CTCR Response to Pr. Howard Patten’s Essay, “Recognizing the Body of Christ”

Editor’s Note: The following document is the official response of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod to an essay that Pr. Howard Patten published in the Daystar Journal in September 2019. A slightly revised version of that essay, “Recognizing the Body of Christ,” has been uploaded to the Fall 2020 issue of the Journal. Pastor Patten has asked the editors to publish this CTCR Response so that readers will have access to it when they read his critique of it, which also appears in this issue of the Daystar Journal.


CTCR Response to “Recognizing the Body of Christ: Theology of Glory or Theology of the Cross?” by Howard Patten (The Daystar Journal, Sept. 12, 2019)

The LCMS is an imperfect institution. As such, we have instituted a right of dissent for our members who believe the Synod has a doctrine or practice that is contrary to Scripture and/or the Lutheran Confessions. The policy is designed to prevent unwarranted division and to promote respectful, godly “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) rather than controversy. By virtue of our membership in the Synod, all pastors, called church workers, and congregations implicitly agree to abide by the Synod’s Constitution and bylaws as we walk together, honoring the Synod’s corporately-adopted positions on issues of doctrine and practice “until such time as the Synod amends or repeals them” (see Bylaw 1.6.2). That includes honoring the LCMS policy for dissent, which asks members who disagree with LCMS practice or teaching to share their concerns privately, “within the fellowship of peers”— peers who are competent and knowledgeable—and not in a public forum (LCMS Bylaw 1.8.2).

Rev. Howard Patten, a pastor of the LCMS who has served the Synod in many capacities, has a disagreement with the LCMS’s theology and practice of close or closed Communion. Yet, regrettably, Rev. Patten has chosen to ignore the Synod’s fraternal “covenants of love” regarding dissent. Instead, he recently published an essay in The Daystar Journal, an online publication (Sept. 12, 2019), in which he opposes the Synod’s understanding on the matter of admission to the Lord’s Supper (“Recognizing the Body of Christ: Theology of Glory or Theology of the Cross,” at http://thedaystarjournal.com/recognizing-the-body-of-christ-theology-of-glory-or-theology-of-the-cross/). Patten’s central assertion or thesis follows:

Not only are we practicing an unscriptural tradition over against our fellow Christians of other denominations, but we are spiritually forming our dear brothers and sisters in Christ within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod in a pharisaical, unhealthy and perhaps even unholy vision of Christ’s Body the Church. We have created in the past and continue to create into a troubled and divisive Synodical future a suffocating Theology of Glory. [Quoted with original emphasis from section titled “’Closed’ Communion.”]

President Matthew Harrison asked us to review Rev. Patten’s Daystar article and prepare a response. Rather than a lengthy essay, we comment on and raise concerns about five aspects of Rev. Patten’s essay.

  1. Unclear and Confusing Terminology Regarding Communion Practice

Rev. Patten offers no definitions of close or closed or open Communion. He also never indicates exactly how he understands the term “Real Presence.” As a result, he fails to make clear precisely what he is rejecting or advocating. He refers to “the Synodically mandated practice of ‘Close(d) Communion,’” but he does not provide any definition of it from the Synod itself, nor even a clear statement of his understanding of this practice. In view of the way in which he depicts the practice throughout his paper, one must legitimately question whether Rev. Patten himself clearly or fully understands the Synod’s actual position and practice.

  1. Flawed Exegesis of Relevant Passages Referred to by Rev. Patten

Rev. Patten’s exegetical discussion promises attention to “Context, Context, Context” [see section under that heading]. He begins with the synoptic Gospels’ Last Supper narratives, asserting that the “estin” (is) of the synoptic Gospels requires the doctrine of the Lord’s “Real Presence.” (We assume that by “Real Presence” he means the presence of the Lord’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the Sacrament.) Then he turns to 1 Corinthians, conceding that in 1 Corinthians 1:10 and in chapter 10 Paul does “make the case for unity in the practice of ‘Communion.’” But, as he looks at 1 Corinthians 11 he claims that “Paul nowhere suggests that the divisive issue” in Corinth’s practice of the Lord’s Supper has anything to do with the matter of Christ’s bodily presence in the Sacrament. Rather, Patten argues that the entire section on “recognizing the body of Christ” has to do with the body of Christ understood as the church, the body of believers. He holds that Paul is not concerned that those who commune are to examine whether they “‘recognize’ the bread and wine as communicating the true body and blood of Jesus” [see under “Location, Location, Location,” emphasis added]. He then calls this view a “careful and fresh interpretation” of the examination Paul requires [see under “Fundamentalism, Exclusivism – the Systemic Sin of ‘Missouri’”].

