Should Lay People Administer The Sacraments?

A correspondent wrote to ask whether Christian laity should administer the sacraments? This is an ancient question, though typically we face it in a different form. In the Reformation, Calvin dealt with this question because midwives would administer baptism to infants in view of infant mortality and under the conviction that baptism is necessary to salvation.

Sacraments Not Sentiment

In our setting, the question is a little different. Most evangelicals take a much lower view of the sacrament of baptism than did the sixteenth-century midwife. Most evangelical laity, in 2022, are more likely to administer the sacrament for sentimental reasons (e.g., it’s nice) or under the influence of a radically egalitarian (or democratic) view of the church and sacraments.

To be sure, the medieval, priestly (sacerdotal) view of the sacraments was grossly mistaken. Despite what you might hear from some quarters, the sacraments are divinely instituted signs of divine grace and seals of the same to those who believe but they are not the things signified. Radbertus (a ninth-century monk) was wrong: at consecration, the elements of holy communion do not become the literal, actual body and blood of Christ. Ratramnus was correct. Were that true then they would, by definition, no longer be sacraments. Christ is one thing and a sacrament another. Baptism signifies what Christ does in justification and sanctification but baptism does not itself confer new life, justify, or sanctify. The same sovereign, free, Holy Spirit, who hovered over the face of the deep (Gen 1:2), ordinarily (in both senses, i.e., routinely and by divine ordination) grants new life to his elect through the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10:14–17). In the sacraments, he signifies to our senses the things promised (e.g., in the washing of baptism and in the sight, smell, and taste of the bread and wine) and confirms (seals) the promises of the gospel. They testify to believers that what we have heard preached is really true for us personally. This is why we speak as we do in the Heidelberg Catechism:

73. Why then does the Holy Spirit call Baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins?

God speaks thus not without great cause, namely, not only to teach us thereby that like as the filthiness of the body is taken away by water, so our sins are taken away by the blood and Spirit of Christ; but much more, that by this divine pledge and token He may assure us, that we are as really washed from our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water.

We deny that baptism is itself the washing away of sins. Baptism is called the washing of regeneration rhetorically or figuratively (Titus 3:5). The one thing (the sign) is said figuratively to be another, i.e., the reality. This is a sacramental identity or union (See, e.g., Calvin Institutes, 4.15.15). The benefits signed and sealed in baptism are received through faith alone (sola fide) not through baptism.

We say the same sort of thing about the Lord’s Supper:

75. How is it signified and sealed to you in the Holy Supper, that you do partake of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross and all His benefits?

Thus: that Christ has commanded me and all believers to eat of this broken bread and to drink of this cup in remembrance of Him, and has joined therewith these promises: First, that His body was offered and broken on the cross for me and His blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes the bread of the Lord broken for me and the cup communicated to me; and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ.

Notice how we appeal to sense experience. We do not say that, in the Supper, the elements become the literal body and blood of Christ any more than we say that baptism confers ex opere (automatically)> what it signifies. We say that the promises of Christ are signified and sealed by the Supper. It is not an empty ritual because Christ himself has joined his promises to the sacrament. Indeed, that’s the definition of a sacrament: a sign and seal instituted by Christ to which he has joined his divine promises.

As surely as we see the break broken (fractio panis, the literal breaking of the bread in the liturgy of the Supper) and as surely as the minister hands me the bread and the cup and we taste the bread and wine, so we are assured that the promises of Christ are for me, a believer.

Order Is Not Clericalism

It is useful to rehearse what the sacraments are and are not in order to understand why the churches say what they do about who may administer the sacraments. The sacraments are not private spiritual exercises. By divine institution, they are public, ecclesiastical sacraments, to be administered publicly by the visible, institutional church.

This is a struggle for a lot of American evangelicals who simply assume that the radical democratic spirit of the USA post-1800 is a biblical spirit. Andrew Jackson and the Second Great Awakening were nineteenth-century phenomena not biblical movements. We may not read the assumptions of the 19th century back into Scripture.

First, Jesus established the visible church. He did it in Matthew 16, Matthew 18, and Matthew 28:18–20. Throughout all their epistles, the Apostles assumed the righteousness of the visible, institutional church. They do not defend her existence any more than they defend the existence of air or water. They take it as a given, a divine institution. They write to visible congregations—not to small group Bible studies or discipleship groups. They wrote their epistles to congregations with pastors, elders, and deacons. There is no space here to defend all this but see the resources linked below where it is defended extensively.

Just as soon as Jesus declared that all authority had been given to him, he turned to the apostles and instructed them, officers in the visible church, to make disciples and to use the sacrament of Baptism. When Paul corrected the Corinthian congregation on the administration of Holy Communion, he did so by writing to a visible, institutional congregation, with officers and members.

