The current practice of many WELS churches regarding the frequency of Holy Communion is a mixed bag. On one side, a large group of churches continue to serve the Lord's Supper every other Sunday or even once a month. On the other, a growing group of men who are advocates of communing at every possible opportunity. A glance at the "Doctrinal Statements of the WELS" shows no mention of frequency, just a discussion on the moment of consecration. Indeed, along with the many facets of Holy Communion dealt with, it seems that frequency is not considered as much an issue, perhaps it should be.
I would do well to start with a discussion of the essence and purpose of the Lord's Supper.
On Essence: From Luther's small catechism
What is the Sacrament of the Altar?
It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for us Christians to eat and to drink, instituted by Christ Himself.
On Purpose The following is borrowed from a paper written by Joel Fredrich, for WLS symposium 2003
"Jesus instituted the Supper in order to give us his body and blood and through them the forgiveness of sins for the strengthening of our faith. And “where there is forgiveness of sin, there is also life and salvation” (SC VI, 6). The Supper’s primary character is that it is a means of grace.
The blessings just mentioned are treasures we possess by faith even before we receive the Supper. By faith in the gospel we possess forgiveness, life, and salvation, and are united with our Savior in his entirety, God and man, soul, body, blood. But Jesus wanted us to receive these gifts also in this special way. He created a sacrament that is to be received by me individually (thus assuring me personally), bodily (thus reminding me that he saves the whole me, soul and body), and repeatedly (thus providing for sacramental reassurance and growth all my life)."
Perhaps many of the things said above are well-known, and perhaps taken for granted, but I do not think a discussion of the Lord's Supper should be started from the middle of the matter. Some other notes on the matter that should be noted.
- The Lord's Supper is something that Christ has instituted for us, it is not something we do for him.
- It is a Means of Grace, that is, it works and accomplishes the same as the Word and the Sacrament of Baptism
- The Means of Grace should not be ranked, they are equal in their efficacy and the reverence shown.
"The sacrament and the sermon belong together and it is always the sign of decay in a church if one is emphasized at the expense of the other" (Sasse "This is my body...")
- Whereas the Sacrament of Baptism creates faith and is for all men (Matthew 28:19) The Sacrament of the Altar is for those who already have faith.
- However the sacrament is not received on the basis of the merit of faith, the merit is the innocent life and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Response to Infant Communion
Papers can be written on such things I will echo the statements of CFW Walther in "Pastoral Theology"
"Since according to God's Word everyone who wants to go to the Lord's Table should first examine himself and discern the Lord's body (1 Cor 11:28-29) the holy supper is not to be administered to children who are still incapable of doing so. It was an obvious misuse when it was rather generally done from the 3rd to 5th centuries, our of a misunderstanding of John 6:53 which was [incorrectly] understood at referring to receiving the Sacrament. "
He quotes Luther
" I cannot consider it right that the Bohemians give the same (the holy supper) to the children, even though I do not call them heretics because of it" (1523 letter to Hausmann)
And that is all I wish to say on that matter, for it is another topic, although it had been touched on briefly.
The Necessity of the Lord's Supper
From Christian Dogmatics (F. Pieper)
" The Lord's Supper is not a matter of choice, an adiaphoron but a divine ordinance that is to be observed in the church to the last day"
"Still there is not absolute necessity of the Lord's Supper because the remission of sins is not divided among the various means of Grace, but each one offers the full remission"
Our Lord's Words concerning the frequency of the Sacrament
"On what occasions and how often the Lord's Supper is to be received Scripture does not specifically state (emphasis mine). Diligent use of it, however, is not only indicated by the osachis (often) joined to the "This do in remembrance of me" but also follows from the essence and purpose of the Lord's Supper"
Ministry Word and Sacraments: An Enchiridion (Martin Chemnitz)
"Therefore you ask, how often would be enough to have been a guest of this supper? It is not for any man to give a specific answer to this with a number or any certain measure, other than as often as a trouble conscience feels and recognizes that it needs those benefits that are offered in the supper"
On Neglecting the Sacrament
From Luther's Large Catechism
"In conclusion, since we have now the true understanding and doctrine of the Sacrament, there is indeed need of some admonition and exhortation, that men may not let so great a treasure which is daily administered and distributed among Christians pass by unheeded, that is, that those who would be Christians make ready to receive this venerable Sacrament often"
On making the Gospel a law
I was asked to expound on my thoughts earlier about making a point of Gospel into a law. I would first differentiate between "rules concerning the sacrament" and "things essential to the sacrament", that is those things, when they are removed, the sacraments ceases to be a sacrament. Using Bread and Wine, for instance are things essential to the sacrament. As well, using the Words of Institution are essential, for without the Word the sacrament has no power.
Then on rules attached to the sacrament we must differentiate between rules instituted by God and rules created by man (as I had said, attaching law to a gospel). God speaks both to the frequency and the desire for the sacrament. There is to be understood also a need for a desire for the sacrament and a warning against neglecting it.
However, man should not arbitrarily attach his own rules on such things. Such as, number or measure (see: Chemnitz) as well as, type of wine, number of persons at the table, liturgical rites surrounding the supper, method in that one receives the elements(lips vs. hand/common vs. individual cup).
I believe the danger exists when combining "You must receive the sacrament as often as possible" and "You must offer the sacrament as often as possible" a arbitrary rule that sends Christians to the table out of fear rather than a sincere desire. I do not offer this opinion as an excuse but rather a very real admonition to those who would say that one "must" do things in respect to God's promises. Rather it is faith that brings us to the table and makes us ready.
Prior to the reformation and through the time of the Augsburg Confession churches offered "communion every Sunday and holy day, and, if any desire the sacrament, also on other days when it is given to such as ask for it." (AC XXIV)
Use of the sacraments declined because of the Thirty Year's War, Pietism, Rationalism, and in American Lutheranism, the relative distance between churches made weekly communing impossible. (For more information read "The Effects of the Age of Pietism on the Lutheran Church" Paul Prange, also "Communion Frequency in the Lutheran Confessions' Jay Webber)
I truly believe that a Christian should at all times desire the sacrament.
I sincerely believe that a Minister should at all times desire to distribute the sacrament.
I believe often communion is a command from God.
I believe that weekly communion is a fitting custom but is just that a custom, it is not commanded.
I believe that it is the status quo of our people to not receive the sacrament as often as they could.
I believe, as such, that is it proper that strict catechizing be done to show people the need, as well as the purpose of communing often.
I believe there are several logical, earthly reasons for communing less often (for both large and small congregations) however they pale to the spiritual benefit.
I believe there are several ways in which our communicants sinful nature could abuse communing for often, again I stress the importance of teaching.
I believe there is a groundswell at the lay level, as well as the students and faculty of our schools and our administration for more often communing and I am hopeful because of it.
I believe however, regardless of the groundswell, time must be taken and changes cannot happen suddenly.
I therefore reject any notion that calls into question the faith or confessionalism of those who do not commune more frequently, nor those who do not desire to offer communion more frequently. For, to call into question such things belies the efforts of man to usurp the place of God who judges the heart. I however, commend the desires of those who seek to maintain open communication on the subject: teaching, and admonishing one another as befits Christians. In such a way, we seek to glorify God in all things, and uplift one another in his presence.
In Nomine Jesu
Michael A. Schottey
November 28, 2007