On Deacons Serving Communion

At issue here is a practice, reported in some quarters, of Deacons assisting in the distribution of the elements of Communion, rather than Ruling Elders exclusively, as is the received practice in Presbyterian churches of the American polity (the strict Scottish practice apparently being to restrict the act of distribution to the Minister alone.)

Many of the confusions of office in the modern churches are, I suspect, due to replacing the view in which office indexes an authorized function needed for the good of a human society, with something that is more akin to being chosen for an honor society. It becomes a way to recognize certain men — good men, successful men, big-giving men, whatever. Office is confused with and thus degenerates into being something like awarding a medal for bravery in battle. As with all missing of the mark, this error can lead to a praxis which deviates to the left or to the right: it can lead to a lack of exercise of authority or an arrogation of arbitrary power. The Eldership can become nothing but a special place to sit for the men that have been awarded medals, or it can become men imposing themselves based on mere willful assertion of power. Instead, we should always remember that the name of an office is a linguistic designator for the class of functions defined, required, and authorized for that office. In doing so, many of the seemingly difficult questions will resolve themselves quite easily.

The framework that I presuppose for this reflection has not yet in these pages been proved in every point, so this study leap-frogs over those still-owed arguments, taking them as assumptions. The framework may be summarized this way: the Minister, ordained by Presbytery, is the authorized agent of the holy catholic church to consecrate the elements authoritatively and to control the giving of the sacrament. The Ruling Elders are local men ordained locally to join the minister in rule, especially in the regular oversight of the members of the local congregation. The Deacons are local men ordained locally to minister physically to the congregation and world, doing so authoritatively in the name of the church of Christ.

The Ruling Elders are appropriate assistants to distribute the elements, since they, with the Pastor, constitute the Session, which receives members as communicants and pronounces excommunication. That is, their function in discipline is authoritative, and precisely and directly related to the distribution or withholding of the Lord’s Supper. This works itself out both directly, in offering or forbidding the elements to each person present, but also indirectly, in observing and noting members that might be refraining voluntarily, so that such lack of participation can be followed up on and addressed. The function of office thus has admitting and denying as the twin poles spanning a function, which is exercised in several degrees and modes between those poles. Thus, for example, “being under admonishment” is, we could say, a form of being admitted but with the specter of being denied looming more vividly than normally is the case.

Clearly, both the direct and indirect exercise of discipline so defined fall outside the purview of the Deacon. In no sense can the Deacon simply “fill in for” the eldership. If no elders (including assistant pastors) are present to assist, then the officiating Minister will have to distribute by himself, or Communion will have to be forsworn that week. As a basic, governing principle, this much seems clear.

But now, suppose that, it being granted that it must be done in such a way that neither the direct nor indirect function of the eldership were obstructed, it were thought that the bare logistics of the distribution would be materially aided by having assistants: would such a practice necessarily be forbidden?

For example, in many churches, the elements are passed on trays down each pew. Each tray proceeds pew by pew, right to left, left to right, and so forth. An attendant stands on each end of the pew to move the tray to the next pew.  Provided there is at least one Elder in each pair of attendants, would it be permitted to have a Deacon as the other member of a pair, in the function of pure “logistics”?  My friend Steve Hoffmeister dubs this the “ergonomics justification.”

If this seems far-fetched, consider that some churches might not have anyone at one end of the pew: the tray would be passed by the congregant at the end to his counterpart in the next pew, such as one sees even more often in the collection. Now there might be some arguments against this practice as well, hinted at in the next paragraph. The practice is described merely to make plausible an a fortiori, of having a non-elder at the end as tray-passing-facilitator, even though not performing the function of elder.

It must be presumed that if the answer turns out affirmative, then there would need to be some way for the Elder to signal certain commands to the assisting Deacon, such as “do not pass down the next row.” It would need to be understood that in areas, if any, that are served by a single attendant (such as, an overflow vestibule with seating), the single attendant would have to be an elder. At the pews, given the constraints of time and memory, a single  elder would need to be able to scan and oversee the entire pew by himself — i.e. it were not intrinsically necessary to have two elders on each pew just to fulfill their basic function.

Just laying out the ground principles prior to answering the question at hand already raises a pointed question that every elder should ponder: are elders in fact doing the direct and indirect work of oversight, or has their role in the rite degenerated to mere symbolism? The widespread practice of libertarian fencing, whereby the pastor simply explains to the attendees what rule they themselves, in effect, are to use to admit or forbid themselves, is untenable in view of our view of office and its responsibilities. Yet the practice continues, and I dare say leads to an attitude on the part of many elders that they are simply symbolic accoutrements to the ceremony, not actually playing an active spiritual role. They are like a ceremonial, unarmed sergeant-at-arms. Many may be thinking more about the mere logistics of serving, and may not be actively performing the function of admitting and withholding at all. So, before even raising the question of whether a non-elder could help with the logistics, elders need to ensure that they themselves understand the requirements of their office and are diligently carrying them out. At the end of the service, for example, the pastor or Session should receive a report of all church members that voluntarily refrained from participating, and this should be entered into the minutes and followed up on.

