Fencing of the Table
A Bit to Read
Fencing of the Table
Last week’s Bit to Read indicated that admissions policy to the Lord’s Table lies at the heart of the recent ‘Liberation’ in Abbotsford. Specifically, the decisions of a number of Synod decisions to establish ecclesiastical fellowship with the Presbyterian Church of Korea, the Free Church of Scotland, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church of the United States, and the United Reformed Churches were wrong before the Lord (it was said), because these churches have an admission’s policy to the Lord’s Table that gives place to the error of pluriformity – for guests are sometimes permitted to the table simply on the grounds of their personal testimony that they are upright Christians belonging to a Bible-believing church. In light of that charge, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on what a Biblical admissions policy looks like.
That there be no fence at all can obviously not be right, for the Lord gave the sacrament to the church for the strengthening of faith. At a minimum, then, those who would attend must possess faith – else their faith cannot be strengthened.
Yet faith is not a static something that sits on a shelf so that I can point to it and say, See, I have faith, there it is. Rather, faith is action, is dynamic; it manifests itself in deeds (James 2:14-26). Deeds give opportunity for self-examination as well for others to evaluate what makes you tick. As we speak about the question of who may attend the table of the Lord, we need –in line with Scripture– to consider three layers of responsibility. The first is the individual, the second is the communal, and the third is the pastoral.
FIRST LAYER – SELF-EXAMINATION
Paul’s instruction to the Christians of Corinth was clear: “let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). That the apostle placed primary emphasis on the individual is nothing new. In the Old Testament the Lord God gave responsibility first of all to the individual in Israel. If a person in Israel became unclean (through bodily discharge, touching a dead body, etc), it was primarily the responsibility of the unclean individual to stay away from the tabernacle, wash oneself, and make the necessary sacrifices before God (see, for example, Leviticus 12).
How am I to examine myself? The apostle Paul lays out the matter of self-examination in 1 Corinthians 11:17-33. The Corinthians Christians had the practice of eating a meal together. This communal meal was common in the early church, and appears to have flowed into a Lord’s Supper celebration (see Acts 2:42). What actually happened in Corinth, though, was that the rich ate luxuriously while the poor looked on, and when the rich had eaten sufficiently, the Lord’s Supper was celebrated (see vs 21, 33-34). Since the brotherly love that must characterize the Lord’s Table was so sadly lacking in this conduct, Paul admonished the Corinthians for selfishness and instructed them to have their meals at home. Their conduct spoke only of greed. “Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? ... But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgment” (vs 22,34). It is in this context that Paul brings up the institution of the Lord’s Supper as Christ instituted it in Matthew 26, and which in turn prompted him to give the instruction for self-examination. “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you (when I first preached the gospel to you): that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me’” (vss 23ff). If in this Supper Jesus Christ gave evidence of His selfless obedience to God and trust in Him by denying Himself and going to the cross, how proper is it for His people also to deny self in obedience to the Lord. Action gives evidence of faith!
For that reason the Christian of Corinth was instructed to “examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” If the bread and cup of the Lord’s supper point up what Christ did for me in having His body broken on the cross and His blood be shed for my salvation, it will not do for me to act selfishly and cold-hearted to my poorer brothers and sisters. So Paul says: “whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner” –and that’s to say, without the spirit of self-emptying Christ displayed– “will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (vs 27). So: “let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of that cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (vs 28,29). Some in Corinth, because of their selfishness, were in fact eating and drinking “in an unworthy manner” and the result was that “many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (vs 30). In other words: their selfish attitude at the Lord’s Table prompted God to bring sickness and death within their congregation. Hence the desperate need for fencing the table in relation to oneself.
How does one examine oneself? What does self-examination involve? The “Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper” (Book of Praise, page 595) elaborates on this notion of self-examination. Self-examination consists of the following three parts:
- “Let everyone consider his sins and accursedness so that he, detesting himself, may humble himself before God.” The point of self-examination is not to discover whether or not one has sinned. The Form takes one’s “sins and accursedness” for granted, and asks us to “consider” these “sins and accursedness”, to evaluate what we think of our sins. Considering our sins rightly makes one humble before God. ‘Humble’ is the key word here. (See the first part of the Catechism, which deals with our Sin and Misery, Lord’s Days 2-4).
- In second place, each is to “search his heart whether he also believes the sure promise of God that all his sins are forgiven him only for the sake of the suffering and earth of Jesus Christ….” The operative word here is ‘believe’. The point, then, is whether one’s eyes are fixed on Christ’s sacrifice, whether one is convinced that Christ’s sacrifice covers my sins. It is not that hard to determine whether one’s focus is Christ, or whether one does not find in Christ all he needs for his salvation. (See the second part of the Catechism, which deals with Our Deliverance in Lord’s Days 5-31).
