Sacraments and Ruling (Lay) Elders

Modified from a text conversation.

Why should only Teaching Elders (pastors) and not Ruling Elders (lay elders) administer the sacraments? Why are the sacraments (normally) not properly administered otherwise? Here are the broad strokes of my reasoning, with particular application to the EPC. A more detailed breakdown can be found on pages 30-38 of the document linked in this post.

Biblical theology: The sacraments are part of the churchly ministry granted to the apostles (e.g. Matthew 16:19, 18:18-19, 28:19; John 20:23; 1 Corinthians 4:1, 11:23). The authority to administer sacraments is not entrusted to just anyone in the church. Teaching Elders as pastors stand in continuity with this apostolic ministry (i.e. apostolic succession) – e.g. Romans 15:15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:27-29, 14:1; Ephesians 2:20-22, 3:7, 4:9-11; 1 Peter 5:1. Whatever Ruling Elders are, they are not an apostolic, sacramental office. Pastors (or bishops, or ministers, or Teaching Elders, or whatever your preferred term) do stand in ministerial, apostolic succession, and therefore do have a sacramental nature to their office. Teaching Elders have been authorized by Christ to administer the sacraments, Ruling Elders have not.

Confessional: The Reformed tradition has with one voice said that pastors alone have had this authority entrusted to them by Christ. Though the EPC has modified the Westminster Standards on this issue in several place (“ordinarily” vs. “only”), the amended version still says that it is ministers (i.e. pastors) lawfully ordained that are authorized by Christ to administer the Lord’s Supper (WCF 29.3, WLC 169). The lawful ordination of the minister (WCF 27.4, 28.2, WLC 176) remains operative, even in the EPC’s amended sections. Sacraments are validly administered if they a) use the biblical words of institution, b) employ the biblically prescribed physical elements and actions, and c) are done according to the good order (“lawful”) of the church. This last point is crucial: the sacraments are tied to the visible, institutional church. Their validity is not exclusively tied to the liturgical motions (that runs into the ex opere operato of Roman Catholicism) or the willpower, desires, or faith of the participants (that way lies Donatism and individual subjectivism). The sacraments are not valid upon the wishes of the people attempting to administer them, but according to the biblical, lawful, wise ordering of the church.

EPC Book of Order: The good order (“lawful”) of the EPC is that Ruling Elders may in a specific circumstance be authorized to administer the sacraments. If a congregation is lacking a pastor, the Session (Elder Board) of the church may request that the presbytery commission one of the Session’s Ruling Elder members to administer the sacraments. In this case, the Ruling Elder is being commissioned by the presbytery to function as a Pastor, i.e., a temporary Teaching Elder (Book of Government 9-11; the title is “Ruling Elder as Commissioned Pastor”, after all). The reasonable lack of availability of a Teaching Elder for a congregation is a necessary precondition for this commissioning (cf. Book of Government 20-4.a.5). The good order (“lawful”) of the church is that a Pastor, albeit a temporary one whose ordination is as a Ruling Elder, may in this circumstance, with the church’s permission, administer the sacraments.

The Book of Worship 3-1.A has an ambiguously worded clause about a Session authorizing one of its members to administer the sacraments. However, Book of Government 9-11 is explicitly cited here and should be the interpretive grid used, along with the Westminster Standards as the confessional basis of the EPC’s Book of Order. That means that the Session with the presbytery’s concurrence (i.e. commissioning a Ruling Elder as a temporary pastor) may name one of its members to administer the sacraments. Regardless, the Book of Worship says that this is only to happen in “extraordinary circumstances in which a lawfully ordained Minister is not reasonably available”.