To egalitarian, democratic American ears (influenced as they have been by the French Revolution), this may sound like clericalism but it is not. It is Christ’s order. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote to pastors Timothy and Titus about pastors, deacons, and elders. These are offices instituted by the Apostles with the authority of Christ. They represent his threefold office: Prophet, Priest, and King.

To recognize that Christ, to his apostles and through his apostles, has instituted distinct offices with distinct authority and responsibility in the church is not clericalism. It is Christianity 101. The very earliest post-apostolic writers in church wrote a church order (The Didache) and detailed instructions to pastors, elders, and deacons (e.g., Ignatius of Antioch). Most of our important writers from the early post-apostolic church were themselves pastors. They held that office. They, not the laity, administered the sacraments. They, not the laity, preached.

Our English word laity comes to us from a Greek noun λαος (laos). The very distinction between the special office holders (pastors, elders, deacons) and the people comes to us from Scripture itself. In Exodus alone the expression the people occurs more than 188 times. Most of the time it refers to the the unordained people who made up the Old Covenant, Israelite church. Moses and Aaron were ordained officers in the church (and state). There was distinction. They did not all meet with God in the tent. Moses did.

A Kingdom Not A Democracy

The New Testament does not wipe out that distinction between officers and people. Another way to put this is to say that Christ brought with him the Kingdom of God and not the Democracy of God. A king is an office. Jesus is, in distinct ways, King over the church and the world. As King over the church, where he exercises his special, saving providence, he has instituted offices and sacraments. He has not empowered all the people to do everything.

In the New Testament We see apostles and their successors conducting the ministry of the church on Christ’s behalf. We do not see the people, the laity, those who hold the general office of believer exercising the ministry of the church. We see Paul, an apostle instructing the officers of the church to exercise discipline (1 Cor 5) in the case of gross immorality in Corinth. We do not see the people being authorized or exercising this function. Pastor Timothy is instructed to preach the Word when it is in fashion and when it is not (2 Tim 4:2). Indeed, the NT knows nothing of the (widely assumed) modern model of democratic, egalitarian, every-member ministry.

So, no, the laity may pray, give witness to their faith and to the faith, and serve Christ and his church in many ways, but administering the holy sacraments is not one of those ways. Christ has instituted an order in his church, the embassy of the Kingdom of God to the world.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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  1. Dr Clark,
    Is the sacrament of Communion only valid in the structure and administration by the ordained Pastor?

    • Ordinarily. Ruling elders administer communion in cooperation with the pastor. There might be church polities where the leaders are all called elders, in which case it might be hard to tell.

  2. In Lutheran congregations, to which I belonged in the past, an ordained pastor was required to consecrate the elements. If an assistant pastor was available, the two of them distributed the bread and wine. If not, an elder assisted with the distribution.

    Although the Lutherans may be reading too much into the sacrament of Holy Communion via so-called consubstantiation, i.e., this business of the body and blood “in with and under the bread and wine,” what I’ve seen in run-of-the-mill evangelical congregations is too low a view of the sacrament. They over emphasize the “remembrance” (looking back at Christ’s sacrifice) without underscoring the 2nd half of that Heidelberg Q. 75, “…and further, that with His crucified body and shed blood He Himself feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, as certainly as I receive from the hand of the minister and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, which are given me as certain tokens of the body and blood of Christ…” In other words, a looking forward to the final consummation of the church.

    Further, most evangelicals treat the distribution as a matter of efficiency whereby just about anyone can pass the trays of bread or grape juice, in their case, up and down the pews. Or in these Covid/post Covid times, members of the congregation simply pickup pre-packaged containers consisting of a wafer of bread on top of a thimble of grape juice on their way into the church. I’ve never been comfortable with either the Lutheran or the evangelical/mainline protestant view of this.

    • George,

      FWIW, if you ask a Lutheran theologian he will tell you that they don’t hold/teach consubstantiation. They affirm in, with, and under. They’ve set up a test so that the 2nd half of HC 75 means nothing if we don’t say in, with, and under. It’s unfortunate. It’s a kind of Lutheran fundamentalism.

    • A rather interesting concept that a layperson wouldn’t be allowed to pass the tray of elements after they have been served by an elder. If we see the Lord’s Supper as a communal meal, is there a family anywhere that doesn’t allow children to pass the potatoes to a sibling (assuming the child is old enough to pass it safely)? We might say it’s a good thing to have the elements personally delivered to each individual by an elder, but I can’t see biblical warrant to make that mandatory.

      • Hi Cheryl,

        You’re raising the question of definition by way of a reductio ad absurdum. By administration, in this context, is what we see the minister doing on the Lord’s Day. The minister reads the form and applies the water in baptism and reads the form and initially hands the elements of the Lord’s Supper to the elders or sometimes directly to the congregants when they come forward. By the way, that form of administration was the original Reformed approach and is probably the most ancient Christian mode of administration of the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, for perhaps a century or so ministers have been handing the elements to elders who distribute them to the seated congregation.

