Holy Communion or Unholy Chaos?

Paul T. McCain
Thursday, August 2nd 2007
Sep/Oct 1998

How is it possible that the most holy night of our Lord's life has given rise to dissension and disunity in Christendom? How can it be that our Lord's Sacred Meal has become the cause of turmoil, confusion, and a splintering of fellowship among Christians who trace their theological ancestry to Rome, Wittenberg, Geneva, or Zurich?

What should the Church's response to this disunity be? There are two options. The first option is the response of historic Christianity: To lament the disunity, to pray and to work for agreement, but until genuine agreement is reached, to avoid communing together in order to avoid giving expression to a unity that does not yet exist. The second option is the response of the Ecumenical Movement: To assert that in spite of a lack of unity in the confession of the true faith, Christian churches commune together. The Ecumenical Movement's use of the Lord's Supper as a tool toward union has turned Holy Communion into an unholy chaos.

The New Testament and Early Church Understanding of Fellowship

Historically, the Christian Church did not recognize the distinctions we know of today. The individual Christian was not considered a "free agent" when it came to where he communed. The Early Church clearly understood that church fellowship was a matter of a church's corporate confession, not merely an expression of an individual's personal opinions. Thus, Arians did not receive the Sacrament with a congregation that stood for Nicene orthodoxy, and Athanasian Christians would not commune at Arian altars. The Early Church recognized that church fellowship and the expression of that fellowship was always a matter of fellowship in the means by which Christ creates and sustains his Church-the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Unlike our present age, any question about what an individual Christian believed, or stood for, was decided based on where that person regularly received the Sacrament of Holy Communion. (1)

This was the Early Church's understanding because it is the biblical understanding of fellowship in the faith. The early Christians were "fervently devoted to the apostles' doctrine, and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Historic Christianity has known true fellowship only and exclusively in the objective reality of the fellowship God creates and sustains through his Word and his Sacraments. Our fellowship is first with God, and then with one another (1 John 1:7). Thus, the first Christians gathered around the Word (the Apostles' doctrine) and around the Eucharist (the breaking of bread), in the context of an orderly pattern of liturgical worship (the prayers).

Because fellowship in the church is always a matter of common reception of the Lord's gifts, the Church recognized that divisions were not to be permitted at the Lord's Supper. Our Lord's Apostle, St. Paul, made that point clear when he scolded the Corinthians for their disorderly worship practices and slovenly use of the Lord's Supper. "It is not the Lord's Supper that you eat" (1 Cor. 11:20). Thus, if there is disunity in confession at the altar, how can there be true communion? St. Paul taught that fellowship in what is eaten at a given altar is clearly a fellowship in what that altar stands for (1 Cor. 10:18). To eat at an altar representing error is to have fellowship in that error. What is more, Paul declared that the cup blessed in the Lord's Supper is nothing less than fellowship in the very blood of Christ himself, and the bread distributed is a fellowship in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). Thus, whoever eats this bread or drinks of this cup in an unworthy manner is guilty of profaning the very body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 11:27). For both New Testament and early Christians, fellowship in the Lord's Supper was fellowship in the actual body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; thus, says St. Paul, "we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" which is "the body" of the Lord. (1 Cor. 10:17; 1 Cor. 11:27). The Ancient Church had a beautiful expression for this. Before the Sacrament was offered to the people, the priest would say, "The holy things for the holy ones" (ta hagia tois hagiois). The early Christians clearly understood that church fellowship is always fellowship first in the holy things of Christ which alone make us his holy people.

What then of the Apostle's assertion that Christians are to examine themselves before they commune (1 Cor. 11:28,) and his further assertion that Christian ministers are "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Cor. 4:1)? Orthodox Christianity, of both East and West, has always held that these two important truths require a practice that is known as closed communion. The expression "closed communion" comes from the Ancient Church custom of dismissing those who were not eligible to receive the Sacrament before the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist. The dismissal of non-communicants would occur and then a deacon would cry out, "The doors! The doors!" The church doors were then literally closed. Closed communion is the practice of limiting participation in the Lord's Supper to those who have been catechized and examined in the truths of the Christian faith and who have promised to believe, teach, and confess what the church in which they will commune believes, teaches, and confesses. Thus, for the New Testament and Early Church, altar fellowship was church fellowship and church fellowship is most visibly and tangibly expressed in altar fellowship.

