A Critique of “Admission to the Lord’s Supper”

Chris Wicher

Editorial Note: Pastor Chris Wicher of Cheektowaga, NY, shares with us his response to a study document issued recently by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The CTCR was directed by the synod’s 1998 convention to prepare this study in response to a “Declaration of Eucharistic Understanding and Practice” (DEUP) submitted by the Florida-Georgia District. The DEUP is located under “classics” and is listed in the Daystar Journal index.

 

Dear Friends,

The CTCR document Admission to the Lord’s Supper has been in our hands for several months now. I’m not sure what you are doing or have done with this document and I haven’t heard how our circuits have handled it either. I understand it will be up for discussion and ratification at the next synodical convention in response to the Florida-Georgia District’s “Declaration of Eucharistic Understanding and Practice” presented in 1998.

I’ve had some time to look over Admission and jot down a few thoughts of my own. This is just one pastor’s critique of this document. Take it for what it’s worth. I hope this may be of some interest to you. Please let me know if you wish to make any comments.

For the most part Admission to the Lord’s Supper reflects the position of the synod we’ve come to know over the past 25 years. Basically, it staunchly stands on the premise that Missouri altars are for Missouri communicants, with only very few exceptions.Moreover, the tone of the document is rigid and negative; this cannot be denied.

For all the repetition in the document, Admission does present one new angle to the communion issue. It is “new” in the sense that I haven’t seen this element in the discussion spelled out so obviously before in CTCR documents—and that is the absolute authority of the pastor in regulating the communion table over and against the wise counsel and practices of the local congregation. Congregational leaders, beware of rabid clericalism to come.

Below are my summaries and critiques of Admission. As you will see, I’ve followed the outline of the document.

God bless you all,

Chris Wicher, Pastor
St. Luke, Cheektowaga, NY

I. The Scriptures

A. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34: The Congregation’s Sacrament of Unity

Summary

Based on 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, the abuse of the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian congregation was an intra-congregational and sociological phenomenon reflective of the conditions of the citizens of Corinth. The culture of Corinth was to enjoy and even flaunt status based on wealth and power, typified by the stratified social scene. The same behavior and principles were being applied in the congregation and practiced at their “pot lucks,” which also involved the communal sharing of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament.Moreover, in this section the vertical and horizontal dimensions of communion are presented, as is the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence and the need for self-examination or repentance on the part of the communicant.

Critique

Strengths:

  1. The study brings to mind the vertical and horizontal dimensions to the Lord’s Supper. While academic, it is nevertheless a good presentation as to what communion effects.
  2. Communion has a proclamatory nature. The Corinthians are one in Christ, but their elitist behavior did not demonstrate that gift from God.
  3. Communion has a unifying purpose. Paul’s message to a disunited congregation is a unified body of Christ shared in the supper. My question is: Is this unity effected through the sacrament? In other words, does the sacrament work the unity, or is the sacrament of the altar an expression of the unity which already exists?Missouri tends to lean in the direction of the latter (paralleling perhaps those who teach that believer’s baptism is a sign and token that the believer already has become Christian).

Weaknesses

  1. Basing a national statement about admission to the Lord’s Supper on a corrupted and dysfunctional situation in a congregation of nearly 2000 years past is problematic. The statement does not begin with a graceful proclamation of God’s gift of forgiveness for Christ’s sake in this meal. It is negative rather than stating what communion is and who the Lord invites to His table. This is not a Missouri table.
  2. The exegetical flow from verses 11:17-22 to 23-27 is weak and rushed. While I profess the Lutheran doctrine of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper, that intellectual assent is not contextually the first and foremost concern. Speaking to the corrupted and sectarian practices in the Corinthian congregation the Apostle underscores the unity established by God through Christ and given as a gift in the Communion for us to enjoy and work to achieve.
  3. Not enough is made of the word “soma”(Greek for “body,” page 14) as carrying several significant and distinctive yet unifying senses. It is both the body of Christ as personally present and the body of Christ that is the Church, the Una Sancta.
  4. Not enough is made of the prescriptive nature of the Apostle’s words. What the congregation failed to realize was that others at the table are of consequence in Christ. Communion is partaking the mystery of unity which supercedes our humble and limited understanding.

