Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Closed Communion Cone-size Catch-22?

We Missouri Synod Lutherans have traditionally practiced the biblical, catholic, and ancient practice of only admitting people to Holy Communion who are in fellowship with us, who believe the same doctrine.

Most people are familiar with this in Roman Catholic churches, for instance, where it would be odd indeed for a Baptist or a Pentecostal to wish to take the sacrament that the priest has just consecrated, knelt before, and pronounced to be God in the flesh while only appearing to be bread. Most Protestants would consider this idolatry.

Similarly, Roman Catholics would not typically wish to take part in a communion at a Baptist or Pentecostal church in which the bread and wine (or even grape juice) is seen only as a symbol, and is not consecrated by a priest in Roman Catholic orders.

Historically, churches are "in communion" with each other based on doctrinal agreement.

In 1054, Greek-speaking and Latin-speaking churches broke off communion with each other due to many factors. One of those factors is a difference of opinion about the authority of the pope - not a minor issue. To this day, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians don't take communion together. This is not to say they are at war, and to be sure, they recognize one another as Christians and they are trying to work out their differences - but it would be disingenuous to just pretend there is no disagreement when that's just not the case.

During the Reformation, the reform-minded Catholic churches that adopted the Augsburg Confession (churches which have since come to be known as "Lutheran") were no longer in communion with the Roman Catholic churches that remained loyal to the pope. The Lutherans, like the Eastern Orthodox, are not in communion with the pope and his churches. Again, this is not to say we don't recognize our fellow Christian - nor even deny the validity of their sacraments - we're just not in a state of communion with each other.

The Reformation saw further splintering over many issues, and so there are many Protestant groups that are not in communion with the Lutherans either.

And, to complicate matters, various Lutheran churches have adopted doctrines and practices that are incompatible with one another. So to this day, ELCA Lutherans, by virtue of some pretty important doctrinal differences, are not in communion with LCMS Lutherans. That is the sad reality that can't be changed by ignoring it any more than a Baptist could just overlook his important doctrinal divisions with the Roman Catholic Church and come forward to receive the sacrament.

So, this is why we have "closed communion" - which, again, is the traditional and ancient practice in the Church. "

If a Roman Catholic were to commune at a Lutheran altar, he would be making the public declaration that he denies the pope as the head of the Church. According to Catholic canon law, he is excommunicating himself from the Catholic Church.

If a Missouri Synod (LCMS) Lutheran were to take communion at an ELCA altar, he would be making the public profession that he agrees with the positions of that church body - many of which are at odds with the Missouri Synod.

There are, in fact, a couple dozen or so church bodies worldwide in communion with the Missouri Synod. For example, a member of the Lutheran Church - Canada congregation is in communion with the LCMS, and so we can commune at one another's altars.

But practicing this doctrine is no fun - especially for pastors. We like nothing more than to give people the body and blood of Christ - but we are called to be faithful. There are exceptions, to be sure, but exceptions are by definition rare. There are simply times when we must withhold communion from people - not out of malice or hatred, not because we feel we are "better" than anyone, and not because we don't recognize the person as a Christian - but because that is the way it is.

There are times when I have to look like the heavy because I won't give communion to those who are not in fellowship with the LCMS. Unfortunately, there are area pastors who will commune Roman Catholics, Methodists, non-LCMS Lutherans, and others who are not in fellowship with the LCMS. Their lack of backbone makes it hard for us who are trying to do the right thing.

But interestingly, one area pastor has articulated that this is not a case of "open" (vs. closed) communion running rampant in our district and synod. In fact, there is not a single instance of "open communion" in our district. Not even one.

Here is how he gets around the obvious and turns black into white, and closed into open without even checking in with George Orwell:

According to this man (name withheld to protect the absurd), all LCMS pastors practice "closed communion." It's just that some of us have "bigger cones" than others. No lie, this is exactly what this fellow says. It's all about the size of the cone. (Doctor Freud, please pick up the white courtesy phone in the lobby...).

In other words, one pastor might have a "small cone" and only commune LCMS congregants (and those in communion with the LCMS). Another pastor's cone may be a little bigger, and he may commune anyone who believes Jesus is really present. Another pastor's cone may be still larger, and he will commune any baptized Christian.

So, you see, we all practice "closed communion."

Clever, huh?

And I suppose if a pastor would commune a Muslim, that would still be closed communion, as long as he only communes monotheists. And if another pastor (with a bigger cone) communes Hindus, he too practices closed communion so long as he denies the Sacrament to those who believe in no gods. And a guy with a yet bigger cone still practices closed communion by communing atheists, as long as he withholds the sacrament from dogs and cats. But then again, the fella with the massive cone may well commune dogs and cats while withholding communion from heads of cabbage and dandelions.

See? We all practice "closed communion." "Open communion" simply isn't done in our synod. Not an issue. No doctrinal disagreements here. Nothing to see here, folks. Please move along.

Of course, the "cone theory" could equally be applied to the abortion controversy. Actually, there is no controversy or disagreement over abortion. For, you see, we're all pro-life. Some pro-lifers just have bigger cones.

