Supervision in the Lord’s Supper

“The administration of the Lord’s Supper shall take place only there where three is supervision of elders, according to the ecclesiastical order in a public gathering of the congregation.”

—Article 64, D.K.O.


In many Reformed circles today the provision of the sixty-fourth article of our Church Order either has already or is fast becoming an obsolete thing. The spirit of individualism, so prevalent in this age in the world, seems to reflect itself more and more in the church as she repels various forms of authority and ecclesiastical supervision. Old traditions are discarded or conveniently ignored and substituted with the more modern approach. With application to the Lord’s Supper this means that the sacrament is no longer regarded as a sacred feast which the Lord Himself ordained only for the faithful and which, therefore, demands supervision by the elders of the church, but it is considered a common party to which all who happen to be present at the time it is held are invited and concerning which the individual is at liberty to take or abstain without scruples as to confession and life. Add to this the element of superstitious sentiment and you have the ingredients of the feast as observed in many churches today. Regulations concerning spiritual supervision and designating of special times and places where this holy supper is to be commemorated are regarded as things antiquated.

Current revisions of the Church Order will naturally be formulated to conform to this modern practice rather than to adhere to the principles and traditions of the past. The closest allusion to the content of Article 64 in the proposed Church Order revision of the Christian Reformed Church is found in the general statement appearing in the sixty-second article: “The administration of the sacraments shall take place only upon the authority of the consistory, with the use of the ecclesiastical forms, and in a public gathering of believers.” What is conspicuously absent in this revision is the provision that demands “supervision by the elders” in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament may well be administered by the authority of the consistory, the proper forms may be read, and the congregation may be assembled publicly but if there is no supervision over the participants and celebration the whole thing may also be desecrated as it unquestionably is where the power of discipline is neglected.

Originally, in the Church Order of Dordrecht, Article 64 did not appear in the present form. This is of a much later date. Formerly the present article read:

“Inasmuch as the Evening Prayers are found to be very fruitful in many places, each church in maintaining these will conduct them as is most edifying. When there is a desire to discontinue them, this shall not be done without the judgment of Classis.”

This original article refers to a pre-Reformation practice in the Roman Catholic church which continued to be held in vogue in the churches of the Reformation after the break with Rome. Late in the afternoon of each day the doors of the churches were opened for the daily vesper service. It was a brief period of meditation. Songs were sung, prayers offered and a portion of the Bible briefly expounded. In time objections began to be raised against this custom and in 1574 the Synod of Dordt ruled that they should not be introduced in churches which until then had not observed them and in places where they were in use, they should be discontinued as soon as possible. The reasons the synod gave for its decision were three:

1) In order that the regular Sunday services might be attended more diligently;

2) In order that family worship might be maintained more diligently;

3) In order that the common prayers held on days of fasting might be used more diligently and zealously.

A tradition of such long standing, however, was neither easily nor immediately eradicated from the churches. The synod of 1581 reiterated the position of the synod of 1574, adding the new element that these services should be discontinued in the churches that maintained them without the consent of the Classis. In spite of this it was not until the seventeenth century that this practice disappeared from the scene.

It was in 1905 that the churches of the Netherlands adopted a new redaction of the Church Order in which they elided this article and inserted in its place the present Article 64. In 1914 the Christian Reformed Church in this country adopted the same and this is the Church Order which we have today.

Our present article mentions two important matters in connection with the administration of the Lord’s Supper. First of all, there must be supervision by the elders. Secondly, this administration can take place only in the public gathering of the congregation.

Monsma and Van Dellen in “The Church Order Commentary” point out that the first of these means that “in general believers must be first organized into a church before Holy Communion can be celebrated.” It should not be forgotten that in the post-Reformation days there were often a few believers in various localities who had broken with the church of Rome but were numerically too few to organize into a regular congregation. Jansen tells us that Calvin judged that in such places the services should be limited to the reading and explaining of God’s Word and that the sacraments should not be administered there inasmuch as a definite church organization was lacking and supervision and discipline could not be exercised. Later synods concurred in this judgment of Calvin. Today where such a situation prevails the custom is to incorporate such groups into neighboring churches and form a “branch congregation? Under the supervision of the consistory the sacraments are then administered as needed in these places. To do this effectively it would be mandatory that there be a representation of the elders ‘at such. times as the sacraments are administered.

