Sermons and Papers


Communion Distribution for the Sake of the Gospel


(A Memoir)


by Erik Rottmann
February 2010

One Missouri Synod pastor admits to the Holy Communion someone who has not confirmed, or someone who has departed from the regular practice of, the Christian faith as it is taught in Luther’s Small Catechism. Another Missouri Synod pastor refuses admission under the same circumstances. Both proceed with the best of intentions. Both believe they acted for the sake of the gospel. But what does it mean to make decisions for the sake of the gospel; to admit or to bar from Holy Communion and then to say, “I did it for the sake of the gospel”? Countless pastors could use this phrase, each attaching to it his own meaning. Beyond defining the words in the phrase, there might be divergence in the most basic presuppositions upon which the two seemingly opposite pastors (in the same Synod) have built their respective practices.

I

The January 2010 issue of Pentecostal Herald, the official magazine of the United Pentecostal Church International, contains this sentence: “Doctrine is synonymous with the Pentecostal experience” (35). Having been miraculously delivered years ago from the tyranny of Pentecostalism, I am quite taken by this sentence for its illustrative value.

Anyone outside the Pentecostal experience—and able to use a dictionary—would have reason to conclude that the claim made by this sentence is false, if not lethal.

For its author, and for anyone who shares his devotion to the Pentecostal experience, the sentence will likely appear both perfectly logical and faithful to what can be perceived from the Scriptures.1

This sentence from Pentecostal Herald convinces me that I am separated from its author, not only by the mutually exclusive definitions we each employ for the word “doctrine,2 but also by deeper presuppositions. Evidenced by the word “experience,” this sentence reflects the author’s assumption and belief that the Holy Spirit speaks to humans apart from the written Word. I believe no such thing.

II

In 1525, Luther faced a similar challenge with the phrase, “for the sake of the gospel.” Mistaken notions of Christian freedom had intertwined the gospel with politics. The result was the Peasants’ Revolt (Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther in Mid-Career: 1521-1530, 355f). Those Christians who rebelled against their feudal lords did not believe themselves to be following their own personal whims and desires. With all seriousness and piety, these saints believed they pursued their rebellion for the sake of the gospel. They repeatedly confessed the Christianity of their cause in their manifesto titled “The Twelve Articles.” They also “offered to submit to correction on the basis of Scripture if any article or articles [of their manifesto] proved to be contrary to God’s word” (Luther’s Works, American Edition [hereafter, AE] 46, 6).

Luther’s response to the peasants’ offer was “An Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia.” In this tract, Luther snatched the phrase “for the sake of the gospel” away from the peasants’ misuse if it:

It is not necessary, for the gospel’s sake, for you to capture or occupy the city or place; on the contrary, let the ruler have his city; you follow the gospel. … If you occupy the city for the sake of the gospel, you rob the ruler of the city of what is his, and pretend that you are doing it for the gospel’s sake (AE 46, 36).

In Luther’s judgment, it was irrelevant that the peasants believed they were acting for the sake of the gospel. No matter what their motivation, the peasants actually pretended to act for the gospel’s sake because their actions were not in keeping with the one true gospel. Or maybe it would be clearer to say that the peasants had acted for the sake of a pretend gospel, one that had become fouled with politics and morphed into what Paul called “a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6).3

At stake here was more than simple definitions of words. Luther and the peasants (read: Anabaptists) were separated by basic presuppositions about how God interacts with His creation. For Luther, this interaction takes place by the two-pronged means of civil government and church, each operating independently of the other and each fully vested with a particular aspect of divine authority. For the peasants, this interaction ideally takes place in a theocratic mixture of church and state. As a result, the phrase, “for the sake of the gospel,” carried for each party not only distinct definition but also directly opposite resultant actions. For Luther, the gospel requires you to suffer whatever evil the government might visit upon you. For the peasants, the gospel requires the evil government to be overthrown.

