Holy Communion in the ELCA

By Jonathunder (Own work) [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons [http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AEucharistELCA.JPG]

This post is a response to a question that could not possibly fit in a deeply nested comment. For the source of the discussion, please read this post on The Lonely Pilgrim. Though the original question was limited in scope, I have chosen instead to give as complete a summary of the Lutheran position on Communion as my ability allows.

Part I details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Lutheran tradition according to the Lutheran Confessions.

Part II details the understanding of Holy Communion in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

What does the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America say about Communion?

In 1997, the Fifth Biennial Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, the highest governing body of the church, adopted The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament. The document does what its title suggests: sets the standards by which the use of the sacraments should be followed.

The document upholds the teachings of the Book of Concord and applies them to the present day:

“In this sacrament the crucified and risen Christ is Present, giving his true body and blood as food and drink. This real presence is a mystery.”
Part III: Holy Communion and the Christian Assembly, Principle 33

“According to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutheran congregations celebrate the Holy Communion every Sunday and festival. This confession remains the norm for our practice.
Part III, Principle 35

“Participation in the sacramental meal is by invitation, not demand. The members of this church are encouraged to make the sacrament a frequent rather than occassional part of their lives.”
Part III, Principle 35, Application 35C

Earlier, it was said that Christians had stopped taking communion for a number of reasons, some of which survived to the present day. However, the main reason that Lutherans, especially in America stopped taking Communion was that, during the early era of American Lutheranism, there were not enough Pastors to give communion at every congregation every year. Churches only had communion when a Pastor was there, and since Pastors were covering more than one location at a time, often far apart from each other, they could not administer the sacrament everywhere every week.

In time, this exception became the expected norm. Even when Lutheran churches were sufficiently staffed by Pastors every week, the expectation was that Communion was only an occassional thing–sometimes once a month, sometimes once a quarter! The ELCA and its predecessor churches fought this trend, and now, weekly communion has returned as the common practice nearly everywhere.

How does the ELCA handle the elements used in Communion?

When it comes to the elements, their use, and their handling (which was the original inspiration for this article), the document says this:

“In accordance with the words of institution, this church uses bread and wine in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Communicants normally receive both elements, bread and wine, in the Holy Communion.”
Part III, Principle 44

Standing firm in the Lutheran tradition, the ELCA affirms that both elements should be distributed in Communion, not just one.

“The use of leavened bread is the most ancient attested practice of the Church and gives witness to the connection between the Eucharist and ordinary life. Unleavened bread underscores the Passover themes which are present in the biblical accounts of the Last Supper”
Part III, Principle 44, Background 44B

No preference is given in this document to unleavened or leavened bread. It does not provide a reference for its assertion that the early Church used leavened bread, however. Since both forms of bread have a precedent in Christian history, both are acceptable.

“For pressing reasons of health, individuals may commune under one element. In certain circumstances, congregations might decide to place small amounts of non-wheat bread or nonalcoholic wine or grape juice on the altar. Such pastoral and congregational decisions are delicate, and must honor both the tradition of the Church and the people of each local assembly.”
Part III, Principle 44, Application 44C

“Some communicants suffer from allergic reactions or are recovering from alcoholism… It is appropriate for them to receive only one of the elements… While our confessions speak against Communion “in one form,” their intent is to protest the practice of withholding the cup from the whole assembly.”
Part III, Principle 44, Background 44D

The Lutheran prohibition against Communion in one kind was meant to prevent abuse. But when that prohibition itself becomes an abuse, forcing those with life-threatening gluten-allergies and alcoholism to put themselves in danger, it, too, must be challenged. Therefore, the practice must be revised, but with care and pastoral sensitivity.

“The bread and wine of Communion are handled with care and reverence, out of a sense of the value both of what has been set apart by the Word as a bearer of the presence of Christ and of God’s good creation.”
Part III, Principle 47

I connect this Principle in part to the references above that detail from where the power of Communion comes. This principle clearly states that Communion’s power is from the Word, God.

The amount used for Communion can be a frightening subject. There may be times when the bread and wine on the table are not enough on a particular day, and more must be brought in after the words of institution are said:

“Nonetheless, in the rare event that more of either element is needed during distribution, it is not necessary to repeat the words of institution.”
Part III, Principle 47, Application 47A

I like to call this the “magic spell” effect. The Lutheran tradition very strongly rejects any notion that the presiding minister has “magic hands” that turn the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. And there is no “magic circle” within which bread/wine inside is converted, but which bread/wine outside are not. Why is this so?

