Of the Use of a Table in the Lord’s Supper

by George Gillespie

from his A Treatise of Miscellany Questions, ch. 18, 1649

with an Introduction by Bobby Phillips, the transcriber

See also Gillespie on the Common Cup




George Gillespie was one of the four commissioners that the Church of Scotland sent to the Westminster Assembly of Divines while it was convened from 1643 to 1649. 

One of the early controversies that had emerged between the Scottish Presbyterian delegates and the English Congregationalist (or Independent) members of the Westminster Assembly was whether to specify, in the Assembly’s Directory for the Publick Worship of God, that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated with the communicants sitting around the table. The Presbyterians insisted on this practice very strongly, whereas the Congregationalists stiffly resisted it. According to the Independents, the practice was a problem because it conflicted with their definition of the visible Church. To accommodate even a modest-sized parish church around the Table, the Scots had to parcel out the local church into small groups that would approach a single Table in successive companies—once to take the Bread, then once again to take the Cup. This was no great stress for the Presbyterians, who believed in a universal visible Church that existed just as much in the parts as in the whole. However, the Congregationalists, believing that the only visible church was the local one, were horrified at the idea of breaking up the local congregation.

In the end, the debate between Presbyterian and Congregationalist proved insurmountable on this point. The language in the Directory referring to communicants sitting around the Table was rendered in italics when the document was published in 1645, to signify that a local church subscribing to the Directory could conscionably depart from it on this point. Nevertheless, when the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly ratified the Directory on February 3 of that same year, its government stipulated in a public document “That the clause in the Directory, of the administration of the Lord’s Supper, which mentioneth the communicants sitting about the table, or at it, be not interpreted as if, in the judgment of this kirk, it were indifferent, and free for any of the communicants not to come to, and receive at the table; or as if we did approve the distributing of the elements by the minister to each communicant, and not by the communicants among themselves.” According to the Presbyterians, sitting at the Table was emphatically not a circumstance of worship amenable to pleas for Christian liberty.

After the Rev. George Gillespie passed away in December 1648, his brother Patrick, minister at Glasgow, had several of George’s essays published that following year in a book titled A Treatise of Miscellany Questions. In Chapter XVIII of that book was an essay that contained what had been Gillespie’s main arguments in favor of the communicants sitting at the Table, which arguments may have gone all the way back to when he had debated the question in the Westminster Assembly in 1644.

Read here for a summary of Gillespie’s arguments.



Of the use of a Table in the Lord’s Supper.  And of the communicants their coming to, and receiving at the Table.

That a Table ought to be so far used, as that the Elements of bread and wine ought to be set upon it, is not (I think) controverted; but whether there be so much light from Scripture, as that all the communicants ought to come to, and receive at the Table, this I conceive to be the question. For resolution whereof, I humbly offer these following [six] considerations.

First of all it may easily appear, that the first guests whom our Savior entertained at this Sacrament of his body and blood, received at the Table.  Chrysostome dē prōditiōne Jude, Sermon 30., comparing the Eucharistic supper with the Passover, saith that both of them was [sic] celebrated, ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ τραπέζῃ, at or on the very same Table. The common supper, Paschal and Eucharistic were all at the same Table, Luke 22:21. But behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me, is with me on the table. John 13:28. Now no man at the Table knew… Which Texts I do not understand of the Lord’s Supper (as some do) but of the common Supper. But I suppose no man did ever imagine, that the Apostles being before set at the Table, did remove from it when they were to receive the Lord’s Table. Peradventure it will be replied (for so it hath been replied by some) that the first Communicants their sitting and receiving at the Table, was occasional, in respect that they had been sitting before at the common and at the Paschal supper, so that in this particular, we are no more bound to follow Christ’s example, than in the other occasional circumstances: the upper chamber, unleavened bread, after supper, etc. Besides, Christ had but twelve communicants, unto whom he was to give the Sacrament, and so might conveniently make them all sit at the table, which now in many Churches cannot conveniently be done. Finally, that it is as great a deviation from Christ’s example to have divers successive tables, without which in numerous Congregations, all the communicants cannot receive at the table.

