Tag Archives: Iain Murray

Presbyterianism and Admission to the Lord’s Supper

Jeff-supper-22

I’m still working on getting acquainted with my new context here in Australia.  There’s a lot to learn!  I’m keen to pick up whatever I can about the church history in this vast land.  That led me to the autobiography of J. Graham Miller, A Day’s March Nearer Home.  Now to be clear, Miller was actually a Kiwi, but he did spent a lot of his ministry years in Australia, and eventually retired here as well.  Miller was a Presbyterian, eventually affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of Australia.  The editor of this autobiography was Iain Murray, who has also served in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.

In chapter 11, Miller reminisces about growing up in a Presbyterian manse in New Zealand.  His father, a Presbyterian minister, was quite strict in his beliefs about who should be admitted to the Lord’s Supper.  This was in the 1920s.  Graham Miller shared his father’s view.  At this point, Iain Murray (the editor) adds an explanatory footnote:

It needs to be understood that in Presbyterian churches the Lord’s Supper was only open to communicant members.  Only as regard for church discipline declined or disappeared was admission to the Lord’s Table left to the discretion of the individual worshipper.  Historically the Presbyterian churches never practised ‘open’ communion. (page 216)

This might be a surprising statement to some.  We’re told here that an open Lord’s Supper table is certainly not intrinsic to confessional Presbyterianism — as if the Westminster Standards demand or logically entail this practice.  Historically speaking, this practice was unknown, according to Murray.

I have found at least two examples that appear to confirm Murray’s claim.  The first is a booklet by Rev. W.J. McKnight, pastor of the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Boston, MA.  The (undated) booklet is entitled, Concerning Close Communion: An Investigation.  McKnight argues that admission to the Lord’s Supper should be restricted to communicant members in good standing of the church where the sacrament is being celebrated.  I’m told that this was the practice of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA) until 1977.  After 1977, the RPCNA switched to “session-controlled communion.”  Sessions (equivalent to a Reformed consistory) admit communicants to the Lord’s Supper table.

I observed a second example in Hamilton, Ontario.  The city has an annual “Open Doors” event where significant historic buildings open up to the public.  One year, our family was able to tour around inside the MacNab Street Presbyterian Church.  This church was once part of the Free Church of Scotland (now a sister-church of the CanRC), but was eventually taken up into the merger process leading to the Presbyterian Church of Canada.  Inside this church, there is a fascinating little museum of communion tokens.  In historic Scottish Presbyterianism, the Lord’s Supper was typically celebrated once per year.  Prior to this occasion, the elders visited all the communicant members to ascertain their spiritual condition.  If they were faithfully walking with the Lord, they would receive a token, which would grant them admission to the sacrament.  No token, no admission.

Admission to the Lord’s Supper was a significant point of discussion between the CanRC and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the lead-up to the establishment of ecclesiastical fellowship in 2001.  However, eventually agreement was reached on this point.  Both the CanRC and OPC agreed that the Lord’s Supper has to be supervised by the elders.  That also applies to admission.  You can find the text of the agreement here.  I might also add that both the OPC and CanRC also together “rejected the legitimacy of the pluriformity of the church.” (article 45 of the Acts of Synod 2001 —reference is made to this document).  That had also been a matter of contention.

One of the thorny issues in history is causation.  When it comes to church history, what caused a certain practice to develop?  We have to be cautious of simplistic explanations.  To blame an open (or more open) Lord’s Supper somehow on the Westminster Standards isn’t going to work.  Historically, Presbyterian churches holding closely to the Westminster Standards have maintained a restricted or even closed view of admission.  It could be argued, and has been argued, that the Westminster Standards actually require that view.  No, whenever we encounter an open Lord’s Supper (or one with just a “verbal warning”), we are looking at something that has a different explanation.  Iain Murray chalked it up to declining regard for church discipline.  Perhaps in some places at some times.  But maybe there are other explanations for other places and times.  Whatever the explanations may be, where it’s needed, the resources for returning to a proper supervision of the Lord’s Supper are present in Presbyterianism itself.


Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Apostasy and Taking a Stand

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

I’ve just finished Iain Murray’s excellent biography of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  Lloyd-Jones faced an enormous struggle with doctrinal compromise in the United Kingdom starting in the post-war period.  There was a wide-spread allergy to doctrine and, more significantly, to doctrinal firmness.  Instead of a muscular and confident Christianity, many were endeavouring to create a more gelatinous and open-minded faith.  The authority and certainty of Scripture was widely discounted.  Murray relates how Lloyd-Jones spoke to an annual meeting of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in 1954.  He explored the question of why the churches were empty on Sundays in Great Britain.   His answer:  apostasy.  Turning away from the authoritative truth of Scripture robbed the gospel message of certainty.  Who would keep going to church to hear an uncertain message?

Then Lloyd-Jones spoke these words and they remain relevant for our current day:

In Jude 3, we read, ‘Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.’  Here we are given a stirring call to the defence of the Faith.  Such a call is not popular today.  It is not popular today even in some evangelical circles.  People will tell you that it is all ‘too negative.’  They continually urge that we must keep on giving positive truth.  They will tell us that we must not argue and we must never condemn.  But we must ask, ‘How can you fight if you are ever afraid of wounding an enemy?’  ‘How can you rouse sleeping fellow-warriors with smooth words?’  God forbid that we find ourselves at the bar of judgment and face the charge that we contracted out from love of ease, or for fear of man, or that we failed to do our duty in the great fight of the Faith.  We mustwe must fight for the faith in these momentous times. (as quoted by Iain Murray, The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, 332).

The reference to Jude 3 is quite appropriate.  As I have argued here, this passage speaks directly to the church as it faces attacks from within.


Words Can Be Slippery Things

Charles Finney

It’s happened many times in church history.  The theologian says that he believes in the resurrection.  But eventually it comes out that he believes that Jesus truly rose from the dead in the hearts of his disciples, but not actually in history.  Another theologian insists that he believes in election.  But eventually we discover that he believes that God chooses believers, not out of his sovereign good pleasure, but on the basis of foreseen faith.

I’ve been reading Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism this week.  He discusses Charles Finney at length because of his role in the Second Great Awakening.  Murray notes on page 262 that Charles Finney spoke of a “vicarious atonement,” which is usually another way of speaking about penal substitutionary atonement, i.e. that Christ took our place on the cross, bearing the wrath of God in our place.  But Finney believed nothing of the sort.  His language was deceptive.  He used the right words, but he meant something completely different.

This strategy gets employed in the debates over origins too.  People will insist that they believe that Adam and Eve were real historical people, that they were the first human beings, created in the image of God.  It sounds orthodox on the surface.  But we need to dig deeper:  what do you mean by human being?  Was Adam ever a baby nestled at his mother’s breast?  Was Eve a toddler at some point in her life?  Did she have grandparents?  What do you mean “created in the image of God”?  What does “created” mean in that sentence?  You say that you believe God created man from the dust of the earth.  Great!  But what do you mean when you say that?  Asking these sorts of questions will usually reveal whether things really are what they seem.  In theology, we need to be precise — and transparent — with our definitions.  It’s not enough just to use the right words, you also have to be holding to the correct understanding of those words.  Without that, the true gospel itself is soon lost.