In our last UN update we began to frame the problem of "doorkeeping." We noted that there must be some mechanism whereby church membership is regulated, else anyone could, with impunity, claim to be a member or, alternatively, no one could legitimately claim to be a member. Let's talk now about who determines admission and next time how that determination should be made, that is, by what standard.
The Reformed Faith has traditionally assigned this doorkeeping task to the elders of a local church collectively subject to review (in disputed cases) by elders of nearby churches. However, the actual administration of the tokens of membership is, in the Reformed and other traditions, exclusively in the domain of the minister. A. A. Hodge, with characteristic clarity, argued for the traditional Presbyterian position: "[S]ince the church is an organized society, under laws executed by regularly appointed officers, it is evident that ordinances — which are badges of Church membership, the gates of the fold, the instruments of discipline, and seals of the covenant formed by the great Head of the Church with His living member — scan properly be administered only by the highest legal officers of the Church, those who are commissioned as ambassadors for Christ to treat in His name with men."
Hodge, then, following the Westminster Standards, is asserting that ministers alone may lawfully function as the doorkeepers of the church, though, presumably, they do so with the consent of the other ruling elders who make up the session (the ruling body of a particular church). It is not, therefore, simply any elder but exclusively "teaching elders," i.e., clergymen, who open and close the gate at the point of contact.
The only proof texts offered by Hodge are 1 Corinthians 4:1: "Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God," and 2 Corinthians 5:20: "We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God." The Westminster Confession of Faith, upon which Hodge had been commenting, adds these texts in support of the proposition that the right of sacramental administration belongs exclusively to "minister(s) of the Word lawfully ordained" (Mt. 28:19; 1 Cor. 11:20, 23; Eph. 4:11-12). All the texts taken together, though, hardly constitute a compelling case.
In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul is urging the church to see that the apostles, collectively, were given to the whole church as instruments by which the truths concerning Christ were being made known. It says nothing of pastors and sacraments. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul is relying on his apostolic authority as given directly by Christ to add weight to his appeal for their hearts to be turned toward God. This is classic Pauline appeal, and though we may and should follow its example, it says nothing about clergy exclusivity in sacramental administration.
In Matthew 28 we find our Lord commanding his apostles to preach the gospel, and baptize nations, and to teach everything he has commanded. Clearly, apostles were authorized to baptize.
1 Corinthians 11, at most, references Paul's apostolic authority as one who had been given direct, explicit instructions from our Lord concerning his Supper: "When therefore ye assemble yourselves together, it is not possible to eat the Lord's supper, . . . "For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you." This passage does not support clergy-exclusivity, especially when Paul's remedy for their problem is considered: it is that each man should examine himself, NOT that each man should be examined by the elders!
And the Ephesians passage reminds us how Christ, in love for the church, supplied her with officers for her well-being: "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." We learn nothing here of exclusive rights to rites.
I see little in these passages which would constitute a compelling case for ministers being the exclusive administrators of the sacraments. But lest you think I'm arguing against our received ways, let me tell you where I'm headed. I'd like for us to keep our current Reformed practice, but I'd like to see that practice established on Biblical, covenantal principles rather than hierarchical presuppositions arbitrarily imposed on the texts. Hodge was right, I believe, but he went beyond Scripture in his argument.
For example, please note how Hodge presupposes of the sacraments that they are "instruments of discipline." I would assert that they are such only incidentally and not essentially. In the case of baptism, it is not an instrument of "discipline" at all, in any fair sense. And as regards the Supper, the denial of the Supper to an "excommunicant" is a consequence of the discipline and not the instrument by which his status came to be. He is an excommunicant by deliberative and judicial pronouncement. It is the decree of the covenant community, delivered by its officers, which makes a man as if he were "a pagan or a tax collector."
But the question of sacramental administration may put us on the cusp of a new extension of the Reformation itself. For the Reformation was, perhaps as much as anything, a redistribution of power that had been unlawfully and unbiblically concentrated in the hands of the priests. It may not be too much to say that the whole of the Reformation can be seen in the single issue of the Lord's Supper. Rome said grace was a commodity which could be dispensed. Priests were those who received power to change the elements from mere bread and wine to "actual" body and blood.
With the light of Scripture delivering the people from the superstitions of the Roman mass came a liberation from the unlawful power of the priests. If the bread and wine remain bread and wine, if the benefits of the rite are appropriated not by magic but by faith, then the administrators are at best servants, never lords. But it may be that we have not taken this manumission seriously enough or far enough.