I answer:

1. ‘Tis grātīs dictum [a freely offered maxim, i.e. mere assertion], that sitting at the Table was occasional, or such as hath not a standing, but a temporary reason for it, and there is this reason to the contrary: occasional circumstances in that action, which are not to be imitated by us, were such as Christ was limited unto by the law, or by the providence of God, so that therein he was not left at liberty or latitude to choose to do otherwise. For instance, it was not allowed by the Law to have any other bread in Jerusalem, during the feast of Passover, but unleavened bread only. The upper room was the place assigned by the Master of the house, God so ordering. After supper it must be, because it must succeed to the Passover, being also the Testament, or latter will of Jesus Christ. There was also a providential limitation, to such and so many communicants, that is, not exceeding the number which was allowed to eat the Passover together. Let some such reason be brought to prove that sitting at table was occasional, else let it not be called so. Sure if Christ had not thought it fittest, and chose it as the best way, that his Disciples should receive his last Supper at the table, it was free to him to have changed their posture without encroachment upon any law of Moses, or upon any providential limitation. 

Secondly, I am herein the more confirmed, because Christ himself, as it were on purpose to show, that the sitting and receiving at Table was not occasional, but such a thing as He meant to commend to us for our imitation, He gives this standing and permanent reason for it, that it is a piece of honor that he will have put upon those whom he inviteth, calleth, and alloweth to eat and drink with him, Luke 22:27. For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? Is not he that sitteth at meat?

This at meat is not in the Original, where we find only ὁ ἀνακείμενος, he that sitteth, we may as well and better supply at table, from verse 30. That ye may (here I supply from verse 27 and Matt. 8:11, “sit down and”) eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom, and sit on thrones, judging the twelve Tribes of Israel. Here is an honor of Communion, and an honor of Jurisdiction. The honor of Communion is to eat and drink at his Table in his Kingdom, and this honor (signified by their sitting, eating, and drinking at his table in his last Supper) he puts upon them as believing communicants, so that it belongs to all such. There is another honor joined with a special judicial prerogative, to sit on Thrones, and judge the twelve Tribes of Israel, and herein there is somewhat meant peculiarly of the Apostles, which is not withstanding mentioned elsewhere in a different phrase, as a prerogative of all the Saints, 1 Cor. 6:2. 

Thirdly, it cannot be denied, but that the first communicants who received from Christ, might with more ease and conveniency be placed at the table, than can be now in many Churches, which have been accustomed to another way. But we must not bring down our rule to our conveniencies, rather bring up our conveniencies to our rule. It is no hard matter to alter pews and such like things in Churches, where the present posture is inconsistent with following the pattern, and a less alteration will serve than is apprehended. 

Fourthly, the flux and reflux (so to speak) of several successive tables, where there is a great number to communicate, and the repeating or pronouncing, and applying to those several tables of receivers, the words, Take ye, eat ye,which Christ pronounced but once in one act of distribution—these things (I say) cannot be justly charged as deviations from the example of Christ, when the same providence which limited him to a fewer number, calls us to distribute to a greater number. Neither can they who so charge us, ever make good what they all allege, unless they prove that although Christ had been distributing this Sacrament to all the 500 Disciples, to whom he appeared after his resurrection (suppose I say, there had been so many communicants) yet he had given them all at once the elements, and had said but once, Take ye, eat ye, and that there had been no intermission at all, nor no partition into several successive Companies. If this can be proved, then they say much against the use of successive Tables, otherwise not. 

