Should Lay People Administer The Sacraments? (2022)

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.

RESOURCES

  • How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
  • The Heidelblog Resource Page
  • Heidelmedia Resources
  • The Ecumenical Creeds
  • The Reformed Confessions
  • The Heidelberg Catechism
  • Recovering the Reformed Confession(Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2008)
  • Why I Am A Christian
  • Support Heidelmedia: use the donate button
  • The Church: Christ-Confessing Covenant Community
  • Hodge On Every-Member Ministry (Ephesians 4:12)
  • A Seventh-Century Opinion On Every-Member Ministry
  • Are Church Members Free Agents?
  • Online Resources on Infant-Baptism
  • Heidelminicast: Heidelberg Catechism 66—What Are The Sacraments?
  • Should I Be Re-Baptized”
  • Calvin Against Lay Baptism
  • The Due Administration of the Sacraments
  • Does The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed Require Baptismal Regeneration?

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