“Admission to the Lord’s Supper”: An Initial Response

Lloyd Goetz, William J. Hassold, John F. Johnson, George Loose, Victor Mennicke, and Edgar Trinklein


The document Admission to the Lord’s Supper: Basics of Biblical and Confessional Teaching [ALS][1] is the response of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations [CTCR] to Resolution 3-05 of the 1998 convention of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod [LCMS], which was in turn a response to A Declaration of Eucharistic Understanding and Practice [DEUP]. By adopting that resolution the delegates voted that the synod regards the DEUP to be an inadequate basis for addressing questions about admission to the Lord’s Supper and then directed the CTCR to provide a response to it.

Resolution 3-05 did not come out of thin air. It was drafted in response to overtures concerning the DEUP that had been submitted to the convention for consideration. The DEUP had been produced by a group of Lutheran pastors in Florida who had been troubled by the position that President A. L. Barry had expressed in his January 1993 President’s Newsletter. He had indicated that for all practical purposes only members of the LCMS are to be admitted as guests at celebrations of the Lord’s Supper in congregations belonging to that body. This group of pastors initially requested a meeting with Dr. Barry, and only after the Florida-Georgia District president had stressed the sincerity and seriousness of their concern did Dr. Barry finally meet with them. At this meeting they expressed their concerns to him personally. In response Dr. Barry merely referred to resolutions of the synod concerning eucharistic practice. This led these pastors to undertake a careful exegetical study of the pertinent Scripture passages and citations from the Confessional writings dealing with the Lord’s Supper. The synodwide distribution of the DEUP prompted a number of overtures—some in favor of the views expressed there and others against them—to be submitted to the 1998 convention for consideration and action.

The convention’s response was to adopt Resolution 3-05. The publication of the ALS calls for a response, since it too has been distributed synodwide and according to Resolution 3-05 is to “be used as the basis for study and discussion of this issue throughout the entire Synod.” A response to the ALS is therefore imperative in the light of the serious deficiencies which the CTCR’s study manifests. This response is offered in an endeavor to show that the ALS’s claim to be an expression of the “basics of Biblical and Confessional Teaching” cannot be supported by the clear witness of Scripture and the Confessions.

Painful as it is to say, the CTCR’s response to the DEUP is what one might have expected in the light of the assumptions which lie behind it. Resolution 3-05 directed the CTCR “to provide … a careful response to A Declaration with special emphasis on pastoral oversight and the role that agreement in the public confession of the Faith [sic!] [that] participation in the Lord’s Supper entails.” This resolution already restricted the CTCR’s response by the assumptions which underlay its drafting and adoption and which then have impacted and fashioned the CTCR’s response. The assumptions are clearly stated in the preamble to Resolution 3-05. Consequently the CTCR had to find a way to justify the synodical position, even if it involved a contorted and deceptive attempt at interpreting biblical texts as well as a non-historical interpretation of the Lutheran Confessions. As the great French philosopher Montaigne argued, “Once you accept assumptions, you must follow where they lead.”[2]

Confessionally committed Lutherans have the right to expect that anything to be taught in the church and any practice advocated there must be in harmony with the Scripture passages pertaining to the topic under consideration. But what Scripture says and the interpretation placed upon it can be two very different things. The history of the church is filled with examples of claiming authority for a human interpretation (“teaching for doctrine the commandments of men” [Mt. 15:9, KJV]). It is so easy to say that our doctrine and practice concerning Holy Communion are based on the Holy Scriptures and yet not be aware that other factors—such as our sense of piety, practical concerns, traditional practices or even a doctrinal construct—may have come into play. That is certainly true of the ALS where the CTCR found it necessary to import factors that appear nowhere in the biblical text in an effort to support the position that it advocates (cf. pp. 19, 21). Taking the synodical assumptions to the exegetical task precludes any objective analysis of the pertinent texts and is crass betrayal of principles which are dear and precious to orthodox Lutherans.

As the Church stands or falls with the doctrine of justification, so the CTCR’s response stands or falls on one basic predetermined assumption which can legitimately be drawn neither from the pertinent biblical witness to the Eucharist nor from an unbiased contextual reading of the Lutheran Confessions. That assumption appears to be the twofold distinction between the communicant as an individual and the communicant as a confessor of the doctrine publicly taught by the church body, denomination, synod—or any humanly devised group of confessing believers—to which one belongs (cf. ALS, pp. 31, 41, 43). This assumption must be challenged.

Following the pattern set by the CTCR’s critique of the DEUP, this response will not focus on the positive elements of the ALS (and there are such) but rather on its inadequacies. It will briefly highlight some of our concerns about the document and will seek to show that the positions advocated in the DEUP are in harmony with Scripture and the Confessions.

This response to the ALS will take into account the Savior’s institution of the Holy Supper and Paul’s primary references to it in 1 Corinthians (10:14–22; 11:17–34) as well as the passage speaking of “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1–2). In addition, since the ALS places an emphasis on the avoidance of heterodox teaching in the church (Rom. 16:17–18) and on the pattern of church life in the apostolic church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42), these passages also require comment.


