Different practices prevail across the visible Church in relation to admitting people to the Lord’s Supper. These practices must be tested by and be in accordance with the Holy Scriptures. There are four main practices most commonly in use:
The latter is the only practice that is in accordance with Scripture, and this is the way that communicants are admitted to the Lord’s Table in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Unrestricted communion allows anyone who so desires to come to the Lord’s Table. In some cases there may be a very brief declaration from the pulpit that only believers should partake, but then the individual is left to choose if he wishes to come or not.
Problems with unrestricted communion
- It allows no role for the elders to exercise discipline and oversight and therefore to fulfil Scriptural responsibilities.
- It allows no room to restrain those who are either ignorant of important Bible teachings or whose lives are not in accordance with the standards of Scripture. The Apostle Paul instructs that such should be restrained by those exercising authority from Christ (1 Cor, 5:6-7, 13; 2 Thess, 3:6, 14, 15). It was the guilt of the Church in the Old Testament that “they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean” (Ezek. 22:26).
- It encourages worldliness and ignorance in professing people.
- Anyone who wants to can partake on the flimsiest of professions, whether spurious or not.
- It exposes the Church and the truth to reproach before men.
- It is not administering the Lord’s Supper decently and in order.
- It manifests a carelessness for the souls of men in not holding them back when they may be eating and drinking condemnation to themselves. “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. . .For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:27, 29).
In Independency and Congregationalism the tendency has been to require intending communicants to give a statement of their experience in front of the membership of the congregation in order to be admitted to membership and to the Lord’s Supper. This focus upon a bare verbal profession is tending to become the norm in many Presbyterian Churches where unrestricted communion has not yet prevailed. It is, however, a loosening of the requirements for admission which have been followed historically, in favour of minimal terms of admission. There are three dimensions to true religion and to true Christian profession: doctrine, duty, and experience. Loose communion fails to enquire closely how a person’s faith, knowledge, and life conform to Scripture, as far as can be known.
Problems with loose communion
- It discourages self-examination and the study of the divine word. If someone may enjoy the highest privileges of the Church, irrespective of what they believe, or what they do within the limits of a broad (yet changeable) common morality, there is no pressing necessity to apply themselves to a close and searching examination of the word, that they may know the doctrines and laws of Christ. They may think to themselves: “I am fine as I am”. This is more likely to promote spiritual pride and carnal complacency than the “fear and trembling” of humble piety.
- Loose communion tends to leave the false impression that there are aspects of truth which are indifferent, secondary and irrelevant to salvation and true obedience. This is dangerous, both for the defence of the whole counsel of God, and for growth in knowledge and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
- Some may say that it is unkind and intolerant to judge on external matters in a person’s life since it is faith alone that saves us. It is true that faith alone justifies, but faith is never alone. There are always the works through grace to support the character of faith. Was it more unkind for Paul to deliver the transgressor to Satan, than for the Corinthians to allow his continuing membership in the Church? Paul’s severity sought the transgressor’s reformation and salvation, while the indifferent tolerance of the Corinthians would have tended towards his eternal ruin (1 Cor. 5). It is important to check instances of clear disobedience before they develop further to the ruin of the individual (Jude 23).
- It fails to achieve properly one of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper, which is to show the world what the true believers of Christ are and what the true professing Church is. The Church (Ecclesia) means called out – they are separated from the world. “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing: and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor. 6:17-18). “Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, ‘Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy’” (Lev. 19:2). It is prophesied of the New Testament Church that “they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and profane, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean” (Ezekiel 44:23).
Closed Communion means that only members of the denomination (or sometimes congregation) administering the sacrament or those of sister denominations are to be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. No doubt there is an element of safety in this, and we should not treat Church divisions lightly, but it has its own difficulties.
Problems with Closed Communion
- It is often said that it is the Lord’s Table, and therefore it is wrong to restrict it to only one branch of Christ’s visible church.
- It tends to require terms of communion for communicants that would only normally apply to office-bearers.
Closed Communion Not Practised by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland
Sometimes one comes across inferences that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland practises closed (as opposed to restricted) communion. The following longstanding Synod resolution refutes this inference and gives the accurate statement of the position:
The Synod would record their strong disapprobation of the conduct of some individuals connected with this Church, who have circulated unfounded charges among our people about the meaning of a resolution passed by the Synod in November last year. The resolution reads follows—”That the Synod approve of the procedure adopted by Mr Macintyre at Winnipeg in the matter or admitting persons to the privilege of the communion, and give it to be understood that, while this Church does not hold close communion, none are to be admitted to the privilege mentioned but such as are known as God-fearing persons by a majority of those who are responsible for admission.” The Synod declare that the meaning attached by them to the above resolution is as follows- 1) The office-bearers of the Church in Canada, having sent a request to the Synod to give a deliverance in regard to the position held by this Church about communion, the Synod gave it to be understood that neither the Church of the Reformation, or the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, held or hold close communion; 2) The Synod gave it to be understood that none are to be received to the Lord’s table in this Church ‘but such as are God-fearing persons’; and that none shall be admitted without the approval of the majority of the Kirk Session. That this has been all along the way of admission to the Lord’s Table in the Free Presbyterian Church will be quite manifest to all their people. 3)The Synod would also declare that it flows from ignorance or something more blameworthy on the part of some, to have spread a report to the effect that the Synod, by foresaid resolution, had changed the Constitution of the Church and opened a wide door to receive members wholesale from other Churches to the Lord’s table. The people of this Church may rest assured that the Synod did not and does not intend to open the door to communion in the least degree wider than it has been in the Reformed Church of Scotland since the Reformation, and in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland hitherto.
If the above were the only options we would be hard pressed to find a biblical option among them. Restricted communion however, differs from all these in examining applicants as to their doctrine, faith and life as well as experience. Here the majority of elders on the interviewing session must have clear knowledge and evidence of the person’s life in order to admit them to the Table. This also applies to admitting visitors on the basis of open communion. Faithful inquiry is necessary rather than simply ascertaining whether someone is a member of an evangelical church. It can in fact be difficult to discern whether the congregation the visitor comes from is genuinely “evangelical” since the term itself is so broad and indefinite as to become meaningless in our day. Anything less than this becomes loose communion. The biblical practice of restricted communion is extensively described and defended in the article Why do the minister and elders interview candidates for the Lord’s Supper?