When Would I Deny Someone Holy Communion?
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops is considering a statement on communion practices that could deny admission to the Lord’s Table to politicians who support pro-choice public policies. The Roman Catholic Church carefully stewards the Eucharist, welcoming to the Table those in communion with Rome (this is why Lutherans are not permitted to commune in a Roman Catholic congregation, for example). To this end, that the American Catholic Bishops are considering other requirements for communion does not come as a major surprise.
Instead of focusing on who should be denied communion, maybe we should focus on the divisions within our congregations.
But what about Lutherans? Or, more precisely, what about New Joy Lutheran Church, and what about my own pastoral practice regarding communion?
At New Joy we’ve long said “all are welcome to this table.” We’ve had impromptu first communions, with children and newcomers receiving the Sacrament for the first time when moved by the Spirit to extend their hands. I certainly do not ask about someone’s moral or spiritual status before they come to the table, even as we maintain the normative practice within the church of admitting baptized Christians to Holy Communion.
The Use of the Means of Grace, the Lutheran Church’s statement on sacramental practices, makes no provision for denying communion to someone. The Constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America provides for a disciplinary process for church members for the following reasons:
a) persistent and public denial of the Christian faith;
b) willful or criminal conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ;
c) continual and intentional interference with the ministry of the congregation; or
d) willful and repeated harassment or defamation of member(s) of the congregation.
See section 20.41 of the Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the ELCA
In the multiple paragraphs explaining the disciplinary process, exclusion from the Lord’s Table is not presented as a form of discipline.
Clearly withholding Holy Communion is not a go-to practice in our faith tradition. But are there times that I would withhold the sacrament from someone? Absolutely. It would be a rare occasion, to be sure, but it is an option. Allow me to explain.
Saint Paul writes about the Lord’s Table in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, criticizing the divisions within the young church in the city of Corinth. When the Corinthians met for the Lord’s meal, some people would eat until they were full and would drink until they got drunk, while others remained hungry and thirsty. This embarrassing display of inequality and selfishness in the church causes Saint Paul to condemn their meals.
Saint Paul commands the Christians at Corinth to “correctly understand” or “discern” the body before eating and drinking. The Greek word for body in this passage is σῶμα, including 1 Corinthians 11:29, “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” This verse is often understood as the reason for making sure someone is properly instructed in the church’s teachings about communion before they receive the sacrament. Yet the same Greek word σῶμα is used in the next chapter when speaking about the body that is the church. “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,” 1 Corinthians 12:13.
Given the context of Paul’s critique of the Corinthian church’s community life throughout this letter and in the preceding verses, I read σῶμα in 1 Corinthians 11 as referring primarily to the body that is the church. In failing to discern and correctly understand their own body as a church called to live according to the command and example of Christ, they bring condemnation on themselves in their unequal and gluttonous eating and drinking.
To that end, if I were to deny the sacrament to any persons in the church it would likely be to those who, through their incredibly selfish behavior, divide the church and lead it to shameful displays of inequality and division. This is also in keeping with the ELCA constitution, provisions b, c, and d of section 20.41.
But more. It seems unfair to the text of 1 Corinthians 11 to view this matter of sacramental participation primarily through the lens of individual bad actors, as if the call is simply to weed out the jerks or the heretics. The crisis at Corinth is clearly a whole community problem – which is, by definition, a problem of leadership. Rather than deny communion to a few jerks in the congregation, it might be more appropriate to deny communion to the congregation’s leaders – pastor included – or even to the whole congregation until such a time as divisions within the congregation are resolved to some satisfactory degree. Making this an individual problem leads to a dangerous blame game, which to some degree seems misguided when Scripture compels us to share in each other’s joys, bear each other’s burdens, and join in the suffering of others (1 Corinthians 12:26; Galatians 6:2).
Rather than try to figure out whom we should exclude from a table that is not even ours – the table is our Lord’s, after all - let us consider if our communities are worthy of even having tables in the first place. And if a community is found egregiously lacking, perhaps it is the leaders themselves who should be first in penance and prayer, removing themselves from the table as they discern the body and the quality of the community’s life together.
What results is a kind of solidarity with the divisive member, daring to have all leaders - or even the entire congregation - refrain from holy communion while the conflict is addressed. This becomes less of "Joe has a problem, let’s get rid of him" and more of, "We have a problem, let’s figure this out." The end result may be to excommunicate – to remove – a member. But that is only a last resort.
Denying communion to a few token individuals is cheap and easy. Discerning the σῶμα, discerning the health and faithfulness of the whole body of Christ, is much harder.
The church is called to do hard things.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Adapted from an essay I originally posted on LutheranZephyr.com.