Admission to the Lord's Supper in the Proposed Church Order
Admission to the Lord’s Supper in the Proposed Church Order
The committee responsible for drafting the Proposed Church Order printed in the January 2, 2009 edition of Clarion a revised formulation of the article pertaining to admission to the Lord’s Supper. I wish to state upfront that I appreciate the proposed change, and consider it a great improvement over the earlier formulation. At the same time, I think the proposed formulation merits further discussion.
The revised formulation reads as follows:
The consistory shall supervise participation at the Lord’s Supper. To that end, the consistory shall admit to the Lord’s Supper only those members who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life. Visitors may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper provided that the consistory has secured confirmation, by means of letter of testimony or interview, regarding proper profession of faith, their godly walk of life, and their biblical church membership.
The three sentences of the proposed article cover three topics.
That the consistory needs to play a role in supervising who attends the table of the Lord needs no elaboration in a reformed publication. References to the task of the Old Testament priests in monitoring who could present sacrifices in the tabernacle (see Leviticus 13 & 14), as well as Paul’s instruction to the Corinthian church to “hand this man over to Satan” (1 Corinthians 5:5), provide ample biblical justification to the point. At the same time it’s understood that the individual participant also has a responsibility to determine whether he is able to attend the table. That’s driven home by passages as Numbers 9:10f and 1 Corinthians 11:28,31. The interplay between individual responsibility and consistory responsibility need not detain us further now. All I want to add is that the Lord of the table is a holy God. He responded to unholiness in Old Testament Israel through plagues that killed thousands (see Numbers 14:29; 16:47ff; 25:9, etc), and responded with a similar heavy hand to the unholiness of the Corinthians (see 1 Corinthians 11:30).
The other two topics mentioned in this article describe who consistory may permit to the table. The article divides the possible attendees into two groups, namely, the members of the congregation over which the consistory has responsibility and visitors worshipping in that congregation.
I appreciate the way the article describes the consistory’s task in relation to members’ admission to the table. “The consistory shall admit to the Lord’s Supper only those members who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life.” This formulation catches the standard practice in faithful reformed churches, and certainly in the churches I serve. Yet it may be reasonable to reflect briefly on just what this task of the consistory looks like in practice.
Those members who have made profession of faith may attend the table. We typically witness a profession of faith at least once a year, and are familiar with what’s involved. There’s first a period of catechetical instruction (to say nothing of parental instruction and reformed education) and preconfession class, in order to ground the member in reformed thinking. Once a sufficient level of understanding and maturity has been reached, and the young member desires to respond positively to the promises of God in baptism, two elders speak with the person concerned about his motivation. This conversation, if satisfactory to the two elders, is typically followed by a conversation in the presence of the entire consistory. Thereafter the young person’s name is mentioned to the congregation to learn whether anyone in the congregation knows of reasons why this person ought not to be admitted to the table of the Lord. The point I want to make is that elders are diligent in guarding the table; they do not permit members to attend simply because the member requests it. In fact, the elders even involve the congregation in determining whether a young member may attend, and that’s because the elders are well aware that they do not know everything about their members themselves.
Similarly, making profession of faith does not give a member a free pass to the table for the rest of his life. Making profession of faith may occur on a certain day of a member’s life, but thereafter the consistory wants to keep seeing “a godly life”. Elders satisfy themselves about the godly lifestyle of their members by keeping their own eyes open – and specifically by visiting their members in their homes at least once per year. Through such conversation and observation, elders seek to stay abreast of what makes their members tick, and then in turn permit to the table only those of whom the elders are convinced that they daily maintain their profession of faith. Again, elders lay before the congregation the command of the Lord in passages as Matthew 18, that if a member sins another is to admonish…, and if there is no repentance the consistory needs to hear of it. The point I want to make is again that elders are diligent in guarding the table, to the point of knowing their members well and involving the whole congregation in looking after each other. The holiness of the Lord of the table demands requires this level of diligence.
If the holiness of the God of the table requires elders to fence with care which members of their congregation may attend a given celebration, it would seem logical that elders set the bar at the same height when it comes to visitors. At first reading the formulation of the proposed article does a good job of maintaining that standard: “Visitors may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper provided that the consistory has secured confirmation, by means of letter of testimony or interview, regarding proper profession of faith, their godly walk of life, and their biblical church membership.”