This stage of the argument already opens up another aspect of the “Deacon as ergonomics” discussion. If the Deacon is just there for logistical support, if it is understood that he has neither the right nor the duty to perform the overseeing function associated with the Lord’s Supper, then you would expect that he would draw aside to his “station” and not be receiving the plates from the Minister. For, receiving the plates from the Minister for distribution is at once both the act and the symbol of the elders’ function, namely, authoritatively giving and withholding. A weak but perhaps illuminative analogy would be the handling of the tickets at the opera or ball game. Only certain authorized agents have the authority to sell tickets and accept tickets at the gate. In addition, ushers are stationed at various places to help people find seats and keep the flow moving. For an usher to take a ring of tickets and feign to distribute them though not authorized would be confusion. Why would he even give the appearance of doing so? Likewise here, the ergonomic assistants should stand at the station where their service will be rendered (e.g. at one end of the first pew), not participate at the point of official and authoritative distribution.

Once all the wrong ways to involve deacons in the distribution of the Lord’s Supper have been ruled out, then it raises the question, why do the ergonomic assistants need to be ordained (i.e. as deacons) at all? Why couldn’t any layman perform this function?

It is a question that should be pondered carefully. I can think of no reason for limiting the function to deacons, if the function is needed at all, other than for the convenience of the natural selection process that stands behind the ordination of a man to the office of deacon, allowing thereby the dignity of the ceremony to be maintained symbolically.  It would be analogous to a king visiting a town, and needing some assistants for this or that logistical function, and choosing the Mayor and Town Council members to perform it, rather than just any assemblage of townsmen, even though those same townsmen might be on the Council next time. It saves time, it capitalizes on a selection process that has already taken place, and which moreover tends to weed out participants that were scandalous, and adds to the general dignity.

To summarize the results so far: when proper function of office is kept in view rather than simply honorific right, probably the need for non-elder assistants would be seen to be non-existent in almost every case; and in the few cases that remain, it would probably be done differently than what we often see, and would not necessarily need to involve Deacons per se, though that class might be the best to utilize for reasons of expediency and dignity.

This reflection on a practical question has keyed on examining the actual function of office directly: asking, what is required to do in order to fulfill the calling of one’s office. This approach leads to further results, one of which is surprising and initially counter-intuitive.

First, note that there is no principial reason why the minister (or assistant ministers) may not assist with the distribution of the elements. I can think of two reasons why, given that there are enough elders to carry out the distribution effectively, it might be deemed good for the minister to remain at the table and not distribute further than to the Elders. (1) To maintain the symbolism of office, emphasizing his function as executive agent of Presbytery, reflecting the principle of the holy catholic church as the controller of the sacraments, and that in distinction to the office of Ruling Elder. (2) For expediency and stamina, given the strain of his general function in the service. Just as, a manager of McDonald’s might deem it expedient not to take up the mop and pail, not for reasons of pride, but because maintaining responsibility for the operation requires not getting absorbed and distracted by the performance of the details.  To refuse out of pride would clearly be wrong.

A more surprising result is this: elders emeritus and visiting elders and pastors would be in exactly the same category as deacons on this question. That is, an elder that has “retired,” or a minister that is not involved in the life of this local congregation is in no more of a position of authoritative exercise of the keys in concreto than a deacon is, in that he is no longer active in receiving, overseeing, and disciplining members. He has the right of rule, but not the occasion: he is not installed and exercising such rule. The criterion for participation is therefore not a simple matter of “being ordained to the office of elder” (whether Teaching or Ruling). It is always a temptation to think a problem is solved by labeling and pigeon-holing.

32 thoughts on “On Deacons Serving Communion

  1. Interesting post. Let me pick one small matter which is not at all your main point for discussion: 3rd para, end sentence says deacons are to “physically minister to the congregation and world.” D.G. Hart says that diaconal functions are not part of “what makes a church a church” (according to Calvin, I guess). And that the church qua church is not to physically minister to the world. This showed up in an interchange w/ Tim Keller about the Gospel and the Poor on a blog recently. I think it’s a distinction w/o a difference. If a church qua church physically helps those outside the Church, in the name of Christ, I do not see a problem. Hart says such material distribution is strictly limited to Christian widows in the church who qualify according to Paul in Timothy. Individual believers can help those outside the church (maybe Hart doesn’t even want that; not sure).

  2. Many denominations have only one Elder, and that is the Pastor; eg., Baptists, Methodists. In communion at the rail, the Pastor indeed distributes the elements himself. Baptist pastors would appear to fall into the “expediency and stamina” category. In a sense, they turn into Episcopals in that the Pastor alone dispenses the elements to the distributors.

    In our church, the elders each have about 12-15 families they are responsible for. At communion these families are scattered and mixed all over the room. So when an elder is passing the elements, in the majority of cases he doesn’t know who is taking or not. We are given a list in advance of children who have been admitted to the table, but again, for elders 50 years plus of age, children start to all look alike, especially in a church full of them. The whole arrangement is unfortunate in a number of ways, but what to do about it? The problem seems to be with large numbers. If we actually could sit around a table or tables, (“admitted to the TABLE”!) it might help, each elder with his list of sheep assigned to a certain table, but do you know the logistics involved in accomplishing that with 300 or 400 people? In an era when most people want to get it over with so they can get home to a real lunch. Along with non-member attendees, occasionals, and visitors. I think this very problem has bedeviled the church down through the centuries and the easiest answer is to keep the church limited to about 50 members (Amish, etc.), or have self fencing at the actual meal, and do the oversight work before and after. But you are correct in noting that elders need to BE elders!

