Project Wittenberg

Theology and Practice of
Part II

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
as preapared by its
Social Concerns Committee

May 1983

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A. Prologue

How does one address the many practical questions that arise in conjunction with the celebration of Holy Communion? As Lutherans we approach such a task from a unique theological posture. In submitting to the full authority of Holy Scripture as correctly expounded in the Lutheran Confessions, Lutheranism avoids both that legalism which negates the Gospel by binding consciences with human ordinances (Galatians) and that libertarianism which would destroy good order in the church (1 Corinthians).

A marvelous treatment of the perimeters of evangelical practice is set forth in the Formula of Concord. Its tenor will be assumed in our subsequent discussion.

    We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances, as long as it does so without frivolity and offense but in an orderly and appropriate way, as at any time may seem to be most profitable, beneficial, and salutary for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edification of the church. Paul instructs us how we can with a good conscience give in and yield to the weak in faith in such external matters of indifference (Rom. 14) and demonstrates it by his own example (Acts 16:3; 21:26;1 Cor. 9:10) (FC SD X, 9).

B. Practice in Accord With the Words of Institution

    1. Consecration

    It is clear from our review of the Scriptural passages and their confessional exposition, that the church must follow the Lord's guidance in speaking the Words of Institution over the elements in Holy Communion (1 Cor. 11:23-26).

    Thus the pastor seeks to "do this" in accord with the Lord's instructions (1 Cor. 11:24-25). It would not be proper, then, to distribute the bread and wine as the sacramentally present body and blood of Jesus without first pronouncing Jesus' words over the elements. [15] Nor, if the supply of consecrated elements has been exhausted, should the officiant distribute a replenished supply until Jesus' consecratory words have first been spoken.

    Because the Words (verba) of Institution are the very heart of the sacramental action, they should always be employed. It is through Christ's word and its power, not through the action of the celebrant, that Christ's body and blood are present in the bread and wine.

    The practice of taking consecrated bread and wine from the congregation's altar for distribution to those absent must always include the Words of Institution in the presence of the communicant. Christ's word, the elements, and the distribution are to be Biblically held together (Mark 14:22-25) [16]

    Two quotations from the Formula of Concord are most pertinent:

      In the administration of Communion the words of institution are to be spoken or sung distinctly and clearly before the congregation and are under no circumstances to be omitted. Thereby we render obedience to the command of Christ, "This do." Thereby the faith of the hearers in the essence and benefits of this sacrament (the presence of the body and blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, and all the benefits which Christ has won for us by his death and the shedding of his blood and which he gives to us in his testament) is awakened, strengthened, and confirmed through his Word. And thereby the elements of bread and wine are hallowed or blessed in this holy use, so that therewith the body and blood of Christ are distributed to us to eat and to drink, as Paul says, "The cup of blessing which we bless," which happens precisely through the repetition and recitation of the words of institution (FC SD VII, 79-82).

      Likewise, [we reject and condemn] the doctrine that it is not the words and the omnipotence of Christ but faith that achieves the presence of the body of Christ in the Holy Supper, whence some omit the words of institution in the administration of the Supper. For while we justly criticize and condemn the papistic consecration which ascribes to the word and work of the priest the power allegedly to effect a sacrament, the words of institution cannot and should not in any case be omitted in the administration of the Supper, as shown above in a previous exposition (FC SD VII, 121).

    As the celebrant consecrates the elements, he should do so in a reverent manner. To hurry through the verba as though he were watching the clock or to insert some personal idiosyncrasy into the consecration is to detract the people's attention from the sacrament. The congregation's focus is to be on Christ's word and invitation. The celebrant is a servant to sharpen that focus.

    Again the Formula of Concord eloquently states:

      Concerning the consecration we believe, teach, and confess that no man's work nor the recitation of the minister effect this presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, but it is to be ascribed solely and alone to the almighty power of our Lord Jesus Christ.

      But at the same time we believe, teach, and confess with one accord that in the celebration of the Holy Supper the words of Christ's institution should under no circumstances be omitted, but should be spoken publicly, as it is written, "the cup of blessing which we bless" (I Cor. 10:16; 11:23-25). This blessing occurs through the recitation of the words of Christ (FC Ep VII, 8-9).

