May A Christian College Administer Communion?

Andy Smith writes to ask about the administration of communion outside of the visible, institutional church. Specifically he writes to ask whether a Christian college or university may administer communion in chapel or in some other setting but the question is whether it is proper to administer communion (the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist) outside the visible, institutional church?  What happens if we add the qualifier that we confess in Belgic Confession art. 29, “true”? Is what is observed outside “the true church,” i.e., those congregations that bear the marks of the true church (the “pure preaching of the gospel,” the “pure administration” of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline) the Lord’s Supper?   Finally, a related question: is it proper for laity to administer the sacraments? The answer to this question is only partly about communion. Most of the answer really lies in the nature of the church (ecclesiology).

First, however, what is the Lord’s Supper? It is an institution of our Lord Jesus. Scripture says,

And when He had taken some bread and given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me. And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood (Luke 22:19–20; NASB95)

As to whether our Lord instituted communion there is a no dispute within ecumenical (universal) Christianity. We know with certainty that the apostolic church practiced communion. The Apostle Paul indicates it in 1 Corinthians 11:23–34. We know that the early post-apostolic church (e.g., the so-called Apostolic Fathers et al) observed communion as part of their public worship services. We know this from account from Pliny the Younger (c. 114 AD) and from Justin Martyr, among others. Through the rise and institutionalization of monastic practice and orders (e.g., by the 9th century), however, monks were celebrating communion daily within the monasteries. The observance of the supper began to become disconnected from the church.

In contemporary evangelical circles it seems to be widely assumed that the supper may be observed outside the visible, institutional church. The notion that there is “the true church” has been widely rejected by pietistic evangelicals from the revivialist traditions in favor of religious subjectivism and individualism. According to the pietists, what matters is not the objective validity of the church and her sacraments but the subjective spiritual state of the Christian and the quality of his religious experience. Thus, it has become common for modern evangelicals to observe the Lord’s Supper (or some facsimile thereof) privately, at home, in small group bible studies, and in extra-ecclesiastical or parachuch campus ministry settings.

The confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice, however, is distinct from that of the pietists (and from their monastic forebears). The Reformed confess that our Lord Jesus established two divine sacraments, i.e., external signs and seals of his covenant of grace. In some circles (e.g., Baptist) the word ordnance is used in place of the traditional word sacrament, which, some fear, connotes the Romanist understanding of Baptism and the Supper. It is certainly true that the covenant signs and seals are divine ordinances. It is also true, however, that they are sacraments. In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess

66. What are the Sacraments?

The Sacraments are visible holy signs and seals appointed of God for this end, that by the use thereof He may the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the Gospel: namely, that of free grace, He grants us the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life for the sake of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross.

As you can see, the sacraments are neither magic (Rome) nor mere memories (e.g., Zwingli and most modern evangelicals). They are external signs and seals appointed by Christ himself and used by the Holy Spirit to testify to and seal to believers the truth of the gospel. Our word sacrament is really a Latin word sacramentum, which refers to a solemn (often military) oath. It was used by the church to refer to the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. This usage existed centuries before anything like “Roman Catholicism” (Romanism) existed. See e.g., Clement of Alexandria Stromata 1.3; Tertullian De idol. 6, 19; De corr. 3, 13; Cyprian Ep. 30.7 etc.

In the Supper, by the wonderful operation of the Holy Spirit, believers are fed with the true body and blood of Christ (See Belgic Confession art. 35; Heidelberg Catechism 75-82. In the institution of the Holy Supper our Lord said, “this is my body” (τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου; Luke 22:19). See also John 6:53-58 in which our Lord taught that it is necessary to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood.”

Our Lord instituted the Holy Supper in the context of the Passover and ordained his disciples, i.e., those who would become his apostles to observe and administer the Supper. The Apostles were there as representatives of the visible, institutional church. They did not represent monastic orders, parachurch ministries, or Christian colleges. We know this from Matthew 16:19: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (NASB95). He gave the office and authority of the keys of the kingdom to the visible, institutional church. He said, “I will build my church.” He did not say, “I will build the Navigators. In Matthew 18:17, in the institution of  church discipline Christ said, “tell it to the church.” Christ instituted the visible church. He appointed apostles. He sent them. He commissioned them to administer the sacraments (e.g., Matt 28:18-20).

