Should I commune?
This is a question more and more Lutherans are asking themselves on a more frequent basis it seems as they travel around the country and find themselves in different churches. It is a question I have often asked myself. As a young man in the Air Force stationed overseas it was a vexing question. On Sunday morning I had my choice, Roman Catholic or “General” Protestant. My answer then as now when I visit congregations of a differing confession was always no. To be sure in the two years I had that particular choice, there were a few times where I wanted to falter. Especially one Thursday night when the “Lutheran” service became the liturgical service, presided over by a Methodist, who was the only non-Lutheran in the room. I went forward, but turned away when the cup was handed to a woman to distribute.
Shortly after arriving stateside I found an LCMS Church to attend for Divine Service. My Youthful exuberance at being done with the question was squashed in no time. It began when I visited with the “Evangelism committee” who were not themselves Lutheran, though members of the Church. The pastor had simply asked them if they wanted to be members and took them in. The Bible study reflected this approach as basic questions such as “should we baptize our children?” Were given many different answers and the Lutheran answer was not well accepted. A few weeks later I was told to shut up while reading 1 Timothy 2:12 in answer to a question regarding women’s ordination. I again wrestled do I commune here? I was one of a handful of people, and most of those women, who knew anything of Lutheran theology and its importance. I was immensely skeptical of the pastor, and wanted nothing to do with the Promise Keeper movement within the congregation.
After doing much soul searching I decided as long as this congregation had the LCMS logo out front I would commune. To be sure they were less than an orthodox congregation. The oneness Paul admonishes for Christian congregations in 1 Corinthians, was all but non-existent. I think many today in our circles would come to a different conclusion, and drive down the street. I was beholden to a ride, and did I love the young couple that picked me up Sunday after Sunday to bring me to church. God bless such willing souls. That was an act of Christian love par excellence. I didn’t have the option of driving down the street, and I am glad I didn’t have that option. The vicar and I became close friends. I think also it was helpful for those in Bible Study to hear an orthodox Lutheran answer every once in awhile.
I communed there, and would today. I came to some understandings in that trial of faith that have formed me ever since. This congregation claimed to be an LCMS Congregation, they at least gave lip service to the Lutheran Confessions. As long as they were an LCMS Congregation I felt I had opportunity to work in and with the congregation. I share the confession of faith, and of the same mind and judgment as the LCMS formally has. I don’t know what others believe even to this day when they commune at my altar. As a pastor today, I like to think I know what they have been taught to believe. These people know what they should believe, when they are in my congregation. After they have been taught I don’t question. But do address issues as they crop up. I am not the Lutheran inquisition. So I came to the conclusion that when I commune at an LCMS altar, I am confessing unity, and this unity is not a sham, with the people around me. We are confessing doctrinal unity. That doctrinal unity is found in what the LCMS believes, teaches, and confesses according to scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. If the person next to me for some reason doesn’t know what that is, I am not responsible for that. I can only be responsible for myself, and know that when I commune there I am not lying with my confession of doctrinal unity, perhaps even if I know the pastor is, and the majority of the congregation is wittingly or unwittingly. I can’t know what everyone believes, I can know what the LCMS publicly and officially believes, teaches, and confesses. I commune with that in mind. I may even have a few quibbles with a CTCR document, but find to this day enough doctrinal unity between what I believe and the LCMS believes to salve my conscience.
To this day I take the same approach. It sometimes bothers me to see pastors at different conferences all claiming to be LCMS pastors, and yet divided to the point they don’t commune with each other. Perhaps there is a time and a place for that. I don’t know. The Corinthian church had doctrinal differences in their midst. I see nowhere that Paul told them to stop communing with each other until they had resolved all those differences. Though he certainly did tell them to resolve them, and then gave them a confession of faith to rally around. I suppose those who didn’t believe that confession of faith left, or eventually came over to it. But it would have been silly for those who accepted the confession of faith Paul put forward to have ceded the church to the heterodox and stop communing with them. They weren’t the ones with the problem, it was the others. And that is my stance. This is my confession, the one you publicly and officially claim to, if you don’t agree with it in your heart, but confess to it anyway as you approach this altar, that is something you will answer for, I cannot be held responsible, except insofar as I have not in a Christian and loving manner tried to correct you in this.
When I say I am not responsible, I must make that caveat. We as Christians are in a sense our brother’s keeper. We do have a responsibility to admonish and correct our brothers and sisters in Christ, in a Christian manner, in truth and love. We have a duty to work toward a faithful confession of Christ. This is not helped by a cliquish approach to communion as Synodical conferences, Winkels, etc. To be sure you are communing with liberals there. That is a reality of the day in which we live. But there they are bowing to the orthodox confession, you are not bowing to their confession when you commune at the altar. So commune, and then let them know what that confession of faith is if you find them in their statements making less than an orthodox confession.
If you refrain from communing with your brothers for other reasons, such as personal grievance with them then you have a duty, yes a duty, to approach them about that. It is unseemly for Christians to harbor grudges and not commune with each other at the same altar, all the while communing at different altars in supposed fellowship with each other for two, three years and even longer. The reality of the communion of saints, says that you are communing with that other brother in Christ, should your altars be 3,000 miles apart from each other. Here I will unabashedly apply the law. When I as an LCMS Pastor celebrate communion at the altar next to my Pulpit, in the confines of the sanctuary where I have absolute control over that is taught, and publicly confessed to be the belief of the congregation, I am still communing with the other members of my synod, and all members of the invisible church. To not approach the same physical altar as another because of a personal grievance all the while communing at my own altar does not absolve me from Matthew 5. If I cannot in good conscience commune with my brother at the same altar, neither should I commune elsewhere. If I expect Christ to forgive my sins, which he does, at the altar, then I should learn from that and forgive my brother also. We cannot have our cake and eat it too in this regard.