Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Discretion. . .

There are some who practice a really closed altar rail.  Those who commune are members of that congregation, sheep under the care of the shepherd, period.  While this was perhaps more ordinary in the past, the key to its undoing has been the American penchant for travel and the mobility that has moved people many times over a lifetime and far from their ancestral homes.  It is not the customary sense of closed communion among Missourians.

There are those who practice closed communion in the sense that those who commune are people of a common confession, those who believe the same faith and doctrine and who practice it consistently.  This is the customary sense of Missouri's idea of closed communion.  It was easier when you had few real visitors and it was easier to deal with when the Sacrament was offered only quarterly.  It has become more difficult now that all kinds of people show up on Sunday morning and the Sacrament is offered at least every other week or especially every Sunday (as our Confessions presume).  Also part of this is the decline in confessional services and private confession which were once prime means to know who to expect at the rail on Sunday morning.  Inherent in this idea of closed communion are two things -- that those who commune share a common confession and they live under a common discipline.  Obviously, that common discipline has been the Achilles heel of the whole thing.

Underneath all of this, however, has been another thread (or shall we say threat).  Since at least the 1960s and 1970s, Missouri has become an increasingly congregational church body -- at least in popular understanding.  The parish has always been the center of things for Missouri but now more than ever the congregation is seen as a sort of Supreme Court over Missouri's constitution, by-laws, and conventions.  Each individual congregation has come to think of itself as having the right and even the duty to decide for itself whether or not something in Synod is right or wrong, good, right, or salutary, or expedient for its own set of circumstances.  This has placed severe tests upon the common confession that Missourians claim to under gird our synodical unity and identity.  Some delight in testing the boundaries of this synodical structure at every juncture.  Who communes in the congregation is seen as a local issue and not something Synod can or should inform or enforce.

Some congregations have deliberately adopted practices that poke the proverbial finger at Missouri's historical and consistent confession of closed communion.  We all know this.  Others have quietly practiced an open altar without attempting to draw attention to the practice inconsistent with Synod's stated confession and practice.  Other congregations have for all intents and purposes broken fellowship with the brothers and sisters throughout the Synod by requiring a bit more than Missouri has traditionally required for communion and by being vocal about it.

There is something else at play and that is the understanding of pastoral discretion.  Unlike some in Missouri, nearly everyone has understood closed communion not simply to be about membership or even about membership in good standing but also about the right and privilege of the pastor to admit someone who does not necessarily fit the rules.  It is exceptional and the pastor retains the authority to make exception for pastoral reason and urgency.  This is also at play in Missouri's understanding of closed communion.  Pastors practice it differently.  Some make the exception the rule and others make for no exception at all.

The key word here is discretion.  To be discreet ordinarily means to be careful, prudent, or circumspect. The word discreet is, of course, from Latin discretus, meaning separate or distinct.  It is important to note that they key to discretion is not secrecy. Discretion may not be shouted from the mountain tops but neither is is primarily private.  Prudence and discretion means to take seriously the exception and to be disciplined in granting exception as well as compassionate.  Therein lies the problem.  We are at a point in which many in the Synod do not trust the discretion of others because they fear it is undisciplined and falsely compassionate (more concerned about possible offense than possibly taking the Sacrament to the individual's harm).

It is not discretion to always grant exception and it is not discretion to never grant exception.  In fact, it is easier to open the altar rail to anyone or close the rail to all but the few members than to be in the messy middle of speaking with each communicant unknown to the pastor.  Some complain that this is not even possible in large congregations in which the pastor cannot possibly be expected to even know or recognize who is a member and who is not (something more of an issue than for closed communion only).  

The point of the stewardship of the rail is not to exclude but to assist those who commune to commune worthily, that is, to have repentant faith to receive the gift.  Perhaps it is true that some pastors see themselves somewhat like the gatekeepers who keep the wrong people out of a hot spot where everyone wants to enter.  The pastoral role here is not judge and jury of guilty or innocent but preacher of the Gospel and steward of the gifts.

For all the disputes over closed communion, the vast majority of Christians practice it in some form or another.  Rome, Constantinople, and Wittenberg were once united in this practice.  Now more Lutherans practice open altars than practice closed communion.  While that may not be true for Missouri in particular, it is certainly true for Lutheranism in general.  Yet it is an easy practice to justify from Scripture and history.  It is not a practice supported by one passage or by the odd man out in the past.  Yet in Missouri, at least, we continue to wrestle with it.

