What is the Biblical Case for Ordained Ministers Ordinarily Serving at the Table?

Note: I have updated this article to include a few additional arguments. At the outset, I want to make clear that my case is for the ordinary administration of the Table by an ordained minister. It is also important to note that there are unique circumstances where appointed elders and deacons can also administer the Eucharist to the people of God.

The Reformed tradition has definitively spoken on this issue through her many confessions and catechisms. The following serves as proof of this premise:

The Westminster Confession of Faith states in Chapter XXVII:

IV. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the gospels, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord: neither or which may be dispensed by any but a minister of the Word, lawfully ordained (italics mine).

The Anglican Communion’s 39 articles address this topic in this fashion in article 23, which speaks of “Ministering the Congregation:”

“It is not lawful for any man to take upon himself the office of public preaching or ministering the Sacraments in the congregation before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.”

The Heidelberg Catechism addresses this topic in question #75:

“How art thou admonished and assured in the Lord’s Supper, that thou art a partaker of that one sacrifice of Christ, accomplished on the cross, and of all his benefits?

Answer: Thus: That Christ has commanded me and all believers, to eat of this broken bread, and to drink of this cup, in remembrance of him, adding these promises: first, that his body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and his blood shed for me, as certainly as I see with my eyes, the bread of the Lord broken for me, and the cup communicated to me; and further, that he feeds and nourishes my soul to everlasting life, with his crucified body and shed blood, as assuredly as I receive from the hands of the minister, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, as certain signs of the body and blood of Christ.”

Finally, the Belgic Confession (Three Forms of Unity) speaks of the governance of the Church, and consequently addresses the issue of who may administer at the Lord’s Table in Article 30, concerning The Government of the Church:

“We believe that this true church ought to be governed according to the spiritual order that our Lord has taught us in his Word. There should be ministers or pastors to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments. There should also be elders and deacons, along with the pastors, to make up the council of the church.

By this means true religion is preserved; true doctrine is able to take its course; and evil men are corrected spiritually and held in check, so that also the poor and all the afflicted may be helped and comforted according to their need. By this means everything will be done well and in good order in the church, when such persons are elected who are faithful and are chosen according to the rule that Paul gave to Timothy.”

In light of this overwhelming historical data some object that this is merely a confessional view, and that the Bible does not support this position. Since some may pose this objection, here are a few reasons deduced from the theology of the Bible, which affirms the confessional position.

First, Paul writes in I Corinthians 4 that the ministers “as servants of Christ” are also “stewards of the mysteries of God.” These mysteries are elaborated by Paul in Ephesians three as the bringing in of Gentiles into the promises of Jesus Christ and also the manifold wisdom of God to the world. The Church and her mysteries placed under the authority of the minister–which authority is granted by God (II Corinthians 13) — has a distinctly pastoral and ministerial supervision. Both Word and Sacrament are part of this ministry.

The substance of this view has been laid on the shoulders of men like Paul, Peter, and other apostles.

Second, Paul in I Corinthians 9 ties his apostolic authority to the authority granted in the Law of Moses. Thus, we can deduce that Paul’s authority as a New Covenant minister is parallel in function—though not in administration—to the Old Testament priesthood. In the Old Covenant only the priests had sacramental authority. Thus, similarly, that authority not being rescinded remains with the ordained minister in the New Covenant.

Third, Paul in Ephesians 4:11-13 writes:

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,  to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

Is not the administration of the sacraments for the maturing of the saints, of the work of the ministry, of the edifying of the body of Christ? And to whom has Christ given that authority in the church to do these things? Pastors and teachers (extraordinary offices set aside for the sake of argument).

Fourth, though we affirm that the Church is a kingdom of priests (I Peter 2), yet, for the sake of good order, symbolism, the integrity of the church, and the well-being of her members, it is normally best for the sacraments to be administered by a man who has been ordained and qualified for the gospel ministry. In the Old Covenant, Israel was a nation of priests, but still had a special priesthood set apart within the nation to teach the people and lead their sacrificial/sacramental worship (cf. Ex. 19:6; Ex. 29).[1] As Rich Lusk writes:

While we are all priests in Christ, with the same holy status and access to God’s presence, there is a clear division of labor within the church’s priesthood. Paul’s pastoral epistles of 1-2 Timothy and Titus, along with the book of Acts, also prove the apostolic church continued to have a special pastoral/priestly office; the early Christians saw themselves as heirs of the polity of the Jewish church, albeit transformed, fulfilled, and renewed in Christ.[2]

The priesthood of all believers is not an excuse for theological privatization. Rather, as the Reformers elaborated, it is for the sake of service to one another, and always subservient to the authorities God has placed in our lives.

