Restricted Communion in One OPC Congregation

William Shishko

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

“... or be admitted thereunto.”

So ends the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on the Lord’s Supper (XXIX). The Westminster Standards do not teach that people admit themselves to the Lord’s Supper, but that they are to “be admitted” to it. “All ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with (the Lord), 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.” (section VIII, emphasis mine). We demonstrate our allegiance to this confessional standard by not admitting covenant children or new Christians to the Lord’s Table until they have publicly professed their faith in Christ, c.f. OPC Directory for Worship, V:4. We also apply this standard by the step of church discipline known as “suspension,” cf. OPC Book of Discipline, VI:B:3.

But how do we apply the confessional standard “... be admitted thereunto” with respect to visitors at a service when the Lord’s Supper is being observed as part of our worship? A warning is read, c.f. OPC Directory for Worship, IV:C:2, and the elements are distributed indiscriminately by Session members across the pews, etc. The decision is left to the visitors (adults and children) as to whether or not they may partake of the elements. They “admit themselves thereunto.” Over against the old Scottish tradition which took the confessional standard so seriously that “communion tokens” were issued to those who were permitted to come to the Lord’s Supper, the hallowed American tradition is that “it’s left up to the individual.” Which tradition is closer to the pattern of both the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions?

Over a decade ago the Session of the OPC, Franklin Square considered this question, and came to the conclusion that what is commonly called “restricted communion” was decidedly more in line with the standard implied in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger Catechism #173. We were struck with the fact that our church visitors were treated with a different standard than our own covenant children, who often knew more about the Gospel than many visitors! We were also convicted that the traditional American practice of “letting people make the decision for themselves” eviscerated any upholding of the discipline of other churches (a situation we would periodically face). From that time we have applied our conviction with this practice:

1. The week prior to the Lord’s Supper (which is observed monthly) we announce in the church bulletin that: “The Lord’s Supper will be administered next week as part of our morning worship service. The Lord’s Supper is for those who have been baptized in the Name of the Triune God, have publicly professed their faith in Christ, and are members of an evangelical church. Those visiting with us who desire to partake of the Lord’s Supper should speak with one of the church elders before doing so.” A similar announcement is placed in the bulletin on the Sunday of the Lord’s Supper.

2. Regular visitors (who have not already done so) speak with one of the elders either during the week prior to the Supper, or on that Sunday morning. We try to have one or more elders available near the entrance of the church so that visitors may consult with an elder. In most cases we know enough about the churches people come from so that individual elders may represent the Session by either giving permission to visitors to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us, or asking that they refrain from partaking with us “this time.” We see even the denial of permission to partake of the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity for ministry.

3. The standard warning is given prior to the administering of the Lord’s Supper, along with a statement such as this: “In order to preserve the integrity of our oversight of the Lord’s Table, if any of you visiting with us have not spoken with one of the church elders regarding your participation in the Lord’s Supper, we would ask that you refrain from partaking today.”

4. During the actual distribution of the elements the session members withhold the respective plates from those who have not spoken with of the session members.

I hasten to point out that this system is not “foolproof.” We frequently have many visitors, and it is difficult to enforce this as we would like. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that people do not actually come up to the communion table to be served, and also because the plates with the elements must, of necessity, be passed down entire pews from person to person. It would be far better if the elders gave the elements personally to each person “admitted” to the Lord’s Supper ... but that’s hard to do in a congregation of over 200 people seated in pews!!! It’s also sometimes difficult to discern whether the congregation the visitor is from is genuinely “evangelical.” The term itself is becoming meaningless in our day. But, as with every other area of church discipline, we keep on working to be faithful to the standard of the Word of God. Our view has been to give a judgment of charity and admit persons who profess to be members of churches that are in some way conformed to a biblical pattern of doctrine and life.

What are the responses to this practice? Some take umbrage and (in true New York fashion!) let the elders know it. Others are more or less bothered by it, or are simply unfamiliar with it, and submit (the OPC is different than other evangelical churches in a number of ways, isn’t it?). Still others will say that even if they didn’t fully understand why we do things this way, they appreciated the care we had to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Table. I’d like to think that’s the response that is the most genuinely sensitive to the administration of holy things in an unholy world.

How does your Session grapple with the phrase “... or be admitted thereunto”? Ponder the question and honestly ask yourself if the American evangelical pattern most of us are familiar with really squares with our confessional standard and the historic practice of the Reformed churches. For further reading on the question, see Professor John Murray’s thought provoking little article entitled “Restricted Communion” in his Collected Writings (Banner of Truth), 2:381-384.

Rev. Shishko is pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, New York.