Speaking for myself, I know how hard it is to meet people before the service, inquire as to their faith, and then to tell them not to receive.  The people who complain most about the negative answer to the question are generally those who knew they should not commune.  Sometimes it is a delight to find a person whose confession is solid and orthodox and then to inquire why they belong to church body which does not confess the faith as they have just done.  I wrestle with those who think that the Sacrament is private time with Jesus as the individual alone defines it -- even regular Missourians fall into that trap.  But communion is by nature a public act, a public statement, and a public reception.  It is not private at all.  That, however, remains a topic for another post.  In the end, it is a subject that remains a hot topic for Missouri and into this touchy subject some of our better theologians have waded.  I encourage you to read and consider their words.  I will.

Listen to an Issues, Etc. discussion of the topic here. . . 

25 comments:

John Joseph Flanagan said...

This is a good topic, closed communion. It is true that pastoral discretion is the accepted practice. I for one do not understand why WELS Lutheran churches are so rigid in this area, excluding even LCMS visitors from receiving communion. In my view, it is legalistic and wrong.

Carl Vehse said...

A Missouri Synod discussioin of closed communion is incomplete without a discussion of the Lufauxran practice of the so-called “early communion” (here the euphemistic “early” implies any postbaptism, preconfirmation age), which is incompatible with the Lutheran doctrinal position of closed communion.

The Lutheran confessional doctrine and practice of the Lord’s Supper does not set a specific age at which catechesis and confirmation occur. However, for the edification of the Church, and specifically within the churches belonging to the Missouri Synod, some typical common age may be established. Communing catechumens, either children or adults, before they have given, in their confirmation, public witness to their confession is contrary to the Lutheran doctrine of closed communion.

Closed communion involves a profession of confessional unity in faith. Those who have publicly professed a different (or no) confession are not to be communed. According to the guidelines for the constitution of any Missouri Synod congregation, all communicant members of the congregation are required to confess their unconditional acceptance of the doctrine of the Lutheran Church (i.e., taken from Holy Scripture and exposited in the Book of Concord of 1580) to be faithful and true.

Early communion is open communion.

Anonymous said...

So why don't we just also practice early communion for adults also? What's the difference?

Our confessions are clear that closed communion is the way to go, in line with Scripture. Full teaching of the body of doctrine is necessary, indeed.

Too bad this great book costs so much - $35. That price will keep it away from many. CPH products are way too costly.

Unknown said...

Anonymous, do you own a computer? Presumably you paid more than $35 for it. So putting your investment to good use, you can open the entire Book of Concord here for free: http://bookofconcord.org/
Peace and Joy!
George A. Marquart

Anonymous said...

Closed Communion book is $35.

Carl Vehse said...

Here are some of the articles that are available online or in published journals:

1. An Open Letter to Those in Frankfurt on the Main, 1533, Martin Luther. Translated by Jon D. Vieker

2. Theses on Communion Fellowship with Those Who Believe Differently,
C. F. W. Walther. Translated by Laurence White. Edited by Paul T. McCain

3. Closed Communion: In the Way of the Gospel; In the Way of the Law, Norman Nagel Source: Concordia Journal, 17 no. 1 January 1991, 20-29.

16. Step Up to the Altar, Joel D. Biermann

20. Theses on Infant/Toddler Communion, John T. Pless [NOTE: The one flaw in Pless’ paper is his Thesis 13, which is a valiant, but failed attempt to split hairs between open (infant/toddler) communion and open (pre-confirmation) communion.]

21. An Exegetical Case for Close(d) Communion, Jeffrey A. Gibbs

22. Who Is to Be Admitted to the Lord’s Supper, Francis Pieper (Francis Pieper, "Wer zum heiligen Abendmahl zuzulassen sei"Christliche Dogmatik, III, p. 443 German; Christian Dogmatics, Vl. III, p. 381)

24. Guidelines for Congregational, District, and Synodical Communion Statements, LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations

Anonymous said...

There is no such thing in Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions as "Confirmation Age." Early Communion is NOT open Communion! as a Pastor should have examined the child to ensure proper confession and instruction. A Pastor has NO Scriptural or Confessional basis to withhold the Supper SOLELY on the basis of age. Luther's kids and most children throughout the history of the Christian church were communing around 7-10 years old. (8th grade Confirmation is an American Lutheran idea.) Note Luther's Large Catechism toward the end on the Sacrament which he doesn't give an age but he is referring to children (which would've been 7-10 year old) as needing to receive the Supper for their good.

Carl Vehse said...

Anony: "There is no such thing in Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions as "Confirmation Age."

That is what I previously stated. However, because closed communion involves a profession of confessional unity in faith, admitting post-baptized, but pre-confirmed people, whatever age, who have not unconditionally subscribed to the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, is contrary to the Lutheran doctrinal position of closed communion.

Early communion is open communion.

LMMV (Lufauxran mileage may vary)

Anonymous said...

