Session-Controlled Communion: Another View

Restricted Communion in One OPC Congregation
William Shishko

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 3, no. 4 (October 1994)

“…or be admitted thereunto.”

So ends the Westminster Confession of Faith’s chapter on the Lord’s Supper (XXIX). The Westminster Standards do not teach that people admit themselves to the Lord’s Supper, but that they are to “be admitted” to it. “All ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with (the Lord), 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.” (section VIII, emphasis mine). We demonstrate our allegiance to this confessional standard by not admitting covenant children or new Christians to the Lord’s Table until they have publicly professed their faith in Christ, c.f. OPC Directory for Worship, V:4. We also apply this standard by the step of church discipline known as “suspension,” cf. OPC Book of Discipline, VI:B:3.

But how do we apply the confessional standard “…be admitted thereunto” with respect to visitors at a service when the Lord’s Supper is being observed as part of our worship? A warning is read, c.f. OPC Directory for Worship, IV:C:2, and the elements are distributed indiscriminately by Session members across the pews, etc. The decision is left to the visitors (adults and children) as to whether or not they may partake of the elements. They “admit themselves thereunto.” Over against the old Scottish tradition which took the confessional standard so seriously that “communion tokens” were issued to those who were permitted to come to the Lord’s Supper, the hallowed American tradition is that “it’s left up to the individual.” Which tradition is closer to the pattern of both the Scriptures and the Reformed confessions?

Over a decade ago the Session of the OPC, Franklin Square considered this question, and came to the conclusion that what is commonly called “restricted communion” was decidedly more in line with the standard implied in the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger Catechism #173. We were struck with the fact that our church visitors were treated with a different standard than our own covenant children, who often knew more about the Gospel than many visitors! We were also convicted that the traditional American practice of “letting people make the decision for themselves” eviscerated any upholding of the discipline of other churches (a situation we would periodically face). From that time we have applied our conviction with this practice:

1. The week prior to the Lord’s Supper (which is observed monthly) we announce in the church bulletin that: “The Lord’s Supper will be administered next week as part of our morning worship service. The Lord’s Supper is for those who have been baptized in the Name of the Triune God, have publicly professed their faith in Christ, and are members of an evangelical church. Those visiting with us who desire to partake of the Lord’s Supper should speak with one of the church elders before doing so.” A similar announcement is placed in the bulletin on the Sunday of the Lord’s Supper.

2. Regular visitors (who have not already done so) speak with one of the elders either during the week prior to the Supper, or on that Sunday morning. We try to have one or more elders available near the entrance of the church so that visitors may consult with an elder. In most cases we know enough about the churches people come from so that individual elders may represent the Session by either giving permission to visitors to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us, or asking that they refrain from partaking with us “this time.” We see even the denial of permission to partake of the Lord’s Supper as an opportunity for ministry.

3. The standard warning is given prior to the administering of the Lord’s Supper, along with a statement such as this: “In order to preserve the integrity of our oversight of the Lord’s Table, if any of you visiting with us have not spoken with one of the church elders regarding your participation in the Lord’s Supper, we would ask that you refrain from partaking today.”

4. During the actual distribution of the elements the session members withhold the respective plates from those who have not spoken with of the session members.

I hasten to point out that this system is not “foolproof.” We frequently have many visitors, and it is difficult to enforce this as we would like. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that people do not actually come up to the communion table to be served, and also because the plates with the elements must, of necessity, be passed down entire pews from person to person. It would be far better if the elders gave the elements personally to each person “admitted” to the Lord’s Supper…but that’s hard to do in a congregation of over 200 people seated in pews!!! It’s also sometimes difficult to discern whether the congregation the visitor is from is genuinely “evangelical.” The term itself is becoming meaningless in our day. But, as with every other area of church discipline, we keep on working to be faithful to the standard of the Word of God. Our view has been to give a judgment of charity and admit persons who profess to be members of churches that are in some way conformed to a biblical pattern of doctrine and life.

What are the responses to this practice? Some take umbrage and (in true New York fashion!) let the elders know it. Others are more or less bothered by it, or are simply unfamiliar with it, and submit (the OPC is different than other evangelical churches in a number of ways, isn’t it?). Still others will say that even if they didn’t fully understand why we do things this way, they appreciated the care we had to preserve the integrity of the Lord’s Table. I’d like to think that’s the response that is the most genuinely sensitive to the administration of holy things in an unholy world.

How does your Session grapple with the phrase “…or be admitted thereunto”? Ponder the question and honestly ask yourself if the American evangelical pattern most of us are familiar with really squares with our confessional standard and the historic practice of the Reformed churches. For further reading on the question, see Professor John Murray’s thought provoking little article entitled “Restricted Communion” in his Collected Writings (Banner of Truth), 2:381-384.

Rev. Shishko is pastor of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church of Franklin Square, New York

Session-Controlled Communion & 1st Corninthians 11

Last evening my wife, our two little daughters, and I had the pleasure of going to our usually Lord’s Day evening service at North Hills RP Church here in Pittsburgh. We had not been there for a couple of weeks due to car troubles, birth of Mackenzie, being out of town, etc… So it was with a little surprise that we went last night to find out that North Hills was having communion. Also another surprise (actually I had forgotten) that North Hills practices what is called “Session-controlled communion” which means that anyone wanting to take communion at North Hills must meet with the Session and be approved prior to taking the elements at North Hills. As it is with many church doctrines that the mainlines and the more conservative denominations have kicked to the wayside and plain-just forgotten the Presbyterians used to be known for this. While those like NHRPC do not hand out tokens like in days passed they take very seriously the dangers associated with taking the Eucharist with laxity and disregard for its holy nature. The rationale for session-controlled communion can be found in Paul’s warning in 1st Corinthians 11 following the words of institution that we all use. Paul says:

The Lord’s Supper

23For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.

