Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Fellowship at the Altar
If there is one issue that greatly confuses and concerns members of my church body it has to be fellowship and the Lord's Supper. Many churches today practice a very loose fellowship where the criteria for participation is the bare minimum of agreement on Jesus and real presence. Some denominations practice a completely open fellowship where everyone is invited, regardless of belief. Thus, when church bodies like the LCMS declare their fellowship at the altar to be one of "close" or "closed" fellowship as it is called, some people cringe in a way similar to those who have heard a derogatory or racist comment.
The fear is that we are denying a gift freely given that is not ours to withhold. Or that we are somehow unfairly judging the faith of the potential communicant and declaring ourselves to be spiritually superior. It is easy to see how one can come to these conclusions. Still, they are not correct.
The Supper on any given Sunday is celebrated at many tables and many altars. With the variety offered in today's denominational landscape it would not be difficult to find a church or denomination that fits the theological convictions of any given person. Thus, one could always find a place to commune, even if one or two altars were closed to their participation.
Unfortunately many church goers think little about what their church or any other believes. One can frequently hear a person saying that "they all believe in the same God," thus, they must be all the same. Simple logic, but one with a huge, gaping hole. Doctrine is a unified and interrelated whole, not a loose and unrelated collection of stray teachings. Take one out and the rest are affected. For example, belief in the real presence is intimately tied to ones understanding of the attributes of Christ and the communication of his natures. You simply cannot deny his real bodily presence and hold to the teaching that Christ, according to his human nature, enjoys the attributes of divinity, one of which is omnipresence.
For confessional Lutheran church bodies like the LCMS, fellowship at the altar has demonstrated an outward unity of faith. As Paul reminds us, we proclaim the Lord's atoning death each time we commune. It is not a matter of simply receiving, we are also proclaiming by our very presence. Thus, we ask that communicants be committed to the teaching of the church as we proclaim it, and be willing to do so publicly. However, many Christians today believe that faith is a person matter between them and God alone. Thus, some of the consternation.
Lutherans have also been conscious that one can eat and drink at the Table either to ones spiritual health or to ones spiritual condemnation. In Paul's day the judgement of God expressed itself very clearly in untimely deaths in Corinth when these people disregarded the presence of Christ and approached the table in irreverence and selfishness. Feeling truly responsible for the spiritual health of all, Lutherans have historically been quick to protect the potential communicant from spiritual harm by making sure they are adequately instructed and prepared. Again, many people disregard such caution as unnecessary, which may be due, in part, to a view of the Supper that is more Reformed, where the Supper is just a symbolic act.
However, Lutherans are not alone in their concern for fellowship at the Table. Roman Catholics have published statements in their own worship booklets regarding such matters. For example, the statement addressed to "Other Christians" (which I have seen in Catholic worship booklets) reads:
"We welcome to this celebration of the Eucharist those Christians who are not fully united with us. It is a consequence of the sad divisions in Christianity that we cannot extend to them a general invitation to receive Communion. Catholics believe that the Eucharist is an action of the celebrating community signifying a oneness in faith, life, and worship of the community. Reception of the Eucharist by Christians not fully united with us would imply a oneness which does not yet exist, and for which we must all pray."
I respect such a statement. It is honest and actually expresses much of what I, as a Lutheran, also believe about fellowship and the Supper. Unfortunately we live in an era that has looked down on the value of doctrinal faithfulness, and even certain leaders within the broader Evangelical community are speaking out against this laxity in their own midst. The mega churches of today practice a very loose fellowship, where the door is a revolving one, constantly spinning as people exit and enter at will. Commitment is a hard word for people raised in a promiscuous and permissive society that values uncontrolled freedom over discipline. Close(d) communion practices fly in the face of this societal laxity.
It is a shame that we have also lost our moorings to the Early Church in this area. Faced with such devastating heresies as Arianism, church leaders in the early centuries took great pains to make sure that those at their altars possessed the right, saving faith in Christ, and were not deniers of his divinity. They actually carried letters from their pastors or bishops to vouch for their orthodoxy. How far we have drifted from their concerns and their respect of the blessed Sacrament.
Fellowship at the Table will always be the thorn in the side of confessing church bodies as long as there are those who hold up openness at the altar as the true Christian ideal. Yet even Jesus admitted that his coming would bring more strife than peace at times. Christ is a divisive figure for many today, and that should not surprise us when they demand their rights at His Table with indifference to His own Word.