Several years ago while attending seminary, a person asked me, “Would John Calvin be welcomed to partake in the Lord’s Supper in your church?” I was serving as a pastor of a local church (52 miles south of campus) while attending seminary, and the question was centered upon closed, close, or open communion. This act of worship is much more than mere superstition. It’s certainly more than the consumption of food and drink. The pastor must do the work of properly fencing the table, but exactly why is this a necessity? How high should this fence be? In fencing the table, isn’t the pastor excluding certain people from worship?
Fencing the Table Involves Shepherding Souls
Could it be that John Calvin wouldn’t be welcomed to the Lord’s table during our worship service? The practice of close communion requires that a person be a member of a church of like faith and practice and that the individual be a baptized follower of Christ who is in good standing within his or her local church. In short, visitors are welcomed to the Lord’s table in our church services, but the table is fenced and the terms are made clear. In making the terms clear, the pastor is engaging in an act of shepherding. This is one reason why the Lord’s Supper should never be practiced in private without the gathered church.
Fencing the table is more than excluding people who don’t agree with our mode of baptism. It’s about protecting the Lord’s table from open shame by people partaking of it in foolishness and outright rebellion. The unbeliever is barred from the Lord’s table. This should be made clear. The person who has unbelieving children should manage their household well and prevent their children from partaking. The Lord’s Supper is a solemn act of worship.
The fencing of the table is a shepherding opportunity and responsibility of the elders of the church. If a member is known to be living in open sin, that person may be under discipline and asked to refrain from observing the Lord’s Supper. In other cases, the fencing of the table provides a good opportunity to examine one’s self. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth and said these words, “Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor. 11:28-29). To examine means to have a time of self introspection. To look inwardly and see if there is perhaps any sin that has been lingering and in need of repentance.
Fencing the Table Provides an Opportunity for Repentance
One of the blessings of the Lord’s table is the opportunity to confess sins to God and follow Him in repentance. The act of ongoing repentance is a necessary (and often overlooked) practice of the believer. The mortification of sin is an ongoing practice that must take place in the believer’s life (Col. 3:5-11). This act of repentance as we approach the Lord’s table is a vertical act between us and our God. We must recognize the need to repent and by the power of the gospel and the application of the Word by the Spirit of God, we humble ourselves before the Lord of glory in repentance.
At one point, John Calvin (to use him in a more positive example) stood before his congregation in Geneva and publicly barred a man from the Lord’s table. A controversy had arisen among Calvin and the Council of the city who overturned a ruling of the church to prevent a man from observing the Lord’s Supper. He was known to be living in open sexual sin (known as the Libertines), and this grieved Calvin’s heart. He protested the Council’s decision, but went on to preach on the Lord’s Day. When the sermon was finished and following a time of prayer, he descended from his lofty pulpit to the Lord’s table. The man who was under discipline was in the church on that particular day with his friends. After Calvin fenced the table, a sudden rush came from the trouble makers toward the Lord’s table. They insisted that they would partake of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin protested as he flung himself around the vessels containing the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin’s voice echoed through the congregation, “These hands you may crush, these arms you may lop off, my life you may take, my blood is yours, you may shed it; but you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.”  According to Theodore Beza, Calvin’s first biographer, after this protest by Calvin, “the sacred ordinance was celebrated with a profound silence, and under solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity Himself had been visible among them.” 
There is a profound element of confrontation and examination that takes place in the fencing of the table as the church is preparing to worship God. This is a necessary component that protects Christ from being trampled under the foot of shameful rebels and it protects the children of God from judgment (1 Cor. 11:29-32). We should refrain from making the Lord’s Supper fun and exciting. We must not overlook the solemnity of the act of worship.
Fencing the Table Provides an Opportunity for Reconciliation
As the time of examination and repentance takes place, this affords each person in the room an opportunity for both vertical and horizontal reconciliation. First, the member of the church can have a time of repentance and confession that leads to reconciliation to God. Sure, the child of God is at perpetual peace with God through the blood of Christ, but that does not negate the need for ongoing mortification of sin and reconciliation.
Likewise, the church of Jesus Christ is called to a spirit of unity and the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). This time of horizontal reconciliation honors Christ, builds unity, tears down walls of sin, and enables a church to work closely together for the glory of God. In building a fence around the Lord’s table enables us to tear down walls of sin. To withhold reconciliation and genuine Christian relationship from a fellow brother or sister in Christ is nothing less than sin. After contemplating the great doctrine of reconciliation as it pertains to our relationship with God through Christ, how can we dare withhold reconciliation from a fellow church member?
Consider the necessity for the fence and the privilege of the table. The fence and the table are both for our good and ultimately – the glory of God. A healthy church will never grow where the people and their pastors casually approach the Lord’s table with superstition and sin. Yes, I would have to ask Calvin to refrain from observing the Lord’s Supper with our church if he were in attendance, but I will forever be grateful for his boldness and zeal to protect the Lord’s table from the open shame of sinful rebels.
- David Mathis, “The Fateful Years: Life of Calvin, Part 8” – DesiringGod.org
- John Piper, John Calvin and his Passion for the Majesty of God, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), 43.