There has been some confusion lately about “communion fellowship.” What is meant by that term? Generally speaking, it means that people are willing to commune (that is, receive the Lord’s Supper) with each other. Churches in communion fellowship are willing to encourage their members to receive the Lord’s Supper at the other church.
Communing together is an expression of doctrinal unity, because it’s a joint act of confessing the death of Jesus Christ, with all that it means.
However, there are times when a pastor might ask a member of his church to refrain from communing, and if the member disregards the request, the pastor might not give the body and blood of Christ to that person to eat and drink. Why ever might this happen? Because the pastor is especially charged by God with the care of that person’s soul, and when someone is impenitent about a particular sin, then receiving the Lord’s Supper is an act of harmful hypocrisy, which can only contribute to the person’s judgment and eventual damnation. That’s serious.
When a pastor takes that route, does it mean he’s breaking church fellowship with the individual? No. Rather, he’s looking out for the person’s spiritual welfare, though it’s seldom taken that way.
What if the person is in the flock (congregation) of another pastor? In that case, the other pastor has the responsibility. Pastors only have responsibility for their own flocks. For them to take this responsibility for a different flock would be contrary to their call and the call of the other flock’s pastor.
What about the synod? I don’t have all the answers in that case, because synod is not “church” to the same qualitative degree as the local congregations, since synod, unlike congregations, does not exist for the regular, full administration of God’s Word and sacraments. Yet synod does have a somewhat churchly character due to the fact that it is composed of certain joint churchly activities of its congregations, which they accomplish in coordination with each other. Therefore some have stated (perhaps too strongly and simplisticly) that synod is church, just as congregations are church. Presently, there is much confusion and disagreement about this, in spite of our synod having a (somewhat controversial) adopted statement on the church.
It remains certain that pastors only have authority to refuse the Lord’s Supper at the altars of their own congregations. It also remains certain that pastors and Christians in general are free not to commune at altars outside their own congregations. That much is still certain.
It’s also certain from the Lutheran Confessions that the synod, like individual congregations and pastors, does not have authority to interfere with the ministry in one of its congregations by bypassing the pastor whom God called to serve there. However, when no pastor exists in a certain congregation, it must take the recommendation of the synod into account when it extends a call to a new pastor.
Can one pastor or congregation of the synod declare itself to be outside the church fellowship of the synod? Yes. That automatically means that they also leave the synod. But can he or his congregation declare itself to be outside the church fellowship of part of the synod, while remaining in the church fellowship of the rest? No. Fellowship is based upon God’s Word, and it does not allow contrary interpretations. So much for church fellowship, which is one of the reasons people might choose not to commune with each other.
How about the other reason, mentioned earlier: unrepentant sin? Can one pastor or congregation refuse communion to another pastor, a synod official, or church members of the synod, for the reason that they are obviously impenitent about some well-known, public sin? I ask: why not? In fact, it would seem that in such a case, communing (with) the impenitent person would be the height of unloving hypocrisy and a great offense against Christ. Yet that decision is only pertinent if and when the impenitent person tries to receive the Lord’s Supper at the church that would refuse it. If he communes at a different church, then the matter must be left with the pastor of that flock, because of his call.
Likewise, is it wrong for a pastor or the members of one church to abstain from communing at the altar of another church in the same synod, for the reason that a well-known, impenitent sinner is communing at the same altar, at the same time? Again, I ask: why not? Especially in the case that some of the fellow communicants would interpret the act of communing together as validation for the individual’s impenitence!
So you see, there can be a valid distinction between the term “communion fellowship” and the term “church fellowship.” Sometimes communion fellowship is church fellowship, or an expression thereof, but other times it is not. Instead of church fellowship, it can be an expression of the binding key. “The Keys” is not synonymous with “church fellowship,” but either one can have an influence on “communion fellowship.”
I’d love to have readers’ thoughts on this topic. Do you see things the way I do? If not, please explain. I realize that those who disagree with me may be more inclined to post their comments, so let me encourage everyone to comment.