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Daily Archives: February 1, 2007


The Eucharist: Preserving Both Unity and Purity

The fourth and fifth “risks” of Eucharistic sharing Jeffrey VanderWilt considers in chapter 2 of Communion with Non-Catholic Christians need to be discussed together, if for no other reason because most Christians tend to shortchange one or the other. One risk has to do with concern for the unity of the church; the other with preserving its purity.

4. Expressing a Nonexistent Unity

VanderWilt raises the objection of some that the Catholic church risks celebrating a “nonexistent” unity if it were to share Communion with non-Catholics. In other words, Christians must have unity before they can express unity by sharing the Eucharist (54). Other faith traditions that insist on closed Communion have similar concerns.

For purposes of this discussion, I’m assuming we are talking about those whose faith at least approximates the doctrinal norms that have prevailed from the earliest centuries. I’m addressing issues surrounding sharing Communion between two or more clearly Christian denominations. In that context, what does it mean for Christians with widely divergent understandings of doctrine, morality, biblical interpretation, church governance, ordained ministry, the nature of the sacraments, etc., to speak of being “one” in the observance of Communion? We may idealistically talk about devotion to Christ as the common denominator, but are we even sure we mean the same thing by saying those words? Some would doubt the sincerity of my allegiance to Christ because of the things I believe (or don’t believe) and do (or don’t do).

Please don’t misunderstand me: I think common commitment to Jesus Christ is a superb basis for extending Eucharistic hospitality to believers of different denominations. That was always the standing policy in churches of which I was pastor. My only point is that those of us who have no problems with open Communion need to appreciate the reservations of others.

Ironically, the closer I get to affirming a Catholic understanding of what the Eucharist does, the less inclined I am to affirm closed Communion. According to Catholic theology, the Eucharist “is both a means toward unity and a visible expression of unity insofar as it already exists here among us” (54). In other words, the Eucharist is affirmed to do something on a spiritual level to produce the unity of which it is a sign. If this is true, then the fact of disunity is itself a compelling argument for open Communion! Otherwise, the thinking seems to go like this:

  1. Christians lack unity.
  2. The Eucharist is a God-given means of producing unity.
  3. Therefore, only those who have already achieved a measurable degree of unity are invited to participate.

I know I was never very good at math, but could someone please explain that one to me?

On the other hand, if one accepts a purely symbolic interpretation of the Eucharist, one might make the case that Christians must produce or display sufficient unity before we can gather together at the Lord’s Table. But then, if we really believe that the Lord’s Supper doesn’t do anything, why should we be concerned about Christians from other denominations communing with us?

5. Indiscriminate Reception of Holy Communion

Finally, VanderWilt writes, there is the risk of “indiscriminate communion.” Of all the possible objections to open Communion, this is the most persuasive to me because there is clear biblical evidence that it was a concern of the early church as well. Even so, I’m not convinced closed Communion is a biblically acceptable solution.

According to Paul,

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor 11:27-30)

According to this passage, it is spiritually (perhaps even physically!) dangerous to receive the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner: failing to discern the Lord’s body. There is no shortage of views on what precisely it means to receive unworthily. Some would regard any kind of unconfessed sin as a disqualifier. Others would press the detail that the unworthiness has to do specifically with failure to “discern the body.” This interpretation makes much more sense in the context of the flaunting of social inequalities within the Corinthian church and would also dovetail nicely with Jesus’ command about making peace with one’s brother or sister “on the way to the altar” (Mt 5:23-24)–a passage long applied to proper reception of the Eucharist.

Churches have long turned to this passage to justify policies and procedures to limit access to the Lord’s Supper based, one would hope, on a pastoral concern that no one be done spiritual harm by receiving Communion unworthily. It must be frankly admitted that these same policies and procedures have also often been used to excommunicate unjustly those who have run afoul of the ecclesiastical powers that be.

Even so, healthy relationships in the church do matter. Therefore, it matters if we approach the Lord’s Table with grudges against one another. But “fencing the table” is not the solution Paul proposed. Rather than establish some kind of tribunal to pass judgment on fellow church members, he insisted that Christians examine themselves:

But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Cor 11:31-32)

In the past I have told my deacons that freely offering Holy Communion to all baptized believers is our act of stewardship. Deciding whether someone may worthily receive is that individual’s act of stewardship.

As with the question of unity, the higher one’s view of the Eucharist, the more compelling is the argument for open Communion. That is to say, if the Eucharist is a “means of grace”–as Luther, Wesley, and many other Protestant leaders insisted, though working out the details differently–then it is precisely what a sinner needs. Requiring stumbling Christians to clean up their acts before approaching the table runs counter to the whole idea of grace. It might even be considered a form of ministerial malpractice.

If, however, Communion is only a symbol, what is it a symbol of? If it is meant to symbolize God’s free grace through Jesus Christ, what does it mean to withhold that symbol from those who, though they struggle with a thousand sins, are trying to serve him as best they know how?
technorati tags: communion, eucharist, eucharistic hospitality, eucharistic sharing, jeffrey vanderwilt, landmarkism, lord’s supper


CRC: Next Month’s Topic

The second Christian Reconciliation Carnival will be held here March 1. The deadline for submissions is midnight on February 28.

Weekend Fisher, who initiated this Carnival just last month, suggested that there might be a special topic each month at the discretion of the host (although general interest posts are also quite welcome!). In honor of Black History Month, I would like to suggest that the topic for the second Carnival be the Church and Racial Reconciliation. You might take this topic in one of two ways.

  1. Christians working for racial reconciliation in the world.
  2. Christians working for racial reconciliation within the church.

I’d like to know what believers have to say about both aspects of this topic! What is your church doing (or what should it be doing) to bridge racial divides? What success stories can you share? What challenges to you see? What have you learned from interactions with churches and Christians from different ethnic or racial groups? Go over to WF’s blog for the lowdown on how to nominate a post and all that other fun stuff. Then I’ll see you back here in four weeks!
technorati tags: christian reconciliation carnival, race, racial reconciliation

Lutheran Zephyr: A Chaplain’s Grief

The Lutheran Zephyr shares a gut-wrenching story of grief, ministry, and the things that matter most. Thank you, LZ, for allowing yourself to be vulnerable.