More on Fencing the Table: Dutch Reformed Voices

I’ve been thinking more lately about the scandal of fencing the table.

I should have thought to do this earlier. Researching an answer to another question I ran across some interesting Dutch Reformed (in this case, Christian Reformed) sources on this question.

John Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church (1949), where he says:

Calvin makes the proper administration of the sacraments the second mark of the true Church….

(quotes Calvin Inst 4.1.9)

He stressed the fact that the Lord’s Supper could be truly received only by believers, and that great dangers attended careless participation

(quotes Inst 4.17.24, 40)

….This guarding of the sacraments is clearly reflected in the Heidelberg Catechism (cites Q. 81). The Christian Reformed Church Order circumscribes both the administration and the reception (my emphasis – rsc) of the sacraments:

Then he quotes the old Church Order of the CRC, Art. 61:

None shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper except those who according to the usage of the Church with which they unite themselves have made a confession of the Reformed religion (emphasis added), besides being reputed to be of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other Churches shall not be admitted.
He defends this article by appealing to BC 29 and especially the third mark of the true church.

Howard B. Spaan, Christian Reformed Church Government (1968) quotes Art 59 of the Church Order thus:

Members by baptism shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper upon a public profession of Christ according to the Reformed creeds (emphasis added), with the use of the prescribed form.

There is nothing in Article 60, which specifically speaks to who may come to the table. Evidently, one supposes, the older language was removed. Martin Monsma, The New Revised Church Order Commentary (1967) says:

Fundamentally the difference between those who advocate “open communion” and those who maintain “close communion” is a question of recognition of and non-recognition of authority of Christ vested in the officer-bearers….

Whether or not one shall approach unto the Lord’s Table is not simply up to the individual. He must recognize the officers appointed for this work by Christ. Neither may any consistory delegate this charge to the individuals by announcing that all who are members of some other church in good and regular standing and desirous of observing the Lord’s Supper are invited to partake. This is not as bad as an unconditional invitation, but it is a form of open communion for the question of attendance or non-attendance at the Lord’s Table is after all left solely to the judgment of the individuals concerned. One altogether unworthy may thus be given permission to partake. This would be a desecration of the Lord’s Table which might have been avoided, and an opening of an avenue of sin by the office bearers to the unworthy participant.

He goes on to describe a procedure whereby a visitor should make a request of the consistory, preferably the week before but at least before communion, to participate.

The current (3rd) edition of the Church Order of the URCNA, Art. 45 says:

The Consistory shall supervise participation at the Lord’s Table. No member shall be admitted to the Lord’s Table who has not first made public profession of faith and is not living a godly life. Visitors may be admitted provided that, as much as possible, the Consistory is assured of their biblical church membership, of their proper profession of faith, and of their godly walk.

It is surprising that it was not restored by the URCs in 1995-96. Did they consider the original language of the Dort Order? Since the URC CO has been revised three times, here’s a suggestion for a future revision: Since the phrase “biblical church membership” is vague and liable to multiple interpretations, why should we not simply adopt the language of the Church Order of Dort? Why not require those who would commune in a URCNA congregation to “profess the Reformed Religion”? After all, “biblical church membership,” unless clearly defined to mean, “Reformed church membership,” (and if that’s what is meant, why didn’t we say that?) is about as meaningful as “belongs to an evangelical church” or “belongs to a Protestant church.” What on earth is an “evangelical” church these days? What is “membership” in a day of “emergent” gatherings or Calvary Chapel or the like? Who says what “biblical” means? Isn’t that why we have ecclesiastical confessions, to circumscribe the limits of what a church can call “biblical”?

There is a reason why the Synod of Dort said, “professes the Reformed religion.”

I realize that it is painful in our culture to say to confessional Lutherans (who have no trouble excluding us) and to Baptists (who don’t or shouldn’t recognize our baptism), “Hey, we love you and we may even have a personal opinion that you are a believer, but that isn’t a sufficient basis for formal, ecclesiastical communion.”

Allowing folk to the table who deny the validity of our baptism (for those of us who only have an infant baptism) who regard us formally as “crafty sacramentarians,” elevates and imposes upon the congregation personal preference in the same way that requiring the congregation to sing uninspired songs imposes on the congregation a personal preference. The one thing to which we’ve all agreed, in a Reformed congregation, is the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed churches. We haven’t agreed to or confessed the status of Baptist or Lutheran churches so a consistory isn’t free to impose an opinion on the entire congregation just like it’s not free to impose an opinion about hymns. Now we’re talking about sola Scriptura and the limits of ecclesiastical authority.

