Should a Local Church Session Administer the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper During the Present Lock-Down Situation?
During Lock-Down, it is a great opportunity for the church to rejoice in her scattered expression. At present, as a church we are more scattered than gathered in our existence and expression, and yet one in Christ and each other. In Lord’s providence, Christian worship has been restored to its original format – worship in homes. The practice of New Testament Church was to gather in houses and worship the resurrected Lord. Such worships were not restricted to Lord’s Day but was a pattern of everyday life and even included “Breaking of the Bread.” It is amazing how quickly we have adopted to the original worship pattern with technology and its aids. Of course, we are praying and waiting for a time when we will gather again as a more visible expression of church, a gathered covenant community. However, until then, we have a providential privilege to enjoy early church experience, gathering in a smaller unit, learning from the word, fellowshipping, breaking the bread, praying, and even sharing our resources with co-believers. With reference to early church house worship, we do have a strong possibility of a local church session administrating the sacrament of Lord’s Supper in houses where believers are gathered.
Certainly, the scriptures and our confessions lack a clear answer to that. The confessions addresses the subject dogmatically and leave its practical implications to Christian prudence. Many Reformed Churches already have developed further from Westminster Confession of Faith article 29 section 3 & 4, which forbids private receiving of Lord’s Supper. In many denominations, recognizing the practical impossibility of an elderly or sick person being present in corporate worship, the minister and elders visit and serve the Lord Supper privately. Interestingly enough, The Westminster Standards (confession and catechisms) also do not addresses the necessity of a particular place of worship or a specific day (eg. Building or Lord’ Day) for appropriate administration of Lord’s Supper but only recommend the presence of a congregation (Article 29/3). Moreover, prior to requiring a lawfully ordained minister in the administration of the sacraments (Article 29/4) the Confession states “…neither does the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety, or intention of him that does administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit and Word of the institution…” (Article 27/3). Observing the order, it does seem that the Confession leaves a minor scope (like a crack in a wall) to allow elders (who are also ordained and counted equally responsible to a congregation) to administer the sacrament, in case of the absence of a minister. Of course, this does not have to become a norm or a section of our denominational bylaws or rule book. A session have to carefully examine the situation and plan the sacrament, limiting it to only extraordinary situation, like present Lock-Down.
Getting back to the question again, “Should a local church session administer the sacrament of the Lord’s supper during present Lock-Down Situation?” If a local congregation and session feel their hunger to participate in Lord’s Table, as ordained ministers of the word we may give away our privilege for a while and let the elders of the congregation administer the Lord’s Supper to their respective regions. The other possibility in small community (village/town) where people live close to each other is that a minister, with few other elders, makes himself available to every family or region to administer Lord’s Supper, strictly following WHO and government guidelines as he prepares and administer the sacrament. I would certainly not leave the administration of the Lord’s Supper to every family head (though that may be very near to First Passover Meal) because to administer a sacrament one has to be theologically sound and able enough to sustain the gravity and true meaning of the sacrament in his exhortation, prayer and actions (breaking bread…holding a cup).
How about online administration of the Lord’ Supper? A minister administrating Lord’s Super online does not seem to be a very wise option to me. Of course, one may argue that ultimately, Lord is the host of table, and therefore it does not matter whether a minister (or elder) is present in person or on a mobile/Computer/TV screen. This argument may allow some to claim that we can administer or receive the sacrament as we do with the Word online. We will be wise not to imply the same rules of online preaching to online administration of the Lord’s Supper. They both preach the gospel, yet they are different in their administration. The preaching of the word require simple speaking and listening ability whereas the administration of the sacrament include symbolic elements, words, gestures and active worthy participation that are better communicated in person than on a virtual screen. There is also a danger on administrating sacrament online, the church session is called to exercise discipline in the congregation. The online administration of the Lord’s supper may tempt a person under discipline to participate in Lord’s Table, the minister or elders on the screen have no practical possibility to immediately counsel such person. You may quickly say, “Oh. That is his or her fault!” But, as council of elders we are not to only to decide to discipline but to make sure that the discipline of the church is followed as best as possible. To initiate a practice of online administration of Lord’s Supper may also do a greater harm to the sacrament of baptism. From mission perspective, people may even find ways to baptize a person online and thus create a fragment church culture. Online administration of the Lord Supper seems abstract, impractical and a threat in future, when things get back to normal.
