Pastoral Care, Pastoral Fellowship, and Clarifying Closed Communion

Over this past year, among the various points that I have chosen to keep at the forefront of my own mind and in front of the District, I’ve focused on the practice of Closed Communion as an exercise of pastoral care – within a larger context of ongoing pastoral care. That is to say, the faithful administration of the Sacrament of the Altar goes hand-in-hand with all the things that a pastor does to catechize and care for the people of God: the preaching and teaching of the Word of Christ, the hearing of confession and the speaking of Holy Absolution, and pastoral visitation.

The Lord’s Supper is not a fast-food meal from a drive-thru window, it is the Family Meal at the heart and center of the Household and Family of God; and within each congregation, the pastor is the house-father who presides and serves at the Family Table. The Supper is administered, not in isolation, but along with the proclamation of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, which is fundamental to the celebration of the Sacrament in the remembrance of Him (1 Cor. 11:25-26). Such preaching goes beyond the isolated case of a single sermon on any given Sunday, just as it is not to the crowds who hear His preaching on the seashores, mountains, and plains, but to His own disciples in the Upper Room that Jesus gives His Body and His Blood, that is, to those who are baptized in His Name and catechized in all that He commands (St. Matt. 26:26-28; 28:18-20).

This ongoing pastoral care of preaching and catechesis is also then the basis for the practice of Closed Communion. We do not aim to read hearts and minds by trying to discover and discern what visitors subjectively believe and think about their sins, their Savior, and the Sacrament, but we inquire about objective external facts: Are they baptized? Where do they go to church? And who is their pastor? If they aren’t baptized, don’t have a church home, and don’t have a pastor, then they certainly shouldn’t be communing. In such cases, we’d obviously love to become their church and their pastor, but that takes time and is undertaken through the process of catechesis. Alternatively, if our visitors have a church and pastor from outside of our fellowship, they should receive the Sacrament from their own pastor within the context of his ongoing pastoral care for them. It is a matter of respect, not only for our own church fellowship, but also for their pastor.

In sketching this out in simple terms here, I do also want to clarify a point that has evidently been misunderstood in some instances. It has never been my suggestion that communicant members of our LCMS churches should only ever commune from their own pastor in their own congregation. That would effectively undo the church fellowship of our Synod, which is primarily a matter of sharing in the administration and use of the means of grace. Which is also to say that our church fellowship is fundamentally a fellowship of pastoral care – a fellowship of pastors who exercise and share the same practice of care for the people of God in and with the Word and Sacraments. Not to say that the pastors of the Synod are all alike, as we all know that is not the case. But we are trained and certified by a common standard in the teaching and confession of the Bible and the Book of Concord, and we are bound together by a common commitment to those standards.

At every ordination and installation of every LCMS pastor, the promise is made, again and again, that all our preaching, teaching, and practice will be in conformity with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. That oath of office pertains not only to individual integrity but to our pastoral fellowship. And this is also to the point at hand: Closed Communion does not mean that we commune only those members of our own respective congregations. Rather, as an exercise of pastoral fellowship, the faithful practice of Closed Communion means that we also commune the communicant members of our sister congregations who are under the care of our brother pastors. And that also is a matter of respect for our church fellowship and for the pastors of our visitors.