Church Fellowship and Pastoral Care
As I’ve had the opportunity to share on various occasions over these past six months, among the priorities I have chosen to set before our Indiana District is the important significance of Closed Communion and the need for greater clarity and consistency of doctrine and practice in this area. It is, of course, fundamental to our fellowship as a Church, since it is not only our common confession of Christ but our common participation in His Means of Grace that binds us together as brother pastors and sister congregations within His Church on earth. And Closed Communion, in particular, is not simply the teaching and practice of our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod; it is in accordance with the Word of our Lord and belongs to the integrity of His Holy Sacrament.
My concerns are two-fold: First of all, I want all of our pastors and congregations to be united and consistent in the actual practice of Closed Communion. And second, along with that practice, I want there to be a clear understanding of what this means and why it is appropriate and necessary, meet, right, and salutary. Regrettably, though, it is sometimes communicated and conveyed in a way that is confusing, misleading, and offensive, albeit with the best of intentions.
As stewards of the Mysteries of God, we are always concerned that the Sacrament of the Altar not be given to those who would receive it unworthily and to their judgment, as St. Paul warns in First Corinthians. But the reality is – and this is precisely at the heart of the main point – that we are in no position to discern or determine the worthiness of those from outside of our fellowship, because they are not under our pastoral care. That sort of discernment is brought to bear in cases of Church Discipline, when our own members may need to be denied the Sacrament until such a time when they are brought to repentance for some persistent or public sin.
The only true worthiness for the reception of the Holy Communion is faith in Christ Jesus and His Word of the Gospel. When Christians from outside of our fellowship come to us seeking and desiring the Sacrament, I would generally not suppose them to be without such faith in Jesus, nor that they would receive His Body and Blood “unworthily” and to their detriment. Nevertheless, I would not administer the Sacrament to them, nor should I do so, because being outside of our fellowship means, by definition, that they are not under but outside of our pastoral care. And that is decisive, because pastoral care is integral to the administration of the Sacrament.
The Body and Blood of Christ are not distributed like fast food through a drive-thru window. They are given and received within a context of ongoing pastoral care, comprising the preaching of the Gospel and the catechesis of the Word of Christ, confession and Absolution, visitation, and all those things that pastors do for the people of God entrusted to their care and oversight. We commune the members of our sister congregations because they are under the pastoral care of our brother pastors. Church Fellowship is really a fellowship of such pastoral care.
Christians from outside of our Church Fellowship should seek to receive the Sacrament from their own pastors – within the context of ongoing pastoral care from their own pastors. And in those cases where they may not have their own pastor, then, by all means, we should welcome them to come under our pastoral care – in the way that the Church has been doing since the very beginning, which is to say, by the process of catechesis and the public confession of the faith. So do we go about bringing them into our fellowship and establishing a relationship of pastoral care.