Jesus’ Institution of the Holy Supper

All of the biblical accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper make plain that Jesus served as the host at the Passover meal at which the Sacrament was instituted. The Synoptic Gospels make plain that Jesus planned to eat the Passover with his disciples (Mt. 26:26; Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19f.). Paul, too, shows Jesus in the leadership role at the institution of the Supper. Those who were present in the upper room were the group known as “the Twelve.” In Scripture the number “twelve” often points to God’s chosen people (cf. Ex. 24:21; 39:14; Deut. 1:23; 1 Kings. 18:31, etc.). The twelve sons of Jacob (whom God had renamed Israel [Gen. 35:9]) were the forefathers of the nation of Israel and might be thought of as God’s Old Testament people “in a nutshell.” So, too, the twelve disciples represent the New Testament church. They were God’s new Israel “in a nutshell.” Accordingly, Christ’s institution of the Eucharist makes plain that it is intended for Christ’s whole church.

The twelve apostles had been chosen and called by Jesus. Over the course of time they had come to know Jesus as the One who has “the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68). Peter, serving as their spokesman, had confessed Jesus as “the Christ [Messiah], the Son of the living God” (Mt. 16:16). They had come to the conviction that Jesus was the One whom God had promised to Israel and whom he had now sent into the world. Faith in Jesus as the Savior is essential for those whom Christ welcomes to his Sacrament, as is so well described in ALS (p. 37). But only the individual knows whether he/she has such genuine faith, and so it is the individual’s responsibility to determine whether to come to the Lord’s Table or not. No one else can ultimately make such a determination.

Christ’s disciples did not perfectly understand all that Christ had taught. Some weeks before Jesus instituted the Holy Supper James and John, for example, had selfishly sought to gain an advantage over the other disciples by requesting places of honor, one at Jesus’ right and the other at his left in his kingdom (Mk. 10:35–37). When they became aware of this, the other disciples were indignant toward them (Mk. 10:42). Jesus found it necessary not only to rebuke James and John but also to correct the other disciples as well (Mk. 10:43–45). Yet these were the individuals whom Jesus selected to be present at the institution of the Holy Supper. In spite of their weaknesses, even their failure to understand, they were men of faith who believed in Jesus as their Lord. These were the men whom Jesus had chosen to be the first to receive his body and blood in the Sacrament.

Even before the institution of the Supper Jesus was aware that the disciples to whom he was to give his body and blood would fall away (cf. Mt. 26:31), and yet he gave them the directive to celebrate the Holy Supper (1 Cor. 11:24–25). He knew that they would be in need of what the Sacrament offers. Shortly after the institution of the Holy Supper—on that very night!—the disciples who had received Christ’s body and blood forsook Jesus and fled when he was arrested (Mk. 14:5). During that same night Peter, not wanting to be associated in any way with Jesus, three times denied that he even knew him (Mt. 26:69–75; Mk. 14:66–72; Lk. 22:56–62; Jn. 18:15–18, 25–27). It was for such sinful people that Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Christ knew that they—as well as all Christians throughout the ages—would need the assurance of forgiveness as well as the comfort and strength that the Supper provides. Christ’s command, “do this,” (1 Cor. 11:24–25) directs and authorizes the continuing observance of the Eucharist in the Church until the end of earthly history. Throughout the ages there will be a constant need for that which the Sacrament offers to sinners.

Christ’s words “eat” and “drink” in the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper are in the imperative mood. They are direct commands of the Lord himself. Martin Luther emphasizes this commanding word in the Large Catechism, when he writes: “ … we have a clear text in the words of Christ, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ These are words of precept and command, enjoining all who would be Christians to partake of the sacrament.”[3] Even though these words are in the imperative mood, they are also in effect gracious invitations to Christ’s people to come to his table.

The Lord has placed many blessings and benefits into the Sacrament. It assures believers of the forgiveness of sins, provides strength to meet the challenges of life and is a foretaste of the feast to come. These gifts have been made available through Christ’s giving of himself for the salvation of the world. All who, like Christ’s disciples, have faith in Jesus as their Savior and believe his words in coming to eat his body and drink his blood receive all that Christ has placed into the Sacrament for them.


Paul’s Primary References to the Lord’s Supper

Apart from the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the Synoptic Gospels there are only two extended references in the New Testament that explicitly speak of the Eucharist. Both appear in that letter which we know as 1 Corinthians. Neither of them was intended to deal directly with the Lord’s Supper. They do, however, touch upon it tangentially and are our main sources for learning about Paul’s teaching concerning that sacrament. Both deal with problems that arose within the Corinthian congregation. Paul’s references to the Lord’s Supper are for the purpose of assisting the Corinthian believers in dealing with these troubling situations. They also provide us with insights into how we are to celebrate the Eucharist in accord with Christ’s intent in instituting it.

1 Corinthians 10:14–22

The Corinthian congregation had written to Paul on a number of topics, one of which was whether it was permissible to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Some members of the congregation maintained that idols had no real existence, and therefore there was no harm in eating meat that had its origin in sacrifices in heathen temples. Others, however, had scruples. If they were to eat, these people would suffer from a guilty conscience. Paul undertook a rather lengthy response to these concerns, one that culminated in the directive, Shun the worship of idols (v. 14).