        Isn’t there a considerable distance and difference between a layman conducting a baptism or reading the form etc and the congregation passing the elements down the row of the pew? When I wrote this article I did not intend to imply that the congregation cannot aid the elders, who cannot physically wade through the knees and pews administer the Supper personally, must physically force themselves down the pew. In my own congregation the people pass the elements down the row.

        So, are you implying that, because of the physical limitations created by modern church architecture that laity may baptize or read the form and distribute the elements to the elders or perhaps read the form and administer communion to those who come forward (as still happens in some places)?

    • Not to belabor the point (since I started it), but my original remarks were aimed at doing anything in the name of ease and efficiency vs. adhering to a more traditional practice from the early church. As RSC says, it would be impractical for an elder to try to inch and stumble his way down a pew so he can individually serve each congregant the elements. However, as I stated, thanks to COVID, we now see the practice whereby a table is set up in the narthex with small plastic disposable thimbles containing grape juice sealed with a foil wrapper along with a wafer of unleavened bread on top, also sealed with cellophane. This practice was supposedly initiated shortly after the gov’t gave a wink and a nod to the return of live attendance at worship services as long as a given distance of separation was kept and communion elements were pre-packaged. So now, not even an elder appears at the end of a row to hand the elements off to be passed along.

      During much of the lockdown and the period following many congregations Zoomed or LiveStreamed their services. And now they’re facing the challenge of trying to get people who used to attend services in person out of their pajamas and off the couch and back into the church. And they’re kind of stuck. Pre-COVID, many of these same congregations LiveStreamed their services as an outreach tool, but it was never intended to be a substitute for live attendance. So if they discontinue Web streaming they’ll be lessening their evangelism; if they continue it, they’ll always have those who think it’s OK to roll out of bed and stagger over to the wide screen, coffee cup in hand (or maybe not even get out of bed at all if there’s one in the bedroom).

      So…back to the method of distribution: What I can see coming (and I am already hearing some subtle inferences) are ways to obtain those little pre-packaged jobs at home so one can not only attend services virtually, but take communion the same way. Oh, wait! If one is at home anyway, why not just keep a loaf of matzo in the cupboard and a bottle of Welch’s in the fridge and DIY completely.

      This may all sound a bit absurd and stretching the point, but these days just about anything is possible. And in live attendance situations, many in the mainline denominations have long since opted to serve the elements via intinction, the congregants leaving their pews and queuing up to front (or to various stations around the sanctuary) in a revolving circular movement where just about anyone of any gender hands them a dipped piece of broad.

    • Hey Scott, no, I definitely wasn’t meaning to imply that individuals can baptize or serve the Lord’s Supper. I was replying to the comment above mine, which seemed to suggest it was wrong for seated members to hand the communion elements down the row.

      I’ve actually had conversations with several people and told them that no, you can’t sit in front of your computer watching your church service via livestream while you pour yourself some grape juice or Kool-Aid and chew on a crust of bread and call it communion. And I know of a couple in which the wife was raised Reformed and the husband was not (but apparently he managed to win the approval of the girl’s father); on their honeymoon the husband “baptized” his new wife in the hotel tub to make up for the deficiencies of her baptism as an infant. (Her parents were understandably horrified.) Certainly these are not proper understandings of the sacraments and I am not arguing for them.

      BTW, George, on a different note, during the time my husband and I were participating via livestream because he is among the medically vulnerable population who were being protected, we always got dressed, always had our psalter and Bibles and participated with the congregation in every way we could, including praying afterward for any needs that were expressed. Not everyone who participated by livestream was doing it out of laziness or in lazy ways. But then, our church is also back to 100% participation in person except for two elderly people with new health challenges who have become shut-ins since Covid started or people who happen to be sick and can now at least join in by watching and participating to some extent.

  3. Is baptism administered by laity invalid and need to be repeated later by an ordained pastor?

  4. It has always made sense to me that the administration of the sacraments is an act of ecclesiastical authority and therefore rightly done by elders as those vested with that authority. What I have wondered about is the practice that is relatively common in Presbyterian denominations where a distinction is made between teaching elders and ruling elders and only the former are authorized to administer the sacraments. Are there any discussions of the validity of that practice?

    • Hi Dan,

      The so-called “two office” view is a distinct view that I associate with Southern Presbyterianism in the USA. It may have roots in Scotland but I do not know that. I assume that Knox took back to Scotland something of what he learned from Calvin in Geneva. Art. 22 of the Scots Confession (1560) speaks of the minister administering the sacraments. Calvin taught four offices: pastor, teacher, (ruling) elder, and deacon. The Dutch and German Reformed churches have three offices: minister, (ruling) elder, and deacon. Art. 29 of the French Confession speaks of three offices: pastors, elders/overseers, and deacons.

      I would rather speak then of the minister or pastor administering the sacraments with the assistance of the ruling elders, whose calling it is to oversee the ministry of Word and sacrament.

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