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4 Pastors Talk Communion in a COVID-19 World

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For the first time in living memory, many churches around the world will be facing the prospect of having to cancel their communion services. Due to the COVID19 pandemic, many governments have taken the unprecedented step of forbidding or strongly recommending against any public gatherings of over 50 people.

Some governments have set the upper limit at 5 people.

What does that mean for the gathered church?

Most churches have already had at least 1 Sunday service exclusively online. In Canada, where I live, having to cancel the odd service – or at least move them online – is not itself a new experience. We call them “snow days” and they happen once or twice a year on average.

But this isn’t that.

This is a government-mandated (or strongly suggested) shut down for an as yet undetermined length of time.

And this coming Sunday, for a lot of evangelicals, is communion Sunday.

What now?

Do we defer communion until the ban on public gatherings is lifted?

Do we encourage people to celebrate in their homes?

Do we attempt to facilitate online?

These are uncharted waters and we are all sailing without a map. Now is not the time for an authoritative pronouncement from the keyboard warrior class. Now is not the time to judge and condemn our neighbours. Now is the time for study, reflection, dialogue, decision and mercy. Toward that end, I’ve assembled a selection of the most relevant Scripture passages along with some basic introduction and commentary. Following that, I’ve invited a few of my pastor friends from various denominations and traditions to share their thoughts and convictions on this matter.

What Does the Bible Say?

In times like this, we are all grateful for the galactic dysfunction of the church in Roman Corinth. Had they not been wrong on just about everything, we would be much the poorer in our ecclesiology today. Thankfully, the church in Corinth was well wide of the mark with respect to communion. The Apostle Paul wrote to correct their errors and abuses in 1 Corinthians 11. His rebuke and redirection may be summarized as follows:

1. Communion must take place in a context of unity

Paul was concerned that the church’s practice of communion not obscure its theology of communion. If communion is to be a celebration of our union with God through faith in Christ and our union with one another through faith in Christ, then it should not be celebrated in an atmosphere of sectarianism and division. He makes that point in verses 18-20:

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, 19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 20 When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” (1 Corinthians 11:18–20 ESV)

Therefore, pastors and elders wrestling with this matter must ensure that the METHODS they employ – even in a time of crisis – in no way contradict or obscure the essential MEANING of holy communion.

2. Communion must take place in an atmosphere of order, love and equality

It appears as though communion originally took place as a “liturgical course” inside an actual meal, which may or may not have been known as “The Love Feast”. At some point during the meal (think church supper) the pastor or facilitating elder would stand and say: “Now, on the night he was betrayed…” thus leading the group through the liturgical aspect of the meal, with appropriate decorum and reflection. That was the intention – but the Corinthian practice fell far short of that ideal. In verses 21-22 Paul says:

“For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. 22 What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (1 Corinthians 11:21–22 ESV)

Pastors and elders contemplating new ways of facilitating communion during this crisis must think through issues of order, love and equality. Will all eat at the same time? What if people are watching the service later? How will communion be connected to the church’s benevolent care for the poor and vulnerable in the congregation?

3. Communion must take place in an atmosphere of self-examination and repentance

In verses 23-26 the Apostle Paul provides some positive instruction largely based on what became Luke’s version of the Last Supper. Immediately following that he gave a stern warning against thoughtless or unworthy participation:

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:27–29 ESV)

Pastors and elders who intend to proceed with communion in some form during this crisis would need to ensure that these warnings are repeated to and understood by all potential participants.

4 Pastoral Perspectives:

Debates about communion have raged on within Protestantism since the Reformation, in large part because there are so many questions that are not directly answered by appeal to Holy Scripture. The Bible doesn’t say precisely how often we should take communion, the Bible doesn’t explicitly say who should serve it, nor does the Bible say if our methods can be temporarily adjusted during times of plague and pestilence.

Therefore, given the paucity of directly applicable material in the Scriptures, pastors should be collaborative and gracious in their decision-making process at this time. Consider the 4 perspectives offered below as “grist for the mill” in terms of your own prayerful and careful deliberations. And may God alone be glorified!

Pastor 1 – Clint Humfrey (Calvary Grace Church, Alberta): Denomination/Theological Tradition: Independent reformed

Do you intend to celebrate communion during this COVID19 shut down? If so, how so?

No.

If this shut down were to last for more than 3 months, would that change your answer?

No, I don’t think I’d change my mind unless our church decided to split into smaller local churches. 

What theological convictions or denominational guidelines inform your decision?

There are two principles which direct my thoughts. The first is that the communion meal is inherently a gathering of the church in a locale (cf. 1 Cor 11:18). Although we are able to use live streaming to continue to instruct people, we are still not physically present. If under God we are prevented from physically meeting for a season, we can continue to exhort one another through video conferencing. However, we are not gathering “as the church” in the truest sense, nor have we somehow “moved church online”. Although I see the benefit of continuing to offer sermons, prayers and songs, our absence from each other cannot be fully bridged by disembodied video.

The second principle is that the Lord’s Supper is a solemn occasion, not just a celebration. Therefore, God’s people are carefully warned against taking the Lord’s Supper in “an unworthy manner”. Without the ability to be in close contact with people, video remains literally a screen that blocks transparency. Self-examination, discerning the body and honest realism (before God and each other) mark out the observance of the Lord’s Supper. I don’t think that ministers can fence the table sufficiently via video.

Pastor 2 – George Sinclair (Church Of The Messiah, Ottawa, Ontario): Denomination/Theological Tradition: ANIC

Church of the Messiah is part of the Anglican Network in Canada. We are reformed Anglican evangelicals. We are part of the GAFCON movement world-wide, and are not part of the Anglican Church of Canada.

