Second Pastoral Letter on Virtual Communion
The Rev. Dr. Daniel W. Selbo
Bishop of the North American Lutheran Church
May 6, 2020
Dear NALC Pastors,
Happy Easter! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! It is in the hope and promise of our Lord’s resurrection, and in the assurance that Christ is with us in all things, that we move forward in our partnership in the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) and in our calling to be and to make disciples of Jesus.
I am writing as a follow-up to the letter I sent last month requesting a moratorium on the virtual (distance or tele) sharing of the Lord’s Supper. The purpose of the request was to allow our Commission on Theology & Doctrine (CTD) to address the question and to give each of us, myself included, more time to think and pray through an appropriate response and posture as a denomination. It was my concern at the time that the very Sacrament that was intended by our Lord to bring us together as God’s people was beginning, if only in small ways, to move us apart. Rather than allow such to continue, I chose to send a letter asking for additional time and prayer.
Since that letter and moratorium request were sent, I have met with our CTD twice. Our meetings were productive and filled with good spirit. The depth of the conversations and the passion with which the dialogue took place was evident throughout. Each of the members were committed to upholding the scriptural witness and the Lutheran Confessions in addressing the question and sharing their understandings and positions. Our dialogue was a clear reminder of the foundation and unity we share in the North American Lutheran Church.
There was much consensus on the Commission regarding the Sacrament of Holy Communion. There was no debate around the gifts we have been given in our Lord’s Supper. Our sins are forgiven. Faith is renewed and brought forth. The assurance of God’s love and the promise of eternal life are ours in Christ. There was unanimity regarding the “real presence” of Jesus, when the earthly elements of bread and wine are combined with the eternal promises given to us in God’s Word according to Christ’s command. There was unanimous agreement in the role clergy hold in the administration of the Sacrament for the sake of “good order,” and in the command Jesus gave that we are to share this meal often in remembrance of Him. There was also agreement that Holy Communion should be shared, ideally, in a context in which the people receiving the Sacrament are physically together.
The main departure among the CTD members centered around the question of whether a distance (tele-Communion) approach to our Lord’s Supper is faithful to the command of Jesus to share the Sacrament in the context of community. In other words, does a tele-Communion sharing represent a faithful application of the biblical texts and our Lord’s command? To facilitate the discussion, two position papers were produced, representing the two theological positions. Those position papers are available on our NALC website and included with this letter.
After receiving input from our Commission, spending many hours in conversation and prayer, along with my own study of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, I offer the following as your bishop:
With a significant majority of our Commission on Theology & Doctrine, along with the majority of the Christian community throughout the world, not able to find sufficient biblical support for a distance approach to Holy Communion, I request that the current distance-Communion moratorium remain in effect throughout the NALC.
With this request, I fully realize that the situation we are now facing with the coronavirus may continue for some time, and that adherence to this request will make it more challenging for all of us to share in our Lord’s Supper than we would like. To do so, I call upon our pastors to be creative in their approaches to and administration of the Sacrament. Small groups, varied opportunities and times, safe-distancing and procedures are all possibilities and in order. Even an abstinence from the Sacrament and a more intentional and direct communication of the promises and forgiveness given to us by Jesus in His Word are faithful approaches to the ministry with which we have been entrusted, given the novel pandemic we now face. I trust our pastors to be faithful in the ways they choose to honor this request.
Having said that, I also recognize that there are some members of our Commission, along with many of our NALC pastors, who, in light of the current pandemic, make faithful, biblical and confessional arguments in favor of distance Communion. As a result, I am not willing to make my “request” for a continued moratorium during this pandemic a required “mandate” for our church body.
I trust and respect the theological differences on the Commission. I also respect our pastors and trust them to be responsible to the faith and the calling we share. I have seen no abuse taking place, nor any casual or careless approaches to the sacred and sustaining meal we have been given. If you have wrestled with the scriptural texts, spent time in prayer with your Lord, are at peace with a distance approach to the Sacrament during this pandemic and, as a result, choose not to adhere to the request for a moratorium, know that my prayers are with you as you seek to faithfully guide and shepherd your flocks. The one request I would make, if you choose this approach, is that you work to offer Communion in a synchronous and not an asynchronous manner. As much as possible, if the community being served can receive the Sacrament at the same time, at least the timing of the meal being shared will remain, even as the physical presence is not possible.
In offering this approach to a question of such importance and significance as the Sacrament of Holy Communion, I realize we may not all agree. I am not asking for your agreement with my decision. I am asking for your support, your prayers and your grace for each other and for our church body.
Moving forward, I will be asking our Commission to continue its discussion and work on developing a statement on our sacramental theology. I will also be working with them to develop a framework for deeper discussion among our clergy, including opportunity at our 2021 Pastors’ Conference. This question will remain in front of us for some time.
Throughout Christian history, there have been many times in which faithful communities and faith-filled people have wrestled with the biblical texts. There have also been many times when the Church has been strengthened and renewed, as called and faithful followers of Jesus have been willing to engage in difficult and respectful discussion and debate. I believe this can and will be one of those times for us.
In the spirit of the apostle Paul’s admonition to respect the differences found in the various practices of the believers in Rome, allow me to close with this one verse. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Romans 14:19 ESV).
Thank you for your understanding and your prayers. May God continue to lead us, in Jesus, as we seek to follow and to grow faithfully together in the North American Lutheran Church.
In Christ Jesus,