As we engage the questions before us we should recognize that the sacraments must be set in the larger context of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church). Our fencing inquiry is not a simple question that can consider the sacrament in the abstract. Rather it is a complex matter involving several issues of wider biblical, theological, and practical significance.
In my first article on Fencing the Table I laid the foundations for considering the question before us. I introduced the idea of sacramental foundations their implications for fencing the table. Then I focused on the relationship of the sacraments to church government. Now we are finally ready to deal with the specific matter of partaking Communion.
Now I will draw out some biblical principles and directives regarding the careful fencing and partaking of the Lord’s Table.
First, the Lord’s Supper is intrinsically corporate rather than fundamentally individualistic. Although personal responsibilities fall upon the individual partakers of the Lord’s Supper (see next point below), we see clear and fundamental community overtones in it. Note the following:
(1) As I begin with these observations, we must remember that the first Lord’s Supper was established in the context of the Passover and took the place of a communal meal. Communion was designed to take the Passover’s place within the new Israel of God, the Church of Jesus Christ. This fact provides helpful background insights into the corporate setting and obligations of the sacrament.
The initial Passover was partaken in the houses of the Jews while still in Egypt and just before their Exdus from bondage: “they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they eat it” (Ex 12:7). This at-home partaking was necessary in light of the original circumstances of that Passover: Israel was not yet organized as a nation and the last plague on Egypt was fast approaching: “The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Ex 12:13).
Nevertheless, even in those circumstances the Passover was a communal celebration designed for the corporate body of Israel. We see this in that all of the Jews in their various homes were simultaneously to slay their Passover lambs; hence we read: “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel is to kill it at twilight” (Ex 12:6). In fact, in the Exdus 12 legislation itself we read of directives for future (post-Egypt) celebrations which show its formal, corporate, communal nature as over against any individualistic conception: “On the first day you shall have a holy assembly [i.e., gathering together] and another holy assembly on the seventh day; no work at all shall be done on them, except what must be eaten by every person, that alone may be prepared by you” (Ex 12:16).
Furthermore, we must understand that the Passover celebration was not simply for a mass of individuals partaking simultaneously, but for the formal, organized body of Israel as such. The Passover directive clearly stated: “This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it” (Ex 12:43). One had to be a “member” of Israel in order to partake with the assembly of Israel. In the next few verses we discover the remedy that allows for foreigners to partake the Passover: a foreigner may eat of it, if he “joined” Israel by entering into “membership” in Israel by means of circumcision: “But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land” (Ex 12:48).
We see the concept of “membership” in Israel and even a “fencing” of the Passover in the following. Any Jew who neglected the Passover was to be “cut off from his people”: “The man who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet neglects to observe the Passover, that person shall then be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the Lord at its appointed time. That man shall bear his sin” (Num 9:13). The very idea of being “cut off” demands that one first be a “member” of the body of Israel.
(2) Eventually, after Israel was established as a nation and settled in the land, the Passover was to be celebrated corporately in Jerusalem (rather than individually in personal homes). This further demonstrates the formal, communal nature of the sacrament: “You are not allowed to sacrifice the Passover in any of your towns which the Lord your God is giving you; but at the place where the Lord your God chooses to establish His name [i.e., Jerusalem], you shall sacrifice the Passover in the evening at sunset, at the time that you came out of Egypt” (Deut 16:1, 5–6; cp. 2 Chron 30:5, 13, 15; 35:1; etc.). The Passover (also known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread) was to be celebrated only in a “holy convocation” or worship assembly: “Then on the fifteenth day of the same month there is the Feast of Unleavened Bread to the Lord; for seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not do any laborious work” (Lev 23:6–7). Clearly the Passover was not intended to be an individualistic, in-home sacrament, for it could be partaken only in Israel’s center of worship simultaneously with the mass of Israel in a holy convocation.
(3) Much later in Jesus’ own day the Passover continued to be celebrated corporately in a central location in Jerusalem. We read in Luke 2:41 that Jesus’ “parents used to go to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover” (cp. John 2:13, 23; 11:55). In fact, Jesus planned his final Passover in Jerusalem with his disciples: “He said, ‘Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, “The Teacher says, ‘My time is at hand; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples’” (Matt 26:18; cp. Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). At this final communal Passover of Jesus’ ministry, he establishes the Lord’s Supper with his disciples, desiring to eat it with them gathered together (Luke 22:15–21).
From these first three points we may surmise by “good and necessary consequence” (WCF 1:6) that some sort of roll or registration was necessary for partaking the Passover:
(a) We see this in specific requirements regarding Passover lambs: The Jews were commanded to prepare only an exact amount of Passover lambs according to how many should eat: they must take a lamb “according to the number of persons in them; according to what each man should eat” (Ex 12:3–4). This is very important in that they must not “leave any of it over until morning” (Ex 12:10).
(b) We see this in the general importance of formal genealogies in Israel: formal genealogies were carefully kept among the Jews, until they were destroyed at the collapse of the temple in A.D. 70. One examples of these genealogies is found in the registering of priests and their families (2 Chron 31:17–18). We see the importance of genealogies throughout Israel’s history in genealogies in 1Chronicles 5 and as well as Matthew 1. In Matthew 1 Jesus’ genealogy is given and includes not only biological Jews but non-Jews who became part of (“joined”) Israel (e.g., Gentiles Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, Matt 1:3, 5, 6). Ultimately though, the foundational image of formal registration is God’s “book” (e.g., book of life) which speaks of persons either being registered in it (Isa 4:3; Dan 12:1; Mal 3:16; cp. Rev 21:27) or deleted from (Ex 32:32; Psa 69:28; cp. Rev 3:5).
(c) We see this in the general practice in which one may be formally “cut off” from Israel: for instance, particular legislation prohibited production of the special priestly anointing oil: “whoever shall mix any like it [special holy anointing oil, vv. 31–32], or whoever puts any of it on a layman, shall be cut off from his people” (Ex 30:33, 38; cp. Lev 7:20–21, 25, 27; 17:14; etc.).
(d) We see this in the particular legislation which allowed or excluded persons from partaking the Passover in Israel. Earlier we saw that a newly-received foreigner could be allowed access to the Passover by undergoing Israel’s initiation rite, circumcision (Ex 12:48; see above). Not only so but a circumcised Jew (a member of Israel) could be “cut off” from Israel for either breaching Passover (the Feast of Unleavened Bread) regulations or intentionally neglecting to partake of Passover:
“Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel” (Ex 12:15).
“Seven days there shall be no leaven found in your houses; for whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel” (Ex 12:19).
“But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet neglects to observe the Passover, that person shall then be cut off from his people, for he did not present the offering of the Lord at its appointed time. That man shall bear his sin” (Num 9:13).
(e) We see this in the prohibition of certain Jews from the formal “assembly of the Lord” in worship. In Deut 23:2 God’s Law ordains that “no one of illegitimate birth [Heb.: mamzēr] shall enter the assembly of the Lord; none of his descendants, even to the tenth generation, shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” This requires some sort of roll in order to determine the eleventh generation so that these may enter.
(4) Paul speaks of the Lord’s Supper as a corporate reality: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). Thus, the Supper reflects the corporate one body composed of many members.
(5) Paul highlights the corporate sharing in the Lord through the Supper rather than an individualistic phenomenon:
“Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).
The idea of “sharing” (Gk.: koinonia) suggests mutual, communal sharing together in Christ. In Acts 2:44 and 4:32 we learn that the first-century church communally shared (Gk.: koinos) their property. Paul uses the Greek verb koinoō in 2 Cor 6:14 and 8:4, which verses speak of inter-body sharing. Thus, regarding the Lord’s Supper, Christ’s corporate body (the church) shares together in the Lord.
(6) Paul notes that the church as a body has been experiencing difficulties because of the abuse of the
Supper: “For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged” (1 Cor 11:30–31). The plural “ourselves” suggests an organic conception of the church which is suffering because of widespread abuse of the sacrament.
Second, the Lord’s Supper engages self-examination in a communal context. The fact of Paul’s urging individual self-examination suggests to some Christians that this is the sole requirement of the Supper: an individual’s personal right without reference to notion of corporate responsibility included. Paul certainly gives directives regarding individuals partaking:
“whoever [Gk.: hos, singular relative pronoun] eats [esthie, singular verb] the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be [estai, singular verb] guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man [anthrōpos, singular] examine [dokimazetō, singular verb]] himself [heauton, singular], and so let him eat [esthietō, singular verb] of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks [esthiōn kai pinōn, singular verbs] judgment to himself if he does not judge [diakrinōn, singular participle] the body rightly” (1 Cor 11:27–29).
But we must understand that Paul was writing to a church — not to individuals, not to a Timothy or a Titus regarding their own personal communion. He is giving directions to the church at Corinth regarding its own members and their participation in the supper. Thus, the individuals deserving rebuke were already accountable to a church and its officers. Remember that Paul is rebuking the church for not governing its members properly, noting that he had nothing to do with those outside (1 Cor 5:1–13).
Therefore, these are obviously inside the church and consequently are members under the authority of its elders (cp. 1 Pet 5:2; Heb 13:17; 1 Tim 3:5). He is pressing the additional obligation of self-examination upon individual members while they participate in the corporate administration of the Supper. The Lord’s Supper is not a formalistic ritual to be taken thoughtlessly by rote. The passage warns of the necessity of thoughtful and reverential participation, not open participation unguarded by the officers of the church.
Third, forbidding from the Lord’s Table believers who are not members of a church does not preclude their spiritually feeding on Christ. Some Christians complain that to bar partaking the Lord’s Supper to a believer in Christ who is not a member of a local church bars him from communion with Christ. However, note the following:
In the first place, the problem is easily solved by simply joining a church. This is, after all, an obligation for believers that church officers should promote (see brief statement below on the biblical obligation to church membership). In the second place, Christians may feed upon Christ spiritually even apart from the sacrament. Any person may individually feed upon Christ spiritually in his heart at any time — as he prays, meditates on Scripture, worships, and so forth. We see this in Jesus’ general, public statement in John 6:54: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” This eating and drinking language speaks of taking Christ into one’s life, that is, it involves believing in Christ: “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’” (John 6:35).
As those who love the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, our concern should be: why would someone who professes Christ not want to join the visible church? If he is a believer why does he not want to come under the authoritative oversight of the local church and its God-ordained officers? And if he does not want to join the visible church and come under its God-ordained authority, why is he concerned to partake of the church’s visible sacrament?
The Necessity and Benefits of Careful Fencing
We have studied the biblical argument for proper fencing of the Lord’s Table. In highlighting that argument we have noted its significance for the integrity of the church as the kingdom of Christ and as a means of establishing the church’s governmental authority. As we reflect upon the matter further we may note the necessity of careful fencing from other angles.
First, the failure to properly fence the Table encourages sin. If we allow Christians who refuse to join a church to partake of the Lord’s Supper we are encouraging them in their sin against Christ and his church. Christ established his church, gave it officers, and appointed (through his apostles) election and ordination as the means for securing its officers. And this can only be done by formal members in a church: electing church officers is surely not open to visitors. And intentionally remaining outside of membership in a local church makes it impossible for believers to “obey your leaders, and submit to them” so that they might “keep watch over souls” (Heb 13:17). Again, as Paul states: he has no authority over those outside (1 Cor 5:12). Obviously Christ intended that his followers formally commit to a church through membership.
Now, we must understand that the new covenant church is rooted in, built upon, and continuous with old covenant Israel (Rom 11:16–18; Eph 2:11–22; Rev 21:12, 14). In fact, Christ’s establishing of the Lord’s Supper itself demonstrates the continuity between the old and new covenant communities (as even our own doctrinal statement declares3). After all, Jesus established the Lord’s Supper in the very context of the Passover (Luke 22:15–20), thereby linking the Lord’s Supper with the Passover as its non-bloody fulfillment. Furthermore, he applies the “new covenant” to all partakers of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:20; cp. 1 Cor 11:25) even though it was prophesied for Israel: “‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’” (Jer 31:31).
When we look into the old covenant regulations governing the Passover we discover that only those who were formally “members” of Israel’s covenant community could partake — and not those who were just members “in their hearts.” Before one could partake the Passover (the old covenant counterpart to the new covenant Lord’s Supper) he must accept circumcision, thereby becoming a member of Israel:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: no foreigner is to eat of it . . . . But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it” (Ex 12:43, 48).
Obviously, the foreigner dwelled in Israel among the Jews, for the text states that he “sojourns with you.” As a sojourner living in Israel he was somewhat like one who visits a church but never joins. And just as obviously the foreigner exercised faith in the God of Israel, for otherwise why would he want to partake of the Passover? After all, it expressly pictured God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage by her Exdus from Egypt. In fact, we learn regarding its institution in Exodus 12:
And it will come about when you enter the land which the Lord will give you, as He has promised, that you shall observe this rite. “And it will come about when your children will say to you, “What does this rite mean to you?” that you shall say, “It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes’” (Ex 12:25–27).
Thus, OT scholars note that “the Exodus was the redemptive event par excellence in the life of God’s covenant people. The Passover reenacted annually the greatest miracle Yahweh performed out of grace for His chosen; it was to become the focal point of Jewish history. The Passover celebration retold the story of freedom after more than four hundred years of Egyptian bondage” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia2 3:676).
Furthermore, the uncircumcised was not allowed to enter the temple sanctuary to partake of temple sacrificial-feasts, as we learn in Ezekiel’s vision of the eschatological temple:
And you shall say to the rebellious ones, to the house of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Enough of all your abominations, O house of Israel, when you brought in foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, to be in My sanctuary to profane it, even My house, when you offered My food, the fat and the blood; for they made My covenant void — this in addition to all your abominations. And you have not kept charge of My holy things yourselves, but you have set foreigners to keep charge of My sanctuary.’” Thus says the Lord God, “No foreigner, uncircumcised in heart and uncircumcised in flesh, of all the foreigners who are among the sons of Israel, shall enter My sanctuary” (Eze 44:6–9).
But now a problem arises for those who refuse church membership but who want church benefits: Clearly this foreigner’s simply being among the Jews and his having faith (shown by his desire to partake) were not sufficient: he had to take the extra, formal step of becoming a “member” of Israel through circumcision. He had to become “like a native of the land” before he could partake — even though he was racially non-Jewish. Genesis 17:14 warns that to fail to undertake the sign of circumcision results in one’s being cut off from the visible community: “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” Circumcision was an external sign of internal commitment (Deut 10:16; 30:6). By parity of reasoning the same expectations should be true in the New Testament regarding the Lord’s Supper being reserved for baptized members of the church.
But we have more than analogy and historical connection with Israel to direct us in this matter. Scripture teaches that membership in the visible church is an obligation upon all who profess faith in Christ. The church is not an optional society, but an obligatory institution for the Christian. In fact, in Scripture we have grounds for a formal church membership roll, as we may discern from the following:
(1) The concept of a heavenly roll in the Book of Life provides the theological foundation for a church roll (Ex 32:32–33; Dan 12:1; Luke 10:20; Phil 4:3; Rev 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15). This is underscored by the OT emphasis on genealogy within Israel (see previous references).
(2) Scripture speaks of members as being “numbered” among others, which reflects the concept of a church roll (Acts 2:41, 47; 6:7; 1 Tim 5:9). Are those who simply visit a church “numbered” in the church? This would mean any and all visitors would be numbered in the church and may therefore vote for church officers and even undertake office themselves. This also strongly implies that those who never attend church are not “numbered” in the church, even though they may profess faith in Christ. This gives new — and erroneous — meaning to the concept of the “invisible” church.
(3) Members can be removed from the church (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:2), which surely requires the keeping of a roll so that they might know who is within and who is without its bounds. After all, how can people be removed from a church if they are not members of it? Indeed, Christ promised to establish his church (Matt 16:18) and he gave it “keys” for entering and exiting it (Matt 16:19). These keys involved disciplinary powers whereby people could be removed from it (Matt 18:15–17).
(4) For elder-overseers to formally care for their flock requires that the flock be known, as by a roll (Heb 13:7, 17–18; 1 Thess 5:11–14; 1 Pet 5:2; Acts 20:28). This is especially significant in that officers of the church have no authority over those outside (1 Cor 5:12) which requires that they know who is inside.
(5) The New Testament records instances of letters being written to commend individuals to other bodies, which provides the basis for modern transferring of letters (Acts 18:27; Rom 16:1–2; 2 Cor 8:16–24).
And once again: since God’s word ordains elders in the church (1 Tim 3; Tit 1) who would elect these elders if there were no formally-approved membership? Regular visitors? Occasional visitors? Outsiders? How can its leaders “keep watch over your souls” if there is no membership who must “submit to them” (Heb 13:17) and over whom they are overseers?
By allowing non-members of Christ’s church to partake of his Supper, the church is allowing the theoretical possibility that all professed Christians could avoid church membership. But then where would the church be? If the highest censure of the church is excommunication, but Christians may legitimately avoid being members of the church, then this power is without significance. And if the church had no members over time, no one would have the authority to insure proper doctrine. Christianity would be reduced to a random assortment of personal, competing beliefs and faith claims with no continuity through history.
Furthermore, by not requiring membership in a church for partakers of the Lord’s Supper, we are discouraging professed Christians from coming under spiritual oversight and governmental authority. This allows them to avoid responsibility and accountability — on the basis of our own practice. Thus, this encourages people to sidestep responsibility in the church while they enjoy the benefits of the church. This is ultimately detrimental to their spiritual growth.
From its very institution the Lord’s Supper is a formal, public, corporate act of Christian fellowship, not a personal action unilaterally governed by the individual. Both the integrity and purity of this act of fellowship must be guarded through accountability to a local church. Allowing those who are not formal members of a church to partake involves the church in a strange situation: it welcomes those to partake the Lord’s Supper who voluntarily determine to live in the very place that excommunication casts those who are brought under the church’s severest discipline: outside the church (Matt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:4–5, 12–13)!
To make matters worse, such a tolerance of non-member partaking is detrimental to the life of the church itself. For in principle we effectively undermine all church discipline (which Christ has ordained, Matt 18:17) in that if one may partake the Lord’s Supper without any formal membership in that church, then how shall discipline function? Who exercises discipline? Who is disciplined? Again, Paul says he has no authority over those outside the church (1 Cor 5:12). But this is precisely where non-members dwell.
Second, inefficient fencing encourages individualism, thereby discouraging true Christian society.
The Lord’s Supper expresses the unity of the body of Christ: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). But those who refuse to join the church and be united with other believers are breaching an important element expressed in the Supper: the Christian’s corporate unity.
Jack Stotts comments:
“Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to the corporate view of the church in the United States, and possibly in the world” is individualism which reflects “a view of the self and community where the community drops away or recedes so far into the background that only the separate and self-reliant individual comes into focus. This self is the individual who has no necessary relationships of mutuality, whose individual accomplishments overshadow the sense of gifts received, where one ‘makes it’ alone or not at all, where consuming goods takes precedence over public responsibility” (Encyclopedia of Reformed Theology, p. 72).
Presbyterians are opposed to independency. Sadly, our age is a “do-it-my-way” mode of thinking where everyone is his own authority. This does not mesh with a biblical conception of being united with others — and under authority and obligations. The Roman Catholic Church has as one of its major critiques of Protestantism that it has fragmented the church allowing every individual to become a law unto himself. As Presbyterians we should not encourage such. The Christian should be under authority by becoming a vow-taking member of a local church. To fail to warn individual Christians in this regard bows to the rampant individualism in our society.
Sadly, we live in a time and culture where the personal faith of the individual Christian too easily and cavalierly roots out any obligation to his being a member of a body of believers. This erodes covenantal relationships while endorsing self-oriented individualism. Too many evangelicals so emphasize the personal relationship with Christ (which is important, to be sure) that it leads to an individualism detached from any accountability to others. As a logical extension of this way of thinking, the decision to participate in the Lord’s Supper is deemed a matter of purely personal responsibility with no corporate obligations.
- Scott Clark rightly warns that:
“Americans (or at least American evangelicals) are an autonomous, egalitarian, rebellious, and independent lot. It is a fundamental assumption of American evangelicals that, having entered into a personal, private relationship with the risen Christ they are entitled to commune in any and every visible, institutional church they will. . . . They consider it their birthright to act as if they are members of all congregations, even if they submit to the discipline of none and certainly not to the congregation where they hope to commune” (Clark, “Fencing the Table or the Scandal of the Church”).
