Is a Valid Eucharist dependant upon a Valid Priesthood?

We have spent many kilobytes on this blog arguing about the necessity (or otherwise) of ordination by a bishop in the apostolic succession for a valid priesthood. What we haven’t talked about is: Does it even matter?

I mean, what point is there in arguing over whether or not the priesthood/ministry of any particular ecclesial communion is valid, if that communion does not consider the validity of the other sacraments to depend upon such a valid priesthood/ministry?

For Catholics, the question of valid orders is essential because the validity of most of the sacraments (ie. Eucharist, Absolution, Confirmation, Anointing the Sick and, of course, ordination itself) depends upon the validity of priestly orders. Hence the very nature of any given communion as “Church” depends upon the validity of priestly orders.

But for (eg.) Lutherans, the validity of pretty well each of these sacraments is considered to be solely dependant upon three factors:

1) the Word of God

2) whether the sacrament is administered according to Christ’s institution (the interpretation of which never seems to include validly ordained ministers)

3) reception of the Sacrament in faith (although strictly speaking, Lutherans deem this necessary only for the efficacy of the sacrament not for its validity).

I do not know of any protestant theologian who would hold that the validity of the sacraments depends upon the validity of the orders of the minister administering them.

Hence, many protestants–even Lutherans–can make allowance for lay consecration of the Eucharist, even if they insist that (for the sake of good order) only ordained ministers should normally do so.

Therefore, here is the issue for discussion:

A key difference between Catholic/Orthodox Churches and Protestant churches is that Catholic/Orthodox Churches would never regard a “eucharist” confected by a lay person as valid; Protestants would and do.

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25 Responses to Is a Valid Eucharist dependant upon a Valid Priesthood?

  1. Chris Jones says:


    There are, indeed, some Lutherans who believe what you say we believe. But those who have some measure of loyalty to the Lutheran Confessions do not.

    It is true that Lutherans do not believe that “validity of orders” as defined by the Roman Catholic Church is necessary. But we certainly believe that the minister must be “rightly called.” The disagreement is not about the necessity or non-necessity of an ordained minister; the disagreement is about the requirements for a proper ordination.

    If what you are claiming is that Lutherans regard proper ordination as Lutherans understand ordination as unnecessary for a proper Eucharist, then you are (mostly) wrong about that. Sadly, there are some within even “conservative” Lutheran denominations who do regard lay celebration as permissible and valid (though irregular). To the extent that they do, they are no longer fully Lutheran.

  2. Chris Jones says:

    It should be said that the way you have framed the issue is quite un-Lutheran, so the Lutheran teachings on these issues don’t necessarily fit well into the categories. Lutherans don’t talk about “confecting” the sacrament, nor about “validity” either of the sacrament or of orders. We talk about whether or not something is “rightly” done — about whether a pastor is “rightly called” and whether the sacraments be “rightly administered.”

    (I have never been sure, BTW, exactly what the verb “to confect” actually means. I have never seen it predicated of anything but the Eucharist, but I do not understand how “confect” differs from “offer,” “celebrate,” or “consecrate.”)

    Formal “validity” of orders cannot be relied upon apart from the “validity” of the Church which confers those orders. And (for Lutherans, at least) a Church cannot be recognized as genuine on the basis of outward polity and canonical order alone; it must be recognized on the basis of orthodox faith and practice. True catholicity does not depend on valid orders; it is rather the other way around. If a Church does not confess and teach the Catholic faith, it cannot bestow Catholic orders. The Arians, Eunomians, and Donatists all had formally valid orders; shall we say that they all had salvific sacraments, so that a man might just as well be saved through Arian baptism and eucharist as through Catholic baptism and eucharist? I think not.

  3. William Weedon says:

    I would agree with Chris, but note this: some (such as Marquart and Webber) argue that the confection [as Chris notes, not a typically Lutheran way of speaking, but to use the RC terminology] of the Sacrament does not depend upon ordination; rather that ordination is what legitimizes the use of the sacrament. They draw a parallel to marriage and conception. It is indeed possible to conceive a child outside of marriage; the power is there. But the power is not legitimately exercised by those not in the “marriage office” (if you will).

    Others hold that the three things that make for the Sacrament are the Word, the proper elements, *and the mandate of Christ.* In other words, following Dr. Nagel, “has this been given you to do?” Thus, if children playing church at the beach “baptize” one of their playmates, is this a baptism? These folks insist: “No, for the child was not mandated to baptize.” Similarly with lay presidency at the Eucharist. Though the words of consecration are spoken and the proper elements are used, the person celebrating had not been given the authority (by God through the Church’s call and ordination) to do so. This position has frequently been mischaracterized as a form of Donatism, but that is not fair. For those who hold it are not arguing that the Sacrament hangs upon the moral character of the man administering it; they simply hold that it cannot (as opposed to the first group arguing that it should not) be administered by those who have not been placed in office to do so.

    Inside of the Missouri Synod this disagreement produces quite a different approach to the lay presidency of the Sacrament – both confessional sides of this question will argue: clear abuse. But for the one side, the abuse does not involve the loss of the Sacrament itself; for the other, it does. For the latter it is obviously far more acute a problem.

    Thus, the division that you frame, David, between Catholics and Protestants, is actually for us a division that runs WITHIN Lutheran discussion. What all confessional Lutherans ARE agreed on is that lay presidency at the Eucharist is an abuse and a setting aside of God’s own established order for the stewardship of the mysteries.

    Where the crux comes for Lutherans vs. Rome on this issue is really located at a different spot, in my opinion. It shows up here: if a group of Christians were stranded on the proverbial desert Island (furnished with a stash of wine and bread – hey, you have to play along), and there was no one in presyberal rank among them, could these folks celebrate a legitimate Eucharist? Rome would say: No. Lutherans would say: Yes, by having the group ordain one of its members to the presbyterate and then celebrate the Sacrament for the others. Our normal way of doing this is for the people to call and the presbyters to ordain, but we acknowledge that in this extreme situation the ordination can arise from the gathered church itself, no matter how small and impoverished they may be. I think this is the crux. And is it truly different from what Didache teaches in 15.1?

  4. William Weedon says:

    The Tractatus speaks to the above in par. 65-72.

  5. Chris Jones says:

    Sorry to monopolize your combox, but it occurs to me that there is a much more straightforward way to address this question.

    The answer to the question “Is a valid Eucharist dependent on a valid priesthood?” is emphatically Yes, because the priest who offers the Eucharist is our Lord Jesus Christ. His “orders” are perfectly valid. The pastor stands in the place of Christ and celebrates in His stead and by His command.

    Ordination confers the right and duty to stand in the place of Christ at the altar, not the “power” to confect the Eucharist. That power belongs always and only to Christ. This prayer (though non-Lutheran) says it well:

    Enable me by the power of Thy Holy Spirit so that, being vested with the grace of priesthood, I may stand before Thy holy Table and celebrate the mystery of Thy holy and pure Body and Thy precious Blood … for Thou, O Christ our God, art the Offerer and Thou art the One offered; it is Thou Who receivest the offering and Thou art Thyself the offering which is distributed.

    If a lay person presumes to stand in the place of Christ at the altar, the difficulty is not that he does not have the “power to confect” (which a properly ordained priest does not have either); it is that he has presumed to stand in Christ’s place when he has not been called to do so. The faithful ought always to be able to be confident that the celebrant does, in fact, stand in the place of Christ. When a lay person, absent a proper call to that role, presumes to celebrate, the faithful cannot have that confidence.

  6. William Weedon says:

    Beautiful, Chris. Exactly bang on right.

  7. William Weedon says:

    And how exactly does your comment fit with the famous words of St. John Chrysostom, which our Symbols cite:

    “Christ Himself prepared this table and blesses it. For no man makes the bread and wine set before us into Christ’s body and blood, only Christ Himself who was crucified for us.”

  8. Schütz says:

    My goodness. You boys have been busy. Where to start? I will start at the end, since I agree that you have reached a point of some importance. I will leave the other matters till later:

    First I should say that the Catholic faith agrees with your assertion that the Eucharist is the act of Christ the Priest. Vatican II: “The liturgy then is rightly seen as an exercise of the priestly office of Jesus Christ. …In it full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. From this it follows that every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others. No other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.” (SC §7)

    There’s a stack of stuff there, but basically, yes, both the priest and the people are acting in the Liturgy. I believe it would be a correct interpretation of this passage to make the further distinction that in the liturgy the priest is acting as an ordained minister “in the person of Christ the Head” whereas his people are acting by virtue of their baptism “as the members of Christ’s body”.

    There is some similarity to the justification dispute here. Catholics and Lutherans will say that justification is entirely the work of Christ in man. However, Catholics will still insist that God justifies by graciously inviting man into participation with the justifying work of Christ. The same could be said of the Eucharist. Yes, the action is entirely Christ’s and the power is entirely the Spirit’s (the usual way in which Catholics will describe the liturgical event), nevertheless, the celebrant and people participate in this action in the manner appropriate to them.

