The Administration of the Lord’s Supper

“Every church shall administer the Lord’s Supper in such a manner as it shall judge most conducive to edification; provided, however, that the outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word be not changed and all superstition be avoided, and that at the conclusion of the sermon and the usual prayers, the form for the administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read.”

—Article 62, D.K.O.

Within the jurisdiction of every consistory is the task of administering the Lord’s Supper in such manner that is most edifying to the congregation. It is not left to the individual nor even to the church as a whole to decide which ceremonies are to be observed in celebrating the sacrament, but this authority resides in the ruling body of the church. Even this prerogative of the consistory, however, is not without limitation. The Church Order clearly prescribes that the consistories shall see to it: (1) that the outward ceremonies prescribed in God’s Word remain unchanged, (2) that all superstition be avoided and, (3) that the form fey the administration of the Lord’s Supper, together with the prayer for that purpose, shall be read. Consistories are bound to retain the essential elements in the administration of the sacrament but apart from these there are other things that are optional in each church. Local circumstances and the condition of each congregation must determine the policy as judged by the consistory.

Consistories then should not impose changes in this regard upon the congregation merely for the sake of change. Sometimes this is done to the detriment rather than edification of the church. All ceremonial change is not necessarily improvement and before any are to be enacted they should he carefully weighed in the light of possible effects they may have upon the congregation. We are too often influenced by what other churches do and inclined to conform our practices whether such conformity is spiritually beneficial or not. We loathe the insinuation that failure to conform to the popular idea makes us old fashioned and narrow minded. To avoid this we are ready to make alterations which at first appear to be quite innocent but eventually pave the way for other changes that are positively harmful. Consistories must move with extreme caution.

The authority of the consistory is strictly limited to those things that have to do with the ceremonial aspect of the sacrament. No consistory can change the sacramentessentially. In this respect there is a fundamental difference between the Reformed and Roman Catholic conception. The latter holds to the theory of transubstantiation according to which the elements of the sacrament are mysteriously but actually changed into the real body and blood of Christ. Reformed Churches maintain the sacramental view which is that the bread and wine are signs of the body and blood of Christ so that Christ is not appropriated physically by the communicant but through faith. This is an essential difference which unavoidably also reflects itself in the manner in which the sacrament is administered. Consistories of Reformed Churches must exercise constant vigilance so that nothing is introduced into the administration of the sacrament that would tend to destroy its essential idea. The ceremony must not be adorned with superficial practices that tend to superstition. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper must not be designed so as to appeal to the physical eye but rather made attractive to faith. Simplicity is its adornment. Our Lord instituted it with simplicity and the closer we can remain to that original institution the more readily faith can apprehend the deeper significance of the holy supper. The Supper is designed to nourish faith by bringing to remembrance the death of Christ and arousing in the consciousness of believers the need and appreciation of its benefits. Frivolous additions appended to the celebration only becloud that end so that spiritual edification is deterred.

Which elements are essential in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and which are optional? The Church Order states “that the outward ceremonies as prescribed in God’s Word be not changed.” What the Church Order here fails to say is what these outward ceremonies are. Our other Confessions supply this information and from them we conclude the following to be elements that belong to the essence of the sacrament:

1. The proper elements of the sacrament are breadand wine. Though some substitute wafers and grape juice, this is improper and contrary to the ordinance of Christ. Bread is the proper symbol of nourishment. Used in a broad sense the term bread denotes that which is necessary for man’s existence. Without bread we die. In the sacrament this element denotes that our spiritual life is inseparably connected with the body of Christ. Without Him we have no life in us. That which is indispensable unto eternal life is in Him alone. Wine in Scripture denotes joy, gladness and prosperity. As such it expresses a beautiful symbolism when it points to the truth that the believer’s joy and prosperity springs from the fountain of Christ’s blood. All the blessings of salvation which cause the heart of the believer to be filled with gladness are rooted in the blood that was shed for the remission of sins. Most appropriate is it that the wine in the Lord’s Supper is designed to direct our faith to the root of our spiritual prosperity.

2. The bread must be broken and the wine poured out. As may be surmised these acts purpose to bring before the believing mind the fact that Christ’s body was broken and His blood shed. This symbolism is essential for without it the true meaning of the sacrament cannot be ascertained. It is therefore improper to break all the bread before the ceremony. If the individual cup is used and for practical reasons these are filled before the service, one large cup should be retained into which the minister can pour the wine and so preserve the symbolism.

3. The sacrament must be observed in the public gathering of the church. It is not to be celebrated at any time and in any place. This may be in accord with Roman Catholic practice but it is not in harmony with Reformed principles. The sacrament belongs to the institute of the church and can only be celebrated in an officially instituted gathering of the congregation. This is literally stated in Article 64 of the Church Order and we believe it is also the intent of the statement found in Article 35 of our Confession which reads: “We receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God . . .” It is indeed difficult to explain the practice of many today who claim to adhere to the Reformed traditions and follow the practice of the Romish Church in this regard administering the sacrament in hospitals, convalescent homes and perhaps even in private homes.

There are several other matters connected with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper which are not of an essential nature. One of the first practical considerations confronting the churches of the Reformation was the question whether communicants should stand, sit, kneel or walk when they received the bread and wine. In the Roman Catholic Church the communicants knelt and venerated the elements. It was not because there is sin in kneeling but because this could easily lead to an idolatrous practice that it was ruled out in the Reformed Churches.

It seems also that the early practice in Reformed Churches of having the communicants walk past the minister to receive the bread and wine was soon discarded. At least by 1571 the synod spoke only of standing or sitting while partaking of communion. Three years later the synod judged that standing was the most appropriate posture at the Lord’s Table but the very following year this decision was reversed and it was decided that it made no difference whether communicants sat or stood. Today the custom of sitting has become the accepted one.

In connection with this there are still minor differences in the customs of different churches. In some churches the elements are passed through the entire auditorium. In others a certain part of the church sanctuary is set apart for those who take communion. In others, especially in small churches where the number of communicants is few, chairs are arranged around the communion table and at the time the sacrament is to be celebrated, the communicants rise and take their place around the table. Which of these methods is to be preferred must be decided largely by local circumstances. The consistory must select that method that best serves the needs of the particular church.

Another question which arose in connection with the administration of the sacrament is whether the communicants should partake of the elements as soon as they are received or whether they should wait until everyone has received them and then all partake together. The latter method is somewhat difficult in a large church unless the Holland practice of administering “tafels” is introduced. This means that a certain part of the congregation comes forward and takes their place at or near the communion table and thus celebrates the Lord’s Supper as a group. Depending on the size of the congregation, there may be several of these administrations and the services become rather long and drawn-out.

Although Monsma and Van Dellen in The Church Order Commentary favor the abolition of this practice, they do point out certain good features in it which they like to see retained. They write on page 260 as follows:

“But there was something in this old way which had real merit. Separate, small group administrations required the believers to arise and to go forward to take their place at the Lord’s Table as a distinct act, before the whole congregation. There was a confession in that act. . . . The old way, moreover, introduced an element of self-expression into the service which is worthy of appreciation and which was favorable in its reaction on the communicants. Consequently we think that those churches which have maintained the two or three distinct administrations for each celebration have done wisely.”

Hard and fast rules governing these things cannot be made. Neither is this necessary because these matters of administration do not have a bearing upon the real significance of the sacrament. There are more of these things which, D.V., we will have occasion to write about later. For example there is the question of the common or individual cups, the matter of the communion offering, the question as to whether there should be silence, music or the reading of Scripture during the Communion. We have consistories in our churches who must decide these things and in each instance they must arrange the entire service so that it is “most conducive to edification.”