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Historic Documents in American Presbyterian History

by Andrew Edgar

[excerpted from Old Church Life in Scotland, by Andrew Edgar
(Paisley and London: Alexander Gardner, 1885), pages 161-162.].

In conjunction with any discussion of the celebration of the Lord's Supper, there must properly also be a discussion of the subject of fencing the table, or the pastoral injunction and warning to unbelievers not to partake of the Supper, as per the apostle Paul's statements in I Corinthians 11:27-32. For discussion of the fencing of the table within the context of the PCA, see the 1990 Report of the Ad Interim Committee on Fencing the Lord's Table, Minutes of General Assembly, 1990, pages 170-175.

Andrew Edgar in the excerpt below discusses the practice of the Scottish Presbyterians and in particular reflects on the Westminster Assembly's extended debates on the topic.

It may be remarked here in connection with the fencing of the tables, and the debarring of unworthy persons from the communion, that one of the subjects most vehemently and lengthily discussed in the Westminster Assembly was the principle on which admission to the Lord's table should be regulated. In different churches different standards of requirement have been set up. The historical principle of the Church of Scotland has been that three things are required of those that seek access to communion privileges, first, "that they have a good measure of knowledge, and profess to believe the truth; secondly, that in their life and conversation they be without scandal, and thirdly, that they be submissive to the discipline of the Church."

To these three qualifications some Churches have added a fourth, and have required that all applicants for communion privileges publicly declare "such clear and certain signs of their regeneration "as will satisfy the minister and the elders, and sometimes the majority of the congregation, that they are true Christians born of God and sanctified by the holy spirit. What the English Parliament however, wished the Westminster Assembly to do was to enumerate all the sins and shortcomings that justify the exclusion of a man from the Lord's table, and to make this list of scandalous offenses in the hands of a magistrate the hard and fast rule of admission and rejection. The Assembly complied so far with this request as to draw out a long list of offences that would justly exclude a man from the enjoyment of communion privileges. But there were two things that the Assembly would not do. They would never say that their list was complete, and they would never allow that the title of a man's admissability to the Lord's table was to be judged by the civil magistrate in accordance with the tenor of this list of offences.*

The Parliamentarians said to the Divines--give us your advice as to what sins should exclude from the communion, and we will ratify your advice so far as it meets with our approval, and then leave it to the local magistrate to decide on communion claims as on any other matter of civil law. One member of Parliament, in advocating this erastian scheme, took on himself to say, "the civil magistrate is a church officer in every Christian commonwealth. In Scotland, the nobility and gentry live commonly in the country, and so the clergy are moderated as by a scattered parliament."

The divines, however, would not yield to the erastian demands of the statesmen, but maintained that the right to judge of the fitness of persons to come to the sacrament belongs to the officers of the Church. "
To these officers," they said. "the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed, by virtue whereof they have power 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."
In the end the divines carried their point, and the admission and exclusion of people to and from the communion have been ever since allowed to lie with Kirk Sessions, subject to the directions of the superior courts of the Church.

*[The catalogue of deadly sins drawn up by the Westminster Assembly was very lengthy, and it included "drinking of healths." And apropos of this it may be here stated that in 1646 a list of enormities and corruptions observed to be in the ministry with the remedies thereof, was drawn up in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Among the enormities specified in this list were "dissoluteness in hair and shaking about the knees, tippling and bearing company in untimous drinking in taverns and alehouses." And among the remedies propounded were that "care be had of godly conferences in Presbyteries even in time of their refreshment, and that ministers in all sorts of company labour to be fruitful, as the salt of the earth seasoning them they meet with, not only forbearing to drink healths (Satan's snare leading to excess) but reproving it in others."]