III

As I discuss issues of communion distribution with my colleagues in the Missouri Synod, I have yet to find anyone in possession of red horns or a forked spear. It will not be helpful for me to suggest that those who distribute communion in a manner different than my practice do so with malice aforethought. The possibility of an evil priest (Augsburg Confession, Article VII) notwithstanding, I grant that every pastor in our synod makes his communion distribution decisions—admitting or barring—for the sake of the gospel. At least, the pastor pursues his course thinking he acts for the sake of the gospel.

That is the rub: what does it mean to make communion distribution decisions for the sake of the gospel? Asked in a way that reflects Luther’s admonition to the peasants, when does the pastor pretend to act or truly act for the sake of the gospel when deciding to whom he shall distribute God’s Holy Communion?

My escape from Pentecostalism was not like stepping through a doorway from one room to another. This was a long journey, which in retrospect can be mapped as having moved along a spectrum between the two extremes of where I began and where I now am.4 This spectrum consists of a range of presuppositions concerning how God interacts with His creation. While enslaved, I believed the Holy Spirit speaks apart from the Word. Two decades later, I am hard pressed to state emphatically enough how far away from that earlier presupposition I now stand. It is not sufficient merely to negate my earlier presupposition, but it is a starting point: I believe the Holy Spirit will not speak to humans apart from the Word as it is read, taught, contemplated, proclaimed, poured in Baptism, served in Holy Communion, and conversed by the saints (Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article IV).

This negation does not say enough because it applies not only to where I now stand, but also to an intermediate position I once held on the spectrum of presuppositions concerning how God relates to man. And I already know what will happen when I distinguish these two positions. I will judge myself to have been a peasant pretending to act for the sake of the Gospel when making communion distribution decisions from that previous intermediate position. Here is why:

1. Pentecostalism believes human emotion and experience form the sphere of God’s activity in the church, equating emotion and experience with doctrine. (Recall: “Doctrine is synonymous with the Pentecostal experience.”)

2. I now regard emotion and experience to live in the same brothel as reason, which Luther called the devil’s prostitute (AE 40, 175). The sphere of God’s activity in the church lies outside emotion and experience and consists exclusively of doctrine proclaimed and distributed. The erratic trajectories of emotion and experience might at times briefly run in parallel with doctrine (such as when I thrill to sing the Sanctus or weep during private confession), but these trajectories should not be confused with the divine love God delivers by means of doctrine. Now that I equate doctrine with the Word of God, doctrine and love are two sides of the same coin, and I am increasingly unable to imagine or perceive situations in which love might operate independent of doctrine or doctrine independent of love. I blame Jesus for this newly developed inability, because He saw people who were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. In His compassion He responded to their need by teaching them many things (Mark 6:34). Doctrine is the way God creates and sustains His Christians. By doctrine God both enlarges and defends His whole Church. Doctrine is worship and evangelism and the engine that runs my pastoral practice. The most loving thing I can possibly do for God and for His Christians is to keep doctrine in the center of all things. Because of this presupposition, I now regard close(d) communion to be one of the church’s highest acts—and one of my own highest acts—of neighborly and self-sacrificial love.5

3. While in the intermediate position along my spectrum of presuppositions concerning how God interacts with His creation, I did not see or believe such a close connection between doctrine and love. I did not regard doctrine as dangerous, as I did while in Pentecostal slavery, but I also did not regard doctrine as love. Love still remained partly rooted in human expressions of emotion and experience. Rather than thinking of doctrine as the engine, I regarded doctrine and love to be like two truck drivers sharing the same cab: one drove while the other sat alongside. The two had the same ultimate goal, but only one could have the wheel at any time. Stated another way, I believed there were occasions on which God deals with man by means of doctrine, and occasions on which He deals with man by means of love—and in my pastoral practice I (presumptuously) assumed that I needed to distinguish between to two. Because of this presupposition, I further believed doctrine sometimes needed to be suspended for the sake of love. Actions undertaken for the sake of the Gospel could therefore be further categorized in one of two ways: doctrinal actions for the sake of the Gospel and loving actions for the sake of the Gospel.