The early Lutheran theologians strongly argued that the sacrament could not be performed part-way. Its power comes from God, not from the minister, and is present even when humans mess it up. When the sacrament is done properly, fully, with blessing, and consumption, the elements used are the body and blood of Christ–even if they do not occupy a certain (humanly-ordained) space.

“Any food that remains is best consumed by the presiding and assisting ministers and by others present following the service.”
Part III, Principle 47, Application 47B

Likewise, any element not consumed was not a part of the sacrament, as it was not used in accordance with God’s command to eat and drink. It can be seen by the arguments of the early Lutheran theologians that any remaining elements should not be stored in order to prevent abuse. It also dispels any notion that Communion is still Communion when it is not being practiced according to God’s command, that is, distributed in the community.

Who is welcome at the table in the ELCA, and why?

The Eucharist in the Lutheran Church.
The Eucharist in the Lutheran Church. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Admission to the Sacrament is by invitation of the Lord, presented through the church to those who are baptized.”
Part III, Principle 37

This has always been the understanding in the Lutheran church. However, there have been recent conversations about how this principle works in practice. One application of the principle is this:

“When an unbaptized person comes to the table seeking Christ’s presence and is inadvertently communed, neither that person nor the ministers of Communion need by ashamed. Rather, Christ’s gift of love and mercy to all is praised. That person is invited to learn the faith of the Church, be baptized, and thereafter faithfully receive Holy Communion.”
Part III, Principle 37, Application 37C

This is the expectation of the ELCA–that Communion of the unbaptized lead to baptism and a fuller, more faithful participation in the faith community.

Yet, the ELCA practices eucharistic hospitality, or what is in other places known as “open Communion”:

“Believing in the real presence of Christ, this church practices eucharistic hospitality. All baptized persons are welcomed to Communion when they are visiting in the congregations of this church.”
Part III, Principle 49

This is not the most common practice of Christian churches. It is a logical conclusion of the arguments first made in the Book of Concord. The power of Communion does not come from those who administer it or what they believe about it. The power comes solely from God. There are both worthy and unworthy recipients of Communion both inside and outside the church, and it is impossible for those administering communion to tell the difference. Therefore, all should be welcome to the table. Those who eat in faith receive the gifts of the sacrament, and those who do not, do not.

Further, if Communion offers forgiveness and salvation to those who need it most, and all are in need of forgiveness and salvation, it stands to reason that all should be welcome to the table. Since the power of Communion comes not from the sacrament itself but from God, its gifts cannot be given “accidentally”, but only as part of God’s will, for those who need it, which is everyone. That is why the ELCA practices eucharistic hospitality.


All citations from Lorraine S. Brugh and Gordon W. Lathrop, eds. Using Evangelical Lutheran Worship Vol. 1, The Sunday Assembly. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008.

Featured image: EucharistELCA” by Jonathunder is licensed under GFDL 1.2.


13 thoughts on “Holy Communion in the ELCA

  1. Again, very interesting and informative. A few notes:

    Your explanation of the infrequency of Communion and how it originally came about perhaps sheds some light on the infrequency in some places of the evangelical world. I’m not sure, though. I tend to be more cynical and accuse them of not caring about the Eucharist. 😉 I should probably stop that.

    Even before I was a Catholic, I never understood the insistence on Communion in both kinds. Doesn’t one represent Jesus’s sacrifice as well as the other? If we only take one, are we really only getting a desiccated Jesus or a bloody mess without a container? But whatever it’s worth, the United States Catholic Bishops have encouraged Communion in both kinds as a pastoral practice.

    The priest or deacon or extraordinary minister does consume all the remaining Sacred Blood at the end of Mass — because it would just be messy to reserve that. Regarding the case when more element is needed, and the “magic spell” effect — that is… bizarre, and more than a little troubling. I wondered what the protocol would be in a Catholic Mass if the priest ran out and even the reserve were exhausted, and found interesting thread at Catholic Answers. Basically, the priest or deacon, judging that the supply is going to low, is free to break the consecrated Hosts into smaller pieces to conserve it and make it go further. But if they run out, they run out. There’s no obligation of receiving Communion at every Mass. If someone really wanted or needed the Eucharist, they could go to a later Mass or another parish.

