Restricted Communion - John Murray

From John Murray, Collected Writings, Volume 2, pages 381 - 384.

Whatever position we may take on the question at issue, we cannot, on any scriptural basis, get away from the notion of restricted communion. The Lord's supper is not for all indiscriminately as the gospel is. The Lord's supper is chiefly commemoration and communion. It is for those who discern the Lord's body, who can commemorate his death in faith and love. And since the supper is also Communion it is obviously for those who commune with Christ and with one another in the unity of the body which is the church. There can be no communion without union and therefore the central qualification for participation is union with Christ. The Lord's supper is for those who are his.

It is part of the whole counsel of God that those conditions be clearly and insistently set forth, to the end that those who are eligible partake and those who are not refrain. This is just saying that preaching on this question is directed to ensuring that what is registered in the forum of each individuals conscience should correspond with what is true in the forum of the divine judgment.

It is also apparent that God has instituted government in his church to the end that purity may be maintained and order and decorum observed. It is the responsibility of those in whom this government is vested to ensure that those admitted to membership in the church fulfil those requirements of credible and intelligent profession which are the criteria by which those in whom government is vested are to judge. We say that the session must require an intelligent and credible confession of faith in Christ as Saviour and Lord. It may happen, and it sometimes does, that those who are truly united to Christ and who, therefore, in the forum of the divine judgement as well as in the forum of the conscience are eligible to partake are, nevertheless, excluded by the session and that quite properly because they are not able to make the requisite confession of faith. A session is not able in some mystical fashion to examine the heart and God does not give special revelation respecting those who are his. The session must act upon the basis of credibility and observable data. This discrepancy and apparent injustice arise from the infirmity inseparable from the limitations under which God himself has placed those who govern in the church. It is regrettable that the person concerned is not able to make the necessary confession but we may not say that, in the absence of this confession it is regrettable that the session excluded the person concerned. If we say so then we are reflecting upon the divine institution which men are under obligation to observe. We must, therefore, recognize this limitation that governs the administration of the Lord's supper.

Furthermore the session is under obligation to exclude from the Lord's supper those who are guilty of such overt sin as requires exclusion. This applies even to those who have made the requisite confession and may be truly united to Christ, until such time as they give evidence of repentance and reformation. To deny this necessity is to waive completely the demands of discipline.

The question is whether the session is under obligation to apply this same principle to those who are not members of the congregation but desire to partake of the Lord's supper with the congregation. Or must the session leave that question entirely to the conscience of those who may be in that category?

It must be admitted that if the session exercises supervision to the extent of requiring all who partake to receive from the session permission to do so, then, on occasion at least, some person may be excluded who is qualified to partake and to whom the session would be very glad to grant the privilege. But the question is not to be settled on the basis of that contingency. A person who is thus deprived is not caused to stumble by that exclusion provided it is made plain, as should be the case, what the reason is for this exclusion. That person, if sensitive to the demands of purity, should only appreciate the reason for this on their exclusion on that particular occasion.

It seems utterly unreasonable to leave the matter entirely to the conscience of the person concerned, when this is not done and should not be done in the case of the member of the congregation. There are the following considerations:

1. The Purity of the Church.

It is the obligation of the session to ensure to the utmost of its prerogative that only those eligible to partake should partake. It is not exercising this prerogative unless it exercises it supervision over all who participate. This is applicable in two respects, first as it applies to the individual and second as it applies to the body of Christ. In the first case there may be a person present who is not a member of any church, who is indeed a notorious character but who for one or several erroneous and unworthy reasons wishes to participate. This person's conscience is grievously perverted, his motives are unworthy, his conception of the sacrament is distorted, and if he or she partakes the person is committing a sin against Christ and the institution of the Church. It is to perform a great service to that person to prevent him or her from that unworthy act, to preserve him or her from sacrilege of the worst sort. Perhaps this is well known to the session; it knows of the violence that will be perpetuated. Are we to say that all that may be done in that case is simply the persuasive warning that may be given in the fencing of the table? Surely not! But in the second case the session must preserve to the utmost of its ability, the Body of Christ from this desecration. Why did Paul enjoin upon the church in Corinth that the incestuous person was to be put away and delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit might be saved on the day of the Lord Jesus? One reason he mentions is that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump (I Cor. 5:5,6). Now this has reference to a person who was a member of the church and on whom the sentence of excommunication could be pronounced and its implications put into effect. But are we to suppose that no such discipline can be exercised over those who are outside the particular communion of the congregation but who wish, nevertheless to enjoy the privilege of that communion on a particular occasion? Surely the considerations which the apostle pleads in this case are not completely suspended on a particular occasion simply because that person does not happen to be a member of that congregation.

2. The Unity of the Church.

This principle has respect to the unity that belongs to the denomination and to the whole church of Christ throughout the world.

In respect to the first, a person may be under discipline by another congregation of the denomination. That person would be prevented from participating in his own congregation. What means would be used is another question. But it is obvious that it would be a travesty of discipline to permit that person to sit at the Lords table. If he goes to another congregation is the session of the congregation inhibited from exercising the same kind of exclusion as is exercised by the session under whose jurisdiction the person is? You can see the desecration that would be committed if the session of one church is to leave the matter entirely to the conscience of the person when the session of the church to which he belongs does not do that but exercises other means of prevention. He simply must respect the discipline exercised by other congregations of his denomination.

But it is not only the denomination we have to take into account. We must also take into account the whole church and we must be as jealous for the discipline exercised by other bodies as well as our own denomination. How is this going to be done? It can only be done if some supervision is exercised by the session to ensure as far as possible that such desecrations do not occur. Even then it is possible that mistakes will occur. Of course there is no perfect application in this world of any principle. But are we to abandon a principle simply because in particular cases due to human infirmity there are errors and aberrations which are inconsistent with the principle? If that were the case we should have to abandon all principles of the biblical ethic.

In conclusion, the person who on a particular occasion wishes to communicate is in the category of being within. He is among you and you are extending to him the most intimate fellowship that is afforded in this world. "Do not ye judge them that are within?Put away from among yourselves that wicked person" (I Cor. 5:13).

From John Murray, Collected Writings, Volume 2, pages 381 - 384.