The sermon is over. The lights dim. As music begins to play, the pastor issues an invitation, “The tables are now open. No matter who you are or where you’ve come from, if you’ve responded to Jesus, then you can come. As the band plays our last song, feel free to make your way up to one of the tables. This is between you and Jesus.” Here in the 21st century, this has become a standard part of evangelical liturgy – an individualistic view of the Lord’s Supper, with minimal accountability.
This practice can be traced back to a debate which began in the 17th century and reached a turning point in the 19th century. For most of their history, English Baptists had practiced strict communion, which restricted communion only to those who had been baptized as believers. But in the 19th century, on the heels of the evangelical revival of the 18th century, and as Nonconformists gained influence and increasingly cooperated together, open communion slowly became the majority practice among English Baptists. Those who practiced it, defended it by appealing to the reality of the Universal Church and the need for greater unity among evangelicals. Some Baptists began to push for open membership, promoting an individualized view of the ordinances, separate from the local church.
This was the debate that Spurgeon found himself in as he took up the pastorate at the New Park Street Chapel in London. He grew up in a Congregational family but became convinced of the Baptist position as a teenager. The Baptists he grew up around tended to practice strict communion, but New Park Street practiced open communion. These various factors made Spurgeon sympathetic to both sides of the argument. On the one hand, he cherished a gospel unity that existed beyond his own denomination or church. On the other hand, he also valued the unity and purity of the local church, pictured in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. So how did Spurgeon fence the Lord’s Table?
All members were encouraged to participate regularly at the Table, and were given tickets which not only gave them access, but helped the elders keep track of their people. While the ticketing system may have been unique given their large size, there was no debate about having church members participate.[i] The question was what to do with the hundreds of visitors that turned out every Lord’s Day to hear Spurgeon. The minutes from the church meeting of August 13, 1856 record the following motion:
It having been reported to our Pastor and the Deacons that certain unworthy persons having partaken of the Lord’s Supper without their knowledge and consent, and that others whom they believe to be Christians but still are walking disorderly by not joining a Christian Church have also been partakers in this divine ordinance.
To prevent therefore such unworthy persons from approaching the Lord’s Table; and also to discountenance any disorderly conduct in Christians the following resolutions were unanimously agreed to:
1st, That tickets be given to all individuals who enjoy trans-communion with us
2nd, These tickets to be collected before the Lord’s Supper with those of the Members
3rd, That no person receive more than three consecutive monthly tickets but to be questioned as to the rightness of their position and dealt with accordingly.
Here we see three ways that Spurgeon sought to fence the Table:
First, all visitors who wanted to participate at the Lord’s Table needed to have a ticket. This meant arranging a meeting with a church officer earlier in the week for an interview, where the visitor would be examined for any “unholiness of life, lack of piety, or unsoundness in the fundamental truths of the gospel.” In other words, the visitor would need to demonstrate an understanding of the gospel and give some evidence of repentance and faith.
Second, only those who were members of other evangelical churches were to be admitted. It was not enough merely to have a profession of faith, but these visitors also needed to be accountable through membership in some local church to come to the Table. This meant that Spurgeon’s open communion was only open when it came to the visitor’s baptism, but not their church membership status.
Finally, Spurgeon would not allow visitors to participate at the Lord’s Table indefinitely, but after three months, they would be interviewed once again, and “dealt with accordingly.” These visitors would eventually be encouraged either to join New Park Street or to return to their home churches and be a part of the communion there. According to Spurgeon, this interview resulted in many discussions regarding baptism, and sometimes the decision of the visitor to be baptized and join the church.
Though Spurgeon practiced open communion, he refused to individualize the Lord’s Supper, but made it accountable to the local church. His practice still allowed him to give expression to the unity that Christians of different denominations have in the gospel. But at the same time, by fencing the table carefully, visitors who were tempted to view his church as a preaching station came to understand the importance of committing to a local church.
Today, there is a renewed interest in the local church among evangelicals. Whether this is all just a fad or whether this is a return to Biblical teaching will be shown by how carefully and thoughtfully Christ’s ordinances are practiced.
[i] See Meaningful Membership at Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle for more on Spurgeon’s membership practices.