    I would like to know the reference, too, for leavened bread being used in the Early Church. Tsk, tsk, at it not citing its sources.

    And though the Catholic Church asks the unbaptized or non-Catholic or those in a state of mortal sin not to present themselves for Communion, in practice many people do receive who should not. The priest or deacon is free to deny Communion to anyone at his discretion, and when that happens it’s quite embarrassing for both minister and prospective communicant, and more often than not there is a stink. So most often the attitude is, I think, if you want to “eat and drink judgment upon yourself” (1 Corinthians 11:29), that’s between you and the Lord, but may His mercy be upon you.


    1. First, I don’t know why the blog said I needed to approve that comment, so sorry about that.

      On the insistence of Communion in both kinds, this is one of the practices meant to counter abuse. Christ is fully and completely present in each element, and one can, if they need or desire, take only one. But they should not be forced to take only one. Since Christ’s command was to eat AND drink, Christians should do both. The early Lutheran theologians objected to withholding the cup from the laity on these grounds, since it wasn’t their choice.

      On the “magic spell/circle” effect–this is my term for what I observe. Even among Lutherans, I have heard arguments that if one does not use a specific hand motion at a specific time, the elements have enot been consecrated correctly. They cannot explain why that particular gesture is necessary. The “circle” is what I call the imagined area inside of which the elements are consecrated, but outside of which they are not. Usually, it was argued that if it wasn’t on the table, then it wasn’t consecrated, even if it was on the next table behind it. My argument, out of my understanding of the Lutheran Confessions, is that the elements used in Communion are consecrated because they are used in Communion. Honestly, I don’t think many people think about it, but I’ll try and see if I can find an official statement (who knows, I may be wrong). Regardless, I’ve never been in a Lutheran church that had a problem with bringing in more elements if they ran out, however they justified it.

      I’ll try to find a reference for the leavened bread claim!

      And it sounds like we have the same feelings about those who come to the table and may not be worthy. We just interpret differently who those people are.


      1. It went into the mod queue because I had two links in it (and I figured that would happen, so no worries). Comments with 2 links or more are moderated, per the default setting (which is in the Dashboard -> Settings -> Discussion). The rationale is, spams tend to have a lot of links. But if it’s from somebody I already know and have approved, there ought not to be a problem, unless that person’s been phished. That precaution could probably be outright disabled, but I upped it to 6 in mine and haven’t had a problem.

        And regarding the unworthy coming to the table: what I observe isn’t necessarily what I feel. 😉 If I were a priest (and it’s looking increasingly like that might be my vocation), I think I would be hardcore about knowing my flock and keeping tabs on them and careful about outsiders. Not because I want to be exclusive, but because the Eucharist is that precious. I could change my mind after a few years of seminary, though.


  2. Nice post. Sadly, though, weekly communion has NOT “returned as the common practice nearly everywhere”. 😦 A great many smaller churches, especially those with older congregations, still offer communion only once or twice a month instead of weekly. There are several factors that play into this, but a common one is that, if communion is offered weekly, it is “no longer special.” I sigh inwardly in sadness whenever I hear this.


    1. That’s a shame. I was under the impression that the practice of weekly communion had become as normal as having service on Sunday morning, but the more I think about it, you’re right–it’s probably less common than I think.


  3. Our ELCA pastor maintains that in the Eucharist, because we are to be Christ to each other, that we are also present in the Body and Blood of Christ. Therefore, taking the Body and Blood of Christ means we are also taking our own bodies. This seems a logical and theological stretch to me. Is it?


    1. You pose an interesting question, William! There are two main responses I have.

      First, I think the connection being made is shaky. Yes, we are to be Christ to each other, but that in itself doesn’t connect us to the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. Acting like a bird doesn’t make me a bird, after all. However! There is definitely an argument to be made that we are, indeed, connected to the Body of Christ in a very real way, which leads to the second response.

      I read your question as a statement with three parts: IF we partake of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, and IF we are joined to Christ’s body, THEN, logically, we are partaking of each other.

      It is interesting to me that I (as of yet) have not found any direct statement validating that equation. There are plenty of statements validating each IF part. Much of what I already posted talks about how we truly partake of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. As to the other IF, that we are joined to the body of Christ:

      “Moreover, this church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews, sanctifies, and governs by his Spirit as Paul testifies in Ephesians 1[:22-23], when he says,k ‘And [God] has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.'”