  3. Some Presbyterian (and other) churches, mine included, have the people come forward to receive the elements directly from the Pastor/elders. This eliminates the ‘who is authorized to distribute’ issue, and makes fencing much more feasible. Not that fencing actually occures on the part of the officers. But since coming forward involves more of a positive visible action on the part of the congregant self fencing is more likely for those who should not partake. And since there are left over elders, they could, in theory, watch the congregation for members voluntarily refraining from partaking. This doesn’t happen of course. But going forward, and especially if it seems to be at the communion table (“admitted to the table”) would address the problem of fencing and allow the individual and their families to come to a table. Unfortunately they don’t actually sit. I can see some advantages over passing the elements to hundreds of people through pews. Our church has the people come forward four times a year and passes through the pews eight times.

  4. Just a quick question before I respond in greater detail– I have never seen the walking-forward done in a Presbyterian church, so I’m curious. When and how do they actually consume the elements at your church? While standing at the front? while kneeling? while walking back? do they first sit down?

  5. Eliza — interesting. I’m wondering if Dr. Hart’s prohibition would be absolute or ordinary. Would he say the deacon’s may NEVER offer a hot meal to a bum that stumbles up, qua ministers of Christ’s church? But in any case, you’re right in that the answer won’t effect the argument of this post.

  6. Jim — I’m glad you mentioned the Methodist etc practice. Originally I had a digression on Lutheran practice that I have observed, which is similar to the Methodist, but cut it out due to length. The upshot applies to both Lutherans and Methodists: given that the minister needs an assistant, is this not a perfect occasion to ponder the superiority of the Presbyterian system? It is not a sectarian point, but rooted in the reflection on the holy catholic church.

    Now as to your list of “problems” in practice, some of them are worthy of a laugh and a cry. “In an era when most people want to get it over with so they can get home to a real lunch.” Mercy!

    The others have all been addressed by our forebears. Tokens is one way. Eating around a real table is another. Finally, a lady in our church reports that a CRC church they visited brought people up by elder-group. So, rather than giving up, we should do what it takes to restore the right practice.

    If libertarian fencing is valid, then I can think of no reason to restrict the class of distributors to Elders or any other class for that matter. The papists basically practice libertarian fencing. As a result, I observed even laywomen assisting in the distribution at a service at the Nicholas church in Leipzig. And why not?

    Libertarian fencing coupled with restricting the distribution to Ruling Elders points up how the modern Protestant church too has become filled with meaningless traditions and empty symbolism.

  7. Hi Tim,
    Well I know there is a good deal to be discussed in this topic, as we have discussed in the past. I do see the position of elder degenerated in many ways and there are good men and others that are no more than small despotic rulers. The awarding of medal motif that you have used I see as more of a purple heart situation that has gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor. Or that the office has just become a more so called spiritual extension to the secular position that a particular elder holds in his fortune 500 company..If at work why not here??

    The lack of discipline or imposition of will seem to go hand in hand, they lack in discipline only where their authority is not questioned then the imposition comes forth or the social political issue that calls for some flexing of rightful authority as seen by them.

    In dealing with the problem the true lack of understanding comes quickly forward when one particular elder when asked says, ” What am I supposed to do jump in the pew when I see someone that partakes that is not supposed to?” This was a clear sign that they had no idea what their duty was nor how to administer it.

    I still love the look on some elders faces when after I had sent my letter of leaving the congregation asked if they could come by and give me an “exit interview”. I had a great deal to discuss, but I started with “well I have not been in the xyz church for two months and in that time NO ONE has called, emailed,stopped by ect., and by the way its not like you can miss me NOT Being in the congregation, I have a large family that takes up a whole pew so when we are not there it is kinda obvious…so maybe I should just charge you all with negligence, for not doing your duty…” and the look I got was priceless.

    So in some instances yes the office is symbolic, ceremonial and the Sacrament has become a poor meal (hard bread cheap wine) served in a multimillion dollar room by poor waiters(Elders). Lots more here that does need to be discussed and look forward to seeing it.

    s.e.hoffmeister

  8. S.E. — funny.

    I’m sure you would agree though that, in fairness, it would be a pretty dismal and daunting task for elders that took their job seriously given the modern “sheep.” Greg Bahnsen took discipline seriously and his reward was a steady stream of gossip, back-stabbing, malice, and intrigue, which in a very real way you could say is what killed him, before the age of 50. And I’m not just pointing the finger at others. I wince when I recall some of the letters I have sent to Sessions. This is one of the two reasons I don’t send letters to Sessions any more (the other being, they don’t want to read them anyway). It’s a two-way problem often. This is why I think Douglas Wilson is wrong in his teaching that in every correlative or organic relationship involving authority (e.g. marriage), it is the authority-side that must take the full blame when things go wrong. No: in some cases, the subordinate is entirely to blame, and in the general situation such as we have arrived at now, it is both parties having taken many wrong steps, often reinforcing each other, to get here.