You can probably guess how this presupposition shaped my view of close(d) communion practices. I believed that, on occasion, love would require me to suspend the doctrine—yet I never once believed I was not acting for the sake of the Gospel. In retrospect, as I have already admitted above, I now believe I was wrong. Like the sincere and Christian peasants of Swabia, I was pretending to act for the sake of the Gospel.

Today I still make exceptions to the good, godly, and supremely loving practice of close(d) communion. Like many of my colleagues in the Missouri Synod, I also invoke the CTCR’s ad hoc pastoral discretion” clause in my defense (Admission to the Lord’s Supper, 1999, 45). I think it is a good clause because it forbears and places the best construction on the weaknesses of the human flesh, namely and most especially mine.

There is perhaps one major difference between the exceptions I would have made during my days in the intermediate position and the exceptions I make today: I no longer make exceptions for the sake of the Gospel. I practice close(d) communion for the sake of the Gospel. My reasons for exceptions are much less lofty, and I will surely gain no one’s respect by reporting them here. My exceptionally infrequent exceptions are now made 1) for the sake of earthly peace; 2) for the sake of keeping open the lines of communication; and yes, even 3) for the sake of my perceived need for self preservation. These exceptions identify my guilt, but what am I to do? There is still a Pentecostal in me, trying to get out. God must overcome this enemy for me, both by means of and for the sake of the Gospel.

ENDNOTES:

1.    Pentecostal Herald contains this statement of fundamental doctrine on its table of contents page: “The basic and fundamental doctrine of this organization shall be the Bible standard of full salvation, which is repentance, baptism in water by immersion in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the initial sign of speaking with other tongues as the Spirit gives utterance. We shall endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit until we all come into the unity of the faith, at the same time admonishing all brethren that they shall not contend for different views to the disunity of the body” (5). Note also the divergence between “unity of the Spirit” and “unity of the faith.”

2.    In a perfect world of never being misunderstood, every word and phrase in the human vocabulary would have a standard, universally agreed-upon meaning. In the real world, words and phrases occupy wide semantic fields that both variegate (shades of meaning) and overlap other fields. Communication assumes that both speaker and hearer utilize roughly the same basic semantic fields. I am able to recognize each of the words in the above sentence from Pentecostal Herald as basic to my own English vocabulary, but I still have no idea what the sentence actually means. This is because the author of this sentence has placed the word “doctrine” into what I regard an unacceptable semantic field, which makes the sentence nonsense to me.

3.    Luther might have had in mind those theologians who fomented the Peasants’ Revolt when he commented on this verse, “Nowadays, when the sectarians cannot condemn us overtly, they say instead: ‘These Lutherans have a cowardly spirit. They do not dare speak the truth frankly and freely and draw the consequences from it. We have to draw these consequences. To be sure, they have laid a foundation, that is, faith in Christ. But the beginning, the middle, and the end must be joined together. God has not assigned to them the task of accomplishing this; He has left it to us.’ So these perverse and satanic men glorify their wicked proclamation, calling it the Word of God, so that under the guise of the name of God they may work their damage” (AE 26, 50).

4.    I perceive myself to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from whence I began because I am only able to see where I have been and not where I eventually shall be. Others must judge whether the position I now occupy on this spectrum is correct, whether I have moved too far or nor far enough. I also cannot say with any confidence that the position I now hold will endure. Like a child in the woods, it is best for me to stay right where I am until I see a path I can follow safely.

5.    Two continual crosses are attendant to my position. The first is that I cannot remain here on the basis of my own reason or strength, as this position defies my deepest urges. The second is that I fully understand that many of my colleagues and fellow Christians will regard my position as cold and insensitive to human need.

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