Documents of Synod:
Study Papers of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod (1965 to 1982)

GUIDE LINES FOR OBSERVING COMMUNION IN UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCE

[ Editorial note, 03/22/2012: Please note that the following study does not have constitutional authority for the PCA, but should be taken as "pious advice" which should be considered as part of our history.
The PCA's Book of Church Order, 58-4 is the relevant constitutional statement which has bearing on this subject. See also the constitutional inquiries that have come before the General Assembly of the PCA regarding BCO 58-4.]

This matter within the RPCES began as Overture 3, brought before the 148th General Synod from the Southern Presbytery, with respect to the proper observance of the Lord's Supper :

148th General Synod Minutes, July 24-29, 1970, pp. 99 - 101.

Overture 3 – "The Southern Presbytery, convening in Huntsville, Alabama, February 17, 18, 1970, hereby overtures the 148th General Synod with respect to proper observance of the Lord's Supper.
Whereas,
1. The Confessions and Catechisms are clear with reference to observing communion in the visible church as organized. And
2. Church sponsored camps, conferences, retreats and other non-ecclesiastical assemblies have become popular in our day for children, young people and adults, and
3. Church-related educational institutions have days of prayer and other such occasions. And
4. Since oftentimes communion services have been observed in such non-ecclesiastical assemblies by ministers acting independently of ecclesiastical authority.
Therefore, BE IT RESOLVED that Synod
1. Rule as to the validity and appropriateness of celebrating the Lord's Supper in such non-ecclesiastical assemblies and,
2. Issue guidelines as to the proper auspices under which communion services should be observed, the ministerial responsibilities including elder or non-elder assistance in distribution of the elements, and appropriate safeguards in fencing of the table, and
3. Summarize the rationale for observing the Lord's Supper in unusual circumstances – such as conferences, military chaplaincy, and educational institutions – especially with respect to participants who may be professing Christians yet have not been baptized or received into the membership of the visible church."

Southern Presbytery would also like to have the following guidelines attached to the overture as information concerning the action we have taken up to this point, pending Synod action on the matter.

"Guidelines concerning serving communion at church-sponsored camps, conferences, schools, or in similar situations.

1. We strongly advise that any communion service, in these particular situations, be under the direct authority of the Session of a local church or Presbytery and administered by an ordained minister with the asssistance of ordained persons approved by the Session.
2. As much instruction as possible should be given in preparing those who will take communion. Both the meaning of the Sacrament and the warning attached to the unworthy taking of the sacrament should be communicated.
3. Where deemed requisite by the Session or officiating minister, there should be time of counsel to determine the understanding of each individual and the extent of his commitment and belief.
4. Where there are a number of young children in these situations, it is advisable that communion not be served at all, unless done in a separate place, with only the older campers, etc. attending, due to the greater possibility of misunderstanding the significance of the sacrament and thereby its being misused."

Committee's recommendation – The committee recommends that Synod:

(A) Find the celebration of the Lord's Supper in such non-ecclesiastical assemblies as spelled out in the overture to be valid and appropriate, provided proper safeguards be assured.
(B) Adopt the guidelines provided by Southern Presbytery as guidelines for Presbyteries and as embodying these safeguards; and
(C) Regarding the requested rationale for observing the Lord's Supper in these unusual circumstances, that the moderator appoint a committee to respond to this request in a study to be reported back to the 149th General Synod.

Upon motion, the committee's recommendation was taken up seriatim. Upon motion, recommendation (A) was adopted. Upon motion, recommendation (B) was adopted. Upon motion, recommendation (C) was adopted.

149th General Synod Minutes, MAY 14-20, 1971, pp. 115 - 116.

The Committee on Serving the Lord's Supper at Camps reported through its chairman, the Rev. Paul Alexander. The report as follows was adopted by the Synod.

GUIDE LINES FOR OBSERVING COMMUNION IN UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCE

A Synod Committee Report

This committee understands its task to “summarize the rationale for observing the Lord’s Supper in unusual circumstances--such as conferences, military chaplaincy, and educational institutions—especially with respect to participants who may be professing Christians yet have not been baptized or received into the membership of the visible church.” (Minutes, 148 General Synod, page 100.)