First Communion (Early Communion) is not open communion. Read the LSB Agenda, p.25. The basis of instruction prior to first communion is the same as that of confirmation - Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord's Prayer, Sacraments. There is no difference in the catechesis between early communion and confirmation. Seems silly to have two different rites that are based on the same instruction. Get rid of early communion and have confirmation at any suitable age, eh?

Anonymous said...

The desire for early communion is based on a faulty understanding of the Lutheran teaching of the means of grace and an unscriptural view of the Lord's Supper as having soteriological benefits beyond the forgiveness of sins. Augustine famously stated "Believe, and you have eaten." Children can and do have faith through hearing the gospel, which is sufficient for salvation.

Carl Vehse said...

Anony @November 8, 2017 at 3:58 PM, you are confusing the LSB Agenda with the doctrinal position of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as well as the doctrinal position of the Missouri Synod (which the LSB Agenda contradicts). Clarifying documents include:

"Admission to the Lord’s Supper: Basics of Biblical and Confessional Teaching," CTCR, November 1999.
"Knowing What We Seek and Why We Come: Questions and Answers concerning the Communing of Infants and Young Children," by the LCMS-CTCR, September 13, 2014.

Without an unconditional subscription to the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, as exposited in the BOC of 1580, practicing early communion (regardless of the communicant's age) is practicing open communion. And this includes Lufauxran pastors who practice (and advocate) paedocommunion.

Anonymous said...

Early, middle, or late communion is not the issue. The age of the communicant doesn't matter. What matters is that the communicant is baptized, has received instruction in the Small Catechism, has been examined, and confesses doctrinal unity with the Lutheran Church and her confessions. Call it early communion, confirmation, or whatever. Bottom line is what we believe, teach, and confess about proper preparation for the body and blood as confessors of doctrinal unity. Too bad LSB Agenda even bothered to have two different rites of admission to the Mass. Stick with one and that's it.

Carl Vehse said...

With a Lutheran practice of closed communion, "early, middle, or late" are meaningless.

Lutheran churches that are in fellowship within a synod should maintain a confessional practice of post-confirmation communion. If church delegates within that synod decide it would edify that practice by having a uniform age of confirmation, that is something that those synodical churches are free to decide and does not violate any Lutheran doctrine.

As for the word "Mass," in his “Luther and the Mass: Justification and the Joint Declaration" (Logia, 10: 4, 2001, 13-19), Rev. Daniel Preus stated:

"By 1533, however, Luther came to the conclusion that 'mass' should no longer be used in reference to the sacrament of the altar.

"The word 'mass,' Luther believed, should be defined as the sacrifice that the priest offers for sin. It should never be used to speak of that sacrament which grants to believers the body and blood of Christ and the forgiveness of sins.

[Luther stated,] "Indeed, I wish and would very much like to see and hear that the two words ‘mass’ and ‘sacrament’ would be understood as being as different as darkness and light, yes, as different as devil and God.” Again Luther prayed,

"May God grant to all devout Christians such hearts that when they hear the word “mass,” they might be frightened and make the sign of the cross as though it were the devil’s abomination; on the other hand, when they hear the word 'sacrament' or 'Lord’s Supper' they might dance for pure joy…."

Chris Jones said...

Dr Luther was entitled to his opinion about the advisability of using the word "Mass" to refer to the sacrament of the altar. As far as I know (under correction), his opinion on this point is not to be found in any of the Lutheran Confessions. On the other hand, the principal Lutheran Confession -- the Augustana -- expressly lays claim to the Mass:

Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence.

If it's good enough for the confessors at Augsburg, it's good enough for me. You can't take the Mass away from me: the Eucharist is the Gospel.

Carl Vehse said...

The Augsburg Confession was written in 1530. The Smalcald Articles were written six years later when Luther was asked to state what Lutherans could and could not compromise and why.

In his Smalcald Articles, Part II, Article II: Of the Mass, Martin Luther denounces the Mass:

"That the Mass in the Papacy must be the greatest and most horrible abomination, as it directly and powerfully conflicts with this chief article, and yet above and before all other popish idolatries it has been the chief and most specious.

"If, perchance, there were reasonable Papists we might speak moderately and in a friendly way, thus: first, why they so rigidly uphold the Mass. For it is but a pure invention of men, and has not been commanded by God; and every invention of man we may [safely] discard,

"Secondly. It is an unnecessary thing, which can be omitted without sin and danger.

"Thirdly. The Sacrament can be received in a better and more blessed way [more acceptable to God], (yea, the only blessed way), according to the institution of Christ.

"In addition to all this, this dragon's tail, [I mean] the Mass, has begotten a numerous vermin-brood of manifold idolatries."


The Smalcald discussion of the Lord's Supper as practiced by Lutherans is in Part III, Article VI. The word "mass" is not used in reference to it.

