Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Necessary Book! Close Communion Conversations

Close Communion Conversations, by Dr. Peter M. Kurowski, is a much needed book. Here. Dr. Kurowski attacks the difficulties surrounding the necessity of Close Communion. He does much service to pastors and congregations alike, showing the dangers of both being too regimented in a practice of closed communion, and just how it is that the gospel is at stake with open communion. He deals with the thoughts that every self respecting undershepherd of Christ’s sheep struggle with Sunday after Sunday as they contemplate administering the sacrament in a responsible way too both members and non members. Where do we draw the line, and why? Am I really preaching the gospel if I then turn these people away from the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper? But how can I commune them if they aren’t Lutheran? Am I really preaching the gospel to them if I let them commune with misconceptions as to what it is and what they are receiving? What kind of hot water will I get in with my own members who might think I’m just being weak in the knees if I commune this visitor, who obviously isn’t Lutheran, but is coming up anyway?
Close communion is a sticky wicket for pastors. Yet, as Dr. Kurowski points out, “Closed” communion is not an option, and open communion is a recipe for disaster. Close communion puts a lot of responsibility on the pastor, who necessarily must take each case on its own terms. In the course of 26 chapters, he struggles and informs and bleeds with pastors relating his own experiences to the predicaments that faithfulness to the Bible and Lutheran Confessions brings about. He handles the scriptures with thoughtfulness and compassion. In the end, he shows that close communion, as it is practiced officially by the LCMS is really the only way to go, and that grace must abound even for the pastor who will mess up.
The anecdotal nature of the manuscript is both problematic and a necessary blessing. At first I found that aspect of the book to be mildly annoying. We all have stories. And I was hoping for more concreteness in the form of a theological abstract review of the practice, what the Bible says and does not say, what the confessions say and don’t. Yet he covers those things, and in the end I was thankful for the anecdotal nature of the book. The anecdotes show the consternation. It is also true that this is where the rubber meets the road in pastoral ministry, and the subject is not handled well in the abstract but in the concrete only reflection on an anecdotal experience can bring.
Of Course, also problematic to the anecdotal nature of the book is that it becomes somewhat an invitation to criticize another man’s decisions. You do it even if you are in agreement! I suppose that is the courage of Dr. Kurowski’s writing, I’m sure he knew there would be plenty reading who would say “I would not have done that” or “He is a bit liberal there.” And he doesn’t shy away from that. I did have some disagreements in this area. For instance just because they use the same language as us, does not mean that they mean the same thing by it. Episcopalians and Anglicans may emphasize the Real Presence, that in itself is more or less a crap shoot from congregation to congregation, but then it can be that from one LCMS congregation to another too. But then among those who tell me they believe in the Real Presence, short conversations with them reveal that they don’t believe his body and blood are present at all. R.C. Sproul has a communion statement that stresses the Real Presence, but goes out of its way to avoid talking about the Body and Blood of Jesus at all, much less being present in Holy Communion. This has been a long standing reformed trick.
On the other hand, extremely useful was his commentary that perhaps the bar for communion fellowship need not be as strict as that for Altar Fellowship. I think this is something more than a few pastors have struggled with, as they realize that their own members through misunderstanding of what has been taught, or through influence of the culture around them have carried their own misconceptions about Holy Communion, but have communed and been corrected. That there is a sense in which Holy Communion creates and establishes theological unity, even as it is the result of it. That most visitors who come to Holy Communion aren’t gate crashing teachers of another gospel, even if they are the victims of false teachers. Do we do these victims any service by banishing them from the Altar until they have enough training to actually preach? Even whilst our own members are struggling with maybe even greater difficulty because at home they have a steady diet of Max Lucado and Rick Warren, or conversations with Baptist friends and in-laws. Could it be that these are nothing more than bruised reeds, that could safely commune crying “I believe, help my unbelief!”?
The beauty of this book is it asks the questions, invites conversation and will be a greatly useful tool for pastors trying to bring a congregation back from open communion practices, while also serving as a platform for congregations that may have become to legalistic in their practice of close communion, perhaps crossing over to closed communion, to discuss their own predicaments, which is just as big a problem in our current climate.


Larry said...

This is always a tough one. My own personal experience, we didn’t become offended as Reformed moving/investigating Luther membership over the issue of close communion. Neither have our baptist family members when visiting, except for one, but he had other issues too as we later found out. That, for us, even went when moving from Baptist to Reformed, we didn’t expect immediate open communion.

It’s a loving teaching in reality. It’s really no difference than when I was an atheist and Christians in order to witness to me would have to say at some point, “you to are a sinner”. At first blow on the outside, a non-Christian, that’s harsh sounding. But its really love. Love that leaves one in deception is no love for the neighbor at all but really a false piety that loves itself (self love). In fact, in form, all the arguments for “open” communion and all its subtle variations are the exact same form of arguments that argue against Jesus being the only way, truth and life made by those outside the faith.

It’s a form of antinomianism that is more dangerous than rank legalism and similar in form to what Luther wrote about concerning the non-preaching of repentance (after all when one moves from say believers baptism to infant baptism ala Lutheran confessions, and likewise the LS, one IS repenting of the former). (Luther) “As regards doctrine, we find, among other things, this to be the chief fault that, while some preach the faith by which we are to be made righteous, they do not give a sufficient explanation how we are to attain faith. Thus nearly all of them omit an integral part of the Christian doctrine, without which no one can understand what faith is or what deserves the name of faith. For Christ says, Luke 24, 47, that ‘repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name.’ However, nowadays many speak only of forgiveness of sin and say little or nothing regarding repentance notwithstanding the fact that without repentance there is no remission of sins, nor can remission of sins be understood without repentance. If remission of sins without repentance is preached, the people imagine that they have already forgiveness of sins, and thereby they are made secure and unconcerned. This is a greater error and sin than all errors of former times, and it is verily to be feared that we are in that danger which Christ points out when He says, Matt. 12, 45: ‘The last state of that man shall be worse than the first.’”