In giving that command Paul had the spiritual welfare of the Corinthian Christians in view, as he called upon them to evaluate and judge the validity of the argument he then developed. They have, Paul suggests, the intellectual and, hopefully, also the spiritual capacity to determine whether what he writes is correct—and then to act upon it. To make his point plain Paul asks two rhetorical questions: The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (The term participation translates a Greek word, koinonia [often translated as “communion”] which has the basic sense of sharing or participating in something with someone.) Paul knew that they knew the answer as well as he did. The Corinthians understood the nature of the Sacrament, and Paul had every right to anticipate that their answer would be, “Yes indeed, we are sharing in the blood and the body of Christ!” The cup is (or, actualizes) the participation in or sharing of Christ’s blood. It does so because all who drink from the cup truly receive Christ’s blood. This reception of Christ’s true blood which had been shed on the cross makes those who drink partners with one another in sharing the blood of Christ. At this point Paul does not deal with the question of whether this sharing of the Lord’s blood is for the communicant’s benefit or not. All who partake of the contents of the cup receive Christ’s blood, either for their spiritual welfare or for their harm. The attitude of faith—or lack of it—makes no difference to the reality of the sharing; but it makes all the difference in respect to receiving—or not receiving—the gifts offered in the Sacrament.

Paul now draws a conclusion from the reality of that sharing. He writes, Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (v. 17). Because the one bread, although broken into many pieces, is still one bread, so too, though there are many who partake of the communion bread, they are Christ’s one body. By eating the bread, which is Christ’s true body, Christians show themselves to be Christ’s body in the world. In this verse Paul for the first time in this letter uses the phrase the body of Christ to refer to the church. Of the 74 times Paul used the word body, 56 are in 1 or 2 Corinthians. Such frequent use of this one word should suggest that it is tied to a central or repeated Pauline theme and might help identify Paul’s primary theme in 1 Corinthians.

The relationship of believers in one body, united to Christ along with other believers, excludes all fellowships which would vitiate or destroy a person’s relationship to the Savior or the relationship of Christians to one another. Accordingly, Christians are not to participate in non-Christian worship, for such participation is a contradiction of the intimate relationship of the believer to the Lord as well as a severing of the bond that exists between the communicant and other believers. In the context of Paul’s discussion in vv. 14–22 he is clearly indicating that pagans and unbelievers are not to be admitted to the Lord’s Table; that is only for those who place their faith and hope in Christ.

In the light of what we have already seen in this passage, one can only question why the ALS does not discuss this passage at length. It certainly does deserve serious consideration in an effort to learn from Scripture—and not from synodical resolutions—who are to be welcomed (rather than “admitted,” as the CTCR expresses it) at the Lord’s Table. What Paul states here is in complete harmony with Christ’s institution of the Supper: only people who have the genuine faith to which the ALS refers (cf. p. 37) are welcome to come to the Sacrament.

Even though the ALS nowhere explicitly does so, Paul’s words concerning partnership at the altar (v. 20) cannot legitimately be applied, even by extension, to fellowship with other Christians who are not of our synodical fellowship, since the contrast Paul is drawing is between those who believe in Christ and those whose allegiance is to other gods. To use it in any other way arises either from a superficial reading of Paul’s words or a deliberate attempt to find some biblical justification for a predetermined position.

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

The subheading which ALS gives to these verses, “The Congregation’s Sacrament of Unity,” indicates the direction which the exegetical study will take. This heading is tendentious in nature and fails to take into account Paul’s primary emphasis in this portion of 1 Corinthians. The discussion of the Eucharist in these verses is brought in only to support Paul’s fundamental concern for the unity of the Corinthian congregation.

A serious weakness of the exegesis of these verses in the ALS results from its failure to take into account the larger context, the whole of 1 Corinthians. As a result of the reports that he had received and of the questions directed to him, Paul had to address a variety of issues throughout the letter. As Paul prepared his response he recognized a common element in all of these situations—disunity and disregard for fellow Christians. That is the threat with which Paul deals in these verses, and he refers to the understanding of the Eucharist which the Corinthians professed to help them confront the disunity and factionalism that were threatening their community. If, as the CTCR suggests, the real and primary problem was the Lord’s Supper (cf. p. 12), why did it take Paul ten chapters to get around to addressing the real problem? That is not at all like Paul, who is more likely even to formulate into his greeting the topic he intends to address. Very simply, the structure of 1 Corinthians does not permit anyone to claim that the Lord’s Supper is central. In fact, the surrounding context must purposely be ignored even to make that claim of chapter 11. The fundamental problem is factionalism in the church.

Factionalism was revealing itself in the gatherings of the Corinthian congregation for worship. One of the purposes of such gatherings is the nurturing and strengthening of the believers’ faith; but what was actually taking place at these gatherings was destructive of that faith-life. The divisions to which Paul refers here are not the same as those with which he had to deal in 1 Cor. 1:17—4:7. There the divisions centered about loyalty to individuals, but here the divisions are social and economic in nature. The congregation is dividing itself into separate groups that isolate themselves from one another and thus are shattering the unity that should flow from faith in Christ. The actions of those who began to eat before those who were compelled to come later were, to say the least, loveless and damaging to the unity that should exist in a Christian congregation. Those who arrived at a later hour, too, had their part in disturbing the congregational harmony by the resentments that some of them felt toward the members who began the meal prior to the others’ later arrival.

