Are we sectarian with a closed Lord's Supper Table? - Prof. J. Geertsema

From the Clarion Volume 35, No. 6, March 21, 1986

The reader may know that there are three different ways in which the Lord's Supper is administered: at a closed Table, at a restricted Table, and at an open Table. An open Table means that every person who attends the service in which the Lord's Supper is administered and who desires to participate, is invited to do so.

The restricted Table means that every one who is a professing Christian and desires to participate is, in principle, allowed to do so. There is, however, this restriction, that the consistory must give its permission. This permission can be obtained through an interview beforehand in which the consistory ascertains that the person requesting to commune with the congregation truly is a professing Christian, a church member in good standing, who is not living in sin. The restriction can be more or less strict. A consistory can decide that in principle every professing Christian is allowed, but it can also determine that the professing Christian must profess the faith as adopted by that church in its creeds and confessions, or anyway in its main doctrines.

The third manner, that of a closed Table, means that participation is only allowed to the communicant members of that local church who are not placed under discipline, or to communicant members of one of the sister churches who have an attestation with them from their home church. Also here a consistory can be more or less strict.

There is among us no difficulty with the open Table. We all agree that an open Table is in conflict with Scripture. If I am not mistaken, the practice in our churches in the past has mainly been that of the closed Table. However, there is no unanimity (anymore) with respect to the acceptance of the closed Table. Some favour very much the restricted Table, adducing even the ground that churches which have a closed Table are sectarian or lean to sectarianism.

It is good, therefore, that we pay attention to this matter and ask ourselves whether we, with our practice of a closed Table, are really sectarian. Let us, however, first listen to some voices from the past and the present.

H. Bouwman, "Reformed Church Polity"

When the late Professor H. Bouwman, in his book Gereformeerd Kerkrecht (Reformed Church Polity), II, pp. 386ff., writes about those who commune, he says first of all with respect to those who are members of their own congregation that "the church cannot read in the hearts and judges its members according to the outward marks, namely, of confession and walk of life. It admits to the Table adult members of the congregation who agree with the confession of the church and whose life appears to be irreproachable. And it suspends from the Holy Supper, according to the command of Christ, 'those who by their confession and life show that they are unbelieving and ungodly.'"

When Bouwman deals with the question "What must be done when strangers desire to take part in the Lord's Supper?," he writes: "The rule must be that only members of the church partake in the Lord's Supper, while those who make known their desire to join the church can receive permission for it [the participation, J.G.] in special cases. It is absolutely necessary that those who come to the Lord's Supper place themselves under oversight and discipline of the consistory, because otherwise the right and calling of the consistory to keep the Holy Supper holy is taken away from it.

As I understand it, Bouwman speaks here about a person who wants to join. He means to say that, if a person is in the process of joining and of being received as a communicant member of the church, while certain matters delay a conclusion, a consistory can decide to admit such a person to the Table of the Lord before he is officially a member. Bouwman does not elaborate on the special cases. He does not give examples. That makes it difficult to follow him. We can ask, for instance, how can a person place himself under the oversight and discipline of the consistory while he is not, at the same time, ready to become a member yet? Therefore, it is better to say that one who desires to join should first join and be received as member and then can also with the congregation partake at the Supper of the Lord as member of that body.

Bouwman says the following about those who are really guests. " 'Guests' were always admitted by the church, provided they are guests in truth, that is, members of other Christian churches whose confession sufficiently agreed with their own, and provided they have a valid reason that prevents them from celebrating the Lord's Supper in their own church. In former days this happened especially with the Lutherans who stayed in places where there was not a Lutheran Church, but only a Reformed one, and vice versa. But the churches have always seen it as a necessity that in such cases the necessary oversight was fully maintained."

Bouwman adds, "In The Netherlands, where people always have the opportunity to join one of the Reformed Churches, the need for such oversight is even more urgent . . . ." He speaks about a reliable testimony, which, as far as I can see, must mean an attestation.

In the early days of the Reformation, when Reformed and Lutheran people were persecuted, they were often allowed to take part in the Lord's Supper in each others' churches, but it also happened that this admission was withdrawn. In this connection those who favour a restricted Table often point at the fact that Professor K. Schilder, when studying in Germany, partook in the celebration of the Holy Supper in a Lutheran Church. Hereby we can make the remark that something is not automatically good because K. Schilder said it or did it.

Bouwman also informs his readers about the situation in the churches of the Secession (1834) and those of the Doleantie (1886). It often happened, he writes, "That members of other churches who did attend the services in these churches, but for some reason did not dare or want to join, asked to partake in the Lord's Supper celebration, and were allowed to do so a few times." Bouwman, then gives this comment: "It is good that the consistory does not push away such Christians, provided it always tries to convince them of the abnormality of the situation."

We finish our listening to what Bouwman says with a quota tion from p. 558 in the same volume, where he deals with the necessity of a confession. Bouwman writes there: "The unity in church life requires unity in confession and church organization. Otherwise cooperation is practically impossible. There is a higher unity, namely, the unity in Christ. A church in a certain region or country may never overlook this unity because otherwise she is in danger of becoming a sectarian circle. In the deepest sense there is a unity between Christians over the whole world, however, distinct and diverse they may be in the manifestation of their faith. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. All those whose hope and faith is based in Christ are one in Him. But in the conceptions and views regarding so many things there is a profound difference. Inclination, character, upbringing, race, history and climate are part of the cause of these differences. This explains the pluriformity in the one Christian church." Bouwman also speaks of the invisible church, being all the believers wherever they are.

Coming to a provisional conclusion regarding the view of Bouwman, we can say that there is a connection between his view on the invisible, pluriform church with its higher unity in Christ and the easy acceptance of guests from other denominations at the Table of the Lord. Bouwman's concept of a higher unity that transcends church walls is the basis for his view on the admittance of members of other churches to the celebration of the Lord's Supper, even when there is no sister or other relationship with such church.

Another thing that I ask the attention for is the fact that Bouwman points out with great emphasis that "it is absolutely necessary" that strangers who are admitted as guests "place themselves under the oversight and discipline of the consistory," and further, that he calls "abnormal" the situation in which a consistory admits people of other denominations who have not joined the congregation for whatever reasons.

F.L. Rutgers, "Advice for the Churches"

It is also good to listen here to Professor F.L. Rutgers. He writes in Kerkelijke Adviezen (Advice for the Churches), II, p.156 about the question, "is it allowed to admit members of other denominations in the same place as guests to the Lord's Supper? Rutgers advises, "in my opinion, a Dutch Reformed (Hervormd) person cannot and may not be admitted to the Holy Supper by a Reformed consistory, when he objects (for whatever reasons) to place himself under the oversight and discipline of that consistory, which, of course, can only happen by joining the Reformed Church [Italics added, J.G.]. If things are done differently, the admission to the Lord's Supper is given over to arbitrariness and disorder, and a policy is followed with which the consistory loses the only means to keep the Lord's Supper holy.

Rutgers continues: "I do understand that there can be various motives which urge a 'Dutch Reformed' or 'Lutheran' or 'Baptist' or 'Roman Catholic' to remain nominally and formally in the church with which he broke already spiritually, even though there is an instituted Reformed Church in the place where he lives, and even though he feels that he belongs to that (Reformed) Church. These motives can be family circumstances, fear of financial disadvantage, and so on, which are certainly 'extenuating circumstances' for his ecclesiastical unfaithfulness to the King of the Church. But they cannot make him go scotfree. A consistory, in my opinion, may not cooperate in making him think that way. This certainly would happen when a person in such a wrong position would be treated as if his situation was not abnormal."

We notice that Rutgers is stricter than Bouwman. Bouwman is of the opinion that members of other denominations who do not join the Reformed Church can be admitted under certain circumstances. Rutgers says: it cannot be done. It is wrong. It undermines the right and duty of the consistory and it allows for, and cooperates in, the continuation of a sinful, unfaithful attitude.

The Reformation Church in Blue Bell

Last year the Reformation Church in Blue Bell was admitted to the federation of our churches. The reader may remember that I quoted extensively from a report that the consistory of this church issued first of all for the churches in Ontario South. This report dealt with the controversy in this church that led to its request to be admitted to the federation of the American and Canadian Reformed Churches. This report has also a chapter on "Restricted Communion."

The Blue Bell Church was originally Orthodox Presbyterian. The question whether the OPC should have an open, a restricted or a closed Lord's Supper Table played an important role in the discussions. Before this already the Tri-County Reformed Church of Maryland separated from the OPC mainly because of the matter of "fencing" the Lord's Supper. According to the Tri-County Reformed Church, as well as the Blue Bell Church, the practice in the OPC is too free. Another Presbyterian denomination, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, as I understand, has the practice of a closed Table. It shows that not all conservative Presbyterian Churches think the same and have the same practice.

It should interest us what the brothers of the Blue Bell Church say in their report on this point. The chapter on "Restricted Communion" follows that on "Confessional Membership." The brothers write that the two matters are closely connected. Quoting James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, vol. 1., pp. 297ff., they say, "it is only by insisting upon this unity of confession that the true unity of the church is manifested." They also write, "If the Reformed faith is true, then everyone and not just office holders - must cling to its truth." All should agree with this.

Discussing then "Restricted Communion," the brothers say, "On the basis of the preceding, it is also clear that the Lord's Table must be restricted to those who profess the true Reformed religion. The Directory of Worship [of the OPC, J.G.] teaches that no one may come to the Lord's Table prior to public profession of faith (v. 4) and, in the same way, access to the Table is one of the rights of membership (v. 5). Thus since it is Biblical and confessional to require that those who would be members of the church confess the true Reformed religion, it is obvious that access to the Table is also restricted to those who profess the true Reformed religion."

We read further, "One cannot say that there are those outside the visible body of Christ and yet who are entitled to the outward sign and seal of the covenant. Nor can one argue that 'teachability' qualifies one for the Table. First, teachability is not given in Scripture as a prerequisite for admission to the Table. Second, just what 'teachability' (or 'sincerity,' or 'Christian character,' for that matter) is has never been made clear, nor can it be for it is a subjective criterion. The Table ought not be used to 'win' people, nor to show the communion of the saints to those with a different confession. The Table is for those who confess the truth."

It is obvious that the Blue Bell brothers write against the views of those in the Presbytery of Philadelphia in the OPC who were their opponents and had different views.

They write also, "The term 'restricted communion' needs, however, to be more closely defined. Restricted communion is not to be confused with closed communion. The latter position would limit access to the Table to the members of one congregation; in its most virulent forms, it would restrict communion to those who 'knew' beyond doubt their election and who could demonstrate that election to the satisfaction of the elders [We recognize here the practice of, e.g., subjectivistic, Old Reformed circles, J.G.]. Restricted communion does not fence the Table in such a way as to keep out those who have a right to partake. On the contrary, restricted communion opens the Table to those to whom it belongs. But it opens the Table by following the objective command of Christ and not by setting up various manmade subjective criteria.

"Restricted communion, then, involves the elders and revolves about their proper exercise of the keys of the kingdom. The Table is not open to every individual; and it is not up to the individual to decide whether or not he ought to partake. That is the role of the elders. It is their duty to ensure that all who partake at the Table fulfill the Biblical requirements for Table fellowship .... The elders must see to it that they uphold the Word of God. And this they do by applying the Biblical criteria: a profession of the true religion, a godly life, and membership in a true Church.

"That is, God has entrusted this ordinance to the church (WCF [Westminter Confession of Faith, J.G.] XXV. 3; XXIX. 1). The Lord's Supper, then, is not to be administered to an individual irrespective of his relationship to the church, which is the covenant people of God, united in confession of the true Reformed religion (WCF XXIV. 3; XXV. 2). That is, the Lord's Supper is only for those who have professed this true Reformed religion, have made this profession credible in their lives, and are members in good and regular standing in the true Church (1 Cor. 12:13; WCF XXIA. 1, XXX. 3.)."

These words concerning the duty of the elders regarding the admittance to the Lord's Supper show good Reformed thinking and should have our full agreement. The report also says the following: "Objections [against the three above-mentioned criteria, J.G.] which take their starting point in either an invisible church doctrine, or in a doctrine of union with Christ which is abstracted from church membership, run aground on the rocks of Deuteronomy 29:29 [bold face added, J.G.]. To argue that 'union with Christ'- that is, mystical union - is the prerequisite for Table fellowship requires the elder to be able to read the heart of the person requesting admittance."

Herewith I conclude this overview. Next time I hope to deal further with this matter and come to a conclusion. But I can say now already that I find the last paragraph which I quoted from the Blue Bell report of the greatest significance. Keep these words in mind. The Blue Bell view is not far from the closed Table view as was prevalent in our church federation.

To the folowing article:  "A closed Lord's Supper Table is not proof of a sectarian spirit but shows ecclesiastical faithfulness"