The Lord's Table – Restricted or Not?
The common practice today is to invite to the Table all who wish to come and partake of the Lord’s Supper. It is left up to the individual’s conscience. In many churches the elements are passed round the whole assembly. There is no restriction. However the traditional Presbyterian and Puritan practice was quite different. The Lord’s Supper was celebrated only in the church, i.e. in the formal gathering of the congregation for public worship and under the supervision of the eldership. Nowadays it is quite common to end an interdenominational conference with a communion service. Traditionally only those who were members of the church in good standing were allowed to participate, along with those who could assure the eldership that they were members of other churches and walking consistently with their profession. Those who wished to participate for the first time were examined by the kirk session as to their basic understanding of the gospel and the sacrament. They were required to make a credible profession of faith and had to be known to the elders as individuals whose walk was consistent with their profession.
The Shorter Catechism as always is very helpful in answering the question as to who should partake of the supper. In answer 97 it states:
It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s Supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.
The warning of the Apostle has rightly been stressed in our churches. Many in Corinth were sick and others had died because of the chastisement of the Lord for their misuse of this solemn sacrament.
Not for Everyone
The Old Testament equivalent of the supper is the feast of Passover. This feast was not for the Egyptians, but only for those who trusted in the sacrificial lamb and sprinkled the blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. It was for the covenant people, for those who carried the sign of the covenant, which was circumcision. Jesus fed the 5000 and on another occasion the 4000, but He gave communion only to the disciples – not to the mixed multitudes. Although only the Lord’s people should sit at the Lord’s Table, Jesus by allowing Judas to be there showed that we can never in this life completely separate the wheat from the tares or the foolish virgins from the wise. That, of course, does not allow us knowingly to add tares to the wheat. That is the devil’s work.
Fencing the Table
Although the practice of ‘fencing the Table’ has been abandoned by many churches it is of more relevance today than ever. ‘Fencing’ is a legal term which was used for the declaring of who had a right to be present in a court. In its ecclesiastical use the minister sets out, prior to the celebration of the Supper, who should come to the Table and who should stay away. Scriptural justification for it is found in what Paul does in 1 Corinthians 11. He states, ‘Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat’. The Lord’s Table is for the Lord’s people. Those who trust in their own righteousness for salvation and those who live scandalous lives are excluded. Galatians 5 makes a distinction between those involved in the works of the flesh and those in whom is the fruit of the Spirit.
In the Old Testament children were allowed to partake of the Passover and from this some today argue that little children who have been baptised and so are members of the covenant community should be allowed to take communion. It sounds logical but the problem is that a requirement has been laid down by the Apostle, ‘Let a man examine himself’ (1 Corinthians 11:28). This requires that the individual coming for communion must have reached the age of discernment where it is possible for him to question himself as to his knowledge and understanding of what he is doing. The Apostle adds the serious warning that it is possible to eat and drink damnation to yourself (1 Corinthians 11:29). Some in Corinth were doing this by coming thoughtlessly, by feasting and drunkenness at the table, by forgetting others who were hungry, by allowing divisions among God’s people and by not discerning the Lord’s body. Communion is not a converting ordinance. The preaching of the gospel is for that. Rather the Table is for the strengthening and encouraging of faith which is already there. It is not essential for salvation, as is shown in the case of the thief converted on the cross.
Church discipline is vital to the health of the church, is a means of grace and a mark of the true church. In 1 Corinthians 5 we read of a man engaged in fornication. Paul required that he be excluded from the table. Having benefited from the exclusion he was later to be restored again to the table (2 Corinthians 2:6-7). Paul tells Timothy of two false teachers or heretics, Hymenaeus and Alexander, ‘whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme’ (1 Timothy 1:20). Open communion makes church discipline impossible.
Closed communion is practised by some very strict churches. Only those who belong to their denomination are allowed to partake. By this means they are able to guard the table and only allow those to come whom they believe to be consistent Christians. The problem however is that the table is the table of the Lord, not that of any particular denomination. By closed communion true and godly servants of the Lord are excluded. We live in the complicated world of denominations and although we would like to put the clock back to a time where there was only one faithful church these days are far gone and unlikely to return until Christ comes again.
The best position is that of restricted communion. The elders supervise the Table. They maintain the honour of Christ in that only those who can make a credible profession of faith and whose life is consistent with that, are allowed to the Table. In this way individuals, as much as is humanly possible, are kept from doing themselves harm. No man can judge the heart, but those who are clearly unconverted, those who are heretics and those who are scandalously immoral in their lives can be kept away. Those in good standing from other churches who are unknown to the local church can come before the eldership and be questioned, profess their faith there, and so be welcomed to the Table.