We recognize that the general practice of fencing the Lord’s Table may be new and unfamiliar to some, and that our specific local approach might raise other questions, we believe an explanation and explication of the practice may be useful. We also recognize that behind the primary questions about fencing, there may be underlying questions or doubts about the biblical requirement for church membership in general, and membership in an evangelical church in particular.

We will establish five things: first, that fencing the Lord’s Table is not merely biblically observable, but biblically required; second, that there is a specific audience for the fence, and a clear definition of who is within and without the fence; third, the necessary structure and form of the fence; fourth, our obligation as a particular church within the Orthodox Presbyterian denomination to properly fence the Table; and finally, the merciful, compassionate, lovingkindness that is the fence’s foundation, and is critical for the spiritual health of the saints, and of the church.

In this section, we will establish that fencing the Lord’s Table is not only a biblically defensible practice, but is biblically required; that membership in an evangelical church is a prerequisite for approaching the Table; and that only an evangelical church can and will fence the table. 

As we begin, it is important that we provide the definition of terms that underpin our position. The term “fence derives from the Latin defensa, meaning “protection.” The practice of fencing the Lord’s table is founded on the belief that it must be guarded by erecting a fence around it, one that keeps out those who should not be there, and keeps in and protects those who should.

Next, “evangelical church.” The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning the “good news” or the “gospel,” applied to describe a church, it refers to one that preaches the good news of the Gospel, so its members regularly hear it, be equipped to live it out in their walk, and speak its truth to the unsaved world. An evangelical church focuses on the good news of God’s grace and redemptive plan first seen in Genesis 3:15—the proto-evangelium or “first Gospel”— that was made accessible to sinners by the Word and work of Jesus Christ, then taught and exemplified by the apostles in the first century church.

This definition of an evangelical church is quite broad, rather than exclusive, not even going so far as to demand what we view as the remaining marks of a true church (sacramental orthodoxy including the regular administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the proper exercise of discipline). These latter two marks are fantastically germane to the fencing question, yet our fencing in only members in an evangelical church in no way excludes believers based on their specific church membership, as long as it is one that preaches the true Gospel and facilitates accountability to a church, however membership might be practiced in a person’s home congregation.

Likely, most of us imagine this situation playing out in application to close friends we know well and know to be believers. Would they be offended by our practice of fencing the table? We believe this offense is unlikely, as most conservative Protestant churches fence the table in a very similar manner to us, so the odds of our preface to the table striking someone as out of place seem low. We would encourage instead envisioning a scenario where fencing the table would guard concerns close to all our hearts. Suppose a young man comes to church, admitting he is not a member of any church. We also find out that he is living with his girlfriend, whom he proudly forced this week to have an abortion to avoid the supposed inconvenience of children. He tells us firmly, however, “I’m definitely a Christian.” Should we have admitted him to the table? Should we have left Christ’s meal for his people unfenced so that this man could feel as though he were following Jesus with all his unrepented sin endorsed? 

No. An individual’s claim to have faith in Christ must be validated by professing it to the church, as a means to ensure (to the best of our ability) that those professing are not openly and unrepentantly living in a manner contrary to their profession of faith in Christ. The need for church membership aims to avoid a situation where the Lord’s Supper goes to someone who has self-declared themself a Christian while refusing to be accountable to how Christ would have us live out our gratitude for salvation. The Supper’s fence aims precisely to prevent those who refuse to be accountable to Christ from sitting alongside Jesus’ faithful sheep on equal footing in the claim to be a Christian. We have no real way of knowing these issues in people’s lives apart from church membership.

We move on to establish that fencing the Lord’s table is not merely Biblically defensible, it is a Biblical requirement. We will proceed from the general to the specific to establish the foundation for both the fence and the membership requirement, using 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 with additional support from the Gospels and the Book of Acts. 

