Monday, October 09, 2006

Authority to Offer the Sacraments

Dave Faulkner thinks that the division between clergy and laity is more artificial than Biblical:

Why this protracted biblical argument? Because it’s time for ordained people like me to stop clutching certain things to ourselves, and it’s time for congregations to accept these. Take one example which is worth debating: Methodism largely limits ministers to presiding at Holy Communion. Why? The official answer is, ‘for the sake of good order’. Well, that may have been understandable two centuries ago when the minister might have been educated and many of the congregation not so, but does it make sense now? It’s worth debating. After all, Holy Communion is effectively the Christian version of the Jewish Passover, a feast that is celebrated in the family home. You didn’t need the rabbi present.

What do you think? Should the laity be able to serve the Eucharist without direct clerical supervision?


The Bass Player's Wife said...

I suppose, were Holy Communion merely an ordinance, there would be no problem. As it is a Sacrament, I think that supervision may be appropriate. While not completely foolproof, this may keep down misunderstandings as to the role of the Sacraments.
BTW, why not celebrate a Love Feast in our homes?

John B said...

I have always thought that serving of Holy Communion only by clergy was a bit hypocritical. We spend a great deal of time talking about the ministry of the laity and the priesthood of all believers, but then the clergy say, "hold on a minute, you laity can do the work of the church, but we're going to reserve for ourselves the most important ministries of the Church, the sacraments for ourselves."

One of the most memorable communion services I've ever been a part of involved my wife, our sons and me sitting around our dining room table and calling to mind together the liturgy of our Lord's Supper. Too bad the laity can't have the same experience.

Anonymous said...

Lollardry! Lollardry I say!

PamBG said...

The manner in which British Methodism operates means that the only way for individual congregations to hold weekly communion (should they wish to do so), is to have lay presidency.

I agree with Dave that there is nothing biblical about the idea of only ministers presiding. If we're worried about "good order" - and British Methodists usually are - then we can certify lay people for this ministry. I've heard enough horror stories in my life about the celebration of communion - the worst being a UMC minister who asked congregants to throw individual plastic cups in a trash bin on the way back to their seats - to not want the presiding to be a free-for-all, but there is no theological reason I can see not to license lay people. I reckon we'll get to that place by necessity in a decade anyway.

P.S. I'm a receptionist and by no means a "memorial meal only" person.

codepoke said...

Amen. Mr. Methodist, tear down this wall!

Sally said...

echoing the amen

Joel Thomas said...

If laity are allowed to preside at the Table, then they should be able to baptize as well, for one Sacrament is not more important than the other.

By having the ordained preside, it is saying, "this is at the invitation of God and Christ through those he has called and ordained to this particular task."

The ordained are acting as God's representatives in ways that laity can't in these particular cases, I think.

In the longstanding tradition of the church, ordination is what confers the power to administer the Sacraments. The Sacraments are of Christ, so the idea is that the ordained are Christ's specially annointed persons to convey Christ's invitation and particpation. It would be the revoking of church traditon that goes back eons; we should be cautious about that.

Further, the standard sermons of John Wesley, in which he restricted administration of the Sacraments as by the ordained, appears to be a part of our Discipline that is prohibited from being changed by the Restrictive rules. (How we got around that for local licensed pastors, I haven't researched.)

Truly, out of practical necessity, we have blurred the line by allowing local licensed pastors to preside.

We do also allow the ordained to bless the elements and then to have them distributed by laity at hospitals and nursing homes.

bob said...

Recently My wife as laity has started delivering Communion to the home bound. She takes elements that were part of the sunday service and have been blessed by the pastor. The impact on the lives of These people is truely what sacraments should be about.

John said...

I agree with Joel.

The Sacraments are such a serious act that they should be done with great care; so serious that they require the careful supervision of a person whom the Church has thoughtfully investigated, tested, and prepared.

the-methotaku said...

