When is a Sacrament a Sacrament?

I was listening in on the conversation of a couple of Charismatic preachers a few weeks ago. There was some discussion about how certain ministers seem to be conduits of the power of God (they have “the anointing”, to use the common parlance) despite a significant lack of personal character.

Those with a sacramental theology will recognise this as similar to the view that the validity of the sacrament is not afffected by the holiness of the person administering it. The difference is that “the anointing” is a personal thing, bestowed upon an individual, whereas the sacraments are entrusted to the Church.

However, this did bring my thoughts to something that is no doubt considered a long-settled matter regarding the sacraments. What makes a valid or real sacrament? Or more particularly, what are the implications of partaking in sacraments that aren’t valid.

The Roman Church generally recognises the sacraments of the Orthodox Church as valid and grace-filled. Opinion in the Orthodox Church ranges from a similar view about Roman sacraments (as ennunciated by Archbishop Hilarion [Alfeev]) to a not surprisingly very uncharitable view.

For those who deny the grace of Roman mysteries, when did they lose their efficacy? Though 1054 is a symbolic date, as a practical matter there was a lot of concelebration and cross-pollination for centuries after, even as there was open rivalry before. It is easy to look with the eyes of the present, see a clear divide with battle lines drawn and trenches dug, and declare that we are the Orthodox Church and you’re not. We know where the grace is. It seems to me, if we start parsing out the history very carefully, it becomes very difficult to declare when the other side became the other side and lost their grace.

I also find it interesting that for both sides, all that matters is what is decided at the highest hierarchical level. The epiclesis of a pederastic priest is unconditionally granted because his hierarch is on the right side of the Great Schism. On the other hand, God ignores the holy priest (ordained with the same intent and using an equally valid rite) who may be rather oblivious to the decision of medieval synods and not realise that his fate was decided somewhere between 500 and 1000 year ago (given the murkiness of the historical situation), thus leaving him to spend a lifetime in fruitless faux-sacerdotal prayer.

But setting aside the debate regarding Roman sacraments, I have been mulling over the matter of Protestant sacraments as they relate to Orthodox theology. After all, neither Rome nor Orthodoxy recognise the validity of Protestant sacraments. And futhermore, many Protestants don’t even recognise the validity of any sacraments.

So the first question is: if Protestants do not have real sacraments, can they participate in their act of Communion without fear of bringing judgement upon themselves for partaking unworthily? Or rather, are their fears unfounded even though they take it in faith? In other words, do the warnings of St Paul in I Corinthians not apply, even if the person receiving thinks they do? Is it all much ado about nothing?

Following on from this, if someone in Communion within the Orthodox Church receives an invalid communion, have they received communion outside the Church at all? It would seem that the Orthodox would have to recognise Roman sacraments as sacraments at least to the point of saying that someone is no longer in communion with the Orthodox Church because they have communed with Rome. However, if it be no sacrament whatsoever, not even putatively in the case of some Protestants, how is it possible to consider it communion for the purpose of excommunication from the real sacrament?

Anyhow, these are just a few thoughts I’ve been mulling around in my head.

10 Responses to “When is a Sacrament a Sacrament?”

  1. Lorenzo Enrique Says:

    Sounds like a “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Jesus said “Where two or three of you are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them.”
    I think all sacraments served in that context (In Christ’s name) are valid.

  2. Michael Says:

    I agree with Lorenzo. If Communion isn’t “valid” when I serve it as a Lutheran pastor, then what is Christ doing in our midst?

  3. sol Says:

    I understand your point of view, Michael (and Lorenzo). I tend to be on the quite ecumenical side of Orthodoxy (or some Orthodox would say I’m ecumenically unOrthodox despite being a part of the Orthodox Church).

    The questions I pose are really aimed at the Orthodox and what I see as some of the loose ends and perhaps inconsistencies of Orthodox theology/tradition. The Orthodox are fond of hedging their bets by saying that we know where the Holy Spirit is, but we don’t know where He isn’t. I’m interested in seeing some theological cards on the table, but as with most of the times I post things of the edge of Orthodoxy, or question anything, most Orthodox avoid commenting.

    I would welcome further elucidation on your point.

    I’m also glad to see that you are blogging more regularly. I have some catching up to do!

  4. Steve Says:

    I tend to leave that to God — not only the sacraments, but the ministers of the sacraments.

    I was once invited, along with a bunch of Protestants, invited to receive communion in a Roman Catholic Church. The Protestants were surprised, and asked why I didn’t, and I said that even if it were an Orthodox Church, i would not have received communion, because we had just come from a big meal. And secondly, my bishop wasn’t in communion with their bishop (the church was in Rome, so the bishop in question was the Pope of Rome himself). And that’s enough for me. What their sacraments are to them is for them to sort out with God.

