Several years ago, the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church, in North Carolina, placed a new communion table in their sanctuary. In most Presbyterian churches, communion tables are inscribed with the words of Jesus, repeated in the Words of Institution when the Lord’s Supper is shared, “In Remembrance of Me.” However, the new table at the Black Mountain church broke convention. In place of the words of Jesus, these words were inscribed on the table, “Has Everyone Been Fed?”
That symbolic gesture by this congregation should not be lost on anyone. The Black Mountain Presbyterian Church is a congregation filled week-by-week with many retired PCUSA pastors and denominational officials. Given its proximity to Montreat, where many of these folks have retired, the Black Mountain communion table displays a radical shift in the understanding of the Lord’s Supper in the PCUSA . Now, in the proposed changes to the PCUSA Directory of Worship, this change of understanding is set to be codified in the denomination’s constitution.
From the time of the ancient church, through the Protestant Reformation, and up to the present, baptism has been a requirement for admission to the Lord’s Supper. In the ancient church, after the sermon, those who were unbaptized were dismissed, so that only baptized Christians would be present for the Lord’s Supper. In Reformed and Presbyterian churches, the Lord’s Supper is understood as the meal of the covenant, so that only those who are a part of the covenant (and have received instruction in the meaning of the sacrament) are to participate. One is expected to understand the significance of the Supper before being admitted to it. As the meal of the covenant, the Lord’s Supper is intended only for those who are members of the covenant community of Jesus Christ—those who are baptized and have made public profession of faith in him. This understanding of the Lord’s Supper in the Reformed tradition comes directly from what the apostle Paul wrote in the tenth and eleventh chapters First Corinthians.
This understanding is reflected in the practice of Presbyterians up until very recent times, that one was admitted to the Lord’s Table as a communicant member of the church only after being baptized (usually in infancy) and then making public profession of faith. In fact, the service in which one often made public profession of faith (called “Confirmation” in many Presbyterian chruches today, thought that title for the service is more a bleedover from Episcopalianism than anything Reformed) was often referred to as “Public Profession of Faith and Admission to the Lord’s Table.”
Yet, the understanding of the Supper as expressed on the Black Mountain communion table and in the proposed changes to the Directory of Worship radically alters this historic Reformed and Presbyterian view of Lord’s Supper. Theological liberalism has largely reinterpreted the meaning of the Supper from being the meal of the covenant to a celebration of radical inclusivity. Thus, the proposed changes to the Directory of Worship state that, “All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding.” In the past, the PCUSA (at least officially) has stated that, “The invitation to the Lord’s Supper is extended to all who have been baptized, remembering that access to the Table is not a right conferred upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love.” By removing the need for faith and repentance, the new Directory of Worship radically reinterprets the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Like the communion table in the Black Mountain Presbyterian Church, it refelcts an all-too-this-worldly understanding of the Lord’s Supper, removes any distinction between believers and nonbelievers, and embraces as a positive change what Paul the apostle warned the Corinthians against (1 Cor. 11:27-32).
While it is true that in many congregations of the PCUSA this change in understanding and practice has already occurred, the change in the Directory of Worship gives final constitutional approval to this alien way of interpreting the sacrament. What a tragedy it will be for the PCUSA if the new Directory of Worship is approved.
Dr. Walter L. Taylor is the pastor of the Oak Island Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Oak Island, NC, a congregation dismissed to the EPC in October of 2015.
Related article: Presbyterian Church General Assembly Considers Unfencing the Table