Should the sick have the Lord's Supper at home? - Prof. J. Geertsema

From the Clarion Volume 35, No. 2 January 24, 1986

I received this question from a member in one of our congregations. I have been asked this before. I can understand the problem. Older brothers and sisters who are physically very weak, or members who have to cope with a lengthy illness, and therefore cannot attend the worship services, miss not only their health but also those services including the use of the sacraments. And while a tape can bring the church service with the preaching of God's Word into the sickroom, it cannot present bread and wine to the ailing. Handicapped members can truly feel this as a loss. And therefore there is the question: can the Lord's Supper not be administered to them at home? Do they not especially need the strengthening of their faith in their affliction?

Historical data

Justinus Martyr, who lived in the second century, writes that in his days the elements of the Lord's Supper were brought to the sick at their homes. And the Council of Nicea recommended that this sacrament be administered to the terminally ill. This decision led to the Roman custom of administering the host (the bread that was changed into the body of Christ) to the dying. The background of this custom is the doctrine that the sacrament is the vehicle of grace and is indispensable for salvation. Besides, the Roman doctrine says that the priest, placing the host upon the altar, offers the sacrifice of Christ to God for the forgiveness of the sins of the believers.

Probably because of the Roman doctrine and practice, Luther rejected the administration of the Lord's Supper to the sick at their homes altogether. However, the Lutheran Churches did not follow him. They have always had the custom of bringing bread and wine to the ailing.

In the Reformed Churches there has been a difference of opinion. Dr. H. Bouwman writes in Gereformeerd Kerkrecht (Reformed Church Polity), Vol. II, Pp. 394 ff., that Calvin administered the sacrament to the sick at their homes in Straszbourg, but that this was not the custom in Geneva. Writing to Olevianus, in Heidelberg, in a positive way about the administration of the sacrament to the sick at their homes for the strengthening of their faith, Calvin, then, also said, "You know that the Church at Geneva has a different custom. I am content with it. I don't consider it good to contend on this point. Those theologians who are of the opinion that the administration of the Lord's Supper to the sick does not correspond with the commandment of the Lord, argue that the Holy Supper has been instituted as a holy meal in order that the believers might be nourished by it together as a communion. And I quite willingly admit to the truth of this statement." Calvin also wrote that such an administration at home should take place only seldom and as an exception.

Reformed Churches in England, Scotland, Poland and Hungary were on the side of Calvin. But the churches in France and Holland were not. The General Synod of Middelburg, 1581, had to deal with this question whether the Lord's Supper could be administered to the sick at their homes, "especially when some form of church (i.e. part of the congregation and the consistory) would be gathered together there." The answer was, "No; the sacraments shall not be administered except in the normal gathering, at the place where the congregation ordinarily meets together." (Question 52) It must be admitted that Question 81 speaks about the problem of what the minister must do in churches that have the custom of administering the Lord's Supper to the sick at their homes, or celebrate at two different times. Must such a minister always take part in the supper? The answer was positive. This means, that although the synod spoke against it, it did not condemn the practice.

In our century Synod Utrecht 1923 of the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands dealt with the same question again and formulated a number of conditions for the celebration at home. However, Synod Middleburg 1933 pronounced "that it is not desirable to introduce the communion for the sick as an ecclesiastical custom."

Dr. F.L. Ruthers, the teacher of Reformed Church Polity in the Reformed Churches of the Doleantie writes about the same question in his Kerkelijke Adviezen (Advice for Church Life), Vol. II, pp. 184 ff. According to him the celebration of the Holy Supper privately at home by the sick is not good and should not happen; neither should this celebration take place at conferences. It belongs in the worship service of the congregation. That was his advice.

The Church Order

The Synod of Dort, 1618 - 1619, determined in Article 62 of the Church Order which it adopted, that, after the sermon and the general prayers "on the pulpit" were finished, the Form for the Lord's Supper and the prayer connected with it had to be read at the table. This article clearly speaks of a celebration only in the public worship service of the congregation.

When the Synod of Utrecht, 1905, revised the Church Order, Article 64 was formulated as we find it in the English translation on p. 124 of the Acts of Synod Orangeville 1968, "The administration of the Lord's Supper shall take place only where there is supervision of elders, according to the ecclesiastical order and in a public gathering of the congregation."

In our Church Order, as revised and adopted by Synod

Cloverdale 1983, Article 56 speaks about the administration of both sacraments and says, "The sacraments shall be administered only under the authority of the consistory, in a public worship service, by a minister of the Word, with the use of the adopted Forms."

Our conclusion must be that our Church Order does not allow for a celebration of the Lord's Supper in a private home or elsewhere, and that this is in line with the history of the Dutch Reformed Churches. We restrict the celebration of the sacraments to the public worship service of the congregation.

