Fencing the Table

Q. At the beginning our Communion services, the pastor often starts by talking about those who may and those who should not take Communion. Why?

A. This part of our service reflects the PCA practice of “fencing the table.” While this may seem odd, the fact is that until recent decades this was a regular practice, in one form or another, in most Protestant churches. Roman Catholics have, for centuries, limited their communion to professing Catholics in good standing. Let me attempt to help you understand this Biblical practice and the reason we follow it.

The practice of fencing the table is, in fact, derived from Scripture. Paul sets the pattern for it in First Corinthians 11:23-34.

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

Paul’s command is clear: not to “eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner” (v. 27), and also to “discern the body” (v. 29). Paul does not mean by “discern the body” that people need to have a thorough theological understanding of the Body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. (Christians cannot even agree on what is actually present in the bread or “Body of Christ” in the Lord’s Supper). What he means by “body” is the local church – the Body of Christ. What we are to discern or judge is (1) our relationship to Christ and (2) our relationship to some local church. Why is this necessary?

Paul tells us in v. 27 “(not) to eat the bread or drink the cup in an unworthy manner.” The true, born-again Christian (John 3:3, 5) should possess the following:
    (1) A “worthy” relationship to Christ --
         a. He/she should be converted: repentant from sin and trusting in Christ
         b. He/she should publically confess Christ through baptism
         c. He/she should be in an “evangelical” (meaning” Gospel) or Christ-honoring church
    (2) A “worthy” relationship to the church –
         a. Baptized into the Church (membership)
         b. In good standing in that Church (fellowship)
         c. Not under discipline of the Church

Why? Because Holy Communion is a sacrament that symbolizes both our communion with Christ and our communion within His Church. Unless a person has genuine saving communion with Christ and genuine communion with membership in a church, then they make little of this sacred supper. Paul makes this two-fold point previously in First Corinthians 10:15-17 –

I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor. 10:15-17)

The great Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, in his commentary on First Corinthians explains these two passages (i.e., 1 Cor. 10:15-17 and 11:17-23) in this manner:

The design of the apostle is to show that everyone who comes to the Lord’s Supper enters into communion with all other communicants. They form one body in virtue of their joint participation of Christ. This being the case, those who attend the sacrificial feasts of the heathen form one religious body. They are in religious communion with each other.

To eat or drink unworthily is in general to come to the Lord’s table in a careless, irreverent spirit, without the intention or desire to commemorate the death of Christ as the sacrifice for our sins, and without the purpose of complying with the engagements which we thereby assume.

Because of this scriptural injunction that warns people not to come to the Lord’s Supper unworthily, our denomination’s Book of Church Order (BCO) directs its ministers in how to administer the sacraments. In the section of the BCO titled “The Directory for the Worship of God” is a chapter on the administration of the Lord’s Supper (chapter 58). In BCO 58-4 our standards read:

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 to give a special invitation to non-communicants to remain during the service. (Book of Church Order 58-4)

When the pastors fence the table they are simply doing what (1) Paul exhorts us to do in First Corinthians, (2) what our Church Constitution (the BCO) instructs us to do, and (3) what the session of elders have directed the Pastors to do, in each Lord’s Supper. If you noticed, in our bulletin for Sundays when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the elders have included instructions for members and visitors concerning the Lord’s Supper and who may partake. These prayers and instructions are attached below.

Everything the Church does is open to non-believers, the non-baptized or non-members. Only one thing is excluded: The Lord’s Supper. Jesus has reserved that privilege to the professing, baptized church member. In our day, many have a low view of the Church, many Christians remain unbaptized, and more and more Churches do not require membership. We here at Christ Covenant believe otherwise.

We are not insinuating that those who are neither baptized nor members of a Christ-honoring Church, but who profess faith in Christ, are not Christians. What we are stating is that a worthy receipt of the Lord’s Supper includes the following: saving faith in Christ, baptism and membership in good standing in a Gospel-focused church.

On Communion Sundays we specifically include in our printed order of worship the following note: “If you are not able to receive Communion today, then we ask you to continue in a spirit of worship and to meditate on one of the following prayers…” In this way, we strive to encourage them in faith and assure all those present that we welcome them and look forward to that time when we might fellowship with them at Communion table.