Women and the Lord's Supper

Question
Is a PCA church "right" when they use women to distribute the Lord's Supper in these instances: A) Women and men pass the elements down rows to congregants; B) Women and men stand at the front while congregants come and take elements from them? How would you advise a PCA church that has been practicing these things and thereby disturbing eight or ten of 170 people? Should the church "stand for freedom," relinquish its rights to freedom for sake of the weaker brother, or simply castrate the opposition?
Answer
The Bible doesn't teach that a person must hold a particular position or office in the church in order to qualify to distribute the elements. The PCA Book of Church Order also does not dictate who may or may not distribute the elements.

The only instruction we have for the distribution of food in the New Testament is in Acts 6. But that text says nothing explicit of the Lord's Supper, and it appears to be an expression of wisdom rather than of command. In Acts 6, we learn that the elders used to wait tables, but later appointed deacons to do that work. On this basis someone might argue that the deacons ought to distribute the elements, or the elders if it is not too much trouble for them.

In my opinion, however, the fact that the apostles appointed deacons to wait tables on a daily basis does not sufficiently imply that only deacons and/or elders should distribute the elements. I believe my position is also the position of the PCA Book of Church Order, or else it would restrict that activity.

Moreover, even if we do assign the distribution of elements only to deacons and elders, I still believe women ought to be able to distribute the elements because I am of the minority party in the PCA that believes that women ought to be deacons. See the answer I wrote addressing the issue of deaconesses. You'll note that in this answer I also deal with women speaking and praying in church, and support their right to do so. I think the distribution of the elements would be a fairly similar action to praying or speaking in church.

Ultimately, I believe the Bible only forbids women to hold the ruling and teaching office in the church, namely the office of elder. If there are any activities restricted to elders alone, then women ought not to do them, just as men who are not ordained to those offices ought not to do them. I would hope that in the situation you describe those who oppose women distributing the elements also oppose the distribution of the elements by men who are not office holders. In my opinion, there is no biblical argument that can be made to suggest that men who are not deacons or elders may perform services in church which women who are not deacons or elders may not perform. Although I think that restricting the distribution of the elements to the deaconate and/or session is not biblical, I can understand how one might fairly easily misunderstand Scripture on this point. I do not believe this is the case with the distinction between non-office-holding men and women in general.

With regard to the practical situation of the church that has been allowing women to distribute the elements, I would make the following comments:

1. Unless those who are disgruntled about the practice can prove their position from Scripture (which they cannot -- they can only offer their conviction regarding this issue on which Scripture is silent), they have no basis on which to oppose the practice in any PCA congregation. If the Book of Church Order prohibited the activity, then they might be able to appeal to that, but it does not. If the people are that troubled about it, they need to try to amend the Book of Church Order. They ought not to cause divisions in the church over an issue in which the church has allowed freedom. To restrict the freedom of the women to participate in distributing the elements is to prevent them from legitimate ministry. It is to prevent them from using gifts which the Bible does not tell them they cannot use.

Further, in most PCA churches members must take membership vows. These are vows taken before God, and which are binding. The vows generally say that the members will submit to the authority of the session, and that they will strive for the peace and unity of the church. Those who would cause dissention in the congregation over an issue on which the session has already ruled are breaking both these vows, and God may discipline them accordingly. If they really have a problem with the practice, they need to take it up with the session, and then they need to submit to the session's decisions.

2. This is not a "weaker brother" issue. A "weaker brother" issue has the potential to stumble the weaker brother. "Stumbling" means "causing to sin," and it requires the following conditions be met (from 1 Cor. 8):
  • The activity performed must not be a sin in the way it is practiced by the stronger brother.
  • The activity performed must be a sin in the way it is practiced by the weaker brother.
  • Observing the stronger brother do what is right must encourage the weaker brother do emulate him.
  • In emulating the stronger brother, the weaker brother must misunderstand what the stronger brother is doing so that he does not really emulate the stronger brother but does something different, something which is actually contrary to God's law.
The only example we have of a "weaker brother" issue in the Bible is the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols. In that case, the stronger brothers knew that the food was not tainted by the idols, and that they were free to eat it without offending God. The weaker brothers, however, did not know this. Rather, they thought that the food really was changed by its sacrifice to the idols, and they thought that eating that food was an idolatrous practice. Eating such food was one practice of pagan worship -- one could eat the food as a form of idol worship. This is not what the stronger brothers were doing, but it is what it looked like they were doing to the weaker brothers. When they saw the stronger brothers eating this food, the weaker brothers wrongly assumed that idolatry and Christianity were compatible. Thus, they were encouraged to continue in their idolatry, and they fell into sin by participating in idol worship.

The situation you describe cannot stumble anyone because:
  • Women distributing the elements is not a sin, no matter how you slice it.
  • The offended parties in this case are just that -- offended. Weaker brothers are not offended by the actions of stronger brothers. Rather, they are encouraged to and do emulate the stronger brothers by virtue of their respect for the stronger brothers.
  • It does not sound as if the weaker brothers are misunderstanding what the stronger brothers are doing.
  • The weaker brothers are not emulating or trying to emulate the stronger brothers.
The church should not change its practice simply because someone has a problem with it. The weaker brothers should not be ruling the church by virtue of their weakness. It is the session's job to rule and to make these decisions. The weaker brothers in this case need to be instructed and corrected, not coddled, and certainly not passified. Passifying weaker brothers is like catering to a spoiled child. It doesn't help the weaker brothers become stronger or more mature, and it makes everyone else miserable.

3. The church ought not to castrate the opposition. The opposition must be dealt with in love. But the opposition must be dealt with -- it cannot be ignored. They must be dealt with because they are violating their vows, and because they are causing strife in the church. It is the church's job, especially the session's, to call them to repentance. It is acceptable within the church to disagree with the church's practices, but it is not acceptable to create division in the church over petty issues. The opposition needs to follow the established protocol for handling such matters. If the Bible clearly spoke to this issue, they might have other recourse, but it does not.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.