Visitors at the Lord's Table
Preaching the Word of God as summarized by the Heidelberg Catechism once again brought our attention to the three Lord’s Days on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In light of recent discussions in contact with other Reformed and Presbyterian churches, I could not but further reflect on a variety of questions pertaining to guests at the Lord’s Table. Who should be invited to the Table? How do our practices compare with those of others? Is it possible that more than one practice may be acceptable in the light of Scripture? I think it may be beneficial in all our discussions to have an honest look at ourselves. Perhaps we even need to be critical of some long-established practices. Much caution is needed in our evaluation of different practices. If we have criticism, we shall have to support this with scriptural grounds.
Do not get me wrong. I have nothing against Article 61 of the Church Order (CO) in which we agree that 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 and that members of sister-Churches shall be admitted on the ground of a good attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct. Elders have supervision also over the table and Article 61 is one way and a good way to enable them to exercise this supervision. While Article 61 expresses our general, agreed upon practice within the federation, this method is not necessarily the only mode of exercising supervision over the Table. A review of our practice is always possible. We are also to keep in mind that the Church Order regulates life within the federation without addressing all other possible situations. We ought to be careful not to institutionalize our way of deciding admission to the Table. If we do, we may find ourselves in situations which seem contrary to the intent of the Lord’s commandment.
Allow me to illustrate this danger by considering several scenarios of guests at the Lord’s Table, either Canadian Reformed guests in other churches or members of other Reformed or Presbyterian churches being guests in one of our congregations. Before doing so, allow me to make a few general comments about the relationship between the Word and the sacraments, since this also has impact on some of the following reflections.
Word and Sacrament
We have always strongly stressed the unity of Word and Sacrament. The sacraments also teach, preach and declare. We confess that they were instituted by God so that by their use He might the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel and that both the Word and the sacraments are intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross (Heid. Catechism, Lord’s Day 25). The sacraments are therefore an integral part of the worship service. They address all who attend and participate in the worship service. God speaks to us in the spoken Word as well as in the visible signs and seals of the sacraments. The one is not holier than the other. Even though Paul speaks about self-examination in the context of celebrating the Holy Supper (1 Corinthians 11:28), this does not mean that self-examination would be less necessary before entering any worship service. Attending any worship service is treading on holy ground. Worship brings one into the presence of the Lord.
Visiting within the Federation
Time and again, we have opportunities to visit other churches within the federation. When this is planned in advance, it is a simple procedure to request a travel attestation from your local church. Such an attestation testifies that you are a member in good standing and are admitted to the sacraments. The method of the travel attestation is by far the simplest way for the consistory of the church you are visiting to receive you as a visiting guest. This method, therefore, has much to recommend it.
However, there are situations during holidays or brief, unplanned visits and so forth, when you may discover that the church you are visiting is celebrating the Holy Supper that Sunday. What to do? In some places, consistories are strict about the need to have a written travel attestation.
In situations as these, some visitors will voluntarily refrain from attending, either because they have no travel attestation with them or because they consider that they will celebrate only in their own congregation. While such an attitude may be appreciated by some consistories, we question whether it is correct. Do I participate in the whole service but when it comes to the Holy Supper become an observer? Is it not the Lord’s Table? Does He not invite, yes, command “me and all believers” (Lord’s Day 28) to eat, to drink and to be assured by Him not only through the proclamation of the Word but also at the Table of the Lord? Am I not one with the other members of the body of Christ who do go to the Table? Is that not the reason why I worship in that particular place and not somewhere else?
“Yes, but the elders, as the Lord’s servants, have oversight and the duty to keep the Table pure,” I hear someone say. But surely there are more ways to exercise oversight than only by a written travel attestation. For example, the visitor can give his own testimony before the elders, confirmed by local members who know him or her. In this day of hi-tech communications, there are other options: one phone call or fax the night before to an officebearer of the home congregation of the visitor. In most instances, the visitors are known either to some of the elders or other members of the congregation. It does not seem right only because of the lack of a written travel attestation to remain in the pew while you are entitled to and invited by Christ to sit at His Table.
Visiting Outside the Federation
Travel or business can sometimes take us to places where there are no churches of our federation. In that case, a person would search for a church with whom we either have ecclesiastical fellowship or other forms of contact. Let’s suppose that while you are looking over the order of the service you notice that the Lord’s Supper is to be celebrated. When the moment comes, the minister extends an invitation to visitors who share the reformed faith to participate at the Table. Along with the invitation, there is also a verbal warning to those who would participate insincerely.
What are you to do? Of course, this is a matter of one’s own conscience but nevertheless it is good to reflect upon this together. On what grounds would you decline this invitation? Clearly, you are not violating any of their rules since they invite you. They also celebrate the Holy Supper in obedience to the Lord. It is part of their worship service in which you participate and the Holy Supper was also instituted for you. You would not violate any of our own rules regarding admission to the Holy Supper since the Church Order does not regulate life in other churches but only within the federation.
The practice of such a church may be different than ours, “less strict” shall we say, but is it therefore unscriptural? We are indeed accustomed to closer involvement of the elders. All the same, we also extend a verbal warning to all who would participate, since we realize that there are real limitations to supervision when it comes to the doctrine and godly life of each member. The verbal warning reads: We admonish all those who know themselves to be guilty of the following offensive sins to abstain from the table of the Lord (Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper, “Invitation and Admonition”).
The difference in practice is therefore one of degree. You may find the invitation in another church too open, but would that be a reason for you as visitor not to attend? After all, the communion at the Table is in the first place a communion with the Lord. If you can, in all sincerity, worship the Lord with a certain church, can you not sit at the same Table with them as a visiting guest? Of course that does not mean that we have to make their “house rules” our own, but it does mean a recognition that different practices can develop from applying God’s Word in our own different historical situations.
Visitors from Outside the Federation
Now suppose the reverse of the above scenario happens. A visitor is in our midst from one of the above mentioned churches and desires to participate at the Holy Supper. It does not happen very often but in our increasing contacts and search for unity this may happen more frequently than was the case in the past. Our present practice is unique in Reformed and Presbyterian circles. Some will reason that Art. 61 of the Church Order rules out admitting such visitors because it does not speak about them. However, that approach does not seem convincing since the Church Order does not deal with exceptions, but regulates life within the federation and how we honour each other within those parameters. The question about visitors from outside the federation is simply beyond the scope of the Church Order. Since we have not made joint agreements about this matter, it remains a matter for the local Consistory to decide. Perhaps this then ought to be stated clearly in Art. 61 to clear up some of the confusion.
It would then be good if a Consistory has an established protocol and a set of basic questions to ascertain whether the visitor indeed professes the reformed faith and leads a godly life. If this can be confirmed by one or more of the members of the congregation so much the better. In this manner we would maintain the supervision exercised by the Consistory over the Table, while at the same time recognizing the responsibility of the general office of all believers. Let us not go the road of “open communion” but neither the one of “closed communion.” “Restricted communion” in the above sense would also remove unnecessary obstacles in our discussions with others who share the reformed faith. In this way, we may already today have at the Lord’s Table a foretaste of the marriage feast to come – together with all those for whom Jesus Christ shed His blood!