      For the truthful and almighty words of Jesus Christ which he spoke in the first institution were not only efficacious in the first Supper but they still retain their validity and efficacious power in all places where the Supper is observed according to Christ's institution and where his words are used, and the body and blood of Christ are truly present, distributed, and received by the virtue and potency of the same words which Christ spoke in the first Supper (FC SD VII, 75).

    2. The Elements

    There is scholarly consensus that our Lord employed the earthly elements of bread and wine in His institution of Holy Communion. [17]

      a. The Bread

      The Greek word for bread in the New Testament texts, artos, is generic. It applies to bread in general. [18] While Greek has a more restricted term, azumos, for unleavened bread, it is not found in any of the New Testament accounts of the Lord's Supper.

      The fact that unleavened bread was used in the Passover and that the three evangelists set the time for the Lord's Supper "on the first day of [the Feast of] Unleavened Bread" would strongly suggest the use of unleavened bread in our Lord's original action (Matt. 26:17; cf. Mark 14:12 and Luke 22:7). Therefore we have reason to conclude that unleavened bread should also be used today.

      Since the Scriptures are silent on the source of the bread, it may be baked from the flour of wheat, rye, barley, or other grains. While the form of distribution should reflect reverence for the elements, there is no specific guidance on the size or shape of the wafer or portion.

      b. The Wine

      All four accounts of the Lord's Supper speak of "the cup." The content of this cup was most definitely wine. The references in Matt. 26:29 and parallels to the "fruit of the vine" would not have suggested anything else to Jesus' listeners than the grape wine of the Jewish Passover ritual. [19] In 1 Cor. 11:21 there is corroboration that the early Christian church understood wine for "fruit of the vine." Some of the Corinthians, sadly, had abused the Holy Supper by becoming drunk.

      The color, type, or origin of the grape wine is a matter which Christians can select in accord with their situation.

      In the oft-cited pastoral circumstance of an alcoholic communicant, the counsel of foregoing Communion for a period of time or the action of diluting the wine with water (perhaps done at the Lord's Supper itself) are preferable. In the extreme situation where even greatly diluted wine may lead to severe temptation, no fully satisfactory answer, in the opinion of the CTCR, can be formulated. The counsel of completely foregoing Communion is clearly unsatisfactory. In this situation, too, the actions of diluting the wine with water or intinction would be preferable. The substitution of grape juice raises the question of whether the Lord's instruction is being heeded. Luther's openness to Communion in one kinds is difficult in view of confessional texts which strongly urge the Biblical paradigm of both kinds, though the Confessions do not address the extreme situation.

      A similar pastoral problem is posed by those rare instances where a severe physical reaction is caused by the elements (as, for example, when the recipient is concurrently taking certain medications, or is simply allergic to one or the other of the elements). The pastor, in such cases, will surely stress the Gospel's power and total effectiveness in the individual's life and patiently seek a practical solution that both honors Christ's word and satisfies the desire to partake in the Lord's Supper.

      c. Post-Communion Reverence

      The consecrated elements which remain after all have communed should be treated with reverence. This reverence has been expressed by Lutherans in various ways. Some have followed the ancient practice of burning the bread and pouring the wine upon the earth. Others have established a basin and drain--piscina-- specifically for disposal of the wine. The elders or altar guild may also return the consecrated bread and wine to specific containers for future sacramental use, or the elders and pastor can consume the remaining elements. All of these practices should be understood properly. The church is not, thereby, conferring upon the elements some abiding status apart from their use in the Lord's Supper itself.

