Over a week ago now, I posted an article based on an online conversation that I had with a friend regarding the reasons as to why I believe the recent practice of “online communion” (started because of the coronavirus quarantines) is ill-advised at best (see “Communion and Covid-19“). When asked about its legitimacy, my answer was firmly in the negative.
Much of this debate is the result of a devaluing of the Lord’s Supper in modern evangelicalism. That’s because most of us incorrectly view the Lord’s Supper as just a symbol. But while it is a symbol, it is not true that it is merely a symbol, and therefore its significance is not merely symbolic. It is much more than that. Rather, Christians throughout history, including the Protestant Reformers, have understood communion as both a sign and a seal, in a similar sense to which the rings and the kiss on your wedding day “seal” the vows which you give to one another. It is not some arbitrary act. Christ is truly present in the Supper affirming and confirming the covenant that he has made with us (the church) on the basis of his death and resurrection. There is something spiritual taking place at that moment. The elements don’t change into flesh and blood; but Christ is spiritually present and actively participating in fellowship with us (just as he did with his disciples in the Last Supper), while we participate in fellowship with him and the life that he has given us. That’s why it matters how, why, and when we participate in this sacred act and ceremony. Take this significance away, and of course people will treat it lighty and think that it can be done whenever and however.
The purely symbolic view of the Lord’s Supper did not become widespread until the 19th century, and even then it was not the majority view in evangelical churches for many years. Now, I’m a Baptist, and Baptists aren’t typically known for their high views on the Lord’s Supper. But even low-grade views on communion are a more recent development in Baptist life. Historically speaking, Baptists shared a high, even sacramental, view of Christ’s spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper. For example, the General Baptist confession of 1678 (“The Orthodox Creed”) describes communion as that which is for the “spiritual nourishment and growth in [Christ], sealing unto them their continuance in the covenant of grace.” Simiarly, the 1689 London Confession of the Particular Baptists says, “Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements in this ordinance, do then inwardly by faith…spiritually receive and feed upon Christ crucified and all the benefits of his death…[Christ] being spiritually present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses.” Clearly a mere “symbolic” view came at a later date.
My wife asked how and why this happened, and so I gave four reasons as to why I believe this shift took place. And, unfortunately, much of it started in America as “ground zero.” I thought that I’d share these reasons here:
Reason #1: Individualism
If there’s one cardinal virtue that’s been imbibed in the American spirit since the beginning, it is “freedom,” and specifically, the freedom of the individual (“liberterian” freedom). What this means is that the individual takes a pride of place in the thought life of many Americans. That’s why we’re told, “express yourself” and “you do you” (what sociologist Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism”). The United States is arguably the most individualistic culture in the world.
Now, there’s a lot of good that’s come out of this. For example, it was the founding father, Thomas Jefferson, who penned the words, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” etc. But I don’t think that I’m out of line in saying that this impulse in the American ethos has at times evolved (some might say “mutated”) into abuses and even monstrosities. Its worst iterations include anti-establishment and anti-institutionalist sentiments. Those sentiments can unconsciously even be applied to the church (and to communal acts like the Lord’s Supper).
How this played itself out in American evangelical churches is that Christianity increasingly became viewed as an individualized, privatized religion, where the “me and my own personal relationship with my buddy Jesus” became the dominant lens through which we see our faith, and the communal aspects of the church could easily be overlooked, downplayed, and even neglected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people tell me in some way, “I don’t need the church for my own relationship with Jesus.” St. Paul would disagree. He always pointed out the need for Christian community. While it’s true that our relationship with Christ is a deeply intimate and personal one, that is not the exhaustive meaning of our faith. After all, you are not the bride of Christ individually. We are the bride of Christ, collectively.
When you take away the importance of meeting together, it makes sense as to why people would overlook the importance of the eucharistic act. It makes sense why Christians would think that they could just sleep in on a Sunday morning and regularly just stream the service at home (or at their favorite coffee shop). And also, importantly, it makes sense why they would think, “I don’t need to go through the Lord’s Supper with the church to cultivate my own relationship with Jesus. I can just pray and read my Bible by myself, on my own time. I don’t need to go through church rituals.”
Now, if I told my wife that I don’t need to take her out on dates to have a marital relationship with her, then you could probably predict where the quality of our marriage relationship is headed. In the same way, biblically and historically, communion has been seen as an integral part of the church’s life, and as I mentioned in my previous article, the way we observe it matters.
Reason #2: Consumerism
A second reason related to individualism is “consumerism,” yet another trademark of American culture that is without an equal in the world. The spirit of consumerism is perhaps best expressed in the old Burger King slogan: “Have it your way!” You can see how this mentality plays right into the hands of the individualistic “you do you” mantra.
Americans like myself have been unconsciously fed this mentality ever since we started watching TV and seeing ads on billboards. This mentality can easily bleed into how we approach church life. Church isn’t doing it for you? No problem! We’ll have worship become like a Coldplay concert and the pastor will give an inspirational self-help talk. We’ll have programs galore! This is what fed the “seeker church” and “church growth” movements. The same could be applied to communion: we can have it whenever we want it and however we want it. Maybe even pre-packaged!