Thus there’s a proper balance between recognizing the divinely instituted offices in the visible church and the limits of the authority given to those officers. To fail to recognize that authority, as is common in our egalitarian culture, is essentially Anabaptist anarchy. To go beyond the limits of God’s Word is tyranny. In between the two is the Freedom of the Christian Man.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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18 comments

  1. It’s a tricky situation at my college-town CRC, too, especially since we don’t necessarily encourage membership for our students from out of town. I do agree with you that it’s fairly lopsided the way our confessional Lutheran brethren really don’t include us at their table but we usually include them… and theoretically we (or I — Scott I believe you were adult immersed because of your Baptist background?) cannot be received into membership

    I know that PCA church order allows for anyone baptized who is a member of an evangelical church.

    What I want to point out though, is that it gets just as tricky when we begin trying to define “the Reformed religion.” I’m much more comfortable taking communion with a Southern Baptist or a member of the E-Free than I would be with a liberal member of the PCUSA or RCA… and definitely the UCC (which can definitely make a claim to a Reformed heritage). I’m assuming we would include Presbyterians within the definition. And what about the CRC and EPC in relation to the PCA and URC?

    Members of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod can’t even pray with other Lutherans even if they’re just as confessional. I really hope we don’t start going in that direction… but I do agree we are clearly commanded to fence the table biblically and confessionally. I brought a friend from a broad evangelical background who is not yet baptized (story for another time) and he was so upset by the table fencing that he never came back again. I also brought a younger not-yet-baptized pentecostal who gladly abstained from communion with us and was impressed at how we revere the sacraments as opposed to her own church.

    I absolutely agree with you that operating within the bounds of Christian freedom is the way to address fencing the table — I also think we can do it lovingly.. and use the fencing of the table as another way to be loving but prophetic within evangelicalism and Christianity.

    Re: previous post on Christmas — this is the time of year I’m really glad I’m in parachurch ministry because I don’t have to deal with the distraction to the gospel of Christmas 🙂

  2. You hit on a problem that’s also in the Proposed Joint Church Order. There too, we find “biblical church membership.” At one of the local conferences it was asked why this couldn’t simply be “Reformed church membership,” in line with the CO of Dort. We didn’t get a clear answer then and the report to our synods is still not clear on the reason for it.

  3. Thanks for the links — I’d actually read a lot of those posts and I do agree with you that credo-baptists calling themselves ‘Reformed’ is really a stretch… and many evangelicals wrongly derive their impressions of “Reformed” from people like John MacArthur and John Piper.

    My comment is that it becomes hazier if ‘Reformed’ is only NAPARC or whether it includes folks who self-identify as confessional within the CRC, RCA, EPC, and PCUSA. I think there are also many members of the PCA who identify more with broad evangelicalism than they do with the Reformed faith, or at least see themselves as members in both camps. You also mentioned that polity was an “agree to disagree” issue within the Reformed camp dating back to the confessions… so clearly you seem to suggest this should include Conservative Congregationalists, some parts of the UCC that hold to the Heidelberg, Belgic, and others…. whether we can have full reciprocity between those who recognize only Westminster versus those who only recognize the 3 forms of unity and so forth.

    • Calvin,

      That’s why I distinguish between sideline (confessional), borderline (moving away), and mainline (moved away) churches. The PCUSA is a mainline denomination. I discuss this in chapters 1 and 5 of RRC.

      I don’t really like the “conservative-liberal” paradigm. See Hart, The Lost Soul of American Protestantism on that.

      Congregationalists? Most American congregational churches haven’t confessed the Reformed faith for a very long time.

  4. Am I to understand a traveling elder from Ephesus, trained by the Apostle Paul, who winds up in Thessalonica would be prohibited from partaking of the Lord’s Supper there? Amazing nonsense.

  5. I find it quite puzzling that your arguments are buttressed with quotations from men and confessions only. Why don’t you offer biblical proof for your discussion? While the Belgic, Canons of Dordt, Heidelberg, 1689, Westminster etc.. may be fine documents in many ways, they are not the final rule of life and practice. One of the five tenets of the Reformation was Sola Scriptura. Are you reformed? Then use the Bible.

    Fencing the table implies closed communion. Perhaps you should start with a BIBLICAL discussion on the validity of open or closed communion before embarking on subsequent / dependent topics that may be irrelevant once first principles are dealt with scripturally.

      • Please forgive the apparent cheekiness, I ask this with respect… so what, who cares? Isn’t the real question how do the scriptures evaluate the reformed churches teaching and understanding?

