This question may occur to some people when they consider the Scriptural requirement, “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup” (1 Cor. 11:28).
Perhaps some people feel it is a daunting prospect to be interviewed by the Kirk Session. There is no intention that it should be so. It can be one of the Session’s more pleasurable duties, to be speaking with individuals having a genuine desire to come to the Lord’s Table for the first time.
It is Scripture rather than the Church that makes this requirement. The Session must interview intending communicants, in order to discharge faithfully the responsibilities required of them by the Word of God.
Individuals certainly do have their own responsibility: “Let a man examine himself”. However, the Lord’s Supper is not merely an individual activity. It is a communion with the communicant membership of a particular congregation amongst others. It is a seal of the covenant of grace and a seal of church membership and of church privileges. It is a pledge of the fullest communion in God’s visible church upon earth. These are high privileges, and it has pleased the King and Head of the Church to guard them by means of those whom He has appointed in His Church.
The elders of the congregation in which the Lord’s Supper is observed have a duty both to Christ as Head of the Church and to the souls of those over whom they have oversight. “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account; that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb. 13:17).
Elders have been set in the Church, together with the minister, for the purpose of the edification of the body and to bring all to a maturity of faith (Eph. 4:11-13). Paul calls this “our authority which the Lord hath given us for edification” (2 Cor. 10:8). The interview, then, is meant to be for edification. It is to help the individual see their condition.
It is not easy for anyone to sit in front of the elders and describe the things that matter most to them. The minister and elders are well aware of this, and will seek to ask appropriate questions in a sensitive way, in order to help the person describe his or her experience. Some have found it helpful when they have confessed the Lord before others for the first time during their meeting with the Session. It is a great privilege for any Session to hear this. The Session also prays with the individual, and it may be that this too is found to be edifying.
Ministers are called “the stewards of God”, particularly stewards of the mysteries of God, who are required to be found faithful (Titus 1:7, 1 Cor 4:1-2). Faithfulness means showing discernment in the questions that they ask, and may mean withholding the privilege of the Lord’s Supper from those who do not show sufficient evidence of a profession that is in conformity to God’s Word. It would not be edifying to the individual or to the Church if such were to be admitted.
The elders are to watch over the Church: “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.” There is a duty to be strictly attentive, active and cautious in this responsibility (Acts 20:17,28-31). The elders must only admit those who publicly profess faith in Christ and who live in conformity to that profession (Titus 1:16, Matt. 7:21). They are like the porters under the Old Testament: “And he set the porters at the gates of the house of the Lord, that none which was unclean in any thing should enter in” (2 Chron. 23:19).
The Lord Jesus Christ has given to these officers the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19; 18:17-18; John 20:21-23; 2 Cor. 2:6-8). “Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18; note that this is addressed in the plural – ye, you). The Westminster Confession asserts on this basis that elders exercise the keys of the kingdom:
To these officers the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power respectively to retain and remit sins, to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the gospel, and by absolution from censures, as occasion shall require.
Having received the keys from Christ, the Session must be very careful to open the door of admission only to those whom Christ would have admitted. They are not to conduct a minute inquisition, but are to look for a profession of faith which is appropriately evident and accredited.
There are three dimensions to Christian profession: doctrine, duty and experience. These same dimensions are also necessary to communion with Christ: “He that hath My commandments [doctrine], and keepeth them [duty], he it is that loveth Me: and he that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him [experience]” (John 14:21). These are those “that join themselves to the Lord, to serve Him, and to love the name of the Lord” (Isa. 56:6).
This faith, love and obedience needs to be tested in an objective manner if a court of the church is to admit individuals to the privilege of the sacrament. They cannot, however, know the secret state of anyone’s soul. They can only assess the evidence of the outward profession and consistent conduct of the person applying to be received as a communicant (Acts 19:18). It is admission to visible ordinances within the visible Church on the basis of a genuine visible profession. The secret things of the heart can be examined only by the individuals themselves. Examination by the elders does mean, however, that people are brought to face the seriousness of what it means to partake of the Lord’s Supper.
The Holy Spirit in the Word of God requires men to live so that they “adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things” (Titus 2:10). There must be a credible profession manifested by one’s life. There must be no public and willful disobedience of Scripture duties. “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). This is important because “by their fruit ye shall know them” (Matt. 3:10; 7 :17). We cannot look into men’s hearts. We can only verify from what we can see whether there is a credible conformity to Scripture in their lives as required. “And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He that saith, I know Him, and keepeth not His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4). “If ye love me, keep My Commandments”, Christ says; “He that loveth Me not keepeth not My savings”; “If ye keep My Commandments, ye shall abide in My love”; “Ye are My friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 14:15,24; 15:10,14).
How is the Lord’s Supper to be kept in sincerity?
In 1 Corinthians 5:1-8 the Apostle Paul shows that the Lord’s Supper is the New Testament Passover. As leaven was to be eradicated from Israelite homes in preparation for the Passover, so the Church is to be purged of the “leaven” of hypocrisy in order to maintain its true witness and profession. As they sit at the Lord’s Table, the Lord’s people are to “keep the feast”, in the New Testament sense, purely and in sincerity – “not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth”.
Paul condemned them for keeping the man in their fellowship and allowing him to come to the communion Table (1 Cor. 5:2). They could not simply leave such a man to examine himself and refuse to interfere with the sincerity of that self-examination: they must do their duty unto Christ: “Do not ye judge them that are within?” (1 Cor. 5:12).