      “Therefore, although hypocrites and wicked people are indeed associated with this true church according to the external rites, nevertheless when the church is defined, it must be defined as that which is the living body of Christ and as that which is the church in fact as well as in name.”

      -Apology of the Augsburg Confession [Articles VII and VIII:] The Church

      “For Cyril on John 15 states that Christ is offered bodily to us in the Supper. For he says, ‘We do not deny that we are joined spiritually to Christ by true faith and sincere love. But we do entirely deny that we have no kind of connection with him according to the flesh. We say that this is altogether foreign to the sacred Scriptures. For who has ever doubted that Christ is a vine in this way and we are truly the branches, deriving life from him for ourselves? Listen to Paul as he says [1 Cor. 10:17; Rom. 12:5; and Gal. 3:28], ‘We are all one body in Christ, although we are many, we are nevertheless one in Him; for we all partake of the one bread.’ Does he perhaps think that the power of the mystical benediction is unknown to us? Since this is in us, does it not also, by the communication of Christ’s flesh, cause Christ to dwell in us bodily?’ And a little later, ‘From this we must consider that Christ is in us not only according to the indwelling understood as love but also by a natural participation…'”

      -Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article X: The Holy Supper

      “The sacrament was instituted for the consolation and encouragement of terrified hearts, when they believe that the flesh of Christ, given for the life of the world, is their food, and when they believe that they are made alive by being joined to Christ.”

      -Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXII: Concerning Both Kinds in the Lord’s Supper

      All of these citations point to the teaching that in Holy Communion (as well as in Baptism, and by the nature of being the Church), we are united in and with the Body of Christ, that same body of Christ that we eat and drink in that same Holy Communion. What is lacking is the next connection, the THEN part of the equation. And I’m not exactly sure how I would answer that.

      On the one hand, it does seem like an easy logical leap. On the other hand, faith is not dependant on logic. My question would be, why is it important whether or not we are also partaking of each other in Holy Communion? Also, I don’t think there’s a direct equivalence between the body of Christ in Holy Communion and the body of Christ as the collective church. It could be the same as saying copper is a metal and gold is a metal, but that doesn’t mean that copper is gold.

      I do think, however, it is important to recognize that when the body of Christ gathers, and when we share Holy Communion together, that there is definitely something shared that connects us all. Of this, I have no doubt. We do “feed” off of each other, we draw strength and hope from each other, we support each other, and we experience grace and forgiveness together. Whether it means we feed on each other the same way we feed on Christ’s body and blood, I don’t think it’s the same thing.

      I’m not sure if that answers your question, but when in doubt, I find it helpful to remember that everything about our faith, especially when we try to lay it all out in a logical, human fashion, is at its heart a mystery. We trust that God knows what God is doing in these divine actions and experiences, even if we ourselves don’t understand it.


  4. Our church has some members from other faith traditions that use grape juice. They are trying to ban the use of wine in communion completely and are very vocal about it. The church voted to offer both wine and grape juice but they will not compromise. Can we continue to use wine as Lutherans or do we have to use only grape juice? The reason for not allowing wine is alcohol is always evil. If we must use grape juice only why does the church not enter in full fellowship with denominations that use juice and the ELCA give up wine? The synod advised us to use juice only and ignore the feelings of members who want wine as an option.


  5. Hello, Linus!

    There is nothing at all in Lutheran theology that prohibits the use of wine, either in Holy Communion or in daily life. Indeed, the Lutheran Confessions assume the use of wine in Holy Communion so much that the question never comes up.

    The root question is, “Is alcohol good?” The Lutheran position is that alcohol, part of God’s creation, is good. But the abuse of alcohol is not. How do we respond? Martin Luther argued that just because something is abused doesn’t mean you stigmatize and consider the thing evil. Instead, you confront the abuse.

    Others take a different approach: if something is abused, the abuse causes harm, you remove the thing that is abused. Therefore, if people can use alcohol to get drunk, abolish the use of alcohol. It sounds like those stirring up trouble in your congregation hold this view.