Fifth, if the administration of the sacraments belongs to any Christian then women should also be able to administer at the table in the absence of men (for instance, examples abound in churches in China, where mostly women and little children attend). There are no explicit commands forbidding women to administer at the table. Thus, the burden of proof is on those who believe un-ordained persons can administer at the table.

Sixth, John 10 places the under-shepherd of the sheep in charge of keeping the flock from going astray into false teaching. The under-shepherd is the guardian of truth. The sacraments are means of grace for the people of God. The under-shepherd feeds and nourishes his own sheep; the flock given to him by God. The sacraments are nourishment for God’s people. In the Supper, the ordained minister teaches and administers the meal to those who abide in truth (John 8:31-33).

Similarly, Hebrews 13 says that members of the body are to “obey their leaders and submit to them for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give account.” Leaders of the church are those who keep watch over the souls of his congregation. Again, following John 10, ministers have the responsibility to nurture and feed the flock.

Seventh, the gospels clearly state that the apostles have the authority to forgive the sins of any (John 20:21-23). Luther observed—following St. James—that we are to confess our sins to one another. Jeff Meyers argues that James is primarily a manual on pastoral labor in the Church, thus making James primarily an application to pastors. But even if that is not the case, still there is a distinction made between confessing sins to one another and forgiving the sins of any. This authority is not given to all. The power of the keys is given to those who proclaim the joys and judgment of God. Thus, the sacraments declare both judgment for those outside the covenant and joy to those who partake.

Historically, Luther argued that there are legitimate situations in which Christians can baptize one another depending on the circumstances, but interestingly Luther never—neither did the other Reformers—suggest that the Lord’s Supper could be administered by lay people.

Eighth, the question should be asked: “What is the biblical case for laypeople administering at the Lord’s Table?” Once that question is answered, what is the overwhelming data of Scriptures suggest? We cannot be neutral on this issue. What does the wisdom of the Bible dictate? As G.I. Williamson writes, “There is no evidence in Scripture to show that other than church officers ever administered the sacraments in the apostolic church.”[3]


Peter Leithart observes that “the Body is not without order; again, the kingdom of God is not a Rousseauain paradise…in all properly functioning churches of Christ someone is designated as guardian of the Table (Blessed are the Hungry).” Reformational sacramental theology restored decency and order to the worship renewal.

If the sacraments are what the Reformation say they are, then they are more than mere signs of a past event, but rather the sign and seal of what God promises to us and our children. Since this is the case, they are not to be treated lightly. Laymen in the church assume their proper role as authorities in the home, which enable them to enact justice as they see fit under the authority of God, yet, they are not called nor qualified to administer the table to the family of God. Distinctions in spheres cannot be set aside. The Church is the household of faith, an everlasting empire. In this new kingdom, the Church swallows the biological family and creates a new society of shepherds to guide and direct the flock in the way she should go.

[1] Thanks to Rich Lusk for these insights.

[2] Lusk, Who may celebrate the Eucharist at TPC.

[3] The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes; G.I. Williamson.

About Uri Brito

I am the Pastor of Providence Church (CREC) in Pensacola, Fl.
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2 Responses to What is the Biblical Case for Ordained Ministers Ordinarily Serving at the Table?

  1. Josh L says:

    Thanks, Uri. This is helpful.

    Related to your points about the apostles, I wonder if there is also some significance to the fact that baptism (Mt. 28) and the eucharist (Mt. 26) were first given to the apostolate. Likewise, the Great Commission was given primarily to the church in its corporate and institutional aspect. And though there are no more apostles, the essence of the apostolic office and function continues perpetually in the church through the gospel ministers.

  2. Uri Brito says:

    Yes. I think this is quite significant. I remember having conversations with John Frame on these issues at seminary. He had more loose view on these matters…not strange in light of his low church position. I argued that the Great Commission has a distinctly ministerial directive to it. Though–as Frame argued–it also applies to the larger body, distinctly and primarily it is ministerial. Any similarity between the clergy and laity derives from the laity imitating the clergy (laity becoming bread to the people as the clergy gives bread to the people; or laity teaching the people originating first and foremost in the teaching office of the minister, etc.).

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