On two occasions very close to one another (vv. 17, 22) Paul refuses to praise the Corinthians. Why the repetition? In doing so, Paul has effectively bracketed, as with exclamation points, the problem that must be faced—divisions between the members of the local congregation. Here he is not speaking of relations with other Christians outside the congregation. As Paul deals with the Corinthian situation he has no praise for either group in the congregation. He then goes on to explain why he cannot praise them. He refers to the Lord’s Supper in order to show that what was happening in Corinth was far from Christ’s purpose in instituting the Sacrament.

According to the tradition which Paul had transmitted to the church in Corinth, Christ directed his disciples both to eat the bread and drink the cup “in remembrance of me.” Such a remembrance of Christ in the Supper includes a recognition and proclamation of all that Christ has achieved by his suffering and death. What was taking place in Corinth was a contradiction of everything that Christ had come into the world to accomplish; it had its origin in selfishness and lovelessness, and it manifested itself in the Corinthians’ factionalism. But the purpose of the Sacrament was to serve as a reminder of Christ’s purpose in coming into the world—to reconcile men to God as well as to one another.

Paul also gives a second reason why he must withhold praise from the Corinthian congregation. Their factionalism proclaims quite a different message from the one intended by the Lord in instituting the Holy Supper. Whenever a believer comes to the Lord’s Table to receive Christ’s body and blood, there is a proclamation of Christ’s death, which was an event of ultimate significance. It was by Christ’s death that God was reconciling the world to himself (cf. 2 Cor. 5:19), reestablishing the vertical relationship between himself and humanity. In this context this reconciliation through Christ’s death should also lead to reconciliation on the horizontal level between the factions troubling the Corinthian congregation. The ALS raises a question: To whom is this proclamation made? The CTCR suggests that this proclamation is being made to one’s fellow com- municants (cf. p. 13, footnote 19). Exactly! Participation in the Sacrament with a wrong attitude toward one’s fellow Christian on the horizontal level is indeed to eat and drink in an unworthy manner and thus be profaning the body and blood of the Lord. To avoid such a possibility Paul tells the Corinthians, Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. The testing that Paul requires is to help the prospective communicant determine whether he or she will be eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner. The context makes plain that the potential communicant should be examining in particular one’s relationship toward other believers within one’s own community. This supports the DEUP position that the responsibility for such examination rests upon the individual communicant.

Paul next gives a reason why the one who wishes to commune should make such a self-examination. Real spiritual harm can come from failure to test oneself before coming to the Sacrament if one fails to discern the body (v. 29). The ALS at this point goes through exegetical contortions in order to justify an interpretation of the use of the word body to refer to “the body of Christ that is truly and sacramentally present and is being received orally by all who were communing in Corinth” (p. 14). This passage has often been used by some Lutheran theologians as a proof text for the Real Presence. That doctrine does not stand or fall on the basis of this passage. Christ’s own words, “This is my body” are adequate proof for that doctrine. The ALS claims that body in 11:29 originally refers to the sacramental presence of Christ, not to the body of Christ, the Church. Much about the text must be twisted in order for this interpretation to seem even reasonable. The wider context of 1 Corinthians must be ignored. The ALS offers “four factors” which it maintains support what it refers to as “this traditional conclusion” (p. 14). Note carefully the word “traditional conclusion,” because that is exactly what it is—a conclusion. There are, in fact, two traditional lines of interpretation: one followed by those churches that hold to a sacramental presence, and another tradition of exegesis by those who hold to a symbolical presence. Two entrenched theologies that follow their systematic theology and doctrinal exhortations and allow these to intrude into and determine their exegetical outcome.

A sentence on p. 8 of the ALS is a good example of the problem one encounters in 1 Corinthians where the term body is used with two different referents. The ALS states: “The Lord’s body in the Supper actually effects—that is, maintains—the oneness of the body of believers, the Christians who eat the bread.” It is quite easy to see from this example how the same word, body¸ is used in two different ways because of the additional words in the sentence which will guide our understanding as we read. In 1 Cor. 10:16-17, body, for example, was used in two different ways. It reads: “The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of that one bread.” There is no confusion, no conflict of interpretation. The first body clearly refers to the sacramental presence of Christ,; the second appearance of body clearly refers to the ecclesial body of Christ, the Church. Throughout chapters 10 and 11 eat and drinkbody and blood, bread and cup always appear as couplets. In chapter 10, following two such couplets, only body appears in v. 17; and in chapter 11, following three more such couplets, body appears alone at v. 29. There is no such inconsistency as the ALS posits (cf. 17). At v. 27 there are two couplets—eat and drink and body and blood. At v. 29 there are two eat and drinks, and a single reference to body. Only when the word body appears without further amplification does it refer to the ecclesial body of Christ, the Church.

The four factors that the ALS offers in support of the “traditional [Lutheran] interpretation” of body in v. 29 as a reference to the sacramental presence of Christ simply miss the mark and appear to be counsels of desperation. It is interesting to note that the arguments for understanding body as a reference to the community of believers are so cogent that in spite of their efforts to support what they call the “traditional interpretation,” the CTCR is compelled even to raise the question whether “it is possible that ‘discerning the body’ also and at the same time involves a ‘subtle allusion’ to the church which gathers around the Sacrament” [emphasis in original] and then has to concede that “several contextual factors support this conclusion as well” (p. 17). Simple honesty should have compelled the writers of the ALS to admit that the reference here clearly is to Christ’s body as the community of believers, the Church. In defense of a traditional interpretation, to the detriment of sound exegesis the members of the CTCR allowed themselves to be led astray by the seeming requirements of systematic theology.


