Guests at the Lord’s Supper
The most recent General Synod of the Reformed Churches (liberated) in The Netherlands has made a decision with regard to allowing guests to the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
It is as follows: a church council can allow somebody to take part in the Lord’s Supper, when the church council is convinced that the person in question:
- has a good reason to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the congregation and that his participation serves to build up the body of Christ;
- is allowed to participate in his own home congregation, is not being disciplined, agrees with the Reformed confessions and lives in the fear of the Lord, as is indicated in art. 60 of the Church Order;
- is prepared, with a view to the Lord’s Supper, to subject himself to the mutual exhortation of the church fellowship and to the supervision of the church council.
The previous admissions practice of the Reformed Churches (liberated) was such that people allowed to participate when:
a. They were members of the local church where the Lord’s Supper was being celebrated.
b. They were members of churches within the church federation in The Netherlands, and were able to present an attestation of membership from the church council of their home churches.
c. They were members of sister churches abroad.
Article 60 of the Reformed Church Order states: ‘the church council shall only allow participation in the Lord’s Supper to those who have confessed their faith in Reformed doctrine and who live in the fear of the Lord. Those who come from sister churches shall be allowed to participate on the grounds of a good attestation as to their confession and life’. A comparable article was already put in force by the Convent of Wezel (1568).1
The text of the article can be divided into two parts:
The first part is about the admittance of members of the local church. The first principle is that no baptized members who have not yet made profession of faith can participate in the Lord’s Supper. The way to admission is through profession of faith. Hereby do the churches say that the Lord’s Supper can only be celebrated in faith. The church council bears the responsibility for admittance to the table. Reformed doctrine, which is named in this article, is the doctrine of the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt), concludes J. Kamphuis.2
- The second part indicates that confessing members of sister churches can be admitted without first having to confess their faith (anew). They bring attestation with them on the grounds of which they may become a member of the (new) congregation. These new members of the congregation can also partake in the Lord’s Supper without the church council having to examine their faith.
- The heart of this article is that it is only professing members of the congregation who are allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper, not non-professing baptized members.
A derivative of this second part is that from members of a sister church who want to partake in the Lord’s Supper is required an attestation in the form of a ‘communion letter’. This is a written recommendation from their own church council indicating that this member is authorised to partake in the Lord’s Supper. On the basis of this written attestation, a guest may participate without there being a further examination. Thus article 60 was understood as meaning that he who is not a member of the local congregation or of a sister church, may not celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We can describe this practice as a ‘closed’ celebration of the Lord’s Table.
Up until about twenty years ago, this practice functioned well. But in the course of time more and more guests have been attending our services. For example, a member of the congregation brings a friend from another church (not a sister church), and they want to celebrate the Lord’s Supper together. Thus believers from churches which are not sister churches come regularly to the services and would also like to celebrate the Lord’s Supper with the congregation. These requests reach the church councils. The churches faced a similar issue in the past when refugees from other countries attended church services as asylum seekers and requested admission to the Lord’s Supper. In these cases it was possible to have them celebrate the Lord’s Supper as guests, even though they were not members of sister churches in their home countries.
The following question was asked of the General Synod: what is a good policy regarding the admission of guests to the Lord’s Supper who are not members of the Reformed Churches (liberated) or sister churches?
In answering this question, the Synod took account of the fact that:
a. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated within the fellowship of the congregation. It is pre-eminently a sacrament of community.3 We confess4 that ‘we receive this holy sacrament in the gathering of God’s people’. The local church is vitally important. It is the communion of God’s people with Christ and with each other. Regarding the bread and the wine: ‘The Lord’s Supper is not a supper in the same sense as in the New Testament when one of the two forms of communion is missing. Both belong inseparably to each other’.5 In the form for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper reference is made to being one together through the Spirit. This is based on what the Scripture says about the one bread and the one body.6 The church as the gathering of God’s people must be seen as important here.
b. The church council admits believers to the Lord’s Supper and supervises the celebration. In the first place, admission takes place via public profession of faith. Should it be that one’s doctrine or life indicates that one is persisting in sin, the church council should prevent participation. Members of a sister church not known personally to the church council, but known by the church council of the sister church can, on that basis (this can be shown by a letter of attestation or communion letter) be allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
Is this system a prerequisite for the admission to and celebration of the Lord’s Supper? The confession says: the Lord’s Supper is meant for those who are displeased with themselves because of their sins, who trust that these are forgiven for Christ’s sake and desire to strengthen their faith and amend their lives.7 If the guest in question declares: ‘I desire to live according to the will of God on the basis of reconciliation with God in Christ. I know my sins and confess them. I want to commemorate the death of Christ together with this Christian church’ – then this is what the confession intends.
Next to this, the supervision must not begin with the church council but with the participants themselves. In the concept ‘self-examination’, the emphasis lies upon yourself. You must know yourself, says Paul.8‘God will certainly receive in grace all who are thus minded and count them worthy to partake of the supper of our Lord Jesus Christ’.9 This self-examination is necessary for all church members. Coming to the Lord’s Supper is therefore not just an issue for the church council.
c. One’s view of the church plays an important part in the question of guests at the Lord’s Table. In the case of guests from outside of the Reformed Churches there is the issue of church secessions and splits. Appreciating how God is gathering His church is a specific fruit of the church Liberation in The Netherlands (1944). The important issue remains however as to how one should regard believers in churches which are not sister churches. We confess that Christ is gathering his church everywhere. He does this through Spirit and Word.10 The confession speaks of the breadth of the catholic Christian church and when the confession speaks of the Lord’s Supper, believers are addressed: Christ gives me (as a believer) and all believers a command to celebrate His Supper and promises that His body has been offered on the cross for the believer.11 Believers, gathered by Him, are not restricted to our church. There are Christians living outside the Reformed Churches, believers with whom, unfortunately, church unity has not been reached. In answering the question regarding guests at the Lord’s Supper, affirming that there are believers in other churches is important. Is church disunity so decisive a factor that a believer in a non-sister-church absolutely may not be allowed to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the Reformed Churches? Being a member of a non-sister-church indicates a break in the unity of the church. The Lord Jesus wants all those who are His to be one. And if such a person is admitted as a guest the lack of unity of the church comes sharply into view. This disunity must also be addressed. Together with the guest we must see that it is deeply regrettable that we go further separately. The admission of a guest must not give the impression that church disunity is tolerable or should be given up as a calling, even at the moment of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
No Open Table
An ‘open’ table means that the decision to participate lies purely with the participant. There is no supervision by the church council, nor is there restriction. But when there is personal discussion with a guest, so that the church council is convinced of the Reformed convictions of the guest, if the holiness of the table is pointed out to the guest and when self-examination is emphasized, there is no question of this being an ‘open’ table.
Supervision is certainly present, and conditions have been laid down for participation. A guest who asks to be able to participate but who, for example, in discussion, is opposed infant baptism, cannot be allowed to participate by the church council. After all, he does not agree with the Reformed confessions on this point.
So we see that, with regard to admitting guests to the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed Churches (Liberated) continue to seek to‘fence’ the table of the Lord in a biblical way.