In this unique cultural moment of Covid-19 where the Church is unable to physically gather together as an assembly, should we use the technology available to us through video to take the Lord’s Supper together individually in our homes? This question has been deeply on my heart since we began this quarantine. The reason it’s on my heart is two-fold. On the one hand the Bible does place an extremely high value on the Communion Meal. It’s a meal that has deep and rich significance in the life of a follower of Christ. As Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones writes:
It (the Lord’s Supper) is one of the means used by God to make His own word to us effective. It is a portrayal, it is something the eyes can see. And so we thank God for this sacrament and should ever go from it feeling strengthened and built up and established in the faith and rejoicing in our great salvation.David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Church and the Last Things (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 57.
And so in one sense I long to take the Communion meal. On the other hand I also want to honor the reality that the Bible gives us quite a bit of instruction on how we ought to go about taking it and I wouldn’t want do anything outside of actual bounds Scripture has put in place. So what does the Bible say, and how might we move forward?
A Bit of History
It should go without saying that the Church has a rather long history of discussing and debating the meaning and the details of the Lord’s Supper. As modern evangelicals we often forget the historic shoulders upon which we stand. I am currently knee deep in a fascinating biography on the life the great Scottish Reformer John Knox, written by Jane Dawson. Early in John Knox’s life as a Protestant Pastor he got into a debate with the Church of England over whether the Communion meal should be taken from a kneeling position as the Church of England desired, or from a sitting position as Knox argued for. There was no small amount of fiery exchange over this point of discussion. For those that have read anything by John Knox, you can imagine he brought the full force of his thunderous black and white rhetoric into the conversation. For Knox, taking the communion meal while sitting was the correct posture because that was the posture that Jesus and His disciples utilized when they took the communion meal.
Now, whether we sit or stand when we take the Lord’s Supper is not of vital importance to me, not because I think its a foolish question, but because after seriously considering the Bible’s instructions around the meal I don’t think there is a particular importance or given instruction on the issue.
So why share this weird bit of Church history at all? All of this is to simply say that those who have gone before us have wrestled deeply with the importance of the Communion Meal, how we are to take it and what it means. And if we are to be faithful, we would do well to think as thoroughly in our cultural moment as our forefathers did in theirs.
Where Do We Begin
Therefore where might we begin. 1 Corinthians 11 is the major passage that can help shape how we think about this. One of the principles that Paul works from when instructing on the Lord’s Supper is that it is something that is to be done “when you come together a Church (1 Corinthians 11:18).” Paul begins with the presupposition that this Communion meal was to be taken when the members of a local church were assembled together in the presence of one another. The reason for this is that the Lord’s Supper is a unifying meal and the way in which we take it should demonstrate that unity. Often in the Church where I pastor, when establishing the communion meal I will explain that not only does receiving this meal visually demonstrate the fellowship we individually have with God through the blood of Jesus Christ, but as we receive it together as a local Church family, we are stirred to remember our fellowship we have with each other as a people. As we see our brothers and sisters in Christ walk up to the Communion Table and receive the elements, just as we are doing in that moment as well, we are stirred to remember our mutual faith and to care more deeply for the body of Christ. It’s this idea of a “corporate feeding on him (Jesus) by faith” that Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. JI Packer observes the following about the Lord Supper. We note his second point particularly.
The prescribed ritual of the Supper has three levels of meaning for participants. First, it has a past reference to Christ’s death which we remember. Second, it has a present reference to our corporate feeding on him by faith, with implications for how we treat our fellow believers (1 Cor. 11:20–22). Third, it has a future reference as we look ahead to Christ’s return and are encouraged by the thought of it.J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 219.
Because of these profound communal elements built into the very nature of the Lord’s Supper, many Churches and pastors have decided that in this moment as we are separated from each other, while we are still the Church, we are not the gathered assembly. Therefore we should not attempt to do those practices of the Church that are reserved for the gathered assembly. As Louis Berkhof summarizes well:
Because Jesus broke the bread in the presence of His disciples, Protestant theology generally insists on it that this action should always take place in the sight of the people.L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 648.
I tend to agree with Berkhof’s sentiments as “general” principles under normal circumstances. In general, I think the Biblically appropriate place to take Communion is when we are gathered together as a local Church body. This is not a legalistic pattern, but one that seems to make the most sense as a regular practice from the Biblical passages we have on the topic. And yet – these are not normal times.
I was speaking with a friend this week discussing this point particularly and my friend mentioned stories he had known of prisoners locked in prison and unable to be a part of a meaningful community of believers. These prisoners on Sunday mornings would search the floor for crumbs in order to participate in any way they were able in the Lord’s Supper. When I first heard that story, my mind immediately raced to awe at their faith, rather than questioning their methods. In other stories, friends of prisoners would sneak in small packets of bread on visitations in order for the other inmates to take the Communion meal together. My heart was filled with courage and curiosity when considering these faithful Christians, making the most of what they had, and attempting as best as they were able to honor the Lord Jesus Christ.
As we began this Quarantine, I never thought it would last as long as it already has. I am increasingly aware that we are not under normal circumstances. I am increasingly aware of my hunger to gather together once more with my Church family, to take the Communion Meal and to celebrate it together in unity. Yet – the quarantine is lasting longer than we expected and may continue to for some time. I’m beginning to wonder what great truths we may learn from the persecuted Church or other Churches in history that have experienced unique and abnormal circumstances. I believe we have much to learn from them that might help us navigate our own moment. Today, through video and Pastoral instruction to our Church family, we are able to be apart from each other geographically and yet unified with each other visually. Though not the “gathered assembly” (which seems to be the normative place for practicing the Lord’s Supper as Berkhof noted above) we can still honor the fellowship principal written in 1 Corinthians 11 by all taking the Communion Meal together at once. I believe this flexibility is actually quite Biblical, and reflects a passion to see Christ exalted and his Word lived out well in all circumstances.
Whatever your Church decides to do, I trust your leaders will have prayed diligently and studied the Scriptures well in coming to their decisions. I’m grateful for the team I get to labor alongside as I confess that these are not simple decisions. I’ll close with a good word from Charles Hodge as an encouragement to take the Lord’s Supper with great expectation.
“We must not look upon it (the Lord’s Supper) as a mere human device, as a mere ritual observance or ceremony; but as a means ordained by God of signifying, sealing, and conveying to believers Christ and the benefits of his redemption. The reason why believers receive so little by their attendance on this ordinance is, that they expect so little. They expect to have their affections somewhat stirred, and their faith somewhat strengthened; but they perhaps rarely expect so to receive Christ as to be filled with all the fulness of God. Yet Christ in offering Himself to us in this ordinance, offers us all of God we are capable of receiving.”Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
For a more systematic approach to thinking about this question I highly recommend Bill Riedel’s article on the Gospel Coalition titled Practicing the Ordinances in a Pandemic.