C. Does the Text Really Say That?

There clearly should be a new title to signal readers between pages 18 and 19 that the CTCR writer(s) are now moving from exegesis to extrapolation from the text in order to support the doctrinal stance behind Resolution 3-05. Without such a heading several points on p. 19 appear to be totally unworthy of the CTCR. It is a terrible commingling of the text with imported material foreign to the text, a dwelling on things that the text does not say, and a misrepresentation of what the text does say. It states, for instance, “the forgiveness of sins receives scarcely any attention” (p. 19). In fact, the forgiveness of sins receives no attention. Why not just say it plainly? It claims that the text says “all who commune must examine themselves” (p. 19). Even if we wanted it to say that, it does not. That is not in the text. Paul addresses those who have been abusing their brothers in Christ within the congregation to examine their behavior.

Anything to be taught in the church or any practice to be advocated as necessary must be based on clear passages of Scripture. However the ALS is guilty of attempting to make Scripture say more than it actually does say. This fallacious approach becomes evident when the writers of that document resort to extrapolations from what the text says to what they want it to say or what they feel it must say to support a predetermined Synodical position. This becomes clear when we read a statement such as: “In the context of 1 Cor. 11:17-34 the overt divisions seem to have been primarily of a personal and/or sociological character, although schisms of a more doctrinal nature cannot be absolutely excluded” [emphasis added] (p. 19). Why does the CTCR say that the divisions “seem to have been of a personal and/or sociological character” [emphasis added] in referring to the divisions within the congregation? They were! In addition, the italicized statement has absolutely no basis in the text itself. Was it brought in to support a position required by Resolution 3-05, the resolution authorizing the production of the ALS? A similar statement follows shortly thereafter: “Paul’s treatment of the ‘divisions’ at the Lord’s Supper … probably has specific reference to the social class distinctions that are defiling the Corinthians’ communal meals and the accompanying eucharistic celebration. The apostle is not indifferent to divisions of a doctrinal nature, however, as the next section of this study will describe” [emphasis added] (p. 21). Note that the text under consideration says nothing of the sort! The next section of the CTCR’s response deals with what it terms “’Doctrinal Divisions’ in the New Testament” (pp. 25-30), and bases its discussion on Biblical texts which have no immediate connection with Paul’s discussion in 1 Cor. 11:27-34. In fact, in this section of the ALS this statement appears: “As noted above, Paul’s instructions and warnings about ‘divisions’ at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34) probably do not have in mind divisions of a doctrinal nature” [emphasis added} (p. 28). Amazing! This certainly is building a tottering edifice upon an infirm foundation!

When such careless generalizations are made, they quickly become unfounded Biblical mandates, as in item 2 (p. 20), where discerning the body has been elevated to the “key to communing in a worthy manner.” The CTCR has allowed its bad systematics to get ahead of sound exegesis. The CTCR has allowed its dogmatic way of thinking to intrude into the text. What is in the text and what is extrapolated from it need to remain two clearly separate things.

The ALS also tries mistakenly to separate into different subcategories the divisions that are plaguing the Corinthians into personal, sociological, and doctrinal problems. Paul gives no hint that he has any interest in this process. It is entirely someone’s invention. For Paul their divisions are destroying the church. Of course, their divisions were in part doctrinal. Why would the CTCR want to exclude only these problems, or are they seeking here to lay the groundwork for the next section or two? The Corinthians disagreed about many things, or so it seems, including the resurrection, moral behavior, worship, theology of the cross, the church, sanctification, etc. What might really be most troubling to our systematics is that Paul apparently spends little or no time on getting everyone together on these doctrinal issues, but rather tells them to care for each other and go to communion (11:28, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup). That is in the text! It is the Lord’s Supper.

It is the Lord’s Supper—not ours! The CTCR and we must go back to basics. The assumptions that underlie our Synodical practice should be both Biblical and Confessional, untainted and unprejudiced by Synodical statements or resolutions! Our practice should be determined by the Lord himself in his Word! Applying the Synodical assumptions of Resolution 3-05 to the exegetical task precludes any objective analysis of pertinent texts and is crass betrayal of hermeneutical principles dear and precious to orthodox Lutheranism.

D. Pastors as Stewards of the Mysteries

At the very beginning of this portion of the ALS we encounter a sentence which is filled with misleading modifiers. “A superficial reading of 1 Corinthians 11 finds no explicit mention of pastoral oversight” (p. 22). Actually, a reading of 1 Corinthians finds no mention of pastoral oversight. Paul is not their pastor; his role is that of “an apostle of Christ Jesus” (1 Cor. 1:1). He founded the congregation but then moved on in his missionary ministry. For the CTCR to make the claim that Paul does not speak directly about the pastors and elders at Corinth because he is himself exercising that oversight (p. 22) is presumptuous at the least. Not only does the CTCR go on at length about what the text does not say; now they are even able to determine Paul’s motivation! Of course, there are pastors, teachers, prophets, etc. in the congregations Paul founded—including the congregation at Corinth. And if they were there, they were a part of the fix for the problems facing that congregation. But the text says not a word about all that. Why not remain with what the text actually says? Isn’t that a genuinely Lutheran approach to interpretation?