I appreciate the need for consistory to secure confirmation “regarding proper profession of faith, their godly walk of life, and their biblical church membership.” These three criteria parallel exactly what a consistory requires of its own membership. We recognize the first two from our earlier discussion (above), and understand that the third (regarding biblical church membership) obviously applies to one’s own members without it being stated; no one, after all, may be elder in a church that is not “biblical”, and so every elder is by definition convinced of the “biblical church membership” of their own members. Yet I need to come back to this element momentarily.
Challenges arise when it comes to the manner in which a consistory secures the required confirmation. Two means are mentioned: “by means of letter of testimony or interview.” The ‘letter of testimony’ refers, we understand, to one’s attestation (or ‘travel attestation’). This is a document concerning your spiritual uprightness as your own elders see you on the basis of their observations and conversations with you. It speaks of other elders doing their task properly, and now relating the conclusions of their work to another consistory so that those elders can permit you to the Lord’s table as a guest.
On what grounds is a “letter of testimony” accepted by a given consistory and its contents respected so that you can attend the Lord’s Supper? Such a letter of testimony from, say, the Anglican Church of Canada would not persuade elders to permit you to the table, simply because we do not see the Anglican Church of Canada as a church-of-Jesus Christ (ie, a true church). My point is that letters of testimony have weight because the church writing the letter is recognized as a true church – and so it’s accepted as an a priori that the elders who have signed the attestation are acting responsibly before the Lord. At the end of the day, then, “letters of testimony” set the bar at the same height for visitors as for members. Given the holiness of the God of the table, this is good and proper.
According to the proposed formulation of the Church Order, consistories can secure the confirmation they seek also via interview. Let us in charity take it for granted that the elders conducting the interview will perform their task with the same level of care and diligence they would apply to their own members. Their interview, however, is by definition brief and shallow compared to the attention they give to their own members. Their own members are known to them and observed over a period of considerable time. A home visit with ones own members works with the knowledge office bearers have of the family they visit. An interview with a passing guest is conducted without the benefit of long term knowledge of the person concerned. Further, whereas the consistory requires the assistance of the congregation in looking after one another, a congregation by definition can play little or no role when it comes to a guest. The long and short is this: consistories who after an interview would permit guests to attend their celebration of the Lord’s Supper set the bar lower for guests than for members.
At this point I need to return to the requirement concerning “their biblical church membership.” A consistory may take the ‘biblical-ness’ of a sister church for granted on grounds that the churches together (in Synod) have evaluated the churches concerned and via a committee for inter-church relations (and the adopted rules for churches in Ecclesiastical Fellowship) the churches remain assured of the sister church’s faithfulness. But what is to be said of churches whom we have not recognized as true churches of the Lord? There is no doubt that the Spirit of Christ blows where He wills, and His church gathering work occurs in places and organizations we cannot even begin to imagine. Still, one consistory in our midst can consider a given church in yonder town a true church (so that a guest from that church is seen to have “biblical church membership”), while another consistory in our midst holds a contrary view – and so declines the same person attendance at its table. Here, then, room is granted for subjective evaluation, and potential confusion for our members (younger or not so young).
I understand why the proposed church order makes mention of both members and visitors in detailing the consistory’s task in fencing the Lord’s Supper. I appreciate too that an attempt is made to set the bar at the same level for visitors as for members. The proposed article, however, does not in the end manage to maintain that bar.
Perhaps we are contending here simply with the struggles that come with our human limitations in a fallen world – a reality we need to accept. Then again, we do not have to encourage guests to attend the Lord’s table, as if their participation is a Biblical requirement. In my judgment we do wiser to encourage guests who ‘pass through’ to attend the Lord’s Supper in their own congregations with those who know them well. As to guests who linger for longer periods, well, they make themselves available to the observation and conversation of consistory and congregation alike – and so for them the bar ends up at the same level as it does for one’s own members.
Given the holiness of the Lord of the table, perhaps some sobriety concerning our limitations is in place. Such limitation could receive expression in the proposed article by reworking the last sentence as follows:
Visitors may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper provided that the consistory has secured confirmation, by means of letter of testimony, regarding proper profession of faith, their godly walk of life, and their biblical church membership. Only by way of exception may the consistory secure the required confirmation through an interview.