Tag Archives: Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America

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.


Synod Dunnville 2016 (6)

(Photo: eeninwaarheid.info)

(Photo: eeninwaarheid.info)

We spent the weekend (and a bit more) without Internet.  As of last night, it’s back up and running and so I can continue the blogging about the recent CanRC Synod.  Today let’s review what happened on Day 6, Tuesday May 17.  I’m summarizing from the Provisional Acts found here.  Some of the highlights from where I’m sitting:

  • Article 86 mentions the appeal of Ancaster regarding Dr. Jitse van der Meer.  The discussion on that Tuesday was held in closed session.  We can skip ahead to Day 7 and article 103.  There we find that the decision in this matter is only going to appear in the confidential Acts.  And what happened to the Providence appeal?  It doesn’t appear again anywhere in the Provisional Acts.  I suspect that it might appear in the final, public version of the Acts.  We will have to see.
  • The matter of women’s voting was certainly something of interest at this Synod for a lot of people.  There’s a long history on this topic in the Canadian Reformed Churches.  It took a long time for the momentous decision at Synod 2010 recognizing that this is a matter for local churches to decide upon.  Synod 2010 left it in the freedom of local churches whether or not they wanted to allow female communicant members to participate in elections for office bearers.  Numerous churches appealed that decision to Synod 2013 and it was overturned.  By then the horses were already out of the gate.  Churches that had been doing it since the decision of Synod 2010 continued doing it in the conviction that this was not agreeable to Scripture, Confessions, and Church Order.  More appeals were submitted to Synod 2016.  Consequently, this most recent Synod decided that Synod 2013 erred in its overturning of Synod 2010 on this matter.  Confused yet?  Let me make it simple:  the Canadian Reformed Churches are back to where they were after Synod 2010.  Whether female communicant members vote or not is a matter for local churches to decide.  My view on this has not changed.  I remain convinced that there are no sound biblical, confessional, or church political arguments that can be brought to bear against allowing female communicant members to participate in elections for office bearers.  I understand that some local churches believe differently about it and thus I think the approach of Synod 2010 (buttressed now by GS 2016) is the best approach — really, it’s the only approach that can be justified.  I would urge readers to look carefully at the arguments presented by GS 2016 in the Acts.  For this post, I am going to open up the comments.  If you want to argue the case for the opposing view or make other comments, I’m giving you the opportunity.  However, please don’t expect that I’m going to interact.
  • Article 90 dealt with another topic relating to the role of women in church life, but this time in the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America (RPCNA).  The Committee for Contact with Churches in North America (CCCNA) recommended that the CanRCs offer ecclesiastical fellowship to the RPCNA.  This despite the fact that the RPCNA allows for women to be ordained as deacons.  The CCCNA pointed out that the RPCNA doesn’t consider the deacon to have “an office of ruling authority.”  Contrary to the CCCNA’s reasoning, Synod Dunnville decided that the RPCNA’s view on this matter did, in fact, constitute a significant obstacle to EF.  After all, article 30 of the Belgic Confession says that faithful men are to be deacons.  Moreover, they said (Consideration 3.2.3) that the office of deacon does “involve the exercise of authority in the church.”  It appears to be the end of the road for any possibility of formal relations with the RPCNA, though informal interactions will continue through venues like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC).

Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America

This week we received two volumes of reports for our upcoming CanRC synod.  There are lots of interesting things that I could comment on, but for today I wanted to mention something in the report from the Committee for Contact with Churches in North America (CCCNA).

When I was a university student in Edmonton, the Canadian Reformed Churches entered into a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship with the Free Church of Scotland.  That happened in 1993.  At that time, there was an FCS congregation in Edmonton.  We visited their evening service a few times and became good friends with many of the people there.  In fact, we worked closely together on a campus evangelism project.  One of our friends was the pastor, who happened to be on loan from the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA).  Around the same time that I started seminary studies Hamilton, he and his family went back to the RPCNA and he became the theological librarian at the RP seminary in Pittsburgh.

Hamilton is only about a five hour drive from Pittsburgh, so we made the trek down there a couple of times to visit with our friends.  On one occasion, I had the opportunity to make a presentation about the Canadian Reformed Churches to a group of (mostly) elderly folks at an RP rest home.  In my presentation, I expressed my hope that some day our churches would get to know one another better and perhaps even enter into ecclesiastical fellowship.

So, I’m very pleased to see that our CCCNA has been busy getting to know the RPCNA.  I’m even more pleased to see their recommendation 7, “To offer a relationship of ecclesiastical fellowship to the RPCNA under the adopted rules.”  That’s music to my ears.  Recommendation 6 is not really a recommendation but an observation:  “That ecclesiastical fellowship with the RPCNA has the potential to be meaningful and practical at the local level.”  The report notes the existence of RP congregations in Ottawa, Denver, and Waterloo — all places that either have or are nearby CanRC congregations.  My prayer is that this recommendation will find support among the churches and from the delegates at synod and we can continue to get to know one another even more — mutually encouraging one another as much as possible.