One of the most intimate services we will hold until we dwell in the presence of our God in eternity is the Lord’s Supper. It points us to the body and blood of Jesus which unites us together in love and directs our attention to the promise of Jesus’ triumphant return when our King shall descend in glory. So, what about COVID-19 communion?
Needless to say, the present COVID-19 pandemic has caused a great disruption on the worship of God’s people around the world. I have friends high in the Andes mountains in Ecuador who are worshipping in their home without the gathered church. I have friends in Zambia, Africa who are gathered with their family members worshipping the Lord, but yet without the assembled corporate body of their local church. This pandemic has a widespread effect that has impacted us all.
During this pandemic, people begin thinking of solutions to problems. Politicians are trying to organize communities for the safety of the people, medical professionals are trying to treat the sick with this disease while others are laboring for a vaccine, and church leaders are trying to minister to their local church while remaining disassembled. During this strange and discouraging season, some pragmatic leaders are beginning to use the phrase “virtual church” which has been around for a while, but now it’s gaining a bit of traction during this season of social distancing.
It didn’t take long before pastors began to press the limits of technology. Pastors are beginning to lead their local churches in the observance of the Lord’s Supper—virtually. Why does the Lord’s Supper require more than technology can provide for local churches to worship together?
Virtually Connected and Literally Disconnected
The intimacy of the Lord’s Supper was put on vivid display in Jesus’ final Passover meal and inaugural Lord’s Supper celebration (Matt. 26:26-29). The disciples were present with Jesus and he spoke directly to them after breaking the bread and served it to them with clear directions. Jesus defined it clearly and served his disciples in an intimate gathering preceding his cruel crucifixion.
Technology has a wonderful place in our world and is providentially given to God’s people during this pandemic for the purpose of being connected and spreading the good news. I personally love using technology for the glory of God—especially since I was converted while listening to a sermon online. I likewise have an undergraduate degree in business information systems. However, it’s quite possible to be connected virtually and disconnected literally at the same time. That’s where we find ourselves in this season of social distancing.
Consider the word of Paul to the church at Corinth. All through the eleventh chapter, Paul points to the church being called together. In fact, Paul references the togetherness of the people some five times between 1 Corinthians 11:18-34. Jesus modeled the togetherness of the meal in his earthly ministry with his disciples and gave specific instructions to continue eating and drinking in remembrance of him (Luke 22:19).
Logic alone should tell us that it’s impossible to use technology to enjoy an intimate meal with a friend or spouse while separated—much less the entire gathered church family. The special and unique assembly of the Lord’s Supper cannot be reduced to pixels on a screen. Technology can only bring people so close, but it cannot ultimately bring people together. However, logic is not the basis for our position on the Lord’s Supper—theology is our foundation.
The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, is not a private event. It’s public and is one of the two ordinances given to God’s Church. In 1 Corinthians 10:17, Paul writes these words, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The church publicly gathered in the presence of one another are called to be served together from the same bread—indicating their unity in Christ. This cannot be accomplished as a pastor looks at a camera and gives directions to people in their homes. The assembly of God’s people is necessitated in order to fulfill God’s plan for the Lord’s Supper.
Fencing the Table Matters
Before serving the Lord’s Supper, it’s essential to provide clear directions to the people in order to protect the sacredness of the ordinance. The Lord’s Supper is one of two ordinances of the church and is not salvific, but there is an element of uniqueness and sacredness that needs to be upheld in the Lord’s Supper. It’s a time where we remember the body (Jesus’ incarnation), the blood (Jesus’ substitutionary sacrifice), and long for Jesus return. It’s also a time when we are called to remember sin and confess our sin properly before engaging in the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Corinthians 11).
Furthermore, such fencing provides clear directions regarding who is welcome to partake of the Lord’s Supper and who is not invited. The unbelieving family member who is a guest of our worship service and the person under church discipline must understand that they are 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 special presence of the Lord among his people in a unique manner carefully and intentionally overseen by the elders of the church is simply not possible through the screen of an iPhone.