Fifthly, our dissenting brethren of the Independent way, who dislike our several and successive tables in one Congregation, as a dividing of those who ought to communicate all together, (for they would have none of the Communicants receive the cup, before all of the Congregation who communicate, have received the bread) these brethren, I say, may satisfy themselves from their own principles. For they hold, that although a Congregation increase so much, as that they cannot, or be so persecuted, that they may not meet safely in one place, for the Word and Sacraments, and supposing the Church of Jerusalem before the dispersion, Acts 8:1, to have been so numerous, and to have accressed to so many thousands, as could not receive the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, nor ordinarily assemble into one place for the Worship of God, (that they received the Lord’s Supper in several companies, and several houses, is ordinarily collected from Acts 2:46, and breaking bread from house to house, which the Syriac expounds expressly of the Eucharist.). Yet all this (say they) breaks not the Church, but they are still one particular Church. Now if several companies of the same Church assembled, and receiving the Lord’s Supper in several places, be not a breaking or dividing of the Congregation, nor a deviation from the example of Christ, much less can they with any reason, charge our communicating by several companies at successive tables, in the same meeting place or Assembly, to be a breaking of the Congregation, or a deviation from Christ’s example. If one of their Congregations may receive the Sacrament in several houses, when (by reason of numerousness) they cannot all receive it together in one house, I cannot conceive why they may not much more all use several successive tables in the Assembly, when the whole cannot communicate at one table, so much for my first argument taken from Christ’s example.

The second Argument, I shall take from the general notion and nature of the Lord’s Supper, as it is epulum, a banquet or feast. As those things which are competent to every human society, or lawful Assembly, are also competent to the Church and people of God. And that which every speaker which speaks in any public audience ought to do, the same ought a preacher who speaks to the Church do (for instance the posture of his body, and the extension of his voice, ought to be such as he may be best seen and heard) so likewise those things that are competent, and convenient to every feast or banquet ought not to be wanting in the Lord’s Supper, which is the marriage feast of the King’s son, Matt. 22:2-3, a great Supper, Luke 14:16, the Feast, 1 Cor. 5:8, Prov. 9:2, SSol. 5:1. Whatsoever is more meant in these Texts, sure the Lord’s Supper is one thing, and a principal thing which is intended. The Lord’s Supper is not only a feast, but a type, and representation of the Everlasting feast and communion with Christ in glory, Luke 14:15, Rev. 19:9. ‘Tis true the marrow and fatness, the substance and sweetness of this feast in the Lord’s Supper, lies in the spiritual and invisible part, yet (as Irenaeus [A.D. 130-202] said) a Sacrament consists of two parts, one earthly and visible, another heavenly and invisible, so that in the very external part, although there is that which may difference it from a carnal feast, yet there is that which hath a resemblance of a feast, viz., the eating and drinking of many together in a public place, a table covered, comely vessels, etc. Otherwise if in the external dispensation, there were no resemblance of a feast, then we should take away the Analogy betwixt the sign and the thing signified. 

Now among other things which are suitable to every feast or banquet, even ex mōre receptō apud omnēs gentēs [from the received custom among all peoples], one is, that the guests come to, and sit at the Table; which by the very light of nature, and general consent of the Nations, is a token of respect, dignity, and honor put upon the guests. As likewise of friendship and comradeship, or sodālicium. Thence the Greek proverb Ἅλα καὶ τράπεζαν μή παραβαίνειν, not to violate the salt and table, i.e., friendship, whereof eating at one table was a symbol. Thence also that Plautin [originating with the Roman playwright Plautus] phrase, commūnicābō tē semper mēnsa mea [I will always share my table with thee]. It is aggravation of falsehood, and treachery they shall speak lies at one Table, that is, under a profession and sign of friendship, Dan. 11:27. When David said to Mephibosheth, Thou shalt eat bread at my table continually, 2 Sam. 9:7, do we think that David meant no more, but that Mephibosheth should eat of the King’s meat, and be maintained by his favor? Nay Mephibosheth’s servant had so much. But there is an Emphasis put upon eating at the King’s table, more than upon eating of the King’s meat. So the King expoundeth himself, verse 11: As for Mephibosheth, said the King, he shall eat at my Table, as one of the King’s sons. So also doth Mephibosheth interpret it, 2 Sam. 19:28. Another example (though perhaps it rise not so high) see 1 Kgs. 2:7. But show kindness to the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be of those that eat at thy table. It was an argument of Jezebel’s favor to the Prophets of the groves, that they did eat at her Table, 1 Kgs. 18:19. So did Nehemiah express his friendship to the 150 Jews and Rules who did eat at his Table, Neh. 5:17. Peradventure in the two last examples, there were some successive (at least several Tables). However, eating at any man’s Table was ever a Symbol of friendship with him. 

