Given the unprecedented, massive-scale quarantine that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused around the globe, recent discussions have taken place regarding the possibity and plausibility of administering the Lord’s Supper online–what some people are referring to as “virtual communion.”
Below is an edited copy of a correspondence that I had on Facebook with a friend that I will refer to as “Jon” as to why believe the answer to be in the negative, or why I personally don’t regard the practice of “virtual communion” to be wise or proper. My friend asked a series of genuine questions, which I divided up and answered one at a time. The exchange has been slightly edited to tighten up the language in certain parts, but is otherwise exactly what I had written down.
“I’m not sure I understand how the virtual experience affects the physical/incarnational aspects of Christ’s union with us, as you say. People still take physical elements. Is it solely because they’re not administered properly?”
Jon, you are asking the right questions.
My answer is that it’s not simply the mere presence of physical elements that underscores the incarnational symbolism, but the very act of gathering/assembling together as believers. Again, we have to think exegetically and not import our modern understanding of things: in its lexical usage in the New Testament, the word “ekklesia” sweepingly refers to the localized act and event of assembling together as believers. No one in the first century, Jew or Greek, would have conceived of it otherwise. “Virtual” would be completely unheard of and, in fact, nonsensical to the meaning of the word “ekklesia.” This is by far the vast majority of consensus of biblical scholars. It is the act of gathering/assembling (“ekklesia”) that gives meaning to the physicality/incarnational aspects of the Lord’s Supper, not simply the presence of the physical elements; because although Jesus Christ is omnipresent, he has promised to be present with us in a unique way that he is not otherwise when believers “gather” together in his name. His presence is manifested uniquely in the localized assembly as little “pockets” of the kingdom. That’s the meaning of a sacrament: a physical sign of an invisible/spiritual reality. Without the assembly, that sign is lost.
This is why the apostle Paul was so adamant that the Corinthians WAIT for each other to arrive in order to partake in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11): so that they can be with each other physically as a sign and seal of not just their communion with God, but of each other. Otherwise, it was not the Lord’s Supper.
What this means is this: You can do many things online, including being fed by the Word, worshiping with other believers, etc. But that itself is not the church gathering. And this means that the physical presence of believers is not simply essential of the Lord’s Supper, but definitional. It is not simply improper to have a virtual Lord’s Supper, but nonsensical. In other words, to have the Lord’s Supper virtually is simply an oxymoron, because its true meaning is derived when believers are gathered together (again, refer above to its lexical usage in the NT).
Jon, I know you and I have played basketball together (which you smoked me in), so let me use this analogy: Imagine if people during this quarantine were to Zoom one another and say “Hey, let’s play full-court, 5-on-5 basketball virtually!” You then proceed to play/shoot hoops in your own driveway basketball-court while the others do the same. The problem is, that’s not an actual basketball game. You can choose to play something “virtually”, say NBA 2k20, but it is not actual basketball. There are other things that you can do online to fulfill the need for community, but basketball is not one of them.
“Can we say for certain the virtual experience decreases this union? In my experience, the church already has trouble with making communion about more than just ‘union with your own personal Jesus’ as the article puts it. I don’t think there’s conclusive evidence that a virtual experience exasperates this problem. Depending on how it’s done, I could see it promoting greater unity than some churches may have experienced in weeks prior given the circumstances: a feeling of commonality in that everyone is currently affected and a special bond through dealing with the circumstances and making the best of them together.”
The problem with this argument is that it appeals to subjectivism, sentiment, and utility instead of the biblical data. Rather, historically it has been recognized that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper has objective, realist elements in the practice, for the reasons stated above. In addition to that, part of that has to do with the word that is used for “remembrance” (“anamnesis”). When we think of remembrance, we tend to think of a mental activity and a cognitive act, like calling something to mind. But biblically speaking, in its covenantal context, “remembrance” (anamnesis) refers to enacting something so that a certain reality is truly realized. In the terms of the Lord’s Supper, this reality is realized or consummated when believers gather together as God’s covenant people.
All meaningful covenantal relationships are sealed in a physical way, because we are physical creatures made by God (as I mention to Rick, anything else would be “gnostic”). That’s why you seal your marriage vows with a ring and a kiss. You consummate your marriage with the physical union that you have with your spouse. In the same way, the act of gathering is a consummation of the spiritual reality that we have with Christ (again, that’s the definition of a sarcament). Christ is really there in their midst in a special way. It is also “eschatological”, meaning that it also points forward to the day when this reality will be fully consummated during the marriage supper of the Lamb. Right now, our local church gatherings are a sign that points to that (*very physical) reality.