It is a huge leap to suggest that Paul’s dealing with the Corinthians is just another pastor dealing with his congregation. It may be a good model; it may be the very best model we have, but in our exegesis of the text and our extrapolations, we must exercise a great deal of specificity and be careful about what we claim to be drawing from the Scriptures themselves. We may say whatever we like about pastoral responsibility, but we need to be careful about what we claim to be drawing from Scripture. When we acknowledge that the text says nothing about a given subject, the best action on our part is to say nothing.

Resolution 3-05 makes particular reference to 1 Cor. 4:1-2. In this passage Paul refers to himself and Apollos (and perhaps other leaders in the Corinthian congregation) as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God and then indicates that as stewards they must be found trustworthy.The terms that Paul employs here require comment.

The Greek word mysterion [mystery] occurs in the Pauline corpus 21 or 22 times (Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:1, 7; 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; 15:51; Eph. 1:9; 3:3,4, 9; 5:32; 6:19; Col. 1:26, 27; 2:2; 4:3; 2 Thess. 2:7; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16). This term, as C. E. B. Cranfield writes, “denotes characteristically in the N.T. not something which must not be disclosed to the uninitiated … but something which could not be known to men except by divine revelation and is to be proclaimed so that all who have ears to hear may hear it.” The use of the Greek term to refer to the sacraments is found no earlier than the fourth century of the Christian era. In almost one-third of the passages in which Paul employs this term there is a reference to proclamation (1 Cor. 2:1, 7; 14:2; Eph. 3:9; 6:;19; Col. 1:25, 26; 4:3). That would appear to be the emphasis in this passage; inclusion of the Sacrament under this term is possible only if one follows the Augustinian definition of a sacrament.

In 1 Cor. 4:1 Paul describes his role and that of Apollos, as well as those other individuals in the Corinthian congregation entrusted with leadership roles, as Christ’s servants and Christ’s stewards. The first term originally mean “under-rower,” a person—often a slave—who was stationed in the lower part of a sea-going galley that was propelled by oars. This term came to signify service in general, though usually of a lowly kind and subject to direction from a superior. The other term which Paul uses to describe himself and Apollos is steward. In the ancient world it was used to refer to a person who had the responsibility of management, often of a large estate, and who was answerable to the master of the estate for his fidelity in carrying out his duties. Both terms appropriately apply to pastors today. Such a person, Paul says, has to be trustworthy, that is, to be a person who has established his right to be considered worthy of another’s confidence, reliable.

The emphasis in the ALS on certain aspects of pastoral stewardship seems to lack balance in dealing with the stewardship of God’s “open secrets.” In the week prior to his crucifixion Jesus told the Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30), which, though not using the term steward or any cognate term, placed the emphasis on the way in which the servants invested the money entrusted to them. To be sure, this parable has nothing to say directly about the investment of the mysteries of God, but it does have much to say about how pastors—and other Christians as well—are to use what God has entrusted to them. The mysteries are to be invested rather than buried.

The ALS does refer to the positive side of pastoral practice, but places the emphasis elsewhere—upon reproof and correction. Such an emphasis in practice is, of course, on occasion necessary; but good pastoral oversight should begin with instruction concerning the nature and benefits of the sacrament, and should urge all who meet the Biblical requirements for communing in a worthy way to enjoy all the blessings that Christ wants to give them in the Sacrament. Those people who should not be admitted to the Table are those who in one way or another do not meet the criteria which the Scriptures have established—those who do not trust Christ as their personal Savior, who do not believe in the true presence of Christ’s body and blood in and with the earthly elements of bread and wine, whose lives are a contradiction of their profession (such as those to whom Paul refers in 1 Cor. 11:17-34 who by their attitudes and dealings with their fellow believers fail to discern the body).

Because we live with the constant temptation to become legalistic and self-righteous, it must always be a part of pastoral responsibility to keep tearing down those false barriers and walls and fences and every form of exclusiveness that imperfect people keep building. It is the pastor’s privilege to invite all who belong to the Lord and meet the biblical criteria for communing in a worthy way to come to altar to receive Christ’s gift that is available for them there.

Luther’s Large Catechism, one of our Lutheran Confessions, gives us guidance in carrying out our pastoral responsibility. There he wrote: “In this sacrament he [Christ] offers us all the treasure he brought from heaven for us, to which he most graciously invites us … as when he says in Matt. 11:28, ‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will refresh you.’ … Surely it is a sin and shame that, when he tenderly and faithfully summons and exhorts us to our highest and greatest good, we act so distantly… . We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing… . Why, then, do we act as if the sacrament were a poison which would kill us if we ate of it?”

It is appropriate to note with special emphasis and perhaps with some necessity to state that Luther based his theology of the Lord’s Supper upon the gifts which Christ has placed into the Supper, upon the invitation which he has extended, and upon the positive teaching of the New Testament. Luther, the pastor, recognized that people could never be worthy enough, so he talked about the beautiful and wonderful gift from God. Perhaps that was why he was willing to call heresy anything that obscures God’s mercy.

Pastoral responsibility cannot honor the raising of barriers not required by Scripture or the Confessions; nor can it speak well of those who by their rules and regulations have refused the feeding of Christ’s sheep. Pastoral responsibility also means to follow Paul’s example, by always doing battle with anything that divides the body of Christ and to assure every single child of God that Christ wants them to come to his table and be welcome there.

