The Vital Role Elders Play in Their Call as the Shepherds of the Church
In this third part of our talk about the ARP and the doctrine of Close Communion we are going to expand on the question of who gets to discern who is allowed to be at the Table and who is not. As we noted before there is probably no other part of this issue that will cause more dander to be dandered than this. No matter how much we’d like in the church to act as if we are not as the world we express our worldliness most especially whenever authority is brought to the fore. Who are you to tell me what to do is the spirit of the age and we would be daft to act like that mantra is not often on the lips of people who name Christ as Lord. The reason why I mention this is because that is what today’s prayer and worship help is all about. Unlike the days of the Judges when there was no king in Israel for all did what was right in their own eyes, when it comes to the Lord’s Supper there most certainly is a King and His divine call to shepherd and see that the table is guarded from the leaven of unrighteousness must not be trifled with. So as we get into the nature of the fencing of participation in communion we need to begin with a few reminders of the purpose of the sacrament so that we can approach the historical framework with the right mindset.
First off, the Table is for believers. That is those who are visible and professed members of the Christian Church. It is not, despite what John Wesley and his followers would say, a converting ordinance. In other words no one can be saved by the eating and drinking of the body and blood of Jesus, just the opposite. We are in no way denying an evangelistic opportunity by making distinctions in who partakes. Part of this of course is that just like unbelievers are not to be served by the elders so too children of the covenant who have not met with the session and thereby been confirmed in their faith and passed from non-communicant membership to communicant membership are not granted access to the Table. It is sometimes said that young people ate at the Passover so they similarly cannot be frustrated from attending to the new covenant meal, however, the Biblical record does not seem to record their participation. When there is a renewal ceremony in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah (Neh. 8-10) it is only those with understanding who are present. So-called paedocommunion (paedo references children) is also against what our Confession and Catechism teach, see WLC 177 explicitly.
A second aspect of this that is important to remember is that just like social covenanting, the Lord’s Supper is never an individual act. It may involve individuals, but it is the community of faith coming together as one to speak as one. That is why it is important that we take stock of not only where the church is as she comes together at the Lord’s Supper, but also why we are to guide those who would come and eat and drink the blessings of God, so that the covenant curse does not arrive either.
There are a couple details worth mentioning now. From Seceder James Fisher’s explanation of the Shorter Catechism we have this Q/A:
Q. 18. Who are the administrators of this sacrament?
A. Christ himself was the first administrator of it; and after him, ministers of the word, lawfully called and set apart to that office.
Here we see that, as with the preaching of the word, the Lord’s Supper is only administered (which means overseen, or presented) by those set aside for that work. This is important because if Christ is the head and His undershepherds the governors it grants to them a certain authority due to their office and call. We see in the first observance that the Table is only consecrated for those within the circle of the Apostles (whether Judas was there is a separate question which obviously has relevance to what we are talking about here, for arguments about that see here and here). Christ obviously guarded who would be present, and in relation to what we see in the practice of the early church as seen in Acts 20 and 1 Corinthians 11 there is care taken as well per the instructions of the ministers and apostles that it be done decently and in order.
In the Westminster Directory of Public Worship we read the following:
The communion, or supper of the Lord, is frequently to be celebrated; but how often, may be considered and determined by the ministers, and other church-governors of each congregation, as they shall find most convenient for the comfort and edification of the people committed to their charge. And, when it shall be administered, we judge it convenient to be done after the morning sermon.
It is logical to assume that if the time and frequency is given to the ministers (church governors is what would today be called elders) that the oversight of the partakers would also be theirs as well. We see intimations to this effect in a couple of passages from Scripture. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” and similarly 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake…”.
Our Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 30 echoes this when it notes:
“To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.”
The question which usually comes now is, “Doesn’t 1 Cor. 11:28 say, ‘But let a man examine himself. . .’?” Well, here is a case where both/and comes into play. Yes, you are to take stock of your spiritual state before coming to the Table, and if you have reason to self-prohibit yourself due to unconfessed sin or other matters which may be known between you and the Lord then by all means you are duty bound to take that before your Redeemer. However, 1 Cor. 11:28 does not preclude or bar your elders and/or minister from guarding the Supper as needed to protect the sheep, of which you are one. If it is a loving act of mercy to provide physical defense of loved ones according to the Sixth Commandment, how much more so is this true when it come to the security of our spiritual life and the duty of elders and ministers?
Every time we partake of Communion at Bethany I give a verbal warning which says that the Table is for sinners, but it is specifically those sinners who have given themselves over to the mercy of Christ. Unconfessed sin which is not addressed by the hearer promises that damage will come to their soul if they dare to come to the break and cup unworthily. Hence, we see why our forefathers in the faith in the doctrine of Close Communion felt the need to more directly protect men and women from this fate. As we remarked before we believe in the Lord’s Supper that there is something really happening there, both to the good and to the bad. We must walk circumspectly and in wisdom.
Here is a word of example of how close communion, or session-controlled is practiced today:
Blessings in Christ,
Rev. Benjamin Glaser
Pastor. Bethany ARP Church