Fencing the Table or the Scandal of the Church

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.”

“Puzzled, why?”

“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.”

“Those are?”

“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.

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  1. Amen. We cannot claim to love Christ and yet hate His Bride.

    One slight issue arises from this post, however. The boundary line of NAPARC membership that you mention does not always match the boundary lines you mention from the Belgic Confession. What about the large number of Arminian and Baptist members of North American Presbyterian churches that do not practice “confessional membership”? Shall we exclude a Calvinistic Baptist who is a member of an ARBCA congregation from communion while welcoming to the Lord’s Table an Arminian Baptist who is a member of a PCA congregation?

    • Bryan,

      Good question and one that comes up all the time.

      We’re not called to be the consistory of the world. We’re called to fence the table as best we can. We recognize that there incongruities that arise when some of our sister congregations in NAPARC admit members who do not confess the Reformed faith, at least not consistently. We have to trust our brothers in sessions and consistories in our sister congregations. We have to trust that they’ve heard credible professions of faith. We don’t expect to achieve Baptistic perfection in this world.

      • Well, there are different ways to *trust* others. I can trust you “to do the right thing” in some situation… but if I know that you’re not doing the right thing, and I simply choose to ignore the fact that your doing the wrong thing as a matter of your stated policy to do (what I know is) the wrong thing… well, that’s something else.

        So, we should work toward greater consistency in a confessionally reformed sense. It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it?

  2. Ahhhh. Music to my ears!

    Too bad so many NAPARC congregations are confessionally-reformed-in-name-only, and do not practice a form of admission that requires communicant members to profess the reformed religion.

    So many NAPARC sessions believe terms of communion much beyond “credible profession of the gospel” are “sectarian” and “unbiblical.” Many also find any “fencing” practice that actually involves the necessity of physically admitting someone to the Supper abhorrent. They prefer to say a “few words of warning” and let every one interpret it for themselves, and admit themselves.

    I say, let judgment begin with the family of God. Let’s work and pray for NAPARC to get her house in order, even as we explain to outsiders how our family *should* be operating.

    Our toughest resistance will not be from the Evangelicals, but from the Reformed folk who don’t really know that being confessionally reformed is something fundamentally different from *and incompatible with* Evangelicalism and their scheme of open communion.

  3. What would you say to a member of a non-NAPARC church, like a PCA church? Or even less familiar, what if someone from France from the French Reformed Evangelical denomination came (EREI) and wanted to take the Lord’s supper? Would you require an inquiry about their church?


    • Daniel,

      The PCA is a member of NAPARC:

      The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church The Canadian Reformed Churches The Reformed Church of Quebec (ERQ) The Free Reformed Churches of North America The Heritage Reformed Congregations The Korean American Presbyterian Church The Orthodox Presbyterian Church The Presbyterian Church in America The Reformed Church in the United States The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America The United Reformed Churches in North America

      As I said in the post, if someone comes from a non-NAPARC congregation then we would talk with him him and assuming his congregation meets the terms of Belgic 29 then we would commune him.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks, I didn’t realize that all those denominations were a part of NAPARC (even though I have been in more than one – my father led EE with ERQ for many years).


  5. Dr Clark,
    Thank you for the Armstrong extract on the Lord’s Supper – this is a wonderful read.

    • Hi Gary,

      The key adjectives here are “confessional” and “Reformed” (or Presbyterian). I don’t see how a CREC minister qualifies under either of those rubrics. Yes, the CREC ministers confess something, namely the Federal Vision. Certainly the confession of the FV on the gospel brings into question one of the marks. Their inclusion of the FV, indeed becoming the ecclesiastical haven for FV rebels fleeing the discipline of the PCA and the URCs, raises questions about the third mark and their toleration of both paedo- and its denial and their advocacy of paedocommunion brings into doubt the second mark of the church.