  9. #4: There are three “stations” in our church, the number of stations being based on the number of participants and the length of time allotted for the supper. Each station has the Pastor, Assoc. Pastor(s) and elders manning it. Each station has one holding the tray of bread and the other holds the tray of juice cups. The participants come forward to their choice of station, are offered the bread which they eat while moving to the other server where they are offered the drink, which they normally take in front of the server, and then move to the side to drop the cup into the basket and return to their seats. There is no kneeling or sitting. The servers each say a word such as “the body of the Lord, given for you” or the “blood of Jesus shed for you” or equivalent to each participant as they come. The children stay in their seats. Afterward, the elements are offered to any who are physically unable to come forward, and the two servers move to their location in the room to serve them. Meanwhile the musicians are playing songs which the congregation is singing during the time. We also have an elder or two off to the far side of the room that people can go to and have prayer for any need they might have during the time of coming forward. People have found it very moving. This method of walking forward is done in our “mother” church, Westminster Pres., also but in the evening service.

    In my previous church (PCA) in Virginia, we walked forward as families where the Pastor dispensed the elements and then knelt down and prayed with the children who were not yet able to take the elements.

    In both cases the Pastor himself is much more closely involved than when he hands the trays to the elders for passing through the rows and then takes a seat and waits for the elders to return.

    I am not sure I can picture how the elder can effectively fence the table if passing the elements down the rows. In my observation at least, I can’t think of a time when I saw a kid take the elements when I knew he hadn’t been admitted, although as I pointed out, it is hard to be able to name individual children. But they as well as adults are often seen to let the trays pass by. There seems to be an inward reticence to take the elements on the part of young people. With non-members, if they aren’t known to us, it is impossible to know whether they can make a profession of faith and understand the Lord’s Supper or not. Therefore we leave it up to them. I suppose the Pastor could ask all who are not members to refrain, but then he would have to begin a list of exceptions, missionaries, members of Presbyteries, occasionals from other Reformed churches, etc., which would certainly seem clumsy. And in any case we recognize that many outside the Reformed milieu are entitled to partake also.
    And still it would be a form of self fencing.

    I am not aware of how the church fathers have worked out all these issues.

  10. Well, the Presbyterian “church fathers” as reflected in the PCA BOCO says, “The table, on which the elements are placed, being decently covered, and furnished with bread and wine, and the communicants orderly and gravely sitting around it (or in their seat before it), the elders in a convenient place together, the minister…” (58-5)

    so it seems like the practice of your church (which I believe is PCA) is a departure from this symbolism. You are moving from the symbolism of the Table to the symbolism of the Altar, which is very unfortunate. It is a serious departure from Reformed symbology, as well as an explicit departure from your book.

    This is why “the book” should be stuck to rigorously, especially by amateurs. Otherwise, the guiding principle always ends up being what “people find very moving.” At least the book reflects the inherited and propagated wisdom of many.

    It is not quite the same issue as fencing, but it shows how truth is systematic and there is only one mark for many facets of truth. People resist the truth for the sake of good feelings, which is a very shaky foundation indeed.

  11. Me thinks you over protest. It is done around the table, one station in front, one on each side, and the elements are placed on the table and covered, until served (inevitably), and the people do sit until they come up to be served, and it is grave. But the BOCO doesn’t address the option of the communicants coming up or the elements coming to them. In both cases the minister is distributing the elements in every sense that the word can be understood. The people don’t sit at the table, that is, up to it, but if that is what the BOCA requires, than there have got to be very few, if any, Presbyterian Churches doing it properly, especially if they are more than 20 or so people. The table has to be understood symbolically.

    Many of our people find the passing through the rows to be moving also. Whether a service is moving or not is not the basis for how it is done, of course, but many people, myself included, are brought to tears during either or both ways on many occasions. I see nothing in the BOCO speaking one way or another on that.

    It would appear that the BOCO actually does provide the method of self fencing in the paragraph after 58-4b.

    With the exception of 58-8 (a special service for spiritual preparation during the week previous to the Lord’s Supper, which is optional) we follow the BOCO to the letter including the collection for the poor.

    My only complaint with the BOCO is that the word it uses, and which the Pastor uses, is “this is my body, which is broken for you….” Should not be broken, but given, Lk. 22:19; I Cor. 11:24. Not a bone of His body was broken. But it’s minor.

    How do the OPC or sister denominations fence the table?

  12. No, come on, that’s just casuistry of the worst kind. The image is a dining room table, not a bartender’s utility table. The disciples sat at table together and ate — they didn’t grab a morsel as they filed past the buffet. The symbolism indicated by the BOCO is not that they “sit at a table” while waiting for their turn to go to the head of the line, but to eat at a table.

    It kind of reminds me of a cartoon I saw in Germany 30 years ago lampooning the onset of American fast food. It showed a guy putting his money into a machine while holding his mouth open at the chute, whereupon the food would be sprayed into his mouth.

    To be fair, your practice does regain two elements that tend to be lost with the traditional American practice, namely (1) the active, coming aspect, and (2) the control of the giving by the church (i.e. the fencing issue). However, what is lost far outweighs those advantages, especially since they can be gained in other ways.