There appear to be three questions involved:  (1) Why should the Lord’s Sapper be observed at all in such circumstances?  (2) How frequently should it be observed?  (3)  Should those who are not baptized and/or not members of the visible church be admitted to communion, and if so, under what provisions?

The data on which your committee has endeavored to provide the required rationale are Scripture passages relating to the Supper, either by precept or example;  our subordinate standards;  the writings of several theologians.

We have examined Matthew 26:20-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20; 24:30; I Corinthians 5; 10:16; 11:23-25; Acts 2:42-46; 20:7-12.  These passages seem to be the only ones in the New Testament which have a direct bearing.  Of some interest is the fact that although meetings of churches are described often in the book of Acts, yet the “breaking of bread” is mentioned only in two contexts.  Actually, none of these texts throws any direct light on the questions before us.

D. Douglas Bannerman discusses the practice of the early church in observing communion, in his book, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church (Eerdmans, 1955, reprint of 1887 edition, page 376). He says, “We have no information regarding the question of who presided at the Table, or first broke the bread and gave the cup to his brethren.  From the standpoint of the apostolic church such points were of as little importance as the question by whose hand a convert should be baptized, or that of the precise mode in which the water should be applied, or the amount of it to be used in the ordinance.  These were simply questions of arrangement to be settled by Christian common sense.  The precedent of the first Lord’s Supper was no doubt followed as nearly as circumstances would allow. One of the twelve would naturally preside in the meetings for worship in the upper room, or at any assembly for the breaking of bread where apostles were present.  But the Pentecostal Church soon numbered its thousands; and from the first different languages were represented in it.  The meetings of the disciples were held in different houses in Jerusalem.  Fellow-countrymen would doubtless keep together to ‘hear in their own tongue wherein they were born the mighty works of God’.  Each little gathering had its own natural or appointed leaders, who took the initiative when in each different centre the ordinance of communion was observed and the bread was broken, and the cup passed from hand to hand.”

Bannerman’s  statement is typical of the information available to us on these matters.  There is a lack of data on which we can make anything like authoritative statements.  Your committee is loath to make pronouncements based on inferences and inferences from inferences.

Our subordinate standards do not envision such things as conferences and observances at educational institutions or in the military chaplaincy.  The Larger Catechism’s answer to Q. 177 is in part “. . . the Lord’s Supper is to be administered often.”  Neither the Confession of Faith nor the Shorter Catechism seems to speak of the matters under consideration.  Both the Directory of Worship of the Westminster Assembly and of the RPCES mention that the Supper should be observed frequently, the decision to be made by the ministers and sessions of each congregation.

It seems clear that we must find in the meaning of the sacrament a rationale for serving the Supper both frequently and in unusual circumstances. If the sacrament is a means of strengthening the faith of believers, then it should be observed as frequently as possible since our faith is weak.  If the sacrament is a visible sign of the Gospel, then, some have argued, it should be celebrated less frequently lest it become common and ritual.  It is just here that the question of frequency is involved.  If it is deemed expedient to hold the Lord’s Supper frequently, then perhaps it should be observed in “unusual circumstances.” If it is not to be held frequently, then perhaps it should not be held in unusual circumstances.

Further investigation could conceivably alter our present understanding of the matter before us. Your committee makes the following observations on the basis of its present findings.

The rationale behind observing the sacrament in more ordinary circumstances obtains also in the cases before us.  As a matter of fact, it might be a bit difficult to determine just what constitutes “unusual circumstances.” Both in the New Testament and in much of history, the church has been under such severe persecution that all the church ordinances were necessarily practiced for prolonged periods in private homes, catacombs, and the like. Our Reformed Presbyterian forefathers are said to have observed communion on the open moors and in the caves of Scotland.  Announcing such services too far in advance would have been dangerous, and enforcing exact ecclesiastical procedure impracticable.