    Thus our doctrine agrees with Chrysostom’s doctrine. I looked up the “Sermon on the Passion” (which I take to be his 78th homily on the Gospel of St Matthew) and found this (which I believe is that passage to which the Lutheran Confessions are referring):

    “The works set before us are not of man’s power. He that then did these things at that supper, this same now also works them. We occupy the place of servants. He who sanctifieth and changeth them is the same.” (Hom. 78, §5)

    The Catholic Church has never claimed that the power to do what Chrysostom refers to as the “works” of the Eucharistic liturgy is our own human power. It is indeed Christ who “works” these things. What the Church claims is no more than what Chrysostom claims: the ministers of the Eucharist “occupy the place of servants”. Yet this then is my point: can one occupy that place if one has not been rightly appointed to it? Can anyone other than a true minister of God occupy this place? The Lutheran Confessions say that “no man makes the bread and wine set before us into Christ’s body and blood, only Christ Himself who was crucified for us”. The Catholic faith says that Christ calls his ministerial priesthood to “occupy” his place as the one and only true Priest of the New Covenant in order that through them (as through “servants”) he might “sanctify and change” the gifts of bread and wine into his body and blood. Is the office of the servant thereby excluded? No. Do we say that it is the servant himself who has this power? No, we say it is Christ’s power alone. But we do say that only the one who is validly ordained as a true servant of Christ has been given Christ’s power/authority to sanctify and change the gifts.

  9. Fr. Robert Hart says:

    From the article;
    I do not know of any protestant theologian who would hold that the validity of the sacraments depends upon the validity of the orders of the minister administering them.

    Really? I can. Every Traditional Anglican believes that the sacrament is not valid unless it is administered by “the right minister.” (I do not mean modern trendy Angloids and ECUSAns, who may as well be Unitarians.) For Absolution and Communion that requires a priest ordained by a bishop in Apostolic Succession; for Ordination and Confirmation that requires a bishop in Apostolic Succession.

    Of course, that is to the strained extent that the variously defined word “Protestant” applies to us.

  10. Chris Jones says:

    For those who are interested, I have taken my last comment (from 11:58 this morning) and worked it up into a post on my own weblog, which can be found here. A lively discussion has ensued, which might interest some of you.

  11. William Weedon says:

    The Lutheran Symbols also are very clear:

    “Ministers act in Christ’s place and do not represent their own persons.” Ap VII/VIII:47

    “When they offer God’s Word, when they offer the Sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ.” Ap VII/VIII:28

  12. William Weedon says:


    On the Chrysostom quote, see CCC 1375

  13. Schütz says:

    Well, well. Thank you for that William. Obviously Chrysostom mentioned this issue more than one occasion.

    There is something to be learned here. Chrysostom’s point about the power of the word confecting the sacrament cannot be taken to mean that the authenticity of the office of the celebrant is irrelevant. He is simply pointing out what we all agree. No man by his own power could make bread and wine the Eucharist. It is the action of Christ. This does not exclude the importance of the person of the priest.

    Certainly “ministers…do not represent their own persons”–they are the servants or ambassadors of another–but they ARE nevertheless their own persons still. They do not shed their own humanity when they stand at the altar. It is precisely the point that Christ acts in this particular person, and that this particular person simultaneously acts in the person of Christ.

    But for this to happen, they must indeed have his authority to act in such a way. If they do not, if they are not truly “ministers of the Word”, they cannot presume to be the incarnate servants through whom Christ speaks.

    I think we agree on this. It is the power of Christ’s word and action that makes the sacrament. But should we conclude from this that the word of Christ ALONE is all that is necessary for the sacrament to BE the sacrament? We can say “Word of Christ alone”, but we know we need bread and wine. We can say “Word of Christ alone” but we know that there be someone to speak the words. My contention is that that just as we need bread and wine and someone to speak the words, we need that someone to be properly authorised to speak the words over the bread and wine. This takes away nothing from the fact that it is Christ himself and only Christ whose power effects the sacramental change necessary for a valid Eucharist.

    (And Fr Hart: Anglocatholicism IS pushing the definition of “protestant” a bit far!)

    (And Chris: Stop trying to steal this conversation! :-) )

  14. Schütz says:

    Having just had a glance at the conversation on your blog, Chris, I think it rather proves my original point… Catholics will find it a most enlightening read.

    I noted that you said something in that combox to the effect that:

    St Ignatius of Antioch wrote “Let that Eucharist be reckoned as valid which is celebrated by the bishop or by one to whom he has committed it.” The pastor is our bishop, and if he chooses to delegate a part of the administration to laymen who are under his immediate supervision, I think we may regard that as conforming to the principle that St Ignatius laid out. Again, it is not something that I prefer, but it’s not my call.

    Apart from the fact that you are confusing the issue of being a distributor of the sacrament and being the consecrating celebrant of the sacrament (the former in Catholic practice can be lay, but the latter must be in priestly orders), your quotation from Ignatius works against your defence of the Lutheran Eucharist.

    For you cannot simply say “my pastor is the bishop”. Ignatius would have been onto you like a flash on that one. For could the heretics against whom Ignatius is warning his flock not have claimed the same thing? ie. “My Gnostic Pastor is my Bishop and therefore our sacrament is valid?” What Ignatius meant is that the authority of the true apostolic bishop is required for the validity of the eucharist. Only the Eucharist celebrated by the Apostolic Bishop, or one to whom he has publically committed the responsibility of celebrating it (ie. via ordination to the priesthood), can be received as valid.

    Since this is manifestly NOT how things happened at the time of the Reformation, then by Ignatius’ dictum Lutheran eucharists are not valid. For ever since the Reformation in Lutheran Churches pastors have received their “authority” to celebrate the Sacrament not from the bishop (in communion with whom the sacrament, for the sake of its validity, must be celebrated) but from other presbyters.

  15. Josh S says:

    You probably need to distinguish Protestant churches among Reformational and evangelical here. Baptists, Wesleyans, and so on tend to have no doctrine of an ordained ministry whatsoever.

    Also Ignatius was not writing the passage in question to prove that the only true eucharist happens in the Church (that he takes for granted), but to admonish the congregation against celebrating, preaching, assembing, etc on their own. “Don’t go be gnostics now, or you’ll lose your succession of indelible character!” just isn’t the point. Canonical validity of rites just isn’t a 2nd century concern. Let’s try not to import our modern (or medieval) worries into writers living millennia before us.

    In my estimation, the post-V2 Roman practice of the priest consecrating a pile of wafers in a room by himself and sending them out for use in lay-liturgies is completely against the spirit of what he’s writing here. Likewise the practice of private masses: the fact that this is nowhere in the early Church and yet is entirely justified by the Roman doctrine of priesthood indicates that something is wrong with the Roman doctrine, and it’s up to you guys to figure out what that is.

    There’s the addition of whether the presbyter/episkopos distinction is apostolic. Paul appears to use the terms interchangeably; Jerome argues as much.

    This ultimately boils down to ecclesiology: if the man in the robe were to suddenly die, would the Church still be there in its fullness and with all its powers? Rome answers, “No, not until Rome can send another bishop your way,” and Wittenberg answers, “Yes.”

    As a final thought, I will offer my own version of “Does it matter?”

    Lutherans confess that where the Gospel is preached and the sacraments administered according to their institution, there is the Church in all her fullness and glory. Since we believe that we have these things and Rome does not, why should we care whether or not Rome considers our ordinations valid?

  16. William Weedon says:


    We “care” because Rome declares it to be a church-divisive issue. We believe that Rome has at this point falsified the teaching of Scripture and needs to repent.


    We don’t disagree at all that we need someone authorized to speak in the stead and by the command of Christ; we disagree on how that authorization takes place.

    As for Ignatius, he would no more recognize current RC polity than he would current Lutheran. To him, a bishop was the chief pastor in a given local community, surrounded by his presbyters and deacons. He was not the head of a diocese.

  17. orrologion says:

    I would put the whole ‘valdity’ concept in a different context, as we Orthodox are always wont to do.

    When asked whether the Words of Institution or them with the epiklesis is/are the essential(s) of the Eucharist, the Orthodox would decline. There is a ‘minimum’ for ‘validity’ that could be enunciated by RC and Lutheran theologians. This essence has then often become the sum, or that would be the tendency over time.

    In Orthodoxy, while there may be exceptional circumstances that could be dug up (e.g., Eucharists held in gulags with water or without an antimension, without a second person present to make the responses, etc.) these are true exceptions under extreme circumstances. The general perspective on what would be ‘required’ for a valid Eucharist is the wrong question.

    What is ‘required’ is everything we have received. No reason is required, we simply do not move the ancient landmarks and pass on that which we have received. What is required is the full Rite, performed by a properly vested bishop or a presbyter ordained and allowed by a bishop in communion with his Synod of Bishops who are themselves in communion with the ancient Sees that have maintained in continuity the Orthodox faith. All the motions and ‘stuff’ of liturgy are required.

  18. Past Elder says:

    What? No-one has mentioned indellible character?