    The Scottish churches actually sat around literal tables (and the conservative ones at least still do). I am convinced this is the best method. It addresses all the discipline and symbolism issues in one fell swoop. As always, I am amazed at the prescience of the Scottish church, even when they did not always explain their reasoning very well. Perhaps the latter is the reason for the desuetude in the American church.

    The American adaptation was to say the pews “are” like chairs around the table. If so, then the table at least should be on the same level as the pews, not up on the stage as the sacerdotally-inclined pastor did at the last PCA church I belonged to. (He also elevated the bread in direct contradiction to WCF 29.4, though he defended his practice as justified “so everyone can see,” not “for adoration.” The problem is that “what people see” is the element being lifted up, not the element simpliciter.)

    Most OPC churches practice libertarian fencing, just like PCA. Bahnsen added the request that visitors should afterwards tell an elder what church they were a member of. I don’t know if any ever did. At the Lynchburg OPC, the elders would hunt down visitors before the service started and if they desired to participate, would first hold a brief interview with them. This method seems to be a pretty good compromise. It seems to be common in the Dutch Reformed as well. One member of my church reported that at a Dutch church they attended for three years without becoming members, they were interviewed literally every time for that entire three years. That shows a church that takes discipline (and thus membership) seriously. The wisdom of using tokens becomes more clear with reflection, repellent as it is at first to our American libertarian sensibilities.

  13. What about “let every man examine himself” after an explanation of the meal? Obvious exceptions would be children of a young age who cannot likely understand anyway. The tokens are repellent because they have no basis in Scripture. They are simply an invented tradition.

  14. Of course, today there are more Presbyterians in my church alone than in all of Scotland. It would be great to sit at tables, but how? We would have to set up tables to accommodate 300 or more people in the sanctuary (no other room is big enough) so that we could serve a half bite or less of bread and a half ounce of juice? I would like it to be a real meal and if the tables, as in dining room table, are literal, then why not the bread and juice? As in an actual meal? But if the bread and juice are symbolic, why not the table? And do this every month? Is that what the Scots do? Oh, I forgot, they don’t have to deal with 3, 4, or 500 people in one place at one time. I guess churches are full of compromises.

  15. Sure they do (or did). Sometimes out in the woods. Where there’s a will (i.e. a real desire), there’s a way.

    I understand Spurgeon’s congregation went downstairs to tables that were set up in advance. Of course, the number of communicants was much less than the number of attenders of the service.

    Though I favor real tables, I’m okay with the symbolic table, “around which” the pews are “gathered.” My point was, if it is symbolic, let the symbol remain. Standing in three lines destroys that symbolism. “Table as waiting area prior to standing in line.” Imagine a restaurant where instead of waiting in line to be seated at a table, you sat at a table until you could get in line!

  16. Eliza (#14)–

    1. Good to bring in new Scripture (I Cor 11:28). However, the assumed circumstance of such instructions needs to be figured out as well. It wouldn’t follow that “examining oneself” were a sufficient criterion, only that doing so were necessary. If the overseers are responsible for the access to the sacraments, then checking that the sheep are indeed “examining themselves” would be part of their charter. That is why a verse like that in isolation is not decisive.

    Bringing all the teachings on office and sacrament into conjunction leads to the Reformed view I am espousing. Notice in Heidelberg Catechism #82, “Are they also to be admitted to this supper, who, by confession and life, declare themselves unbelieving and ungodly?” the answer shifts the focus away from a “to each his own” interpretation of I Cor. 11 to a corporate one: “No; for by this, the covenant of God would be profaned, and his wrath kindled against the whole congregation…” (emphasis added by me). If so, then the overseers have direct responsibility for guarding access to the sacraments, and libertarian access is deadly. It would be like saying about the nation, “don’t worry about catching spies; their misery is their own punishment.” Yeah but: their betrayal also threatens all of us.

    The role of the elders as guardians of the sacraments is biblical-theological deduction, not a direct verse. But this should not be a problem for the Reformed at least.

    2. Now as to the idea that tokens are an “invented tradition,” let us first ponder them at the moment they were invented but not yet a tradition, to simplify the analysis. For whether the practice is a tradition or not will vary and is not really the main point.

    I can think of at least two reasons to use tokens. (1) To signify that one is positively authorized to come. Think the wedding garment in Matt. 22:11-12 (cf. Rev 6:11), or the sign on the forehead, Rev 14:1. (2) In a context where members plus examined visitors are invited to the table, there is a plurality of elders, and the work of examination is distributed between them, the practice communicates the status inter-elder.

    (1) seems like a beautiful thing. Right now I am going to hold that a sign (though not a seal) that is subordinate and assistant to an authorized sign-and-seal is permitted, but I am open to correction here.

    (2) however seems circumstantial and benign. I think it is too rarified a notion of biblical precedent to forbid this for lack of biblical example. Consider: If examining for a credible profession is a legitimate inference for the function of receiving a member, then the result of that process will need to be indicated somehow — an entry in the minutes, an announcement. Baptism is properly memorialized with a certificate — which can function as a sign though not a seal that the baptism has really occurred. And so forth. Could we not regard these as legitimate circumstantial ways-to-implement a scriptural requirement?