Reason #3: A Materialistic Worldview
Ever since the ancient Greeks (such as Plato), western culture has always been susceptible to the impulse of separating the physical from the spiritual (a view that was completely foreign to the biblical authors). But this really came to a head through the philosopher Rene Descarte, who famously espoused “dualism”–the separation of the material and immaterial aspects of human existence. This was further amplified by the Enlightenment, which privileged human rationality and observation, thus putting the physical, material world to the forefront of the mind’s eye. It also downplayed the spiritual world.
Through the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Western thought became increasingly “materialistic” and “naturalistic.” Philosopher Charles Taylor has referred to our modern world as a “disenchanted world.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see how this would affect our view of the Lord’s Supper. The bread and the wine (or grape juice) is just that: bread and wine, nothing else. Just physical elements. There’s no spiritual dimension attached to the elements or the act of communion, any more then there is when I’m having pizza and soda with my Christian “bros.” Or, if there is spiritual significance, it is far removed and divorced from the act itself–it is “purely symbolic,” nothing more.
I hope the opening two paragraphs and my previous article has demonstrated why this is such a shame that we think in these terms.
Reason #4: Revivalism
Don’t get me wrong: revivals are good (I am an evangelical after all, and I love Billy Graham). But this is what happened in the history of the church in America.
When the United States began to expand westward toward the Pacific, armies of evangelists took to the frontier to host revivals and convert people. (Some were quite frankly better than others.) When they did this, their revivals consisted of a very simple service (no communion) in which the music and the revivalist speaker were specifically designed to appeal to the subjective and emotional experience of the individual in order to convert them. In its more negative expressions, it could border on manipulativeness (Charles Finney comes to mind); but there was also still much fruit, and the Spirit moved.
The problem is, converts began to see the revivalistic experience as normative, and they began to reorient the church services around this understanding of Christian experience. The best of revivalists had simply utilized the revival service to get people in church, but soon enough people began trying to design the church service to replicate their revivalistic experience. This meant a more simplistic, somewhat watered-down service that focused on fiery preaching and music to appeal to the emotional life of congregants. Communion was displaced and eclipsed more and more in the mind’s eye of American Christians.
Why This Matters
I hope it can be seen that we are products of our culture, just like everyone else in space-time history. It is a relatively novel and recent innovation that the Lord’s Supper has taken a backseat in the life of the church, and its importance downplayed (including the importance of observing if correctly).
So what would it look like to start taking the practice of communion more seriously? Well, for a start, I think it would be wise to rid ourselves of the notion of “virtual communion.” As I’ve explained to some of my friends, I don’t think it is a sin, but it is nevertheless a serious theologial error and must be corrected.
But in a post-COVID-19 world, we can start by paying more attention to who takes communion. I remember when I was first acquainted with the practice of communion as a child: the plates were being passed in church, and I turned to my mom and told her that I didn’t understand what was going on. She told me that it was OK, and that I didn’t need to take it. I’m glad that she did. Even as a child, although I didn’t understand what communion meant, I did understand that something truly sacred was going on (“sacred” and “sacrament” have the same roots), and I felt something akin to fear and trembling. With a sigh of relief, I passed on the plate to the next person. And I’m glad that I did that, too.
Remember that communion is not merely a symbol: it’s a covenant sign that Jesus specifically (and exclusively) instituted for his people, the church. This means that anyone outside of the church should not partake in it, just as Paul warns against partaking in it in an unworthy manner. And this is why it’s important to have elders present: because it’s their responsibility, as shepherds of the church, to make sure only believers take communion. (I’m fortunate that my mom was there!)
Most Christians until the 20th century understood this. The Reformers called this “fencing the table.” The General Baptists in the next century wrote that no unbaptized, unbelieving, or openly sinful person ought to partake in the elements. The Particular Baptists in the 1689 Confession wrote that those that do not know Christ “cannot, without great sin against Him…partake of these holy mysteries…whosoever shall receive unworthily, are guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, eating and drinking judgment to themselves.” In my response to my friend “Jon,” I mentioned that for someone to take communion without first knowing Christ is tantamount to having sex outside of marriage. If that sounds like an overreaction, it’s not once you realize the particular significance that the eucharistic act has attahed to it, just as sex is supposed to exemplify your exclusive committment to your marriage partner whom you have entered into a covenant with.
This is also why it is most proper to be baptized before taking communion–because it is similarly the initiating sign and seal of the covenant that Christ has made with you. An engaged Christian couple may have already committed to living the rest of their lives together, but they do not consummate that physically until they have had their wedding ceremony. Baptism is the ceremony in which you are formally recognized as being “wedded” to Christ and his church, and where you make that commitment to live your life for him. If a person is not old enough to understand the gospel and get baptized, they are surely not old enough for communion, let alone to understand its significance.
I’m aware that much of this may seem foreign and alien to many of my fellow evangelicals out there. It would not have been so at an earlier time, and this is still the case for many evangelicals in today. And rest assured that it is not some innovation, but on the contrary, our recent downplaying of communion is whatis novel. My hope is that we can continue to recover this deep, rich, profound understanding of the sacrament/ordinance that Christ has instituted for us, his church and bride, and an appreciation for it that the church has held in ages past.
Soli Deo gloria.