The heart of the matter here is the doctrine that there is a visible church and it is not wherever “two or three” Christians are gathered (Matt 18:20). This is an abuse of our Lord’s words. He invoked the Old Covenant (Mosaic) legal principle (i.e., the “general equity” of the Mosaic law) that everything must be established by “two or three witnesses” (Matt 18:16; Deut 19:15) to explain how church discipline is to be conducted not to authorize every small group bible study to administer church discipline or to administer baptism and/or communion.

Calvin is helpful here. In context, he was explaining why midwives should not administer emergency baptisms but by analogy we may apply his approach to communion:

It is also pertinent here to know that it is wrong for private individuals to assume the administration of baptism; for this as well as the serving of the Supper is a function of the ecclesiastical ministry. For Christ did not command women, or men of every sort, to baptize, but gave this command to those whom he had appointed apostles. And when he ordered his disciples to do in the ministering of the Supper [Matt. 28:19] what they had seen him do—while he was performing the function of a lawful steward [Luke 22:19]—he doubtless willed that they should follow his example in it (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 4.15.20.

When private persons, who have not been authorized by Christ nor ordained by his church, take upon themselves the prerogative of administering Christ’s sacraments, they are usurpers. However well-intentioned they may be, they are doing what does not belong to them. The sacraments were to be administered by the true, visible, institutional church. The great difficulty we face, in the context of broad evangelicalism, is that most evangelicals today no longer have a doctrine of the visible church but Jesus did teach and institute a Christ-Confessing Covenant Community and to her he gave the right and authority to administer baptism and communion.

When it is conducted outside the visible church, we may well conclude that what is observed is not a communion at all. We may draw that inference from 1 Corinthians 11:20, where he said to a true (if corrupted) visible church, “when you assemble, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (ἔστιν κυριακὸν δεῖπνον φαγεῖν). They were assembling for public worship and they were attempting to observe the Supper but they had mangled it so it was no longer a communion. It had become something else.

If it is possible for congregation to so abuse communion as to render it not a communion, as the Reformed Churches concluded about the Roman mass (see Heidelberg Catechism 80) then it is not a stretch to conclude that what a bible study or a campus parachurch is doing is not the Lord’s Supper, even if they are not committing the same sins as the Corinthians.

These basic truths and principles give us footing to address the question whether a Christian college may administer communion. This is not a theoretical question. When I was teaching at Wheaton College I was asked, because I am ordained to the ministry, to participate in the administer of communion. I declined. I appreciate that the brothers were careful to find ordained ministers to administer communion but I declined on the principle that communion is a distinctly ecclesiastical minister. As wonderful as Wheaton College is, it is not the church. Ministers are not authorized to administer communion anywhere there may be a gathering of Christians for prayer and devotion. A Christian college is not authorized to admit people to the visible institutional church in holy baptism. She is not authorized to exclude people from holy communion (excommunication). Our Lord distinctly and clearly gave that office and authority to the visible, institutional church (Matt 18:17). I suspect that most Christian colleges know this and thus would not presume to administer baptism or excommunication. Why then do they administer communion? Because of their background in Pietism. They see the Supper as an expression of their unity and communion more than a holy sacrament in which believers are fed by the true body and blood of Christ. The Apostle Paul, however, clearly indicated that it is possible for one to participate improperly in communion to his own harm and to the harm of the congregation (1 Cor 11:27-29). We call this “fencing the table.” In my experience, in broadly evangelical settings, there is no real awareness of the necessity of fencing the table, i.e., of restricting the table to believers who have made a profession of faith in the true church. This, however, is the Reformed understanding of how the table should be administered. At the Synod of Dort, the Reformed Churches restricted communion thus:

61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.

This understanding of the close (not closed) administration of Supper is largely foreign to modern evangelicals but exists still in some confessional Lutheran churches and in some Reformed bodies.

