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.