Admission of Guests to the Lord's Table - Rev. G. Ph. van Popta
This is an expanded version of a presentation given by the author, minister of Taber Canadian Reformed Church, at a consistorial meeting held on June 23, 1993, in Coaldale, AB. In attendance were the consistories of Trinity Independent Reformed Church of Lethbridge and of the Canadian Reformed Churches of Coaldale and Taber.
Admission of guests to the Lord's table
Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC) are often accused of being too narrow, even sectarian, because of their practice of a "closed" Lord's supper table. In the CanRC, although there is some variety of local policy, the rule is that the table is open to communicant members of that congregation and to guests who are communicant members in good standing of sister churches. This, we are told, especially in conversations with (former) Christian Reformed people, is too narrow.
What may be of interest to both Canadian Reformed and (former) Christian Reformed people is that the general rule regarding the admission of guests to the Lord's supper followed in the CanRC is very close to the official position of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) of only 20 years ago.
To further the discussion on this I would like to address (a) the question of the admission of guests to the Lord's supper, and (b), the official position of the CRC in 1973 on this matter and the change made in 1975.
Church Order, article 61
In article 61 of our Church Order, "Admission to the Lord's Supper," we have agreed upon the following:
The consistory shall admit to the Lord's supper only those who have made public profession of the Reformed faith and lead a godly life.
Members of sister-churches shall be admitted on the ground of a good attestation concerning their doctrine and conduct.
As churches we have agreed upon two things by way of this article. First, baptized members of the congregation or new members are admitted to the table only upon having made a public profession of the Reformed faith and who show a godly walk of life. Second, members of sister churches are admitted by way of a good attestation from their consistory about their doctrine and conduct. We simply admit them on the basis of that testimony, no questions asked, no interview held. We honour the word of the elders of the sister church.
There are no difficulties here. As churches we have agreed how we, in our local churches, will open the table to non-communicant or new members of the congregation, and to communicant members of sister-churches.
Admission of guests from a non-sister-church
The questions arise when we consider the admission of a guest from a non-sister-church. Understandably, the Church Order does not address this. The Church Order is a series of agreements between sister-churches living in federation. We do not expect the Church Order to say things about members from other churches nor about other church groups.
However, this does not automatically exclude guests from non - sister - churches. The freedom exists within the CanRC to admit such guests according to local arrangement. They can be admitted as long as a basic principle is guarded.
This basic principle is that the elders as representatives of Jesus Christ who have been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:17-19), as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1; cf. art. 30, 31 B.C.) must be the ones who exercise final judgment on who shall be admitted to the Lord's supper. The elders are obliged to guard the sanctity of the table (Form for the Ordination of Elders). Further, the Lord has given this sacrament to the local congregation, not to some vague, undefined "invisible" church. The sacrament is a visible expression of the unity and fellowship of the local congregation, which is the church, the ingathering of God's people at that time and place. Christ calls the elders to watch that the sacraments are not profaned in that local church. And so it cannot be the guest who exercises final judgment concerning his participation, but the elders.
As long as this basic principle is upheld it would seem good to admit a guest under the following conditions:
1. He is at that time, and probably will be for some time, unable to celebrate communion in his home church or in a church of "his" church federation.
2. He makes request to the consistory at the earliest possible opportunity, preferably some time during the week preceding communion, so that the consistory or a delegation of it may be able properly to investigate the faith and conduct of the petitioner.
3. The consistory is satisfied that the petitioner meets the criteria explained in the three parts of self-examination.
ad 1. In practical terms this means that the elders would not open the table to a guest who is a member of the CRC or of a Lutheran Church. He would not be admitted because of his own choice and conviction regarding church membership. He has ample opportunity to celebrate communion at that place where he is convinced he belongs. To open the table to him in a CanRC would be disorderly and dishonest. Why should the barriers and the "denominational distinctives" which we insist upon and stubbornly refuse to remove suddenly fall away when we prepare the communion table?
On the other hand if we had a visitor from Greece who was a member of the Greek Evangelical Church on a temporary work or study term attending the services at our church regularly and functioning as part of the congregation, the table could and should be opened to him, even though he would be going back to Greece and his own church. If he showed by his faith and conduct that he was an heir of the grace of God in Christ, it would be orderly and honest for the elders, in the name of Jesus Christ, to open the Lord's table to this guest.
Bringing it closer to home, if a communicant member of a Free Reformed Church were living temporarily (for work or study) in Alberta where there are no Free Reformed Churches and was faithfully attending a CanRC and functioning as a part of the body, it would be honest and orderly to open the table to him, even though, as federations, we have not yet succeeded in sorting matters out between us.
This is the approach that Reformed churches have always taken in the matter of admitting guests from other church federations to the table. To verify this, let the reader consult H. Bouwman, Gereformeerde Kerkrecht, vol. 2 (Kampen: Kok, 1934) pp 390-392; F.L. Rutgers, Kerkelijke Adviesen, vol. 2 (Kampen: Kok, 1922) p. 156f (advice # 126), pp 159-166 (advice # 130).
ad 2. This condition stresses the responsibility of the elders to exercise final judgment in opening and closing the table and enables them to do this task. We may not hand out the tokens of the body and blood of the Lord cafeteria style to all and sundry. Furthermore, if the greeters meet the guest at the door minutes before the service begins, inform him that communion will be celebrated and invite him to participate, the visitor has no opportunity for self-examination. This flies in the face of the command of the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 11:28): Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. And thus another Biblical and Reformed tradition would fall by the way.
ad 3. This condition will satisfy what our confessions in Lord's days 28-30 and article 35 of the Belgic Confession as well as the Form for the Celebration of the Lord's Supper teach about partaking in a worthy manner.
Official position of the CRC in 1973
This view and practice is not far removed from what was only a short time ago the official position of the CRC.
In 1973, Mr. Roy Van Kooten appealed a decision of Calvary CRC, Pella, and Classis Pella (Acts 1973, art. 86 [p. 93ff]). The church had, for some time, been admitting guests to the Lord's supper by way of an announcement printed in the bulletin and read from the pulpit which said:
At worship this morning we will commemorate the suffering and death of our Lord by partaking of the Lord's Supper. To all who believe in Jesus Christ as their only Savior and Lord and who are professing members in good standing of evangelical, orthodox Christian churches; to all who are truly sorry for their sins, who have repented of their wrong doing to Christ, and who earnestly desire to lead a godly life, we extend a sincere invitation to come with gladness to the table of the Lord and to take part in this celebration of the Lord's Supper.
Mr. Van Kooten appealed to synod to declare this practice wrong. The synod sustained his appeal. The synod judged:
That the practice employed by the Calvary Church does not adequately implement the concern of Article 59 of the Church Order with regard to supervision of admission to the Lord's Supper.
Although Article 59 of the Church Order does not speak directly about the admission of visitors to the Lord's Supper, it does require of the consistory that it admit to the Lord's Supper only those who are known to have professed Christ and who give evidence of true faith and godliness.
This is very close, if not identical, to the practice of the CanRC.
The change of the official position in 1975
CRC Synod 1973 also appointed a committee to study the matter of supervision of admission of visitors since there were more questions about it. This committee reported to Synod 1975 (Report 37, pp. 471-487; "Supervision of Guests at the Lord's Table," majority and minority reports; article 101 [pp. 102ff]).
The majority report continued in the historically Reformed line by stressing that the elders exercise final judgment regarding who may attend the table. It also, correctly, underlined that Christ gave the sacrament to his local churches. It went so far as to say "... that to partake of the Lord's Supper while there are factions and divisions is blasphemous. There must be fellowship before we can celebrate communion together" (Acts 1975, p. 478).
The majority report concluded that a Christian who belongs to another denomination may be admitted on the condition that he be interviewed by the consistory and ".... be confronted with the consequences of his desire to participate in the communion service to which he is welcomed" (Acts 1975, p. 482). By "the consequences," the committee meant that there is a "... great need for every Christian to come to grips with the terrifying brokeness of the church .... We must confront him [the guest] with the fact that there is no church in the sky as a panacea for all our sinful divisions and schisms" (Acts 1975, pp 479-80). Admitting a guest and participating as a guest implies, said the majority of the committee, that we not leave the brokeness of the church for what it is but that we strive for tangible and visible unity (Acts 1975, p. 478).
Sadly, CRC Synod 1975 rejected this report in favour of the minority report. The author, C.E. Zeilstra, proceeded from the view of the church espoused by Abraham Kuyper in his 1898 Princeton Lectures. Kupyer said that since the church consists in the congregation of believers, the absolute character of every visible church (i.e., confederation of churches) is annihilated. Each church is, in some way or other, a manifestation of one holy and catholic church of Christ in heaven (Acts 1975, p. 485 [more Plato than Paul -GvP]). The minority report also quoted Arthur Barnes favourably who said: "Though [Christians] are divided into different denominations, yet they will meet at last in the same abode of glory" (Acts 1975, p. 485). This led the minority report to conclude that denominational affiliation is irrelevant in the matter of admitting guests to the Lord's Supper.
Following the reasoning of the minority report, CRC Synod 1975 adopted the following guidelines for the supervision of guests at the Lord's Supper (art. 101, Acts 1975, p. 103):
a. It is the responsibility of the consistory to identify guests in order to supervise properly the Lord's Supper.
b. It is the responsibility of the consistory to inform guests as to the requirements for participation in the Lord's Supper and as to the consequence of partaking in an unworthy manner (I Corinthians 11:27-29).
c. It is the responsibility of the consistory to invite guests "who are truly sorry for their sins, who sincerely believe in the Lord Jesus as their Savior, and who desire to live in obedience to him," to come to the Lord's Supper (Form 3; Heid. Cat., L.D. 30, Q. & A. 81).
In 1975 the CRC officially changed its stand on the admission of guests to the Lord's Supper.
The consistory was no longer to exercise final judgment on who may attend the table. The task of the elders became one of simply identifying, informing and inviting guests. After the elders had identified, informed and invited a guest, the guest was to exercise final judgment.
If this procedure is followed, one wonders whether the elders are fulfilling their calling to guard the sanctity of the table.
The CanRC have often been accused of narrowness and sectarianism because of their policy and protocol on admission of guests to the Lord's table. However the CanRC stand in the old Reformed line on this point stressing the task of the elders to watch over the table and to admit only those whom they know are sound in faith and godly in conduct.