The Logic of Closed Communion
A few weeks ago, I found myself having a fruitful discussion about Christian unity with a nondenominational friend. His concerns echoed many of those voiced by Peter Leithart in The End of Protestantism—fragmentation over comparatively insignificant differences, the mandate of Jesus that his followers be one, and so forth. And I tend to think that many of those observations have force: in a cultural moment where questions of orthodoxy seem less and less bound up with longstanding denominational divides, getting too hung up on the finer points of dogma can feel pretty pedantic.
In response, I referred him to Gene Veith and Trevor Sutton’s recent book Authentic Christianity, which approaches that question from a distinctly Lutheran perspective. My friend subsequently remarked that confessional Lutheranism was largely off the table for him—no pun intended—due to its practice of “closed communion” (or, as it’s sometimes labeled via an annoyingly cutesy neologism, “close communion”). To his mind, this is an archetypal case of unnecessary line-drawing between orthodox Christians.
Essentially, “closed communion” is the practice “whereby only those individuals who are members of [a denomination] or of a church body with which the [denomination] is in altar and pulpit fellowship are ordinarily communed.” In other words, Baptists and Presbyterians typically can’t receive Communion at a Lutheran church. And this isn’t a specifically Lutheran idea—Catholics and Orthodox Christians have the same restriction on the sacrament. But is it warranted?
I freely admit that my views tend to run in an ecumenical direction, and I tend to think the litmus test for “altar fellowship” should be somewhat less rigorous than it is today. But as I’ve wrestled with this issue over the years, I’ve come to see that the position I held earlier in my life—that closed communion was a ridiculous and unnecessary impediment to Christian unity—was probably wrong. So, what follows is my best attempt to articulate, in accessible terms, why some version of closed communion does indeed make sense.
In the broadest sense, some restriction on Communion participation is deeply rooted in historical tradition: it has virtually always been the practice of the Church to restrict Communion to those identified as Christian believers. The traditional liturgical division of the worship service into the “Service of the Word” and the “Service of the Sacrament” reflects this: in the earliest days of the Church, those who had not been baptized could attend the “Service of the Word” at which the Scriptures were proclaimed, but were not even permitted to witness the Eucharist. To adopt a totally open approach to Communion—that is, one in which participants’ religious affiliation is irrelevant—is to deviate sharply from the historical understanding that the Eucharist is a distinctly Christian celebration.
And that particular kind of deviation is explicitly warned against in Scripture: as the Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 11:27–29: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.” Paul’s statement could hardly be clearer: the one who fails to recognize Christ’s presence “under” the physical forms of the sacrament does so at a distinct risk to themselves. Just as Moses was warned to remove his sandals before entering the presence of God (Ex. 3:5) and Uzzah was struck down for mishandling the Ark of the Covenant where God’s presence resided (1 Chron. 13:9–10), encountering God through Communion is not an action taken lightly.
To my mind, these factors compel the conclusion that some form of “closed communion” is not only desirable, but also mandatory—for the sake of those who might otherwise receive the Eucharist to their detriment. But I doubt this is an especially controversial observation (except maybe among denominations that don’t take Paul’s teaching here as normative—and that’s a whole different ballgame). Far more controversial, I think, is the practice of denying Communion to other Christians who affirm the Nicene Creed.
Here, I think, the rationale may properly shift from a strictly theological one to a quasi-sociological one. To my mind, closed communion epitomizes the principle that the faith ought to be practiced within the context of a discrete local congregation. On Sunday morning, the invitation to worship is extended to all; the invitation to the altar, however, is extended only to those who have made themselves accountable to a discernible institutional order beyond themselves. It is, in a sense, an invitation to seek membership.
This “principle of subsidiarity” also entails that an individual living in unrepentant sin—of which the local congregation is presumably aware—may be denied the sacrament until their behavior changes. Because those within a common denomination will, ideally, enforce the discipline imposed of a member congregation, the offender cannot simply go to another parish: if they wish to receive Communion again, they must reckon with their past conduct.
In a cultural environment where younger Christians are increasingly inclined to seek unity between denominations, I find that this way of thinking about closed communion makes more practical sense than the justification often deployed—that “full unity in doctrine” is absolutely necessary for altar fellowship to occur.
There are at least two good reasons for this. First, the definition of “full unity in doctrine” is not at all clear. One might reasonably expect that subscription to the Lutheran Confessions (because they are faithful expositions of Scripture) constitutes a sufficient unity of doctrine for fellowship to occur, but historically this has not been seen as such. Demanding “full unity,” absent an obvious norming standard, risks kicking off an endless regress of ever-finer doctrinal hairsplitting. And second, framing the issue strictly as one of doctrinal purity among orthodox Christians—such that a member of the Anglican Church in North America must be denied Communion at an LCMS Lutheran congregation solely because of minor theological differences—seems to me to be not only unnecessarily pedantic, but readily misunderstood as the denomination implying that other Christians are not truly believers.
At bottom, the goal of church order—that is, the preservation of meaningful internal discipline—strikes me as a quite compelling justification for practicing closed communion. The practice is a way of ensuring that even in an era of splintered denominations, the universal Church may establish and defend standards for its members. It is decidedly not a declaration that the members of one tradition are intrinsically “holier” than those of another. And it ought not be understood as such.