Paul seemed to deal very severely with the man. But was it more unkind for Paul to deliver the transgressor to Satan, than for the Corinthians to allow his continuing membership in the Church and participation in the Lord’s Supper? Paul’s apparent severity sought the transgressor’s reformation and salvation, while the indifferent tolerance of the Corinthians would have tended towards his eternal ruin. It is important to restrain instances of clear disobedience before they develop further to the ruin of the individual (Jude 23).
If men know about sin and turn a blind eye to it, they practically involve themselves in it. “Be not partakers of other men’s sins” (1 Tim. 5:22). What we read of Eli is very solemn: “For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not” (1 Sam. 3:13).
The mind of the Westminster Assembly, as expressed by Robert Baillie, was that they most strongly believed in:
the Church’s divine right to keep from the sacrament all who are scandalous; and if they cannot obtain the free exercise of that power which Christ hath given them, they will lay down their charges, and rather choose all afflictions than to sin by profaning the holy Table.
With a view to celebrating the Lord’s Supper properly, the Kirk Session at Corinth was to constitute itself into a court of Christ’s Church, in the name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ, and “purge out the old leaven”, so that they might partake of this holy sacrament in an acceptable manner. “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:6-7).
As in all things in the Church, “cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord negligently” (Jer. 48:10). The elders must not follow their own convenience but the Lord’s injunction: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). To do otherwise would expose the Church and the truth to reproach before men. It would be a carelessness for the souls of men not to withhold them from eating and drinking condemnation to themselves (1 Cor. 11:27,29). “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matt. 7:6).
The Westminster Larger Catechism, question 173, asks:
May any who profess the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper, be kept from it?
The answer is given:
Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ has left in his church, until they receive instruction, and manifest their reformation.
If persons are admitted concerning whose profession the Session knows nothing, it cannot be reconciled with the clearly stated requirement of the Westminster Confession (29:8) which says:
Ignorant and ungodly persons, as they are unfit to enjoy communion with [Christ], 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. [Note that the Confession says that people must be admitted to the Lord’s Table – they cannot admit themselves.]
John Calvin summarises the whole matter very well:
Therefore the Lord’s Supper should only be given to those who are known and approved by the rule of charity and religion, a rule which must be practised in the administration of the Supper, also requiring confession and the acknowledgment that, in our life, nothing contradicts it. Ministers, therefore, act in a holy and correct manner, both by their ministry and by its dignity, when they receive only those persons to the sacrament whom they first of all know to be approved and instructed.
Common Objections to this practice
Although many churches have cast these things aside in our own day, we know that there was a carefulness concerning who was admitted to the Lord’s Table in the period of the Early Church, following on from the New Testament. This was restored at the time of the Reformation, on the basis of Scripture. Despite this, however, it does not suit the individualism of our age, and some take offence at the idea that there should be any restraint upon individuals doing as they wish. The objections that are raised are along the lines of what follows.
Objection: “Is a verbal warning from the pulpit for each person to examine themselves not sufficient?”
Answer: Reliance on the word of warning from the pulpit alone fails to fulfil the Scriptural requirements that we have noted. This would also introduce a stricter standard for admission to Baptism than the Lord’s Supper. Before a person is allowed to present himself, or his children, for Baptism, the Session must be satisfied as to his profession and life. However, if there is only a verbal warning in the case of the Lord’s Supper, then the candidate is left with the entire responsibility himself as to coming to the Lord’s Table.
Objection: “It seems unkind and intolerant to judge on the basis of external matters in a person’s life, seeing that we are saved through faith alone.”
Answer: It is true that salvation is through faith alone, but true faith is never alone. There are always the works through grace that support and evidence the character of faith, so the Session is right to proceed on the basis of the outward life.
Objection: “It is the Lord’s Table, not the Church’s Table or the Kirk Session’s Table.”
Answer: The fact that it is the Lord’s Table means that we must be careful in relation to it, and that means being bound only by what is acceptable to Him in terms of who should be admitted. We would not invite anyone we pleased to a friend’s table but consult their preferences. How much more ought this to be the case when it concerns the things of the Most High!
Objection: “Why should a Session stand in the way of someone’s desire to partake of the Lord’s Supper?”
Answer: We must go according to Scripture rather than individual desires. What if despite his desires there is clear evidence that his profession is not consistent? It is not just a matter for the individual but for the whole Church, which is why Christ has appointed those who have oversight of this matter within the Church.
Objection: “Is it not safer to open the sacrament to all that profess to be a child of the Lord, rather than run the risk of denying someone who might be a true child of God that which they have a right to?”
Answer: Even if we know a man to be a child of God, it does not follow that he is to be admitted to fellowship in the Church. “If any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (2 Thess. 3:15). Though he is a brother, yet his disobedient conduct means that he cannot be allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper and given this privilege of fellowship. It would not be safe to do so, and it is more loving to show such a one the danger of his ways. It is not a question of rights, but responsibilities. The true children of God cannot presume to come to the Table of the Lord unless they are able to partake worthily. They must still examine themselves.
Objection: “No one is without sin.”
Answer: We agree that no one is without sin, but the Session cannot detect the sin of the heart and can only look to whether the life of those seeking to make a profession is consistent with what Scripture requires. It is not all sin that bars from the Lord’s Table.
Objection: “Only the one receiving the Lord’s Supper unworthily can judge whether this is so; and in any case they bring judgment upon themselves.”
Answer: Those partaking unworthily may indeed receive chastisement of the Lord, but if they have a scandalous profession and partake unworthily, this is an occasion of stumbling to others and brings reproach upon Christ and His cause. If the Session were to allow this, they would bring judgment upon themselves too.
Matthew A Vogan