Reformation Understandings of Fellowship

Luther was concerned that communicants be examined carefully in order to determine if they understood what the Lord's Supper actually is and what is given in the Supper. Luther regarded participation in the Lord's Supper as an act of confession of what one believes. So did Calvin, who wrote in his Institutes that it was an outrageous act to permit those who had not confessed the true faith to commune (4.12.5). When Reformed Christians in Strasbourg signed the Wittenberg Concord thus formally embracing the Lutheran view of the Lord's Supper, Reformed Christians in Zurich did not permit their students to receive the Sacrament in Strasbourg. (2)

Many Christian churches today view the Lord's Supper, at best, as only a way for Christians to commune "spiritually" with Jesus Christ who is present only in heaven. Furthermore, many believe that the presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the altar depends on the faith of the individual communicant. Therefore, most evangelical and Protestant Christians today do not believe, as Luther and the Lutheran Confessions clearly do, that in the Lord's Supper the bread is the Body of Christ and the wine is the Blood of Christ which is present, distributed, and received into the mouths of all who receive the Blessed Sacrament. (3)

Echoing the famous words of John Calvin in the Zurich Consensus, most Protestant churches today would assert:

It is particularly necessary to reject every idea of a local presence. For as the signs are present in this world and are perceived with the eyes and touched with the hands, so Christ, as man, is nowhere but in heaven and is to be sought in no other way than by the mind and the understanding of faith. For this reason it is a perverse and impious superstition to enclose him under elements of this world. (4)

It is precisely this "perverse and impious superstition" that is taught by apostolic Scripture, confessed by early Christian orthodoxy, and still asserted as the only proper understanding of the Lord's Supper by Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and confessionally orthodox Lutheran churches. When the claim is made (usually by Calvinists) that Lutheran and Reformed Christians are not disagreeing that Christ is present in his Supper, but only disagreeing over "how" he is present, one need only compare the following quotation from Luther's Brief Confession to Calvin's remarks.

I consider them all as belonging together … who will not believe that the Lord's bread in the Supper is his true, natural body, which the godless or Judas receive orally as well as St. Peter and all the saints. Whoever, I say, will not believe this, will please let me alone and expect no fellowship from me. This is final. (5)

To this day, orthodox, confessional Lutherans assert that Christ is actually present in the sacramental bread and wine, according to both his human and Divine natures, even as he promised to be when he took bread and said, "This is my body." Why did the Lutherans in the sixteenth century refuse church fellowship with both radical Zwinglianism and moderate Calvinism? Why did they refuse to do this even when within their own ranks they were willing to tolerate a variety of theories on how Christ was actually present under the bread and wine of the Eucharist? Because the Lutherans insisted on only one thing: namely, the acknowledgment that the Body and Blood of Christ are actually and truly present under the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper.

My point in asserting the clear difference between Lutherans and Reformed is not to anger my Reformed and non-Lutheran friends, but rather to indicate that there are in fact very serious differences between us, not trifling and inconsequential "diversities" in opinion. The same can be said about differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Lutherans, with all evangelical Christians, reject the Roman Catholic teaching that the Mass is the unbloody, propitiatory sacrifice of Christ's Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins, of both the living and the dead. This is our most important disagreement with the Roman church over the Lord's Supper.

In spite of our differences with Rome, few Christians committed to true reconciliation of doctrinal differences would disagree with the statement found in the Roman Catholic Church's new catechism. "The more painful the experience of divisions in the Church which break the common participation in the table of the Lord the more urgent are our prayers to the Lord that the time of complete unity among all who believe in him may return." (6) The point to be made, and defended, is that the precious gift of our Lord's Supper has been turned into unholy chaos with the advent of the modern Ecumenical Movement. This is the second option for responding to differences in the understanding of the Lord's Supper, the option to which we now turn.

The Ecumenical Movement's Understanding of Altar Fellowship

The twentieth century Ecumenical Movement began with a missionary conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910. This beginning stage reached its culmination at the first assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948 in Amsterdam. During these earlier years a concern for consensus in doctrine was much more discernible than today. After 1948 the WCC began to distance itself from attempts to resolve doctrinal difference. As the WCC's own book on the subject notes, "The Orthodox and Roman Catholic [churches] emphasized the need for unity in faith and tended to favor a methodology of … theological conversations, even as others were stressing solidarity in the social-political crises of the day." (7) In more recent years, the WCC concedes that the emphasis is now on pluralism, that is, "the dialogue of cultures and ideologies within the now-global church." (8) Then comes this remarkably candid statement, "Until 1968 (or thereabouts), diversity was seen more as a problem to be resolved than as a characteristic of genuine unity (despite the frequent assertions that 'unity does not mean uniformity'). This began quickly to change." (9)

The Ecumenical Movement views the Lord's Supper as a tool to strengthen and develop an understanding of fellowship in the faith that is not seen as "uniformity but a communion of rich diversity." Furthermore, the Ecumenical Movement is intent on "eliminating polemic and [furthering] mutual under-standing, reconciliation and the healing of memories." (10) In spite of pious protestations to the contrary, one is hard pressed to view such a claim as anything other than a call to simply "forget" those memories that stand in the way of fellowship. These "memories" are, for confessionally sensitive Christians, the living voice of Jesus in the Church today, which says, "This is my Body." What the Lord has said cannot be forgotten, overlooked, marginalized, or downplayed for the sake of unity.

