Holy Communion in the ELCA

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.


Holy Communion in the Lutheran Tradition

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 did the original Lutheran reformers say about the nature of Communion?

The most  basic explanation is presented in the foundational Lutheran document, the Augsburg Confession, in Article X:

Holy Communion. Esperanto: Sankta komunio.
Holy Communion. Esperanto: Sankta komunio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Concerning the Lord’s Supper it is taught that the true body and blood of Christ are truly present under the form of bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper and are distributed and received there. Rejected, therefore, is also the contrary teaching.”

This article was not disputed by the Confutation, the Roman Catholic response to the Augsburg Confession. Even in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, in which Philipp Melanchthon refutes other responses to the Confession, he writes that the only reason he spends any time on Article X is so that others who may read it may better understand that the Lutheran tradition is consistent with the position of the whole church. Aside from a disagreement over transubstantiation, the Lutheran theologians disagreed with Rome very little over the nature of communion. Instead, Lutheran theologians had to contend with other Reformation theologians who argued against the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. Lutheran theologians had to repeat the point over and over again:

“We maintain that the bread and the wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ and that they are not only offered to and received by upright Christians but also evil ones.”
Smalcald Articles III 6 §1

“What is the Sacrament of the Altar? Answer: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and drink.”
Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §1-2

“1. We believe, teach, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present, truly distributed and received with the bread and wine.

“2. We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the testament of Christ are not to be understood in any other way than the way they literally sound, that is, not that the bread symbolizes the absent body and the wine the absent blood Christ, but that they are truly the true body and blood of Christ because of the sacramental union.”
Forumla of Concord, Epitome, Article VII §6-7

Everything that the Lutheran tradition teaches about Communion is based on this fundamental truth, which is why I have repeated it so clearly.

What does Communion do?

The Lutheran tradition holds that grace, forgiveness, and salvation comes through the Sacrament:

“What is the benefit of such eating and drinking? Answer: The words ‘given for you’ and ‘shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’ show us that forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation are given to us in the sacrament through these words, because where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation.
Small Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §7-8

The arguments in the Book of Concord all take this fact for granted–the arguments that it presents to support this teaching are based on the fact that in Communion, Jesus Christ is fully present (see above). Because Christ is present, so is forgiveness. It does not seem to concern itself with why or how Christ’s body and blood effect forgiveness, only that Christ’s presence is necessary for it.

How is Communion distributed, and why?

The Lutheran theologians argued fervently that all Christians, clergy and laity, receive Communion in both kinds: that is, everyone should receive both the bread and the wine in the sacrament, every time:

“And we maintain that no one should distribute only one kind in the sacrament. Nor do we need the lofty learning which teaches us that there is as much under one kind as under both. This is how the sophists and the Council of Constance teach. Even if it were true that there is as much under one kind as under both, one kind is still not the complete order and institution as established and commanded by Christ. Especially do we condemn and curse in God’s name those who not only allow distribution of both kinds to be omitted but also dictatorially prohibit, condemn, and slander the distribution of both kinds as heresy. Thereby they set themselves against and above Christ, our Lord and God, etc.”
Smalcald Articles III 6 §2-4

It should be noted that much of what Lutheran theologians argued against in the Roman Catholic church were abuses. As a result, the arguments can only be understood properly in that context.

Lutherans today consistently hold that Christ is truly and fully present in each kind. What Luther himself argued against (he wrote the Smalcald Articles himself, which is why they are so “colorful”) was the teaching that, since Christ is present in each kind fully, only one kind should be given to the laity. A good teaching had been warped to create an abuse, and the best way to get rid of the abuse was to challenge and reform the teaching. Later theologians clarified this (while simultaneously asserting that Luther’s mouth was not “Word of God”, and that one person’s interpretation is not over the community’s).

Communion should also be offered as often as possible:

“However, you may say, ‘But the words are added, ‘as often as you do it’; so he compels no one, but leaves it to our free choice.’ Answer: That is precisely true, but it does not say that we should never partake of it. Indeed, precisely his words, ‘as often as you do it,’ imply that we should do it frequently.”
Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §471

Luther observed that many among the laity were choosing not to receive communion, either because they were afraid of taking it unworthily, or its opposite, that they felt they didn’t have to. Frequent distribution was a problem during the Reformation and in the recent past, but for different reasons, as will be seen.

As to giving Communion to the worthy and the unworthy:

“We believe, teach, and confess that not only those who truly believe and are worthy, but also the unworthy and unbelievers receive the true body and blood of Christ, though they do not receive life and comfort, but rather judgment and damnation, if they do not turn and repent.”