We note the following flaws in Rev. Patten’s exegesis. First and most importantly, despite his promise that his exegesis will be contextual, his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11 fails to take note of the context in 1 Corinthians. In 1999 the CTCR addressed the kind of argument Patten makes in Admission to the Lord’s Supper: Basics of Biblical and Confessional Teaching (http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=411). It gives careful attention to the context and shows that 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is most certainly referring to the body of Christ in the Sacrament. Paul addresses the problem that the poor are left out at the Corinthians’ meals not by speaking of the importance of sharing food, but by emphasizing the reality of the Sacrament as Christ’s body and blood. The Corinthians’ failure to discern that the Supper is what the words of institution declare—Christ’s body and blood—led them to practice a counterfeit sacrament consisting of feasting, drinking, and mistreatment of the poor. Thus, Paul is concerned both with the body of Christ in the elements and with the body of Christ (the church) that receives these gifts. Patten makes this an “either/or” and only sees concern for the church as the body of Christ.

Second, Patten affirms the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament and he insists (rightly) that Paul does not want divisions in the church, yet he argues that Paul is not concerned at all with a potential and serious doctrinal division at the altar (i.e., differing understandings or even denials of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Supper). Such a view is impossible given the fact that when Paul corrects the Corinthians’ malpractice—their divisions—he doesn’t insist on fairness at the dinner table for those who were left out while others got drunk. His solution to that problem is to encourage the Corinthians to stop the happy hour potluck entirely. That way they can let the Sacrament be what it is—what he delivered to them (11:23)—Christ’s body and blood. Corinth’s practice is incurring guilt concerning “the body and blood of the Lord” (11:27). Reference to “the body and blood” of Christ negates an interpretation that would focus solely on the body of Christ as “church.” He lovingly confronts their guilt with hard words of warning lest, by failing to discern Christ’s bodily presence, they incur God’s judgment [see Admission, pages 14–20]. Doctrinal division at the altar is certainly no more to be ignored than social divisions.

Third,  Patten’s view of discerning the body is certainly not fresh or new, nor is it careful. Since the debate between Zwingli and Luther, many opponents of Lutheran theology have posited a view that is identical to Patten’s, asserting that Paul’s reference to the body in 1 Corinthians 11 is to the church as the body of Christ and has nothing to do with the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

  1. Superficial and Selective History of Close(d) Communion

Patten’s historical look at the topic of close(d) communion is superficial and selective. He mentions that Luther “strongly and correctly” insisted on the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament over against Zwingli. He then jumps from the 16th to the 19th century, suggesting that LCMS theology and practice of the Lord’s Supper is marked by a “singular and understandable obsession with worthy reception,” that fails “to proclaim our Lord’s larger sacramental gifts” at the Table [see under “…Context! …Context! …Context!”]. Patten thinks Luther was correct to object to Zwingli’s symbolic view and to refuse fellowship to him, but views the LCMS intention to maintain that same teaching and practice today as sectarian, self-righteous, loveless, exclusionary, and contrary to the Gospel. How does this follow? Rev. Patten never explains. Instead, he opines that the LCMS is bound to “a fifteenth century narrative” (he means 16th century) resulting in “over 150 years of sectarian practice and theological education” that rejects all symbolic or representative interpretations. This sectarianism is taught to our youth in the confirmation process and enacted in close(d) Communion. Thus, LCMS Communion doctrine and practice is “well thought out, but deeply flawed” because Paul’s concern for worthy communion has “only incidentally to do with confession and confidence in the ‘Real Presence,’ as important and as critical as these may be.” Here, evidently, Patten can affirm that belief in Christ’s bodily presence is “important” and even “critical,” all-the-while discounting that very belief as relevant to worthy communion in 1 Corinthians 11! [See also under “…Context! …Context! …Context!”]

Patten’s selective foray into church history leads him to the false conclusion that closed Communion is an invention of the LCMS. He appears unaware of its practice throughout Christianity from the earliest times (see Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries). Similarly, he fails to see that it was a Reformation practice that persisted in Lutheranism as a whole well into the early 20th century. He ignores or is perhaps unaware of the Catechism assertion about not admitting to the altar “those who do not know what they seek or why they come.”