    When I was a Catholic, that summed up the whole thing. The Sacrament of Holy Orders imparts an indellible character (thou are a priest forever …), an objective reality by which one is a priest sharing in the sacramental aspect of Christ’s priesthood — consecrating the Eucharist, etc — and apart from which no action, even speaking Christ’s words, renders anything valid, ie real.

    So while it’s nice that some Protestants believe in the Real Presence, they don’t have it because they deny the means Christ instituted to bring it about. And which makes schism a much more serious issue than revolt, since the EO (add since my time the SSPX etc) have it, Real Presence apart from the communion in which it is intended to be.

    As a Lutheran, I don’t say mass either, but on entirely different grounds. Not the lack of an indellible character, but the lack of a proper call.

    Just had a flashback — I remember a “Catholic” wedding of a Catholic and an Episcopalian, and at Communion the RC priest distributed for the Catholics and the Episcopalian priest distributed hosts he brought to the Episcopalians and anyone else.

  19. Schütz says:

    Hey, Josh S (“St Joshua”), welcome to Sentire Cum Ecclesia. Thanks for posting. Your opinions are always welcome (if you can put up with mine!).

    Pastor Bill said: “We “care” because Rome declares it to be a church-divisive issue. We believe that Rome has at this point falsified the teaching of Scripture and needs to repent.” Ooooh. Dem’s fighting words! I guess we would say the same thing about the Lutheran situation re “needs to repent”. Well, we’ll see who blinks first, eh?

    As for Ignatius, he would no more recognize current RC polity than he would current Lutheran.

    Hmm. Don’t know about that. Sure, a lot has changed, but I think if he was faced with the two polities, he would be able to tell which was authentic. Since we won’t know till we meet him in the hereafter, we’ll just have to stay with our personal opinions on that.

    To him, a bishop was the chief pastor in a given local community, surrounded by his presbyters and deacons. He was not the head of a diocese.

    Well, I know that, silly. But the difference isn’t as great as you seem to think. Forget “diocese” and say “town/city”, then you have virtually the same thing. Here in Melbourne (as in Antioch) the bishop is the head and chief celebrant of the Eucharist in our local Church (diocese = local church, not “district”). He is assisted by his presbyters. This is most obvious when there are major liturgies at the Cathedral. The way the bishop, priests and deacons are all seated in their proper places around the one altar is pretty inspiring.

  20. William Weedon says:


    Actually, as several folks have noted “validity” (and the Augustinian baggage that comes with) is not really the way Lutherans talk.

  21. Chris Jones says:

    Fr Weedon,

    I think it is a bit late for us Lutherans to disavow “Augustinian baggage.” As Western Christians, for good or ill Augustine is the father of us all.

  22. orrologion says:

    Well, whatever the term there is an understanding or concept as to what is ‘minimally’ required for a Eucharist to be a Eucharist rather than something else. That was my point rather than any concept of ‘validity’.

  23. William Weedon says:

    Oh, dang. How am I going to keep my Christophers straight!!!

    Christopher J., to be Lutheran is to acknowledge the greatness and influence of Augustine but also to step back from some of his teaching, particularly regarding the sacraments. Remember the famous statement of Luther that he had always taught that it’s the Word and the Element and then he discovered the MANDATE and “after that I was done with Augustine” – meaning the whole outer/inner; upper/lower dichotomy.

    Christopher O.,

    But for a Lutheran it is not minimalism, but maximalism: the Word coming to the elements at the mandate of the Lord gives the LOT – the whole gift. Not the least one can do and still have the sacrament (though many Lutherans do succumb to that), but rather that which imparts the fullness of the Eucharist.

  24. Past Elder says:

    I’ve lived in two cathedral cities, and hardly any of the Catholic who live there, except those who may be in the cathedral parish, ever go to major liturgies at the Cathedral — for them, the bishop is someone you hear of, who comes by at confirmation time once a year (at the Abbey, they had a room just for him, though long ago made into a lounge). So the whole just substitute local church for diocese thing is as much a fantasy in lived reality as it is theologically.

    I think the crux of it is in the “mark” — the RCC hangs its “validity” on the mark present in the priest through episcopal consecration in a supposed linear succession, we hang it on the power and promise of the Word of God, not a mark imparted in another supposed sacrament.

    Of course the RCC response is, we too hang it on the power and promise of the Word, you don’t understand how this works out and if you did you’d be Catholic!

  25. orrologion says:

    I’m not intimating minimal Eucharist, but maximalism regarding the rite of the Eucharist – and not the maximum within the hsitoric bounds of an already denuded, edited Eucharistic rite. This maximum includes a celebrant who is a bishop or presbyter ordained in the way the consensus of the historic Church understood ordination, episcopacy and the presbytery.

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