    And if the Methodists have female ministers of the sacraments, that doesn’t faze me, because they have a different understanding of ministry as well as a different understanding of sacraments. And if the Anglicans have ministers of the sacraments who are divorced and shacked up with some bloke, it doesn’t faze me either. There was a time when some Anglicans believed in apostolic succession and thought it was important, but very few of them believe in it now. If it were an Orthodox priest living in open and unrepented sin, it would be a different matter. Not that it would necessarily “invalidate” the sacrtament, but it would be a scandal for the faithful.

  5. petersoncello Says:

    Thanks for clarifying things a bit further. I think the Orthodox “bet hedging” you mention is a good thing, along with Steve’s leaving it to God. I believe that Holy Communion is valid whenever the elements have been consecrated with the “Words of Institution” from the Bible, in a context of Trinitarian Christian belief, but regardless of whether the officiant believes in the sacramental nature of Communion. I also believe that all baptisms in the name of the Triune God are valid.

    The Catholics are pretty generous with the elements, considering that one is supposed to be Catholic to receive them. More than once when I’ve been a musician in a CAtholic mass, I’ve politely refused Communion when a eucharistic minister (and even the priest himself once) came right up to me and offered it, helpfully trying to make sure that the musicians didn’t miss out.

  6. sol Says:


    If the Communion is valid whenever the Words of Institution are used, do the bread and wine become the Body and Blood even if the celebrant only intends a memorial meal? Or do you believe it is valid because you believe that is does not transform in any case?

    Even many Orthodox believe that any Trinitarian baptism is valid. I am finding it interesting to consider how the different sacraments are treated in Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

    Steve, I’m not saying you would take communion in a Methodist Church, but if you did, would this constitute being out of communion with your bishop (and by implication Orthodoxy), given that the Methodists have no bishops in the same sense as the Orthodox and Catholics and they do not purport their communion to be the true Body and Blood?

  7. petersoncello Says:

    I believe that the power that makes Communion “valid” lies in the Word of God rather than the thoughts or intentions of the celebrant, so if the celebrant just says the words and leaves it at that, it would be valid. I guess for me it becomes a bit “iffy” if the celebrant chooses to assert that it is only a memorial and not the receiving of Christ’s true body and blood. Some years ago I was present at a worship service at a house church, and Communion was served, and I might have received it except that the worship leader clearly asserted that it was a memorial and not a sacrament, and he said it in such a way that to receive it would have been saying “I agree.”

    Much more recently, that is, only a month ago, I was a musician in a wedding at an Evangelical Free Church, and Communion was to be served during the wedding. In a gathering of the musicians before the wedding, a pastor served Communion so that the musicians wouldn’t be left out, and the elements were distributed first, which put me in a slightly awkward position, because I had no idea what he might affirm or deny during the actual Communion service, so I politely declined – fortunately, nobody made any fuss over that. But when he came to the consecration, he simply said the Words of Institution and left it at that. I was pleased, and under those circumstances I could have received it after all, but I had no way of knowing that when the elements were distributed. But I’m not lacking in opportunities to receive Communion in situations that aren’t “iffy,” both at the Lutheran Church where I’m currently the interim pastor, and while bringing Communion to the shut-ins and ill.

    I should mention that my own practice and convictions have more latitude than is the norm for many Lutherans, who would simply commune in Lutheran churches and that’s that.

  8. Mariele Says:

    Exactly the info I needed for my Muslim dating blog. Thanks!

  9. sol Says:

    My spam filter caught that last comment, but it was too funny, so I had to approve it after editing out the hyperlink. I’m just not sure if she’s referring what I wrote or to Michael’s most recent comment!

    Michael, with reference to your rather more on-topic comment…

    Do you think that the Communion requires a valid minister or may anyone take bread and wine under any circumstance, say the Words of Institution, and effect the change?

  10. Michael Says:

    I’m not sure what you mean by “under any circumstance.” I don’t believe that an ordained minister is necessary in order for the elements to become the Lord’s Supper, but in normal circumstances we look for ordained ministers to take charge and preside over the administration of the sacraments. My understanding of ordained ministry is that it includes the church’s recognition of a divine call and setting the ordinand apart for the same, as well as the bestowing of spiritual gifts for ministry through the laying on of hands, but it doesn’t mean that the ordained pastor has a power that others don’t to consecrate the sacraments. I realize that’s different from the Catholic and Orthodox viewpoints.

    Per the Church’s rejection of Donatism, I don’t believe that the validity of the sacraments depends upon the personal character of the celebrant, but I do believe that the intent matters. “When two or three are gathered in my name” means that it needs to be in the context of Trinitarian Christian belief for the Lord’s Body and Blood to be received.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: