I can be an ungracious critic. I am aware of this sin in my life. Some of my closest family members tell me that if God doesn’t get my criticism under control by his redeeming power I will become a mean and crusty man. I know my faults, and I pray God would remove this harshness from my disposition. Therefore, my goal is not to criticize churches or leaders who are practicing the Lord’s Supper in an online format. I am not trying to be overly critical of others or single anyone out in this post. My goal is to provide (or attempt to provide) a theological answer to the question, “Should the church practice online communion?”
From the outset, I am concerned that we are asking the wrong question when it comes to communion in the COVID-19 pandemic. I am afraid that many advocates are asking the question, “How can we make communion happen,” instead of, “should we theologically move our churches to perform this action.” To put it another way, I think pragmatism seems to be the ideology of the day instead of correct theology. As Christian ethicist John Frame once rightly defended, “Ethics is theology, viewed as a means of determining which persons, acts, and attitudes receive God’s blessing and which do not” (The Doctrine of the Christian Life (DCL), 10). Therefore, does the online only act of communion receive a blessing or not according to the Bible? The sufficiency and authority of Scripture must determine our answer.
First Corinthians 11:17-34: “Come Together as a Church”
In Christian ethics, we must begin with the biblical norm (cf. Frame calls this the normative perspective in DCL, 33). Holy Scripture dictates to us the ethical norm we must apply to our situation. What is the ethical norm when it comes to the Lord’s Supper? Paul provides one of the most instructive teachings on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. We must begin by noting that this letter was addressed to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2). When he gets to his instruction for the Lord’s Supper, he continues to exhort this local body by using the phrase “come together” four times (cf. 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, and 34). To help us understand what he means by come together, Paul directly identified the gathering as “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18; cf. 1 Cor. 11:22). From this brief exegetical analysis, we might conclude that Scripture affirms–as the biblical norm–that communion ought to be practiced within the local church when it “comes together.” In other words, when the body of Christ is physically gathered.
From Scripture, we should all agree that the bilbical norm mandates that communion ought to be practiced in a physically gathered, local church context.
Exceptions to the Norm?
Now, we must move from the biblical norm to the exceptions (if such exceptions should exist). We may all be thinking that COVID-19 has brought a possible exception to the theological norm due to social distancing. The question remains: Is online communion an appropriate exception to this God ordained instruction? A more general way to phrase the question reads, “Is it ever appropriate to practice communion outside of the local body of believers?
John Piper once preached, “We do not forbid taking the Lord’s Supper to someone in a nursing home or a hospital, but that kind of individual celebration is exceptional, not the Biblical norm.” Piper is absolutely right. However, taking communion to the nursing home or hospital may still meet the parameters of the biblical text in order to make the exception valid. Theologian Allen Verhey’s The Christian Art of Dying presents why this type of practice stands on biblical grounds in accordance with the instruction of 1 Corinthians 11. The context for Verhey’s argument is a person on his deathbed or a sick individual who is unable to gather with a local body due to his physical ailments. In this situation, Verhey defends, “The community comes with it, gesturing that the sick and dying are still members of the community” (Verhey, 331). Notice why Piper’s exception meets the biblical norm according to Verhey. The local church comes to the sick or dying person in order to bring them the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, we see a physical representation of the church coming together in order to partake in communion, which “proclaims the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
Before moving to online communion, we must acknowledge that the nursing home or the hospital does not exist as the normative ethic. The church does not only gather at these two places in order to participate in the Lord’s Supper. The primary place where the ordinance ought to be regularly observed is in the local church. The nursing home and hospital are exceptions to the biblical norm, but still meet the requirements of God’s people coming together as a faith community.
Is Online Communion an Exception?
To begin our answer, we should determine if an online only worship experience meets the biblical requirements for coming “together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18). We must be careful in how we answer this question because we could be indicating that the online church experience can be a substitute for meeting together, and I don’t think many of us would biblical follow that line of reasoning. The author of Hebrews states:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.Hebrews 10:24-25, emphasis added
We are encouraged from the author of Hebrews to regularly meet together in physical gatherings. We then must ask, “What are some characteristics that may exemplify we are meeting together as the church? Martin Luther in Luther’s Works Volume 39 helps us when he provided seven characteristics of the church gathering (I am indebted to my mentor for pointing me to Luther’s work on this subject). W. Robert Godfrey wrote a summary of these seven characteristics for Ligonier Ministries in 2016, and I will use his summary to provide you with Luther’s view. Luther’s seven characteristics were:
- The Word
- The Lord’s Supper
- Biblical Offices
NOTE: You may see Luther’s explanation for each of these characteristics on the Ligonier Ministries blog here.
From these characteristics, we could make the case that an online only worship gathering does not exist as an official model of a gathered church. Do I have the ability to call all the online followers of an online church service to vote in or vote out the pastor on the screen, which is a biblical office? Of course not. Many would call me foolish for such an attempt. Does the pastor on the screen have the ability to ensure that I am a member in good standing with a like-minded gospel believing church–i.e. not under church discipline? Absolutely not. In fact, how is the pastor able to ensure that I am not partaking of the cup or the bread “in an unworthy manner,” which is his biblical duty according to his biblical office (1 Cor. 11:27)? In all reality, it would be impossible because he is unable to observe my physical presence as I come to the table. These questions are only a few out of a myriad that illustrate an online only community does not exist as a gathered church body. As I wrote in another blog post, the online church exists due to COVID-19 as a necessary abnormality, but should not be considered a substitute for the the physical gathering of the saints.
Additionally, the Lord’s Supper is a time where the local church gathers and preaches the gospel to each other through this symbolic act. Listen to Paul once more, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup you proclaim the Lords’ death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). If I’m sitting in my house by myself taking communion with a pastor on a screen, who (besides me and the Holy Spirit) am I proclaiming this gospel truth to? No one. The Lord’s Supper exists as a time where believers come together to reflect on the work of Christ and celebrate, as a collective body, his substitutionary atonement. To put it another way, we are preaching the gospel to each other during this act (and any lost people joining our worship service). Therefore, we may conclude that online communion misses the mark of being a gathered body of believers.
From this conclusion, we may determine that online communion does not seem to be an exception that meets the biblical norm.
Now What Do We Do?
Where do we go from here? How might we think differently about the practice of the Lord’s Supper during the COVID-19 pandemic? Here is how I think we should respond in light of the biblical norm. We should respond by praying that God would cease this pandemic. We should ask God to relieve the coronavirus in our society in order that the shelter in place orders will be lifted and the church can once again physically gather together. Coming together as the body of Christ should be what all of us (pastors and church members) long for in these unprecedented days of social distancing. And when we are finally able to physically gather together on our first Sunday after the pandemic, we should joyfully celebrate by coming together as the church united to the table.