This brings us to today. To illustrate the unholy chaos of the Ecumenical Movement one need only review the most recent ecumenical decisions by four American Protestant denominations. In August of 1977 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) declared itself to be in full communion with the Presbyterian Church-USA (PCUSA), the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC). The formula of agreement that brought about this sweeping union of mainline Lutheran and Reformed churches acknowledges that agreement about what the Lord's Supper actually is was not the basis for full communion. This is a contradiction apparent to all but those who support these ecumenical decisions. Thus we read from the text of the agreement:

It has not been possible to reconcile the confessional formulations from the sixteenth century with a "common language which could do justice to all the insights, convictions, and concerns of our ancestors in the faith" (A Common Calling, p. 49). However the theological conversations recognized those enduring differences as acceptable diversities with regard to the Lord's Supper … affirming that those differences are not church-dividing, but are complementary. (11)

The differences that exist, and have existed since the sixteenth century, are no longer viewed as divisive. The Ecumenical Movement's commitment to embracing diversity, rather than resolving differences, has born full fruit here in the United States with this broad ecumenical agreement on the part of Lutherans and Reformed churches.


The twofold response to divisions among Christians remains yet today. Christians may either devote themselves to serious dialogue and an honest wrestling with differences with a view toward resolving them, or they may simply agree to disagree, reconciling their diversity and embracing it as a part of what it means to be the Church.

While it is true that our Lord prayed that we might all be one, first he prayed that we would be "sanctified" and "consecrated" in the truth that is known only from the Word of God, which is truth itself (John 17:17-18). Holy Communion or unholy chaos-these are the two options facing all churches. Faithful churches and faithful Christians will never embrace disunity. Our Lord does not want his Blessed Sacrament turned into an unholy chaos of division in the very meal and at the very moment where he joins himself to us, and thus permits us to express our innermost unity in the truth of his Word. These words of Christ, "This is my Body," still stand firm against all who would deny them or doubt them. May God grant his Church the grace to remain steadfast in the truth of his Word.

1 [ Back ] Perhaps the best treatment of the Early Church's view of church fellowship, particularly as it relates to the Lord's Supper, is Werner Elert's Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, translated from the German by Norman Nagel (St. Louis: Concordia, 1966). This book, presently out of print, will be reissued this summer.
2 [ Back ] Also, in 1580 it is reported that Reformed preachers in Oldenburg required communicants to confess that the Body and Blood of Christ were not present in the Holy Sacrament. See the magisterial article on Supper Fellowship in Martin Wittenberg, Church Fellowship and Altar Fellowship in the Light of Church History, translated by John Bruss in Logia: A Journal of Lutheran Theology (Reformation 1992) Vol. I, No. I, 23-57.
3 [ Back ] Thus, one reads in the Lutheran Formula of Concord, "It is not our faith which makes the sacrament, but solely the Word and institution of our almighty God and Savior, Jesus Christ, which always remains efficacious in whether those who receive the Sacrament believe or do not believe, Christ nonetheless remains truthful in his words when he says, 'Take eat, this is my body.' This he effects not through our faith, but solely through his omnipotence." (Solid Declaration, Article VII.89).
4 [ Back ] John Calvin, Zurich Consensus, translated by Ian D. Bunting in The Journal of Presbyterian History, Volume 44 (1966), 56.
5 [ Back ] Quoted in the Formula of Concord, X.33.
6 [ Back ] Catechism of the Catholic Church (English Translation, United States Catholic Conference, 1994; Liguori Publications, 353).
7 [ Back ] See Michael Kinnamon and Brian Cope, eds., The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (Geneva: World Council of Churches Publication, 1997; jointly published with Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI),4.
8 [ Back ] Kinnamon, 4.
9 [ Back ] Kinnamon, 4. 10Kinnamon, 453, emphasis added.
10 [ Back ] Ecumenical Proposals: Formula of Agreement (Chicago: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1996), 21.
Thursday, August 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology