A closed Lord's Supper Table is not proof of a sectarian spirit but shows ecclesiastical faithfulness - Prof. J. Geertsema

From the Clarion Volume 35, No. 7 April 4, 1986

The invisible church concept as basis for the rejection of the closed Table

In the article in the previous issue, we saw that there are three different ways of celebrating the Lord's Supper, the open Table, the restricted Table, and the closed Table. The question is: must we have a restricted or a closed Table. That question is urgent since maintaining a closed Table is called sectarian. This accusation of sectarianism is not only heard today. Professor H. Bouwman, we saw, says the same thing in his Gereformeerde Kerkrecht (Reformed Church Polity), vol. 11, p. 558. We read there that "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!'

When we analyse what Bouwman says, it is clear that the basis for his speaking of "a higher unity, namely, the unity in Christ," is the doctrine that there is an invisible church, to which all the true believers belong, all those who by a true faith are ingrafted into Christ. This doctrine speaks about the visible and the invisible church, about the church as institute and the church as organism as two different things.

Closely related with this view of the church as visible and invisible is the doctrine of the pluriformity of the church. The pluriformity concept is that the invisible Church of Christ reveals itself visibly on earth in many forms (pluri-form), namely, in the many different local and regional church institutes, that is, in many different denominations, which all have and emphasize their own special aspect of the truth of God. Hereby the one visible church form or denomination can be a little more pure than the other, but they are all branches of the one, worldwide, Church of Christ.

According to this concept, this line of thinking, the invisible church is the true body of Christ; it is the church as an organism, the worldwide, catholic church. In this body, according to this concept, all the true believers, all those who are born again and ingrafted into Christ, have automatically a place. They are its members. This is then the true Church of Christ. It is in this invisible church that we have the "higher unity in Christ."

In the reasoning of Bouwman, we have, on the one hand, a visible church organization. This visible, instituted, church needs a confession and a church organization (e.g. with a consistory and broader assemblies) for its proper functioning. With other words, such a confession and organization are essential for the functioning of the visible church, but they are not essential for the church as such. In this visible church the believers have, of course, also this higher unity in Christ, but they have a unity in confession and in organization as well. By implication, the latter is a unity of a lower level, because the "higher unity" is the unity in Christ. And this higher unity exists, then, also beyond the denominational church walls. It is the "higher unity" in the invisible church. For this higher unity in Christ, unity in confession and organization is not essential. It would be nice, even desirable, but it is not really necessary.

It can be readily understood that within this concept of a pluriformity of the church and of an invisible church with its "higher unity in Christ" a closed Table does not fit and gets the label "sectarian." A closed Table, per logical consequence, must be seen in this line of thinking as a denial of that "higher unity in Christ."


Is this invisible church concept with its "higher unity" the correct approach?

Through the Liberation, under the leadership of Professor K. Schilder and others, we learned that our confessions do not speak of an invisible church as the total number of the elect or the born again besides or over against the visible church institute. We learned that we should reject a thinking in terms of, and a working with, the distinctions of the church as organism and the church as institute, of an invisible church and a visible church, as two different entities. We learned that Scripture itself does not speak in these distinctions.

The Scriptures teach that the church on earth consists of living, visible, people who gather visibly together in visible gatherings. The Scriptures also distinguish between true and false prophecy, and herewith, between a church that abides by the truth as revealed and a church that follows false teachings. The Scriptures warn very strongly against false teachings and deviations. The Apostle Paul, inspired by the Spirit of Christ, speaks His "accursed" against those who preach a gospel that differs from his own (Gal.1:8). He commands the believers in Rome to note and avoid "those who create dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught" (Romans 16:17). These words of the apostle contain the inherent command of separation. Giving to deviations from the truth the same place and rights in the church as to the truth is clearly disobedience to the Lord of the church. The church is bound to the norms of Christ for the gathering and the preservation of the church.

This normative speaking of the Scriptures is followed in our Confession of Faith, Art. 28, 29. And it has been the gain of the Liberation in 1944 that this normative speaking of Scripture and confession was clearly seen again, in line with the Reformation in the 16th century and the Secession in 1834. We learned that church membership should not be a matter of taste but of faith, that is, of obedience in love to God's holy will; obedience in love to Christ's norms for the gathering of the church in truth. We learned that it is important to maintain that those who "draw away from the [visible, true] church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God" (Art. 28).

For those who followed the Reformation, or the Secession, or the Liberation, church membership was a matter of obedience to the Head of the Church. At the same time, it was for them a matter of obedience to the Second Commandment: serve and worship the LORD in accordance with His revealed will. This obedience of faith to God's requirement in His Second Commandment is background and aim in the Art. 28 and 29 of the Belgic Confession. A true church which "governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting ail things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head," is a church that takes this requirement seriously. Not joining, or withdrawing from, the true church is acting contrary to the ordinance of God, especially as that is expressed in the same Second Word of the covenant.

It is clear, then, that our confession as it speaks in Art. 28 and 29 and as it is based on God's Word, has to be maintained and applied also in the matter of the Lord's Table and who can be admitted.

It is, therefore, such a heartwarming, joyful thing to read in the report of the brothers of the Blue Bell Church that they want to abide by this obedience to the Scriptures, in faithful, adherance to the confession, also on the point of the celebration of the Lord's Supper, and therefore restrict the Table communion to "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." Here the norms expressed in Art. 28 and 29 and based on, among others, the Second Commandment are taken seriously.

What Professor F. L. Rutgers wrote, and was quoted in our previous article, is fully in line with what we have stated above. Rutgers said that a Reformed consistory should not admit to the Table of the Lord a person who belongs to the Dutch Reformed (Hervormde) Church, when this person refuses to place himself under the oversight and discipline of the consistory by joining the Reformed Church. Acting otherwise leads to arbitrariness and disorder, according to Rutgers. The confession must be maintained that this person "acts contrary to the ordinance of God."

When we apply all this to our own situation, it can be clear that a Reformed consistory which does not open, but closes, the Table of the Lord to Christians of other denominations in its area or country, acts in faithful adherence to its adopted confession, taking that confession seriously. Obviously, working with what we confess in Art. 28 and 29 leads to different conclusions and practices than working with the concept of the pluriformity of the church and with that of an invisible church besides the visible congregation. But working with Art. 28 can certainly not be called sectarian, or Art. 28 itself must be a sectarian article.


We should act in an ecclesiastical manner, not in an individualistic and subjectivistic way

The Blue Bell Reformation Church's report states that the Table of the Lord should be restricted by a Reformed consistory to those who made profession of the Reformed faith, live accordingly and are members of the true church. I can agree with that. But a very important question that now comes up is, who determines which church is a true church whose members can be admitted? Is that the minister of a local church? Is that the consistory of that local congregation? Are we not a federation of churches? And has the recognition of other churches as true churches of Christ not always been acknowledged to be a matter of the whole federation, not of individual persons or churches?

Professor D.P.D. Fabius, LL.D., who taught law at the Free University, wrote a brochure in 1918, which he gave the title, Kerkelijk Leven. I may refer here to the introductory article in the 1986 Yearbook. The good Reformed message in that brochure is that we must act ecclesiastically, and not individualistically, not following our own personal subjective feelings and views. The brochure was written as an objection to the individualistic act of a Rev. Netelenbos who took the freedom to preach as Reformed minister in a Dutch Reformed Church and defended this act as an act of confessing and practicing the "higher unity in Christ" beyond our human church walls.

I see an admitting of Christians of other denominations to the Table of the Lord when those denominations are not officially acknowledged by our federation of churches as true Churches of Christ in the same light: it is acting unecclesiastically, individualistically, going by one's own personal or consistorial opinion. And with Fabius, I have objections here. Acting unecclesiastically leads to arbitrariness and disorder. Also on this point we must act decently and with good ecclesiastical order (1 Cor.14:40).

When so the federation of the churches has acknowledged an other church group as true Churches of Christ Jesus and a sister church relationship has been established according to that acknowledgment, the pulpit is open and so is the Table. As I see it, the restricted Table of the Blue Bell Congregation, and the closed Table as many of our Canadian Reformed Churches practice it, are basically the same.


But what about the "higher unity" in Christ?

But do we, herewith, deny any unity in Christ with believers outside our own federation and the sister churches abroad? No we do not. I know quite a few true, faithful, sincere Christians, not belonging to one of our churches, who heartily love the Lord and seek to serve Him in obedience to His Word. And I am sad about the fact that we do not go to the same church and sit at the same Table of the Lord. As far as faith in Christ and love for Him is concerned, there is a strong bond. We are children of the same Father in heaven.

However, when "my" church federation cannot merge or have a sister relationship with their church groups for reasons of doctrine and/or church government, or rather for Biblical and confessional reasons, and when so Scripture and confession are the foundation upon which the separating church walls are built, do I, or does my consistory, have the right to act as if those separating church walls all of a sudden do not exist anymore when it comes to the Table of the Lord? Must we maintain church walls on the basis of Scripture and confession, when it comes to the church federation, but break those walls down when it comes to individual participation at the Table of the Lord? To me, that is being inconsistent, to say the least. To me, this is misusing that so called higher unity.

We should not create a concept of a higher unity in Christ that can be placed over against the confessional and organizational unity in Christ and in the church. Such a concept tends to break down church walls built upon the foundation of Scripture and confession. It tends to undermine obedience to the Lord in matters of church membership, to diminish ecclesiastical faithfulness and sincerity. And it so easily brings confusion in the congregation. If separating church walls are a matter of obedience to God's Word and in accordance with the adopted confession of the church which is based on Scripture, it is the calling of the churches to maintain those walls both for the church federation and for individual members.

But is a closed/restricted (Blue Bell) Table not a denial of the catholic church and, herewith, a sectarian viewpoint? When a church has a confession that is fully based upon the Scriptures and faithfully adheres to that confession, in obedience to the Scriptures, that church acts in accordance with the catholic faith in a catholic manner. One may read here K. Schilder's speech Your Ecumenical Task, published by the ILPB in London, ON.

Our conclusion is: a Table that is opened to Christians of other denominations, especially in the same area or country, with which our churches have no relationship, undermines ecclesiastical faithfulness, dims the sharpness of ecclesiastical obedience, and works confusion. And the accusation that a closed Table is sectarian does the very same things. A closed/restricted Table as we have it should rather be seen as confessional sincerity and ecclesiastical fidelity, and it is being honest to fellow Christians with whom we long to sit at the same Table in the same true Church of Christ.