We first look at what we can glean from the Epistolary model. The New Testament epistles are written to the universal church of Jesus Christ, and their typical form is quite consistent:  a greeting to the saints; words of love, commendation, and encouragement; instruction on proper worship and other practical matters, and (wherever necessary) reproof and correction. The writers consistently remind the saints that the epistles’ instruction is not “new” or “invented,” rather it is the teaching of Jesus Christ himself. The writers of the epistles measured the practices of the early church against the revealed will of Christ, then provided loving improvement from the Lord’s instruction. 

Many of the Epistles—1 Corinthians among them–were written to specific churches, and by their construct we can gather much important information. First, the people are not identified simply as a group, but as a locally worshipping body, e.g. “to the Church of God that is in Corinth”. Second, they are known to the writer as saints (believers and followers of Christ). For example, Paul calls them “brothers,” “brothers and sisters,” and “those sanctified in Christ Jesus,” among other familial labels. Third, across his epistolary writing, Paul references their regular fellowship and worship, for example “when you gather,” and “when you gather on the first day of the week.” Finally, we observe from the headings of the epistles, and from references within them, that the writer has previously written to or visited the church, and by extension its members.

While we believe that the epistolary construct is in and of itself evidentiary of the scriptural requirement for local church membership, we also appeal to the Pentecostal account found in Acts 2:37-47. We read that the Holy Spirit moved within the people, that they were regenerated and made able to hear the Gospel, that they were then baptized (marking them as holy and separate from the world), and finally that “there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Notably, in the final verse of this chapter, Luke again references the “addition” of those being saved. Putting it plainly: it isn’t possible to “add” to numbers in the church if those numbers are not being kept, and one cannot be “set apart” and “added” to those numbers in the absence of a list or roll that contains the names of those who are within the church.

In conclusion: membership, and keeping member rolls, was the established practice of the first century church. Further, as the first century church was the only true church (marked by its apostolic description as teaching the true gospel), its members were members of an evangelical church.

We now turn specifically to 1 Cor. 11:17-34, the apostle Paul’s instruction to the church at Corinth specific to the topic of celebrating the Lord’s Supper. 

Paul opens this passage by rebuking the Corinthian church for their wrong practices in coming to the Lord’s table. He speaks to the dangers of these practices, and provides remedial instruction on how to approach the table in accordance with God’s revealed will—not Paul’s teaching, but what he “received from Christ” and subsequently “delivered to (them).” We note that Paul says “delivered” in the past tense: this is not the first time he has visited or written them, and we can infer that this is not the first time he’s delivered instruction on the Lord’s Supper. 

Paul’s repeated emphasis on the proper administration of the sacrament shows just how important the proper observance and practice is—reflecting Christ’s own teaching on His supper. Christ’s institution of communion is clear in the Gospel accounts–notably in Matthew, Mark, and Luke–but it is John’s gospel that makes clear the sacrament’s meaning (Christ is the “bread of life”), the warning about coming wrongly (“…do not come to me seeking signs…because your stomachs are full”), and that some will come in understanding and be blessed, but not all will (“whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.”) We see that the Lord himself discriminates between those who can some to the table, and those who cannot.

Therefore, Paul repeats Christ’s words of institution, following them with clear instruction, including the consequences of not following it. We see a distinct blessings and curses approach. The Lord’s Supper is communion, a meal to be taken in unison by those who have “come together as a church” (v. 18); however, in not taking the meal together, or in using it as an excuse to satisfy their own desires they “despise the church of God” and “humiliate (the brethren)” (v. 22). The Lord’s Supper is a solemn event: in approaching the table each needs to “examine himself,” discerning his sinfulness vs. Christ’s holiness, to the extent that one does this, God will be merciful (v. 31-32); however, the one who comes unworthily, “eats and drinks judgement on himself” (v. 29). The Lord’s Supper has eternal consequences (v. 30). 

Thus far, we have provided clear scriptural evidence that church membership was the practice of century church, that the table was fenced in the early church as a means to welcome members, but excluding the world, as well as to correct inappropriate celebration, and that the epistolary instruction to the early church is meant to direct future observation of the blessed sacrament. We know also that churches which fell away from or ignored scriptural instruction were called to account in the Book of Revelation. 

Therefore, we believe that fencing the table as the first century leaders did is a continuing ordinance.

