Some Kind of Zen Presbyterianism . . .

I received a good question from a friend about yesterday’s post concerning Rachel Held Evans and communion, a question that had to do with how we fence the Table. In order to be able to get at the issues involved, let me remove it entirely from this dispute about RHE so we can grasp the general principles that apply.

First, let me state how we fence the Table and why. In our printed weekly bulletin, we have a separate box with the heading ” May I Come to the Table?” That question is answered affirmatively, provided the reader has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and is not under the discipline of the church.

But this brings up two wild cards — first, there are people out there who have been excommunicated who shouldn’t have been, and there are also a bunch of people who haven’t been who should have. What do we do with them?

With the former, we assume the legitimacy of the discipline, seeking to honor the authority of a sister church. At the same time, we have this person who has come to us for refuge. So we make an effort to contact the disciplining church for information about the discipline, about the trial, etc. If there is something we can do to help our refugee put things right, we would do that. But if the stated clerk for Diotrephes Memorial writes us a snippy little note inviting us to drop dead, and the claim of the refugee is that his fault was having the apostle John over for lunch, then our session would feel free to set aside the discipline, and welcome him to the Table.

With the latter, we are having to deal with the dismal state of the church today. As my father is fond of saying, and I follow him, God takes us from where we are, not from where we should have been. A lot of Christians are making their way through life as battered repaints, and had they come to us from a godly church, they would have been disciplined — for that unjustified divorce, for example. But of course, had they been nurtured in a godly church, maybe the divorce wouldn’t have happened. Often discipline doesn’t happen in churches because the churches themselves are fit subjects for discipline. In receiving such people, we are playing cards with the hand we were dealt. Everything rides on the openness of the people involved to be established in the faith in a sound way.

A complicating factor here is that, in my view, withholding communion from someone from another communion is not just an act of discipline with regard to that person, but in effect can be an act of discipline of the offending communion. This is something I am happy to do depending on how complicit the communion is in the offense, and how flamboyant it is, but I am very wary of cutting off a big branch because of what some twig has been saying.
Now there are two basic occasions for discipline — leprosy of the heart and leprosy of the head — life and doctrine. These would be, respectively, moral failings and doctrinal failings — immorality and heresy. You can drop either one of these failings into the structure outlined above.

The one additional criterion is that the standards concerning doctrinal error are stricter for anyone who is functioning in a teaching role — books, blogs, etc. For this reason, if someone who was a member of our church began publicly teaching feminism (a significant heresy, not a mere ” social” issue), that person would be disciplined. But if a parishioner has been negatively affected by feminism, we would simply teach and shepherd her.

Now here’s where the judgment calls come in, and this is where I part company with one particular conservative approach to fencing the Table. I argue this way, not because I don’t take sin seriously, but because I believe that there is an array of sins out there to take seriously, including the sins committed by disoriented churches as they attempt to discipline properly. There are churches that are so concerned for maintaining the fence around the Table that they have precious few resources left for putting food on the Table. A number have drifted into the mentality of an ecclesiastical North Korea — with a well fed military and a starving populace.

Now I know this is not the error of the vast majority of evangelical churches, which rarely practice church discipline. I grant that. The error of our day is overwhelmingly a lack of discipline. But among those churches which do practice discipline, the error I have described is not uncommon. Those who care about fencing the Table — as I do — can often be far more concerned to not commune the wrong person than they are concerned to offer bread and wine to those who are welcome in the sight of Christ. I would rather go the other way. I want us to guard ourselves against the error we are most likely to fall into.

Grace has a backbone, but grace is not all backbone. The fundamental reality that I want to be obvious at the Table is the invitation to every sinner. Part of the invitation — an essential part — is the invitation to leave all sin behind, to repent, in other words. And that is why I say, every week, “Come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ.”

It is not as though law deals with sin, and grace must be protected from sin by the law. No — what the law was powerless to do, weakened by the flesh, God did by sending His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, to be a vicarious sin offering. Grace deals with sin much more effectively than the law can on its own. There is a place for law, an honored place, which is why we still discipline. But it must be a subordinate place, and we protect our discipline with grace. We cannot ultimately protect our grace with discipline.

It may seem to some as though I have veered into some kind of zen Presbyterianism here, but I really don’t think so. Only a bloodied Christ can deliver us from sin, which means that the grace of God in Christ is the only possible deliverance from feminism.

