How To Fence The Lord’s Table

Introduction
After the a conference I received a question which asked essentially: whom should Reformed Churches admit to the Lord’s Table?

There are three basic approaches to fencing the table:

  • Open—Anyone who will, who professes faith in Christ, without regard to church membership, may come to the table.
  • Guarded—Anyone is a member of a particular sort of congregation may come to the table.
  • Closed—Anyone who is a member of our congregation or our denomination may come to the table.

I suppose that open communion is the dominant practice among American evangelicals. The only condition is profession of faith in Christ. I witnessed this during my years in broad evangelicalism. The assumption tends to be that the believer is the only person required to make an assessment of who should come to the table. In fairness, Paul does say, “Let a man examine himself” (or as the ESV has it: “Let a person examine himself” 1Cor 11:28) so there is an element of personal self-examination before coming to the table. The question is whether there is more than that?

The Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman traditions have said yes, there is more. The latter two traditions have practiced closed communion. One must be a Roman Christian in order to receive the consecrated and transubstantiated host from a Roman priest. In confessional Lutheran churches one must be a member of the denomination in order to commune. The assumption in a closed table is that the communicant has already professed faith and is eligible for communion.

The Reformed Approach: Guarding The Table
The Reformed approach historically has been to guard the table. Guarding or fencing means that there is more than one condition to communion. A person must profess faith in Christ and must examine himself but our understanding is that the Supper was instituted by Christ, to be administered in and by the visible church. Paul’s account of the institution and administration of the Supper says more than “Let a man examine himself.”

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

The American assumption tends to be individualistic, that the Supper is primarily a private or personal matter between the communicant and his God. This assumption is grounded in the history of Pietism, which emphasized the personal and individual aspects of faith. American evangelicals tend to be influenced by the low-church tradition that de-emphasizes the visible, institutional church and has tended to view the Supper less as a means of grace, an instrument through which the Spirit operates to sanctify and strengthen, and more as an opportunity to remember Christ’s death and to assess one’s spiritual state.

The Reformed, in contrast, confess that the Supper is a sacrament instituted by Christ. It certainly entails remembering and honest self-assessment but it is more than that. Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 66 says:

66. What are the Sacraments?

The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.

A sacrament, by definition, is a divinely-appointed sign and seal of the “promise of the Gospel: namely that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ…”.

So, for us, the Supper is more than a time to reflect and remember. Something else is happening. God is certifying that the promise preached in the Gospel is true. There is more.

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

The catechism affirms remembering but we also confess that “with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life…”. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this feeding on the on the “crucified body and shed blood” mysteriously but it happens. In communion we are fed by more than bread, wine, and memories. We are fed by the “proper and natural body” and the “proper blood” of Christ (Belgic Confession, Art. 35).

Our understanding the Supper is that to “eat the crucified body and drink the shed blood of Christ” (HC Q. 76) means not only to “to embrace with a believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ, and thereby to obtain the forgiveness of sins and life eternal” but the Supper is a way that the Spirit strengthens our union with Christ’s body. We look not only to the institution of the Supper as recorded in the gospels but to Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 11, part of which says,

The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread

In other words, there is a communal aspect to communion. We come to the Supper not only as individuals but as members of a body which is not only an organism (Abraham Kuyper) but also an organization, to which our Lord Jesus gave the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt 16).

It is fine to say “I am a believer” but one must also say that to and in the visible, institutional church. Who is a believer? Is everyone who says, “I believe in Jesus” to be regarded as a Christian? Is that a sufficient profession of faith for the purposes of coming to the table?

The evidence in   1 Corinthians suggests no. The evidence in the early, post-apostolic, church suggests no. Catechumens preparing for communion for as long as three years (the length of the earthly ministry of Jesus before the institution of the Supper) before being admitted to the table.

This really comes down to the question: what is the church? Not every entity that gathers together and calls itself “church” is really a church. In Belgic Confession Art. 29 we say:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

So, when we think about who should come to the table we also ask, is this person a member of a church with the marks of a true church.

The Reformed church orders (church constitutions) reflect the churches’ attempt to synthesize the whole of biblical teaching and apply it to the life of the church in a given time and place. The most famous Dutch synod, of course, is the Great Synod of Dort (1618–19) but there were several synods before it, on which the Synod relied. According to the Synod of Emden (1571) only members of the Reformed churches were to be admitted to the table.

Synod of Dort (1574)

Art. 81. Whoever brings a valid certificate shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper unless it was written a long time ago, in which case one must proceed as if there is no testimony. However, we deem it fitting and are inclined to accept rather than decline those whose piety has been attested either by a written or personal testimony.

The original practice of the Reformed churches was that one had a certificate of membership in a Reformed church. This was not a mechanical thing. The concern was not only membership but also piety and life.

The second half of Belgic Confession says:

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.

They love the true God and their neighbors, They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works.

Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.