Having established that fence the Lord’s Table is a required practice, we now move on to consider the structure of the fence, including its purpose, a further look at its audience, and the proper form.

In considering the purpose of the fence, we return to the etymology and definition of the word: to protect. We seek to protect concerning three specific things: to protect the believer from spiritual harm, to protect the unbeliever from eternal damnation, and to protect the name, body, and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We examine these concerns in order.  

First, our concern is as Paul’s: that the believer should come to the table fully discerning its solemnity. “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.” How do we who administer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper know that a person discerns the body? By their profession of faith, and their availing themselves regularly of the means of grace—the word, the sacraments, and prayer. We know these things of church members, but we cannot know them of non-members, or those under discipline. However, we can recognize someone As a Christian because they have professed faith to the church. Therefore, out of concern for those who might incur judgment–and for our own calling as elders, which we will discuss later–we fence.  

Second, our concern is as Paul’s: that the unbeliever should not approach the table at all. “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” This verse in 1 Corinthians 11 echoes the teaching of Christ Jesus himself: “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” From this, we understand that some will be cast out, specifically those who do not believe, and who come to the table in that unbelief (1 John 2:19). We cannot rightly discern those who believe from those who do not, unless believers come before us with their profession, and observably live that profession out within the church. Therefore, we fence.

Third, our concern is as Paul’s, that the name, body, and blood of Christ should not be profaned. Paul says “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.” Again, we see an echo of Christ’s words in John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” We must approach Christ, and His Table, worthily. Therefore, we fence.

We believe we have earlier established the audience for the fence, yet because it is critical to the well-being of the church and her saints, we will now strive to define and determine even more clearly who is free to approach and participate in the table, and who barred from it. We will build on the teaching of scripture by appealing to two of our confessional standards: the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

First, we see that the sacraments themselves are designed to create a distinction between God’s people, and those of the world:

  • “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him: as also, to put a visible difference between those that belong unto the church, and the rest of the world; and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his Word.” WCF XXVII.1

Second, we see that the Lord’s Supper specifically is intended to benefit only those who truly believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior:

  • Our Lord Jesus, in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, called the Lord’s Supper, to be observed in his church, unto the end of the world, for the perpetual remembrance of the sacrifice of himself in his death; the sealing all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him; and, to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him, and with each other, as members of his mystical body. WCF XXIX.1
  • Q. What is the Lord’s supper?
    A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment and growth in grace. WSC WSC Q. 96

Third, we see that unbelievers (those outside the visible church) who come to the table wrongly do so to their own condemnation:

  • Although ignorant and wicked men receive the outward elements in this sacrament; yet, they receive not the thing signified thereby; but, by their unworthy coming thereunto, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, to their own damnation. Wherefore, all ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with him, so are they unworthy of the Lord’s table; and cannot, without great sin against Christ, while they remain such, partake of these holy mysteries, or be admitted thereunto. WCF XXIX.8
  • Q. What is required to the worthy receiving of the Lord’s supper?
    A. It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body, of their faith to feed upon him, of their repentance, love, and new obedience; lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves. WSC Q. 97

Thus, we arrive at the form for our fence, taken from the OPC Book of Church Order, Directory for Public Worship.

