Back to Basics: The Supervisory Task of the Church

by Glenn Hofford

The debates over the synodical decisions to establish ecclesiastical fellowship with the OPC and various other federations have often centered on the topic of church discipline and supervision, especially as it relates to the admission of guests to the Lord's Supper. In order to put this somewhat narrow issue into perspective, it may be helpful to reflect first on the broader ecclesiastical task of supervision. Only when we clearly appreciate these principles can we then see what is at stake regarding the admission of visitors to the sacrament.

When we think of church discipline and the supervisory responsibilities of the church, we often think first of an active element of supervision that is very visible to the congregation when it occurs: when a brother or sister sins and is unrepentant, the congregation puts him or her out of their midst by means of excommunication. This is the "binding" referred to in Matt. 18:18, and the removal from the midst of the congregation referred to in I Cor. 5:13.

We must also reckon with the very first component of supervision which is actually admittance of new members into the church and to the Lord's Supper. Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 31 describes the preaching of the gospel as one of the keys that is used in admittance; however, the church has additional supervisory duties that are part of the process of admittance of new members.

Admittance of a new member to a local church is a task of profound responsibility. It means that the officers of the church publicly declare to its members and to the world that this person has testified to the truth of the Gospel - thus affirming that it applies to him. The new member publicly professes his faith (cf. Form for the Public Profession of Faith). By faith his sins have been washed away, and this is represented at his baptism. He is reborn to a new life that involves sanctification by the Holy Spirit and a putting away of sin. He is welcomed into the church that Christ established - "the holy nation" (cf. Ex. 19:5 & I Peter 2:9). He is now welcomed at Christ's Table - a celebration of Christ's death on account of which his sins, and the sins of all who share in the Table with Christ, were taken away.

Along with the other members, the place of the new member in the Church of Christ is a special one, one that includes fellowship with Christ and His holy people at the Lord's Supper. It helps us to see more clearly that this special position is not for just anyone. The special character of this position, particularly as it relates to admission to the Lord's Supper, is made clear in L.D. 30, Q/A 81 of the Heidelberg Catechism which asks, "Who are to come to the table of the Lord?" The answer describes those who are displeased with their sins (the assumption is that they have confessed and turned from known sin), and who trust that they are forgiven on account of the suffering and death of Christ.

Q/A 82 goes on to ask, "Are those also to be admitted to the Lord's Supper who by their confession and life show that they are unbelieving or ungodly?" These two questions and answers have an important implication. Q/A 81 describes a Christian who is actively being sanctified, and Q/A 82 focuses on the role of the church via its officebearers in making the determination of who fits in this category. The implication is that the officebearers have a duty to admit only those who show that they are believing and godly. Since the Table is only for repentant sinners who are in the process of being sanctified, the officebearers' role is one of ensuring that it is only this category of persons who in fact attend.

Having seen that membership in a church of Christ and sharing in the Lord's Supper involves a very special category of people, how is the church to deal with visitors?

The admittance of visitors to the Lord's Supper involves the application of the same principles as those outlined above. The underlying criteria for admission are the same (cf. Prov. 20:10 and 23: the principle that the LORD hates a double standard). The visitor must be one who has publicly professed the true faith (not a heretic or an adherent of heretical doctrine), and who has been baptized. He must be one who has been incorporated into Christ's body as it manifests itself in a faithful local church. The visitor who is welcomed must be someone who has placed himself under the law of God (cf. Numbers 15:15-16 "There is to be one law and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you"). Christ mandated this same principle in Matthew 28: 20 ("… teaching them to observe all that I commanded you"). The church cannot welcome into her midst and to fellowship at the Table a visitor who is an outsider to the Church - i.e. someone who has not turned from a life of sin to a life of obedience to Christ.

Proper supervision also has the goal of ensuring that Christ's believing and holy people do not share with unbelievers or the ungodly (cf. II Cor. 6:14: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?", and Matthew 7:6 "Do not give what is holy to dogs"). There is a penalty for doing so (cf. Heidelberg Catechism L.D. 30 Q&A 82 "and His wrath kindled against the whole congregation").

Because the Holy Supper is a celebration of Christ's death which has paid for the sins of those who partake, it greatly displeases God when the sacrament is given to those who are living in sin, whether they be members, visitors, or outsiders to the Church (who by definition have not turned from a life of sin). Not only is this the case when it is done knowingly, but also when it is done through willful ignorance. Joshua 7 shows how the sin of Achan brought God's wrath on Israel, even on those who were not aware of Achan's sin. Although Israel was not aware of Achan's sin, God expressed His wrath on them corporately for this breach of holiness. In the same way, is not a consistory and congregation culpable when it shares the sacrament with someone who is living in public sin, or with someone who is an outsider to the Church - either when this is done knowingly, or when it is done by failing to properly supervise the Table?