  17. If real tables, is it a real meal?

    Imagine sitting at a table until getting up to wait in line to get the food which is precisely what happened at our pot “luck” meal last week, and indeed what happens at almost all our church meals. The group is seated for the blessing and a few words and then dismissed by table to get the food. It is true that then they bring their food back to the table, which would certainly be the case if the communion was a real meal. Maybe the potluck actually is communion, if we simply add the words of institution. Of course, it doesn’t include all members, and the children are not withheld from partaking. We could probably handle the entire church in two sittings. Did Spurgeon’s church go down to a meal, or only to take the elements? And if it was a real meal, did the children come?

    I still don’t think the symbolism is lost in our day when people go to the table to be served their food because it matches the culture in which we eat and therefore the communicant isn’t thinking “sacrifice.” The reformers and all prior ages sat down at a table if they had one. They couldn’t imagine the current culture of eat on the run, so to speak.

    Maybe all arrangements are only 2nd best.

  18. The Supper should be guarded against the obviously ignorant and ungodly, granted. (I previously mentioned the ignorant (children); I ought to have added known scandalous as well. Sorry.

    As for traditions, anything invented (discovered on one’s own, without Scriptural warrant) even though not yet a tradition, is wrong in worship. Granted?

    Here’s what one site mentions as prerequisites to coming to the Supper:
    “* They are conscious of their sinfulness. Our coming is not a declaration of our success in Christian living, but rather an admission of our constant need of grace.
    * They are people who trust. We trust the finished work of Jesus Christ, the pardon of our sinfulness through his work, and that even our continued weaknesses are covered in the grace of God in Christ.
    * They desire to lead a better life. Their eagerness to serve Christ and grow in discipleship causes them to make their time at the Table a time for new commitments to thankful obedience.”
    I would say this is pretty typical Presbyterian/Reformed fare before communion. But this is not assured by church membership in a “gospel-preaching church”, for a couple of reasons:
    1. What’s a “gospel-preaching church”? Does your OPC keep a list of acceptable ones? Does the church send out emissaries to check out the preaching on a quarterly basis (or more!) to make sure they’re in line with the gospel? Do we just look at their website and read their doctrine? One Bible church may be pretty good; another pretty awful. Or do we do as the Canadian Reformed (perhaps most consistently) and only allow their members to partake in their own churches and have fully closed communion?
    2. Those members of our own gospel-preaching church, having been interviewed for membership, 5, 10, 20, or 50 years ago, may not measure up to the list above. Maybe they did when they joined. Their membership doesn’t prove anything. If living scandalously, they are excluded automatically, but what if they are living outward obedient lives, but full of pride, lust, etc. which has not presented itself in their outward conduct? Token or no token?
    And what of those who are members of no church, but adherents of a “gospel-preaching” one. Token or no token?

    How do the overseers make sure that the sheep are engaged in self-examination? Reading out Scripture warnings (an important, in fact, required part of the communion) does not so assure. Some folks are sleeping, some are daydreaming, and some are listening but not heeding.

    I really appreciate your answer and your rigorous thinking on this. It’s an issue I’ve thought a lot about. I think that fencing the table in some churches and in certain ways, gives the elders a false sense of propriety in guarding the table. Nothing is watertight. I believe that the Lord holds each one responsible with appropriate fencing by the church. More later…

  19. Eliza — the question is whether tokens are a circumstance common to human societies. It seems to me like they are, if it is done as a means to implement a fencing based on membership and examination.

    Suppose there is a function that is restricted to members of the Lions and Rotary club. Different members will be manning the gates, so each club gives its own members a “token” that will be accepted at the door.

    The libertarian “fencing” says, “if you think you are a member of the Lions or Rotary club, just walk on in.”

    In the case of these clubs, probably that method would work, except in the case of overt liars. But such are rare.

    But in the case of the church, there is so much confusion that self-evaluation is certainly unsound. I have heard phrases like “Bible-believing church,” “gospel-proclaiming church,” and such: all of these can easily be appropriated by papists and other non-gospel-holders, and have been — I have seen it. Indeed, I’m not sure that non-members even “hear” the “fencing” admonition in any real sense at all. And the more detailed it is, the less likely they are to hear and understand.

    Anyway, I’m not really advocating tokens. I can understand it now, and I think they have been rejected peremptorily and without much understanding by most American churches.

    The goal is not watertightness, but duty. To tie it back to the post subject, the question is how to relate the question of which officers can administer the sacrament, to reflecting on why that is in terms of office. If libertarian fencing is right, I cannot think of any normative reason why those distributing need to be Elders or any officers for that matter.

    The instincts of the Canadian Reformed are sound it seems to me. At first blush, it seems sectarian, but actually I think they have understood the holy catholic church and her duties better than most. We can build out from that. For example, NAPARC affiliation would be an excellent place to start with “widening the circle.” That would give some real teeth to the notion of “fraternal relation.”

  20. Off the subject, but wouldn’t it be great if all the bodies of the NAPARC would simply become one church? What an intriguing idea.