In short, the church needs faithful pastors to look them in the eye across the table and provide both clear instructions for this joyful celebration and stern warnings for profaning the Lord’s Supper.
Providentially Hindered for a Season
Persecuted Christians in a prison are providentially hindered from the Lord’s Supper. Is God dishonored by their inability to worship through the Lord’s Supper? We must exercise wisdom as we think through the work of God and his providence in this season of a pandemic that has created many challenges to God’s Church around the world.
As we seek to overcome the many challenges to our worship during this pandemic that has brought the entire world to a stop—we can use technology to bridge the gap, but we must remember that it’s not virtual church. The church is not virtual. The church is literal. We must not seek to reduce the church to pixels on a screen. It simply cannot happen. We are providentially hindered from gathering together during this season of social distancing, and God is not caught off guard by this. God is very much active and ruling over this season and will accomplish his purpose.
If a local church has concealed their low view of the Lord’s Supper and other aspects of Christian worship, the present COVID-19 pandemic will likely unveil it for everyone to see. When the man on the cross next to Jesus embraced Christ by faith—he was providentially hindered from being baptized. God ordained it. Rather than redefining the Lord’s Supper to a virtual meeting that turns it into something other than the Lord’s Supper altogether—we must remain patient and remember God is sovereign over this season and desires to be worshipped properly and with order.
God’s design of the worship of his Church transcends pandemics and culture. This season shall pass and local churches will once again assemble together, embrace one another in Christian love, and celebrate the body and blood of King Jesus through the Lord’s Supper as we long for him to return and make all things new.
Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
—Come, Thou long expected Jesus
Recently, a church in a neighboring town, did the unthinkable. After the worship service ended, families in the church were able to pick up a small bag that contained the elements of the Lord’s Supper so they could take it home and observe the ordinance with their family. According to the church, it was a special time for a Christmas observance—intended to be a special time of observance with their individual families. The problem with this view is simple—the Lord’s Supper is primarily about the church’s fellowship with God and it’s not a private devotional.
The Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance—one of only two of such church ordinances given to God’s people by Jesus. How we approach God in worship matters greatly, and as we read the Bible it becomes apparent that God takes seriously the methods of our worship. For instance, when the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, offered up unauthorized fire to the LORD, God struck them down (see Leviticus 10). As we move on to the New Testament, we find similar language in 1 Corinthians 11, as Paul pointedly explained the deaths and sicknesses of the people in their local church and how it had been directly connected to their abuse of the Lord’s Supper.
Neither of the two ordinances are private or personal. They are corporate and public. In other words, we don’t baptize children who believe in the bathtub at home and simply report it to the church. There is a process by which the elders of the church oversee and care for the souls of the church—and in doing so they properly oversee the process of baptism. This is why beach baptisms at summer youth camp might seem like a cool thing, but it’s simply not biblical. Where is the gathered church? It’s likewise the same reason Christians should not be getting rebaptized at the Jordan River upon their visit to the Holy Land. It’s also the same reason why football players shouldn’t be dunked in a tank on the football field after a short presentation of the gospel. It’s not an ordinance of the football team—it’s an ordinance of the church. Baptism is to be practiced publicly—and it’s not something to be done at the beach or the Jordan River when the church is not gathered for corporate worship.
In the same way, the Lord’s Supper must be administered properly and carefully to avoid heresy and abuse. As the pastor fences the table, he will explain the church’s position (close, closed, or open communion). He will likewise explain who is invited to partake and who is not invited to the Lord’s Supper table. This time of explanation serves well for both discipleship and evangelism. However, it’s at this point that we must recall the fact that Jonathan Edwards, one of the towering figures in church history, was fired from his church for his position on the Lord’s Supper. It was during the reign of Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary) that some 300 Protestants were burned at the stake for their refusal to partake in the Catholic mass, thereby embracing transubstantiation—a Roman Catholic heresy. How we approach God at the Lord’s Supper table matters (remember 1 Cor. 11)! To play fast and loose with the elements of the Lord’s Supper table dishonors God and fails to shepherd the souls of the church.