  • “The minister shall then declare who may come to, and who are excluded from, the Lord’s Table according to the Word of God. He may use the following or like words:
  • ‘It is my privilege as a minister of Christ to invite all who are right with God and his church, through faith in the Lord Jesus, to come to the Lord’s Table. If you have received Christ and are resting upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to you in the gospel, if you are a baptized and professing communicant member in good standing in a church that professes the gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ, and if you live penitently and seek to walk in godliness before the Lord, then this Supper is for you, and I invite you in Christ’s name to eat the bread and drink the cup.
  • At the same time, God’s Word says, “Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:27-29). If you are not trusting in Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you are not a member of a faithful Christian church, if you are not living penitently and seeking to walk in godliness before the Lord, then I warn you in the name of Christ not to approach the Holy Table of the Lord.
  • This warning is not aimed to keep the humble and contrite from the Table of the Lord, as if it were for those who were free from sin. In fact, it is for sinners that our Lord gives this Supper as a means of grace. Through the elements of bread and wine, our Lord graciously gives himself and all his benefits to everyone who eats and drinks in a worthy manner, discerning the body of the Lord. It is one thing to eat and drink in a worthy manner. It is very different, however, to imagine that we are worthy to eat and drink. We dare not come to the Lord’s Table as if we were worthy and righteous in ourselves. We come in a worthy manner if we recognize that we are unworthy sinners who need our Savior, if we consciously discern his body given for our sins, if we hunger and thirst after Christ, giving thanks for his grace, trusting in his merits, feeding on him by faith, renewing our covenant with him and his people.
  • Let us examine our minds and hearts to determine whether such discernment is ours, to the end that we may partake to the glory of God and to our growth in the grace of Christ. Come then with joy and thankfulness to the Lord’s Table. The Lord’s Supper is medicine for poor, sick souls. Come to Jesus and find rest, refreshing, and nourishment for your weak and weary soul.’”

Our denomination has said that we are to say something like this to preface the Supper. On one hand, the proper recipient must be right with the church, namely must be part of God’s people and not be under corrective discipline, to be welcomed to the Supper. On another, this form suggests a fairly striking warning about coming to the table. At OHCC, we have decided not to make this needed aspect of fencing the table our emphasis. Although we agree that we must be clear and specific on this point, we have tried to stress the way for those who are excluded to become included.

Building on the earlier foundation that the table was rightly, necessarily fenced in the early church, we have shown that concern for the spiritual well-being of the saints, and all those who are created in God’s image, underpins the need to fence the table. We have also defined the fence’s audience (identifying those who are within, and without), and bolstered the scriptural proofs with the Godly work of the Westminster divines. So what is our practice? Merely that according to the early church example, there is no true membership in the church of God apart from in an evangelical church—one that preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It follows from our appeal to the Confessional and Church standards that we now simply state: Oakland Hills Community Church is a Presbyterian church, believing in the biblical Presbyterian form of government as illustrated (primarily) in the Book of Acts. More specifically we are a member of the Orthodox (i.e., believing and practicing biblical rectitude) Presbyterian (i.e., believing and practicing accountability to other like-believing and like-practicing churches) Church, (i.e., the historical Christian evangelical church). Therefore, we—your shepherds–are committed to uphold the standards and practices of our denomination, believing them to be founded on biblical truth, expressed in biblical example, and worked out in practice before the Lord. We have made explicit promises to God to uphold these standards, so our integrity os at stake in our submission to them.

We do not assent to them blindly or out of compulsion, but because of our understanding of our call, the responsibilities that attend it, and the eternal consequences of failing in those responsibilities. Late in his earthly ministry, Jesus delivers these solemn words to his disciples: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19) This responsibility now resides with the elders of the church, and speaks directly to our role in admitting God’s elect to membership in the visible church, and subsequently to the Lord’s Table. 

We strive to exercise that responsibility in view of the words in 1 Peter 5:1-5: “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

Importantly, we note that our members have assented to these same practices and beliefs, at least in principle, through their membership vows. We humbly exhort you to hear and heed Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:8-13: “Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’ (In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes,” as well as the encouragement to strive peacefully in the church, according to the words of Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

Finally: we believe we have not attempted to police this issue thoroughly. We have left it to people’s consciences to listen to the fence and respond honorably. Although instances may come to us that prompt us to address the issue personally, we have not made any attempt to seek out potential infractions.

Amen

Sources

Holy Scripture

  • Genesis 3: 15
  • Matthew 16 :19
  • Matthew 26: 26-28
  • Mark 14: 12-25
  • Luke 22: 14-23
  • John 6: 25-40
  • Acts 2: 37-47
  • 1 Corinthians 10: 14-21
  • 1 Corinthians 11: 17-34
  • Ephesians 4: 8-13
  • Hebrews 13: 17
  • 1 Peter 5: 1-5

Confessional Standards

Tertiary (OPC) Standards

Supplemental resources