Perhaps nothing so scandalizes the contemporary (i.e. “Modern”) church as the attempt by the visible church to obey the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the Apostles concerning the Lord’s Table. I say this for three reasons. 1) Recently I’ve been bombarded with questions from correspondents asking about fencing the table; 2) We’ve been discussing it as a consistory (Oceanside URC) off and on since the church was first planted 8-9 years ago; 3) few things have so upset (a few) visitors as being told that they should abstain from the table.
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. John Wesley said that the world was his parish but American evangelicals seem to believe that the world is their congregation. They may be members of no visible church, at least none that any self-respecting Reformed congregation should recognize (see Belgic Confession, Art 29), but 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.
I once heard a well-meaning but misguided missions prof tell a seminary class, “Now men, when you go on the mission field, you mustn’t challenge peoples’ basic assumptions.” With all due respect, nonsense! That’s exactly what we must do whether in North America or in South America, whether in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern. Congregations, in North America, who dare to challenge the reigning assumption of autonomy, that every man is a consistory (session) unto himself, had better tie on their collective hats. The blowback will be quite intense. “How dare you? Why, who are you to tell me that I cannot come to the Lord’s Table?”
Well, we, sinners that we be, are the divinely instituted authorities in this congregation and we’ve been given clear instruction in God’s Word to guard or fence holy communion as best we can, according to the rule prescribed in Scripture. First of all, our Lord entrusted the supervision of holy communion to the visible, institutional church. Not every entity which calls itself “church” is that. Indeed, not every one who calls himself “Christian” is that. Communicants must meet two tests: they must be Christians and they must be in the visible church. Frequently we get protests,
“But I am a Christian.”
“Fine, join yourself to a true church.”
“But I can’t find one.”
“Nonsense, you’re standing in one right now.”
“But I don’t agree with you. God’s Word clear requires that only those who’ve come to the age of discretion and who’ve made a profession of faith should be baptized and you folk practice infant baptism.”
“Are you suggesting that those of us who’ve had only infant baptisms are not baptized? “
“Yes, I am. Thus, I cannot unite with your congregation.”
“I respect your convictions and the consistency of your views, but I’m puzzled.”
“Well, I’m puzzled as to why you’re so adamant about being communed by a congregation that corrupts the sacrament of baptism. Further, why do you want to commune with a lot of unbaptized persons? By your lights, formally, we’re not even Christians. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
The claim made by American evangelicals that one has had a personal encounter with the risen Christ does not, according to the Reformed confession, constitute one a “Christian” and thus eligible for communion in a Reformed congregation. Communion is for Christ’s gathered people, who’ve been initiated into the visible, covenant community in baptism, who’ve professed his name. It’s for “the church” as a community, not for a collection of private persons pooling their private religious experience together temporarily.
“But isn’t this a private matter? Isn’t this something between me and my Lord?”
“No, not really. Jesus did not entrust the administration of the supper to you. He entrusted it to the disciples, who became apostles and they, in turn, entrusted its care to the visible, institutional church and to her officers.”
The Corinthian congregation communed whenever they met, on the Lord’s Day. In that same body, Paul recognized the authority to exclude impenitent sinners from the congregation (1 Cor 5). Indeed, according to Paul, it’s possible to so corrupt a sacrament as to make it no longer a sacrament (1 Cor 11).
Further, the Supper has jeopardy attached to it. In the Corinthian congregation some, who abused the supper, became ill and died (1 Cor 11). The supper is no mere funeral or memorial. It is a communion between the living Christ and his people in which the ascended and glorified Christ feeds his people on his true or “proper” and “natural” body and blood. It is a covenant renewal ceremony and as such it is for blessing to believers but it is for judgment to unbelievers, just as Noah’s flood was a blessing to the church and a curse upon the rest of humanity (See Heb 6 and 10).
Let’s pick up our dialogue a few weeks later.
“But I’m now a member of such and such independent, fundamental Bible church.”
“That’s a start. Let me ask a question. Do you recognize that there are merely nominal Christians, who profess Christ but who do not actually have a living union with him by faith alone?””
“Absolutely! That’s one of the biggest problems facing the church today.”
“If there are merely nominal Christians, i.e. Christians in name only, isn’t it possible that there are merely nominal churches too?”
“Well, sure, but not our congregation. We’re born-again, washed in the blood and immersed in the water. We’re a bible church.”
“I appreciate your fervor, I do and I once agreed with most of your views, but fervor and sincerity and even genuine religious experience are not sufficient for communion in a Reformed congregation. After all, lots of groups are sincere, fervent, and some of them may even have a genuine religious experience but we can’t judge the validity of one’s religious experience. There’s no such thing as a spiritual thermometer. The airport has a metal detector, but we don’t have a regeneration detector. We have to go by marks that God has given in his Word as confessed by the Reformed churches.”
“I guess you didn’t look up the Belgic Confession, Art 29. They are the ‘pure preaching of the gospel,’ the ‘pure administration of the sacraments,’ and the ‘administration of discipline.’ Those that lack those marks are a false church or a sect.
“Well, that seems a little narrow, but okay, I’ll bite. Which are the true churches?”
“There’s no list exactly, but for the purposes of admitting people to communion we follow the rule adopted by the Synod of Dort, in the original Dort Church Order (1619) that only those who profess “the Reformed Religion” may come to the table of the Lord in a Reformed congregation. In our setting we see that those churches that belong to the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council confess substantially the same faith with us.”
“Are those the only Reformed churches? After all, we call ourselves ‘Reformed.'”
“No, we recognize that there are likely true churches beyond NAPARC, but that’s a useful starting point. If folk come to us from outside NAPARC we’re happy to talk to them about their church and to try to make an intelligent judgment. Why do you call yourself Reformed?”
“We believe in the ‘Five Points.'”
“That’s great but there’s more to being Reformed than the five points. The same Synod who gave us the Five Points also confessed the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. They also applied that confession to a chaotic church situation not unlike ours. They restricted communion to those with whom we have a true communion, a common baptism, a like faith, and who are under the supervision of a recognizable church. In the Belgic and the Heidelberg we confess that God’s Word also teaches among other things: a certain view of redemptive history (covenant theology), infant baptism, and a way of governing the church.”
The real question is this: Has Christ instituted a visible, organized, disciplined church? The Reformed churches say, “Yes, he has.” The church is a divine creation not a merely human contrivance for the advancement of personal, spiritual experience (ecstasy). The demand by every autonomous American to be admitted to every communion at will is, at bottom, nothing more than a repudiation of the notion that Jesus has established a visible church.
This is why it’s a scandal. To insist that he has instituted a church, and to claim that not every entity that calls itself a “church” actually is one, that strikes Americans as positively bigoted and elitist. It isn’t of course, unless Scripture itself is elitist. That would make the pastoral epistles (1-2 Timothy) elitist. Certain men are eligible for the offices of deacon, elder, and minister. Not everyone is. Elitist? Is church discipline (Matt 18) elitist? Is the exercise of the keys (Matt 16) elitist? Are all distinctions within the visible church elitist? Was it elitist to say, “Many are called but few are chosen?” To ask those questions is to answer them. The real problem here isn’t the refusal by Reformed congregations to commune everyone but the refusal of American evangelicals to reconcile themselves to the existence of a divinely-instituted and disciplined church.