He is offended by anyone who would say, “LCMS altars for LCMS people,” but seems to be unaware that any such statement originated when American Lutherans insisted on “Lutheran altars for Lutherans only.” The fact that all Lutherans (and virtually all Christians!) have always practiced and continue to practice some form of closed communion (regardless of what particular term is used) is ignored. He does not mention the fact that Rome and the Orthodox (representing the vast majority of Christians today) also practice a form of closed communion.

Patten’s failure to offer any real historical perspective on this topic leads him to a harsh condemnation of his own Synod. He asserts: “As a church body the LCMS fails utterly in its present formal convention ‘Closed Communion’ statements to ‘discern’ (recognize) the Body of Christ.” [See also under “…Context! …Context! …Context!”, emphasis in the original.] Does Patten recognize the gravity of this charge? By invoking 1 Corinthians 11:27–29 against the LCMS church body, Patten declares the entire Synod to be guilty of false doctrine and an unscriptural practice of the Lord’s Supper which is tantamount to “communing unworthily.”

  1. Troubling Practical Implications of Rev. Patten’s Essay

Rev. Patten never builds a solid case for remedying the supposed errors he has identified. Instead he says, “The Sacrament of the Altar must never become ‘Open Communion’, ‘Close Communion’ or ‘Closed Communion’.  The Holy Communion must be always and only Christ’s Communion!” [See under “1962 – Believing – Behaving – Belonging     2018 – Belonging – Believing – Behaving”.] But, once again, none of these terms is defined. Instead, he simply offers illustrations or vignettes from his own pastoral practice in place of a theology of the Supper. Citing challenging pastoral circumstances is no argument against LCMS practice, however, which as we will show below, understands the necessity of “responsible pastoral care in extraordinary circumstances.” Every LCMS pastor faces such “tough calls” and he may well decide to commune someone who is not an LCMS communicant in certain difficult cases. If responsible pastoral care in challenging cases is Rev. Patten’s only concern, then the LCMS shares it as well.

Patten seemingly has something more in mind: he opposes the synodical practice of close(d) Communion. We can draw no other conclusion from his essay than that he rejects the LCMS practice of ordinarily communing only its own communicant members together with members of church bodies in fellowship with us, even while (as noted above) allowing for pastoral care and discretion in difficult cases. That is the practice he condemns as exclusive, works-righteous and undiscerning of the body of Christ. If that is his view, then he dissents from LCMS teaching and practice and we are back to our introductory comments. We would respectfully urge him to turn to peers in private conversation—including peers who will challenge his views. Then, if he is still convinced that he is correct in his opinion that the entire Synod is guilty of false doctrine, let him prepare a careful doctrinal challenge and submit it to the CTCR.

Patten might have characterized things differently and have argued simply that his understanding and approach is perfectly fine and allowable under the LCMS Constitution, especially since he asserts that in light of Article VII of the LCMS Constitution “the Synodically mandated practice of ‘Close(d) Communion’ is no more in accordance with Scripture nor expedient for a local congregation than is the practice of ‘Open Communion.’” [See “ ‘Closed’ Communion” section.] However, this oft-misconstrued “*expediency” clause of Article VII of the Synod’s Constitution does not give members of the Synod carte blanche to teach or practice in ways that are contrary to the official position of the Synod. Otherwise, “dissent” would be meaningless—as would any semblance or notion of “walking together.”  Such a profound insult

Ironically (but not surprisingly, in light of what has been said above), as Rev. Patten’s article draws to a close, he reveals that he, too, practices a form of closed communion, for his “Communion Statement” also includes a warning about incurring God’s judgment, thus “closing” the altar to those who are not properly prepared to commune. That he draws the line at a different place than the LCMS recommends (without offering any clear guidance about where, how, or by whom that line must be drawn) does not change the reality that any limitation on who should or should not commune is a form of closed communion.

  1. Unwarranted Theological Conclusions Regarding the Practice of Close(d) Communion

Patten’s theological perspective is amply illustrated in the foregoing. He believes the LCMS has misinterpreted 1 Corinthians 11:27–29. Furthermore, he seems to think close(d) Communion was invented by the LCMS, due to its false exegesis. He condemns the LCMS of failing to discern the Body of Christ in our practice of Communion, resulting in our own communing unworthily while also  practicing and fostering the sin of excluding many who need the Lord’s Supper and its gifts. Patten views a theology of glory at work since the LCMS insists on doing things right. Our practice makes us theologians of glory whose behavior “teaches that we are saved by our works… by doing things right!” He judges the LCMS to be guilty of works righteousness. [See under “1962 – Believing – Behaving – Belonging  2018 – Belonging – Believing – Behaving”.]