For while the Reformers rightly saw the sacraments as being two in number, it seems they only dimly saw — if they saw this at all — that the Old Testament analogs of these two rites were the most democratically administered of all Old Testament rites. There is, for example, no Old Testament office of "circumciser." The rite was performed by interested parties or their appointees. Abraham, it seems, performed the rite himself upon himself and his household (Gen. 17:23), though it is not at all unlikely that he was assisted. After all, Genesis 14:14 tells us that there were more than 300 males reckoned in Abraham's household. Tough day's work for one man, and enough to make everyone after the first, say, fifty, very nervous. "Abe, you sure you don't want to take a nap first?"
And in the famous case of Moses' son, we know that it was his wife who, hastily but legitimately, performed the ceremony. However exceptional this instance may be, it is not exceptional in that the important thing was the fact of circumcision, not the who of the administrator. This, of course, is confirmed in our Confession (27:3): "The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers."
But when we come to the Lord's Supper we seem to forget that its Old Testament antecedent, the Passover, was strikingly unique in its administration: Passover was Father's Day in Israel. Philo noted that at Passover, the fathers of Israel were "raised for that particular day to the dignity of the priesthood. For at other times the priests according to the ordinance of the law carry out both the public sacrifices and those offered by private individuals. But on this occasion the whole nation [i.e., each father] performs the sacred rites and acts as priests with pure hands and complete immunity . . . On this very day every dwelling-house is invested with the outward semblance and dignity of a temple."
This agrees with Scripture. Exodus 12:3, 6 states "Speak to all the congregation of Israel, saying: 'On the tenth day of this month every man shall take for himself a lamb, according to the house of his father, a lamb for a household.'. . . Now you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of the same month. Then the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it at twilight."
Thus, while all other sacrifice was committed to the house of Levi, this one sacrifice, the antecedent of the Christian Supper, was different.
The Passover sacrifice was entrusted to the fathers in Israel. Each daddy offered the Passover lamb for his household. That this was indeed the normal practice is confirmed by a noteworthy exception recorded in 2 Chronicles 30:17: "Since many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves, the Levites had to kill the Passover lambs for all those who were not ceremonially clean and could not consecrate [their lambs] to the LORD." Whereas the Levites would normally be involved in sacrificing animals on other occasions, they were exceptionally involved on this occasion, serving as substitutes for ceremonially unclean fathers. The implication is clear: given ceremonial cleanliness, the fathers in Israel were qualified to administer this sacrament.
Does this mean that we must abandon any notion of office in the New Testament-era church? Certainly not! But it does mean that a reexamination of our practices and their underlying presuppositions may be in order.
Fathers in the Church
What we may find is this: it is perfectly legitimate for fathers to collectively assign their administrative responsibility to local church "fathers" for the sake of neatness, expediency, and order. Every church must have a plurality of elders. However, if the elders, as those entrusted with ecclesiastical administration, are reluctant to give any of it back to fathers under any circumstances, then it may be that we are closer to the spirit of Rome in our practice than the spirit of the Reformation.
Minimally, this consideration should lead us to see the propriety of church officers administering the sacrament of the Lord's Supper by household, through each household's head, thus retaining, confirming, and reinforcing the covenantal way in which God has ordered the New Testament church: i.e., as a community of households, not isolated individuals each directly under the authority of the elders. The elders of each church are appointed not only by Christ, but by the fathers in each church. This is the way of the covenant. This way retains all. In the photo accompanying this article, you'll see me with immigrants from Urban Nations whom I welcomed into the church, not only as a servant-representative of Christ, but also as a servant-representative of the fathers of our local church. Covenant is the key, even in administration.
Perhaps this is provocative enough for one article. We'll leave this aspect of our subject now and return next month, Lord willing, to consider more about the subject of church membership. In the meantime, let's hear from you.
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- Steve M. Schlissel
Steve Schlissel has served as pastor of Messiah's Congregation in Brooklyn, New York, since 1979. Born and raised in New York City, Schlissel became a Christian by reading the Bible. He and Jeanne homeschooled their five children and also helped raise several foster children (mostly Vietnamese). In 2003, they adopted Anna (who was born in Hong Kong in 1988, but is now a U.S. citizen). They have eight foster grandchildren and fourteen "natural" grandchildren.