  • http://typos C. Frank Bernard

    Diotrophes -> Diotrephes
    “big branch because of some some twig” -> big branch because of some small twig
    Burn after reading.

  • Tim Bayly

    Our practice is almost identical in spirit if not in word. We use Calvin’s words from Geneva which are a wonderful combination of warning and exhortation to sinners to come, while tagging on one additional warning: namely, that those who come are either to meet with our elders to request their permission or to be members in good standing of an “Evangelical” or “Bible-believing” church. Not Clearnote Church, Bloomington, but any orthodox Protestant Christian church. Then we often add that this is to keep those who reject the church visible and the authority of her officers from thinking that the Lord’s Table is a private affair between them and Jesus; that our Lord gave the administration of His Sacraments to the officers of His Church and those who reject that authority are rejecting His authority and must correct this rebellion before coming to the Table. For two decades I was a ministerial member of the PCA and this is their requirement (which in today’s world I think they’ve gotten right).

    Of course, a significant minority if not a majority of PCA pastors refuse to say or print in their bulletings anything like the above.


  • John Anthony

    Good stuff, not popular, good…

  • Zack Skrip

    Pr. Tim Bayly,

    I believe that is very similar to what Mark Dever requires at Capital Hill Baptist. It’s something I’ll have to consider. Thanks for reminding me.

  • Jason

    I had to Google, but “Diotrephes Memorial?” …well played.

  • henrybish

    And so applying these principles to the case of RHE, we get?

  • Andrew Lohr

    Response to the Pingback reference( I’m not sure if I got this posted there or not.)

    Your regular fans may know, but on my first visit (from a comment on Doug Wilson’s blog) your undefined use of ‘oriental’ confused me. Pastor Wilson used North Korea and Zen as negative analogies; both are Oriental and so are you; is that what bothered you, or does ‘oriental’ have an established meaning here? Albania 40 years ago was what North Korea is now, and the confusion of deconstructionism might rival that of Zen, so if Wilson is perceived as racist here I see the perception as false, and the false perception bothers me more than what triggered it. All I see is a couple casual analogies, not anti-orientlism. Are we anti-ostrich if, knowing better, we use the analogy of ostriches with heads in the sand? You might ask Wilson to draw more of his negative analogies from the West, tho Rachel Held Evans and apostate churches are Western negative concerns. (My GUESS is Wilson holds the average Chinese evangelical church in higher overall esteem than the average American.) Your article struck me as isogetical, pouring a lot of stuff you have in mind into a couple casual references, only incidentally Asian, in Wilson.

    That feminism and whatnot do at least partly react against actual evils I agree, and since these evils have been experienced they are deeply felt. (Re infant communion, since I was denied God’s Table as a child I have had a similar experience and feeling.) But reaction does not guarantee correctness: was the Third Reich a proper reaction to the evils of the Gulag empire and communism, however evil and in need of correction the Gulag was? Is fornication a proper response to sexual deprivation? (C.S. Lewis: widespread drunkenness is the mother of prohibition and prohibition of widespread drunkenness.) It is (usually) the duty of those who oppose an evil not just to react against it, but to find the truth. (Dig up “Feed God’s babies” on my web-archived old website,, or scroll down my blog, to find it, and see how I do with infant communion, trying to be forceful, balanced, and loving.) So yeah, Wilson and co. would do well to heed what feminism & co. are saying and to deal with evils it opposes. But feminism etc may still be basically wrong. (“The cults are the unpaid bills of the church.”)

    And was it you or Wilson contrasting grace with law and discipline? Why would anyone do that? It’s gracious of God, and His messengers, to tell us what He wants. It’s gracious of Him, and his gracious agents, to rap our knuckles to bring us to repentance. (He will use ungracious agents at times.) I try to correct my kids in love, not to hurt them for hurting’s sake. Love and grace include instruction and correction.

  • Valerie (Kyriosity)

    In other words, if it’s not more about the gate than about the fence, yer doin’ it wrong.

  • Eric Stampher

    “Member in good standing” reminds me of the circumcision group’s demand. Not good enough if you’ve been born again and evidence validation by the Spirit.

  • RFB

    Mr. Stampher,

    I am not sure that I understand you comment. Are you opposed to the principle of excommunication, or am I misreading the comment?

  • rcjr

    Would love to hear your comment on Brother Bayly’s remarks. I didn’t see anything in your piece about having one’s profession deemed credible by some elders somewhere. In my view members of the invisible church only should only get invisible bread and invisible wine.