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 isn’t 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’s 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’s 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’re 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’re 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’ve 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’ve 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.
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.