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.