This is a post in our ongoing No Longer Sola Series.
Questions surrounding the Eucharist were an issue in my investigation of Orthodoxy. While communion of the baptized was not the issue that ultimately compelled me to leave Lutheranism, it was an issue that persistently caused me to investigate Orthodoxy after I would try to set it aside in order to remain Lutheran.
This issue alone is not, I think, sufficient to cause one to leave Lutheranism for Orthodoxy. One can hold to this position and quite faithfully hold to the Lutheran Confessions in good conscience. For me the issue that finally meant I needed to leave Lutheranism was the Church, but more on that another time.
The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) has a catechism that is used for youth and adult catechesis in preparation for membership and first communion. Question 305 was partially problematic for me. It reads:
"Question: Who must not be given the Sacrament?
The Sacrament must not be given to the following:
A. Those who are openly ungodly and unrepentant, including those who take part in non-Christian religious worship.
B. Those who are unforgiving, refusing to be reconciled. They show thereby that they do not really believe that God forgives them either.
C. Those of a different confession of faith, since the Lord’s Supper is a testimony of the unity of faith.
D. Those who are unable to examine themselves, such as infants, people who have not received proper instruction, or the unconscious."
The problem is in that last sentence, “Those who are unable to examine themselves, such as infants...” Of course, this extends to others, like the developmentally disabled or those who have degraded mental capabilities through some other infirmity of the mind, such as Alzheimer’s.
A paper that was written by another Lutheran pastor, Rev Scott Marincic was influential for me as I researched on this topic. His opening paragraphs stated so well what the problem is that I wanted to post them in full. It's a bit long, bear with me:
“We say that they are children of God through Baptism, having faith and therefore certainly being repentant. And yet, when it comes to the Sacrament of the Altar, we have no gospel words to speak to them; only words of law. We defend ourselves the way fundamentalists defend their denying infants baptism, with one verse of law and a mountain of rationalization and pseudo-logic. But after all our fluster and bluster, we still end up saying that until they have reached an age of accountability or some level of intellectual achievement, their faith is inferior, and they are to be denied the sweet gospel comfort of the Supper. They are not quite coheirs with us of our Lord’s testament. Their faith is not ‘conscious’ enough for us, even though our Lord warns us that unless we become like little children we will never enter the kingdom of God.
But if our baptized infants are truly to be counted among the faithful, then they are also among those “who are already in terror on account of their sins.” They are penitent and believing. They are not to have the law and its accusations preached to them. They are not to be denied the absolution, but rather given its comfort and strength. The Augsburg Confession says,
True repentance is nothing else than to have contrition and sorrow, or terror on account of sin, and yet at the same time to believe the Gospel and absolution (namely, that sin has been forgiven and grace has been obtained through Christ), and this faith will comfort the heart and again set it at rest.
If we believe our theology of Baptism, then we believe that this is the condition of the baptized infant.
And yet we continue to speak law to these terrified but believing hearts, because we hear the words we have spoken for centuries; the words summed up in the explanation of the Catechism, “Who must not be given the Sacrament? Those who are unable to examine themselves, such as infants, . . . 1 Cor. 11:28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.” The unspoken syllogism here needs to be challenged. Yes, a man must examine himself. This premise is undeniable, for it is inspired. But the second premise, that the infant cannot examine himself, is neither inspired nor is it based on a thorough study of Scripture and the Confessions. It is an assumption: a legalistic, tradition-shaped assumption, which needs to be reexamined and replaced with the true premise found in the Scriptures and the Confessions. In both Scripture and the Confessions examining oneself is not an act of intellect, but an act of repentance, and therefore an act that God is quite capable of bringing about within the baptized infant. Indeed it is an act He has already brought about and has promised to sustain.”
You can read the entirety of the paper here.
Other publicly available papers by Lutherans on the topic are here and here.
In an effort to sort all this out I read the counter arguments put out by the LMCS’s CTCR and Pastor John Pless but I found them wanting in multiple ways and entirely unconvincing.
Here is an Orthodox response to Pastor Pless and the CTCR.
The longer I tried to get back on the same page with the LCMS on this issue the further I grew apart. Ultimately this issue would continually haunt me as went back again and again to the Augsburg Confession and its definition of the Church:
Article VII: Of the Church – “Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. …”
My church body had so much right on the Lord’s Supper, (much more right than all the other Protestant church bodies I thought) but with the toleration of open communion and this issue, the issue of how the Sacrament is administered to its own people – it fell incredibly short. I could not get over such a fault. I ultimately concluded that the LCMS is stuck in a persistent error in its administration of the Sacrament of the Altar. That, in turn, called into question exactly what I had in Lutheranism.
If the LCMS is content with such a great departure from historical administration of the Sacrament, can I really say she’s the Church in her fullness? If the LCMS no longer rightly administers the Sacrament is it even the Church at all? Ultimately I got to the point where I couldn’t answer in the affirmative.
Communion of the baptized might not be possible in the LCMS, but I came to find that it was totally possible in the Orthodox Church, where it has always been practiced in an unbroken continuum throughout the centuries. As the Augsburg Confession and Scripture both clearly teach, the Church will continue forever, teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments rightly.
As we prepare for my daughter’s baptism into the Church on Holy Saturday, I have unending joy in my heart. She too will be grafted into the Church and made a partaker of her Lord’s life-giving Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Just as it has been since the time of the apostles, and just as it will be until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Even the smallest, most fragile and weakest among us are fully members of the Church. It is a vital teaching, especially in these confusing times. May we not underestimate its importance.
Update (4/8/2018): I have been asked if I listened to the Issues Etc radio interview (2015) with Professor John Pless on Infant and Toddler Communion. I have heard it and as someone who had Prof. Pless for multiple classes at seminary and who listened to Issues Etc religiously in high school and college I can say that interview was extremely disappointing. I believe, at best, Prof Pless misrepresented and distorted the facts and multiple aspects of the question. As far as I can tell he has not interacted with any of the papers by LCMS pastors that have thoroughly addressed his points, one of which was actually submitted to the Fort Wayne seminary for comments from the faculty. I was disappointed that Rev. Wilken, the host of the program, did not ask any probing questions. His program most certainly influenced towards seminary and Fort Wayne as the campus I chose. That interview certainly made me question the intentions of the host as a man I had once thought to be dedicated to really tackling and addressing "Issues, etc". - Iakobos