- The third aspect of self-examination revolves around the cause of your conduct. “Let everyone examine his conscience whether it is his sincere desire to show true thankfulness to God with his entire life….” What makes you tick? Are the things you do prompted by gratitude for what God has done in Christ, or are they prompted by fear of God, or perhaps by confidence in oneself? Gratitude to God for what He did for us in Christ of necessity prompts love for the neighbor – for we reflect what God has done for us. (See the third part of the Catechism, which deals with Our Thankfulness, Lord’s Days 32-52).
As I examine myself, will I confess that I am a lost sinner? Do I believe that Christ has paid for all my sins? Do I, in thankfulness to God, seek to live a life of obedience to God and love to my neighbor? It is my conduct –be it with so many remaining shortcomings– that needs to demonstrate what lives in my heart. But if such evidence of God’s work in me appears in my life, my words, my attitude, God commands me (sinner that I am) to sit down at His table. For He wants to impress upon me what He has done for me in Christ. Therefore He tells me to eat the bread and to drink the wine. And He tells me that as surely as I taste these, so certainly has He given Christ for me. How encouraging His word of promise!
What am I to do if I actually quite enjoy my sins, or refuse to repent from them? The responsibility to stay away from the table of the Lord is then first of all my own! The Lord of the table is a holy God, and all my actions –and the attitude behind them– are well known to this God. I dare not defy the holiness of this God and His table, and so eat and drink judgment upon myself. Fencing is first of all my personal responsibility!
SECOND LAYER – COMMUNAL CARE
As the Lord God loved undeserving sinners (and so sent His Son to earth to redeem them), so the Lord would have people love people – irrespective of whether the other is attractive or turns you off. The Lord God instructed His Old Testament people to be the brother’s keeper: “You shall not hate your brother in your heart. You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of him” (Leviticus 19:17). The Lord Jesus Christ said that the second commandment of the law was to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). If the consequence of unholy attendance at the Lord’s table was in Corinth that “many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep” (as the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to explain), then care for the brotherhood means that the congregation discourage from attending a brother or sister they know is erring – lest they allow God’s judgment to fall upon them (1 Corinthians 11:30,31). So Paul instructed the congregation (see 1 Corinthians 1:2) to “deliver … to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” the man who “has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:5).
There is a distinct parallel in the Old Testament. “When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling, a scab, or a bright spot…, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest” (Leviticus 13:2). The priest in turn pronounced the man leprous and therefore unclean for long periods of time, even cutting him off from the communion of the people and forbidding entry to the tabernacle for the long term. One can understand that one would not readily take oneself to the priest for fear of such consequences. Hence the passive formulation in the text is striking. In care for the holiness of the tabernacle and the people of God, one might need to instruct the neighbor to go to the priest, or even bring him there. The passage, then, indicates that responsibility for one’s going to the Lord in the tabernacle went beyond the individual to include also the community as a whole. This communal responsibility, we realize, is also behind the instruction to admonish a brother when he sins (see Matthew 18:15; Galatians 6:1).
THIRD LAYER – THE ELDERS
Only after one has understood personal and communal responsibility in maintaining the holiness of the Lord’s table can one rightly speak of the pastoral role of the elders. They need to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2), and shepherding can mean that one forbids a member from attending the table of the Lord lest he eat and drink judgment on himself and God’s wrath be provoked against the congregation (see 1 Corinthians 11:12-32). As the priest of the Old Testament could forbid an Israelite from entering the tabernacle of the Lord due to leprosy (Leviticus 13), so the elders of the New Testament can forbid a child of God from attending the table of Lord due to unresolved sin.
To carry out their task of guarding the table of the Lord, elders speak with those in the congregation who wish to attend the Lord’s table. Before such a member makes profess of faith, the elders visit, speak, listen, and attempt to gauge what makes this (young) brother or sister tick. Elders will respect the prior responsibility of the congregation and let the congregation know that br So-and-So wishes to attend the table and give the congregation opportunity to register its dissent before public profession of faith. Further, elders remain in constant touch with congregation members, officially through an annual home visit and unofficially through regular contact in the ebb and flow of daily living.
Altogether, individual, communal and pastoral responsibility places a good fence around the table of the Lord. The churches give clear expression to their conviction that the Lord of the table is holy.
Should the fence, now, be less restrictive when it comes to guests? A testimony from elders elsewhere (an ‘attestation’) can cover the third layer (and therefore the second) for a visitor in the congregation. But a personal testimony from a guest can never do more than cover the first layer. Even a supporting testimony from his friend in the congregation can do no more than nibble at the edges of the second layer – to say now nothing of the third layer. It is then insufficient for a consistory to be satisfied with a less restrictive policy in relation to guests than for congregation members.
Here is ongoing work for committees for contact with the OPC, RCUS, URC, PCK, & FCS; they need to continue to speak with their counterparts about how the Lord’s table is fenced. In fact, Synod Smithers (again) gave this specific mandate.
14 September 2007