A "small-cone" pro-lifer will not allow abortion at all. A pro-lifer with a bigger cone will make an exception for the life of the mother. Those with still bigger cones will make exceptions for incest and rape, and even bigger cones will limit abortion on demand to the first trimester. But we're all pro-life, right?

Pro-lifers with still larger cones will allow for partial-birth abortions, but as long as he is anti-infanticide post-partum, he is still a pro-lifer - just with a bigger cone, of course. Now, Princeton "Ethicist" Peter Singer argues for post-birth abortion - so long as the child is not self-aware. And I suppose Peter Singer would not advocate abortion for, say fifteen year olds, so he is, just like most Missouri Synod members, a pro-lifer - albeit with a really big cone.

Hitler had a pro-life Mega-cone, while Stalin could only be described as giga-cononically pro-life.

Have you ever heard such nonsense? Isn't it easier to just have integrity and just say you disagree with the doctrine of closed communion rather than create an elaborate intelligence-insulting logically-fallacious absurdity like this - and peddle it to LCMS pastors with a straight face?

Joseph Heller would be proud.


Christian Soul said...

These cones are big enough to allow people to do spiritual harm to themselves by taking the Lord's body and blood in an unworthy manner.

I imagine these pastors are pretty big coned when it comes to their practice of church discipline for the sake of calling unrepentant sinners to repentance as well.

Cecil The Sea Sick Sea Serpent said...

This is fun -- LCMess style. We all need to have bigger cones for a variety of reasons. (This is one of my favorite phrases: “for a variety of reasons”.) But returning to communion practices just among the LCMS. One, I suppose, must include all DP(s) and the president and all VP(s) in the synod. But wait, that would mean agreement that the first commandment allows for a cone big enough to include the Yankee stadium gods.

Here’s another wrinkle. Google the Willow Creek Association and search your state or district states to find out how many of your “brethren” are members. I did it for Illinois and found 18 LCMS congregations; 2 in the CID and 1 in the SID the remainder in NID.

Bror Erickson said...

Integrity? You expect integrity?

Mike Keith said...

There is a certain element of truth to this idea of the "cone." Here is why I say this: no church body (as far as I know)truly practices "open" communion. They will in fact commune any "baptized Christian." So, they draw some lines as well. We draw the lines around agreement in doctrine and practice as manifested in membership in a church body. They draw the lines around being baptized. So in reality no one really practices open communion but the lines are simply drawn in different places.

The discussion then should be centred around the question: Why are the lines drawn where they are?

Anonymous said...

The large Catholic megaparishes are at a distinct disadvantage. Theoretically nonCatholics and Catholics not in "a state of grace" are not supposed to receive Holy Communion but the parish priest has no way of knowing who is or isn't "qualified." The burden is on the individual.

And then there's the Episcopal church. In some parishes Holy Communion is offered to all, Christian, nonChristian, whatever. We truly don't want to go that route.

Since coming home to the Lutheran Church (LCMS) I have so come to appreciate that in my parish my pastor knows my name and speaks it when I receive our Lord's Body and Blood and that he is genuinely concerned that those who commune are of one mind and spirit with the teachings of our Synod.


Past Elder said...

In the entire time I was an elder, every Sunday communion practices were explained verbally beforehand, and those with further questions were encouraged to speak with the pastor or an elder, but I never had a single question, ever.

What ever happened to the practice of declaring your intent to the pastor the day before? People used to stop by and do that and think nothing of it as some sort of unusual burden. That's within the memory of people I know.

Great Judas in the apse, that no-one is admitted to the Sacrament without first being examined is one of the things the AC cites as evidence of our fidelity to the catholic faith!

Leave the different sized cones to Dairy Queen.

Todd Wilken said...

His argument is the definition of sophistry.


Daniel said...

Father Hollywood and Past Elder,

"Declaring intent to commune" was a remnant of the earlier practise to come to private confession was it not?

Past Elder said...

Could be. In the RCC of my youth -- pre-Vatican II -- confession on Saturday before Sunday Mass was the norm.

Even if it isn't, an increase in private confession wouldn't be a bad thing anyway. Luther wrote somewhere that if we really understood what confession gives us, we would run a hundred miles to get it. Any of you pastors had anyone show up out breath lately?

Rev. Michael Monterastelli said...

see Augsburg Confession, Article XI, Confession: Our churches teach that private Absolution should be retained in the churches, although listing all sins is not necessary for Confession. For, according to the Psalm, it is impossible. "Who can discern his errors!" (Psalm 19:12)

Brad said...

During a visit in his office, this is exactly how our DP explained Closed Communion to me and a handful of our elders. We gave thought to creating some nice cone-shaped pins for our ushers to wear on Sunday morning. I wonder if Ablaze would help fund such a project? "The doors. The doors." The nice thing about cones, and this is why our DP enjoys the image--they're always open. The discussion no longer needs to center on Christ and His Word and doctrine and faith and the care of individuals; it can now center on ME....err, I mean us. The big picture, he says, the big picture! And for the sake of the big picture, he tells us the Synod needs pastors with different sized cones. After all, some lay-people don't like pastors with small cones. Other lay-people, however, insist size does matter. That hurts, because I know for a fact that I am conically
challenged. Wait. I think Freud is using that white courtesy phone to give me a call.....

