Church Fellowship and Closed Communion

By Pastor Rolf Preus

First Confessional Lutheran Parish

Mayville – Crookston – Fertile

January and February, 2007

“I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy Christian church, the communion of saints . . .”

Fellowship = Communion = koinonia = Sharing = Participation

What is the basis for deciding whether or not we have fellowship with one another?

Three common views:

1. We mutually submit to the leadership of the same man (for example, the Pope).

2. We agree on a common form of church government (Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Presbyterian)

3.  We share a common religious experience (“born again” Christians, “Spirit-filled” Christians, etc.)

The answer of the Lutheran Confessions:

For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word.  It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places.  It is as Paul says in Eph. 4:4,5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Augsburg Confession, Art. VII

We believe, teach, and confess that no church should condemn another because it has fewer or more external ceremonies not commanded by God, as long as there is mutual agreement in doctrine and in all its articles as well as in the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the familiar axiom, “Disagreement in fasting does not destroy agreement in faith.” Formula of Concord, Epitome, Art. X

Who achieves the unity of the church and who establishes true Christian fellowship, God or man?

Martin Luther: God Does

"I believe that there is on earth a little holy flock or community of pure saints under one head, Christ.  It is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, mind, and understanding.  It possesses a variety of gifts, yet is united in love without sect or schism."  Large Catechism, Explanation of the Creed

Friedrich Schleiermacher (The father of modern Protestantism 1768 - 1834): Man Does 

"The church  . . .is a fellowship created by the voluntary actions of men, and only through these does it continue to exist."

How does God call the Church into being?  Matthew 28:18-20; John 17:17; Romans 1:16; 10:17; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 Peter 2:23

The unity of the Church is an article of faith (we believe it though we cannot see it).  Luke 17:20-21; John 10:16; 17:20-21; Romans 12:5; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:3-6; Colossians 3:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:19; 1 John 3:2.

We must make a distinction between what is revealed and hidden.  If we want to find what is hidden, we must look to what God has revealed.  The following lists include those gifts from God that are revealed and those gifts from God that are hidden. 


God’s Word

God’s Truth

The Gospel and Sacraments of Christ



True Christian Unity

True Christian Holiness

We can know God’s word.  We cannot see the faith that trusts in it.  We can know God’s truth, that is, we can know what the true teaching of God’s word is.  We cannot see the true Christian unity that exists as a result of God’s truth.  We can know God’s Gospel and Sacraments.  We cannot see the true Christian holiness that they impart.  So we do not try to see what is hidden.  We look to what is revealed, and on the basis of God’s promise we trust that what is hidden is hidden under what is revealed.

God’s Word is revealed in the Bible which reveals also God’s truth and identifies for us the Gospel and the Sacraments of Christ through which God brings us to faith, establishes true unity and makes the church holy.  Since we cannot see faith, unity, or holiness, we look instead for the true word of God, the purely preached gospel and the rightly administered sacraments of Christ.  Since we cannot see faith, we don't look for faith.  Since we cannot see into the heart, we don't judge anyone’s heart.  We can, however, determine whether or not a church teaches the gospel purely and administers the sacraments rightly.  This, then, must be the basis for expressing church fellowship.

The pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments of Christ are called:

  • The Means of Grace (because through them God gives us grace and salvation)
  • The Marks of the Church (because they mark or identify the true Church)
  • The Means of Grace or Marks of the Church are the basis for Christian fellowship

In order to keep the true gospel and sacraments, the Holy Scriptures require us to oppose all false teachers and teachings.  Deuteronomy 13:1-3; Matthew 7:15-16; Acts 20:27-31; Romans 16:17-18; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; Galatians 1:8-9; 5:9; 2 Timothy 3:12-4:5; Titus 3:10; 1 John 4:1; Revelation 18:4

God wants us to belong to orthodox churches and not to express fellowship with heterodox churches or false churches.  Matthew 28:18-20; John 8:31-32; 10:27; Acts 2:42; (see also above)

Orthodox churches: Churches in which nothing but the true word of God is taught and false doctrine is not tolerated.  False teaching may, from time to time, creep in, but it will be corrected and removed.

Heterodox churches: Churches in which God's word is combined with human errors so that God's truth and human error are taught along side of each other.  Wherever the truth is, even when it is mixed up with error, there is the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit who “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth.”  Christians do belong to heterodox churches but the error taught in them is potentially soul-destroying.

False churches:  “Churches” in which God’s word is denied so thoroughly that they cannot be regarded as Christian churches because it is not possible for Christians to be members.  The formal denial of the Holy Trinity and of the true deity of Christ renders a “church” a false church in which there can be no Christians.  Examples: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Christian Science, Unitarian Universalist

Discussion Questions:

How would you respond to the following objections that are raised against “marking and avoiding” all false teachers and false teachings?

  • Insistence on the pure doctrine is divisive.
  • How can you be so sure that what you believe is true?
  • You are showing a lack of love by setting yourselves above other Christians.
  • You must think you are the only Christians in the world!


Closed Communion (also called “Close” Communion, a term coined by a Baptist minister a little over one hundred years ago) is the practice of welcoming to the Altar only those who are members of the congregation or of another congregation which is in fellowship with it. 

The Teaching of the New Testament on Closed Communion

Matthew 5:23-24.  Reconciliation (also doctrinal reconciliation) must take place before two people worship together.

