Of all the phraseology that we used in Reformed churches, among the most misunderstood is that of “fencing the table.” You will most certainly hear this phrase in those churches that take the Word and sacraments with the utmost seriousness–churches with leadership that deeply desire to obey Jesus’ instructions concerning church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). There is, however, not a completely uniform understanding of this phrase and its purpose in such churches. Among Reformed ministers, from the time of the Reformation onward, there has been a diversity of beliefs about what form the “fencing” of the Supper should take. Everything from communion tokens in Scottish Presbyterianism to closed communion in Lutheranism have been put forward as the “right way” to protect the purity of the sacrament in the church. In fact, so varied are the opinions of how the Supper should be offered to believers of different ecclesiastical fellowships–and withheld from those who would rightly fall under the biblical category of “unworthy receivers”–that the 19th General Assembly of the PCA received the ad interim “Report…on Fencing the Lord’s Table.” It provides us with a plethora of helpful insights into this subject. As we seek to navigate the challenging waters of this subject, it will help us to consider the phraseology, biblical rationale and the practical outworking of this principle.
Outside of solidly Reformed churches, you probably have never heard the phrase, “fencing the Table.” I will be the first to admit that the Reformed (especially Reformed Presbyterians) are less than warm and creative when it comes to our use of terminology in the church (e.g. “particularization,” “committee,” “commission,” “licensure” “ordinary means of grace,” etc.). The idea of “fencing the Table” comes from the Old Testament concept of keeping the holy things of worship (i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, Priesthood, sacrifices, etc.) holy. If someone touched the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, they would immediately be struck dead by God. Those who take the sacraments seriously, understand that the same God who demanded absolute holiness with regard to his cultic institutions in the Old Testament is the same God who has ordained the holy sacraments of the New Testament. The warnings about not partaking unworthily least you incur the judgment of God (1 Cor. 11:29-30) are one and the same with those about the holy things in the Old Testament. When we understand that the Supper is no mere memorial, but a holy thing that either brings blessing (1 Cor. 10:16) or judgment (1 Cor. 11:30), we can understand why the phrase, “fencing the Table,” is used. However, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better to speak of the “fencing of the people” rather than the “fencing of the Table,” since the warning given is meant to protect men and women from incurring the consequences of partaking unworthily.
The idea of blessing and judgment being a “worthy receiver” of the Supper comes from the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:27 where he warned the church in Corinth, “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Very clearly, the warning annexed to the words of institution of the Supper necessitates some sort of “fencing of the table.” In vv. 29-30, the Apostle explained that “he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.” The biblical teaching about the Lord’s Supper is that it is both a “cup of blessing” and a cup of judgment–depending on whether or not it is partaken of in faith.
To be sure, there was a historical context in which the warnings about partaking unworthily are made–which is that of certain members coming and eating and drinking before other members in the church (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The Apostle intimates that some were even coming and getting drunk at the Supper–in a self-pleasing manner. In this way, the members of the church were not “discerning the Lord’s body.” They were failing to acknowledge that they, together with the rest of the members of the church, all partook of “one cup” and were therefore knit together in “one body”–being united to Christ. However, there is another dimension to the failure to “discern the Lord’s body.” The charge of the Apostle was for each one to individually “examine himself” (v. 28). This means that members must see that they are sinners without hope apart from the Lord Jesus Christ and that they are trusting Him alone for salvation. In other words, there is a corporate and an individual dimension to the Supper.
Among the plethora of issues that were dealt with in the 18th PCA GA study report paper was the issue of how the Supper is to be fenced in a congregation where there are members of other ecclesiastical fellowships present. Some of the discussion centered on the wording, “communicants in good standing in any evangelical church,” in the PCA BCO (Book of Church Order) 58.4:
Since, by our Lord’s appointment, this Sacrament sets forth the Communion of Saints, the minister, at the discretion of the Session, before the observance begins, may either invite all those who profess the true religion, and are communicants in good standing in any evangelical church, to participate in the ordinance; or may invite those who have been approved by the Session, after having given indication of their desire to participate. It is proper also to give a special invitation to non-communicants to remain during the service.
Note that a proper fencing in the PCA includes the minister making the qualification concerning “all those who profess the true religion, and are communicants in good standing in any evangelical church.” This naturally means that those who are members of non-evangelical congregations are not to be invited to the Table. This should not surprise us since the Roman Catholic Church doesn’t allow members of a Protestant and Evangelical Church to the mass. It is consistent with our ecclesiology and the fact that the right administration of the sacrament is commensurate with the Gospel taught and proclaimed in a particular local church. The study committee, recognizing the challenges associated with defining the word “evangelical” wrote:
The term “evangelical” historically has been used to distinguish Protestant churches from the Roman Catholic Church. But today, not only the Roman Catholic Church but some Protestant denominations do not clearly proclaim the true Gospel. The situation is further complicated by the fact that liberal denominations may have local congregations that continue to present the true faith. How may a Session responsibly determine whether prospective communicants are members of churches that proclaim the Gospel?
The committee answered this concern with the following recommendation:
The confusion of the current ecclesiastical scene makes the use of the term “evangelical” inadequate, and possibly misleading. We propose to substitute the phrase, “communions that proclaim the gospel”. The phrase could refer to particular congregations that are gospel-preaching in denominations under liberal leadership; it is broad enough to describe communions that exhibit the form of the church in their fellowship and discipline, even though their own definitions of their associations appear defective.
Due to the fluid nature of the term “evangelical,” I too share the concern voiced in the recommendation. The wording, “communions that proclaim the Gospel,” captures a biblically faithful ecumenism. It acknowledges that the Church is larger than any one denomination or network made up of individual churches; yet, it allows for the safeguarding of the purity of the sacrament and the congregation.
As a church planter, I have been on the receiving end of criticism for intimating–at the institution of the Supper–that those who are not members of any local church (who were also not currently seeking membership in a local church) should not come to the table. I have always been baffled as to why someone who isn’t trusting Jesus or who isn’t willing to commit themselves to the body of Jesus would want to partake of a sacrament in which believers spiritually feed on Jesus!
However, as a church planter, I have–on occasion–witnessed those visitors whom I know to be unbelievers (together with their children) take of the bread and wine when the Supper is distributed. How are we to respond? In churches where “fencing the Table” is taken seriously, a disturbing practice has sometimes emerged in this regard–sometimes called “closed communion.” Elders will intentionally pass people by when distributing the elements. If someone has not been examined by the session of that particular church, they are not welcomed to come to the table. It is understandable the an elder pass by someone who is currently under the process of church discipline (see BCO 30-3 for an explanation of this practice), but passing over those visiting is utterly contrary to the idea of the “communion of the saints.” So what are we to do if an unbeliever is visiting and they partake of the Supper? My course of action has been to give the words of institution, the warnings and the invitation, and leave the rest to the responsibility of the hearer. Elders should not consider themselves to have erred if someone partakes unworthily after we do what is required on our part for the preserving and protecting of the sacrament and the people.
In addition to the warnings given to those who are not members of an “evangelical church” (i.e. “communions that proclaim the Gospel”), there are warnings given to the congregation as a whole. This would serve as the individual aspect of “fencing the table.” Here too, I have witnessed ministers err on the side of laxity or caution. I have many times visited PCA churches where either no warnings are given to individuals or where unhelpful wording (such as, “if there is any known sin in your life, please refrain from taking the Supper”) is used. Here, R.A. Finlayson, in in his section on “The Reformed Doctrine of Worthy Reception” in Reformed Theological Writings, gave us a helpful framework, from the writings of the Puritans, in which to work as we seek to properly fence the table. He explained:
There is a two-fold emphasis in Puritan teaching on this subject:
(1) The sacrament was by its nature for sinners. Indeed Preston says: “‘If thou thoughtest thyself fit thou should not have it. Even therefore because thou feelest thyself unfit, then rather shalt thou be received to mercy.’ Thus would they remove the fear of those who, as Baxter put it, ‘have a deeper sense of the danger than of the benefit.’
(2) The other thought in the Puritans is that because we are unworthy and yet God condescends to receive us, we should strive to become worthy of the love which the Supper proclaims.
‘If you are not fit for the ordinance,’ says Stephen Charnock, ‘you are not fit for heaven.’ ‘The sacrament was ordained,’ says Preston, so that ‘where there is decay of grace in you heart, you may go to this fountain and fill the cistern again to recover strength.’ Thus he says, the purpose of the sacrament is ‘to knit the knot stronger between Christ and us.'”
If, however, a man comes to the Lord’s Table with a load of sin without intending to repent of his sins, he ought not to receive it. If you have no purpose of repentance, you lose the purpose of the sacrament. Everyone, therefore, who goes to the sacrament must examine the purpose he has in his heart.1
There is always known sin in the life of believers. The Supper is an opportunity for ministers to encourage congregants to come repentantly to the Table. What better place to confess sin to God and have our consciences renewed by the Gospel! However, the warning against coming when there is known sin in our lives that we are unwilling to repent of is not only appropriate–it is necessary to a proper “fencing of the table.”
One final word will suffice when considering this subject. It is often stated that “fencing the table” has fallen on hard times because of the practice of weekly communion. Opponents of weekly communion sometimes suggest that it is a bad practice because it encourages a rushed observation of the Supper where the proper time of self-examination and warnings is not easily carried out. To this, I would suggest that a failure to fence the table on account of weekly communion is more a problem with one’s view of the worship service and the sacrament than it is with one’s view of how often the Supper ought to be administered. At New Covenant, we celebrate the Supper weekly–and, we seek to fence the table carefully and thoughtfully every week. We are not concerned that it might add 5-7 minutes to the service in order to properly carry out the administration of the Supper. We are, after all, sitting down with Jesus to feast on Him and His saving benefits. We encourage our congregates to be examining themselves daily so that they might come and feast on Christ weekly together as a congregation who has been purchased by His broken body and shed blood.
1. R. A. Finlayson Reformed Theological Writings (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publication, 1996) p. 165
“Fencing the Table” (a sermon by Charles Spurgeon)
“The Lord’s Supper: Fencing the Table” (a post by Joe Thorn)
“Address at Fencing the Table” – an excerpt taken from Robert Murray McCheyne’s A Basket of Fragments