Who can administer the sacraments?

4. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.[1]

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The final clause of section 4 is frequently disputed among Christians: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.

In the so-called Jesus movement of the 1960s and 1970s, young people reacted against traditional authority structures and created an underground church that dispensed with regularly ordained clergy. People gathered around swimming pools and were baptized by Pat Boone or other celebrities. Church officials were unnerved by these practices and claimed that the sacraments are only to be administered by duly authorized individuals, such as ordained clergy. Over against that was an informal view of the matter that saw little need for ordained clergy.

Added to that was the impact of the charismatic movement, in which people supposedly receive special gifts from the Holy Spirit that empower them for ministry. Most of the New Testament information that we have about the gifts of the Spirit (Greek charismata) comes from Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church. In Corinth, people who received gifts from the Spirit challenged the authority of those who had been, under normal circumstances, set apart and consecrated for ministry. Paul’s two epistles to the Corinthian community deal with that internal disruption.

At the end of the first century, Clement, bishop of Rome, wrote an epistle to the Corinthian community because the crisis had actually worsened after the death of the Apostle Paul. The Corinthian church was in a state of spiritual and ecclesiastical chaos. Clement told the Christians at Corinth to go back and heed the teaching of the Apostle Paul. At the end of the first century, the debate had to do with regular ministers of the church as distinguished from charismatic leaders.

In the Old Testament, the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to people for special tasks at particular times. We read that the Spirit of the Lord came on Jeremiah or on Ezekiel. They were set apart by God for the special charismatic office of the prophet. The kings of Israel were anointed by the priest, as a sign of their anointing by the Spirit, to exercise their office in a godly manner. Before that, God raised up judges like Samson and Gideon as anointed, charismatically gifted leaders to provide some leadership to the loose federation of the tribes of Israel and especially to lead them against an enemy like the Philistines. Moses was also a charismatic leader who was endowed by the Holy Spirit with special gifts. God then anointed Aaron as the high priest and instituted his male descendants as the priesthood. The entire tribe of Levi was set apart for priestly duties and became part of the regular order of the Old Testament ministry.

In the New Testament, the charismatically endowed leaders of the Christian community were the Apostles. They were on the same level as the Old Testament prophets. The power of the Holy Spirit came on them, and they became agents of revelation. When the Apostle Paul established a church, he customarily instructed his assistants to set apart elders who were called to the office of ministry. We find this in his epistles to Timothy and Titus, where he delineates the standards for office. The elders and deacons became the regular officers of the church, and the ordinary ministers were given the responsibility to care for the spiritual needs of the flock.

Their ministry was no longer dependent on a special charismatic gift. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit endowed with power only part of the covenant community. At Pentecost, He fell upon everyone assembled, and later He came on the gentile converts. The inference drawn by the Apostles was that all believers, Jew and gentile alike, had the same full membership and status in the New Testament body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has now empowered the entire church to participate in the ministry of Christ. That was why Luther held his view of the priesthood of all believers. Luther said that the ministry of the gospel was entrusted to the whole church, not just to a few people. But Luther also understood that the New Testament established regular church offices for the ministry of the Word and sacrament and for the spiritual care of the people.

Neither sacrament may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained. When the resurrected Jesus gave the Great Commission, He told the Apostles, the first Christian ministers, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). In 1 Corinthians 11:20–23, Paul states that he received from the Lord the words of institution for the Lord’s Supper. He says in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The phrase “stewards of the mysteries of God” is critical. Hebrews 5:4 tells us, “No one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” We see here a ministry in the church that is instituted by the call of God, and that no one has the right to take it for himself. Included in this ministry is the responsibility of being stewards of the mysteries of God. Just as Old Testament priests were “stewards” of God’s mysteries, so that task is also carried out by New Testament ministers.

The word stewardship translates the Greek word oikonomia. Our English word economy derives from that word. It combines the word oikos, meaning “house,” and the word nomos, meaning “law.” So oikonomia means “house rule” or “house law.” Thus, a steward in the biblical sense is a servant who is responsible for managing the affairs of the household. When we speak of Christian stewardship, we are referring to our responsibility to manage the resources that God has entrusted to us.

The Scriptures teach that God gives to ministers the management or stewardship of the sacred mysteries. When Paul refers to “stewards of the mysteries of God,” the church understands that to include being “stewards of the sacraments.” Though we must not make an identity between the New Testament use of the word mystery and our word sacrament, there remains a historic link between the words as the Latin sacramentum was used by the church to translate the Greek mystērion. One of the pastor’s responsibilities in the life of the church is to oversee the sacraments.

Though the biblical evidence is not overwhelming, it seems best to conclude that only ordained people have the authority to administer the sacraments. In addition to biblical references and the biblical concept of what it means to be a bishop, and the responsibilities of eldership as set forth in the New Testament, the church, in her own development, rightly came to the conclusion that the sacraments are so holy that they must be guarded from frivolous or cavalier usage. That becomes particularly clear when we consider the warning not to partake of the Lord’s Supper unworthily.

Paul warns about eating and drinking unworthily in 1 Corinthians 11:30: “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” The New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann observed that this is one of the most neglected verses in the entire New Testament. He suggested that Paul was saying to the Corinthians, “Some of you people have fallen ill, even unto death, directly as a result of your failure to discern the Lord’s body in this most holy event.” This need for discernment, along with other concerns, lay behind the church’s decision to protect the people from the negative effects of mishandling the sacraments. Therefore, the sacraments must be administered by those who have been set apart for the task of ministry in the church. Not just anyone can administer the sacraments. The responsibility to guard the sacraments is put into the hands of the clergy. That is no guarantee that there will not be abuses, but the situation could otherwise be much worse.

Luther was paralyzed by fear when he sought to administer the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Baptism is too important to do at a party in someone’s swimming pool. It belongs under the rule and supervision of the church. The confession, following the church practice through the ages, says that the sacraments are to be administered by those who are in positions of ordained authority, the lawfully ordained ministers of the Word.[2]

 

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith 27.4

[2] This excerpt is taken from R.C. Sproul, Truths We Confess (pp. 584–587).