Both the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) and other denominations have restrictions upon who is allowed to take communion alongside current members. Even though congregations exist in both churches wherein individual pastors will sometimes ignore this rule, the doctrine of each prohibits non-members from taking communion alongside members. Both churches require those who desire to take communion to attend classes and become full members before they are allowed to take communion. (Obvious oversimplification, but this is the gist of it.) But is this practice not in direct opposition to the overall and undeniable messages of the Gospels, which say our principal responsibilities are to love God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves?

I am not seeking the answer I already know, which is that both churches have doctrine that more-or-less states that it would be sinful (and harmful for the person receiving it) to allow someone to take communion if they did not understand the Eucharist exactly as each of these churches understands it (which oddly enough is different in each case).

In 1983, the LCMS justified its position on the Eucharist and stated that it is providing justification "so that the church's posture does not appear to be a mere institutional accruement." Then it goes on to offer several institutional accruements. If it is a duck, no amount of confirming one's desire to not be a duck will change it from being a duck. A similar posture is seen in the RCC doctrine, although I am less familiar with their doctrinal writings so I won't quote them.

To my knowledge, and I am sure someone will set me straight, Jesus had little to say about the nature of the Eucharist or the nature of those with whom it should be shared. His only instructions on the matter was "Do this for the remembrance of me" and his only descriptions of either portion of the meal was "This is my body, which is given for you." and "This cup is the New Covenant in my blood..." and if we use Luke, it was "poured out for many." There is also John 6:54-58 where Jesus addresses the traditional Jewish community and seems to make taking part in communion a command for everyone to obey, not just those who believe in a particular doctrine, although this occurred at a different time and place than the other instruction.

I understand that Paul had some things to say about the Eucharist in other New Testament writings, but if we focus only upon the words of Jesus, which should always be kept sacred to a Christian, what is the problem with open communion? Isn't the potential harm that could be done far outweighed by the potential good that could be done by allowing someone who might be "on the fence" to take part in a powerful sacrament of forgiveness and remembrance? Hasn't Jesus commanded that we do so? Is it not a sin to withhold communion from those who might think a little differently about the specific nature of the Eucharist? Does this practice not insult the new believer who, like everyone other Christian, had to ask Jesus to enter their heart (whether or not we knew it when it happened)? It would seem that merely having access to information about something that is intentionally left vague by Jesus in the first place should not be the controlling factor in whether a sacrament is received.

Even if I agree with the general concepts for why communion should be closed (people should understand its purpose so as to discourage heresies), I cannot extend that agreement to a belief that only those who understand the Eucharist like any particular church has interpreted it should be allowed to take part in a remembrance of Jesus so long as their heart is in a place of humility, contrition, and a sincere belief that Jesus Christ died and rose again to become their personal savior.

Please explain how scripture says we should withhold this sacrament from people who have a different understanding of the nature of the Eucharist after it is blessed by a pastor/priest. Please explain why I am wrong in my belief that Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper for everyone, not just those who think like we do about insignificant details. To me, that is exactly what Jesus preached at length against doing in the book of Matthew when he had some pretty angry words for the Pharisees who were all show and no faith.

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    "I understand that Paul had some things to say about the Eucharist in other New Testament writings, but if we focus only upon the words of Jesus" But why should churches do this? Christian churches which believe in the inspired text of the New Testament do not privilege one part of the NT above another. The quoted words of Jesus in the Gospels are not in any way more the Word of God than Paul's letters. There is no "canon within the canon". I say that as someone who'd agree about closed communion. But I have to say that your approach to the scriptures is not acceptable to these churches.
    – curiousdannii
    May 18, 2021 at 1:37
  • 1
    The words of Jesus are only ever made known to us through the apostles, such as Peter, to whom, specifically, Jesus gave the keys. And one of the keys regards scripture. And Peter makes clear that Paul's writings are scripture. It is essential to grasp the whole breadth of all scripture, not to be confined to only one part. That can only cause imbalance.
    – Nigel J
    May 18, 2021 at 4:22
  • The entire question is predicated upon concepts of communion and faith that not all denominations would ascribe to unequivocally. Therein lies the problem.
    – eques
    May 18, 2021 at 19:42
  • I was not trying to minimize Paul's contributions to Scripture, I was merely trying to focus the discussion since it covers some pretty broad ground. We can examine Paul's instructions regarding the Eucharist, and it can be interpreted either as saying only certain people should take part OR he is saying that only those who approach the supper with a contrite and believing heart should take part. IMO, He was concerned that communion would devolve into what would become an excuse by some (the Corinthians if I recall) to get drunk and eat too much, not a means to withhold it from others. May 19, 2021 at 16:39

3 Answers 3


Is it not a sin to withhold communion from those who might think a little differently about the specific nature of the Eucharist?

