Each time we gather for worship at the Lord’s Supper table, I make it a steady practice to clearly fence the table. Fencing the table is explaining who is and who is not welcome to partake of the bread and the cup when they are passed. As I often repeat here on this blog and in my sermons, doctrine matters. Think about it, Jonathan Edwards was fired because of his view of the Lord’s Supper. Puritans were burned at the stake because of their position on the Lord’s Supper. Calvin once passionately threw himself over the Lord’s Supper to protect it from flagrant sinners in Geneva. We must not casually gather for worship around the Lord’s Supper.
Sunday, as our church gathered and I was fencing the table, I made it a point to not only talk to the parents, but I also addressed the children. I wanted them to hear me explain why they were not invited to join with us in worship through the bread and cup. What follows are some basic reasons why you should talk to the children when fencing the table.
Include Children (Even When excluding Them)
In Mark 10:13-16, Jesus rebuked the disciples for turning away the children. He then intentionally included them and even used them as an object lesson to teach about the need to come in a lowly and humble manner. Jesus provided a great example of intentionally taking time for the little ones. Jesus was not too busy for the children.
Recently, in our annual “State of the Church” address, my fellow pastor, David Crowe, explained to the church why we will be handing out children’s bulletins each week beginning in 2018. The purpose of this is to include the children in a very intentional manner. Far too often, children are overlooked and bypassed in the life of the church. It would be to our best interest if we can include them, even when excluding them.
The statistics continually point to growing trends of teens who walk away from the church when they go off to college. Could it be that their church never took them seriously? Could one factor be that their church never intentionally targeted them with intentional discipleship? Could it be that their church was intentional about inviting them to the games and activities, but far less enthusiastic about talking to them about the purpose of the Lord’s Supper and other doctrinal matters? Even when excluding them from the Lord’s Supper, we should talk to them rather than talking past them or over them.
They Need to Understand
Many churches once practiced a children’s sermon that was embedded into the worship each week, and some churches continue that practice today. The idea was that children need to be addressed directly and they need to be taught to understand. One of the problems with preaching and church-life in general today is that little emphasis is placed on understanding. This is true for both adults and children.
When fencing the table, the children need to be taught to understand what the Lord’s Supper is, why we practice it, and who is invited to engage in the worship of God through the Lord’s Supper. When Israel called for Ezra the scribe to come and read and teach the Law of Moses, Ezra expected that the people would understand. That was his goal in reading and teaching. When we talk over the heads of the little ones in our church services, we assume that they cannot understand and we do little to help them understand.
Point Them to the Gospel
Unbelieving children who leave the worship of their church on the Lord’s Day need to know far more than they were barred from the Lord’s Supper table. They need to know why. More specifically, they need to know the gospel. During the fencing of the table, it would be wise to ask for the attention of the children and call for them to pay close attention to the practice and the teaching during the Lord’s Supper. The gospel of Jesus Christ should shine clearly and brightly from the Lord’s Table in such a way that it proclaims the Lord’s death with a joyful anticipation of his return.
We should not be content with unbelieving children remaining in a state of unbelief and ignorance of the gospel. Each time the Lord’s Supper is offered in the context of your local church gathering, it’s one more grand opportunity for unbelieving children to clearly see the glorious Christ put on display before them. The gospel is good news, but it’s also bad news. The explanation of the gospel, when done properly, explains who’s in and who’s out. The same clarity should be made when fencing the table for the observance of the Lord’s Supper. Intentionally point the little ones to the gospel of Christ—for Christ is their only hope. If the Lord’s Supper is observed properly, they should see a glorious picture of redemption as the redeemed eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus’ all sufficient sacrifice for hopeless sinners.
Fence the table properly, but don’t forget the children in the process. They’re watching, listening, and feeling excluded—so include them as you exclude them and help them to understand the glorious gospel.
The Lord’s Table is not only one of the most intimate and exhilarating times of worship for the local church, it’s also one of the most controversial. As we look back through church history, we see that John Rogers and other Puritans were burned at the stake for their view of the Lord’s Supper. Jonathan Edwards was fired because of his position on the Lord’s Supper that caused a rift in his church. Doctrine matters.
As we look back to Paul’s day, we see people in the church of Corinth who were suffering under the judgment of God (sickness and death) as a result of their perversion of the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:29-30). Doctrine matters, but so does our practice of doctrine. This history can sometimes move people beyond self-examination to self-excommunication from the Lord’s Table. This self-excommunication should not be viewed as a badge of honor. The practice of self-excommunication from the Lord’s Table should be resisted.
Self-Examination is Essential Prior to Observing the Lord’s Supper
The Lord’s Supper is one of the most intimate times of worship among the gathered church. We should never approach the observance of the Lord’s Supper in a flippant and loose manner. This high view of the Lord’s Table begins with the pastors of the church. How the Lord’s Table is fenced and how the elements of the Lord’s Supper are distributed sets the bar for the rest of the church. Any proper fencing of the table will encourage the congregation to engage in a time of self-examination in preparation for worship.
In Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, he writes, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28). The word translated examine is the Greek term, “δοκιμάζω” carrying the meaning “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine.”  In the examination process, we should look at our lives vertically, horizontally, internally, and externally.
- In a vertical manner, we examine our relationship with God. Are we in real intimate communion with Him or do we see a separation due to sin (James 4:8)?
- In our horizontal examination, do we find any division between us and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 4:32)?
- In our internal examination, do we find unconfessed sins, idols of the heart, or private sins that we keep hidden from the public (1 Corinthians 11:28; 1 John 2:15)?
- In our external examination, do we find anything that’s preventing us from engaging with our church to reach the neighborhoods and the nations with the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20)?
James Montgomery Boice writes:
At the heart of the present significance of the Lord’s Supper is our communion or fellowship with Christ, hence the term “communion service.” In coming to this service the believer comes to meet with Christ and have fellowship with Him at His invitation. The examination takes place because it would be hypocrisy for us to pretend that we are in communion with the Holy One while actually cherishing known sin in our hearts. 
Self-examination is demanded of God’s children, but this examination must accomplish its intended purpose which is repentance and unity that leads to the observance of the Lord’s Supper rather than self-excommunication.
Why Self-Excommunication from the Lord’s Supper is a Bad Idea
When the Reformers were coming out of the Roman Catholic Church, they insisted that the Church at Rome was not a true church. Their passionate preaching and writing resulted in a very important question: What then constitutes a true church? The response to this question, although varied to some degree among different theologians, resulted in three essential marks of a true church. Those marks are:
- The right preaching of the Word of God.
- The right administration of the sacraments (ordinances).
- The practice of biblical church discipline.
Much emphasis is often placed on the right preaching of the Word while less emphasis is placed on the not-so-right practices of the Lord’s Supper. Sometimes you see the Lord’s Supper observed at weddings, in college dormitories, and even among volunteers in the church nursery—and sometimes you hear about people who bar themselves from the Lord’s Table due to a guilty conscience. When considering the responsibility and privileges of the Lord’s Supper, we must refrain from barring ourselves by becoming an intentional absentee (not attending the evening service if it’s observed in the evening services) or by intentional excommunication (due to a guilty conscience regarding our sin). Consider the following points.
- Refusing to eat the Lord’s Supper and worship Christ is sinful (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:25).
- We are members of a local church under authority – not self-autonomy (Hebrews 13:17).
- We are commanded to eat and remember (1 Corinthians 11:28).
- We are never called to excommunicate ourselves (notice that in Matthew 5:23-24 the man left his offering emphasizing that he would return shortly).
- The Lord’s Supper demands examination and restoration rather than excommunication (the idea of examination is designed for the opportunity of immediate repentance rather than a delayed response. This is perhaps the closest thing we have to an altar call in the entire Bible).
- The devil is the accuser of the brethren and we can expect him to remind us of our past sins which should never be the cause of self-excommunication. The devil delights in dividing the church from worship at the Lord’s Table (Revelation 12:10; 1 Peter 5:8).
Consider the words of J. C. Ryle as he comments on Matthew 26:26-35:
Let us leave the passage with serious self-inquiry as to our own conduct with respect to the Lord’s Supper. Do we turn away from it, when it is administered? If so, how can we justify our conduct?—It will not do to say it is not a necessary ordinance. To say so is to pour contempt on Christ Himself, and declare that we do not obey Him.—It will not do to say that we feel unworthy to come to the Lord’s table. To say so is to declare that we are unfit to die, and unprepared to meet God. These are solemn considerations. All non-communicants should ponder them well. 
The next time you enter the sanctuary of your local church and see the Lord’s Table ready for distribution, just remember, this is one more opportunity to unite with your church family in an intimate time of worship. This is likewise one more precious opportunity for repentance given to you by the Lord Himself. If you feel unworthy and inadequate to observe the Lord’s Supper, that’s normal and it’s one of the goals of the ordinance. Anyone who feels worthy and adequate is one who should not partake because that person is most likely not a true child of God. We approach the Lord through the Lord’s Supper as unworthy sinners who cling to Christ alone as our only hope now—and forever.
Therefore, the Lord Himself commands that we eat and drink and remember His work – His sacrifice – our salvation that comes through Him.
- William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 255.
- James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith-Book I, (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 603.
- J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), 360.
Several years ago while attending seminary, a person asked me, “Would John Calvin be welcomed to partake in the Lord’s Supper in your church?” I was serving as a pastor of a local church (52 miles south of campus) while attending seminary, and the question was centered upon closed, close, or open communion. This act of worship is much more than mere superstition. It’s certainly more than the consumption of food and drink. The pastor must do the work of properly fencing the table, but exactly why is this a necessity? How high should this fence be? In fencing the table, isn’t the pastor excluding certain people from worship?
