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.
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.