I would argue that there is a misconception here (and this seems to be the root of your question).

As one source (see below) says: "The celebration of Holy Communion is also a public act of confession. When you receive the Sacrament at a church's altar, you are giving public testimony that you agree with that church's doctrinal position." (Emphasis added.) Another: "Communion creates and defines our community, our being one with one another in Christ". Another: "Those Christians who remain outside of [our] Church are, by definition, not in full union (communion) with [our] Church" and "[if those people commune with us, they] are saying with their body, 'I am in full union with the Church,' when in fact they are not. Reception of the greatest gift Christ intends to give to us therefore becomes an act of dishonesty and occasion of sin." Still another: "It would be shameful hypocrisy on our part if we would have those who actually profess a different faith than we do join us at the Lord's Altar" and "Close communion seeks to prevent a profession of confessional unity in faith where there is, in fact, disunity and disagreement".

Practicing closed communion is not the same as forbidding someone from taking communion. It isn't saying "you may not have communion", but "it is not appropriate that you should take communion with us". The very word suggests why this should be: communion is an expression of unity in faith. If one does not have unity in faith with another, one should not partake of communion what that other person, but with other Christians with which one does share faith. For the same reason, most Christians who practice closed communion would not merely exclude Christians of another faith from their own churches, but would exclude themselves from communing outside their church. (Note that "church" here is roughly synonymous with "denomination", not a specific congregation.)

Further reading (mostly taken from Google):

Note that, from what I know / can tell, the stance on closed communion of all of these bodies is fairly consistent, despite their doctrines having other (sometimes quite extreme) differences. (All also note that "open" communion is a modern invention of non-Lutheran protestant churches that was never practiced in the historical church prior to the reformation.)

  • It may be helpful not to over-generalize and to make note above that the closed communion polities of LCMS and WELS do not reflect a majority of Lutherans in America. The majority Lutheran denomination (ELCA) practices open communion and has entered into full communion partnerships with denominations including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, The Moravian Church, and The United Methodist Church.
    – BalooRM
    May 19, 2021 at 1:03
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    @BalooRM, that's true (changed to "confessional Lutherans"), although ELCA practices a lot of things that were not practiced by historical Lutherans and are contrary to the Lutheran confessions. (Not sure how much they have in common with non-American Lutherans/Evangelicals any more, either.)
    – Matthew
    May 19, 2021 at 1:27
  • Then that begs the question: If communion is an expression of unity in faith, why do churches not state that in the liturgy? Why is this purpose not important enough to declare during the act? I think there is much to be gained in instructing people who might not understand the issues of sacrifice, contrition, and humility that surround communion; but where is the humility in attaching "unity in faith" to communion when the disposition of the Eucharist after the blessing is such a miraculous mystery in the first place? May 19, 2021 at 16:52
  • I guess it comes down to a really important question: Would I want to stand before God and explain (through logic and parsing of biblical minutia) why I chose to not share in the glorious remembrance of Jesus' death and resurrection but instead chose to express Unity in Faith with my own people? No thank you. I am not a pastor, but I have a few in my family, and I would not want to be wrong about justifying the exclusion of anyone from what essentially is the closest many of us will ever get to presence of God. Just my opinion, but I am not entirely committed to it. May 19, 2021 at 17:03
  • @DavidEisenbeisz, if it's okay for a Catholic to commune with a Baptist, why not with a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a Wiccan? "Open communion" is the start of a slippery slope toward syncretism and muddying the very meaning of Christianity. But I still think you're missing the point: why, if you so greatly desire communion, would you not simply commune at a church with which you are in doctrinal agreement?
    – Matthew
    May 19, 2021 at 17:24

One scriptural injunction that does not seem to have been invoked so far is 1 Corinthians 11:27-32. If this biblical point was taken seriously by all who would partake at communion, some individuals would "close themselves off" to communion, without the church having to do or say anything!

"Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world." 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 K.J.

Now, whatever the detailed meaning of that text is, the point with regard to this question surely is that each Christian ought to have given advance consideration to this matter before coming to communion, and have a conscience clear before God that he is both invited to partake by the Lord himself, and that he is "discerning the Lord's body" appropriately. Against such ones there can be no objection!

Some might say that those welcome to partake are those who can publicly agree with that church's doctrinal position, and that's why they would debar those who are known to disagree with some of that. They could not possibly disagree with all of that church's doctrinal position if they seek participation around the Lord Jesus Christ's table! Surely there must be agreement with what Jesus said about belief / faith in him and what his death accomplished? Is that not enough?

However, we have lived for a very long time with the possibility of people literally walking in off the street to partake in worship and communion. This is why various fellowships restrict participation until they know that the person has saving faith in Christ. But to say they must subscribe to that fellowship's doctrinal stance first is to go beyond what the scriptures say. They must subscribe to the faith of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That should be clearly ascertained. Thereafter, it is important for all partaking to do a regular check of themselves, before God, prior to participation of the elements. Sadly, there is the danger of communion becoming such a commonplace thing, it is performed as a ritual, with little prior thought. Services where set statements and prayers are made, the same every time, do not encourage this fresh, individual examination, it strikes me. But it is not my place to try to judge. I have enough on my plate keeping tabs on my own spiritual standing!

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    Yes. Paul's cautionary words were addressed only to believers who were not discerning the body of the Lord when they ate and drank. Some of the Corinthian believers were engaging in behavior that belied the meaning and purpose of communion. Their failure to examine themselves may have had its genesis in sinful behavior that was not confessed and repented of prior to their participation in the Eucharist. In other words, they were living a lie and consequently were subject to the Lord's discipline and judgment. Feb 5 at 14:21
  • Furthermore, there is no reason why believers who are crossing denominational lines should be disbarred from participation in the Eucharist. Of course, they, like the believers from the host denomination, need to have examined themselves prior to participating. Feb 5 at 14:31
  • @rhetorician, please read my answer again. No one claims that "believers who are crossing denominational lines should be disbarred from participation in the Eucharist". The issue is who such believers are participating with. If Aaron's understanding of the Eucharist is incompatible with Ben's, Ben will be rightly concerned (in a 1 Cor 11 sense) over Aaron communing with Ben. But no one is telling Aaron not to take communion, period; only, do so with fellow believers.
    – Matthew
    Feb 5 at 19:15

The idea of a closed communion is very old. We can find Justin Martyr writing c150ad saying this:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία1910 [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

The footnote to this paragraph says this:

1911 This passage is claimed alike by Calvinists, Lutherans, and Romanists; and, indeed, the language is so inexact, that each party may plausibly maintain that their own opinion is advocated by it. [But the same might be said of the words of our Lord himself; and, if such widely separated Christians can all adopt this passage, who can be sorry?] The expression, “the prayer of His word,” or of the word we have from Him, seems to signify the prayer pronounced over the elements, in imitation of our Lord’s thanksgiving before breaking the bread. [I must dissent from the opinion that the language is “inexact:” he expresses himself naturally as one who believes it is bread, but yet not “common bread.” So Gelasius, Bishop of Rome (a.d. 490), “By the sacraments we are made partakers of the divine nature, and yet the substance and nature of bread and wine do not cease to be in them,” etc. (See original in Bingham’s Antiquities, book xv. cap. 5. See Chryost., Epist. ad. Cæsarium, tom. iii. p. 753. Ed. Migne.) Those desirous to pursue this inquiry will find the Patristic authorities in Historia Transubstantionis Papalis, etc., Edidit F. Meyrick, Oxford, 1858. The famous tractate of Ratranin (a.d. 840) was published at Oxford, 1838, with the homily of Ælfric (a.d. 960) in a cheap edition.] https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01/anf01.viii.ii.lxvi.html

This of course begs the question about exactly what was believed, but still, the idea of closed communion was exhibited.

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