We can also ask another question, “Is sacrament of Lord’ Supper absolutely required in a worship service, weather in house or church building…” There are scholars who answer the question in affirmative and even go further in claiming that a local church cannot exist without the sacrament of Lord’s Supper. They would not only put the Word Preached and Lord’s Supper on a same scale but also advocate both being administered wherever a congregation meets for corporate worship. Certainly, there are valid points in their arguments, especially when it comes to the matter of frequency. However, with regard to the relationship between Word and Lord’s Supper, there are points that need real attention.
Augustine said; a sacrament is a “Visible Word.” The elements and acts of the sacraments receive their meaning from the gospel. The Word of God provides and preserves the meaning of the sacrament and therefore we always administer the sacraments in the light of the Gospel, with the Word Preached. Whether we put the sacrament subordinate to the Word or not, in reality the Word of God does occupy a central and primary place in administration of the sacrament. The moment, we remove the light of the Word of God from any of the two sacraments; the sacraments become an empty ritual of the church, with lots of superficial ideas. That is what Roman Catholic Church is historically known for. The Roman Catholic Church added many theological superstitions and made their worship more sacramental than scriptural. We all know that how the “Word of God” was imprisoned by the clergy but sacrament of Eucharist was administered regularly to the parish, as a sufficient mean to nourish their souls in faith. The Reformers brought back the supremacy, efficacy, sufficiency, and centrality of the Word of God in Christian faith, life and worship, and restored the biblical relationship between the Word and Sacrament.
During Lock-Down, many ministers and elders are making faithful and sufficient efforts to “Preach the Word” to their congregations. They are nourishing the church by constantly by preaching the “Living Bread” who is the real source of eternal life and the substance of the Lord’ Supper. For a while, it is certainly possible that many believers will not be able to experience the gospel through their participation in Lord’s Supper. Does that mean the Word preached to them will not be effective or nourishing to their souls? Does that mean that unless the gospel preached is attached to the sacrament of Lord’s Supper it will be insufficient to provide spiritual strength to its hearers?
Answers to these questions are not simple and same for every congregation. The understanding of the sacrament, especially its need and frequency may differ from congregation to congregation, even within reformed churches of a same region. Much depends on tradition and practice! A congregation inheriting its practices from Scottish heritage may give different answers from those who agree to Calvin’s position on weekly administration of the sacraments (Practically, Calvin’s position did not prevail in Geneva, for most of the congregation it was still “four times a year”).
Therefore, in present scenario, it seems that the question does not demand one uniformed regional, nation-wide, or universal answer but the best answer depends and differs from congregation to congregation. A congregation which is scheduled to have Lord’s Supper served during Lock-Down and is eagerly anticipating such provision, the minister is not to bring any hindrance but work out a plan with the local elders so the congregation is not robbed of her privilege. In doing so, he may have to encourage and help the local elders arrange and administer the Lord’s Supper in houses. He may write an exhortation to be read by the elders, he can plan and practice the table with his elders so that they are confident in administrating Lord’s Supper. However, if a congregation is well satisfied with the ministry of the word to their house by online or any other arrangements, then the minster is not to unnecessarily force the congregation to participate in the Lord’ Supper during Lock-Down period. He can continue to serve them the “Living Bread” until he observes congregation desiring the sacrament of the Lord Supper. In our polity, every local church session has a duty and privilege to decide administration of the sacrament of Lord’s Supper. Let this principle also prevail in present scenario and regulate the possibility of administrating Lord’s Supper in a local congregation.
by Rev. Samit Mishra Contact Person for WRF Denominational Member The Presbyterian Free Church of Central India