It is commonly accepted that if we claim something to be true about someone or something, we must be able to prove it. The bigger the claim, the more evidence required and the stricter the process of verification. For instance, an immigrations officer is not just going to just accept your word about your citizenship; he’ll want proof. A criminal court is not going to acquit you without evidence that dispels reasonable doubts about your innocence.
There is no greater claim than to profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ. While it is true that believing in the gospel is ultimately a matter of individual decision and only God knows the heart of man, the Christian life is not an individual and private affair. Rather, our lives as disciples of Christ unfold in the context of the church: under the leadership of its officers and in fellowship with other believers. The church is that one place in which our claims to faith and godliness are both tested and strengthened according to the Word of God through God’s appointed means.
In the sermon this morning, I would like to explain from God’s Word why good church governance insists that our claims to faith and a godly life require examination by the elders before we can come to the Lord’s Supper. The Supper is that special time when the church family congregates together – unified in faith and in life in the gospel – to receive God’s life-giving grace in the body and blood of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is the clearest sign of the certainty of God’s forgiveness of us revealed in his Word.
Proper church governance
The book of Titus is one place in which we see God setting forth the protective and nurturing role of the church for the good of Christians. In Titus 1:5, Paul writes to the young church-planter, Titus, on the island of Crete: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you…” Paul goes on to say that ministers and elders are to be appointed by the church only once they meet certain requirements. For instance, a person may claim to be called by God to be a minister, but the church must weigh the evidence for this through various objective tests relative to his learning and life.
To claim to be called to be an elder is a very serious thing. Qualified and ordained ministers and elders are entrusted with the weighty responsibility of judging the claims and lives of those under their care: both those who are already members and visitors.
Now, Scripture imposes no conditions on anyone who wants to hear the gospel preached. There are no requirements to fill a chair in the church. However, when someone claims faith in Jesus, the Word of God teaches that the person must become part of the visible church and submit to her ministry. Why? Because God has chosen to work through the means of the church to communicate salvation to his people. It is by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the public means of the Word preached and the sacraments administered that God ordinarily saves sinners and strengthens the faith of Christians. Contrary to the rampant individualism and anti-authoritarianism of our age, the Word teaches that there is no such thing as having God for your father without having the church for your mother.
However, to become a member of the visible church and enjoy the benefits she offers – like the Lord’s Supper – requires that certain conditions be met.
Baptism: the sign and seal of our entrance into the church
Even though a person may indeed be a part of God’s saving kingdom by faith, God nevertheless still requires certain things of us if we want to join the church. For those who have not grown up in the church, God commands that they receive the mark of baptism. At the end of his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter proclaims to the masses: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Nevertheless, the wisdom of good church governance teaches that before the mark of baptism is applied, the elders must examine the individual’s claim to faith. Therefore, ordinarily, the elders spend a period of time ensuring that the new convert understands and believes the basic truths of the Bible. Once church leadership is satisfied that this has happened, the new Christian will then make a public profession of faith before the church and receive the sacrament of baptism.
In the case of children of at least one believing parent, they too are to receive the sign of baptism. But only once it has been determined by the elders that at least one parent or guardian makes a credible profession of faith as a member of good standing in the church.
The point that I am trying to make is that like other aspects of church governance, the administration of the sign of baptism entails a degree of elder oversight and care. Why? Because baptism is that rite of passage into the visible church, which carries with it various profound benefits and obligations for those who receive it. For the ordained church officers, baptism, and church membership that comes with it, are the objective means by which they can best determine who is inside or outside the visible church. In Hebrews 13:9, we read that church leaders are those who are charged with keeping watch over our souls and will one day give an account to God for this. Therefore, membership is that form of church governance that helps elders determine – though imperfectly – who are under their care. Church discipline and excommunication assumes that elders have some way of knowing who belongs to the visible church (cf. Matthew 16-18).
The Lord’s Supper: effectual grace for members of the church
In light of what we now know about the care involved in church governance and how it functions with regard to baptism, how then do we approach the important matter of giving and receiving the second sacrament instituted by Christ, the Lord’s Supper? First off, we must understand that the Lord’s Supper, like baptism, never acts independently from the Word preached. Rather they both communicate grace that confirms God’s promise of salvation. While baptism is a once off sacrament, the Lord’s Supper is God’s means of assuring and strengthening our faith throughout our Christian life.