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Christian Soul:

I think your reasoning is spot on. Let's face it, the real reason for open communion is that it is easier - especially on the pastor.

It's like disciplining one's children. Is it easier to say "no" or is it easier to be your child's friend?

I don't like enforcing closed communion. I don't like disciplining my son. But if I carried out my vocation based on what I like as opposed to what my duty is, I would ultimately be harming those whom I'm charged to care for.

It's almost like our pastoral practice has been designed by Benjamin Spock and the prophets of self-esteem.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Cecil:

Diversity is our strength. War is peace. Slavery is freedom...

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Bror:

I know, I know. But a fella can dream, can't he?

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Mike:

Good point. The argument has gotten so far off track that there is actually a side-debate over whether we should describe our communion practice as "closed" or as "close."

You don't get much more postmodern than debating labels to the detriment of the substance.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Christine:

I remember the situation when Bill Clinton was president, and a Roman Catholic priest communed him, knowing full well doing so violated not only his own church's canon law, but also knowing full well that Clinton was a Baptist.

His justification was: "I couldn't refuse communion to the President of the U.S.!"

Interestingly, the Obamas are currently church-shopping, and take communion wherever they go - even though the Episcopal church and the Baptist church not only believe some mutually-exclusive doctrines in general, but even about whet communion itself is!

But notice what the criteria are: politics, racial make-up of the congregation, convenience, etc. Belief doesn't seem to matter at all.

And this is what the "big cone" is ultimately about: the irrelevance of belief.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear PE and Daniel:

I believe that the old custom of meeting the pastor privately on Saturday to "announce" for communion on Sunday was based on the need for private pastoral consultation and care - which would certainly include absolution.

At my congregation, there are people who remember when you would announce to Pr. Schmid that you would be taking the Sacrament.

Of course, to reinstate that in this day and age of convenience, in a culture that eschews commitment and follow-through would be a disaster.

As this "cone theory" demonstrates, we have done a 180 and put the pedal to the metal.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Todd:

Yes indeed. Thank you. If I had come up with the word "sophistry" I could have saved a couple thousand words.

The sad part is that I don't think the advocate of this theory is trying to be a sophist. I think he is well-intentioned but simple-minded.

Logic can (and indeed often does) oppose faith. But there is something to be said for thinking clearly and using reason in defense of the faith. Maybe our seminary programs need to be more intellectually rigorous - even as we are doing the opposite and making it easy, convenient, cheap, and less intellectually difficult to become a pastor in the LCMS.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Brokenbeaker:

Problem is, we actually have pastors who claim the confessions are optional, that "sola scriptura" means we only need to pay attention to the confessions that are directly proof-texted with scripture.

Here is a remarkable discussion thread where this is argued by an LCMS pastor. There are more than 200 comments to wade through, though!

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Brad:

It reminds me of the ad campaign by the United Methodist Church a few years ago, something like "Open doors, open minds."

In the name of being "welcoming" (which at its root is driven by a marketing desire for numbers because our church body is shrinking along with the declining population of our LCMS families), we are now willing to open doors that were closed for a good reason.

As Todd has pointed out, the "cone" argument is sophistry. I have more respect for the guys who practice open communion and come right out and admit that's what it is.

Putting a dog in front of me and trying to convince me it's a chrysanthemum doesn't give me a lot of faith in anything else a person says.

Refusing someone communion is hard. I hate having to do it. I'm sorely tempted every time to just give the person communion and be a "nice guy." But I know it is not the right thing to do (though, there truly are rare exceptions, but exceptions are, by definition, exceptional cases).

There are several area pastors who have "bigger cones" - who will commune Roman Catholic and ELCA relatives of our members - which only serves to make the "big coned" seem jovial and nice, while portraying those of us who are trying hard to be faithful as mean, hateful, or unloving. That is what's frustrating.

I'm not going to ascribe motives to any individual who practices open communion, but I do think in general, a lot of the motivation is cowardice and a desire to be seen as a "nice guy."

I was told about a recent church rededication in our area in which a local Baptist pastor (who was publicly introduced as such) was given communion. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that nothing will happen to the pastor that communed him right in front of the district president.

Meanwhile, the antics of the "big cones" are destroying what's left of our tattered unity and confusing the laity.

And in the end, they are devaluing the sacrament - for ultimately, it doesn't matter at all what you believe - for even a lack of belief in the Real Presence (the Baptist belief) is no impediment to communing together.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to dredge up an older topic on your blog, but this is interesting to me because I never really thought of how important of an issue it is rationally speaking. I mean the Lords Supper is extremely important, and I have always thought I have received communion in the manner upon which I have learned it within the Bible - that is, the taking of food and drink to remember the sacrifice of our Lord.

I guess I do not understand how church doctrine can trump the Lords words in such a case. Assume I go to communion at a Catholic church, do I accept the the doctrine of all the Catholic church teaches is correct when I take the communion, even though I am actually trying to do what the Lord commanded, and simply, humbly remember His sacrifice?