“We believe, teach, and confess that there is only one kind of unworthy guest, those who do not believe… We believe, teach, and confess that no genuine believers–no matter how weak–as long as they retain a living faith, receive the Holy Supper as condemnation. For Christ instituted this supper particularly for Christians who are weak in the faith but repentant, to comfort them and to strengthen their weak faith.

“We believe, teach, and confess that the entire worthiness of the guests at the table of his heavenly meal is and consists alone in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ. We make his obedience and merit our own through true faith, concerning which we receive assurance through the sacrament. Worthiness consists in no way in our own virtues, or in internal or external preparations.”
Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article VII §16-20

The writers of the Formula were not writing at a time when there was widespread division between a multitude of denomiations, churches, and sects. Though the separation between the Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church had occured, the vision is still of one body of believers. Nevertheless, the Formula helped shape the modern Lutheran approach to Eucharistic hospitality, which I shall discuss later.

What “makes” Communion? From where does its power come?

For the Lutheran theologians, the sacrament was not the source of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The sacrament, like all sacraments, was a way through which forgiveness, life, and salvation came. Communion has no power on its own.

“Here, too, we do not want to quarrel and dispute with those who despise and desecrate this sacrament. Instead, as in the case of baptism, we shall first learn what is of greatest importance, namely, that the chief thing is God’s Word and ordinance or command. It was not dreamed up or invented by some mere human being but was instituted by Christ without anyone’s counsel or deliberation. Therefore, just as the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed retain their nature and value even if you never keep, pray, or believe them, so also does this blessed sacrament remain unimpaired and inviolate even if we use and handle it unworthily. Do you think God cares so much about our faith and conduct that he would permit them to affect his ordinance? No, all temporal things remain as God has created and ordered them, regardless of how we treat them.”
Large Catechism, “The Sacrament of the Altar” §4-6

Out of context, this sounds like an invitation to do whatever one wishes with the sacrament. This is not so. This is instead an introductory statement, which is later clarified, to emphasize that the power and validity of the sacrament is not in human hands or even in the doing of the sacrament. The power of the sacrament is with God.

For Communion, like all sacraments, is only valid because of God’s promise and God’s work in the sacrament, not the human doing of the act:

“So it is not our work or speaking but the command and ordinance of Christ that make the bread the body and the wine the blood…

“Likewise, ‘Here, too, if I were to say over all the bread there is, ‘This is the body of Christ,’ nothing would happen, but when we follow his institution and command in the Supper and say, ‘This is my body,’ then it is his body, not because of our speaking or our declarative word, but because of his command in which he has told us to speak and to do and has attached his own command and deed to our speaking.”
Forumla of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §77-78

The Lutheran theologians firmly believed that the sacrament was only the sacrament when it was done properly and completely. The sacrament consisted of two parts–the original promise and power of God, and the complete act of the sacrament. This is why they rejected the adoration of the elements, which they considered to be an abuse:

“Likewise, we reject the teaching that the elements (the visible species, or form, of the consecrated bread and wine) should be adored. Of course, no one–except an Arian heretic–can or will deny that Christ himself, true God and truly human, who is truly and essentially present in the Supper when properly used, should be adored in spirit and truth in other places, but especially where his community is assembled.”
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §126

“They [who teach transubstantation] assert that under this form of the bread… the body of Christ remains present, even apart from the administration of the Supper (for example, when the bread is enclosed in the tabernacle or is carried around in a spectacle and adored). But, as has been shown, above, nothing can be a sacrament apart from God’s command and the practice that he has ordained, as insituted in God’s Word.”
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII §108

It was considered an abuse because they felt it was being used against the people. A consecrated host, meant to be consumed by the people as part of an act of forgiveness, life, and salvation, was not being used in the manner for which God commanded it to be used. If it was not being used sacramentally, according to God’s command, offering grace as God promised, then it was not sacramental. “Eat” and “Drink” were the commands given for the sacrament, not “parade.”

This is why Lutherans do not generally reserve the sacramental elements. A reserved sacrament is not being used in accordance with God’s command. The exception to this is when the consecrated sacrament is being sent to those who could not physically join the community, as it is being explicitly and quickly used for its intended purpose.

Continued in Part II.


All citations from Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

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

How to be a Liberal, Confessional Christian (and Lutheran)

1. Remember the centrality of the Word of God.

This should go without saying, but if you don’t remember this fundamental fact about Christianity, there’s not much point in continuing, is there?

And what is the Word of God? Fundamentally, it is not the Bible–it is the on about whom it was written. The core belief of Christianity, who we trust, is not in a book, but in God, the Son of God (the logos, the “Word” of John 1:1). God is as living, breathing, alive, active, and engaged in the world today as in every age. This is the God we worship.