It would seem that we are fully in harmony with the spirit of the New Testament to commend the use of Communion in what we might regard as “unusual circumstances.” Given the safeguards already adopted by Synod*, it is apparent that there are “unusual circumstances” in which the preaching and teaching of the Word might be most appropriately reinforced by the observance of the Lord’s Supper. At camps and conferences under sponsorship of our local churches and presbyteries, we certainly want to accomplish the purposes implied in such statements as:  “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ and his benefits, and to confirm our interest in him;  as also to put visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world;  and solemnly to engage them to the service of God in Christ, according to his word.”  (Confession of Faith, chapter 27, paragraph 1)

Whenever Communion is to be served, proper care should be exercised to prepare prospective participants according to the spirit of Chapter XII, paragraph 3 of our Directory of Worship.  Advance announcement of the service and preaching preparatory to the occasion should be the rule.  Several days of preaching, Bible study and fellowship in a camp or retreat may indeed generate a spiritual atmosphere most fitting for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. What more appropriate way to crown several days of such spiritual exercises  than a communion service where participants might deeply sense “. . . their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto Him” and “. . . the bond and pledge of their communion with him, and each other, as members of his mystical body.” (Confession of Faith, Chapter XXIX, Paragraph 1). Bannerman advises us well when he says on page 377 of the book cited above, “Let us endeavour, as often as we renew the sacred rite, to catch its tender and homely interest.  It is a reminiscence of days when men did eat and drink with the Eternal God in Flesh.  It is a pledge that all who love Jesus Christ are still members in Him of one household of faith.” In the fellowship of conference or camp such wonderful realities might be more richly sensed than in what we deem “usual circumstances.”

Should professing Christians who have not yet been baptized or joined the church ever be allowed to partake of the communion elements in such circumstances?  This committee feels that an adequate answer to this is implied in the “Report of the Special Committee on the Lord’s Supper,” page 137, last paragraph, Minutes of the 148th General Synod.  The report reads in part “... that to require absolutely, that one hold membership in a local church before one can be admitted to communion is to go beyond what is required, clearly, in the Scriptures. Therefore, we would suggest that, in exceptional cases, the local session may make arrangements for admission to communion even when church membership may not be feasible.”  This report dealt primarily with the admission of children to the sacrament but the implications for other situations are clear and in accord with the Biblical record and our Confessional Standards.  Profession of faith before a session and baptism seem to be the minimum requirements for admission to the Lord’s Table, though membership in a local church may not always be required.

As far as requiring church membership is concerned, the committee must confess to having found very little material on this point either in Scripture, in our confessional standards, in Presbyterian directories of worship or in other literature related to this subject.  Commenting on who should be invited to partake of communion, J. Aspinwall Hodge reflects this lack by insisting that though church membership is not expressly demanded in the then current Presbyterian Directory of Worship, it is “clearly implied.”  (What is Presbyterian Law, Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1882)

Analogy from the Old Testament Passover is instructive here.  Clearly the Passover was a carefully guarded rite, no uncircumcised families being admitted (Exodus 12:43 ff.).  The first celebration of the Lord’s Supper was certainly a closely guarded occasion with only Christ’s most intimate disciples present.  Though the church spread rapidly and the sacrament was celebrated widely, there is no evidence from Scripture that this careful guarding of the Table was relaxed.  This sacred badge of union and communion with the Saviour and His elect was never regarded lightly or taken casually in Scripture (I Corinthians 10:16-23).  Clear implication at this point seems to be all that is needed.

This committee recommends that these “clear implications” be followed in deciding exceptional cases even in the unusual circumstances posed in this report.  Persons who may not be invited to partake of the elements may nevertheless benefit by being present in the service sensing the truth signified in the sacrament.

Since all our educational institutions are close to local churches, the committee feels that local sessions should be called upon to conduct the Lord’s Supper when it is deemed expedient to hold such services for student bodies and faculties. As in the other cases, the safeguards established by Synod should be adhered to.

In all our research, we found nothing helpful relating to the establishment of guidelines for the observance of the Lord’s Supper in the military chaplaincy.  If further investigation of this particular item is deemed necessary, the committee recommends the establishment of another committee with one or more chaplains as members.

* Minutes, 148th General Synod, page 100-101.  For example, guideline 4 states that, “Where there are a number of young children in these situations, it is advisable that Communion not be served at all, unless done in a separate place, with only the older campers, etc. attending, due to the greater possibility of misunderstanding the significance of the sacrament and thereby its being misused.”

Respectfully submitted,
PAUL H. ALEXANDER, Chairman
DR. JOHN SANDERSON