 

B. Pastors as Stewards of the Mysteries of God

Summary

What was the Apostle Paul’s relationship to the Corinthian congregation? This section of Admission seeks to offer its understanding of Paul’s “oversight” and authority over this flock. Of course, the extent to which such “oversight” was exercised is anyone’s guess. Admission suggests that matters of congregational life and belief were monitored and even controlled by Paul and that the congregation was admonished when in error. It is unconscionable for any minister to allow his flock to live in error.

Critique

Strengths:

  1. It is emphasized that pastors are to “care” for their flock as Jesus, the Good Shepherd, knows and cares for his sheep.
  2. It is also stressed that pastors have oversight and are leaders of the congregation, which, if not taken too far, is a helpful support and to that degree is in keeping with the assignment given to the CTCR.

Weaknesses:

  1. Paul was writing from a distance.
  2. Where does one draw the line in terms of supervision and authority? Too much control will not permit growth and too little will not promote unity.
  3. There is no balancing sense of the doctrine of the Priesthood of all Believers.
  4. This approach in understanding Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian congregation resonates the “oppressive pasturing” style of late we’ve come to regret and resent in some LCMS circles, leading to the unnecessary dividing and splitting of congregations.

 

 

C. Doctrinal Divisions in the New Testament

Summary

Based on several New Testament situations depicting life in the early church where controversy was evident, it is clear that first century Christians did not always agree on the implications of the Gospel for life.

Critique

Strength:

The document admits that in these several instances the New Testament does not speak directly to our contemporary situation or church. It can be surmised, therefore, that what follows is exegetical opinion.

Weakness:

Importing contemporary and freighted terms is misleading and possibly warrants a misreading of the text. Words like “confessor” and “heterodoxy” and “confessional” simply were not used among Christians 2000 years ago and are now “weighted” terms.

 

II. The Lutheran Confessions

A. Introduction: Who Should Not Commune? Two Answers

Summary

This section is brief. Two phrases surface: “communing as an individual” and “communing as a confessor.” The latter means that an individual Christian implicitly carries the badge of the denomination. Like a template this two-fold distinction is superimposed onto the Scriptures and the Confessions in search for an answer to who may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. The conclusion is that “the terrible doctrinal divisions in the visible church must, tragically, be reflected in the teaching concerning admission to the Lord’s Supper.” In short, members of those denominations not in “altar and pulpit fellowship” with the Missouri Synod (which in the USA includes virtually every denomination) are not invited or to be admitted to our altar.

Critique

Strength:

It is admitted that Paul’s communion practice with regard to “heterodox” Christians is not explicitly expressed in his writings.

Weaknesses:

  1. The two-fold distinction between “communing as an individual” and “communing as a confessor” is arbitrary terminology which reflects current Missouri Synod policy and is nomenclature peculiar to some of our theologians.
  2. Not communing with other Christians because they are not “good enough” or haven’t “gotten their terminology squared with Missouri Synod parlance” can lead to a sectarianism of our own and/or the sort of elitist ecclesiology reflected in the Corinthian congregation.

 

B. How “Christians as Individuals” May Commune Worthily

Summary

Several readings from the Confessions are cited beginning with Luther’s words in the Small Catechism, “He is worthy and well prepared who believes these words. . . .” All that is needed for worthiness is genuine faith. The same is stated in other writings. Based on the Large Catechism, “genuine faith” is understood to include three parts: “what it [the sacrament] is”; “what its benefits are”; and “who is to receive it.”

Critique

Strengths:

  1. Focusing on the Confessions without importing current Missouri Synod terminology certainly is helpful and clarifying.
  2. The use of traditional Lutheran words and phrases from the Confessions underscores the core issue of worthiness in terms of genuine faith.

