would have no problem with the logic of Jenson's thinking; that is, for Luther, the table was indeed open to all Christians, as he defined it. You can call him divisive and intolerant, but at least he was consistent.

The same cannot be said of modern Lutherans who practice closed communion. They are guilty of what Jenson calls "inconsequential" thinking - they forbid table fellowship with baptized Christians not in communion with their denomination, but they do not deny that such people may be Christians. That this is the case is amply evident in Missouri Synod documents that explain their stance on closed communion. For example, in response to the question whether the sacrament can be provided to "relatives who are very close to us but who are members of other church bodies", the LCMS writes: "This question is often a very difficult and sensitive one on an emotional level, because we feel united with those whom we love - especially when they are fellow Christians!" (emphasis mine). In the same document, we find the following Q&A:
Question: How can we possibly say that all those Christians from other church bodies are unworthy to receive the Lord’s Supper? Isn’t that what we are saying?

Answer: Absolutely not! There are two reasons why people can be refused admission to the Lord’s Supper. The first has to do with faith and discerning the body. Those who do not have such faith and discernment would commune in an unworthy manner and thereby receive God’s judgment. But the second reason has to do with the need for a fitting confessional unity among those who commune together. Roman Catholic Christians, for example, may be perfectly prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper in their own churches in a worthy manner and so to their own great blessing. But it would be unfitting for them, as confessors of their church body’s error, to receive the Sacrament in our churches.
This is an interesting position. The LCMS does not deny the validity of the Roman sacrament; quite the contrary, they call it a "great blessing". But this is only true for Catholics! The same sacrament is presumably damaging for a Lutheran participant, hence the prohibition against LCMS members communing in other church bodies. But isn't the same body and blood of Christ present at both altars? And if so, must it not be acknowledged that some form of unity does indeed exist between the Lutheran and Catholic churches, even if there is disagreement on non-sacramental matters?

I have previously expressed reservations about "wide-open" communion and I generally stand by those statements. But I also think there are serious theological problems with closed communion as practiced by the LCMS and RC churches. For me, the decisive point is whether a given church group "recognizes the body of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:29), that is, whether they acknowledge the Real Presence as generally understood by Luther. If they do, then I see no problem with permitting table fellowship, regardless of other differences. As Jenson says, "The old question about whether fellowship is a means or consequence of fellowship in the faith is an entirely perverse question; fellowship at the Supper is fellowship in the faith."

That said, it seems to me that where there is no agreement concerning the Lord's Real Presence, there can be no table or pulpit fellowship. So, as you can imagine, I am not a fan of the ELCA's full communion agreements with Reformed bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ. Does this mean that I regard members of these denominations as non-Christians? I won't go that far, but it may be true that by failing to recognize the body of Christ in the sacraments, these denominations forfeit their claim to be part of the body of Christ that is the Church (for Jenson, it is axiomatic that the existence of these two "bodies of Christ" are interdependent. However, it is not my place (or nature) to make drastic statements. I will leave it to others to decide whether the ELCA's agreements with the Reformed churches go too far and thus establish nothing but a false unity. But I don't think it's extreme to maintain that the celebration of the Lord's Supper in these churches is "a mere attempt, in which Christ is not present," and that this must have severe consequences for ecumenism.

5 comments:

Chris said...

Is Christ present in the meal because we believe he is, or is Christ present in the meal because Christ promises to be there? When a Reformed congregation celebrates Holy Communion, is Christ there in, with, and under the bread and wine? Or does Christ only show up when the people gathering at the altar rail believe that he'll show up?

I'm an open communion guy, in part because I believe that if Christ says he'll be there when we celebrate this meal, he's there - whether we believe it or not. Furthermore, I worry that we put too much emphasis on the table to the detriment of our appreciation of the presence of Christ "where two or more are gathered in my name." We liturgical Christians have a great tradition and gift, yet I also believe that God is truly at work in and through the faith and witness of non-liturgical Christians.

Well, I'll look forward to your further posts on the topic. Thanks.

Thomas Adams said...

Is Christ present in the meal because we believe he is, or is Christ present in the meal because Christ promises to be there?

Chris, these are really good questions that go to the heart of the matter. In Lutheran congregations, we must say that all receive the body and blood of Christ, regardless of whether they believe it or not. Like you say, this is the promise of Christ. However, the Confessions, following Paul in 1 Cor 11:27, are very clear that those who commune in “an unworthy manner” receive the sacrament to their condemnation. The rationale behind the LCMS position is not to hoard the sacrament but to ensure that the sacrament does no harm to those who commune. On the other hand, Lutherans who practice open communion are likely to emphasize the life-giving power of the sacrament for all and downplay the danger of judgment. So a key difference between those advocating open and closed communion is whether they take Paul seriously when he warns that “anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”

When a Reformed congregation celebrates Holy Communion, is Christ there in, with, and under the bread and wine? Or does Christ only show up when the people gathering at the altar rail believe that he'll show up?

To the best of my knowledge, the Confessions do not presume to say what “really happens” in a Reformed Lord’s Supper. I know that Luther himself advised against receiving communion from pastors who did not believe in the Real Presence, saying that it was not a sacrament at all. But we dare not try to answer these questions in the negative. All we can say, perhaps, is that whereas we can be confident that his body and blood are present in a Lutheran Eucharist, there are no such guarantees in a Reformed communion.

I agree with you that “God is truly at work in and through the faith and witness of non-liturgical Christians.” But I disagree that we should de-emphasize the sacraments in favor of the more nebulous "where two or more are gathered in my name." The objective reality of the sacraments is essential for overcoming the subjectivism that is rampant in American Christianity.

Thanks for your comments.

L P Cruz said...

For me, the decisive point is whether a given church group "recognizes the body of the Lord" (1 Cor. 11:29), that is, whether they acknowledge the Real Presence as generally understood by Luther. If they do, then I see no problem with permitting table fellowship, regardless of other differences.

I see no problem as well and this is how my synod practices Closed Communion.

LPC

Anonymous said...

are you really lutheran you liberal

L P Cruz said...

Was that question for me?

May be I am neither, it depends on your definition. You are free to deny me any labels you may wish. I have been called nasty names behind my back.

At least in my definition, I do not think I am a Lutheran fanatic/fundamentalist, at least that is much I can say.

LPC