Wherefore looking upon the Lord’s Supper as a feast or great Supper made by the great King, it ought not to be without this friendly respect, dignation, and honor, which hath been universally among the Nations signified and expressed by placing the guests at the Table. And I can esteem it no less than an erring tōtō genere [with respect to the entire class, n.b. ablative of specification], when the order and decency, which is universally observed in all other feasts, (as such, that is, not as lavish, excessive, disorderly, but as feasts) is not observed in the Church-feast, the Lord’s Supper. When the old Prophet did invite the young Prophet to eat bread, and drink water with him, common civility made a table necessary in this single entertainment. 1 Kgs 13:20, And it came to pass as they sat at the Table… If it were a disrespect to invite friends to eat and drink with us, and yet when they come, not to place them at a Table (where a Table may be had) I know no reason why it ought not also to be conceived a wronging of Christ’s guests, when they are not placed at his Table.

Thirdly, I argue from the name Table, which the Apostle makes use of in this Ordinance, 1 Cor. 10:21, ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s Table of the Table of devils. The table of Devils was that which they did sit at, and eat at, in the Idols’ temple, 1 Cor. 8:10. The Lord’s Table was that which they did sit at, and eat at in the Church, and in those times (to note that by the way) they did eat their love feasts before the Lord’s Supper in imitation of Christ, who had the Sacrament after Supper, which doth to me put it the more out of doubt, that those primitive Christians received the Lord’s Supper at the Table. The name table is also used (not without respect to the Lord’s Supper) Prov. 9:2, Wisdom hath killed her beasts (or according to the Hebrew, her killingShe hath mingled her wine, she hath also furnished her Table, where there is another distinct Emphasis upon the furnishing of her Table, beside the preparing of meat and drink. Again Song 1:12, while the King sitteth at his Table, my Spiknard sendeth forth the smell thereof. It appears by this smell that she was also at Table with the King, for the words intimate that, when the Church is nearest to Christ, even sitting at Table with him, then her graces send for the most pleasant smell, and then doth Christ sup with the Church upon her graces, as well as she with him upon his mercies and comforts, so that here is a mutual entertainment and communion. In that Evangelical vision of Ezekiel concerning the second house, which is the Church of Christ, there is also mention of a Table and of coming to it, Ezek. 44:16, and they shall come near to my Table

It has been alleged by some, that the name table is but figurative when the Scripture uses it in reference to the Sacrament, and that to partake of the Lord’s Table is no more but to partake of the body and blood of the Lord. So Psalm 78:19, Can God furnish a Table in the wilderness, i.e., give us flesh. To this I answer, when the Name Table is used for meat and drink, this very use of the word doth not exclude put plainly suppose a material Table, at which men use to eat and drink, and so a Table is used prō mēnsā dapibus instructā [in place of a table arranged with a feast], so δεύτεραι τραπεζαι [second tables], secundae mēnsae [second tables]: Auferre mēnsās [to rob tables], or the like, though not meant of the wooden table, yet do suppose the wooden Table. I do not doubt, but they in the wilderness lusted after a perfect furnished Table, and not merely after flesh, though that was the chief thing they desired, and I make as little question, but there were both Tables and beds in the wilderness, such as might be had, and such as Armies use when they encamp and pitch their Tents. 

But I ask, ought there to be a material Table in the Lord’s Supper, or ought there not, or is it indifferent? I never yet read it, or heard it doubted by any but there ought to be a material table. All that have been zealous for throwing down Altars, would yet have a Table. If so, by virtue of what warrant ought there to be a Table, and for what use? First, by virtue of what warrant? Is it by virtue of Christ’s example, or any other Scriptural warrant; or is it because of a natural conveniency and decency? If by a Scriptural warrant, I have what I desire. The same Scriptural warrant which will prove that there ought to be a Table, will also prove that the Communicants ought to come to it, and communicate together at it. For the Scripture allows not a greater honor to be put upon some Communicants, that they eat of the King’s meat, and at the King’s Table too, and a lesser honor to be put upon other communicants, that they eat of the King’s meat, but not at the King’s Table. If it be said, that a material Table hath not its rise from any Scriptural warrant, but from natural conveniency or decency, then it shall be no trespass against the word of God, to have no material Table at all, otherwise then as a natural indecency. And beside, I still urge the same argument which I was even now hinting, be it by virtue of scriptural warrant, or be it by virtue of a natural conveniency, the argument is the same, however, all the communicants should come to it, or none at all, for if some come to the Table, and some come not, this is not agreeable to that ἰσοτιμία, or equal honor and dignation, which all the communicants ought to have. Natural decency as well as Scriptural warrants are of equal concernment to all the communicants.

