In days when, by necessity, we are doing just about everything “virtually” in our churches, it is good for us to pause to consider the theological implications of our inability to gather physically. This seems especially important when it comes to the Lord’s Supper. Undoubtedly, there is much that we can do legitimately and fruitfully by video and from a distance.
God’s word can be proclaimed to much benefit. Of course, the preaching of the word of God has as its natural home the assembly of God’s people (as I have argued elsewhere). But it would be odd to suggest that God’s living, abiding and life-giving word (Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:23), which never returns to him void (Isa. 55:11), would be rendered powerless by distance and separation.
The people of God can sing God’s praises from home, aided by the ministry of leaders serving from the other side of a camera. Words of encouragement can be shared among the church family by text and videoconference and email. Prayer requests can be published, and prayers can be offered from homes. All these things can certainly happen despite our necessary scattering.
None of this counts as a normal church “service” – and certainly not a true “gathering” (how could it, when we cannot gather). But we can rejoice that the electronic means at our disposal allow much ministry to continue, albeit in modified and less than ideal formats.
Should we draw lines?
But where should we draw lines, if anywhere? What can we not do – indeed, what should we not do – when physically separated? Different churches will draw these lines in different places – and there is surely liberty to do this – but one place where there seems to be a particularly strong case to admit an insurmountable limitation is the Lord’s Supper.
There are a number of factors that suggest that the Lord’s Supper does not work, and perhaps should not be attempted, in the virtual world.
1. The physicality of the Supper
This is a basic point, foundational to the others below, but significant nonetheless. Words of sermons, sounds of music, and images of other people can be beamed across the web effectively enough. But the Lord’s Supper is intentionally and emphatically the participation in a corporate physical experience. It is about sharing in a meal, even if a symbolic one. It is about eating and drinking.
The idea of shared virtual experiences simply breaks down at this point. The physicality of the Supper is a barrier to its virtualization. Paul emphasizes the fact that, in the Supper, we ‘all partake of the one bread’ (1 Cor. 10:17). Yes, we could all find bread and juice/wine (pick according to your context!) in our homes. But surely the idea of a shared substantial and physical experience is undermined (even destroyed) by physical separation.
2. The corporate nature of the Supper
This point relates clearly to the first. As Paul describes the Supper, he speaks of a shared “participation” in the body and blood of Christ as “we bless” the cup and as “we break” the bread (10:16). The participation in this one shared meal expresses in a powerful way the unity of the body: ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ (10:17). It is this important theological and communal reality that underlies Paul’s outrage that some within the church family were dishonouring one another as they purported to take the Lord’s Supper: ‘When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal….’ (11:20-21).
The way in which we behave toward one another as a body of believers in this corporate action and event is hugely significant for Paul. Indeed, the very act of coming together is central to what is taking place at the Supper. Were it of less significance – were the Supper merely about eating and drinking – it would be fine to celebrate the Supper at home. Paul clearly says that mere eating and drinking should happen at home (11:22, 34). But the Lord’s Supper happens when the people gather as a body.
3. The solemnity and significance of the Supper
It is vitally important when considering where and by what means to celebrate the Supper that we remember what it is we are doing: we are “participating” in the blood and body of Christ (10:16), we are “remembering” our Lord in his death for us (11:24-25), and we are “proclaiming” his death until he returns (11:26). It involves the possibility, if wrongly taken, of eating and drinking “judgment” on oneself (11:29). These are solemn and sober things. They need to be done with reverence and a sense of awe.
Apart from the present crisis, suggestions will regularly arise for informal celebrations of the Lord’s Supper outside the regular assembly of believers – at a youth camp around the fire, at a meal in a Christian home, at a mid-week house group. Paul is well aware that the public worship of the church can fall into disarray if we are not careful to guard its orderliness, and so he calls urgently for all things to “be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40). Surely this admonition would apply very specially to the Lord’s Supper.
There is no perfect way to guard the orderliness of the Supper, but a basic safeguard would be to ensure that it takes place within the context of the gathering of the church under the careful oversight of the eldership.
4. The Supper and Church discipline
Linked to this third point is the close connection between the Lord’s Supper and church discipline. Paul warns that wrongful participation in the Supper leads to the danger of judgment (11:29). Any responsible church leader would wish to spare participants this danger. Part of the means of doing this is to exclude from participation those who are under church discipline.
In fact, under most models of church discipline, exclusion from the Table is the basic mechanism of effecting that discipline. Those under discipline will often be free to attend a gathering to hear the proclamation of the word of God, but they would not be allowed to partake of the Supper. Without a physical gathering for the Supper, how could an eldership possibly exercise this kind of shepherding care for the congregation as a whole, and for the one under discipline in particular?
These are significant considerations to weigh when contemplating whether to attempt the Lord’s Supper from a distance. Cumulatively, they suggest that we should persevere in the proclamation of the message of the cross from a distance and by any means possible, while lamenting the present situation and prayerfully longing for the day when we can gather once again at the Lord’s Table.
1. See Jonathan I. Griffiths, Preaching in the New Testament: An exegetical and biblical-theological study, Downers Grove: IVP, 2017.