  21. That should indeed be the goal, but it is a pipe-dream unless all member-churches start taking discipline (both positive and negative) seriously. Unfortunately, I must say that PCA has the most work to do in this respect. Just one example: John Lofton, excommunicate from the OPC, simply re-affiliated with PCA, after which he pretended not to be excommunicated because he was a member in good standing of a true church! Now to be fair, the local PCA would not take him until he straightened things out. But, all he had to do is shop around until he found one an hour’s drive away that would.

  22. TJH: I think in essence we are in agreement. What you call libertarian fencing is probably extremely widespread, even in the OPC. Only the Canadian Reformed would qualify as non-lib, as far as I know (probably the Free Presbyterians, too). My final point is that even in the Canadian Reformed Church, elders cannot really be (as you say in #17)”checking that the sheep are indeed ‘examining themselves’”. It’s an impossible task. There are rules in place, there are guardrails and restrictions, as there ought to be. What can be insidious about this is that the sheep,(w/ or w/o their tokens), having passed muster before the Consistory or Session, may foolishly assume that the token is the wedding garment and all is well w/ their soul.

  23. As an interesting anecdote, our elders were serving communion a month or two ago and one of them saw a couple children partaking although not admitted to the table. They were sitting with their parents. So he brought it in the next session meeting. I missed the discussion that ensued (I was in the ER being treated for, of all things, a bee sting) but investigation was made and as it turns out the kids had been examined by the elders and were in fact admitted to the table. This to illustrate that fencing does occur in some sense, even if post eventum. I would be interested in hearing stories from some of the rest of you as to how fencing has been done in your churches. #22: Then why don’t the other churches do it without the PCA?

  24. Well we have been highlighting one issue in this thread but there are other difficulties, chief being the confessional one. Neither the Heidelbergians nor Westminsterites want to give up their standard. This is a typically American problem, in that we have never had a national settlement. The replacement for the CRC, the URC, is in my opinion dangerously congregational in their theory of the church. They don’t quite fall off the cliff into autarchical lunacy like the CREC pseudo-church, but they come dangerously close. So there are issues that need to be worked through. But it seems to me that the starting point should be mutual recognition of discipline and ordination, and if this is not done, then there is not even the abstract concept of holy catholic church in the assembly, let alone working out every detail.

  25. Since I don’t know much about the URC, would you explain how it is “dangerously congregational in their theory of the church.” I haven’t a clue what you mean. Thank you.

  26. I see there is a liberal group in Britain going by “URC” and our group is known fully as URCNA.

    It seems to me that the correlative nature of broad/local, one/many tilts decidedly toward the local/many. The “Foundational Principles of Reformed Church Government”, #5 says, “The Lord gave no permanent universal, national or regional offices to His church. The office of elder (presbyter/episkopos) is clearly local in authority and function; thus, Reformed church government is presbyterial, since the church is governed by elders, not by broader assemblies.” This is clarified further in #7, “Federative relationships do not belong to the essence or being of the church; rather, they serve the well-being of the church.”

    Thus, for example, ordination of the minister (Article 6) is “before the congregation, which shall take place with appropriate instructions, admonitions, prayers and subscription to the Three Forms of Unity by signing the Form of Subscription, followed with the laying on of hands by the ministers who are present and by the elders of the congregation, with the use of the appropriate liturgical form.” Note that it does not explicate that there must be ministers present, instead using the attributive relative clause “ministers who are present” i.e. if there are such they participate. This seems to leave open the possibility of ministers being ordained by local ruling elders alone.

    Likewise the wider representative church has no authority as such in the local congregation (Article 21): “The Consistory [=Session] is the only assembly in the church(es) whose decisions possess direct authority within the congregation, since the Consistory receives its authority directly from Christ, and thereby is directly accountable to Christ.”

    The classis [=Presbytery] is several times identified as having advisory capacity only e.g. Article 22, “When a congregation is organized within the federation, this shall take place under the supervision of a neighboring Consistory and with the concurring advice of the classis.”

    This is further brought home by emphasizing that participation in the wider church is a manifestation of a prior-existing unity deriving directly from Christ. Article 24: “Although congregations are distinct and equal and do not have dominion over each other, they ought to preserve fellowship with each other because they are all united with Christ, the spiritual and governing Head of the church. Congregations manifest this unity when they meet together in the broader assemblies.” Likewise, ministers are deposed not by Presbytery but by Session (albeit with “concurring advice” of either other Sessions (suspension) or Presbytery (deposition). Article 61, “When a minister, elder or deacon has committed a public or gross sin, or refuses to heed the admonitions of the Consistory, he shall be suspended from his office by his own Consistory with the concurring advice of the Consistories of two neighboring churches. Should he harden himself in his sin, or when the sin committed is of such a nature that he cannot continue in office, he shall be deposed by his Consistory with the concurring advice of classis.” Note that advice is quite different that authoritative pronouncement. Moreover, it is unspecified what the basis of that “advice” could lawfully be, opening up the possibility for example that advice could be given to depose for any reason, even having nothing to do with the case of the minister itself, or at any rate without having conducted a trial of first jurisdiction.

    All of this may be qualified by traditions and interpretations that are not spelled out but in place, so I offer criticism with that caveat to be understood.