        Quotes like this from http://heidelblog.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/sometimes-one-has-to-consider-the-source/#more-6306 give me pause for thought: “Our faculty members are committed to preaching and teaching the whole counsel of the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God as confessed by the Reformed churches”.

        Shouldn’t your emphasis be simply “preaching and teaching the whole counsel of the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God” ? When you add “as confessed by the Reformed churches” you’ve essentially placed the scriptures under the confessions. That type of thinking leads to discussions where arguments are buttressed with the thoughts of fallible dead guys.

  6. Harry, I appreciate your desire to honor the Scriptures. I think what one must remember (and I think Dr. Clark would agree), is that all appeals to Scripture are appeals to interpretations of Scripture. Therefore, when a Reformed Christian cites a confessional document, he or she is not intending to usurp the authority of Scripture, we are simply confessing what we believe Scripture to teach.

    • I’ve listened to the “why focus on confessions” podcast, it’s helpful for understanding where you’re coming from. I do understand that it’s the interpretation of scripture that’s really drives the use of confessions.

      BUT… in my experience, a reliance on confessions to the point where doctrinal discussions are buttressed solely with references to the confessions ( as this blog post is, and numerous other things I’ve read/heard in the Reformed world, particularly in the paedobaptist realm ) and not the underlying scriptures is fraught with peril. It may not be your –intention– to supercede the authority of the scriptures, but by your use of the fallible confessions over the infallible word of God, you’re implicitly passing on that message.

      The confessions are not complete, ie. they do not comment on the entire body of truth, eg. eschatology is absent from the Heidelberg, church govt is hardly touched on except in the Belgic ( did that omission contribute to the CRCs ordaining women elders? ) . It contains unfortunate remnants of the reformation era, eg. article 36 of the Belgic confession.

      I grew up in a hyper-calvinist paedobaptist community, saved in adulthood through the evangelistic work of an Arminian brother and now belong to a confessional ( 1689 ) credobaptist church ( so I’m not one of the “my creed is Chris” crowd! ). Growing up we heard a sermon each Sunday on the Heidelberg ( which doesn’t address a bunch of essential doctrines ), sermons that were really an exegesis of an exegesis rather than the scriptures themselves. Emphasizing and preaching the confessions as many in the reformed world do, leads to biblical illiteracy and a reliance on the words of man.

      Confessions are helpful summaries of what we hold to be true, and may be useful in many areas, but Lord keep us from implicitly or explicitly relying on them over the scriptures as you appear to be doing in this post.

  7. “Fundamentally the difference between those who advocate “open communion” and those who maintain “close communion” is a question of recognition of and non-recognition of authority of Christ vested in the officer-bearers….”

    This quote gave me a real moment of clarity. Thanks.

    • Phil, can you explain the (non)-recognition bits as it relates to Christ’s authority vested in office bearers? I don’t capice.

  8. Harry, eschatology is not absent from the Heidelberg (Q&A 23, 45, 52, 57, 58). I’m just saying…

    • Brad:

      You’re right about the Heidelberg and eschatology, I was mistaken, mea culpa.

      The general point I was making still stands. The confessions ( eg. the 3 forms of unity ) do not encapsulate the “whole counsel of God”, the problem remains.

  9. Thank you to all that have contributed to this discussion so far for giving me much to consider.
    In my humble opinion, the words of article 45 of the URCNA Church Order were wisely formulated where it reads: “Visitors may be admitted provided that, as much as possible, the Consistory is assured of their biblical church membership, of their proper profession of faith, and of their godly walk.” (italics added)
    You ask why it would not say “Reformed” if that is what is meant, but I see in this statement recognition of that occasional possibility of someone coming from a church that is outside of what is officially reformed, yet who rightfully and biblically desires to partake in communion. Would you argue that this is not possible? The phrase biblical church membership portrays a more ecumenical tone, and at the same time resists stating any extra-biblical or controversial positions.
    Adding to that, it is the responsibility of the consistory to be assured of biblical membership, proper profession, and godly walk. Can we not be secure in allowing our consistories to make these determinations, or do we need to draw our lines so distinctly that it would be impossible for a consistory to do anything other than what is determined by “the powers that be”?
    Furthermore, I think Harry asks a valid question: “Shouldn’t your emphasis be simply ‘preaching and teaching the whole counsel of the inerrant, infallible, inspired Word of God’?” If the confessions in the Reformed churches are faithful summaries of this “counsel”, should not the added words “as confessed by the Reformed churches” be deemed superfluous?

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