This was originally going to be a comment directed towards a good friends’ recent post at One Kingdom, One King. That post is entitled, “Reformanda Sacramentum: Who Can Administer the Sacraments?”. The response was so lengthy, however, that I thought it warranted being posted on my blog. It should also help me to track my own thoughts as I consider this important topic. Enjoy.
You make some real good arguments. Below are just a few thoughts for your consideration. Hopefully they will help you to either strengthen your argument or otherwise change your mind – if the Spirit direct you to do so through the Scripture!
I think it would be good to interact a bit with Westminster’s understanding of “good and necessary consequence” (GNC) and how it comes into play in this discussion. When I speak of GNC, I am speaking of the way in which we use it to show that baptism should be administered to children, not the way in which some use it as an excuse to hold any random tradition/doctrine. It has to be proved that what is being argued for is a doctrine of good and necessary consequence based on the analogy of Scripture. We can’t just use GNC as an excuse to not prove our point. We have to prove that our conclusions have come by good and necessary deduction.
Those who hold to the Confession on this point regarding the Sacraments may not be able to prove their point with explicit proof texts, but their understanding is more so derived from their biblical system of doctrine as a whole, or so I have been told – i.e. the doctrine of ordination, pastoral ministry, the efficacy of the sacraments, polity, etc. So when diving into this topic there is more in the discussion than appears at face value. In my understanding, they answer the question of “who can administer the sacraments” by deduction from these other doctrines. So we have to determine if this deduction is good and necessary.
Specifically, I have been trying to understand this doctrine from the point of view of the reformed church’s historic understanding of ordination and the ministry of the Word (pastoral ministry). So it may be good for you to dive into these two topics specifically. Basically, my point is that we need to try and follow the thread back to its various origins.
One example from your article is where you say:
“Jesus called his “disciples” and gave them the commission to make “disciples” of the nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything He had commanded them (Matt. 28:16-20). This commission is not limited to a select few, but to all believers.”
This is actually one of the few arguments that I found lacking. It is certainly true that the Great Commission (GC) was given to the Church as a whole. However, I do find it to be interesting that Christ explicitly calls the eleven in order to give the GC – as he does in other points throughout the Gospels for various other reasons i.e. instituting the Lord’s Supper. There is obviously something distinct about the Apostles that make them differ from other disciples in their responsibilities. I think, though I wouldn’t go as far as he does, that is Gillespie’s point. He believes, there is a good and necessary reason to believe that the Apostles were given specific responsibility to administer the sacraments – or, perhaps, to at least oversee their administration (a topic for discussion elsewhere).
In my understanding, the reformed tradition has held that the GC was given narrowly to the Apostles, and more broadly to the Church. Or, in other words, it was given to the Church through the Apostles. The office of Pastor is, in a sense, the ordinary (Apostle being extraordinary) office in which this task is to be carried out in the post-apostolic era. Of course, they would affirm that there is a sense in which every believer is called to teach and disciple others. But ordinarily these tasks are left to godly leaders to perform in an official authoritative capacity. I could be wrong here, and I don’t have quotes/citations on hand, but I have read something to this effect in Calvin and even in a bit of Rushdoony.
This is important, for example, when we discuss Apollos, because he is referred to as a ‘servant’ (‘minister,’ KJV; ‘diakanos,’ Greek) along with Paul. Now, this word is tricky. At some points, I believe, diakanos refers generally to anyone who serves Christ; elsewhere, it seems to refer specifically to what is understood to be the office of deacon (i.e. 1 Tim 3); and still in other places it may refer to a minister in the way it is traditionally understood today (i.e. Col 1:25). I don’t really have a huge point to make here, only to, again, point out that we need to understand the biblical and reformed doctrine of ordination and pastoral ministry in conjunction with the doctrine of the sacraments.
The only other statement that you made that I see a potential problem with is when you say that, “circumcision and baptism are family rites first, and secondarily ‘ecclesiastic’ in the sense that any member of the body of Christ may baptize a new convert to the faith.” I think I get what you mean by this, but clarification may be helpful.
Being covenantal, we know that there isn’t really a separation of these two ‘institutions’ of family and Church. But there is a distinction, especially in the sense that the sacraments don’t belong primarily to the family and secondarily to the Church – even in the OT. Circumcision and the Passover were not primarily signs and seals that pointed to an ethnic lineage to Abraham – this is more Baptist thinking than it is covenantal or reformed. These are primarily ecclesiastical signs and seals, in that they point to regeneration, justification, and union with Christ, Christ himself, etc.. Again, I don’t find it helpful to separate these two – family & Church – because we know that the covenant family is a part of the covenant Assembly. But in the same way that independent congregational Baptists can get in trouble when saying “baptism is a sign of our membership at First Baptist Church of Wherever” so we can get in trouble if we say that baptism is first and foremost a family rite.
That’s about all I have for you here. You have some really good arguments that I am going to have to seriously consider. And I believe others should as well. As I said above, however, the doctrine of ordination and the ministry of the Word are some areas that you may want to look into. In my opinion, some of your arguments in your article presuppose a certain understanding of these that diverges from the reformed understanding. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that you may need to follow the thread a bit further back to its origin in order to argue well against those Presbyterians who disagree with you.
Briefly, my understanding in these areas is what has led me to believe that the sacraments should be ordinarily administered by ordained leaders. What I mean by ordained is that these are men who have been recognized by the Church as being mature, godly, gifted, and knowledgeable leaders, and are called by the Church for the purpose of leading the Church towards its own maturity by means of teaching and governing. In this, we are recognizing that the sacraments don’t belong to us individually, or even to our families, but belong to the Church as a whole. By ordinarily I mean that this should be the normative practice in a setting where the Church is flourishing. Of course, there will be instances in which a very small body of believers has not set aside a person to take on this task, and yet needs to have someone baptized or to lead the congregation in observing the Lord’s Supper in the same way that Christ lead it himself. In these instances, the people should not hesitate to use wisdom in choosing someone to baptize or preside over the Supper – though this decision should not be taken lightly. I believe this expresses the general testimony of the Scripture. Christians should use wisdom and seek order in administering the sacraments, they should not be flippant or disorderly about the task. And yet, we don’t become so rigid so as to suppose that baptism is meaningless unless it is performed by an officially elected elder.
Lastly, and I am being both serious and jesting a little here, if you are aiming this article primarily at Presbyterians than quoting John Gill may not hold much weight. Perhaps you can find something from Bavinck or another figure that still makes those points. I love my Baptists brothers, but I am often left to wonder how a Baptist is arriving at their conclusions when we are talking about the sacraments.