      Biblical practice keeps the elements in their sacramental setting. Our Lutheran Confessions, quoting from the Wittenberg Concord (1536), are lucid in their rejection of any view which would confer some extraordinary status upon the elements apart from their sacramental use:

      They confess, in accordance with the words of Irenaeus, that there are two things in this sacrament, one heavenly and the other earthly. Therefore they maintain and teach that with the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, distributed, and received. And although they deny a transubstantiation (that is, an essential change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ) and do not believe that the body and blood of Christ are locally enclosed in the bread, or are in some other way permanently united with it apart from the use of the sacrament, they grant that through sacramental union the bread is the body of Christ, etc. For they do not maintain that the body of Christ is present apart from the use, as when the bread is laid aside or reserved in the tabernacle or carried about and exposed in procession, as happens in the papacy (FC SD VII, 14-15) [21]

C. Practice in Accord with the Doctrine of the Office of the Public Ministry

    1. The Pastoral Office

    The regularly called and ordained pastors of the church are to officiate at the administration of Holy Communion. God's Word describes both the universal priesthood and the office of the public ministry as divine institutions (1 Peter 2:9-10; Titus 1:5-9). Edmund Schlink, writing on the confessional view of church and ministry, succinctly states:

      The Confessions do not permit us to place the universal priesthood as a divine institution over against the public ministry as a human institution. The idea of a transfer of the rights of the universal priesthood to the person of the pastor is foreign to the Confessions. The church does not transfer its office of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments to individuals in its membership, but it fills this office entrusted to it by God, it calls into this office instituted by God. In this office the pastor therefore acts in the name and at the direction of God and in the stead of Jesus Christ. He acts with authority not on the basis of an arrangement made by believers but on the basis of the divine institution. [22]

    The Augsburg Confession underscores the importance of a regularly called pastor for the administration of Holy Communion:

    It is taught among us that nobody should publicly teach or preach or administer the sacraments in the church without a regular call (AC XIV).

    Our teachers assert that according to the Gospel the power of keys or the power of bishops is a power and command of God to preach the Gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer and distribute the sacraments (AC XXVIII, 5).

    Accordingly, the Apology explains:

      But let us talk about the term "liturgy." It does not really mean a sacrifice but a public service. Thus it squares with our position that a minister who consecrates shows forth the body and blood of the Lord to the people, just as a minister who preaches shows forth the gospel to the people, as Paul says (I Cor. 4:1), "This is how one should regard us, as ministers of Christ and dispensers of the sacraments of God," that is, of the Word and sacraments; and II Cor. 5:20, "We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God" (Ap XXIV, 80).

    2. Confession and Absolution

    Article XXV of the Augsburg Confession emphasizes the value of confession and absolution in preparing for reception of the Sacrament:

      Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side. The custom has been retained among us of not administering the sacrament to those who have not previously been examined and absolved. At the same time the people are carefully instructed concerning the consolation of the Word of absolution so that they may esteem absolution as a great and precious thing. It is not the voice or word of the man who speaks it, but the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God's stead and by God's command. We teach with great diligence about this command and power of keys and how comforting and necessary it is for terrified consciences. We also teach that God requires us to believe this absolution as much as if we heard God's voice from heaven, that we should joyfully comfort ourselves with absolution, and that we should know that through such faith we obtain forgiveness of sins. (AC XXV, 1-4)

    It is common practice in our Eucharistic worship to provide for confession and absolution. Normally this occurs in the public service where the congregation corporately confesses its sin and the pastor pronounces the forgiveness of sins. Lutherans also provide for private confession and absolution in those cases where a terrified conscience seeks consolation from God's holy Word. Through confession and absolution whether private or corporate, the Gospel is clearly articulated in a manner which properly prepares the communicant for the Lord's Supper.

D. Practice in Accord with the Doctrine of the Church

    1. Fellowship Considerations

    Inasmuch as Communion fellowship Biblically embodies the confession of a common faith (1 Cor. 10:17; Acts 2:42) for it is a theological definition of the one true faith, not a sociological- empirical description of whatever faith a group finds itself agreed in--it is necessary for the church to guard itself from doctrinal fractures of that fellowship (1 Tim. 1:3-11). To indiscriminately admit even well-intentioned people to Holy Communion is neither to honor God nor love our fellowmen (1 Cor. 11).

    Scripture requires both a knowledge of the Lord's Supper sufficient for its proper reception and a contrite faith which trusts Jesus' word. It is neither loving nor responsible for a pastor or church to sacrifice theological considerations for social pressure or custom. If, for example, an Individual is admitted to Holy Communion simply because he is a relative or friend of a member, and that person participates in the sacrament to his/her judgment (1 Cor. 11:29), [23] the officiant will one day be asked to give an account of his sacramental stewardship (cf. 2 Tim. 4:1-8).