Do you intend to celebrate communion during this COVID19 shut down? If so, how so?

At this point in time, we will not celebrate holy communion.

If this shut down were to last for more than 3 months, would that change your answer?

The current situation will not remain for three months. Things are too fluid. It is therefore impossible to say what we will be doing in three months’ time.

What theological convictions or denominational guidelines inform your decision?

In stream of consciousness order, this is how we will think the matter through:

First, as part of good order, Communion is led by a presbyter/elder. So we will not encourage home communion services.

Second, Communion should be celebrated by people together in the same room, so we would not do a Zoom Communion.

Third, the Bible does not say how often people should partake of holy communion, so going three months without communion is not a problem per se.

Fourth, a service where “the pure word of God is preached” is both necessary and sufficient. The service is not “lacking” because there is no partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Fifth, in general, we would want to abide by lawful decisions made by governing authorities. However, if we felt that a different, more restrictive practice was required of churches than businesses, we might consider not abiding by a prejudicial requirement.

Sixth, likewise, if there was a widespread civil abandonment of the restrictions, we might consider resuming gathering for holy communion.

Seventh, we will recommence communion services as early as possible, even if that meant holding more services to accommodate the size allowed by government policy.

Pastor 3 – Winston Bosch (Jubilee Canadian Reformed Church, Ottawa, Ontario): Denomination/Theological Tradition: Canadian Reformed

Do you intend to celebrate communion during this COVID19 shut down? If so, how so?

No.

If this shut down were to last for more than 3 months, would that change your answer?

No.

What theological convictions or denominational guidelines inform your decision?

In the reformed tradition, we confess the Lord’s Supper to be a means by which God works in us through the power of his Holy Spirit. The Lord commands us to celebrate the holy supper to comfort us, to remind and assure us of his love and faithfulness, to confirm to us the salvation he declares in his Word and works inwardly in our hearts.  That means we cherish the Lord’s Supper, we don’t want to take it lightly, we dare not neglect the command and comforts of Christ and we make sure we celebrate it as often as we are called to do so as the gathered church.

And in the middle of Covid19, there is the rub: the Lord’s Supper is for the gathered people of God. Our individual homes are good for regular meals (1Cor11:22), but the Lord’s Supper is to be received physically in the congregation of the people of God, gathered for that purpose (Acts 2:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:33), as the many who are one body, partaking of one bread (1Cor 10:17).

It is true that in my own church we sometimes bring the Lord’s Supper to a permanently shut-in member. However, we do our best to make this an extension of our regular congregational gathering. Immediately after eating and drinking together as a congregation, some of us go to that member’s residence to share with them the same bread and wine that the rest of us just ate and drank. We see this as not a private communion for a shut-in member, but the same shared meal stretched out the door to that member. 

Our current Covid19 crisis presents us with a different challenge altogether. There is no physical gathering together, no common table to stretch out the door, no possibility of receiving the sacrament from the hand of the minister, no ability to share one bread and one wine.  The eating of our own bread and wine while in a virtual meeting is a weak replacement, and seems to fall short of the Lord’s intentions and Scripture’s guidance.

That means that at this point in time, our church has no plans to celebrate the Lord’s Supper unless we can physically gather together.  This bothers us, we are praying the situation will change, but we are not worried. Our confidence is not in the sacrament but the Savior! In the words of our Lord’s Supper liturgical form: we do not cling with our hearts to the outward symbols of bread and wine, but lift our hearts on high in heaven, where Christ, our advocate, is, at the right hand of his heavenly Father.

Pastor 4 – Paul Carter (Cornerstone Baptist Church, Orillia Ontario): Denomination/Theological Tradition: Canadian Baptist

Do you intend to celebrate communion during this COVID19 shut down? If so, how so?

No.

If this shut down were to last for more than 3 months, would that change your answer?

Likely not. We do regularly take communion to shut-ins who are unable to be with us in person due to health or frailty, and the argument could be made that a lengthy, nation-wide shut down would merely constitute a broad extension of that basic reality, but at least for now, we feel that the argument against making that extension is fairly compelling.

What theological convictions or denominational guidelines inform your decision?

Most Baptist churches self-identify as more or less autonomous, even while we value the utility and prudence of free will association, therefore, it is difficult to say what “Baptist churches” do in a situation like this. There haven’t been very many situations like this and given our polity, it is likely that we will consult and advise one another, but each church will have to come to their own conclusions. Where the Scriptures are not clear, we tend to evidence significant diversity.

Speaking for our church alone, I can say that, we probably wrestled with it more than most of our more traditional reformed friends. We hear Jesus saying:

“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19 ESV)

That sounds like a command and therefore we feel the weight of delaying our obedience to that.  We are aware, however, that the Bible does not state explicitly how often communion should be celebrated. Jesus said simply:

“Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:25 ESV)

Therefore, we feel as though we have some time before we would have to sacrifice our sense of what constitutes best practice with respect to communion. We have decided to defer, at least for the next two months, largely because of the disconnect this medium would impose on us in terms of leadership and church discipline. The Bible says:

“For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.” (1 Corinthians 11:29–31 ESV)

The church is supposed to “judge itself” and to “discern the body” before partaking, and we simply cannot conceive of how that would be done through an online medium. Therefore, at this time, we have decided to defer and to receive this delay as the will of the Lord.

Perhaps God is chastening us. Perhaps he is putting a stop to our worship because he does not find it pleasing. The Bible speaks of such things and we would be fools not to consider that possibility. So, we will pray, examine our faith, repent of our sins and wait and then, should the Lord tarry, revisit this decision in a few months’ time.

And may God alone be glorified.

Pastor Paul Carter


To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes, see here.

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