2. Remember the centrality of the Word of God(2).

Okay, here, I do mean the Bible. That includes both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments. There’s a reason that conservative-evangelical Christians harp on liberals for leaving behind the Bible–sometimes, we do. Just like there are crackpots that believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old or that it  is flat (I’m not joking, there is still a Flat Earth Society, and whether or not that organization is serious, a colleague of mine visiting another church encountered a true flat-earther during a Bible study), there are extreme liberals who throw out the Bible because they don’t like part of it. Well, tough, we have to live with the parts we don’t like, such as the casual rape and genocide in the name of God, or Paul’s homophobia. Those are part of the history and we don’t get to sweep them under the rug. We have to decide how to respond to them.

It is important to remember that the Bible describes two things: how humanity has already responded to encounters with God, and who God is. Taking these two together, looking at the whole story, is how we learn about God, not by taking each verse in isolation on its own (it wasn’t separated into verses until the 16th century anyway, meaning that for 1600 years people read the stories as cohesive stories). Simply taking the words by themselves is no more helpful than trying to have a conversation with a dead body (unless your name is Donald Mallard). There is a difference between what the Bible says and what the Bible is saying. We don’t worship the book, we worship the One who inspired it and whom is revealed in it. Always ask, “What is God trying to tell us through this?” Notice, I said “us,” not “me.” Christianity is a community of faith, not an individual act.

3. Don’t forget the Confessions (for us Lutherans).

For other traditions, substitute your own confessional writings or magisterium or whatever. For Lutherans, the Book of Concord is the defining book of the tradition. It presents itself as a valid interpretation of scripture. It itself is not scripture, though sometimes I get the impression that it gets treated this way. It is the guideline for how the Lutheran tradition has interpreted the Bible and, especially the Formula of Concord, is an example of how people with different views and interpretations can come to common resolutions and agreements. The Lutheran Confessions are important to Lutherans because that’s what makes us Lutheran. And there’s really a lot of good stuff in there. But we don’t worship the book, and Martin Luther had a tendency for dramatic ass-hattery, so be warned.

4. Look to the Biblical prophets.

This is something liberal Christians excel at, and about which other Christians could learn a thing or two. The prophetic books of the Old Testament are concerned with two main realities–1) the worship of God (and only God) and 2) taking care of the poor and the oppressed. Which is more important? The famous words of Micah 6 are emblematic of the entire prophetic voice: God doesn’t care about the rituals, the ceremonies, the right acts of worship nearly as much as God cares about the poor and oppressed. Liberal Christianity is right in line with the prophetic tradition: take care of each other, and the rest will come. “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.” Right belief means nothing without accompanying action.

5. Be missional.

Buzz word alert! I tried, I did, but I couldn’t come up with a better word yet. To be missional is not to dedicate your life to converting non-Christians in far away places and saving their souls (as if we could save anyone, anyway). To be missional is to recognize that the church, the gathering of Christians, does not have a “mission from God” (that’s for Jake and Elwood), but is itself the hands for God’s work in the world. It’s not our work, but God’s work–and we better make sure that what we’re doing is indeed God’s work and not our own idea of what that is. See points 1-5.

6. Always be willing to talk.

The great thing about liberal Christianity is it can say it may not be right all the time. It’s okay to have debates, it’s okay to have dialogue. The early Ecumenical Councils were great deliberations (and fistfights, but let’s leave that particular expression of disapproval in the past, shall we?) in which opposing views were presented, debated about, and, ultimately, decisions and compromises were made. The Book of Concord is the result of dialogue and discussion. I can’t remember who said it (and can’t seem to find it anymore, hmm), but I can confidently confess, “I believe I have the truth–but I’m not the only one who does.”

7. You may have to “shake the dust from your feet.”

It’s not worth it getting into fights with someone whom you disagree with. Even Jesus’ disciples were told not to sweat it if the good news they proclaimed was not received. They were told to dust themselves off, move on, and don’t worry about it. You don’t have to prove you’re right. You may not be. Human religion is also a faded mockery of what God hopes for us.

8. Always act in love.

This relates back to points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. The defining character of God, God’s Word, God’s Son, and God’s relationship with creation is love. It overrides everything else. God changes God’s mind out of love. God throws out the old rules out of love. God eschews ritual purity out of love for the poor. God continues to return to a marriage with a rebellious world because God loves it. Our idea of justice demands punishment, but God bends over backwards out of love. There’s a pop song “Love Can Move Mountains” (go ahead, judge me, I dare you), and if we treat our own love this way, what do you think God’s love can do? There is a reason that Jesus boils down all of God’s law into two commandments–love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Above all else, this is what we are called to do, and to be.