Resources On Fencing The Lord’s Table

Some HB readers have been discussing the question of fencing the Lord’s Table. Fencing is a figurative way of speaking. There aren’t literal fences in Reformed Churches. It’s a way to describe the Reformed attempt to apply Paul’s instruction in 1Corinthians 11:27–32. This is a somewhat controversial topic but that controversy is partly due to the fact that we’re becoming unfamiliar with the older Reformed approach to this question. It’s also partly due to the fact that, in the USA anyway, we have a habit of transferring our civil/political autonomy to the church. It can be difficult to relinquish our autonomy when we enter the church but the church is a visible expression of Christ’s kingdom and the kingdom is not an egalitarian democracy.

The historic Reformed practice is reflected in the church order of the Synod of Dort (1619).

61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

Historically, Reformed churches have not practiced “open communion.” There have always been some restrictions. There are generally, in practice, now fewer restrictions than there once were. We might ask whether that is a good thing. It might seem friendlier and more inviting to lift restrictions to the table but does that do justice to Paul’s teaching in 1Corinthinans 11 and to his solemn warnings about eating and drinking judgment? Is open communion really in the best interest of all those who come to the table?

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for adding this bit of historical information. I think I might need more help understanding its significance.

    I don’t think the precise meaning of Article 61 is clear. Do you take the last clause to incorporate the two the clauses that precede it or just the one clause that immediately precedes it?

    The clause envisions two classes of people who are to be admitted to the Supper. Those who have joined the church that is administering the supper and those have come from another church. It’s clear that the first class of people must meet two requirements: (1) confession of the Reformed religion according to the usage of the church which they join and (2) a testimony of a Godly walk.

    As for those of who have come from another church, the article clearly requires of them that they have a testimony of a Godly walk. But do those other clauses apply to them as well? Must they have also made a confession of the Reformed religion and must that confession also accord with the usage of the church administering the sacrament?

    Am I even close to getting at the meaning of this? It seems easy to apply to the case of a member seeking admittance in his home church. But how would this article guide a consistory of a URCNA congregation who is presented with a visitor from a PCA church seeking admittance to the Supper?

    Say the visitor brings with him evidence of his confession of the Reformed religion (according to the form of public profession commonly used in the PCA for public profession) and a testimony of his godly walk. Is this person to admitted? We know that PCA churches will receive into membership those who reject infant baptism. Does this matter? Does that undermine his confession of the Reformed religion? Does it matter whether or not he personally adheres to infant baptism?

    Have I completely missed the point completely? Thanks for your time! #gobucks

    • Hi Rhett,

      Taken in the context of the church orders that preceded it from the 1560s, I think Synod envisioned that only members of Reformed congregations could come to the table. There was concern about members from other other congregations coming. So there is one class of folk at the table: Reformed communicants. Of that class there are two species, members of this local congregation and members of that local congregation. When folks traveled they had to present some sort of evidence that they were members in good standing in order to communicate in another Reformed congregation.

      When I was on a consistory that tried to apply this article in our setting, we limited communion in our congregation to members of URC and NAPARC congregations. This is not a perfect solution since some NAPARC bodies allow people to join their congregations without affirming the Westminster Standards. The alternative is effectively a communion that is restricted to members of URC congregations but even that might not be perfect since there are URC pastors who are convinced that it is not necessary to affirm the Three Forms as a condition of membership.

      So, in the absence of perfection, I argued that we should commune members of NAPARC congregations, even though that might admit folks who do not actually profess the Reformed faith, on the theory that we are not called to be consistory to the whole world and if our ecumenical relatives choose to admit to communion folk who don’t profess faith that is a flaw in their theory/practice of the Reformed faith but our ecumenical relations are more important than eschatological perfection in fencing the table.

      Alternatively, we could simply limit communion to communicant members of URC congregations and to those who have actually professed the Reformed faith in a NAPARC congregation, thereby excluding those who are communicant members of NAPARC congregations who haven’t subscribed the system of doctrine contained in the confessions (e.g., they deny infant baptism).

      This would be fairly inclusive and ecumenical but honor the intent of the Synod of Dort.

  2. Thanks. That’s helpful. I often wondered about the role of ecumenical relations in these situations and what would happen if Reformed churches admitted only to the Supper those who had “communicant membership in a congregation that bears the marks of a true church as articulated in our confessional standards.”

