On A More Adequate Fencing of the Lord’s Table

G. I. Williamson

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

In my early ministry I relied entirely on the spoken word to fence the Lord’s Table. I did this with complete sincerity and earnestness. Yet I found out—I could almost say ‘against my will’—that this is inadequate. It was quite a shock to learn that people could listen to all the fine words that I had spoken without comprehending them. Yet I found that this was the case. This was even confirmed, in some instances, by the honest testimony of those who came to see later on that they had acted in ignorance, participating in the sacrament when they ought not to have done so. This led me to do quite a bit of soul— and scripture—searching. In the following paragraphs I will try to state the reasons why I believe this method fails to satisfy the requirements of the Bible— and our Confession of Faith—in our present-day context.

(1) Reliance on the word of warning from the pulpit, and on that alone, fails because it introduces a double standard respecting the sacraments—one standard to qualify for permission to receive the sacrament of baptism, and another standard to qualify for permission to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Before a person is allowed to present himself, or his children, in a worship service of the church for baptism, he must satisfy the Session as to his faith and life. He may well be asked to examine himself, of course, but he is also examined by the Session. Before a person is allowed to come to the Lord’s Table, however, he is only asked to examine himself (thus the Church administering the sacrament does not have equivalent assurance with respect to the two sacraments).

(2) Reliance on the word of warning from the pulpit, and on that alone, fails—in the second place— because it assumes competence to judge spiritual matters on the part of those who are complete strangers.

It is our conviction, on the contrary, that Sessions would be closer to the truth (in the present-day U.S., at least) if they assumed the opposite, unless—and until—they have obtained adequate information. To express it another way, our present practice does not do justice to the profound ignorance of many nominal Christians in present-day North American society. It is my firm conviction that there are many people today who define themselves as Christians, without a biblical understanding of what a genuine Christian is.

(3) This method also fails to uphold the proper disciplinary authority of other churches which are striving to be faithful. It is by no means unheard of that a person who has been placed under discipline by a faithful church still thinks that he is right and that his church is wrong! And, of course, in the abstract that is possible. But it should never be our policy to make it easy for a person to find a way around the censures of his own Church. Yet with the method that we are criticizing here it is left up to the individual to judge his own case. Without any due process he can annul the disciplinary sentence. To express it another way, our present practice does not do justice to the sinful propensities of men, or to the seriousness of church censures.

(4) It is my conviction that this purely hortatory method fails because it unintentionally panders to the rampant individualism in our society. There is, today, little understanding of—or concern about— corporate responsibility. Many people belong to what the Belgic Confession defines as a false church, and yet they entertain the mistaken idea that this has nothing to do with their own personal faith. In fact, it is not at all uncommon for people in precisely such a situation to have a strongly entrenched notion that no one—including the elders of the church—should presume to tell them what they ought to do, or where they may have gone wrong. The result, then, is that we fail to minister to their number one need because of our faulty method.

(5) To put the matter in a slightly different way this method also fails because it passes up rich opportunities for a ministry that people desperately need. Here I give an example to illustrate. A young man was visiting our church a few years ago when the Lord’s Supper was to be observed. It was our practice to announce, through the Bulletin, that any visitor who desired to take the Lord’s Supper with us should first meet with the elders. When this meeting took place none of us anticipated the problem that emerged. But it soon came out that he thought he belonged to a faithful church when, in actual fact, he did not belong to any church at all. He only took part in family worship (without any administration of the sacraments). We realized right away that it was our duty to refuse his admission to the table. But it also gave us a fine opportunity to help him understand why!

(6) Tradition is a wonderful thing if it is scriptural. But it is very detrimental when it is not. Tradition as such is therefore no standard by which to test things, but must itself be tested. Yet it is worthy of note that the method of fencing the Lord’s table being criticized here is a distinct deviation from an earlier practice that was virtually universal among the Reformed Churches. In earlier days in Scotland—and in such places as Canada, Australia and New Zealand—Presbyterian elders used small metal tokens as a means of fencing the Lord’s Table. The tokens were given out to all communicant members in good and regular standing a Sabbath before the celebration of the Sacrament. Only those who presented one of these tokens to the elders at the time of the Sacrament were admitted. In those days admission to the table was viewed as proper only when the elders had sufficient knowledge of the communicants to judge them to be worthy receivers. In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, however, persons are commonly admitted of whom the Session know nothing. I have never been able to see how this common practice can be reconciled with the clearly stated requirement of our Confession which says:

...ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with [Christ], so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto [emphasis ours].

(7) I do not claim to have found the ideal method of fencing the Lord’s table. But I have found a way to overcome at least some of the deficiencies mentioned above. I place an announcement in the Sunday bulletin the week before—and on the Sunday of—the Lord’s Supper. Visitors are thereby requested to speak with the pastor or an elder to obtain permission to come to the table. If we find that the person concerned belongs to a denomination we know to be sound in doctrine and discipline they are given permission to participate. But in cases where we do not have such a basis of certainty they are asked to meet with the Session. Sometimes this results in such a clear testimony that they are admitted. But sometimes it results in a clear indication that they—to say the least—need further instruction to enable them to understand these things. It is true, of course, that some will find this offensive—particularly those of a strongly individualistic frame of mind, and no concept of corporate responsibility. But even in such cases we have often seen a positive—even if delayed—effect as people are brought to face the seriousness of what it means to partake of the Lord’s table.