Holy Communion is an act of the whole Church. The pastor presides because he represents the wider church to the local community, which is why local pastors can preside in their local communities (and I will add that I am profoudly uncomfterable with local pastors presiding at the Table,). Allowing lay presidincy would devalue the sacrement's nature as an act of the whole Church

Andrew C. Thompson said...

There are important (and thoroughly theological) aspects of church order that are not tied to a specific Scriptural quotation. Abuse of the sacraments is a real danger in the church. This is especially easy to see in the case of baptism, where a pernicious practice like re-baptism (an unbelievably offensive slap at the Holy Spirit) is frequently practiced because of a poor understanding of the sacrament's meaning. But it also occurs in regards to Holy Communion, whether the abuse is over handling of the elements, teaching of the sacrament's meaning, or the manner/setting of distribution. Entrusting sacramental authority to the elders of the church is the best way to ensure that the sacramental faith is taught and shared correctly.

I have always suspected that the American Protestant obsession with lay control of the sacraments has more to do with American individualism and resentment of authority than it does with anything substantively theological. The church is not, nor should it ever be, a democracy.

Keith Taylor said...

What did Christ Say?

Matt 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the the Son, and the of the Holy Ghost. (I don't see this restricted to clergy)

Luke 22:19 - And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them saying, "this is my body which is shead for you: this do in remembrance of me". (nothing about only if an ordained pastor is around here)

Now, as a United Methodist, I yield that authority to the Church which says only an ordained pastor can do the job.

But I will tell you this, if I were to find myself with a truly convicted sinner who wanted to recieve Christ and wanted to be baptized as a member of the body of Christ right then and now, I'd have no problem baptizing him just as the Lord commanded if I could not find a pastor to do it. He certainly would not be a recognized UM church member, but then again, I am not sure Christ would care.

You know, since I am a layman, I can sure tell you this. If you think laity or local pastors offering holy communion devalues the sacrament, then I think you are way too focused on the man or woman holding the cup and breaking the bread and not on the sacrament itself. Or you're too worried about job security.

I can assure you of this. I have been served holy communion by some of the poorest, least scripturally knowledged, pathetic UM pastors that I have ever listened to. But the sacrament meant just the same to me as if the Lord had served it to me himself. I could have cared less who held the cup and the bread and said Grace over it.

larry said...

Amen and amen to Keith Taylor's comments.

As an ordained elder who once served as a part-time local pastor with sacramntal privileges, I truly believe laity should be eligible to have the authority to consecrate the communion elements or baptize.

My first thought is that the lay leader for any UM congregation could be properly trained in the theology and practice of the sacraments. It is important that we not fall into the practice of rebaptizing (although I know some ordained elders have done it anyways . . .)

I understand the restrictive rules and eons of church teaching and tradition, but I see no reason from Scripture to outright support the strict stance that only pastors should have that authority.

Joel Thomas said...


"Or you're too worried about your job security."

You know I could follow your reasoning, even if I don't agree, until you inserted that babyish mocking comment about job security.

I can tell you I really wasn't thinking about job security those times I sat by the bedside of the dying, struggling to find words of comfort for family and feeling totally inadequate to the task.

Or when I got a telephone call from the mother of a son and grandmother of an 11-month old grandson who had been killed in an auto accident after hydroplaning on wet pavement. The same son whose wedding ceremony I had joyfully performed a year-and-a-half before. Or when the young widow tearfully told me she had "lost everything" and looked to me for answers I couldn't easily provide.

Or the days spent trying to reconcile bickering church members, or trying to bring hope and encouragement to a woman fighting a terrible case of colon cancer who then also had her second leg amputation.

Before I was a pastor, and adjusted for inflation, I was making over $100 an hour. Now I make $16. But I love what I do.

Criticize us if you want, but lose the mean-spirited tone, please.

I should resist the temptation to respond to such a snotty little aside, but we pastors are human too.

Andrew C. Thompson said...