  27. Where does it state in the Book of Church Order or in the Westminster Confession the reasons that only elders are to serve communion?

  28. wp — as far as I can tell, it does not state the reasons at either of those places. It gives the that, not the why.

  29. tjh: Great info on the URCNA. Sounds like the denomination wants the “best” of both worlds: to be presbyterian on the one hand, and congregational on the other, but without fully embracing either. If they want to hold to some of the tenets of congregationalism (as outlined by you above) then they ought to go all the way and let the congregation have a say. To me it sounds rather tyrannical on the part of the Consistory. But I know at least one presbyterian church that has tried/is trying the same thing to divest an officer.

  30. A few ideas on the question: can a deacon serve communion.

    1. In church history, one of the chief liturgical functions of a deacon was to serve communion. Now that does not in itself prove the practice biblical. However, I think those who favor the thesis “that a deacon may not” should come up with some explanation of this widespread pre-reformation practice. Especially when we consider that unlike many other things of that era that tended to concentrate power in the hands of the priesthood, here is a tradition that is perhaps a survival of earlier times when power was not so concentrated.
    2. Now to the scriptural argument. One of the functions of the Seven (if these were deacons) elected in Acts 6 was to “wait on tables”. Now this is from the very early era in NT church history in which we cannot assume that the Lord’s Supper observance and the common fellowship meal of the church were separate, as they always are now. (Indeed, as late in NT history as 1 Cor 11, Paul assumes that the default they observed was the common meal and the Lord’s supper together.) Well, a deacon who waited on tables in a situation like that would, I think, be expected to serve people the communion elements just as he did the other food that was consumed on that occasion. In this view the pre-reformation custom that deacons might distribute the elements was simply the Acts 6 practice, adjusted for the change in practice that the church everywhere no longer had the fellowship meal conjoined with the sacrament.
    3. This has implications for our understanding of the office of deacon. Here it might lead in the direction of preferring the Dutch standard of church government (Dordt church order) to the presbyterian. In the Dordt church order, deacons are regarded as ex officio members of consistory (thus with some share of governing authority), whereas in presbyterian church order they are not ex officio session members.
    4. I am a member of the OPC, so I am sorry this has put me in the position of implicitly criticizing my own church’s form of government. However, it is the genius of the reformation to constantly return “ad fontes” (to the sources) to try to discern the will of the Lord, even if that is not perfectly reflected in our current practice.

  31. Steve Schlissel once indicated that Acts 6 is interpreted by some as the establishment of a sub-order more like what we call “Ruling Elders.” Or perhaps some saw ministers in distinction from bishops, which would make some sense of the RC deacon as almost a priest. Though I have not been able to verify that or track it down, it has some intuitive force in view of (as you mention) the “waiting on tables” and especially of Deacon Steven’s effectual preaching. As far as the “pot luck supper” aspect of the early church table, it is hard to imagine why an Order at any level would need to be involved, unless it would be just to reinforce that this was a meal of state as it were, under control of the apostolate, even if only a small portion was the “sacramental” part as such. At any rate, if the (pot luck + communion) was in mind when the apostles cried out for help, it would obviously be the heavy lifting of the pot-luck portion that would chiefly need assistance, not the comparatively light duties associated with the communion per se, at least in the first place. (The idea that the entire meal would be sacramental is untenable in my view, since this was not even the case at the Last Supper itself.)

    The deacon in RC is divided between transitory and permanent, the former being a stepping stone to full priestly ordination, the latter for men, including older married men, that want to serve but do not wish to seek priestly ordination. That office includes the power to baptize, preach, and give blessings — in short, powers that in our understanding are reserved to the minister, not even the ruling elder.

    What this shows vividly is that we are dealing with alternate systems of truth, not just piecemeal exegesis. It is ultimately a complete system that must be defended or shown to be wrong, not just this or that piece of lumber. One of the difficulties of exegesis toward church polity is how to extract contingency from necessity, and early-church from continuing church. I take it that the gifts of Steven were a manifestation of the supernatural gifts present in the early church attesting to its authoritative apostolic constitution, where such gifts did not have a strict correspondence to right of office. (So, even women sometimes had a gift of prophecy apparently.)

    The elimination of the Ruling Elder in the fourth century was, according to Miller, a shift of power to the clerics. The pre-Reformation deacon would not indicate resistance to that temptation, since the deacon on RC polity serves at the pleasure of the Bishop, and only to that extent.

    According to this source, the consistory according to Dordt consists of Minsters and elders: “In all churches there shall be a Consistory composed of the Ministers of the Word and the Elders, who shall meet at least once a week” (Article 37) though the civil magistrate is also permitted to appoint “one or two” to listen and deliberate though presumably not to vote. In Article 38 it adds that when a Consistory is first constituted it is “with the advice of the Classis” and “whenever the number of Elders is very small, the Deacons may be added to the Consistory.” So here is a case where the lower office can step up and fill in for the higher in emergency circumstances. I suppose this would be similar to what happens with the command of a military unit as officers are killed. You hear stories of corporals being in command of entire regiments and such. However, when things settle down they are not automatically made colonels. So whether the church should have an analogous method of “filling in” as necessitated by circumstances is an interesting question that deserves further pondering.

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