“The idea of ‘fencing the Table’ comes from the Old Testament concept of keeping the holy things of worship (i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, Priesthood, sacrifices, etc.) holy. If someone touched the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, they would immediately be struck dead by God.”
Of all the phraseology that we used in Reformed churches, among the most misunderstood is that of “fencing the table.” You will most certainly hear this phrase in those churches that take the Word and sacraments with the utmost seriousness–churches with leadership that deeply desire to obey Jesus’ instructions concerning church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). There is, however, not a completely uniform understanding of this phrase and its purpose in such churches. Among Reformed ministers, from the time of the Reformation onward, there has been a diversity of beliefs about what form the “fencing” of the Supper should take. Everything from communion tokens in Scottish Presbyterianism to closed communion in Lutheranism have been put forward as the “right way” to protect the purity of the sacrament in the church. In fact, so varied are the opinions of how the Supper should be offered to believers of different ecclesiastical fellowships–and withheld from those who would rightly fall under the biblical category of “unworthy receivers”–that the 19th General Assembly of the PCA received the ad interim “Report…on Fencing the Lord’s Table.” It provides us with a plethora of helpful insights into this subject. As we seek to navigate the challenging waters of this subject, it will help us to consider the phraseology, biblical rationale and the practical outworking of this principle.
Outside of solidly Reformed churches, you probably have never heard the phrase, “fencing the Table.” I will be the first to admit that the Reformed (especially Reformed Presbyterians) are less than warm and creative when it comes to our use of terminology in the church (e.g. “particularization,” “committee,” “commission,” “licensure” “ordinary means of grace,” etc.). The idea of “fencing the Table” comes from the Old Testament concept of keeping the holy things of worship (i.e. the Ark of the Covenant, Priesthood, sacrifices, etc.) holy. If someone touched the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament, they would immediately be struck dead by God. Those who take the sacraments seriously, understand that the same God who demanded absolute holiness with regard to his cultic institutions in the Old Testament is the same God who has ordained the holy sacraments of the New Testament. The warnings about not partaking unworthily least you incur the judgment of God (1 Cor. 11:29-30) are one and the same with those about the holy things in the Old Testament. When we understand that the Supper is no mere memorial, but a holy thing that either brings blessing (1 Cor. 10:16) or judgment (1 Cor. 11:30), we can understand why the phrase, “fencing the Table,” is used. However, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t be better to speak of the “fencing of the people” rather than the “fencing of the Table,” since the warning given is meant to protect men and women from incurring the consequences of partaking unworthily.
The idea of blessing and judgment being a “worthy receiver” of the Supper comes from the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:27 where he warned the church in Corinth, “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.” Very clearly, the warning annexed to the words of institution of the Supper necessitates some sort of “fencing of the table.” In vv. 29-30, the Apostle explained that “he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep.” The biblical teaching about the Lord’s Supper is that it is both a “cup of blessing” and a cup of judgment–depending on whether or not it is partaken of in faith.
To be sure, there was a historical context in which the warnings about partaking unworthily are made–which is that of certain members coming and eating and drinking before other members in the church (1 Cor. 11:17-22). The Apostle intimates that some were even coming and getting drunk at the Supper–in a self-pleasing manner. In this way, the members of the church were not “discerning the Lord’s body.” They were failing to acknowledge that they, together with the rest of the members of the church, all partook of “one cup” and were therefore knit together in “one body”–being united to Christ. However, there is another dimension to the failure to “discern the Lord’s body.” The charge of the Apostle was for each one to individually “examine himself” (v. 28). This means that members must see that they are sinners without hope apart from the Lord Jesus Christ and that they are trusting Him alone for salvation. In other words, there is a corporate and an individual dimension to the Supper.