15 Aug 2012

Fencing The Table

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Blog | Pastor Duane

“Fencing the table” is a common Christian expression for how a given church exercises or applies the injunction of 1 Corinthians 11:37 “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.” It is based upon a belief that “Communion / Lord’s Supper / Eucharist” is for believers only, also known as “Closed Communion.”

The History of The Fence

The expression “fencing the table” goes back to communion practices of the Scottish church in the 16th century when many people were simply Christians or went to church because it was a common cultural thing, not necessarily a personal belief thing. For many it was just something you do and that everybody did, not unlike watching the summer olympics. Many call this “cultural Christianity” which historically has happened when the majority of a certain population becomes Christian and the personal significance of the faith is not passed on to the proceeding generations.

Thus in Scottland, in order to protect people’s consciences and the sacredness of The Lord’s Supper, Pastor John Knox asked that people kneel before they partook of the elements so that a person might first “examine himself (1 Cor 11:38)” as the Scriptures command. His predecessors went a step further and had an actual fence built around the table (as seen in the picture above). Church members who were in good standing were then given a “communion token” they would show to the pastor in order to be permitted to the table (Charles Montgomery, A History of American Pewter).

A Theology of The Fence

Today, few churches actually have a fence but most metaphorically fence the table in all kinds of ways. They do this because of a theological understanding of the Lord’s Supper as being a sacred holy (sacrament) given to the Church by Jesus himself. It is one of the two things Jesus directly commanded those who already believe to do: 1. To be Baptized. 2. To practice the Lord’s Supper.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 God gave, through the writing of Paul and quotations of Jesus, specific instructions of how the Lord’s Supper is to be practiced in the church. In verses 27-32 special attention is given to who may participate and who may not and how they are supposed to participate. Those verses function as the fence Scripture itself provides. So a theology of the fence must be based upon Scripture.

What is interesting about these verses however is that Paul does not direct them to the pastors but rather to the individuals partaking. There is no instruction given to pastors asking them to interview people, administer the elements, build a fence, or give a coin. Instead, all the aim is directed at the person’s personal conscience. 1 Corinthians 11:28-29 “Let a personexamine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” The person is to examine themselves (not a pastor) and they are supposed to discern (not the pastor) and the judgment is coming from God (not the pastor). Thus, it seems clear that what Scripture expects of the church’s leaders is to press people’s Christian consciences so that they examine themselves and do not partake in an unworthy manner.

Perhaps most important concerning the fence is its explicit reference to the Gospel. Often in discussions of who is worthy or not worthy, who may partake, how they must partake and what way that is to be regulated…what gets lost is the Gospel itself. The Lord’s Supper, the cup of Jesus’ blood and the bread of Jesus’ body is a direct reference to the forgiveness and grace Jesus purchased for those who are unworthy.

Thus, the examination 1 Corinthians 11:28 calls for is not so much to prohibit people from the table but to plead with them to acknowledge and admit their unworthiness, confessing it as sin and putting faith in Jesus, who alone is worthy and gave up his life on the cross for sinners. The Lord’s Supper is inherently meant to be an opportunity for repentance and the expression of faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ for both saints and sinners. Nothing in Scripture ever remotely refers to Charles Finney’s “anxious benches” known today as “altar calls” where a person wanting to put faith in Christ comes forward to pray a certain prayer and is then declared a Christian. Instead, believers are called to regularly respond to the Gospel by receiving the Lord’s Supper and being baptized (and not necessarily in that order) if they have not yet.

Fencing at The Resolved

First, we offer the Lord’s Supper every week at The Resolved Church because 1 Corinthians 11:17 says to do it “when you come together as a church.” The expectation here is every time you gather together for worship service as a church. Not once a month or at home community groups as some have suggested.

Second, we offer the Lord’s Supper as an official sacred ceremony because 1 Corinthians 11:34 says “if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home.” The expectation here is that the Lord’s Supper is not meant to be a meal but rather a holy time in the worship service where the cross of Christ is met through the receiving of Jesus’ body and blood in some bread and wine.

Third, we offer the Lord’s Supper unmediated by a pastor or anyone else because 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” We don’t want to communicate to anyone that they must go through another person to get to Jesus by having someone administer the elements.

Fourth, we officially fence the table in four ways:
• BULLETIN – We have this phrase printed in our bulletin: “A sacred time of grace between believers and God. A ministry team is available at the back to pray with you. If you desire to express new faith in Jesus, we invite you to partake with us as well & receive prayer.”
• SCREEN – The same phrase in the bulletin is up on the screen at the beginning of our communion time.
• VERBALLY – Whoever is preaching always says something along the lines of…”This is a special time for believers in Jesus only, if you have been convicted of your sin and need for Jesus we invite you to express that by coming to the table with all of us and be prayed for.”
• PASTORALLY – If there is anyone who is under church discipline whom we have asked not to partake for unrepentant sin…one of the pastors will either go up to them if we see them lining up to go to the table or speak with them afterward.

Conclusion

It is our belief as a church that fencing the table is a good, Godly, healthy and Scriptural thing. We’ve put a lot of thought into what we do and why we do it the way we do. We want hold firm to Scripture and sound doctrine in our practice so that we might protect people from partaking in an unworthy manner AND we want to be evangelistic, allowing the table to be an opportunity for people to respond in faith to the Gospel.

May God continue to grant His great grace by meeting us personally and powerfully each week as we all respond to the Gospel and come to His Table. Thank you Jesus for your body and blood you communicate to us in the bread and the wine.

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