    Most wouldn’t see any problem excluding visitors from Baptist churches since those churches clearly fail to make use of the pure administration of the sacraments. But I think there would be a real risk of fracturing ecumenical relations when a church attempts to confirm the presence of the other marks in the practice of a visitor’s home church because it would require an evaluation of not just what a church taught or confessed but how it practiced.

    • Rhett,

      Yes, that’s right. It’s not very practical. That gets us back to the “not the consistory of the world” idea. Hence, it’s probably most workable to commune folks from NAPARC congregations.

  3. Prof Clark,

    As a Baptist, I’m all too familiar with the fencing of the Lord’s Table in our own history – so I appreciate this discussion. But this remains a tricky issue. I’m also reminded of Mark Dever’s not-too-recent-spat and its internal inconsistencies.

    While the Synod of Dort remains a good guide in the matter, denominational tribalism offsets much of this.

  4. I am Reformed in the broader sense, holding the Westminster Confession as my guide. My closest church affiliation over my life has been with First Presbyterian in Chattanooga (where I was teaching at Covenant College) and at Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia (while I was a business woman.) On the other hand, from my childhood, my father’s work required that he move about every two years, often to remote towns. This poses a nightmare for church membership. We often attended churches which taught the core of the gospel, but quickly got fuzzy as they moved to the edges. And rarely was there a solidly Reformed church in the neighborhood. The choice was often a couple Baptist churches, a few Pentecostal ones, a tiny Catholic parish… well, you get the picture.

    Christ drew me into a relationship with Him at age 4-5 following infant baptism in a Swedish Covenant Church, where my parents were brand new Christians trying to learn both how to be parents and how to live under the Lordship of Christ. Fortunately they got good teaching in the company’s home base, where our pastor was an old school godly graduate of Princeton and the adult SS teacher was a missionary forced out of China during WW II, then on the staff of Westminster Theological Seminary.

    Today, our world is a mobile world, not unlike my childhood experience. My business experience took we across the USA often for only a few weeks or a couple months at a time in one place. My problem was often finding a church where I shared the bond of Christian brotherhood, never mind one whose ‘fencing’ practices I could comply with. The Lord often did often the door, in Denver in a Presbyterian church, in Houston a god-fearing Episcopal church of all things, etc. They adhered more to the Westminster Confession than to the 39 Articles.

    Now I am a different world. I was living in Kazakhstan helping to set up a business institute based on the best ethical examples in the West (which has gone from bad to worse over these 25 years.) I had to come home to get attention to medical ailments. I never returned to any kind of work. I spend 90% of my day flat on my back and the other 10% on basic functions like meals. Even this computer I am using is designed for someone lying flat. Walk from my kitchenette 25 feet to the front door and I am gasping like a marathoner at the end of the race.

    My church is the residual ties to Tenth, which broadcasts the services in video across the internet. My fellow congregants are family and friends.

    One brother holds a high position in the PCA, but the other is more Reformed in his beliefs. He attended Covenant Seminary for one year about 1975, but soon realized his Christian service was running a hospice, which grew to 1200 patients in tiny semi-rural communities in Central Florida. He is now retired. For a year or so he also ‘pastored’ an Evangelical Free Church at the request of their district when the pastor was caught in a scandal. I live in a small unit behind his house, originally built for my mother in her declining years.
    We talk much of the things of God across the spectrum and weep together as so many once-solid churches nationwide have lost their way.

    As for the friends, none know each other, but we serve disciplinary roles in our Christian fellowship via email.
    — One a professor of French at a Jesuit school until she retired recently, formerly my French professor at Wheaton,
    — one on the staff with Frances Schafer at the height of that ministry and then at Tenth until she too had health problems,
    — one a homemaker and stenographer with no college at all from First Pres. in Chattanooga and my first grade at an excellent Christian school where I learned my Shorter Catechism.
    We serve as each other’s small group women’s Bible study, with me tying them together. Our conversations are hardly trivial.

    So, two questions:
    How to deal with the mobile modern world?
    How to cope with a rapidly expanding world of seniors, many with severe physical limitations, a people live longer?

    I long for my heavenly home, where again a Table will be spread for me, by invitation of my King, and served by the Suffering Servant — mysteriously both the same, our Lord Jesus Christ.

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