"But I will tell you this, if I were to find myself with a truly convicted sinner who wanted to recieve Christ and wanted to be baptized as a member of the body of Christ right then and now, I'd have no problem baptizing him just as the Lord commanded if I could not find a pastor to do it."

This statement by Keith Taylor offers a clearer reason why sacramental authority should be reserved for the church's elders than any I could provide. No matter how contrite a person feels over past sin, he should not be baptized until he understands what it means to receive baptism and entrace into the church. Baptism is not a magical "cure all" that assures a person of eternal salvation. And contrition is the first step on a path that should lead to baptism, not the last. It must be followed by instruction, commitment, prayer, and spiritual preparation.

Throwing out Biblical proof-texts is not a responsible theological approach to teaching and nurturing the Christian faith. It is, in fact, a form of anti-nomianism that serves to weaken the body of Christ. Clergy are not spiritually superior to laity in anyway, but God does call elders and deacons into ordained ministry to lead the church in its ministries of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service.

Dan B said...

This is an important concern to air and surface, but maybe "Should the laity be able to preside?" is the wrong question. "Who gets to stand at the font and table?" is, in my mind, misguided. Maybe the question is "How did we get to the pitiful place where any of the baptized feels distanced from the font and table? How did we get to the place where laity and clergy don't see, appreciate and rejoice in the diversity of roles and the responsibility of each (presider, assistants, music leaders, singers, assembly, visual artists, etc.)? How did the focus on who leads go blind to the primary role of the assembly in being Christ's royal priesthood (see UM baptismal rite and This Holy Mystery,"

This is an important discussion but the assumptions that are operative are distorting the real issues: the recovery of deep, passionate discipleship for mission in the world. The action is not finally in the church building, but what happens around font, word and table is crucial to how open the doors are. It ain't about priviledge; it is about grace and the centrality of the sacraments to being a missional church.

Maybe we should take a break from this nagging debate and read Bishop Willimon's WORSHIP AS PASTORAL CARE and Robert Hovda's STRONG, LOVING AND WISE. This could give some light where there is currently a lot of heat. Dare ya!

Hypatia 370 said...

I'm throwing my robes in with John who said, "The Sacraments... should be done with great care... they require the careful supervision of a person whom the Church has thoughtfully investigated, tested, and prepared" with the proviso that this can and should include laity. Limiting the ministry to presiding over the Eucharist is a man-made invention, not biblical. After all, "Clergy are not spiritually superior to laity in any way..." as evidenced by Joel's rebuttal to Keith in which he proved "... we pastors are human too". Isn't it true, as Andrew said, "It ain't about priviledge; it is about grace and the centrality of the sacraments to being a missional church."??
Can I get an AMEN?

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think this issue has more to do with a bigger issue of authority. The question being: Can we submit to the authority of the church? Because the authority of the United Methodist Church (Book of Discipline) and most other denominational churches says that we ordain (set apart) those that have been called to the task and examined for word, order, and sacrament. So in the Methodist Church this is a moot isssue because authority has been established.

I can understand arguements for the priesthood of all believers, but where does authority of the church fit in? Also what would the understanding of a eucharist celebrated by the laity be: rememberance or means of grace?

Keith Taylor said...


I do not disagree. I clearly stated that as a United Methodist, I submit to the authority of the Church.

But let me ask as question to the Ordained. You are coming to church on Communion Sunday and you are in a car wreck. No injury, but you can't get to the church. The communion table is set. Do you tell someone at the church to forego the communion and tell the congregation they have to wait til next week or do you have your lay leader lead the service and perform the communion? As member of the laity, I would personally hope you chose the latter. You as professional clergy should be blessed that your congregation can step up to the plate.

Or, more unlikely, but you find yourself at the hospital late one night with a dying friend who knows you to be a Christian. There is obviously not much time left and this person asks on his deathbed to be baptized and recieve Christ. It is doubtful the person will make it til morning. Do you baptize the dying friend or do you tell him to wait until morning?