There was some struggle, however, in the Netherlands between confessionally Reformed churches and civil magistrates who were influenced by what we might call Erasmian pietism. Their interest was less in establishing a “true church” than in keeping the peace between the various groups and promoting a minimalist approach to Christianity that centered on religious experience. They were, in some respects, the forerunners of the modern evangelical movement. So the the “church laws” of the Province of Holland and Zeeland, 1576, written by order of the magistrates, loosened the restriction (art 71) imposed by Synod in 1574 in favor of private self-examination relative to “travelers” who are passing through.

Synod of Dort (1578) had to address the question of what to do with those who were influenced by the “biblicism” of the Erasmians and others?

35. Whether it is permissible to admit to the Lord’s Supper those who do acknowledge the Bible alone as God’s Word but will neither answer nor agree to answer the usual questions which are asked of those who go to the Lord’s Supper.

Answer: The churches shall maintain their usual custom of requiring confession of faith. Everyone is bound to give an account of is faith according to the teaching of Peter. It is also not fitting that a usual custom of the congregation should be changed for some particular reason.

The intent of the Reformed churches became clearer by 1581. Here the language that would be used by the Great Synod of Dort was adopted:

Synod of Middelburg (1581)

43. No one shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except one who, according to the custom of the church which he joins, has made confession of the Reformed religion, who has testimony of godly behavior, without which those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

In other words, those who had evidence of membership in a Reformed church (objective) and an indicator of a godly walk (subjective) were eligible to come to the table. This same language of “confession of the Reformed Religion” and “godly conduct” was adopted by the Synod of den Hague/Gravenhage in 1586. The provincial synod of Middelburg and Zeeland, art. 51 restricted the supper to those who “have made profession of the Reformed faith” and have given proof of pious conduct. The church order of Utrecht (1612), s.v. “Concerning the Lord’s Supper”

III. Those who come from other places and want to be admitted to the table of the Lord shall first present a proper certificate of their earlier way of life to the pastor of the place where they desire to be admitted.

Thus, the practice of the Reformed churches had been established for forty years by the time the Great Synod of Dort met. Now, most of us think of the famous “Five Points” in response to the Five Points of the Arminians (1609) but synod did much more than that. They also established the pattern of Reformed practice that would be the pattern for the centuries after.

The Dort Church Order (1619), Art. 61 says:

61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

The original Reformed practice then was to “guard” or “fence” rather closely. There were fewer Reformed denominations in the late 16th and early 17th centuries but they did have to address many of the same challenges that we do. There were other traditions in the Netherlands at the time the Reformed were working out their practice. They were particularly aware of the Anabaptists (whom they called “Baptists” in the 1570s—there was a strange case of a kidnapping in order to prevent an infant baptism! More on that in another post) and other competing groups. They were aware of the problem of people traveling through town and visiting and asking for communion. There are substantial continuities between their church life and ours.

Whom should Reformed churches admit to the table? If we ask those who gave to us our confession of faith and who set the pattern for our practice we should admit those who confess the Reformed faith and of who have testimony of a godly life. The objective evidence for the latter is that they are not under church discipline.

The Practice Of Fencing The Table
There is irony in fencing the Lord’s Table. What should be a joyous celebration, after due preparation of course, and a communion of believers with their risen Lord and with one another, is for ministers—particularly for church planting pastors—sometimes a moment of uncertainty. We live in a transient culture. We do not know who will be in the congregation when we step behind the table to read the form. We can’t anticipate who will appear in the congregation halfway through the service and appear at the table or expect to be able to commune (on the assumption of open communion).

There is anxiety too. Sometimes when the table is fenced, whether that is done in the foyer by elders or from the table by issuing a warning (see below), pastors worry that newcomers, who are likely unfamiliar with historic Reformed practice, will be offended and leave quickly after the sermon and before the administration of communion. More than one pastor has chased a visitor to the parking lot after a service but when it’s time for communion that can’t happen. Practically, fencing the table can seem like just another way small, struggling Reformed congregations remain small and struggling.

So, when Reformed churches fence the table it is an act of faith in the wisdom, providence, and grace of God. Pastors and elders (and the members) desperately want the lost to come to faith and we want the confused to come to the truth. We live in a culture that, at least touching the evangelical sub-culture, is largely shaped by assumptions that we do not share. Thus, there is often a culture shock for visitors who have a Christian background but who are unfamiliar with Reformed practice. “What do you mean I cannot come to the table? Are you saying that I am not a Christian?” It’s impossible to sort out these thorny questions in the foyer and especially when people are lined up and coming to the table or receiving a tray of elements as it comes by.

This is not just Reformed hyper-scrupulosity. I have seen families give communion to their young children or infants, on the assumption that what they do at home is appropriate for church. I have seen people come to the table who had no idea of was happening.

These sort of challenges have caused some to say, “Well, it is a fine old practice but we live in a new day and we need to adapt to the realities at hand. Better to err on the side of inclusion than exclusion.”