“About accountability, I’m not sure either. Can’t the person administering it make the same statement about who should be taking it and why just as well online vs. in person?”
Yes, but the part of the pastor/elder is to do more than simply issuing a warning. It is their job to “fence the table,” as they used to say, in order to exercise church discipline. Say someone is consciously living in sin, or an unbeliever is about to partake in the elements: it is the responsibility of the pastor/elder to make sure that this does not happen. That’s because the apostle Paul warns us against taking the bread and cup in an unworthy manner, and it’s a loving act to prohibit them. If they were to partake in the Lord’s Supper, which is a covenantal sign and seal, it would be a farce tantamount to having sex outside of marriage (this is not a hyperbole–that’s really what it’s like). Just as consummating one’s marriage is a physical sign of the covenant you have with that exclusive person, so is the Lord’s Supper a covenant sign with the Lord our God in Jesus Christ.
This practice of church discipline has been lost in modern evangelical churches because 1) we don’t take church discipline as seriously, and 2) we don’t take the Lord’s Supper very seriously compared to the majority of church history. Even the Reformers understood its profound importance. So because it is incumbent upon the minister to exercise church discipline, one must be there for the distribution of the elements. If there is an unbeliever or a wayward Christian, the minister could do this in a few ways: for example, some churches, when this is the case, will choose to have the recipients come to the altar or to certain stations where elders or deacons are present. They are then able to give, or refuse to give, the elements. This is because Christ has given them the authority within the context of the local church to exercise church discipline, which is a good segue to my final point (see next question below).
“I’m also curious about the presiding elders/people who administer it. Are there clear verses/biblical argument you could show me that communicates who is allowed to administer it and exactly how they are to do so? Does it matter who passes out the elements? What is considered administering? If it’s something that is said rather than done, how is a virtually presiding elder any less qualified than a physically presiding one?”
Again, we must think exegetically. Exegesis cannot be done simply by offering proof-texts of Scripture: you have to understand the historical and cultural context. In this case, in the Jewish Passover observance (from which we get our practice of communion), it was ALWAYS, without exception, presided over by someone considered as the “elder” of the group, typically a father. When the father or patriarch of the clan was not present, someone would presume to take his place (this gathering was known as the mishpacha). That’s what Jesus was doing with his disciples: taking the place of the elder in the Passover observance. When the Eucharist became the common practice to bookend the weekly gathering of believers, you must remember that this gathering also evolved from the synagogue practice (again, the meaning of “ekklesia” and “synagogue” are virtually synonymous in ancient Greek), and therefore the early Christians maintained the synagogue practice of elders overseeing the operations of the synagogue, which Paul talks about extensively (especially in his pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus). In one of my previous responses, I showed how this is evidenced in the earliest Christian writings after the New Testament, such as when Justin Martyr wrote about the “president” PRESIDING over the weekly church gathering, which at that point was on Sunday morning. The president was also adopted from synagogue practice, as he was the elder that oversaw the weekly “assembly.”
So you see, Jon, all this evidence points to the necessity of the physical gathering/assembly of believers. Jon, I know that you listened to that Tim Keller sermon on covenantal relationship. I beg you to consider the importance of the act of communion in that context, and the necessity to observe it rightly. You remember the passage in Genesis 15, when the animals are torn to pieces as a sign of the sanctions of the covenant. This is exactly what is meant (and continues to mean) when Jesus (and the pastor in place of him) tears the bread and says “This is my BODY”, broken for you for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, the Lord’s Supper is not MERE sign of “remembrance”, but a covenantal sign and seal that enacts and consummates our union with Christ. It’s what some theologicans have called a “covenantal renewal ceremony.” And our union with Christ is not individual, but corporate. Again, a sacrament is a PHYSICAL sign of an invisible/spiritual reality. This means that every act done has a specific, important meaning. In the context of the Lord’s Supper, this covenantal sign is communicated in the physical presence of believers covenanting together. Without it, the symbol loses its meaning and ceases to truly be that symbol.
God bless, brother.
For further reading, see articles here, here, here, and here.