The second Quære [Question] was, for what end and use ought there to be a material table: Is it merely to be a cupboard for holding the vessels and cups which contain the Elements, and that the Minister may carry them from the Table to those who are to receive? Then it is no Table, for τράπεζα is a Table which we dine or sup at, no by-board for holding things which servants are to present unto those who sit at the Table. What then? Is the Table of the Lord in the new Testament intended for the same end and use as the Table of the Lord in the old Testament, Mal. 1:7, The table of the Lord is contemptible? [The first part of Mal. 1:7 is speaking about the altar.] If so, then we make the Table an Altar, and the Sacrament a sacrifice. For the Sacrifice was God’s meat eaten up by fire from Heaven, and the Altar God’s Table, because it contained his meat. But now the Table of the Lord must have another sense in the new Testament; the Lord’s Supper being no sacrifice, but epulum ex oblātīs, a feast upon the body and blood of Christ offered upon the cross for us. Of this nature of the Lord’s Supper, McCudworth hath learnedly discoursed in a Treatise printed Anno 1642. I conclude the Table which we speak of, is not for a sacrifice, but for a Sacrament, for a feast, for meat which God offers to us, not we to him. Therefore we ought to come unto the Table of the Lord to receive the mystical food in the Sacrament, as well as we come to our ordinary Table for our ordinary food. Otherwise what ever use we may devise for a Table in the Sacrament, sure it serves not for the use of a table, at least not to all the Communicants.

Fourthly, I offer also this argument. The coming to and receiving at the Table serveth to set forth the communion of Saints with Christ and among themselves, which is a principal thing intended in this Sacrament, and without such a symbol as I now plead for, is not plainly and clearly set forth in this Ordinance. To eat in the same house, and of the same meat, is nothing near such a sign of fellowship or communion, as to eat at the same Table. This difference is noted between Martha and Lazarus, John 12:2. When they made a supper to Jesus in Bethany, Martha served, but Lazarus was one of them who sat at the Table with him. Lazarus therefore had more fellowship with Christ at that time. Peter Martyr on 1 Cor. 10 noteth out of Chrysostom that commūnicāre [to communicate] does imply sodālicium [fellowship], and is more than participāre [to partake], to communicate is more than to partake, for one may partake of the same bread, who doth not communicate in the same bread. He that eateth of the same thing, but not at the same Table, cannot be altogether or properly called ὁμοτράπεζοϛ or συντράπεζοϛ, you shame them that have not, (or them that are poor) saith the Apostle. What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I praise you not, 1 Cor. 11:22. So say I those that receive the Sacrament in their Pews, shame the poor that have no Pews, wherein they are not to be praised. Sure it were more communion like to sit and receive at one Table. It is the most suitable and significant setting forth of the communion of Saints, when the children of God are like olive plants round about his Table, Psalm 128:3. Therefore the Apostle having mentioned our partaking of one bread, 1 Cor. 10:17, adds verse 21 our partaking of one Table, which is the Lord’s Table. When Communicants come not to the Table, but abide in their Pews, some here some there, this is indeed a dividing of the congregation in variās partēs partiumque particulās [in various parts, and pieces of parts]. Neither can they be said to divide the cup amongst themselves, (which by the institution they ought to do in testimony of their communion) when they are not within reach yea oftentimes not within sight of one another. There is nothing like a dividing it amongst themselves, where they come not to the Table, and there give the cup to each other. I know some have scrupled whether our Savior’s words, Luke 22:17, take this and divide it among yourselves, be meant of the Eucharistic cup, or of the Paschal. But they go upon surer reasons who put it out of question, that it is meant of the Eucharistic cup (which is there mentioned by Luke by way of Anticipation, I shall for the present give but this reason, which I know hath satisfied some who were of another opinion (although much more might be said) that which Luke recordeth to have been spoken by Christ concerning that cup, which he bade them divide amongst themselves, the very same do Matthew and Mark record to have been spoken by him, concerning the Eucharistic cup, which was drunk last of all, and after the Paschal supper, viz., that thenceforth he would not drink of the fruit of the Vine until he should drink it in the Kingdom of God, which doth not hold true if understood of the Paschal cup, therefore those other Evangelists plainly apply it to the Eucharistic cup, and there withal they close the history of the Sacrament, adding only that a hymn was sung, Matt. 26:27-29, Mark 14:23-25, with Luke 22:17&18. And if notwithstanding some will not be persuaded that the words, divide it among yourselves, were meant of the Eucharistic cup, as I am confident they are in a mistake, so I hope they will at least yield this argument, ā fortiōrī [from the greater]: If there was a symbol of communion in the Paschal cup, that the receivers were to divide it amongst themselves, sure this ought to have place much more in the Eucharistic cup, for the Lord’s supper doth more clearly and fully set forth the communion of Saints than the Passover did.

