Do we need the church to administer the Supper?
I was reading an article on the Reformed Baptist Fellowship blog regarding what a “lay person” needs from a church. The blog post was titled Five Things reflective of the five things the lay-person needs from a church from a Reformed Baptist persepctive. Set aside the obvious problematic issues with that whole question for a moment. One of the things this designated lay-person needed was for the church to "administer the sacraments". We hear that a lot but what does the word “administer” mean? According to the handy dandy Dictionary.com app on my blackberry it means:
1. To manage or direct
2. To give
I think given the traditional view of the Supper, the second definition takes a subordinate role to the first. The traditional view sees the Supper as something to be controlled, to be managed. It requires a pastor to bless it and deacons to pass it out. Just any old meal cannot suffice and it must take place in the sterile setting of a church building. Of course there is neither command nor example of any of that in the Scripture but it just seems more proper in our religious eyes to do it that way. It needs to be passed out on plates in utter silence (maybe the pianist can play very softly in the background) and quickly so that the whole thing doesn’t take too long. People have places to go and the church has a schedule to keep. We expect and insist upon the Supper taking the form that we are used to.
Even the second definition of “administer” has some meaning for the church. The Lord’s Supper is something that is given by the local church. You must come to us to partake. The supper is something to be restricted, to be doled out based on the rules of that local church. In many congregations, it is a closed communion, restricted to those who are in formal “membership” with that local church. The form of the Supper, the frequency, the method are all tightly controlled by that local gathering. Changing the form or frequency of the Supper is a painful affair. It is a unifier only for that local congregation with no connection to the greater Body of Christ as a whole. We go to our church and pass the plate, you go to your church and pass the plate and everyone is happy. What is lost is the great witness of the Supper as something observed by God's people for thousands of years and as importantly what is lost is the sense of fellowship and communion that the Supper should represent. You are not in fellowship with the person you met once or twice in the pew next to you just because they pass you a platter of crackers.
There are other problems with these "five things". I don’t really need someone to tell me week after week after week that I am a sinner. We spend so much time clubbing ourselves over the head about our sinful state that we never get around to what we should be doing now. If your local body of believers is made up of regenerate Christians, you really need to focus less on “what happened?” and more on “what now?” The reality of sin is vital for understanding evangelism and understanding sin is likewise essential to understanding why we don't behave as the church the way we should. From a justification standpoint though, I am no longer a sinner under condemnation but a new creature saved by grace. Saved for what? Saved for good works (Eph 2:10; Titus 2:14) not saved to keep pondering how I was saved. Again, it is a vital doctrine but we can spend so much time studying how we got saved and how it is all going to end that we pay no attention to what is happening all around us. In other words, soteriology and eschatology take up so much of our attention that ecclesiology gets short-shrift and tradition rules through inertia. In a perfect world, the knowledge of sin and of salvation would lead us to good works. In reality there seems to be a disconnect here. The local church should be a place of gathering for the purpose of sending. What it has become is strictly a place of gathering. The gathering is an end in and of itself.
I found that this list of things the laity needs from the church is pretty typical. It falls right into not just the historic Reformed notion of "the word truly preached, the sacraments rightly administered and discipline faithfully exercised" as the marks of a "true church", it also matches up with our cultural expectations for what the church is and does. We expect to "go to church" and get something out of it: music, a sermon and perhaps a ritualized passing of the Supper. I also think it speaks to the way that the gathering of the church has lost its original meaning. The church gathering ought to be a place of edification, fellowship, prayer and witness for the purpose of preparing us to go into the world to proclaim Christ in both word and deed.
(I will say that I like the list of five things that we don't need the church to be far more than any of the things we do need the church to be.)