Fencing of the Table
William B. Kessler
Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 4, no. 2 (April 1995)
All Reformed churches would agree that some oversight and caution ought to be extended to those who partake of the Lords Supper. Oversight and warning are mandated by Scripture. Paul gives a solemn warning to the Corinthians when they gather to partake of the Lords Supper: Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself, if then he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep (1 Cor. 11:27-30).
When Paul admonishes the Corinthians in this way, he is fencing the Lords supper. The fencing of the Supper is simply administering the appropriate pastoral care along with a warning towards those who have gathered at a communion service. A fence has a two-fold function. It separates in order to restrain, on the one hand, and to gather and to protect, on the other hand. When the table of the Lord is fenced, those involved in scandalous, unrepentant sin are to be restrained, while repentant sinners are invited to come and partake of the sacred meal.
The question that is often raised is, how should one administer the fencing of the table? The question becomes poignant when visitors are present and desire to partake of the Supper with our congregations. Some sessions are persuaded that a mere warning from the table is a sufficient fence. In other words, the decision to let someone commune is left up to the individuals conscience. The problem with administering the fence in this way is that the individual may have an uninformed conscience, or worse, a seared conscience.
I had Catholic neighbor who started to attend church. I knew he was not trusting in Jesus but in his good works. He very much desired to join us in the Lords Supper. He still viewed it as a mass. If left to his own conscience, the unrepentant condition of his heart would have been reinforced while the church would have been aware of an unholy amalgamation. A question that needs to be wrestled with is this: are the elders fulfilling their responsibility of oversight in restraining the unrepentant and protecting the sanctity of the table and the communion of the saints merely by announcing a warning from the table?
The session at Community Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Newtown, Connecticut has wrestled with this question. Here is how the session administers the fencing of the Lord's Table.
1. In the morning service we invite any visitors to speak to the minister or to one of the elders concerning how they might participate in the communion supper.
2. We celebrate the Lords Supper during our evening service. This gives us the time in the afternoon between the services to sit down and speak with people in a less hurried way, without the pressure that would face us in the morning. We do not serve a visitor, usually, unless he has met with the session.
3. We briefly examine the visitors to determine if they have been baptized and if they can give a credible profession of faith in Christ.
4. Then we inquire about their church background. If they are not members of a local Bible-believing church (one that preaches the true gospel), we encourage them to become members of such a church. When guests continue to visit our church, the elders make it clear that committed membership in a local church is imperative. We are willing to continue to serve them the supper for six months with the understanding that after that period of time we will inquire again about their progress in making such a commitment.
5. When we celebrate the Supper we give a warning that is consistent with the directory for worship.
Some may object to this way of administering the fence as being overly-prying, legalistic and harsh. I need to respond by saying that when we fence the table the manner in which we approach our visitors is all important. For our session it is an opportunity to meet with, talk to, and show our pastoral concern for those visiting the church. Most, if not all, visitors who have met with the session before the Lords Supper have indicated what a blessing it was for the elders to take the time and to show such pastoral concern. We have had many visitors from charismatic and Baptist churches. Several of them have expressed their gratitude for the seriousness that is shown towards the Lords Supper, which is missing in their own congregations. The times of meeting with visitors beforehand have been times when instruction has been given and great joy felt as we hear how God has effectually called many to saving faith in Christ. I might add that God has richly blessed this congregation with growth. Our communion services are filled with a solemnity and a deep joy as we celebrate the Lords Supper together.
William B. Kessler is pastor of Community Presbyterian Church, Newtown, Connecticut.