If we leave the matter of communion solely to the discretion of the unattached individual, we are acting in a spiritually dangerous fashion that can negatively impact not only that individual but the church that allows such individualism. Such a practice assumes an individual’s competence to judge spiritual matters even though he may be a stranger to the teaching of Scripture on communion. Many people today define themselves as Christians without the least biblical understanding of what a genuine Christian is. After all, the Bible warns us that the heart is deceitful and that sin easily confuses men (Jer 17:9; Rom 7:11; 2 Cor 11:3; Eph 4:22; Heb 3:13). Since the Lord’s Supper has a potential for negative sanctions (1 Cor 11:17–34) our obligation as elders is to assist potential partakers in avoiding such sanctions, as well as to keep the Lord’s Supper pure and holy because of what it represents (1 Cor 10:16). Surely we would rather err on the side of caution (if such were error) rather than on the side of openness. Do we want to participate in another’s sin? Our concern involves appropriate, active pastoral care.
What is more, some who profess Christ live in open sin, and yet present themselves as brothers: “if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (1 Cor 5:11). Yet on the individualist principle of communion, such “so called” brothers would be allowed to partake because they are an authority to themselves, lacking any formal, spiritual oversight to challenge, rebuke, correct, instruct, and guide them.
We see in Scripture several occasions in which people came to Jesus professing to be believers. And in their own minds they surely conceived themselves to be believers. But Jesus looked into their hearts and exposed them in their error.
“Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23–25).
“Jesus therefore was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free . . . .’ They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me’” (John 8:31–32; 39–40).
Thus, when acting on their own, they deemed themselves believers. But Jesus acted in his authoritative capacity to expose their delusion. This is the function of the officers of the church who are also to examine professing believers to see if they are genuine believers (though lacking Christ’s divine insight). We see this in the fact that whenever someone wants to join the church, the officers examine them so that they may properly evaluate their testimony of faith (though we cannot claim Christ’s infallible perception).
What if a Mormon came to a church that did not engage in fencing the table? He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter-day Saints, which has as its distinctive apologetic an “apologetic of the heart.” This Mormon would vehemently claim that he “believes” in Jesus. Yet we should immediately recognize that we cannot allow a Mormon to partake of communion (he is a polytheist with horribly corrupt, heretical views of God and Christ). What if a Roman Catholic came as professing believer? But if we should forbid a cult member or a Roman Catholic, then we have fenced the table. We have fenced the table the table by forbidding cultic or heretical doctrine and adherents to that cultic or heretical doctrine.
Third, by not giving a word of fencing, we undermine discipline in the church. If we do not state that those who have been subjected to discipline should not partake, then we actually undermine the legitimacy of church discipline. We do this in allowing someone who has been disciplined in his local church (or disciplined out of his local church by excommunication) to partake of the Lord’s Supper in ours. This is spiritually dangerous, for if we leave it to a visitor’s uninformed, uninstructed , or even seared (1 Tim 4:2) conscience to decide whether he should partake, he may not understand the significance of what he is doing. (Of course, we recognize that even in our attempt at fencing the table we cannot stop the determined non-regenerate false-professor of Christ from partaking — because we lack Christ’s perfect knowledge.)
Fourth, the problem of baptized children. If we do not fence the table by requiring formal, communicant status membership (our fencing statement reads: “those who have been approved by church officers”): What about our young children who have not met with the elders to be approved for communicant status? May they determine that they are believers and partake, though not yet admitted to the Table by the elders? Such is the logic of opposition to fencing the table in terms of formal church membership.
The purpose of this study was to present, explain, and defend a four-fold fencing statement. In brief, our fencing statement requires that a participant in the Lord’s Supper must be:
- a believer in Christ
- baptized in his name
- a member in good standing of an evangelical church
- formally admitted to the Lord’s Table by ordained church officers of an evangelical church.
This fencing effort is important because Presbyterians deeply believe: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16).
Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Assembly (RPCGA) and lives in Greer, S. C.
3 Our Confession of Faith notes the ultimate unity between Israel and the church: WCF 19:3 speaks of “Israel, as a church under age”; 20:1 mentions “the Jewish Church”; and 25:2 speaks of “the visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law).” Thus, we also read in 27:5 “The sacraments of the Old Testament in regard to the spiritual things thereby signified and exhibited, were, for substance, the same with those of the new.”