Joe writes to ask
Hi Dr. Clark,
My church is currently streaming service online and advocating for family worship at home. They are also encouraging us to get bread and juice/wine and take communion during service hours with our families. Is this how the Lord’s Supper should be taken during this crisis? Or should we abstain from it until we can all meet again at the Gathering.
These are unusual circumstances and so churches are forced to resort to unusual means to try to continue to edify the congregation and to minister to one another during the quarantine, e.g., broadcasting messages online and holding prayer meetings online. Nevertheless, there are two points that ought to be made:
- What is being live streamed or broadcast, unless a congregation is present, is not a worship service. We might call them devotions. At school, we hold chapel services twice a week and prayer groups once a week. These are not worship services. These are informal gatherings for mutual edification. A church service requires the presence of ruling elders, an ordained minister (sometimes described by Presbyterians as a teaching elder), and a congregation. Without those things, it is an edifying gathering but it is not a rightly ordered service.
- The Lord has given to the office of the minister of Word and sacraments to administer them to the congregation. He gave it to his apostles (Matt 16; Matt 18, John 21:17; Matt 28:18–20). His apostles gave that office to ministers of the Word such as Timothy, Tychicus (Eph 6:21), and Epaphras (Col 1:7) and others. He instituted the Supper in the presence of the apostles. Yes, they were disciples at the time but note that Luke calls them “apostles:” “And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him” (Luke 22:14; ESV). Our Lord commissioned his apostles, officers in his church, to do it in remembrance of him. The same is true of the institution of baptism. In both cases, it was given to apostles to administer the sacraments. It was not given to laity, e.g., heads of households to administer sacraments. This is why Reformed and Presbyterian congregations, in the 16th through the 18th centuries sometimes went months without hearing sermons from a preacher—typically an elder would read a sermon in lieu of a preached sermon—or receive communion because of the shortage of ordained ministers. It is to ministers, who hold the prophetic office, i.e. the office tasked with ministry of the Word, to whom God has committed the administration of the Word and the sacraments. We see this pattern in the New Testament. The Apostles gave themselves to the minister of the Word and prayer (Acts 2:42) and when the practical needs of the congregations proved too great (Acts 6:1–6), they instituted the office of deacon, following the OT pattern of prophet (Word), priest (receiving offerings and meeting needs), and king (elder) in the New Testament church. It was to Timothy as a minister that Paul wrote, “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2) not to the entire congregation.
So, to answer your question directly, no, families are not authorized to administer holy communion any more than they are commissioned and authorized to preach the Word, administer church discipline, or holy baptism. For a family to take to itself these functions is a confusion of two spheres, the family and the church. The church may be composed of families but that does not make every family a little congregation and every parent a pastor. It is a hardship to be without the sacraments while we cannot gather as congregations but the Lord will see us through this odd and difficult time and restore us to one another and the ministry of Word and sacrament to us.
We need to recognize the deep influence that American culture has upon American Christians and we need to recognize the difference between the culture and the Kingdom of God. Since the early 19th century there has been a radical flattening of American society. Scholars call it “Democratization.” Others call it “egalitarianism.” In the spirit of the French Revolution we want to tear down all offices, distinctions, and hierarchies. As Eric Liddell says in Chariots of Fire (1981), “The Kingdom of God is not a democracy. It’s a benevolent dictatorship.” So it is. King Jesus exercises his special, saving reign in his church, the embassy of his Kingdom, through ministers, elders, and deacons. He has given to ministers especially to administer the Word and sacraments. He has given elders to oversee the ministry, and to deacons to minister to the practical needs of the people.
Our strange circumstances do not change that order and they do not authorize us to take into our hands those offices that have been given to us.
NB: As they say on Dragnet, the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
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