Among the many questions churches have been forced to consider since the Shelter in Place order, the question of whether or not we should take “virtual” communion together is among the most fascinating. As can be observed on the Gospel Coalition website, godly pastors with the same theological sensibilities can come to different conclusions on this issue. And the reason for this is—frankly—that Scripture doesn’t even come close to interacting with our current situation. Who would have thought of virtual communion even 15 years ago? This being the case, we the elders tried to approach the question with open minds, recognizing that we were dealing with a question of church practice and not necessarily church dogma (or undisputed teaching). So, what were the factors that led the elders of the San Jose campus to arrive at the decision to wait?
1. The God ordained context
Of all the clear biblical examples of the Lord’s supper we have, the sacrament always occurs when the church is gathered (Mt 26:17-30; Mk 14:12-25; Lk 22:7-23, 1 Col 11:23-26). In the places where there is clear apostolic teaching concerning the Lord’s supper, it is always assumed and usually explicitly stated that this meal will take place “when you come together” (1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). In particular, at the end of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul insists that waiting for one another, and eating at home before they show up if they are hungry, bears life and death significance for the meals participants. These warnings assume they will be gathering for the communion meal (in distinction from their normal dinner). This by itself doesn’t necessarily forbid taking communion apart from the gathering, but it seems significant that literally everywhere communion is discussed, it is always a shared meal of the physically assembled church.
2. What the sacrament is
When Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24), it’s worth asking “do what”? One of the things that is easy to miss about the Lord’s supper is that it is a meal of convent renewal— a ceremony that is pregnant with symbols and meaning, given by God, for the remembrance of a covenant. Jesus said “this is the new covenant in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:25). The bread and the cup are not just a reminder of something that happened in the past, but a perpetual sign of our ongoing covenant relationship to God in Christ. His body, like the bread, really was broken for you and I; His blood, like the wine, really was poured out to seal us in covenant relationship with God. And by receiving this meal together, we not only acknowledge that we participate in this covenant and have become heirs of every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, but also our role in the death of God’s Son. When we eat and drink, we bear witness to “the Lord’s death until he comes.” He was broken… “for you” plural. His death was not only our victory but our fault. All of ours, together.
On this reasoning then, the fact that the Lord’s supper is always described in the context of the gathered people of God is not incidental. A shared covenant meal is what the Lord’s supper is (1 Cor 10:17). It is a covenant renewal ceremony, between God and His people, where Christ’s life and death are physically signified in the elements (the bread and the wine) and the reality of Christ’s promises and presence are spiritually enjoyed. So to say this all more simply…the sacrament of communion is not just the bread and the wine. It is the bread and the wine, shared as a church, made holy (devoted to God’s purpose) by the Word of God and with prayer (1 Tim 4:5).
3. What the sacrament does
When we share the Lord’s supper together, something else is supposed to be happening. The supper is not only meant to signify our communion with God but also our unity with one another (1 Cor 10:17). It is the Corinthians lack of concern for unity and love that draws Paul’s sharp rebuke and Gods heavy stroke of discipline in 1 Cor 11:17-22. The apostle draws our attention to the fact that we all share the one loaf, because we are one in Christ (1 Cor 10:17). That being said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we are therefore only allowed to have one loaf of bread for the whole church every Sunday. I think it’s better to see the “concept” of a shared loaf as pointing to the unity forming nature of the sacrament, rather then the other way around. Because we all share this meal together, we are one body in Christ. And the one bread (or table 10:21) that we all share, is meant to strengthen our union with one another. The supper is meant to be a physical display of our corporate unity, not just a personal experience with God.
4. The livestream is not the assembled church.
Some have brought up the point that for the time being, the digital live-stream “is”—in a manner of speaking—the assembly of the church. So why wouldn’t we just take communion in our homes? It’s an interesting question that doesn’t have an obvious answer. However, one of our elders asked, “if COVID was gone tomorrow, would we encourage people to continue streaming services from home, even if they were able to assemble in person?” And every one seemed to be on the same page that the answer is a resounding “no”. Tuning in virtually is just not the same as being present. And I think this is something that all off us can feel without a biblical, or philosophical argument. This is just a shared observation about being human. And for that reason we as elders do not feel that being assembled physically is the same as being assembled virtually.
Now, all of that being said, this argument isn’t conclusive enough to say that virtual communion is a sin, especially since in many ways this question is connected to many larger questions in sacramental theology. But I want you as the church to be aware that our current course of action (refraining from communion) was reached with reflection, discussion, and prayer, and we want you to be informed of the reasons that led us to that decision.
Refraining from participation in the Lord’s supper these last two months has grieved my heart greatly, as I’m sure it has yours. But I am confident that a day is coming soon, when the church will gather for the Lord’s supper and God will turn our mourning into dancing, he will exchange our sackcloth of sorrow for robes of gladness, and we will glory in our God and give thanks to Him forever (Ps 30:10-11).
Like a deer pants for water, so our soul pants for you O God…hope in God, you shall again praise Him (Ps 42:1, 11).