    Lutherans vigorously reject a view of the Lord's Supper which would claim divine blessings for those who receive the Lord's Supper in a merely ritualistic fashion:

    St. Paul taught that we obtain grace before God through faith and not through works. Manifestly contrary to this teaching is the misuse of the Mass by those who think that grace is obtained through the performance of this work, for it is well known that the Mass is used to remove sin and obtain grace and all sorts of benefits from God, not only for the priest himself but also for the whole world and for others, both living and dead (AC XXIV, 28-29).

    Also rejected by the Scriptures and the Confessions is that observance of the sacrament which would use it merely as a tool toward closer human fellowship rather than as a thankful celebration of that Christian fellowship which God has given. St. Paul in 1 Corinthians details the abuse which occurred when men sought to serve their social goals rather than the Lord who instituted the Sacred Supper.

    Our Confessions state:

      Some clever people imagine that the Lord's Supper was instituted for two reasons. First, it was supposed to be a mark and witness of profession, just as a certain type of hood is the mark of a particular monastic profession. In the second place, Christ was supposed to be very pleased with a mark that took the form of a meal symbolizing the mutual union and friendship among Christians because banquets are symbols of agreement and friendship. But this is a secular idea that ignores the chief use of what God has instituted. It talks only about the practice of love, which even profane and secular men understand; it does not talk about faith, whose true meaning very few understand (Ap XXIV, 68; cf. FC SD VII, 59).

    Thus there is great continuity of concern from our Lord's words of guidance to His apostles, through Paul's admonitions in the epistles, through the practice of the early church, to the practices of the Reformation church and of confessional Lutheranism today.

    The catechetical enterprise, whether of the Didache or Luther's Catechism is not non-Biblical legalism but rather Biblical realism (1 Cor. 11:17 ff.). Its aim is not the exclusion of certain individuals from the sacrament, but the honoring of God's Word and the true benefit of a fallen humanity.

    2. Close Communion [24]

    The practice of refusing Communion to certain Christians and the general population at Lutheran altars is called close Communion. This practice serves the Gospel, and even those refused, by its reverence for our Lord's last will and testament.

    Martin Chemnitz, in his magisterial work on the Lord's Supper, writes:

      Moreover, those words, because they are the words of the last will and testament of the very Son of God, must not be treated in a frivolous or light manner but must be pondered with reverence and great devotion. Since "Scripture is not of private interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20), I have shown on the basis of the sure and continuous analogy of the interpretation of Scripture and by a comparison of those passages in which the doctrine of the Lord's Supper is treated and repeated in Scripture the compelling, sure, certain, and clear reasons why the simple, proper, and natural meaning of the words of institution of the Supper must not be given up or rejected but rather must continue to be held and adhered to in the simple obedience of faith. [25]

    Precisely. It is a desire to honor and obey the word of Christ which has led Christians to reserve the sacrament for those who share that desire and understanding. Chemnitz, with Luther and the Lutheran Confessions, specifically defends the Real Presence in the Lord's Supper against the errors of human interpretation in various Christian fellowships of his day.

    Since fellowship at the Lord's Table is also confession of a common faith, it would not be truthful for those who affirm the Real Presence and those who deny it to join one another. Their common Communion would indicate to the non-Christian community that the last will and testament of Christ could be interpreted in contradictory ways. Indeed, the non Christian might rightly ask whether it was Jesus's word which determined the church's position and practice or simply a human consensus.

    Therefore it is true that "No one who truly accepts the Real Presence as the very Word of God can grant a person the right to deny it and to commune with him at the same table. Just so, no Presbyterian, for example, who declares that there can be no real eating and drinking of the body and blood of Christ, could really want to receive the Supper at an altar where just this impossible thing to him is confessed and taught." [26]

    Close Communion seeks to prevent a profession of confessional unity in faith where there is, in fact, disunity and disagreement. It would be neither faithful to the Scriptural requirements for admission to Holy Communion (1 Cor. 11:27 ff.; cf. 10:16-17) nor helpful to fallen humanity if the Christian church welcomes to its altars those who deny or question clear Scriptural teachings.