Matthew 7:6.  The passage used most frequently by the Church Fathers to support closed Communion.  “The holy things for the holy ones!” (From ancient Christian liturgies)

Matthew 26:18-20 (and parallel passages).  Jesus distributed the first Lord's Supper to those who had been thoroughly instructed in His doctrine.

Acts 2:42.  The doctrine, fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and the prayers all go together.

Romans 16:17.  “Avoid” does not mean to join at the Altar.

1 Corinthians 5:11.  False doctrine is idolatry, a sin against the First Commandment.

1 Corinthians 10:16-21.  We must agree in doctrine (1 Corinthians 1:10) before communing together since the very act of eating and drinking involves unity with one another.  How can we eat the indivisible body of Christ together if we are doctrinally divided?  All false doctrine is demonic (John 8:44; 1 Timothy 4:1) so we may not eat at altars which teach false doctrine.

1 Corinthians 11:26.  Those who partake of the elements of the Lord's Supper join together in proclaiming the Lord’s death, that is, they “preach” the gospel together.

1 Corinthians 11:27-29.  The Apostle warns against eating and drinking “unworthily” which would include, among other things, not “discerning” the real presence of Christ's body and blood.

The Teaching of the Early Church on Closed Communion

Quotations from Werner Elert's Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries.

Before the Eucharist began, however, the “hearers” had to leave the assembly, and not only they but also the catechumens, even though they were already being solidly instructed toward reception.  During the Eucharist the doors were guarded by deacons and subdeacons. (p 75)

The Holy Communion of the early church is rightly “closed Communion” at least to this extent that no unbaptized person may partake of it. (p 79)

Even though a man must first be baptized before he may partake of the Holy Communion, this does not mean that all the baptized may without distinction partake of the Eucharist together. (p 80)


The extending or refusing of Eucharistic fellowship is then always a confessional act of the whole congregation. (p 80)

The unity of the local congregation is most concretely expressed when its members celebrate the Holy Communion together.  Each member gives personal testimony of this fact by his participation. (p 100)

The early church was never in doubt that unity in doctrine is a prerequisite of altar fellowship.  No one who taught false doctrine might receive holy Communion in an orthodox congregation. (p 109)

Heterodoxy breaks church fellowship and therefore self-evidently and primarily also altar fellowship. (p 113)

No church fellowship, no altar fellowship.  The only exception is the deathbed. (p 116)

The theological foundation of [“closed Communion”] was never questioned in the early church. (p 118)

Altar fellowship was possible only where there was confessional unity. (p 169)

The modern theory that anybody may be admitted “as a guest” to the Sacrament in a church of a differing confession, that people may communicate to and fro in spite of the absence of full church fellowship is unknown in the early church, indeed unthinkable. (p 175)

To the early church a man was orthodox or heterodox according to his confession.  He was the one or the other according to that confession with which he was “in fellowship.”  The fellowship in which he stood, the church to which he belonged, was shown by        where he received the Sacrament. . . By his partaking of the Sacrament in a church a Christian declares that the confession of that church is his confession.  Since a man cannot at the same time hold two different confessions, he cannot communicate in two churches of differing confessions.  If anyone does this nevertheless, he denies his own confession or has none at all. (p 182)

Justin Martyr (A. D. 114-165) “And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”  (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p 185)

The Teaching of the Lutheran Confessions on Closed Communion

Thus the Mass is preserved among us in its proper use, the use which was formerly observed in the church and which can be proved by St. Paul's statement in I Cor. 11:20ff.and by many statements of the Fathers.  For Chrysostom reports how the priest stood every day, inviting some to Communion and forbidding others to approach.  Augsburg Confession, XXIV, 35-36


In our churches the use [of the Sacrament] is more frequent and more devout.  It is the people who use it, and this only when they have been instructed and examined.  Apology of the Augsburg Confession, XIV, 49

Hence from ancient times it has been called, in Greek, a “catechism” – that is, instruction for children.  Its contents represent the minimum of knowledge required of a Christian.  Whoever does not possess it should not be reckoned among Christians nor admitted to a sacrament, just as a craftsman who does not know the rules and practices of his craft is rejected and considered incompetent. . .  those who come to the sacrament ought to know more and have a fuller understanding of all Christian doctrine than children and beginners at school.  Preface to the Large Catechism

Dr. Luther, who understood the true intention of the Augsburg Confession better than any one else, remained by it steadfastly and defended it constantly until he died.  Shortly before his death, in his last confession he repeated his faith in this article with great fervor and wrote as follows:  “I reckon them all as belonging together (that is, as Sacramentarians and enthusiasts), for that is what they are who will not believe that the Lord's bread in the Supper is his true, natural body, which the godless or Judas receive orally as well as St. Peter and all the saints.  Whoever, I say, will not believe this, will please let me alone and expect no fellowship from me.  This is final.”  Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, VII, 33

Questions that people raise about the practice of closed Communion: How should we answer?

  1. The pastor has no right to judge anyone coming up to the altar.
  2. You cannot look into anyone’s heart to see what he believes.  
  3. You should not deny the Lord’s Supper to people on account of their church’s doctrine if they don’t accept their church's doctrine.
  4. People will misunderstand this practice.
  5. Each individual must decide for himself whether or not to commune.
  6. It is impossible for Christians to agree on everything.
  7. Closed Communion is unloving.        



Rolf D. Preus


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