Attempting to quote from a 1530 Lutheran Symbol without presenting the context of the 1536 Lutheran Symbol is not an honest Lutheran tactic. It would be like claiming the pope is not the Antichrist because the Augsburg Confession doesn't say so. Lutherans know better than that, and the Lord's Supper in a Lutheran service is not a Mass.

I encourage Lutherans to pray Luther's prayer, which was included in my previous comment.

Carl Vehse said...

Note that the title of the book shown above is not Closed Mass?: Admission to the Mass in a Biblical Perspective. Furthermore Lutherans do not use phrases like "closed mass" or "open mass" except when referring to Romish practices.

Chris Jones said...

Even in the Smalcald Articles Luther does not denounce the Mass as such, but "the Mass in the Papacy" meaning the Eucharist understood as a sacrifice distinct from, and over and above, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross.

You are right that one should not take the Augsburg Confession out of the context of the Book of Concord as a whole. The fact that the Augustana speaks of the Mass in positive terms does not mean that we can ignore the errors that the Smalcald Articles condemn. But by the same token the Smalcald Articles -- even though they were written later -- do not repeal or amend the Augsburg Confession. The Augsburg Confession states that "the Mass is retained among us." That was true in 1530 and it is true today.

It is clear that the Augsburg Confession and the Smalcald Articles are using the term "the Mass" in two very different senses. When the Augsburg Confession says "the Mass", it means "the Eucharist as the Church has always celebrated it and taught of it"; when the Smalcald Articles speak of "the Mass", it means "the deformation of the Eucharist as taught in the unreformed mediaeval Church."

If you would forbid me to speak of the Mass with the meaning that the Augsburg Confession gives it, then who is the confessional Lutheran here?

Carl Vehse said...

"It is clear that the Augsburg Confession and the Smalcald Articles are using the term "the Mass" in two very different senses."

And Luther clearly explained why in the Smalcald Articles he used "mass" to refer to the Romish atrocity and no longer used "mass to refer to the Lord's Supper. That explanation is provided with references by Rev. Daniel Preus in his paper, "Luther and the Mass."

Rev. Preus noted, "Luther was convinced that the use of the terms “mass” and “sacrament” interchangeably has resulted in great confusion, and that the only way to provide a clear understanding of the nature of the Lord’s Supper is to stop calling it the mass."

It seems to be difficult for some Lutherans to follow Luther's sound advice.

Carl Vehse said...

"If you would forbid me to speak of the Mass with the meaning that the Augsburg Confession gives it, then who is the confessional Lutheran here?"

Playing equivocation word games is not a Lutheran way to distinguish between Lutheran sacraments and Roman heresies.

David Gray said...

Mr. Strickert not only reinvents the membership vows of the LCMS but he reinvents what the Lutheran confessions say in order that they may conform to his preferences. Whatever one may call such an approach one can certainly not call it "confessional."

Carl Vehse said...

You continue to create your own Lufauxran delusions, David. That's seems to be your preferred alternative to accepting the reality of the excerpts I've posted from the BOC, Luther, the CTCR, and Rev. Preus.

Joanne said...

Mass is a very weak word, the etymology of it is uncertain. It may be late Latin slang for the Latin words used at both the first and second dismissals in the Sunday liturgy. The term was used both to close the public part of the service and to end the familial part of the service. "Ite, missa est" may have lead to that second part of the service, the part with the family meal (sacrament/mystery) being thought of as the Missa. For Christians who no longer dismiss strangers before they begin the family (private but not secret) part of the service, the term Mass becomes an anachronism.

William Tighe said...

'"Ite, missa est" may have lead to that second part of the service, the part with the family meal (sacrament/mystery) being thought of as the Missa.'

And the evidence for this is? Since the only instance of "Ite, missa est" comes at the very end of the Mass-rite, that is, after communion and after the concluding prayers, it seems a rather dubious hypothesis.

Joanne said...

"The doors, the doors." At what point in the liturgy are the Doorkeepers called upon to close the doors? That surely is a dismissal. The catechumens were to leave the service at that point. The ignorant and the unready were ushered away. The public part is over, now the family proceeds to the Supper.

Carl Vehse said...

Werner Elert in Eucharist and Church Felowship in the First Four Centuries (Trans. N.E. Nagel, CPH, 1966, pp. 75-6):

"Following the service of the Word came the celebration of the Eucharist. This was at least so from the middle of the second century (Justin). Before the Eucharist began, however, the 'hearers' had to leave the assembly, and not only they but also the catechumens, even though they were already being solidly instructed toward reception. During the Eucharist the doors were guarded by deacons and subdeacons. Tertullian severely rebukes the contrary way of doing things among the heretics, who did not maintain the distinction between catechumens and believers."

So much for "early communion"!