Do Christians really randomly pick and choose what commandments to keep? Sometimes it seems so. A Lutheran pastor here illustrates a method to the sometimes apparent madness (or Biblical wisdom) of knowing which Word of God to apply first or in which circumstance when God’s commandments appear to contradict in a “rock-and-a-hard place” kind of way—Like a pandemic!
Wisely or not, my fellow pastors in the region elected and entrusted me to serve as their local ‘bishop’ over the clergy and congregations in this area a couple years back—diminishing my time to write as I once did. (In the LCMS, we call them ‘Circuit Visitors.’) With a pandemic going on and our state restricting many facets of ministry, I now must find time and occasion to do the work I’m given by other means.
Not long ago a pastor and friend wrote and asked about what to do in a pandemic circumstance with regards to communion. We Lutherans have a very high regard for the celebration of our Lord’s Supper. If you’ve read my stuff or listened to even a few of my sermons, you will have figured that out.
Regardless, I offered him my thinking on the matter, and with his permission decided to share those here below—both as a resource for my fellow clergy who drop by now and then, but also because it illustrates a deliberate and sincere effort we make in our church to take all of Scripture seriously.
Missouri Synod Lutherans (among several other smaller American Lutheran church bodies) do still believe “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16). Likewise, that “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) I hope your church does, too!
But even if you have no denomination or local congregation at all, you’ve no doubt noticed sometimes it’s tough to figure out what to do in certain circumstances. At times, God’s Word seems to be pointing us in two or more different directions at once!
Is there a method to your madness of ‘picking and choosing’ beyond tossing a prayer in the air and going with your gut? Prayer and our gut must play a role—but shouldn’t be the only tool in the box! “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, all your soul and all of your strength…,” yet there is a place for loving Him with “all of your mind,” too! (Matthew 22:37-38) “This is the first and greatest commandment!” Jesus said. So, we look before we leap off of some devilish pinnacle.
Here’s the perplexing problem we face: Jesus tells us repeatedly “this do in remembrance of Me” and tomorrow is Holy Thursday of Holy Week. Sunday is Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. This week marks the most ancient high feast of the Church year—even older than Christmas.
But the state is telling us all to stay home, don’t gather unless absolutely necessary. The health department tells us not to distribute the Eucharist (or holy communion) even from pastor to car after car in procession. God tells us to obey Governmental authority. (Romans 13) We understand his commandment “You shall not murder” anyone to include carelessly endangering their physical wellbeing, as well as deliberately ending someone’s life. And then there’s those pesky verses commanding us to worship, to take and eat and drink, and reminding us occasionally to obey God rather than men.
Some churches, it seems, could care less about such things and feel free to more or less revise and make it all up as they go along, so long as it seems either “reasonable” enough or “spirit led” enough. Those on the “spirit led” end openly defy government orders to refrain from assembling for a limited time, embracing a (foolishly?) heroic faith that God will just keep ‘em all safe.
Others reason that they don’t need to heed Christ’s own command “This do” in such a way that no Passover elements are used, nor a smaller subgroup of general crowds of Jesus followers be admitted. For these reason dictates even the very acts of giving and taking themselves are unnecessary to their eating and drinking “in remembrance of Me.” Some kind of remembering part is what really matters to their communion, just not what Jesus showed and told them to do. I’ll let them explain those approaches to you and their Lord. It’s enough I take care with the people and things for which I must give account. (Hebrews 13:17, James 3:1)
So anyhow, here’s how Lutherans who strive to “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28, John 12:47-49) go at such a quandary…one part of the method (or wisdom?) to our ‘madness’ in apparently ‘picking and choosing’ what commands to apply in what way given a particular time and circumstance. You judge for yourself.
One pastor asked:
“I’m seriously looking for some guidance here, brothers. Am I in violation of one of the commandments? I’m really struggling with this. I’m second guessing myself now, considering potential for violation of the 4th and the 5th… and maybe the 1st. Am I sinning against the body and blood of Christ? Trivializing this precious gift. I want to say I have zeal for the sacrament. Maybe that’s the Pharisee in me coming out.”
My Approach and Response to the Question of Communion Practice and the Pandemic
Dear Brothers in Christ,
With regard to the 4th Commandment issues, the Governor of Nebraska included these Directed Health Measures applied specifically to Faith-based organizations. This now applies for all Nebraska Counties:
Gov. Ricketts: Guidance for Faith-Based Communities
- The State has released new guidance today allowing churches to host drive-in services.
- Nothing should be handed out to car passengers—or transferred between vehicles—before, during, or after the service.
- For example, do not circulate an offering plate or the Eucharist or communion.
- Email out your program, bulletin, and song lyrics to participants ahead of time.
- The guidance is available by clicking here.
(Available from April 3 news release on the governor’s site at:https://governor.nebraska.gov/press/gov-ricketts-reiterates-importance-social-distancing-overviews-programs-aid-businesses ). I attached the full Department of Health & Human Services PDF updated 4/2/2020 linked from my google drive for any to read in case that copy/paste above that says “clicking here” doesn’t include the link:
**Theologically,** in thinking through the matter of coping with apparent conflicts between commandments, I might consider the approach Luther takes when addressing the question of war and capitol punishment in the Large Catechism treatment of the 5th Commandment prohibition against murder.