    The reasons for the practice of close Communion are often misunderstood by Christians who have been accustomed to an "open Communion" policy. In a tract entitled "Why Close Communion?" the rationale for the practice of close Communion is explained in this way:

      So it is not that a Lutheran congregation wants to bar fellow-saints from the blessings of the Eucharist when they practice Close Communion. It is not that they want to be separatistic, or set themselves up as judges of other men. The practice of Close Communion is prompted by love and is born of the heartfelt conviction, on the basis of Scripture alone, that we must follow Christ's command. This means refusing the Lord's Supper to those whose belief is not known to us. It is not showing love to allow a person to do something harmful, even though he may think it is for his own good. It also means if they are members of a Christian body which departs from the full truth of Scripture in some of its doctrines, that we must not minimize the evil of this false teaching by opening our fellowship to any and all Christians who err in the faith. [27]

    In keeping with the principle that the celebration and reception of the Lord's Supper is a confession of the unity of faith, while at the same time recognizing that there will be instances when sensitive pastoral care needs to be exercised, the Synod has established an official practice requiring "that pastors and congregations of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, except in situations of emergency and in special cases of pastoral care, commune individuals of only those synods which are now in fellowship with us." [28] By following this practice whereby only those individuals who are members of the Synod or of a church body with which the Synod is in altar and pulpit fellowship are ordinarily communed, pastors and congregations preserve the integrity of their witness to the Gospel of Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures and confessed in the Lutheran confessional writings.

    As congregations practice close Communion, much care should be taken and energy expended in articulating the rationale of this practice. An evangelical and winsome effort should be made to present the Biblical claims, so that the church's posture does not appear to be a mere institutional accruement. Procedures for admitting guests to the Lord's Table should be such that the appearance of unknown communicants at the altar is minimized as much as possible. [29]

    Further, the Office of the Keys is less than faithfully exercised when admission to the sacrament is granted to all who come to the altar regardless of their faith and congregational and/or denominational affiliation. The practice of "open" Communion renders it difficult, if not impossible, for church discipline to be exercised in a way that honors the ministrations being carried out by those to whom the responsibility of spiritual care for a member of God's flock has been entrusted (Heb. 13:17; cf. John 20:22-23; Acts 20:27-28; 1 Cor. 4:1-2).

    3. Extracongregational Services

    The New Testament (1 Corinthians) assumes that Holy Communion will be celebrated in a context where the faith and life of the communicants are known. The congregational setting, under normal circumstances, is the locus where the following, Scripturally mandated Communion practices can be carried out in an evangelical manner and in accord with the doctrines of church and ministry, and where the mutual responsibility of pastors and members to each other is safeguarded.

      a. God-pleasing participation in Holy Communion requires an understanding of the reality of the sacrament sufficient to examine oneself (1 Cor. 11:27-29). This justifies the Lutheran practice of youth and adult instruction prior to Communion.

      b. Further, the church has a Scriptural responsibility to refuse those with adequate knowledge when they, without repentance, engage in public sin or in party spirit which denies the Gospel (Matt.5:23-24; 1 Cor. 5:13).

      c. Inasmuch as instruction and supervision are necessary concomitents of Holy Communion, the church must exercise these responsibilities in an orderly and evangelical fashion (1 Cor. 14:40; Titus 1:5).

    If under special conditions it is desired that an occasional transparochial service be held, the following steps would preserve the observance of the above Scriptural guidelines and also provide for good order.

      a. Requests for extracongregational Communion services on a Circuit, District, Synodical level should be discussed first of all with the pastoral adviser of the group. Consideration should be given to these questions:

        1. Is the reason for a Communion service consonant with the Scriptural and Confessional meaning and intent of the sacrament? (cf. Ap XXIV, 68; FC SD VII, 59).

        2. Will the sacrament be offered only to members affiliated or in fellowship with The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod in an atmosphere where confessional integrity can be preserved?

      b. The counsel of the District President should be sought.

      c. A host congregation should be secured, and the pastoral adviser should work closely with this congregation in making the necessary preparations.

      d. The celebrant at the service of Holy Communion should ordinarily be the pastor of the host congregation.


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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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