Why don't Presbyterians have altars in their churches or in their homes? Who administers the sacraments, especially communion, then without an altar? Do children help out at all? In other churches, children can be selected as 'altar-servers'.

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    Every Presbyterian church I've gone to has had an altar, but it's used differently than you suggest.
    – Flimzy
    Oct 14, 2015 at 16:32
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    This asks too many questions for one question, besides apparently being based on partial or incorrect information about Presbyterian churches. Apr 1, 2016 at 2:29
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    In particular, the question would benefit from a definition of what you mean by an "altar." Apr 1, 2016 at 3:05

4 Answers 4


(Although I can't speak for all Presbyterians, as we are diverse bunch, I think that what I say here is representative of the mainstream. I welcome correction if I am wrong about this.)

When Communion is served, we do use a table of some kind. The table recalls the Last Supper, at which the practice of Communion was instituted; Matthew 26:20, Mark 14:18, Luke 22:14 and John 13:23 all say that Jesus and the disciples were gathered at table. In any case, it is practical to have a flat surface for everything else to rest on.

It is typical for the table to be an actual table (wooden, four legs at the corners, etc.) rather than an altar (big block of stone). This is because the Reformed tradition does not view Communion as a sacrificial event, and does not have the Catholic concept of a sacrificing priesthood. An altar is a place for offering sacrifices but a table is a place for having dinner. Also, there is a general aesthetic sense that churches ought not to be too ornamented, so some may prefer a simpler piece of wooden furniture to an elaborately carved stone altar. I have personally seen quite a bit of variation in the level of decoration for the table.

Moreover, the Presbyterian tradition has tended to offer Communion less frequently than some other denominations. So the table may not even be a permanent fixture, but is brought out whenever it is needed. In contrast, the preaching of the Word is ubiquitous, so in some church buildings you will see a central pulpit where you might expect a table or altar. In my present church, we do have a permanent table, where the Communion vessels are always shown - this is meant to be a reminder that we should be ready for Jesus to arrive at any moment. In other churches you might see candlesticks, a cross, a Bible, and so on.

You also ask who administers the sacrament, and whether children may be involved as helpers. We do have a person who does this, a "minister", who has been ordained and who (as a result of training followed by church approval) is considered capable of the job. Church law may allow other people to act in place of the regular minister, under certain circumstances. The minister may be helped by other people during the course of the service - holding plates of bread and so forth. Compared to high-liturgical denominations, the Presbyterians have rather less apparatus to deal with (incense, bells, different kinds of cloth, etc.) and so there is correspondingly less of a role for the helpers. They also don't have special clothes to wear.

Regarding children, I would think that anyone assisting ought at least to be baptized - even if they do not receive the sacrament themselves, helpers are still participating in the event. They should also be physically able to do what is asked. So I think anyone who could receive communion could also assist, including children in principle, whereas unbaptized people of any age would not do so. Actually choosing the helpers would be the responsibility of the session (the governing committee of the local church) together with the minister, ultimately subject to the judgement of the presbytery and higher bodies. Again, given the nature of the role, there's not much need for more than about half a minute of training, so we wouldn't tend to have a fixed body of designated helpers - at my present church, the session chooses people from the congregation in general.

  • Ok well having been raised a Presbyterian in the mainline denomination I am not sure I agree with all that is here. There is quite a variation in high and low churches. Presbyterians as a whole and their history would lean them as a Mainline low and high liturgical church. Perhaps it would be safe to say in between an Anglican and a Methodist. So our church was very High Church resembling an Anglican or High Methodist. Although we did not have an altar our Communion Table was in front of the Cloister and was ornate and appeared as an Altar.
    – user23755
    Oct 12, 2015 at 7:43

The Presbyterian model of the Lord's Supper is explicitly laid out in the Westminster Confession, which until about a hundred and thirty years ago was followed by most Presbyterian Churches to the letter. Today, really only the Free Kirk (or the "wee frees" as they are known) still maintain this strict tradition.

There are no altars as Christ's sacrifice on the altar of Calvary was sufficient. As his sacrifice is sufficient for grace, there is no need to recreate or re-enact this event at all (as does the Roman Catholic Church with their Mass). There are no private altars, as the Lord's Supper is a communal event, hence the name communion. We do not need altars, as Revelation 21:23 states:

An I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it.

And, in Hebrews 13:10:

We have an altar, whereof they have no right to eat which serve the tabernacle.

That altar is Christ, not any other temple. The church building itself is most definitely not a temple containing an altar.

Thus, the communion table is not an altar, instead it is a plain wooden table with chairs. Its purpose is to follow the model of Christ's Last Supper as accurately as possible within the constraints of practicality and sobriety (i.e. only bread and wine is consumed, not an entire meal, only the elders are seated, it is not every Lord's Day).

The sacrament of the Lord's Supper (one of the two sacraments Christ gave us, the other being Baptism) is to be administered by the ministers of the church (the teaching elder and ruling elders). Children are not supposed to receive communion until they have been confirmed. No adults, except elders or deacons should administer the sacraments.

This all said, few Presbyterian churches still maintain this strict adherence to the Westminster Confession. I have attended many Presbyterian churches in New Zealand and Canada where the communion table was as ornate as an altar, children are served communion, etc.

For further reading and context, I recommend the following passages from the Westminster Confession:


I haven't been a Presbyterian for very long, but as part of my initiation as a member, I was told that part of the reason not to have an altar which is a closed box such as more liturgical churches have was to allow people to see that there was nothing magic hidden inside the box that would suggest that communion involves transubstantiation.

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    Welcome to the site. Thank you for sharing. Were you just told this, or can it be found in one of the books or something that you were given to prepare?
    – fгedsbend
    Nov 19, 2014 at 2:55

I am not quite sure what Presbyterian type of church you attend. In the mainline Presbyterian churches the Cloister serves what some would view as an altar. Our communion table is made of stone, so I have no clue what you are talking about? Also the elements are always laid there as well as a bible. On top of this, this may raise your blood pressure, we have quite ornate symbols and carvings of the last supper, christ and the saints. I do not think all Presbyterian churches are the same. I attended an Orthodox Presbyterian church as a visitor recently and it was nothing like the Presbyterian church I was raised in, not even remotely. It was different in some beliefs and liturgy and practice. I did not feel comfortable in it at all.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. And for some tips on writing good answers here, please see: What makes a good supported answer?. The question itself is a bit scattered, and may well be closed before long. Apr 1, 2016 at 2:29

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