“Doctrinal Problems” in the New Testament

The efforts of the ALS to associate the divisions in the Corinthian congregation with doctrinal concerns cannot be traced back to the text itself but to Resolution 3-05, which connects admission to the Eucharist to doctrinal unity among those who commune. In the exegesis of the Pauline texts dealing with the Lord’s Supper the ALS has been compelled to bring in doctrinal concerns only by extrapolation from what the text says—and not from the specific wordings of the texts themselves. Nonetheless this matter requires consideration in this response.

The ALS properly notes that “the modern situation [with respect to doctrinal divisions] is without parallel in the New Testament writings” (p. 26), since denominationalism was not a fact of life in that age. There were, to be sure, heretical movements (such as the Judaizers) in the New Testament era, the apostolic approach was to refute and reject false doctrine. But there were also individuals and groups who were deficient in doctrinal understanding. In dealing with “disciples”—note Luke’s term for them!—whose understanding of some aspect of Christian teaching was deficient, the approach which was adopted was to instruct (cf. Acts 19:2) in order to correct mistaken notions or deficiencies in understanding.

The Scripture passage on which the ALS seeks to build its case is Romans 16:17-18. Reference is frequently made to this passage in LCMS circles when dealing with matters of church fellowship, and eucharistic fellowship surely is one aspect of church fellowship. For this reason the Romans passage requires consideration. It is good, to be sure, that the ALS does recognize that this passage “is not without its subtleties of interpretation” (p. 27), but then seeks to build its case primarily on this passage as though it were absolutely clear. But since doctrine and practice must be based on clear passages of Scripture, the construction of an entire doctrine of fellowship and its limitations primarily on one passage—on an ambiguous one at that!—is a serious error.

The ALS states: “Paul’s word of warning here would certainly and especially include heterodox teachers who persuade fellow Christians to think and believe in ways that contradict apostolic confession and teaching” [emphasis in original] (p. 27). This passage certainly does include “heterodox teachers” under its strictures, but then to extrapolate from this text to include people who are members of bodies with which the LCMS is not in fellowship is sectarian. Paul’s words apply to those who cause the divisions and offenses against which Paul warns. To load upon a potential communicant all the doctrinal positions advocated within a church body, as the ALS does, is going beyond what can legitimately be derived from this text. Who, except perhaps a professional theologian or church administrator, is aware of every theological view advocated or even officially adopted by a church body over the course of time? Even a professional theologian may have qualms about some positions that have been adopted by a convention—sometimes even by slim majorities. Lay members of a church body should not be held responsible for such views if they otherwise meet the Biblical requirements for communing in a worthy way. In spite of the use which has been made of it in the LCMS, Romans 16:17 plainly does not necessitate avoidance of people who are members of church bodies not in fellowship with our Synod. To apply this passage to people who otherwise meet the clear Biblical requirements for communing in a worthy manner is wrong. The ALS is extrapolating illicitly when it applies this passage to sincere believers who happen to belong to a fellowship other than our own, but who otherwise meet the requirements that Scripture sets up. Dare we, on the basis of this single text, refuse to welcome such people and deny the Lord’s Supper to those who meet all the Biblical criteria but belong to other fellowships?

Undoubtedly there will be people who will assume that this is an argument for doctrinal laxity. It most certainly is not! The position advocated here is based upon the precise wording of Romans 16:17. Those who are to be avoided are those who cause the divisions through advocacy and teaching of unscriptural doctrines. At the same time, our position is a recognition that there are individuals in other fellowships who meet all the Biblical requirements for a beneficial reception of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. This is a distinction that has too often been overlooked by many in the LCMS.

Unity in the Church

At this point it is necessary to discuss unity in the church. Wherein does the true unity of the church consist? The ALS states, “The Eucharist is God’s means for preserving the unity of the church, maintaining the many Christians as one body since they all eat of the one loaf” (p. 19). No fault is to be found with this statement if the church is defined, not as some visible entity but as the body of Christ. Lutheran theologians have always described Holy Communion as a means of grace, given not merely to preserve but to build and strengthen this unity. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession states, “As the Word was given to arouse this faith [in the forgiveness of sins], so the Sacrament was instituted to move the heart to believe through what it presents to the eyes. For the Holy Spirit works through the Word and the Sacraments.”

The unity of the church is found in Christ, not in subscription to a set of detailed doctrinal declarations. True, visible unity is important. Jesus prayed for it, and the church must work for it. But honestly held differences or deficiencies in one’s understanding of some aspect of the mysteries of God can hardly be regarded as impiety requiring repentance. Nor can it be said that the Lord’s Supper was intended to be a sign of unity in the Confessional sense. A sign of unity in Christ? Yes! A sign that there is no error among those communing that they are all in agreement in all points of doctrine? Hardly! If confessional unity were a requirement for appropriate reception of the Sacrament, Peter would have been denied the Sacrament, at least before the Cornelius event (Acts 10:1-29). Nor could the “disciples” at Ephesus have communed, for they did not even know of the existence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:2). Could Jesus even have communed his own disciples?