I know these seem like extreme examples because they are extreme examples. However, I believe that every Christian has in their authority to perform these two sacraments.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not going around looking for reasons to subvert my local pastor. I'm just saying that ordained ministers are not the only persons in my reading of the Gospels who are qualified to do the things. I'm not saying I want to. I don't have a desire to, but if in the unlikely event that I was called upon to do it, as a Christian, I would. As a United Methodist, No because my church does not give me that authority, but as a Christian, I would because I think the Bible does.

I'm sorry I've stepped on so many toes in my comments on this issue. Don't worry, I'm not serving Holy Communion on the back porch of my house or baptizing folks in the river down the road from my house. That is what I pay y'all for. I do believe that the mission of the Church is to preach the gospel and save the lost. That mission is not reserved to the Ordained Clergy and I just don't think the sacraments are either. I really look at this whole argument as equivalent as to whether or not your baptism is legitament if you were sprinkled or immersed.

Good Evening and God Bless.

John said...


Under extraordinary circumstances, Christians should certainly break church rules in order to engage in ministry. That's why most pastors keep an asterix on the rule against rebaptizing people.

Wesley himself violated his own theology of ordination and apostolic succession in order to ensure that the USA had Methodist clergy.

I want to clarify that it is not the minister who gives sacramental grace its power. It is God who selects the wine, bread, and water to convey grace.

The difference is that, in my mind, it is absolutely critical that the Eucharist be performed with solemn reverence. A clergyman may screw up this reverence whereas a layman might not, but the likelihood is that after lengthy investigation by boards of ordained ministry and such, as clergyman is less likely too.

And as Andrew has pointed out, whoever is officiating over the sacraments should be able to give an explanation of the liturgy. Education in sacramental theology is a pre-requisite for ordination, as is the direct examination of that theology. The clergyman's understanding of sacramental theology is tested; the layman's is not.

Mark Winter said...

This issue stretches back to the dawn of American Methodism, when Robert Strawbridge, an Irish immigrant to Maryland, began ordaining ministers and administering the sacrament without supervision. The first American conference condemned the practice, though they gave Strawbridge an exception if he would submit to Bishop Asbury's authority. He didn't, blithely serving Holy Communion as before without any qualms. Asbury was unhappy with the practice. He wrote, "[O]ne of these letters informed me that Mr. Strawbridge was very officious in adminstering the ordinances. What strange infatuation attends that man! Why will he run before Providence?"

Lines of authority are in place for a reason. Willy-nilly administration of the sacraments without proper direction is not a good thing. Even Bishop Asbury says so.

Joel Thomas said...


I hope you got my e-mail where I attempted to turn the heat down a notch or two on my comment response to your comment. I think I overreacted to what I considered your overreaction.


Mike L said...

As now a former United Methodist, this was one of those issues that gave me problems. I believe the Eucharist is a great mystery, and I also affirm that God has called us to be "living Eucharists" to the world. As Christ is the good gift of God, his church is the good gift to the world.

The idea of kingdom of priests makes me ask some serious questions. I am not the most well-schooled in the history of United Methodism, and I'm sure there was some reason for the rule being put in the Discipline, but I just can't reconcile the fact that all it does is create a wall between laity and clergy (and I really don't like saying those two words at all anymore).

I was at a baptism service here at Mars Hill early this year, and I saw children baptizing parents, people who weren't baptized yet baptizing each other, couples baptizing each other, and on and on and on. No matter where ones stance was on these issues, all I can tell you as I heard their stories that there was something mysterious and sacred there in those moments. You knew that this was a holy moment. I find no life in the way I've seen in done in the Methodist church, and the same goes for the Eucharist.

I have found that the place I find myself now treats it more of a mystery than I found in the United Methodist Church, and I find that odd considering the whole reason for the rule in the Discipline is to protect its sacramental sentiment.

I know I could be wrong, but just my two cents.