Luther finds that the order of the commandments is given deliberately by God to help us and show their order of importance.
Thus, the Fifth Commandment does not prohibit the Fourth Commandment government authorities from fulfilling their office and duties toward their subjects by the necessary means of force. So they have the power to punish criminals or enemies of the nation with the sword, to protect and defend the general citizenry. This is not reckoned murder before God, but an exercise of the very charge entrusted to them.
Similarly, the Fourth Commandment does not apply ***before God*** when it appears to conflict with the First, Second or Third Commandments. “We must obey God, rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Note that such obedience to God does not remove one from subjection to the temporal authorities: arrest, imprisonment and other consequence often followed for the patriarchs (Joseph), prophets (Daniel), apostles and saints through the ages. Such consequences are highly preferred by these holy men of generations before ours to the alternative of violating the First Table of the law.
With regard to the First three commandments, we should:
- Fear, love and trust God above all things.
- Fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie or deceive by His Name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise and give thanks.
- Fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
So, where does communion fall under those three? Thinking aloud and catechetically:
What is the Sacrament of the Altar?…
What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?…
How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?
Certainly not just eating and drinking DO these things, but THE WORDS written here “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” THESE WORDS along with the eating and drinking ARE THE MAIN THING in the Sacrament. WHOEVER BELIEVES THESE WORDS HAS EXACTLY WHAT THEY SAY: forgiveness of sins.
On account of this, I suppose, we have not recognized such a thing as “emergency communion” similarly to the way we treat and acknowledge emergency baptism.
Baptism is generally never repeated, but is administered exactly once for all in the name of Christ, whether child or adult convert. That application of the word ought not wait in an emergency (say, for example, a pandemic).
On the other hand, the Word given and applied in the Lord’s Supper is ours as often as we eat and drink it. We desire to increase the regularity and frequency of communion, because we never wish to go hungry or thirst, but enjoy again and again this foretaste of the eternal feast to come! We receive there the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
Yet communion need not be taken every hour on the hour, nor thrice a day. I’d love to partake daily, but seldom have opportunity since we must wait for one another and eat this together. We don’t have weekly communion in the sanctuary, though I should love to see that happen very much eventually. But, at least we’re not just communing quarterly or monthly…many of our American congregations did so as recently two generations ago.
In my opinion, communion can wait in an emergency, though baptism ought not. Were I forbidden from baptizing someone whose life was in jeopardy (whether a fragile premie in hospital whose parents desired God’s gracious gifts for their kid, or even a dying elderly person desiring to be baptized), I should find myself more unsettled. But I would strive to locate one parent, grandparent, janitor, doctor or nurse to assure that baptism happened according to Christ’s command and the caregiver’s request were the baptism urgently requested of me. I might even instruct a cooperative agnostic or atheist nurse in the proper form and ask it be done according to the simplest rite, urging them maybe to FaceTime me while it happened, that I might at least witness it. There is such a thing as baptismal emergency, we believe. We must obey God rather than men with regard to that sacrament.
Communion is a different gift with different parameters. We not only **allow** our members to abstain from it for years, sometimes a dozen years or more, sometimes we insist on this longer wait in order that the other means of grace can be liberally and effectively applied (baptism, the Word taught in catechesis, the Gospel preached and those given into our pastoral care and discipline be first examined and absolved).
As I think about this all along with you, ‘aloud’ as I write this, it’s my inclination to land closer to the fasting end of the communion spectrum, rather than on the opposite extreme of insistence that it must happen immediately—even by ridiculous and blasphemous means or streaming the service and self-administration at home or elsewhere, by anyone and everyone who ever tunes in to the feed.
So, Good Pastor, you are most certainly not on the ridiculous or blasphemous end. You’re not on the fasting end. With the rest of us, we’re together trying to find the good middle ground of administering faithful Word and Sacrament spiritual care.
Rightly should we hesitate to ignore our Lord’s “do this” with regard to the pastoral giving in the stead and by the command of Christ, along with member’s own physically receiving or taking to eat and to drink as Christ has ordained it. The department of health now has forbidden certain modes of physical giving, taking and receiving. Our Catholic governor has dutifully made us aware of that fact.
What decision any of you will reach with regard to these matters, or what practice I will settle upon for the sake of my members—or find necessary to adjust and adapt to, none can say with finality, for things keep changing day to day.
But hopefully as you do, keep in mind these two things:
***The ordering of the commandments can help resolve apparent conflicts between them. We may never despise preaching or the Word…. The Governor has NOT forbidden any or all means of grace, rather, he openly encouraged us to make use of the Word of God and prayer at home—and to stay connected to our clergy watching online worship services like he does! These are things we are glad to hear him exhort us to do! Gladly do them.
***We recognize the absolute necessity of the Word of God and urgency and higher priority of baptism in the sacramental ordering of things. Communion can wait, in fact sometimes we ourselves insist on it!
Hope that is helpful to you brothers, in some verbose but nonetheless small way,