What is the biblical ground for the practice of “fencing the Lord’s Table” or interviewing applicants to the Lord’s Table? Doesn’t 1 Corinthians 11:27–29 teach us that the responsibility of examination is only on the individual partakers themselves?
You are right to note that the examination required in 1 Corinthians 11:27–29 is that of personal examination by the participants. This passage is, therefore, not the immediate basis for the practice of fencing or interviewing, though, it does point to the solemnity that ought to attend participation in the Lord’s Supper. Though, it is not explicitly commanded, I believe a warrant for fencing may be found in the Scriptures:
Firstly, the interview serves as a means to assist the individual to examine himself or herself prior to the communion service. Noting the deceitfulness of the heart and the deceitfulness of sin (Jer 17:9; Heb 3:13), the interview may in fact serve as a very important preparatory means for some.
Secondly, the basis for fencing lies in fact that the church, though having many members, is in the eyes of the Lord one body (1 Cor 12:12). Thus the Apostle Paul says: “That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor 12:25–26). The implication of this organic conception of the church is forcefully brought home to the church under-age at the battle of Ai when Achan sinned by taking of the accursed thing, and the whole Israelite army suffered defeat on account of his sin. Remarkably, when the LORD revealed to Joshua the reason for their defeat, He said: “Israel hath sinned, and they have also transgressed my covenant which I commanded them: for they have taken of the accursed thing…” (Jos 7:11).
In other words, the actions of an individual in a church have corporate implications. No one in a church may think that his sins are nobody else’s business; conversely, the church must not think that the sins of an individual is none of the business of the church.
But isn’t there an exception in the case of the Lord’s Supper, seeing that Paul requires the individual to examine himself or herself privately. I am afraid not. In fact, Paul makes it very clear that it is particularly in the Lord’s Supper that the church must recognise its organic oneness. Referring to the Lord’s Supper, he insists, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor 10:16–17; italics emphasis added). Clearly then, the Lord’s Supper is not to be understood as an individual exercise but a corporate exercise of the body of Christ. In fact, it is instructive that after Paul urges self-examination in the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, he switches to a plural pronoun to talk about the afflictions that the church was experiencing because of careless observance of the Lord’s Supper: “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor 11:30). Was the Apostle saying that those who were weak and sickly were guilty of partaking the Lord’s Supper unworthily and were being punished with physical ailments and deaths? This is possible, but I believe that Paul had the corporate suffering of the church in mind; for otherwise, Paul would effectively be charging those who fell sick and those who died in the church of the crime of taking the Lord’s Supper unworthily. More likely, Paul is saying that the church as a whole has been experiencing a spade of sickness and deaths because the Lord’s Supper was being profaned in the church. If this is right, then 1 Corinthians 11:31, “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged,” may refer not only to individual self-examination, i.e., taking the word “ourselves” distributively; but also corporate examination, i.e., taking “ourselves” organically. This would then be the basis for fencing the Table and interviewing those who are not particularly known to the church, before allowing them to partake of the Table.
A further warrant, to fence the Table may be found in 1 Corinthians 5. In this chapter, Paul is dealing with the discipline of an immoral member of the church. He suggests excommunication for this man as his actions has bearing on the entire church for “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (v. 6). After this, Paul lists down some principles for dealing with professing Christians who are known to be living in open sin. Among his instructions, is one remarkable statement: “if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (1 Cor 5:11). It is possible that Paul is saying that we must not even share a meal in private with such a person. But if that be the case, then, shouldn’t this injunction be taken even more seriously with regards to participation in the Lord’s Supper, which is a corporate exercise. Indeed, I believe that Calvin is right to suggest that Paul’s injunction is given to the church corporately, i.e., a person who is living in sin is not to be included in any meal which the church participate in corporately. What meals do the church partake corporately but the Lord’s Supper (and the agape meal in the early church).
Base on the grounds above, we may conclude, I believe, that the practice of fencing the Lord’s Table, which is common in the more careful Reformed churches, is not without biblical warrant. How it is carried out is, I believe, a matter of indifference. But the Westminster divines were surely right when they assert: “Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ hath left in his church, until they receive instruction, and manifest their reformation (WLC 173).