The fifth Argument I shall draw from the words which Christ used in the distribution, Take ye, eat ye, this is my body which is broken for you,and of the cup, Drink ye all of it. The institution is our rule and pattern, and ‘tis high presumption for any man to be wiser than the Son of God, or to speak to the communicants individually in the distribution, Take thou, eat thou, This is the Lord’s body broken for thee, etc. When Christ thought fit in the distribution to speak in the plural, Take ye, eat ye, etc. ‘Tis no answer to say, that the words, Take ye, eat ye, etc. are used in the consecration, for then they are but related Historically. Here is the strength of the Argument: Christ spoke so in the act of distribution, and by way of application to the Communicants in a demonstrative enunciation, therefore so should we. But now this cannot be, where the communicants do not receive at the Table, but in their several Pews. This very thing hath occasioned the change of the words of the institution, from the plural to the singular.

Sixthly, we have some light from antiquity also in this particular, for which purpose there are some notable passages in Chrysostome, Book 5, of Diverse New Testament Places, Sermon 21, where opening these abuses in the matter of love-feasts, reproved in the Corinthians, who joined together with these the Sacrament, 1 Cor. 11. This he much insists upon as a principal abuse, that they did eat καθ’ ἐαυτοῦς by themselves, or severally: and τράπεζα μή γένηται κοινὴ the table is not made Common, for the rich did eat by themselves, not together with the poor. Christ did not so with his Disciples in his last Supper, ἐν ἐκέινω γὰρ τῶ δέιπνω καὶ δεσπότης καὶ δοῦλοι πάντες ὁμοῦ κατέκειντο. For in that Supper, both the Master and all the servants sat together. Chrysostom shows further from the Church’s custom and form observed in the administration of the Lord’s Supper, how justly the Apostle challenges that abuse in the love feasts. For in the Lord’s Supper all approach unto, and receive at the same table. For, saith he, that spiritual and holy Table is common to all, both rich and poor—μία τιμὴ πρόσοδος μία, there is the same honor, the same access and approach for all. Καὶ ἕως ἂν πάντες μετασχῶσι καὶ κοινωνὴσωσι τῆς πνευματικῆς ἰεράς ταύτης τραπέζης, οὐ συστέλλεται τὰ προκέιμενα ἀλλ’ ἑστήκασιν οἱ ἱερεῖς ἂπαντες καὶ τόν πάντων πενέστερον καὶ έυτελέστερον ἀναμένοντες. And until all do partake [and communeof this spiritual and holy Table, the things which are set upon the Table [Gillespie inserts “the Table”] are not taken away, but all the Priests (or Ministers) stand expecting even him who is poorest, or smallest of all.  So that according to this form and custom which he holds forth unto us, the Ministers did not go about with the Elements unto the several pews of the Communicants, but they stood still at the table, and all the Communicants, both poor and rich come to the Table.




Related Pages

Gillespie on the Common Cup

Sitting at the Table

The Common Cup

The Administration of the Lord’s Supper

The Interpretation and Defense of the Original Westminster Standards