Fencing the Table Involves Shepherding Souls
Could it be that John Calvin wouldn’t be welcomed to the Lord’s table during our worship service? The practice of close communion requires that a person be a member of a church of like faith and practice and that the individual be a baptized follower of Christ who is in good standing within his or her local church. In short, visitors are welcomed to the Lord’s table in our church services, but the table is fenced and the terms are made clear. In making the terms clear, the pastor is engaging in an act of shepherding. This is one reason why the Lord’s Supper should never be practiced in private without the gathered church.
Fencing the table is more than excluding people who don’t agree with our mode of baptism. It’s about protecting the Lord’s table from open shame by people partaking of it in foolishness and outright rebellion. The unbeliever is barred from the Lord’s table. This should be made clear. The person who has unbelieving children should manage their household well and prevent their children from partaking. The Lord’s Supper is a solemn act of worship.
The fencing of the table is a shepherding opportunity and responsibility of the elders of the church. If a member is known to be living in open sin, that person may be under discipline and asked to refrain from observing the Lord’s Supper. In other cases, the fencing of the table provides a good opportunity to examine one’s self. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth and said these words, “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” (1 Cor. 11:28-29). To examine means to have a time of self introspection. To look inwardly and see if there is perhaps any sin that has been lingering and in need of repentance.
Fencing the Table Provides an Opportunity for Repentance
One of the blessings of the Lord’s table is the opportunity to confess sins to God and follow Him in repentance. The act of ongoing repentance is a necessary (and often overlooked) practice of the believer. The mortification of sin is an ongoing practice that must take place in the believer’s life (Col. 3:5-11). This act of repentance as we approach the Lord’s table is a vertical act between us and our God. We must recognize the need to repent and by the power of the gospel and the application of the Word by the Spirit of God, we humble ourselves before the Lord of glory in repentance.
At one point, John Calvin (to use him in a more positive example) stood before his congregation in Geneva and publicly barred a man from the Lord’s table. A controversy had arisen among Calvin and the Council of the city who overturned a ruling of the church to prevent a man from observing the Lord’s Supper. He was known to be living in open sexual sin (known as the Libertines), and this grieved Calvin’s heart. He protested the Council’s decision, but went on to preach on the Lord’s Day. When the sermon was finished and following a time of prayer, he descended from his lofty pulpit to the Lord’s table. The man who was under discipline was in the church on that particular day with his friends. After Calvin fenced the table, a sudden rush came from the trouble makers toward the Lord’s table. They insisted that they would partake of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin protested as he flung himself around the vessels containing the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin’s voice echoed through the congregation, “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.”  According to Theodore Beza, Calvin’s first biographer, after this protest by Calvin, “the sacred ordinance was celebrated with a profound silence, and under solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity Himself had been visible among them.” 
There is a profound element of confrontation and examination that takes place in the fencing of the table as the church is preparing to worship God. This is a necessary component that protects Christ from being trampled under the foot of shameful rebels and it protects the children of God from judgment (1 Cor. 11:29-32). We should refrain from making the Lord’s Supper fun and exciting. We must not overlook the solemnity of the act of worship.
Fencing the Table Provides an Opportunity for Reconciliation
As the time of examination and repentance takes place, this affords each person in the room an opportunity for both vertical and horizontal reconciliation. First, the member of the church can have a time of repentance and confession that leads to reconciliation to God. Sure, the child of God is at perpetual peace with God through the blood of Christ, but that does not negate the need for ongoing mortification of sin and reconciliation.
Likewise, the church of Jesus Christ is called to a spirit of unity and the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). This time of horizontal reconciliation honors Christ, builds unity, tears down walls of sin, and enables a church to work closely together for the glory of God. In building a fence around the Lord’s table enables us to tear down walls of sin. To withhold reconciliation and genuine Christian relationship from a fellow brother or sister in Christ is nothing less than sin. After contemplating the great doctrine of reconciliation as it pertains to our relationship with God through Christ, how can we dare withhold reconciliation from a fellow church member?
Consider the necessity for the fence and the privilege of the table. The fence and the table are both for our good and ultimately – the glory of God. A healthy church will never grow where the people and their pastors casually approach the Lord’s table with superstition and sin. Yes, I would have to ask Calvin to refrain from observing the Lord’s Supper with our church if he were in attendance, but I will forever be grateful for his boldness and zeal to protect the Lord’s table from the open shame of sinful rebels.
- David Mathis, “The Fateful Years: Life of Calvin, Part 8” – DesiringGod.org
- John Piper, John Calvin and his Passion for the Majesty of God, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 43.