If a church distributes little bags filled with the elements of the Lord’s Supper at the back door, who is going to oversee that process in each individual home? Are unbaptized children going to partake? Will unconverted and unbaptized spouses partake? Will ESPN and the afternoon football game be playing in the background as the family eats the bread and drinks from the cup in Jesus’ name? What purpose would sending little bags with the Lord’s Supper elements home with church members serve? We must never treat the Lord’s Supper as if it’s an afternoon snack or a common meal for the church to enjoy—privately. Not only is this dangerous, it’s simply an unbiblical practice that should be avoided.
All throughout history, theologians have sought to summarize what main building blocks are mandatory for a group who gathers in Jesus’ name to be considered a true church. 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 ordinances (note that some believers refer to the ordinances as the sacraments).
- The practice of biblical church discipline.
This is such a vitally important truth to consider, especially when evaluating your own church’s worship or when moving out of state and looking for a new church. When it comes to worship, we must evaluate the “what” and the “how” of worship which is centered on what has been called the elements and circumstances of worship.
The elements will consist of the following for a weekly worship gathering. It must be noted that while public church discipline may not show up in a weekly service and isn’t required to be a weekly occurrence, it might be a part of a worship service at some point as needed. It should also be noted that even in the practice of the Lord’s Supper, some churches will observe it every week while others once per month, or some other respectable routine.
Elements as directed and commanded in Scripture:
- The public reading of Scripture (Acts 15:21, Rev. 1:3)
- The preaching of Scripture (2 Timothy 4:2)
- The hearing of the Word of God (James 1:19)
- The singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16, Eph. 5:19, James 5:13)
- The baptism of new believers (Matthew 28:19)
- The Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23, Acts 2:42)
- The Collection of Offerings (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 9:3-12)
The circumstances will consist of various ways in which the church practices the worship of God as a corporate gathering. In some cases, churches may decided to use screens for the display of the words of the hymns and songs to aid in better singing. The church may choose to use microphones, although I’ve preached in settings in other countries where there was no modern lighting or amplification. In other words, we have freedom in some respects to the “how” of our worship, but we must be clear that it’s still regulated by God’s Word. The Bible provides the boundaries by which we are governed.
How we approach the Lord’s Supper matters! This is why John Calvin once upon a time threw himself over the table and sternly warned the church. A controversy had arisen among Calvin and the Council of the city of Geneva 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, 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 sinful rebels, with swords clinging from their belts, towards the Lord’s table. They insisted that they would partake of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin protested as he flung himself over 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.”
If I was to give counsel to a family (as I’ve done on many occasions) who is looking to unite with a new church in another city as a result of a job transfer, I would encourage them to find a church that has a high view of church membership (guarding the front door and back door), a church that preaches the Bible in a verse-by-verse methodology, a church that properly and carefully practices baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and lastly a church that practices loving and biblical church discipline.
If the church seems friendly and the music is a delight to the ear, but the church has a loose approach to fencing the Lord’s Supper or sends it home in a little bag for private observance—it would not be one that I would lead my family to join, nor would I recommend it to others.
The Lord’s Supper is not a common meal or a private devotional before the Lord. It’s a corporate piece of the overall elements of the worship service of the gathered church. The Lord’s Supper is not a private ordinance for family devotion, it’s a church ordinance for public worship. The Puritan Stephen Charnock (1628-1680), said the following about the Lord’s Supper:
There is in this action more communion with God….than in any other religious act….We have not so near a communion with a person, either by petitioning for something we want, or returning him thanks for a favour received, as we have by sitting with him at his table, partaking of the same bread and the same cup. 
- Stephen Charnock, “A Discourse of the End of the Lord’s Supper,” The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock (1864-1866; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 4:407.
When it comes to worship, there are no shortage of opinions on how it should be done. However, when it comes to worship, we must likewise remember that we have a sufficient guide in holy Scripture. Everything about how God desires to be worshipped can be found in the pages of the Bible.
Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper at the very moment of his Last Supper with his disciples. His time of celebration with them involved the observation of the Passover feast—a yearly meal designed to remember the deliverance of God’s people from Egypt. The Passover feast predates the tabernacle, the establishment of the law, and Israel’s priesthood (Ex. 12:15-17). As Jesus celebrated with his followers, he likewise pointed them to the culmination of the Passover in the Lord’s Supper since Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises and sacrificial system of Israel’s history. Jonathan Edwards wrote in his A History of the Work of Redemption, “Christ and his redemption are the subject of the whole Word of God.” 
Since Jesus instated the Lord’s Supper as a means of continual worship (see the language of 1 Corinthians 11:26), the way in which we engage in worship at the Lord’s Table matters. We should intentionally aim at theological precision and emotional balance. We should approach the Lord’s Table with tears of sorrow and smiles of joy. We must avoid superficial cliché worship and sacramentalism at the same time. With that in mind, there are two ways to engage in worship at the Lord’s Table that honor God.
A Heart of Sorrow
As Jesus ate and drank with his disciples, he said these words, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). We are to remember the body and blood of Jesus that was nailed to a Roman cross and we’re called to proclaim his death until Christ returns.
As Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24). To remember the death of Jesus requires a sober mind and one that leads to a heart of sorrow. Consider the Son of God betrayed by a friend, accused of blasphemy, beaten beyond recognition, publicly humiliated, nailed to a cross, and raised up in open shame. Consider the pain and discomfort he was experiencing at that moment. Consider the crushing weight of the sins of all of his people being laid upon him. This scene brings us to a place of sorrow.
Furthermore, our sorrow is not merely sentimental—it’s personal sorrow. It’s personal sorrow based on personal sin. The crushing blow of the God’s wrath was unleashed on Jesus for the sins of his people. As we remember this scene, we have to recall the fact that Jesus was paying for our sin debt—our personal sins—each and every one of them. This should bring us to a proper place of humility and sorrow.
A Heart of Joy
How can the scene of the dying Savior bring us to a place of joy and celebration? The emotion of sorrow seems much more fitting, so how do we arrive at joy as we stand in the shadow of the cross of Jesus? The answer is found in how Jesus’ sacrifice became the fulfillment of the long awaited promise of Genesis 3:15. Did Jesus satisfy the Father’s wrath? Did Jesus pay in full our sin debt? With absolute certainty he accomplished those realities, and in doing so he accomplished the plan of redemption in victory.
Consider the words of the apostle Paul as he describes the work of Jesus, stating he forgave us “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:14–15).
We can celebrate at the Lord’s Table as we consider the victory that has been secured by Jesus for each and every one of his people. Not one single sin will be held to our account. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Every single sin was nailed to the cross and Christ paid our debt in full. By doing so, Jesus disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame. His substitutionary death was the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15, therefore, we can celebrate as we gather around the Lord’s Table to remember the body and blood of King Jesus. We don’t approach the Lord’s Table with a heart fueled by superficial clichés. We approach the Lord’s Table with a heart filled with sorrow and overflowing with joy. J.C. Ryle, in his commentary on Matthew 26, writes the following:
Are we in the habit of coming to the Lord’s table? If so, in what frame of mind do we come? Do we draw near intelligently, humbly, and with faith? Do we understand what we are doing? Do we really feel our sinfulness and need of Christ? Do we really desire to live a Christian life, as well as profess the Christian faith? Happy is that soul who can give a satisfactory answer to these questions. Let him go forward, and persevere.
- Philip Graham Ryken and R. Kent Hughes, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005), 330.
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.