In its discussion of the relationship of heterodoxy and communion fellowship the ALS refers to Acts 2:42. This, incidentally, is the only Scripture reference in the chapter offering a specific critique of the DEUP (p. 51). The ALS points to this passage as explicitly referring to “a common life devoted to a common teaching” (p. 27). The text is a reference to the practice of the Jerusalem congregation shortly after Pentecost: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, and to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” These people were indeed united in the faith, the faith which the apostles taught—”Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah. He died for your sins. He was raised again for your justification.” Their common faith in the work of redemption was their unifying bond, their confessional unity. But there was also great diversity among them. The church was composed of Jews, for whom the traditions of the elders were still very much a part of their lives (cf. Acts 15:5); and Gentiles, struggling to move beyond their former pagan ways of living. Their widely differing backgrounds, along with the “milk stage” of their Christian faith, surely must have manifested itself in many ways. Even the preacher for the day, Peter, though he preached what might be termed a great “Lutheran” Law/Gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost, had much to learn about Jew-Gentile relations, and perhaps about other questions of faith and life as well. The Acts passage speaks, not for an exclusive practice, for an inclusive policy governed by Scripture.

Christians as Confessors

The ALS employs neologisms—which, at least, are new in the LCMS—which make a distinction between “communing as an individual” and “communing as a confessor.” In spite of the view advocated in that document, which erects barriers on the basis of organizational membership, this is really a distinction without a difference. Christians who come to the altar are confessing the only faith that counts. They come to the altar in faith and are proclaiming what Christ has done; they are members of the Church, the Una Sancta, which is Christ’s body in the world. In that sense a corporate unity results from communing at the Lord’s Table. The body is not an earthly organization with constitution and bylaws, but is Christ’s body in the world. To seek to find a relationship between this corporate unity and denominational distinctions abuses Paul’s teaching concerning the Eucharist.

To support its position the ALS argues that “Christians are not to be seen merely as ‘individuals’ but also as ‘confessors’ of the doctrine of their own church body (p. 43 f.). In fact, that document argues that it is not merely possible but is necessary that Christians represent and confess all the teachings that their denomination holds. This view is surely a questionable theological construct which cannot be—indeed, is not—validated by clear and unambiguous Scriptural references. In support of its position the ALS points to five potential dangers if this view is not affirmed. But the majority of these “dangers” derive deductions from a premise, which as we have pointed out, is already a misapplication of a Biblical text, Romans 16:17-18, as demanding separation from any and all who hold views differing from the official stance of the LCMS.

It is certainly commendable that the ALS recognizes the dangers inherent in a strict application of what it has advocated (cf. pp. 46-48), when it concedes that there may be exceptional circumstances in which people who are not members of the LCMS may be admitted to the Lord’s Table. In support of this, the ALS quotes from the Preface of the Book of Concord:

But we have no doubt at all that one can find many pious, innocent people even in those churches which have up to now admittedly not come to agreement with us. These people go their way in the simplicity of their hearts, do not understand the issues, and take no pleasure in blasphemies against the Holy Supper as it is celebrated in our churches according to Christ’s institution and as we concordantly teach about it on the basis of the words of his testament. It is furthermore to be hoped that when they are rightly instructed in this doctrine, they will through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, turn to the infallible truth of the divine Word and unite with us and our churches and schools.

That statement expresses a truly Lutheran, non-sectarian approach to the matter of Eucharistic fellowship. The recognition of the ALS of “exceptional circumstances” logically undercuts the view that communicants are necessarily burdened with the teachings of their ecclesiastical affiliations and contradicts the very thesis being defended by the CTCR in the ALS. Those who create the divisions and set the snares are those who should not commune, but those who truly believe the Biblical teaching, quite apart from their ecclesiastical affiliation, should be welcomed.


In Conclusion

Two brief New Testament books, 2 John and 3 John, which are frequently overlooked, point to two extreme approaches to fellowship in the early church—either to careless acceptance of false teaching (about Jesus’ incarnation) or unloving exclusion of orthodox Christians who are strangers to a local congregation. A question which many in the LCMS might well ask themselves is: Are we guilty of the sin of Diotrephes who “refuses himself to welcome the brethren and also stops those who want to welcome them and puts them out of the church”?

The final section of “Some Guidelines for Responsible Communion Practice” produced by the Commission on Theology and Inter-Church Relations of the Lutheran Church of Australia, provides a word of comfort and assurance to all who are faced with difficult decisions concerning Eucharistic practice:

We recognize that we are never capable of perfect stewardship of the precious Sacrament which Christ has entrusted to his church. In our responsible administration of the Sacrament we need always to guard against pride, self-righteousness, lovelessness, legalistic judging, and the like. In this, as in every other aspect of discipleship, we can live only by the grace of God which pardons our wrong motives and imperfect decisions, and empowers us to be more faithful stewards who seek only the glory of the Lord who gave his supper for the comfort and consolation of his people. Therefore our fervent prayer will always be:

In these last days of sore distress

Grant us, O Lord, true steadfastness

That pure we keep, till life is spent

Thy holy Word and Sacrament.


Submitted to the Commission on Theology and Church Relations



Lloyd Goetz

William J. Hassold

John F. Johnson

George Loose

Victor Mennicke

Edgar Trinklein



[1] A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (November 1999).

[2] Montaigne, The Essays, II, 12

[3] Book of Concord:  The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert, et al.  (Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1959).

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