It is the Lord’s Supper! - Opening the way for the Open Table? - Wayne Pleiter
Taken with the autor's permission from Reformed Polemics (Vol.6 No.19, July 8, 2000)
Each time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Christ’s redeeming work, we confess that we are united in true brotherly love. Together we acknowledge our total dependence on our Saviour and receive the rich blessing of being united more and more with Christ, through the working of the Holy Spirit. As we discuss the Reformed principles that apply to the Lord’s Supper, it would indeed be a great blessing if the same unity could be experienced.
Whenever attendance to the table of the Lord Supper is discussed, inevitably the pointed remark will be made: ‘Whose table is it anyway?’ Those in favour of an open table are often quick to point out that the ‘Holy Supper is not the Canadian Reformed Supper but the Lord’s Supper!’ Dramatic statements like these tend to terminate further discussion on this controversial issue and leave you with more questions than answers. At least on the surface, the arguments in favour of celebrating the Lord’s Supper with an open table appear quite convincing!
Reasons for change to an Open table.
Typically there are two main arguments that are advocated for the practice of what can be understood as the open table. The first position states that all Christians - regardless of their persuasion - should have the opportunity to participate in the Lord’s Supper. The rationale behind this is because it is not a denominational table but the Lord’s Table. The second argument relates to who determines who can attend the Lord’s Supper. Those in favour of an open table claim that it is the individual - not the elders of the church - who should examine whether or not they are able to attend the Lord’s Table in good conscience.
It is said that the current (Reformed) practice of not admitting guests from outside our church federation often results in misunderstandings and hurt feelings on the part of the visitors. Anxiety and friction may arise - even between family members - to the point that members of other Christian churches feel ‘left out’ or slighted by our restrictive practice. While there are varying degrees to these positions, the bottom line is that proponents of the open table are seeking a loose application or less restrictive approach to fencing the Lord’s Table.
This controversial issue appears to have made a convincing impression on our church membership, particularly in the Fraser Valley. At society meetings, home visits, and even coffee visits with friends and family the topic is debated at length. Scanning the church news and local bulletins you will notice many letters directed to the consistories resulting in much discussion.
While some churches have introduced a new policy to provide clarity to our current Reformed practice, others have entertained a ‘new form’ or procedure for admitting guests from outside our church federation to the Lord’s Table. It may be of interest that one such form, which has circulated into the public forum, finds its origins in the Orthodox Christian Reformed Church. Convinced that the open table was not in line with their Reformed character, the OCRC introduced this form to be more restrictive in their approach to fencing the Lord’s Table. It is rather ironic that within our churches a similar form could be used for the opposite reason!
At the recent Classis of the Pacific East of March 30,31, 2000, a proposal which sought to introduce a new policy of how to admit guests that are not members of our sister churches was presented. It is unfortunate that the proposal was only denied on the basis that it required classis to give an interpretation of the church order. (Press Release in Clarion 28-4-00) It would have been far more beneficial if instead Classis had been asked to judge the proposal on the substance of the material presented.
One can not help but question what the motivation is for promoting an open table. What has persuaded some church members and consistories to consider changes in the matter of how we admit guests to the Lord’s Table? Is it a result of a deeper understanding of the scriptures and our Reformed confessions? Or have they discovered an improved way of applying the principles outlined in our Reformed church order? Either way it would be incumbent on these church members and consistories to act in an ecclesiastical manner for the benefit of all the churches in our federation. Rather then ‘going on with it alone’ as if it will not impact the other churches within the federation, let them present their case to our ecclesiastical assemblies with proof that these changes are more faithful to the scriptures and confessions. It is only in this way that they will serve our churches well.
Assumed Benefits of an Open table.