With this we concur and also readily admit that when Article 64 was composed it was this supervision that the authors had in mind. However, it is not saying too much when we add that when the Church Order speaks of the supervision of the eiders over the administration of the Lord’s Supper, this supervision may be extended to include also that work of the elders whereby they see to it that unworthy persons are kept from the table of the Lord and admonished to repent. The table of the Lord must be kept pure inasfar as that is possible. Hypocrites God will judge but those who in their confession and life reveal themselves as disobedient to the Word of God must be forbidden the rights and privileges of members of the church.

The article also stipulates that the Supper of the Lord may be served only in a public gathering of the congregation. Concerning this the Rev. Ophoff writes: “Also the administration of the Lord’s Supper and the official preaching of the gospel by teaching ministry instituted by Christ are inseparable, and this for two reasons. As baptism, so the Lord’s Supper, it is a dead symbol and therefore by itself mute. It only speaks with the gospel as preached imposed upon it. Secondly, Christ instituted in his church the teaching ministry for the edification of His people, the establishing of his covenant among them and the gathering of His church. Now the gospel as officially preached and the administration of the Lord’s Supper are the divinely ordained instruments for the achievement of this purpose. Hence, the two belong together and are inseparable. Therefore if the official preaching of the gospel must take place on the meetings for public worship, then also the official administration of the Lord’s Supper. The Reformed fathers permitted the administration of the Lord’s Supper in the homes of those who had been ill for many years, provided the congregation and the consistory be present. Administration of the Lord’s Supper in the home by a common member with the congregation absent is forbidden. This is the Reformed position. That this position is Biblical is proven by the lone fact that Christ we read it in the scriptures, the epistle of Paul gave pastors and teachers for the work of the ministry, for the upbuilding of the church.”

This matter which Rev. Ophoff mentions concerning the administering of the sacraments to the shut-ins has always been a very interesting subject. Although there may be room for some differences of opinion about it, it must be maintained that the position of the Reformed Churches as expressed officially in the Confessions is clear. Both the Church Order and the Confessions expressly state that the Lord’s Supper must be served in a public gathering of the church. Now it may be argued that it does not follow that this necessarily means that this gathering is to be held in the church building. This is certainly true. The church, either in its entirety or representatively, can gather in other places as well. Perhaps in mid-winter the heating plant breaks down and so the consistory designates another building as the place of meeting for a couple weeks while repairs are being made. This does not make the services held in this new place less official than if they were held in the church building.

And so it is argued that the consistory can take a few members of the congregation to the hospital or home of the sick and institute an official service so that the bed-ridden may receive the Lord’s Supper. We question whether this can be classified as a “public gathering” but our greater objection to this practice is that it appears to us to be an act instigated in plain defiance of the revealed will of God. We must not forget that when the Lord places us upon a sick bed or makes us an invalid, He does this in His providence for reasons we cannot always discern. He knows that while we are in that condition we cannot go to His house to receive the sacraments. Yet He has so ordered our way. In His Word He does not tell us to contrive other ways to obtain these means of grace but He enjoins us to submit ourselves without murmuring; to trust in Him alone, casting our cares upon Him; to be patient in our afflictions that the glory of His grace may be manifest in us. Those children of God who through such providential acts of God are deprived of the means of grace in the church either for a time or for years on end do not manifest possession of a lesser grace. As a rule the very opposite is true. “Affliction hath been for my profit.” God is faithful to provide all our needs in all circumstances and, therefore, where all things are normal He dispenses His grace through the instituted means and where, for His own reasons, He deprives His children of those means, He remembers them in His mercy and always “His grace is sufficient.”

—G.V.d.B.