Leaving it at the “Do you believe in the Real Presence” only query whereby a Reformed could nod yes is the worst of all deceptions. For it deceives both the Lutheran and the Reformed. Then one has to question, “What if FACT is it I receive from said pastor at said pulpit into my mouth, is it the Reformed Real Presence or the Lutheran body and blood? For the visiting Reformed has concurred with our Real Presence”. In such situations of opening the communion doors to the cracked width of “real presence”, puts to question what is the objective thing being received in fact. What does such a pastor/church actually confess, “Real Presence” ala Calvin or “Real Presence” ala Luther. Objectively speaking one is MORE sure in a Reformed church what one is receiving in the mouth, just bread and wine, but spiritual presence is ushered in and a RC church. But in Lutheran churches that leave it hanging on the dishonest “Real Presence” question, its hard to say what they put into your mouth either way.

Larry said...

Sounds like a good book.

Steve Martin said...

We believe that the baptized who believe Christ is present ought to be able to receive Him.

We understand your reasons for believing otherwise, but we will err on the side of God's grace here and trust that He can handle all those who's beliefs are exactly quite right.


Bror Erickson said...

Completely ignoring God's warning and admonitions concerning the partaking of the Lord's Supper is not erring on the side of Grace. It is ignoring God's word because it sometimes hurts to love and exercise caution and compassion.
That said, one of the points of this book is no one really practices open communion, and in reality no one ought to practice closed communion. This is about taking God's word seriously and loving God's people.

Larry said...

That’s exactly the point. The logic of the so called “default to grace” is the same logic that says Jesus or God is just named and viewed differently from other “ways” such as Buddhism, so we’ll just default to grace and “let God” handle His.

This is in reality a form of anabaptistic enthusiasm that says, “the spirit, the spirit will do it” without using any real means Word or Sacrament. This basically how reformed and baptistic thought divorces the Word from the Spirit while appealing to the Word. It misses the point that God uses particular means of grace so prescribed (e.g. Christ says, “This is My body” not “this is My ‘real presence’).

There’s a reason a Lutheran ought not commune at a Reformed altar, because one is not sure what is actually being given. Likewise those who “open” the communion doors the width of “real presence” at length confound and beg the question, “What is IT that you put into my and his and her mouths?” Or “Am I”, at such churches receiving Christ’s body and blood in my mouth, or since one has allowed “real presence” affirmation (e.g. Calvinist) and knowing that such a person does not believe it is the body and blood and “real presence” means something else, what is it indeed you are giving everyone. Because its not at all clear. If it is the real body and blood, then why not be honest and tell that to them in those words rather than hide behind “real presence” which means two entirely different things depending on whose doctrine and teaching one appeals to.

IF one is going to “open” the communion doors to all baptized, then at least be honest about it to them and say, “We believe, teach and confess that what I’m putting into your mouth is the body and blood of the Son of God”. Otherwise one is deceiving everybody including the visitor and the normal members.

Anonymous said...

Suggested Reading: Luther's Sermon - "We are all One Cake".
This is a free down-load from the internet.

Frank Sonnek said...


st Paul, as ruler of his congretation, laid down rules for communion. These are pretty obviously not culturally situational rules, like his orders in one situation to follow jewish dietary laws and be circumcized.

My question to you steve is if it is wise to not at least wrestle with those commands of st paul.

the visible church is a goverment like any other earthly government (apology on the church). that means there are rules that aim to protect and further the purpose of that government.

baptism , you are right, is how one enters that visible earthly government called the holy Catholic church. On that basis the question as to inviting someone to the altar is "were you baptized"?

but, we live in a context. In our age there are many parts of the visible church that denies alot of things. And people publicly attach themselves to the altars of those groups. do we do them a favor by not at least briefly examining and catechising them as the confessions say we are to do?

In my church here in Brasil, the congregation and pastor deliberately make sure that the pastor is unbusy for the 1/2 hour before the divine service. this is not easy to do! and we do this for a reason. this is so the pastor can personally talk to visitors before the service and examine them? "do you believe that believers and unbelievers alike receive the body and blood of Christ in communion?" "have you been baptized?" "do you regularly attend a church now?" "which one?" These are the questions. Sometimes the pastor will commune even a baptist based upon what he says, and then other times he will ask that person to come forward to receive a blessing.

Now on the other hand... I would NEVER bow in front of the altar and commune in a church that is not at unity with my own. so this is different than the question of open or closed communion. when I attend a roman catholic service, I respect their practices and go and receive a blessing from the priest to not stick out, and at the same time do the right thing.

Frank Sonnek said...

Steve Martin:

Our confessions state that we do not commune people until they have first been examined and absolved.

This is the confessional position.

Please put this position into the context of the practice of your own church and tell me if they could honestly confess what our Confessions say is the Evangelical Lutheran practice.

Now if your church wants to say that they subscribe to the Confessions only where they agree with them, then that is another discussion isn't it?