Paul clearly is teaching here that a person must examine himself/herself before taking the elements and if they do not and take the elements unworthily they will do harm to themselves. Also implicit in this warning is a call to the Elders of the church at Corinth. For as I am sure Paul directed the Elders at Corinth part of the understanding of the role of the Elder in Paul’s day and in the Presbyterian system in our day is that they are responsible for the spiritual health and welfare of those under their care (cf: 1 Tim 3:5, Titus 1:7). Therefore not only does the individual have a responsible to guard themselves but the Elders have a heavenly call to guard the sheep from hurting themselves much like the Elders would protect them from any other danger. This is why many call for quarterly communion so that all can be protected properly. However as I believe that the Scriptures call for weekly communion and because of this if you are to have both session-controlled communion and weekly communion it is imperative for the session of the local church to be active in the preparation for the worship service each Lord’s Day and that includes introducing themselves to any visitors and letting them know what the policy is at the local church (not just about communion but other things as well).

What is the policy of your local congregation? How do you think this would work at a local level in your denomination?

Let me know what you think.

Weekly Communion?

Calvin in his Institutes argues for a weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. He makes several statements in Book IV concerning this notion including: “No assembly of the church should be held without the word being preached, prayers being offered, the Lord’s Supper administered and alms given” (4.17.44) and “The Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually”(4.17.46). We have done well to remember that preaching, praying and the offering be carried on each Sunday but have forsaken Calvin’s and Scriptures understanding of weekly communion. Calvin defends this position by appealing to the practice of the Apostles as recorded by Luke in Acts 2:42 and 20:7. These texts give an account of the weekly meetings of the Apostles and that they included “breaking bread” together. Calvin as well in his commentary on 1st Corinthians 11:25-27 supports this idea of weekly communion.

John Calvin develops his argument for weekly communion by first distinguishing in the Institutes between Zwingli’s memorial view and his own understanding of Christ’s real presence in the elements as well as how this changes the way we view our own participation in the Lord’s Supper. Now this is of course not to say Calvin believed in transubstantiation or even Luther’s consubstantiation but that he did confess “[Christ’s] flesh is meat indeed and his blood drink indeed, nourishing us unto life eternal…”(4.17.4) and that “Christ is the only food of our soul…” (4.17.1). In other words Calvin says that Christ is truly present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper and that these elements are a way in which we receive the “strength” of the food which is Christ’s presence in our lives. Calvin reiterates this by making it clear that any time we take the Lord’s Supper that we recall that “As bread nourishes, sustains, and protects our bodily life so the body of Christ is the only food to invigorate and keep alive the soul.” (4.17.3) To forsake this meal Calvin says would lead to the atrophying of the human soul. Communion is vital to the life and being of the Christian man or woman.

The life bread of the Church is Jesus Christ. We confess this to be true yet we deny the benefits to the people of God that this life bread brings by abrogating our duties as teachers of the faith when we do not follow the instruction of Paul in his letters and our Reformed heritage in John Calvin with respect to the act and true presence of Jesus Christ in the elements of communion. Calvin says, “Take, eat, drink. This is my body, which is broken for you: this is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins” (4.17.2). Again in other words Calvin very much agrees that Christ is not being symbolic in these expressions but is truly present in the elements of communion. Now Calvin does not say, like Luther and Rome that Christ is physically present, but is truly spiritually present in the act of the Eucharist.

Now that we know what Calvin means by the Lord’s Supper and why we should practice this weekly, how does this finding help to encourage and instruct the modern Church in its life and faith today? Well firstly when we do understand this teaching of the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ in the feast we now take the corporate gathering for the Lord’s Day much more seriously. When the Eucharist is celebrated weekly we have the opportunity to be spiritual fed by Christ in the most intimate of ways.

Secondly, we have in modern days become quite skeptical about the mysteries of the faith. We have relied, to a great extent, too strongly on the empirical to establish the foundations of our faith and have come to be wary of speaking in mysterious terms and paradox whereas our ancestors found great comfort and strength in the mysteries that thrive in the Word of God. This reliance on the observed belies, especially when speaking of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a true lack of faith in the work of Christ in our lives. We have come to expect that the real presence means for us our physical and corporeal dimensions be lifted up by the existence of Christ in our persons. By reestablishing the reality of Christ’s spiritual presence in a weekly communion service we can by both application and this corporate bond establish for our parishioners a lively and direct relationship with Christ that in physical way reminds them of the spiritual presence of Christ.

The life of the mainline Church is hungry for the work of God. It acts and thinks as a malnourished child reacting swiftly and without forethought in any number of arenas. I believe this is a combination of things, including the forsaking of the power of the Scriptures; most important of these is that we have forsaken the daily bread that our Lord Jesus provides to us. Calvin makes the point, as we have discussed earlier, that a body cannot live without proper food. What the Church has attempted to do is forsake this life bread because it has abrogated the proper understanding of the intent of the meal in the first place. By making it nothing more than a memorial (also allowing paedocommunion and not fencing the table has helped lead to the disintegration of the centrality of the Lord’s Supper, however, those are other issues for another time) the Church has abrogated its duty to teach its members the true meaning and benefit of the Lord’s Supper.