For this reason, the apostle John gives us the injunction to "test the spirits". The church may not welcome visitors into fellowship without first testing them to see who they are. II John 10 says "if anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house; and do not give him a greeting …" (I John 4 gives more detail). Although some might claim that this passage applies only to false teachers, Scripture clearly shows that this principle applies to all who come and request fellowship at the Table (cf. Ex. 19:6: "you shall be…a holy nation," and Ex. 12:43: "no foreigner shall eat it" (the Passover)…except by circumcision). When a visitor requests permission to partake of the sacrament, he is requesting fellowship with Christ as well as with Christ's people, and Christ's people at that place have the duty to test the visitor to see if he meets the proper qualifications, namely, does he live a godly life and maintain sound doctrine in his home church?

Finally, to whom belongs the duty of admittance? Who is responsible for testing the visitor to see if he is a member in good standing of a faithful church of Christ? Is the duty of admittance just a consistory duty? And if the elders do not properly guard the Table, can we absolve ourselves of responsibility? Even if we testify against supervisory failures on the part of the elders, can we then wash our hands of the matter? No, the supervisory task is a duty of the Church as a whole.

When the Apostle Paul writes about discipline matters in a congregation, he doesn't just address the elders; he addresses the church (cf. I Cor. 1:2, "to the church of God which is at Corinth"). In this letter he sharply admonishes the entire congregation to exercise the discipline of Christ by expelling the immoral brother. This principle of congregational involvement is also reflected in what we confess in L.D. 12 of the Catechism where it teaches that we share in the offices of Christ. In our kingly office we are called not only to fight against our own sins, but also against sins that occur within the congregation.

Likewise, when it comes to admittance, whether of new members, covenant youth or visitors, not only the consistory but also the entire congregation is involved. When a visitor is admitted to the Lord's Supper, the entire congregation sits with him. The injunction and warning of Paul in II Cor. 6:14 ("Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?") applies to each member of the congregation. For this reason each member of the congregation has a responsibility to sit at the table with proper assurance that the consistory is admitting visitors using the Biblical standard. If this is not known and a consistory shirks its duty by openly admitting someone who is not properly announced to the congregation, then the members cannot partake.

In some of the churches with which ecclesiastical fellowship has been recently established, the method of guarding the Table involves only a "general verbal warning" (most notably the OPC). The application of the above principles means that in such a congregation, all members are responsible and culpable when an unknown visitor enters their fellowship by partaking at the Table. The verbal warning dramatically manifests a shirking of the duty to determine who the visitor is and if they are properly qualified to join in communion with Christ and His congregation. When a church only issues a verbal warning from the pulpit, they fail to fulfill the active duty to test since the visitor is left to ultimately decide if he qualifies for participation. Testing can only take place where there is interaction with the guest.

Churches of the Reformation that have the proper Biblical understanding of these principles have agreed upon written attestations as a formal method that is inclusive both of the duty to test and of the duty to establish a matter of importance on the basis of the testimony of two or three reliable witnesses (cf. Arts. 61 & 62, C.O.; cf. II Cor. 13:1). This is patterned after the New Testament practice of a written attestation and introduction of a believer to a congregation that would otherwise have no knowledge of the stranger, his beliefs, and/or his life; e.g. Romans 16: 1-2 where Paul attests to the life and faith of Phoebe as she arrives a stranger to the church in Rome.

The verbal warning method of Table supervision is clearly deficient, but what about the "interview method" found in some of the other churches? First, any interview approach would need to ensure that unity of faith is present at the Table; this would take place only by means of testing the spirits using the confessional standards that we uphold - the Three Forms of Unity. But even if a consistory would be able to satisfactorily determine the doctrine of the guest during an interview, the interview method fails as a means of ensuring that the visitor is leading a godly life in his home church. It is flawed in that it attempts to establish an important matter based only upon the self-testimony of the guest.

As members of a Canadian or American Reformed Church, what are your responsibilities in these matters? In the first place, be aware that sitting at the Table with members from the churches in question (OPC, RCUS, FCS, PCK, and URC) is an action of compromise. The synods that established these relationships did not fulfill their task to "test the spirits" - they did not determine that these other churches are acting in full obedience to Christ with regard to the exercise of supervision in their own church situations. Thus you do not have the assurance that these EF churches are faithful to Christ in "all" that Christ has required of His Church. How then can their members be accepted at your Table, if your consistory has, in accord with the synod decisions, failed to fully and properly test the churches from which they come?

In the second place, if your consistory gives attestations, whether travel or permanent, to its members to go to these churches, you must oppose this. Again, in following the synods your consistory has not properly determined if these churches are faithful churches of Christ. Therefore if your consistory has accepted the relevant synod decisions, your duty is to oppose them (see editorial "Your Path to Liberation"). You may not sit passively in the presence of those who profess Christ yet persist in public sin. Remember your vow when you made public profession of faith to reject "all heresies and errors conflicting with God's Word". (Form for the Public Profession of Faith).

If you are in a congregation that has accepted these wrong synodical decisions, you do not need to fight this battle from start to finish. The battle is over at the broader assemblies (see editorial "Why We Didn't Appeal"). Instead, be aware that secession has already occurred over this matter at Lynden ARC in Washington, USA. A letter has been sent from the consistory of the seceded congregation to every church of the federation explaining these matters and calling each church to liberate. Write to your consistory requesting them to liberate themselves from these wrong synodical decisions. Stand firmly on these principles with those who have seceded in Lynden.