      • Dr. Clark,
        Do you know of any CREC church that claims “Federal Vision” as their confession? To my knowledge, they all claim either the Westminster, Heidelberg, Belgic confession or something similar. I don’t see how you can treat the FV as a “confession.” The FV is anything but a unified confession. The Joint Statement is the closest thing, and that is simply a group of pastors saying “this is what we have in common.” All those things are subordinate and bound to the confessions, not over or against them.

        It would be a little bit as though there were some controversial elements to the upcoming “Desiring God” conference. People might start calling it “the Desiring God Theology” and the various speakers (very various backgrounds, and beliefs) would be called proponents of the “Desiring God Theology” which “originated in 2009.” Of course there would be much confusion of what the theology “really was.” The CREC’s official position, if I understand it, is simply that they regard the theological ideas/beliefs of what has been known broadly as “The Federal Vision”, (which was a conference title) as not heretical. Each church upholds one or more of the historical confessions .

        As for the second mark of the church, if you feel they are not a true church based on Paedocommunion, then there is good evidence that there was no true church until the 12th century when the church took the chalice away from the laity. This resulted in children choking on the break in the absence of wine, so they removed communion from the children. It was an assumed position of the early church to commune covenant children. There may be good reasons not to commune children. Perhaps Calvin was right in rejecting Augustine and Cyprian and many others in this. But one thing is sure, it is not novelty. It is an ancient practice practiced at large by all the church for centuries. While Calvin interprets 1 Cor. 11 differently than I would (one of the few disagreements I really have with him), I don’t feel he or the Reformation condemns specifically the communion of infants. They will often disagree, but not view it as heterodoxy. Not an issue of fellowship vs. non-fellowship.

        A few favorite quotes from Augustine:
        . . . . let the bishop partake, then the presbyters, and deacons, and sub-deacons, and the readers, and the singers, and the ascetics; and then of the women, the deaconesses, and the virgins, and the widows; then the children; and then all the people in order, with reverence and godly fear, without tumult.
        ~Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, 8.2.13

        They are infants, but they receive His sacraments. They are infants, but they share in His table, in order to have life in themselves.
        ~Works, Vol. 5, Sermon 174:7

        And the CREC churches do maintain, actively, the third mark of the church. I have seen a man excommunicated, and then, to my great joy, come back in repentance to the Church and restored to fellowship.

        Just a few thoughts to bounce off your comment.


        • Daniel:

          I think you may be too bold there by saying that it was the standard practice in the early church to have infants at the table. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, The Didache, and the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles all explain that people are to be baptized and/or “initiated” (i.e. catechumens/catechized) before partaking. Infants at the table probably happened back then, but perhaps not as frequently or widespread as many would like to believe.

          Also, though I don’t have the time right now, it would be helpful to consider the location and time period of the above references as we consider how widespread certain practices were in the early church.


        • Daniel,

          The CREC is the de facto home of the Federal Vision movement. Most of the leading FV proponents are now ministers in the CREC. No, I don’t know that the CREC has formally adopted the FV confessionally but the CREC does confess the FV in the broad sense of the verb “to confess.” It’s the paradigm within which they re-interpret the historic and orthodox confession.

  6. Stephen
    John Armstrong has changed his views and very significantly ! He now sees the Roman Catholic Mass as a legitimate Christian celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

  7. It’s also interesting how it works when the shoe is on the other foot. Let’s say, for example, that someone who had been credobaptized in a run-of-the-mill American Evangelical congregation, but had become disillusioned with what he or she observed as a drift away from sound doctrine, and wanted to join a confessional Reformed or Lutheran church.

    The pastor of the Lutheran or Reformed church would probably tell them about new member classes and that they would be required to learn about their denominations confessions and be required to proclaim agreement with them in front of the congregation. Then he’d ask them if they had been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity. If the answer is yes, more than likely he’d accept that baptism as valid regardless of the method (immersion) or the age at which it took place – this is God’s work in us, not the other way around, regardless of what Evangelicals might think.