This is a harsh judgment. A church body that emphasizes purity of doctrine and practice may indeed unintentionally foster a works righteous trap—as if assent to right doctrine or right practice saves. Close(d) Communion, without careful teaching and practice, can foster the false belief that simply by being a member of an LCMS church one is worthy and well-prepared for the Sacrament. If that is Rev. Patten’s concern, we share it. But he goes farther and condemns the entire Synod of works righteousness because of our doctrine itself not because of possible aberrations. Does our doctrine of the Lord’s Supper flow from a theology of glory and lead to a works righteous Communion practice? Not if one looks at what the LCMS has said on the topic. Numerous examples could be cited, but we mention here only one that seems sufficient in itself as a way of answering Rev. Patten’s charge against the Synod. In the 2007 convention Resolution 3-09 stated:

WHEREAS, The Synod has consistently encouraged its pastors and congregations to continue to abide by the practice of close(d) Communion, which includes the necessity of exercising responsible pastoral care in extraordinary situations and circumstances; and….

Notice two things: first, the Synod has consistently encouraged close(d) Communion and, second, close(d) Communion “includes” “responsible pastoral care.” The same resolution commended the 1999 CTCR report, Admission to the Lord’s Supper, which carefully defines and unfolds the scriptural and confessional basis of the practice of close(d) Communion and provides some practical guidance in the matter of pastoral care. The resolution also includes as its final resolve a request for continued CTCR guidance in this matter and that such CTCR study “provide practical guidance for responsible pastoral care.”

Is this evidence of a desire to “do things right”? Yes. Is it works righteousness—a theology of glory—an arrogant exclusivity? Not when one takes the time and effort to read and sincerely seek to understand the many LCMS theological statements (Admission to the Lord’s Supper is but one example) which continually and consistently build the case for close(d) Communion on the biblical and confessional foundation (1) of the reality of Christ’s bodily presence in the elements; (2) on the fact that the Lord’s Supper is for repentant sinners who believe Christ’s words and receive the promises they convey; (3) that every communicant receives this “communion in the blood [and body] of Christ” (1 Cor 10:11); (4) but that those who do not discern Christ’s bodily presence—who do not believe His Word of promise—are “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27); and (5) that the Lord’s Supper is given to maintain the unity of those who receive it. For all these reasons, intentionally allowing doctrinal division at the Table, encourages doubting, disbelieving, or unrepentant communicants to receive to their judgment (or at least fail to receive the intended benefits of the Sacrament), and undermines the purposes of the Sacrament.  Love, not exclusivity, requires that we seek to prevent such division in the church and potential harm to individual communicants.

Moreover, if the Synod’s approach to this issue—one it believes is right because it is biblical and confessional—is to be judged as “works righteous,” isn’t that also the case for every other understanding of the doctrine and practice of the Sacrament? Patten most certainly is convinced that his is the right view of the Lord’s Supper and responsible practice, and that anyone who upholds close(d) communion is wrong. Moreover, he is convinced that the LCMS is guilty of the condemnation Paul warns of in 1 Corinthians 11:29 while he is serenely confident in his own purity of doctrine and practice. Isn’t there a danger of works righteousness also in that?

In sum, Rev. Patten’s challenge to LCMS teaching and practice is confusing, troubling and unconvincing. His concerns are precisely the sort of thing that ought to have been shared privately, as the Synod bylaw advises, with trusted and balanced colleagues who could help him think through these matters thoroughly. It should be obvious to him as a former district president that one of his private dialogue partners should have been his own district president and perhaps also the synodical president. His legitimate concerns about how closed communion may be misused and abused are clouded by a harsh and judgmental tone that fails even to consider the possibility and claim that, rightly and Scripturally used, close(d) communion is motivated by love and true Christian concern for the unity of the church and the spiritual well-being of communicants.

In closing, we would urge readers to consult the CTCR’s report, Admission to the Lord’s Supper (1999, http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=411). It is an examination of the very topic Patten wants to address, but its tone is irenic, it is exegetically and confessionally thorough, and it offers thoughtful answers to many of the kinds of circumstances that are evidently troubling Rev. Patten. In addition, we suggest that the reader consult Guidelines for Congregational, District, and Synodical Communion Statements (2014, http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=3285).


Joel D. Lehenbauer, Executive Director of the CTCR
Larry M. Vogel, Associate Executive Director of the CTCR

Friday, March 06, 2020

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