Calvin on private masses

In fact, this is actually in line with the thinking of Calvin, even though, by way of exception, he allowed for such a celebration at home for the sake of the strengthening of the faith of the weak or sick person. Also for Calvin the rule is the celebration in the midst of the congregation. We see this for example, in book IV, Ch. XVIII, 8, of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (Translation of Ford Lewis Battles, edited by John T. McNeill, p. 1436. Here Calvin writes against the Roman "private masses." He means with the Roman private mass a mass in which only the priest acts and eats, while the people do not have to be present and do not take part in the communion.

Calvin writes, "I say that private masses are diametrically opposed to Christ's institution, and are for that reason an impious profaning of the Sacred Supper. For what has the Lord bidden us? Is it not to take and divide among us? Luke 22:17. What kind of observance of the command does Paul teach? Is it not the breaking of bread, which is the communion of body and blood? I Corinthians 10:16. When, therefore, one person receives it without sharing, what similarity is there? But that one man, they say, does it in the name of the whole church. By what command? Is this not openly to mock God, when one person privately seizes for himself what ought to have been done only among many? But because Christ's and Paul's words are clear enough, we may briefly conclude that wherever there is not this breaking of bread for the communion of believers (italics added), it is not the Lord's Supper, but a false and preposterous imitation of it. But a false imitation is a corruption."

Now the Roman "private mass" differs completely from the celebration of the Lord's Supper by the sick at home. Yet, the argument of Calvin is that the celebration of the Lord's Supper is a matter of sharing; and this is basically the sharing by the congregation as one body. This is also the reason why the Reformed Churches bind the celebration of the Holy Supper to the worship service of the congregation. Therefore, when our churches go a step further than Calvin, the argument is fully in line with Calvin's thinking regarding sacrament congregation and worship service as belonging together. And this' in turn, is based on what Paul writes in I Corinthians 10:14-22 where we have a clear connection between worship, Lord's Supper and congregation as one body, one communion. We find the same three elements also together in I Corinthians 11:17-34, and probably in Acts 20:7.

Must those who suffer already, suffer more?

Now it can be said, that in this way we deprive the weak and sick among us of something that God has given to the church with the intention to strengthen faith. Is this really true?

Do our churches deprive some members of the strengthening of their faith?

In the first place, the table of communion in the midst of the congregation cannot be held or substituted for in a private home. Congregational communion at one table remains missing.

But what about the strengthening of faith through the sacrament? Should that not be an important argument for us, as it was for Calvin, to allow for a "private" celebration? The reply of Dr. Rutgers on this point is the following: "Receiving and enjoying God's grace is not bound to the sacrament. In case a person is able to attend, but does not do so out of negligence and indifference, he will do spiritual damage to himself. But this damage will certainly not be there when a person is not able to go to church; when God Himself places this inability in the form of physical weakness on the way of a sick person."

We can add to this that the use of the sacraments is not restricted to the moment in which baptism or the Lord's Supper is administered. This is evident with baptism. The believer can, and will, use his baptism during his whole life, even though he received this sacrament only once, and often in his infancy. In the struggle of faith he can, and will, constantly fall back on that baptism, and say, "I was baptized; God sealed His covenant promises to me; I can fully trust that these promises are certain, and that I can rely upon them; God does not lie; in Christ salvation is sure for me; that is what God confirms and assures me in my baptism." In this way the strengthening of faith through that one time baptism can never be taken away from the believers.

It is the same with the Lord's Supper. Using this sacrament for the strengthening of faith is not confined to the moment of celebration during the worship service. Also the next day, and the week after, and a month later, and so on, the believer still can use this sacrament, like his baptism, for the confirmation and strengthening of his faith. In his afflictions he can continue to remind himself that, e.g., a month ago, or a year ago, he ate the bread and drank from the cup as sure pledges of the Lord, and that the promises of forgiveness of sin and of renewal of life are as certainly for him as he ate and drank the bread and the wine as signs and seals of the body and blood of the Lord.

Not being able to go to the worship services of the congregation is a loss. There is no doubt about that. And so is loosing the direct participation in the sacraments. But when our older and sick brothers and sisters, who are not able to come to church, keep what is said above in mind, and many do, they will continue to use their baptism for the strengthening of their faith, and when the congregation comes together to celebrate the Lord's Supper, they will be present in the spirit and tell themselves: the promises of God, signed and sealed to the congregation today, are certainly also for me, even though I cannot physically attend. And let them be assured, God will take care that His blessing and the joy in Christ as Saviour will not be taken away from, nor missed by, believing older and sick brothers and sisters. That one sacrament, the sign and seal itself, may be missing, but not the grace that is signified and sealed. Our God is faithful, especially to the afflicted who cry to Him.