Should the sick have the Lord's Supper at home? - Prof. J. Geertsema
Volume 35, No. 2 January 24, 1986
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?
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
(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
(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
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
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
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
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