    Theologically, from a Lutheran position, this second position is unwarranted. Lutherans have always used wine in Holy Communion. The introduction of grape juice was later consideration, and in most churches that use grape juice, it is used alongside, not in place of, the wine. The grape juice is offered for those who have a sensitivity to alcohol or are in recovery for addiction. I myself choose to take grape juice when it is offered because alcoholism runs in my family, and I have chosen to avoid drinking alcohol to be on the safe side. But, I will take wine if there is no other option, and I don’t fault churches for not offering grape juice, since wine is the ancient practice, the preferred, and the recommended practice in the ELCA.

    My other option, which is also perfectly valid, is to simply abstain from the cup if only wine is offered. Christ is fully present in each element, and if for the sake of my conscience I could not take even a drop of wine, I could take only the bread. That’s not the option I choose to take, but I could, if I wanted to.

    Now, the political issue you are facing is more disturbing to me. If the congregation voted to use both wine and grape juice (at a congregational meting, I assume?), then the issue should be settled. I am also disappointed by your synod’s advice. I think it is neither appropriate nor helpful in your situation. Your congregation made a decision, one absolutely in line with the Lutheran Confessions and with the recommendations of the ELCA, and they should be supporting you in that. Offering both wine and grape juice is the best compromise for those who wish to adhere to Lutheran teaching and for those who don’t wish to drink wine during Communion.


  6. I have a question that wasn’t addressed here, but about which I’d like to know more. Who may preside over / administer / serve Communion in the ELCA? Must it be an ordained minister? If so, why? May it be a lay member, and if so, under what circumstances? I know, for example, in the Presbyterian Church (USA), only an ordained minister (now called a “Teaching Elder”) may preside / serve, except under clearly spelled out exceptional circumstances. (In practice, lay members may perform any part of the Communion service, except that the Words of Institution must be spoken by an ordained minister.) The reason given in the Presbyterian Book of Order is “For reasons of order;” there is no theological explanation for this rule.

    I’d be grateful for any light you can shine on ELCA rules or practice surrounding this question.


    1. CassandraToday, I’m sorry for my late reply! I’ve been neglecting the blog of late, and I’m trying to catch up.

      In the ELCA, an ordained minister presides over Holy Communion. I would say that “For reasons of order” is a pretty good summary of why this is. In the “Apology of the Augsburg Confession”, Philip Melanchthon affirms that the Reformers sought to retain the current order of the church, continuing the long tradition that came before them. This is what the “Use of the Means of Grace” says about why an ordained minister presides:

      “In the celebration of the eucharist, Christ gathers, teaches and nourishes the church . It is Christ who invites to the meal and who presides at it. He is the shepherd who leads the people of God, the prophet who announces the Word of God, the priest who celebrates the mystery of God. In most churches, this presidency is signified by an ordained minister. The one who presides at the eucharistic celebration in the name of Christ makes clear that the rite is not the assembly’s own creation or possession ; the eucharist is received as a gift from Christ living in his church . The minister of the eucharist is the ambassador who represents the divine initiative and expresses the connection of the local community with other local communities in the universal Church.”

      It’s important to note that though Christ is the one who invites and overall presides over the meal, the ordained minister does not replace or take the place of Christ. The ordained minister, called by the wider church and the assembly, connects the two, ensuring a continuity among the church. Having an ordained minister preside also ensures (or should ensure) that assembly is being taught proper theology. We put ordained ministers through rigorous training so that they can continue to ground the church in its shared traditions and theology. It doesn’t make them “special” or impart some secret that allows them to preside. It provides for a way for the church to be properly ordered and connected.

      This “connectedness” is the primary reason an ordained minister presides over Holy Communion. But in places where an ordained minister is not available, bishops can (and do) authorize lay persons to be trained as either Licensed Lay Ministers (a specific, trained vocation) or temporary lay ministers who can preside over Holy Communion. This is usually a temporary measure, and the authority and call of a lay minister is limited. Bishops authorize lay ministers at their discretion; I was technically licensed as a lay presider in the few weeks between when I started my call and when I was ordained. Because lay ministers are authorized by the bishop, it still preserves “good order” and connects the assembly to the wider church.


      1. Thanks for your in-depth reply, Pastor Ken! And no, I don’t think a couple of weeks is a “late” reply to a complicated question on blog post from 3½ years ago 🙂 With your explanation of the theology of the office of Minister in the ELCA, it makes sense. Thanks!


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