How Should the Lord's Table be Fenced?
The Lord's Supper is the most seeker insensitive element of Christian corporate worship. It's therefore not unsurprising that many churches today shy away from celebrating the sacrament in the manner in which Christ instituted it.
A Roman Catholic priest I befriended years ago told me that he refrained from the language of “real presence of Christ” in talking about the mass because of his fear that it disgusted people. Who isn't horrified by the thought of eating someone's flesh and drinking someone's blood? Though I – unlike my Roman Catholic friend – reject the idea that Christ is bodily present in the Lord's Supper, I embrace the language of the “real presence of Christ” in connection with the Lord's Supper.
Jesus encountered resistance when he taught the masses about this. Initially Jesus was followed by thousands of people, all of whom had some interest in his person and work. The moment Jesus began to talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, however, the crowds began to thin. “This is a hard teaching,” they said (John 6:60), “Who can accept it?”
Equally insensitive is the practice of fencing the Lord's Table and denying some participation. Ours is an age of inclusiveness, of breaking down barriers, erasing boundaries, eliminating discrimination and giving everyone a seat at the table. At the Lord's Supper, however, we erect barriers and draw boundaries and deny some a seat at the table. It's hard to imagine something more insensitive.
The impulse to inclusiveness at the Lord's Supper is rampant in the evangelical church world. The Lord's Supper in many communions is open to all and no one is denied access. There's no supervision of the Table and no warning from the pulpit. The Lord's Table is just like any other table in contemporary society – there's a seat for everyone.
The grounds for fencing
How do we evaluate this? The Scriptures teach that the Lord's Table must be guarded, first of all, for the sake of the church's purity. It's not hard to imagine that on any given Sunday you might find a notorious sinner in church who because of a distorted conscience thinks that he is entitled to participate in the Lord's Supper. It's a demonstration of love to that individual to bar him from so doing to prevent him from committing sacrilege. Moreover, it's a demonstration of love to the body of Christ to preserve her from desecration.
The apostle makes exactly this point in his first letter to the Corinthians. He insists that the man sleeping with his father's wife be excommunicated from the church and barred from the Table. Why? Because a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough (5:6).
What's noteworthy about Paul's injunction is that he doesn't leave this matter to the individual's conscience. He insists that the church community (and especially her leaders) has a solemn responsibility to keep the unrepentant from the Table.
The Scriptures teach us that the Lord's Table must be guarded, secondly, for the sake of the church's unity. It's not hard to imagine someone under discipline in one congregation visiting another congregation and being served the Lord's Supper. Wouldn't it be odd, if not a desecration, if the consistory of the church he visits leaves the matter entirely to his individual conscience when the consistory of the church to which he belongs does not? It's important in our celebration of the Lords Supper to take into account the whole church and to be jealous for the discipline exercised by other bodies as well as our own. This can only be done if some supervision is exercised by the consistory to ensure as far as possible that such desecrations do not occur.
At this point someone will undoubtedly point out that even with this method mistakes will occur. To this, John Murray, in his essay, “Restricted Communion”, writes,
“But are we to abandon a principle simply because in particular cases due to human infirmity there are errors and aberrations which are inconsistent with the principle? If that were the case then we should have to abandon all the principles of the biblical ethic.”
The practice for fencing
The question regarding who may be admitted to the Lord's Supper was addressed early on in Reformed church history. The Convent of Wezel (1568) decided that “no one shall be admitted to the Lord's Supper unless he has made profession of faith and has submitted himself to church discipline.” Though subsequent church assemblies reworded this statement, the policy itself remained intact for centuries. The Lord's Supper would not be served to those who did not profess faith in Christ.
The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, however, introduced a second policy for those who were members of the same federation. Because churches of one federation had already accepted the same confession and agreed to live by the same church order they agreed to accept each other's members and office-bearers on the basis of letters of testimony called attestations (derived from the letters of recommendations mentioned in the Bible, e.g., Acts 18:27).
In his standard work, Korte Verklaring van de Kerkenordening, Jansen makes clear that any given consistory is free to reject an attestation from another Reformed congregation. On the other hand, a consistory ought, on the basis of the unity of confession and church government, to accept attestations from Reformed congregations from within the same federation.
This two-fold policy for the admission of guests is reflected in the Church Order (1986) of the Canadian Reformed Churches, among which I now serve. Article 61 first gives a general policy:
“The consistory shall admit to the Lord's supper only those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life.”
Then follows a specific policy for those belonging to sister-churches: “Members of sister-churches shall be admitted on the ground of a good attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct.”
In some ways, because they do not have the practice of issuing attestations, the United Reformed Churches practice a closer fencing of the table than do the Canadian Reformed. Every guest in a United Reformed church is interviewed and signs a visitor's declaration, including those from other churches in the federation. There is agreement in both federations, however, that the Lord's Table must be fenced.
The challenge for Reformed churches lies in upholding the practice of fencing the Lord's Table, for the sake of the church's unity and purity, but in doing so in a way that does not unnecessarily offend guests.