In 1 Cor 11:27-32, Paul is clear that there is definite individual aspect to partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Here he exhorts us to examine ourselves before partaking of the bread and wine, lest we do so in an unworthy manner and eat and drink judgment upon ourselves. Basically, this means that in order to come to the Table, we must have repented of our sins and be trusting in Christ alone for salvation. We should also have an understanding that Christ is indeed mysteriously present in the Lord’s Supper by the Holy Spirit for the good of our faith. (This individual element of examination is one of the reasons why infants may not partake of Communion. They must wait until they can consciously exercise faith.)
The historic Reformed tradition has not, however, kept examination merely to the individual level. Why? Because Scripture affirms that the Lord’s Supper is ultimately a family meal for the body of Christ: it is a corporate celebration. In 1 Cor 10:16-17, Paul writes: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” Later in 1 Cor.12 Paul writes about the church as being one body with many parts. In verse 26, he states: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
Just as it is detrimental to the whole church to allow someone entrance into the visible church who does not qualify, so too is it damaging to allow someone to the Table who does not meet the criteria I just mentioned. It is therefore the responsibility of the elders to guard the Table by only allowing those who make a credible profession of faith and who are known to lead a godly life.
Participating in the Lord’s Supper
Things, however, become more complicated when it comes to serving the Lord’s Supper in a church plant like this one today. No doubt, we rejoice at having many regular attendees and visitors who are from various church backgrounds outside of the Reformed Churches or no church background at all. The difficulty with this situation, however, is for us elders to verify your claim to faith through any other way than a time of teaching and careful examination. Why? Because, unfortunately, as far as we can tell there is a serious lack of consistent evidence of Biblical teaching and practice in the broader church today.
This is not to say that we believe there are no churches or no true believers outside of the Reformed Churches of South Africa (God forbid!). We are not the ones to ultimately make this judgment. But the sad reality is that based on what we can discern from a human perspective, there are too many social gatherings that claim to be churches which lack the marks of a true church. These marks are the pure preaching of the Word, the faithfulness administration of the sacraments and the due exercise of church discipline (cf. Belgic Confession 29).
Often one cannot even tell what a church believes because they have no substantive confession of faith. In other cases, a church has a confession in name only and in reality it has little bearing on the governance of the church. It is all too common today to find the preaching of the gospel replaced with moral pep talks and humorous stories. Instead of the sacraments representing God’s action in grace towards us, they are turned into our testimony of obedience to him. Instead of elders exercising discipline by paying careful attention to what their people believe and how they are living it out through church membership, their energies are diverted to more “so-called” noble causes. The result is that God’s grace is routinely replaced with human works, and the gospel confused with the law.
How, then, can we as responsible elders have confidence that people coming out of such churches are ready to come to the Lord’s Table without our further pastoral examination and care? How do we know that such churches have indeed prepared Christians adequately to wisely approach the Lord’s Supper?
All this to say, I hope you are beginning to have some appreciation for why the elders overseeing this church plant have chosen to ordinarily accept only those who are members in good standing of one of the Reformed Churches in South Africa. There is unfortunately no perfect system in guarding the Lord’s Table this side of heaven. This is our best attempt to be faithful to the Word of God.
If you are someone who is worshipping with us from another church background – again – we are glad to have you! God welcomes you. God extends his promise of forgiveness to you in Christ. Please understand that by not allowing you to sit around the Table this morning, we are not saying that you are not a true Christian or you are not from a true church. Only God knows. However, because we take God’s Word seriously, and therefore church governance seriously, we ask you to wait until you become a member of a Reformed church before you enjoy this benefit with us. Some of you are already in the process of taking membership classes in anticipation of joining us at the Table next time. I hope that what has been preached this morning will encourage others to join us as well. Lord willing, the next time the Supper is served here, you too can be eating and drinking with us.
For those of us who do get to partake this morning, let us be thankful that we are members of church in which the elders care about our claims to faith and godliness. Let us remember that we approach the Table now not because of anything inherently good in us, but out of the goodness of our God who sent his Son to pay the penalty for our sins. If you have repented of your sins and are trusting in Jesus, come now and receive God’s grace, which is confirmation of this Word that has been preached. Amen.