Setting Out for Elert but Not Even Making it to Akron

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas wants to be a confessional Lutheran congregation.  You might say they want to get to Elert, but they don’t even make it to Akron.

Werner Elert is the author of Eucharist and Church  Fellowship in the First Four Centuries.  This German Lutheran theologian documents in his 1960’s work that Communion fellowship in the church’s first four hundred years was always between altars not between hearts (i.e. objective not subjective).  It was true fellowship not Barney fellowship (I love you; you love me, we’re one big communion family.), and it was based on agreement in doctrine.

 Here’s St. Paul’s complete Communion statement from their web page on July 20, 2009 (It’s the same as was printed in a October 26, 2009 bulletin):

  Holy Communion 

     Holy Communion is a visible means by which our Lord Jesus Christ forgives our sins and strengthens our faith through our reception of His true body and blood in mystical union with the bread and wine. Participation in the Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper is a confession that you share our beliefs that Jesus Christ is the only way you can be saved from your sins and receive eternal life, that forgiveness of sins is received in this Sacrament of the Altar, and that our Lord’s body and blood are truly and physically present. When we commune together at Christ’s Altar we all renounce any contrary teachings or practices regarding the nature and benefits of this Holy Supper.

     Baptized and confirmed members of Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations and those with whom we share altar fellowship have publicly confessed these beliefs. Out of love and concern for your spiritual welfare, and not a desire to be exclusionary, we ask that those who do not yet share this understanding and confession of the Sacrament refrain from communing until they have been instructed in our beliefs regarding this Sacrament, and brought into fellowship with us.

     If a worshipper should not yet commune with us but wishes to receive a blessing, he or she is invited to come forward and kneel at the rail, with arms folded and hands on opposite shoulders.

     In keeping with the historic practice of the Christian Church and the Lutheran Confessions, Holy Communion is celebrated is celebrated at both services every Sunday of the month, as well as on significant feasts and commemorations of the Christian Church’s liturgical calendar.

 This isn’t to Elert; this is open Communion among those who agree on “teachings or practices regarding the nature and benefits of this Holy Supper.”  They ask people “who do not yet share this understanding and confession of the Sacrament refrain from communing until they have been instructed in our beliefs regarding this Sacrament.”  A High Anglican, a low church Catholic, or a middle of the road Orthodox could come to agreement with them on the “nature and benefits” of Holy Communion.  Virtually all members of the ELCA, you know the ones in full communion with every Protestant denomination of any size and defenders of homosexual “lifestyles” everywhere, would say they do share St. Paul Lutheran’s doctrine of the Sacrament.

Who does share their view of fellowship is Bethany Lutheran, Austin, Texas, a church that has never claimed to be confessional, liturgical, or traditional.  Here’s their full Communion statement from their web page November 2, 2009:

Holy Communion

The sacrament is celebrated every Sunday at all worship services. The people of Bethany believe that Holy Communion is a special gift of God to His Church. From our understanding of the Bible and our concern for people, we ask that those who receive Holy Communion:

  1. Be baptized Christians;
  2. Should have received special instruction concerning the nature and meaning of Holy Communion;
  3. Are mature enough to recognize and confess their sin and need for God’s grace through this special means of grace;
  4. Believe that they are receiving the real body and blood of Jesus as they receive the bread and wine;
  5. Believe Jesus’ words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”;
  6. Recognize their participation at Holy Communion here indicates their agreement with this understanding of Holy Communion.

All persons who receive Holy Communion at Bethany Lutheran Church should acknowledge these teachings and affirm them.

I now think Rev. Matt Harrison is right.  85% of the LCMS probably agrees on something like this.  The trouble is this isn’t what the church in the first four centuries confessed or the LCMS has ever confessed.  For crying out loud, this isn’t even what President Gerald B. Kieschnick confesses!  The last of his bullet points to the 2009 district conventions on what all Missouri Synod Lutherans believe was  “That church fellowship has as its basis complete agreement in doctrine and practice.” He contradicted himself later in the report when he said that one of the four things we don’t agree on was “The administration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, mainly the question of who should be invited or allowed to commune at the altar of our Lord in LCMS congregations.”  But President Kieschnick at his best wants to be better than St. Paul and Bethany are.

St. Paul Lutheran didn’t make it all the way back to the first four centuries of the church; they didn’t even make it back to Akron.  In Akron, Ohio in 1872 the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (Not the forerunners of the LCMS mind you but of the ELCA) held, “Lutheran altars are for Lutheran Communicants only.” This is known as the Akron Rule.  (In 1875 it was restated by them in Galesburg, Ohio and so sometimes goes by that name.) St. Paul’s and Bethany’s altars are for whoever agrees with them on the nature, meaning, and benefits of the Lord’s Supper.

A note of defense for both St. Paul and Bethany.  These statements are better, more closed, than statements they have had in the past.  (Praise be to God!)  By contrast they are faithful.  King of Kings, Round Rock and Faith, Georgetown in their Communion announcements don’t even require communicants to be baptized!  What is regrettable is the direction both have chosen to move.  They probably think by emphasizing agreement about the nature and benefits of the Lord’s Supper they are being confessional because of the Large Catechism V, 2: “For it is not our  intention to let people come to the Sacrament and administer it to them if they do not know what they seek or why they come.”

For many years advocates of open Communion have argued this means anyone who knows what they seek and why they come should be communed.  But this is applying Luther’s standard for who should commune to who should commune together.  Using a standard of worthiness to determine fellowship is like using the wrong map.  You won’t get to Elert, Akron, or anywhere else you want to go.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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One Response to Setting Out for Elert but Not Even Making it to Akron

  1. Well,

    Truth has a way of stopping mouths. I generally read your blogs and listen to your sermons and don’t usually post comments, I don’t post comments because I usually conclude with, “This is most certainly true.” Since, there weren’t any comments to this post, I thought I would make known my silent agreement with the truth here proclaimed.

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