    Let the reverse scenario take place, however, where the lay person coming from a now-apostate Protestant denomination and wants to join a “conservative” baptistical church (don’t ask me why anyone would want to do that, but let’s just say that they did). The receiving pastor would probably make the same announcement about new member classes (minus the confessions) and then ask about baptism. When the person replies that they had been baptized by affusion as an infant, the pastor would instantly discount that baptism as valid, regardless whether it was done in a Trinitarian manner or not. Then he would insist that they be re-baptized (blasphemous an act as that is) and via immersion (scripturally unsupported as that is) or else not join.

    While most of these American evangelicals seem to have no problem tossing grape juice and Wonder Bread to just about anyone sitting in the pews with little regard to their beliefs, baptism is an arbitrary barrier. Go figure. We do well to fence (or close) the table to those who have not been carefully examined.

  8. Presumably if Charles Spurgeon, the famous English Baptist preacher, was still alive, then he wouldn’t qualify to sit at the Lord’s table in one of your churches.

    • Call me, whatever, but I can’t but wonder if an appeal to Spurgeon here to make the point isn’t something of a suspicious appeal to celebrity, as in, “You’d actually not commune Charles Spurgeon? Wow, now I know you’re off the rails.”

      But it seems to me the point of recovering Reformed theology, piety and practice pays little to no attention to the spirit of the age.

  9. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate your discussion. It is extremely valuable because I frequently encounter confusion and frustration in Presbyterian circles on fencing the table. It seems that some conservative Presbyterian churches even allow people to partake without membership but with merely “adherent” status.

    I also once encountered a passionately held viewpoint in a Presbyterian church based on an interpretation of the following text:

    “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:28).

    The person held that Scripture enjoined self-examination a person’s approach to Lord’s table and, consequently, any fencing beyond that was adding to the Word of God. I think you have said some things that are helpful in answering this argument but I still find myself unsure of how best to reply to this view. Any suggestions?

    • Hi Brandon,

      It’s a both…and approach. The individualist acts as if this is ALL scripture says about fencing the table. That’s reductionist. It’s not ALL scripture says about discipline or the table. That’s why the real problem here is the doctrine of the church. Every man is not his own church or consistory. The same apostle who wrote those words also enjoined the church to act corporately in discipline.


  10. I found this a very interesting article. It struck a chord with me, having been brought up in a brethren assembly (which is distinctly not reformed) with a closed table. Only visitors with a letter from a recognised assembly would be permitted to take partake in the Lords Supper.
    Now 30 years later I’m a member of the Church of Scotland and very definitely reformed in my theology.
    It’s always struck me as strange that in wider evangelical christian circles any attempt to limit access to the table is viewed with shock and horror. Your statement –

    “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.”

    is absolutely true.

    but (you knew there was a but coming) I can’t see how this could be effectively put into practise in the Church of Scotland without isolating ourselves completely from the wider evangelical fellowship.

    I find myself in the position of being a member of a group of churches that recently voted to allow the ordination of a Homosexual. My own local church which I attend has members whom I doubt very much if they have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ never mind a reformed theology. If we took this line with every bible believing evangelical Christian we would find ourselves extremely isolated.

  11. Church of Scotland member Mark said “I can’t see how this could be effectively put into practise in the Church of Scotland without isolating ourselves completely from the wider evangelical fellowship.”

    You have got a much bigger problem than that mate, you are a member of a church that has departed from the faith – in other words you are a member of an apostate denomination.

  12. Good thoughts, Dr. Clark. Too often people view “open” and “close” communion as the only options. Your approach allows for a healthy dose of catholicity within reformed boundaries. There are obviously numerous aspects of this issue that cannot be addressed in a brief blog entry, but I found your basic approach to be refreshing in many ways. Fencing the table is definitely a ‘must.’

  13. I appreciate this post. Thanks. I have a question: What would you say about a congregation affiliated with a NAPARC church that does practice open communion?

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