One can sympathize with this reasoning. The old Reformed practice does look a little Grinchly when compared to the apparently open and gracious invitation given in congregations that do not fence the table. We do not want to be pharisees chasing off the publicans because they are unclean or not like us. One can understand those congregations that emphasize that it is “the Lord’s Table” and say, in effect, “Let the Lord sort it out.” Yes, it is the Lord’s Table and he has instituted a church, given to her the keys, and biblical revelation about the administration of the table.

It is not really a matter of whether there will be conditions. Even those who practice open communion ordinarily require that one be baptized and make a Christian profession before coming to the table (although I have seen even those conditions discarded). It is not really a question of whether there are conditions or even, in that sense, whether the table is to be fenced (if there are conditions, then there is a fence) but only how high the fence, if you will.

Remember, there is jeopardy attached to the table. It is not a free-for-all. The supper is just as much a communal act as it is an individual act. The actions of some, in Corinth, had fatal consequences and that was bad for the entire body. If one of us suffers, we all suffer.

So, given our principles, what do we do? First, we must explain ourselves. We need to smile and say something like the following:

We love you and we love the Lord. If you profess faith in Christ we would very much like for you to come to the table if certain things are true of you. As we understand the Lord’s Table it is both personal and communal and therefore we believe that our elders have a responsibility before the Lord to administer the Supper carefully. The Lord’s Table is for believers who are members of congregations that have three marks: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline.

If you are a member of a confessional Reformed or Presbyterian church we invite you to the table. If you do not know what this means please abstain from the table today and see me or one of the elders. We will be happy to talk and pray with you.

By this we are not saying that you are not a believer or that there are no other believers in the world. We know the gospel is preached elsewhere and we are thankful for this but we hope that you’ll respect our attempt to be obedient to God’s Word.

This certainly is not perfect language but it captures the essence of what I think we are trying to communicate. In my experience people without church backgrounds are not offended. They expect church to be religious and they expect a certain amount of order. The difficulty is with those Christians who assume autonomy relative to the visible, institutional church. There are those who profess faith but are united to no congregation or to a congregation that lacks the marks of a true church.

There are difficult cases. I have been asked about confessional Anglicans and Lutherans. I don’t know if the Reformed have ever spoken to either case explicitly but I’m still learning. The Dutch Reformed church orders help here. They do stipulate the “Reformed Religion,” which seems to mean, “the Belgic Confession” or its equivalent. If we exclude confessional Lutherans we should not expect them to be offended since they are familiar with closed communion. Someone from an Anglican congregation that confesses the 39 Articles might be admitted to the table. Church polity is not of the essence of the faith and there were three polities at Dort and Westminster. One difficulty is that the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian churches (i.e., NAPARC) have no relation to the Anglican communions. Maybe the most difficult case is the question of Baptists who confess aspects of the Reformed faith. There is frequent interchange between Baptist and Reformed and Presbyterian congregations. If “Reformed Religion” stands for the Belgic (or its equivalent) that would seem to answer the question. A Baptist shouldn’t be offended since they don’t accept our Baptism so they are familiar with a degree of exclusion.

Second, it may help to do more than to fence the table at the table. Some congregations have elders in the foyer and even signs announcing that communion is being administered today and that visitors should speak with an elder before coming to the table. This is not always practical. Some congregations do not have enough elders to pray with the minister and greet visitors in the foyer. Others find this procedure a bit daunting. Those can be interesting conversations!

Third, there may be real wisdom in the old Reformed and Presbyterian practice of a certificate of membership or a token. The old Scottish Presbyterian practice was to require communicants to attend the preparatory service the week prior. There one was given a token that was to be returned the next week when one went to the table. In the case that a congregation administers the supper weekly (Calvin’s desired practice) then every Lord’s Day is a preparatory service and the token becomes less practical.

Fourth, a statement in the bulletin explaining the congregation’s practice will be most useful. It might be well to have an elder, if possible, in the foyer to speak with late comers (this might not be a problem everywhere but it’s an issue in California).

Fifth, there might be wisdom in adopting the practice of coming forward for communion. This seems to have been the dominant practice in the German, Dutch, and French Churches, as well as the Scottish Presbyterian Church. There is evidence in the Dutch Church Orders from the late 16th century that communion was sometimes distributed to the seated congregation, as is often done today, but that seems to have been the minority practice.

If people come forward to commune, in rows or in a moving line, or simply to collect the elements and to return to their seats to commune together—I have seen this done effectively—then there is a fencing that can yet take place at the table. Ministers have been known to discourage from communion those who should not come to the table (e.g., those who’ve not made profession of faith). If the elements are distributed to the seated congregation then there is little that can be done after the distribution.

Conclusion
This side of glory there is no perfect way to administer communion but as ministers and elders we have a duty to try to administer the Supper in a way that is edifying to the body and obedient to the Chief Shepherd of the Church to whom we must give account. We are men under authority. That is why we are called “ministers.”

May the Lord bless your administration of Holy Communion and may it be a true communion in the body and blood of Christ by the work of the Spirit through faith.