Fencing the Lord’s Table

Jack J. Peterson

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 3, no. 4 (October 1994)


The Biblical Data

The central passage dealing with the Lord’s Supper is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Paul there describes the chaotic conditions in the Corinthian Church as they relate to the Supper. Each dove in and ate without waiting for the others. Some ate large amounts and others got none. Some drank themselves drunk. Chaos! Incredible! Wicked! Sinful!

He tells them and us “...whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” Partaking “in an unworthy manner.”

So what do you do? What does the inspired apostle tell them? Verse 28 and following,

...a man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment to himself. This is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment [emphasis added].

Paul tells them and us to examine and judge ourselves. Self-examination. He individualizes the responsibility. This is what is done in the warning that accompanies the administration of the Supper.

And he adds that it is the Lord who directly superintends the Supper and administers the needed discipline.

The Supper and the Covenant

He deals with the Supper in terms of the covenant. That covenant comes with the promise of the Lord— “I will be your God, and you will be my people, and I will dwell with you.” Specifically here the promise of blessing from the Lord—eating the body of the Savior—brings life; drinking the blood of the covenant brings forgiveness of sins. That covenant, however, along with the promise, always demands our response—faithful obedience and obedient faith. To partake of the Supper demands that we come in faith and come with a cleansed, forgiven conscience. To come in that way brings blessing and fulfilled promise. To come in any other way brings not the blessing but its curse. Specifically, that curse is spelled out in the verses quoted above.

You see, the Lord keeps his Table pure. Men may partake in an unworthy manner, but when they do, the curse of the Lord comes on them, and the Table is not profaned, but kept pure by the Lord. It is, after all, his Table.

That is how Paul ‘fences’ the Table of the Lord in this passage. And how do we do that when we celebrate the Lord’s death through the Supper? Just like Paul did, you tell them! You declare the parameters of participation—believers only, but all believers who have been forgiven—you warn them not to partake if they don’t qualify—an d you command them in the name of the Lord to examine themselves by his word and Spirit.

The Power of the Proclaimed Word

Oral, verbal, proclamation of the Word. Proclaiming the word in the power and demonstration of the Spirit. Declaring God’s word. “The Spirit of God maketh the reading but especially the preaching of the word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation” (Shorter Catechism 89). Attacks on the oral, verbal “fencing” of the Lord’s Table are in danger of depreciating the power of the oral, verbal word.

Outside the Fence

I have had two experiences with the more “restrictive” “fencing” of the Table. Several years ago a brother minister of a Reformed church which practiced a very restrictive “protection” of the Table, with which he was uncomfortable, finally explained it this way: “Jack, you could preach and serve the Lord’s Supper, but you couldn’t partake.” The other experience was shared with several others in a committee meeting in which our church and another were discussing coming closer together as churches. To save our church money, we stayed over a Saturday night and worshipped with the other church on the Lord’s day. If the Lord’s Supper had been served in some of their churches we would not have been welcomed at the Lord’s Table without letters from our governing session/presbytery. Biblically, I do not understand that. Talking about coming closer together and yet unable to sit down at the Lord’s Table and enjoy the fellowship and communion that it expresses.

Because it is the Lord’s Table, all of the children of the Lord belong to the Table. The celebration is “a bond and pledge of our communion with him and with each other as member of his mystical body” [from the form for administration of the Lord’s Supper in our Directory for the Public Worship; of God].

OPC History

The 50th General Assembly [1983] of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church faced this question as it dealt with a complaint. I commend that report to you for your reading to learn what that GA did regarding the fencing of the Table [Minutes, 50th GA (1983), pages 120-130]. Let me quote a few sentences from those Minutes.

Presbyterian government has always respected the authority of the Session of the particular church to order the worship of the congregation in a manner that takes account of the circumstances of the church [p. 122].

Permitting those who seek admission to the Supper to identify themselves as meeting the qualifications established by the Session cannot be said to be contrary to the teaching of Scripture regarding the keys of the kingdom...The Spiritual hospitality of welcoming love may be imposed upon or abused, and the complainants are properly sensitive to the judgment that may be incurred [p. 123].

But there are other dangers that the complaint does not recognize: dangers of a denominational exclusivism in practice, if not in principle, an exclusivism that may compromise our witness to the Table as the Lord’s [p. 123].

...we may risk abuse of the Supper in limiting our requirements for visitors to members of evangelical churches, but we may do so in order not to deny the Supper to those who are joined to Christ and to His church visible [p. 123].

The privilege of offering to visitors the Sacrament of [the] Supper...is rather a proper and requisite expression of the catholicity of the church and the character of church government presented in the New Testament [p. 123-124].

Christians visiting in another area can claim the ministry of those gifted and recognized as church officers, and church officers ought to recognize in turn their obligation to minister to those who come within the practical scope of their ministry and who respect their calling [p. 124].

[Commenting on the charge]...that the holy may be desecrated. Of course desecration cannot properly be said to affect the sacrament as such...The ‘great sin against Christ’ of the ignorant and ungodly when they partake is to their own condemnation [p. 124].

...what is required is good standing in a true church...sessional procedures may differ as to attestation that is requested or required, but a session may not be censured for determining to honor self-testimony expressed by voluntary participation in the Sacrament in response to clear and sufficient instruction and warning [p. 124].

...does the participation of one who is unworthy invalidate the Sacrament or involve others in sin? [The report quotes Calvin, Institutes IV:1:10, with an “unequivocal” no; p. 125]. In 1 Corinthians 11:29 the scope and character of the Lord’s chastening for an unworthy manner of participating in the Supper is said to be condemnation of the guilty individual. There is no indication that the Supper itself is polluted so as to be made invalid, nor that others who partake with the offender are also brought under condemnation. This is the more striking in view of the fact that the unworthy manner that Paul has been speaking of is outward, publicly observable behavior.

Since the Supper is a sacrament ordained by the Lord and since he commands us to observe it till He come, no error or impropriety in its administration can excuse our rejection of the Table unless the nature and meaning of the Sacrament itself is altered [p. 126].

Despite the glaring laxity and abuse of the Lord’s Table at Corinth, Paul never counsels withdrawal from the Supper. Rather, he continues to advocate eating and drinking with self-examination (I Cor. 11:28)...[p. 126].

Danger

There is a danger of sacramentalism in dealing with the Lord’s Supper. That danger is elevating the sacrament(s) above the Word and especially the preached word. When it takes a series of services or even one preparatory service to get ready for the sacrament, then, it seems to me that we have or are in danger of loosing the Biblical perspective. When we are willing to exclude from the Table of communion visitors who are God’s children, but don’t arrive soon enough on Sunday morning for an interview with the elders, we face the same danger. When we fear the desecration of the Table by unworthy partakers, becoming protectors of the holiness of God when he has told us that he would take care of that, things are getting out of perspective.

The oral, verbal fencing of the Table of the Lord does not rise, at least on this writer’s view, from “a strongly individualistic frame of mind, and no concept of corporate responsibility,” but rather from the Lord himself as he gives the church instruction about his Supper. Is is the LORD’S Supper.


Rev. Jack J. Peterson is Pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church of San Antonio, Texas. He is also a member of the OPC Committee on Christian Education.