What does it mean to Fence the Lord’s Table and why is it done?
Before the Lord’s Supper is administered, it is the solemn duty of the minister to “fence” the Lord’s Table. The minister will invite those who should come to the Table, by describing marks of grace, to encourage them. But in the name of the Head of the Church he must bar the rest, who have no right to sit at the Table, by giving appropriate descriptions of those who are not the people of God. Sometimes the Ten Commandments will be faithfully applied. The fencing is generally concluded by reading from Matthew 5:2-12 and Galatians 5:16-26.
The term fence may come from the idea of guarding the Table by erecting a fence around it – one that keeps out those who should not be there, but also keeps in those that should.
Why is fencing necessary?
It is a part of the exercise of the keys of the kingdom which have been given by Christ to the officers of His church (Matt. 16:18). They are to “bind and loose”, i.e., to admit and exclude according to the commandment given by the Lord Himself (Matt. 18:17-18; 1 Cor. 5:4,5,11). In the name of Christ, who is King and Head of the Church and the alone Master of the Feast, the minister is authorised, on the basis of Scripture as the only rule and standard, to make clear who should and should not partake of the Lord’s Supper. It was a great condemnation to the ministers of the Old Testament Church that they “put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek. 22:26). Fencing the Table fulfills this most solemn duty in a public way.
There is also positive warrant for this solemn but essential duty based upon the Scriptural requirement: “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup” (1 Cor. 11:28). Self-examination is absolutely essential prior to eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table. It certainly ought not to have been left entirely until this point in the communion service. Yet where it has been engaged in already, it may not have been done aright, and it can always be done more thoroughly. We must acknowledge that this is possible because the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9). In addition, by nature we do not like examining and judging ourselves, as Paul shows: “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:31).
This self-examination must be according to the correct standard, and this is why it is necessary and helpful for everyone to have the Table fenced prior to partaking. It challenges the conscience at the last moment before the solemn step of going to the Table, which might be to the great spiritual harm and damage of some individuals. “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Cor. 11:27). It is asserted most solemnly: “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:29).
When the office-bearers of the Corinthian Church failed to exercise restraint and discipline, and there was no fencing of the Table, but rather anarchy, the Lord Himself fenced the Table and kept it pure through sore chastisements upon individuals (1 Cor. 11:21,30,32).
When church discipline is faithfully exercised it takes to do with what is outwardly seen and expressed, but fencing the Table, with the Word closely applied, reaches to the conscience. It may be just as helpful to those who are lacking assurance, confused as to their state or under great spiritual attack. The invitations encourage them to do their duty in loving obedience to the Saviour’s command to remember His death.
When Christ first instituted the Supper, He fenced the Table in a most solemn way, showing from the Word of God that not every one of the disciples was genuine (Mark 14:18-21; Matt. 26:21-25). He also encouraged them by showing them marks of true faith (John 13:10-17).
The Supper is a corporate exercise and a public means of grace, rather than exclusively individual. Therefore public fencing of the Table is appropriate when self-examination is being conducted (at least in part) in the context of corporate worship.
This article traces the Origins of Fencing the Table, showing that it is no recent innovation, but part of the Reformed faith from the beginning.