September 17, 2020
Good Day in our Lord, Good Brothers,
I apologize for intruding into what I know is for you an already very full day…. I served as a District President and Church Exec for 16 years and know the challenges… but I feel it both vital and valuable to introduce the enclosed materials with this cover letter.
My name is Howard Patten, and I have been, following my retirement as Kansas District President, a pastor and mission support professional on the El Paso, Juarez Border for 13 years. Recently you received from the Synod President’s office a critique by our CTCR of an essay I wrote over 2 years ago. The essay, “Recognizing the Body of Christ – Theology of the Cross or Theology of Glory?”, was prompted by and a response to the 2017 CPH publication, Closed Communion? Admission to the Lord’s Supper in Biblical and Lutheran Perspective.
When the concept and practice of Closed Communion was first mandated by past Convention resolutions, I was saddened and then disappointed that our public practice and personal sacramental piety would be compromised by a theology and practice so foreign to the Gospel. However, my disappointment that a church body so rich in theology and mission would mandate, what seemed to me, such a legalistic public stance was somewhat mitigated by both the congregations I served and the surrounding parishes. These congregations, though committed to responsible and responsive Scriptural Communion practice, yet retained their own unique Confessional responsibilities for congregational authority and community mission. Faithful to Synod, the congregations followed a Constitution that clearly states: Accordingly no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.
The congregations developed, whether formally or informally, a Liturgical Life that, while not “closed,” were definitely responsible to the Scriptures and responsive to their unique mission. These local congregational “practices” were not governed by secular concepts like “open” or “closed,” but were rather congregational “Celebrations” of the presence and promises of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament; not mere “practices”, but real celebrations that I personally came to recognize and identify simply as “Christ’s Communion.”
I was content, if not altogether comfortable during this Synodical communion practice “interim” in our congregations’ “practice” of rich Communion liturgies. The Liturgies in L.S.B. that celebrate FAITH to fully recognize and proclaim the Body and Blood presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament… and the clear intention – as St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:29, demands – to LOVE … to recognize, to “discern” the “Body,” the “Body of Christ” (NIV) worshipers.
In 2017, Concordia Publishing House published and promoted the 500+ page volume, referred to above, Closed Communion. I purchased the book, concerned that somehow, we as a Synod may have passed through that invisible curtain – common to “Rome” – through which a popular teaching moves quietly, but finally from “pious opinion” to Formal Doctrine. My worst fears were confirmed. A, now decades old, somewhat toothless convention resolution designed, in the minds of the “fearful “ to protect the integrity of one of the two most powerful Words in history and human language… Baptism and Communion … was being reduced to a man-made formula. (I am reminded of Luther’s response to the anxious student who asks, “how can we protect the Word?” – You probably remember, Luther’s response – “How do you protect a lion? … You let him go! The lion protects himself. This is how you protect the Word,” Luther announced, “…You preach it!”) Contextually, in a Communion that is “closed” we are now, not only reducing the majesty and mystery of the Eucharist to a manageable man-made formula, but have somehow also managed to make it dependent upon a 500+ page book, Closed Communion?
As I read through the well written studies in Closed? I began to sense a heaviness, a sadness and an almost loneliness that was foreign to my life experience of joy, forgiveness, freedom, community and mission in the Sacrament. I returned – as we all do – to a renewed study of the Scriptures, then to the commentaries and first and finally prayer and discussions with brother pastors. I found, almost to my surprise, the Biblical Words that the practice of Closed Communion was based on was a very questionable interpretation of “discerning the Body.” We, in the LCMS, have always understood and taught that the “body” of verse 29, 1 Corinthians 11, referred back to the “body” in the Sacrament. The commentaries I consulted, however, with the exception of Lenski, all interpret the “body” as the gathered community, especially Paul’s lifting up of the poor, the outsider, the left out. Even our own CPH Concordia 1 Corinthians Commentary directs us to both the Christ present in the Sacrament… the Spirit’s call to FAITH and the Christ present in the “Body of Christ” community… the Spirit’s call to LOVE. I began to understand that our traditional LCMS theology of the Sacrament was in part based on a questionable, if not foreign, exegesis and, perhaps worse, promotes a public sacramental practice that both undermines a biblical Lutheran “theology of the cross” and leaves us publicly teaching an un-Lutheran and sectarian theology of glory.
Following about a year’s study of the book, the Scriptures, many commentaries and much prayer, I wrote a 20 page essay exploring our Synodical Communion practice of Closed Communion – now reinforced by a 500+ page book – and asked the pastors of our Rio Grande Circuit if they would be willing to study our formal Communion practice w/ me … fulfilling both our Synodical brotherly covenants and my personal need. The six-month study was very helpful and not w/out some brotherly disagreements. I was invited to share the paper … parts of it … at a “Best Practices” gathering and received well over 100 requests for the complete essay. In the months following I emailed over another 100 copies of the essay per request. (Interesting aside; 2 of the requests were from former LCMS pastors who have left Synod over the “doctrine” of “Closed” Communion.) I was also invited to present parts of the paper at the 2018 Concordia Seminary, St. Louis Fall Symposium, but was unable to attend because of a family medical emergency.
I was, more than a year later, asked by Daystar if they could publish the essay. I gave my permission without reservation. There are many differences in the settings between my good friends in Christ at Daystar—whom I have never met in person—and Luther’s “Wittenberg Door,” however my motives, if not the methods are the same. I seek to raise what is for me a defining theological issue, “Recognizing (discerning) the Body of Christ” in our Communion celebrations … for restudy, discussion, prayer and transformation … This issue is not only binding the consciences of our pastors and people but is misrepresenting the Word of God in 1 Corinthians 11, and clouding and confining a dynamic Mission Vision in the congregations of our fellowship. The “Bottom Line” issue for me is not simply a Closed Communion, but in Jesus Christ – in His Life, Suffering, Death and Resurrection – a Closed anything! His Spirit teaches us that His Way may be “narrow,” but it is never Closed.
Again, if you have read this far, please accept my sincere apologies. I do not want to take up your valuable time and today’s mission w/ what may be perceived as, at best, a very minority report. I “discern” this issue to be potentially an undermining, if not a benign assault on our precious congregations’ mission compassion, sacramental celebrations and foundational identity – “Crux sola est nostra theologia.” These spiritual challenges deserve from me more than a silent sadness for my church body or the grumbling of an aging preacher.
Thank you for the extraordinary kindness and courtesy of reading this and, I pray, for reading my response to the enclosed CTCR critique. I will, Deo volunte, forward both this letter and Response to the CTCR to Daystar in about 2 weeks. I pray that your brotherly experience and spiritual growth serving on the Council of Presidents are as rich and deep as what I am blessed to carry with me to this day.
Zion Lutheran Church, El Paso, Texas
If you would like a current edition of my essay, please let me know. I will be happy to email you a copy.