The assumed benefits to changing the way we admit guests to the Lord’s Table are seemingly attractive. It would make it easier to fend off the charges that the Canadian Reformed Churches are sectarian or exclusivist in their fencing of the Lord’s Table. We would be able to open the Lord’s Table to visitors from churches like the Free Reformed Churches of North America, even though our Synods are yet to make any ecclesiastical judgements. It would also allow us to be more accommodating to our relatives and friends that belong to different denominations like the Christian Reformed Church. Furthermore, it would certainly take a lot of the pressure off the ministers and the elders as they discern who is able to attend the table or not. They would no longer have to ‘justify’ the Reformed practice of fencing the Lord’s Table - rather they could welcome guests with open arms and an open table!
Considering the major arguments presented in favour of the open table, as mentioned above, you will recognise two major evangelical influences. These influences are that of denominationalism and individualism, both of which have run rampant in the American Evangelical churches.
In many ways denominationalism is an appeal to the concept of the invisible Church. It is based on the premise that the elect are found amidst the various denominations and churches, despite the great diversity in belief and practice. Importance is based primarily on whether you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and not so much as to which church you belong. By making the argument that ‘it is the Lord’s Supper and not a denominational Supper’ they are appealing to a ‘higher unity in Christ, a unity that exists beyond the denominational church walls’. (c.f. Editorial of Clarion 1986 Vol. 35 No.7) As members of the invisible church, they demand unity with us in Christ and believe they should be able to participate in the Lord’s Supper wherever and whenever it may be celebrated.
When the personal faith of a Christian is considered most important at the expense of the faithfulness of the church to which they belong, it is no wonder that it gives rise to individualism. With its prominence of the person and its inherent emphasis on the personal relationship with Christ, individualism eliminates any form of accountability to others, particularly to the church government. ‘Our accountability is before God’, they say ‘and not before the elders of the church.’ As a natural consequence of this argument, the decision to participate in the Lord’s Supper is deemed a matter of personal responsibility.
Giving credibility to the concept of an open table, denominationalism and individualism will also create enmity between God and the Church, and between the Church and its believers. These influences will twist the way we use scripture, and have the capability to weaken our Reformed understanding and confession of the Church, as outlined in Articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession.
Unity between Christ and the Church.
Is it the Lord’s Supper or is it the church’s Supper? These types of misleading questions are designed to create confusion, and so minimise the significance and centrality of the local church in the Christian’s life. Scriptures teach us that the Holy Supper is one of the sacraments of the Lord and was instituted by Christ for the edification of the local church (Rom. 4:11,1 Cor. 11:23-29). The scripture also teaches us that the administration of Lord’s Supper belongs to the work of the local church. (Titus 1:7) It is to the local church that Christ entrusts the jurisdiction or responsibility of the Holy Supper. The point is that the scriptures do not make an artificial separation between Christ and His Church, or between Christ’s accomplishment in the sacrament and in the Church. Rather we are taught that there is a complete union and identification between Christ and His Church. This concept is made clear, when on the road to Damascus, God divinely confronts Saul with the blinding light. The Lord Jesus asks: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4,5) Here Jesus presents himself to Saul as being one with the Church, the very Church which Saul was trying to eradicate.
Unable to create a division between Christ and His Church, the next attempt is to create a distinction between the authority of God and the Church. The misleading question is posed ‘are you acting on God’s authority or on the authority of the Church?’ Yet scripture tells us that it was the disciples, as the elders of the early church, who retained the responsibility for the faithful proclamation of the Gospel and the pure administration of the sacraments. It is by the means of the keys to the kingdom of God, entrusted to the elders, that the purity of the church is overseen. (Matt.16:18-19, Lord’s Day 31). As the consistory exercises church discipline we confess that they do so on the authority of Christ. (cf. 1 Cor. 5 and Q&A 85.) In this way Christ demonstrates that He is One with His Church, and that nothing can separate the church from His Love (Romans. 8:37-39).
Personal examination required.
Those who promote the open table believe it is up to the individual, including guests, to examine themselves to discern whether or not they can in good conscience participate in the Lord’s Supper. While some may acknowledge the (limited) task of the elder as overseers, they instead place a greater emphasis (and final judgement of whether to attend the table) on the believers’ personal responsibility.
But what does scripture require? The apostle Paul makes it clear that believers are responsible to examine themselves and to judge their heart and actions (1 Corinthians 11:28). So it is true that as individuals, all believers have the responsibility to engage in true self-examination. What this self-examination entails is adequately explained in the form for the celebration of the Lord’s Table. We would do well to be reminded how important this self-examination is. Such sincere and thorough preparation must certainly involve more than the 10 minutes it takes to read the form in church before participating in the Lord’s Supper!
But what does scripture say about the responsibility of the elders? If the sacraments are entrusted to the local church, what role do the elders have in regards to the supervision of those who attend the Lord’s Table? The scriptural references provided in the Form for Ordination of Elders and Deacons make the office-bearers’ task abundantly clear. We should understand that elders are to be good shepherds of Christ’s flock and faithful watchmen over the house of God. They are to be diligent in governing the church, in comforting the distressed and in admonishing the wayward. Furthermore they are to take heed that the congregation abide by the pure doctrine and lead a godly life. (Form of Ordination, pg. 632). It is through this type of discipleship that the church is edified. When it comes to the supervision of the Lord’s table, it is the elders’ task and authority to admit those who publicly profess faith in Christ and who live in conformity to that profession. (Titus 1:16, Matthew 7:21) Alternatively, it should be just as clear that the elders are responsible to exclude those who show in doctrine and life that they would be unworthy participants. This is in harmony with the task and authority that God has given the office-bearers.
It should be clear then that the individual believer must diligently discharge the duties for self-examination, but not at the expense of the consistory doing its task. It is not the elder’s task to judge the eternal destination of a person, as that is God’s domain. Their task is to determine to the best of their ability whether a person’s doctrine and lifestyle is in accordance with God’s Word. Based on the information provided by the guests, or as in most cases the lack of information, the elders are simply required to withhold the guest from participating if they cannot in good conscience determine whether a guest lives up to these biblical requirements. By not doing so, elders put themselves in the position of relinquishing or compromising their biblical responsibility and accountable before God.
When congregation members and the consistory both take on their different but complimentary tasks of faithful examination (including the way we conduct attestations) we will ensure to the best of our ability that the Lord’s Supper is administered faithfully and celebrated to the Honour and Glory of God.
What of Church discipline?
Perhaps some questions could be posed from a different perspective. If we concede that the elders do not have the authority to exclude any guests from the participation of the Lord’s Table, then what is to become of church discipline? If a local congregation member is currently under the first step of church discipline, i.e. withheld from celebrating the Holy Supper- should the elders leave it up to his discretion if he feels fit to attend the supper or not? Furthermore, if the elders were not responsible for the sacrament of Holy Supper the same line of argument would apply to opening the sacrament of Holy Baptism to any guests who claim to be Christian and want baptism administered in the local church! Hopefully by using these examples you can see that we are not only establishing a double standard, but also a biblically inferior standard for how we administer the sacraments to our local church membership and the guests that may attend. Furthermore, claiming that it is not the responsibility of the consistory to determine who can attend the table of the Lord is to deny the elders the opportunity to faithfully administer the sacraments and maintain effective church discipline!
Those who promote the open table, in the end seek participation to the Lord’s table based on the individual’s confession of faith rather than their church membership (again another artificial distinction!) No longer do they require the local church – they are part of God’s invisible church! Gone is their accountability to and examination by the elders - they are only accountable to God. By creating these false dilemmas they distract from the faithful application of the Word and add to the confusion within the church.
The church’s spiritual life, health and growth correlate to the worthy participation of the Lord’s Supper. As a ‘means of grace’ to all that participate, the Lord’s Supper increases our faith, advances our spiritual growth in grace, and brings unspeakable comfort and assurance. When the Lord’s Supper is purely administered in accordance to God’s Holy Word, as we profess it our Reformed confessions then the Church will indeed be distinguished from the world. Then indeed, it will continue to be the Lord’s Supper!