Weaknesses:

  1. Some members of the LCMS are criticized (page 34) because they hold that “genuine faith” for worthy reception of the Sacrament refers only to saving faith in Christ as Savior, which recipients may have even though they believe wrongly about other articles of the Christian truth. Admissionpresented, at best, only very weak support for rejecting “genuine faith” alone as necessary for admission to the Lord’s Supper.
  2. “Genuine faith” is given to every believer as a gracious gift from God. One’s ability to articulate, much less understand, Christian truth is a different issue altogether arising out of, among other factors, one’s spiritual maturity, natural intellect and educational acumen. This distinction is obscured in this section.
  3. The statement from the Confessions regarding the “entire worthiness of guests at the meal” as consisting solely and alone in the holy obedience and complete merit of Christ is rejected on the basis of contextual circumstance! (P. 37) This rejection is most unfortunate. If our worthiness does not consist in Christ, in whom then does it consist?
  4. The 1998 convention requested a comment on pastoral oversight of a congregation’s communion table. But this section comes across as severe and heavy handed, even though on page 40 of the document it is stated that such is not the intention. Are pastors the only ones who have God’s authority to decide who may and who may not take communion? Some believe so, and the document leads one to think that it should be the standard practice throughout the synod. What obviously is missing is some allusion to the rightful place of a congregation’s wisdom to decide its ministry and the practice thereof. The priesthood of all believers is glaringly missing, and this is a critical oversight. Communion decisions need to be made from congregation to congregation with trust in the way pastors and congregations, faithful to the Gospel, deem what is proper practice and necessary ministry.

C.  Communicants as “Confessors”

Summary

This section continues the thought expressed above under Section II, part A. The premise is that an individual Christian represents his respective denomination. The logic then follows that since the LCMS is not in complete doctrinal agreement with any other synod or church body in the USA, no other Christians, other than Missouri Synod Christians, are permitted at our altar. Five dangers are listed that arise when those who commune are not seen as “confessors,” among them the erosion of the importance of doctrine and denominational distinctiveness. But also four dangers are cited when individual communicants are viewed only as “confessors.” Then, for example, denominational membership can become a substitute for genuine faith.

Critique

Strengths:

  1. The document points out the difficulty of doing ministry today in the corporate sense due to the American spirit of individualism. What happens to the sense of “community” in communion when everyone is communing as individuals? Are we responsible to one another in the faith?
  2. Listing the “five dangers” of Christians as individuals and the “four dangers” of Christians as confessors is an attempt to walk a tightrope between shirking Christian responsibility on the one hand and displaying Lutheran arrogance on the other.

Weaknesses:

  1. Arbitrarily stating that we in Missouri do not commune individuals of denominations not in altar and pulpit fellowship with us completely dismisses the Confessional emphasis on “worthiness” as consisting of “genuine faith.” A mere child can examine himself and discern the body of Christ in the meal. This position, as it is, elevates human controversy over Christ’s command.
  2. The recent ecumenical actions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America perhaps ought to be explained by a representative of the ELCA. The issues are far more complex than the document gives credit.
  3. Parochialism is defended for fear of losing Missouri’s identity, while it may be that the Holy Spirit is leading the church today to face issues as we defend an ecclesiology that no longer fits our context (i.e., we live increasingly in a globalizing age surpassing nationalism). By the grace of God we must face our common humanity and not exacerbate our differences for fear of losing our individual distinctiveness. Ironically distinctiveness can be discovered and maintained only in community and in the mix with those unlike oneself.

III. A Critique of a “Declaration of Eucharistic Understanding and Practice” [DEUP]

Unfortunately the writers of the CTCR were very brief and shallow in considering DEUP. The same writers cannot support DEUP on the basis of points given above. This section was rushed and written in defense of Missouri Synod parochialism; a parochialism some would call sectarianism.

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