This (relatively high) view of the visible, institutional church effectively answers the question whether a non-ordained person may administer the sacraments. They may not because they are not authorized. A lay person may no more administer the sacraments than he may try cases in court or perform surgery in an operating theater. The Apostle Paul expressly articulates the offices of minister (or Teaching Elder), ruling elder, and deacon. The minister is charged with administering the preaching of the gospel and the economy of the sacraments. The elders are to supervise admission to the sacraments. Again, the broadly evangelical world has a low or non-existent view of office. It tends toward a radical (American or even French Revolutionary) egalitarianism and it reads Scripture through those lenses.  Christ, however, did not institute a radical democracy. He established a Kingdom to be administered in his church, by his ministers, elders, and deacons.

If laity may not administer the Supper what about the validity of lay baptisms? Calvin (Institutes 4.15.19-20) argued against lay baptism on the grounds given above and also on the ground that, in baptism, we are recognizing what is already true, that a child of believing parents is already a member of the covenant community. A child who dies without the benefit of baptism is not lost because of the absence of baptism. At best a lay, Trinitarian (as distinct from a Mormon baptism) is irregular. It also helps to distinguish between the sign of admission to the visible covenant community from the sign of renewal or nourishment (van Mastricht). The Supper is intended to administered repeatedly whereas baptism is not. Thus, the irregular administration of baptism is one thing and the irregular or invalid administration of the Supper another.

The teaching (doctrine) that Christ instituted the true visible church, that his church has marks that distinguish it from all “sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of ‘the church'” (Belgic Confession, art. 29) is not well known but much of what, according to the Reformed confession, Scripture teaches is no longer well known, including the gospel. We cannot determine truth, piety, and practice by counting noses. We determine truth, piety, and practice according to God’s Word. The truth is that Christ instituted the sacraments. He regulates them and he uses them to signify and seal his gospel promises to the edification of his church and the glory of his name, even if that glory is temporarily hidden from the world.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Excellent article. In the section with the words “(NASB95). He gave the office and authority of the keys of the kingdom to the visible, institutional church. He said, “I will build my church.” He did say, “I will build Navigators. In Matthew 18:17, …”
    I think you meant to add the word “not?” to read “He did not say, ‘I will build Navigators.” My I suggest adding “the” before Navigators to read “He did not say, ‘I will build the Navigators'”. Or maybe I completely misunderstood that sentence. Thank you again.

  2. Dr Clark,
    Any thoughts on military chaplains and the administration of the sacraments in base chapels? While the chaplains, as ordained ministers, are accountable to ecclesiastical bodies, the chapels and their congregations are not. Would you consider them to be a church?
    Thank you.
    Scott P

    • Scott,

      This is a difficult question. I don’t think there is a perfect answer.

      I would like to re-phrase the question: may a confessional Reformed/Presbyterian minister administer communion to military personnel who would otherwise be eligible to come to communion? Put that way I can affirm. May a confessional Reformed/Presbyterian minister administer communion to those who would not be eligible to receive communion in an ecclesiastical setting? No. I don’t think that because troops are restricted to base or because they are deployed, that therefore they may receive communion.

      Put this way it is essentially the same question as taking communion to shut ins or to the nursing home. In that case I would take elders and members with me as part of the administration. A chaplain cannot do that, of course, but since the chaplain has been ordained and sent by the church to this ministry, with the understanding that he will be performing his ministry under irregular conditions, I think it is understood that, in such a case, he may do so.

    • Is one way of answering this perhaps to look at the notion of a missionary or evangelistic church–that is, cases in which the visible church performs sacraments “extraordinarily”?

  3. On a somewhat related subject Dr. Clark, would you take Communion if you visited a WELS church and they didn’t fence the table?

    • That’s an unlikely hypothetical. Would I take communion in a mainline congregation or anywhere the table isn’t fenced? Would I take communion where the table isn’t fenced?

  4. Thank you for this Dr. Clark.

    This is part of the reason why I remain uncomfortable with the taking of the Supper at Presbytery/Synod meetings. It is interesting that as the table became less fenced in most Presbyterian circles at the end of the 19th Century you start seeing the Supper showing up in all kinds of contexts that a generation before would have been anathema.

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