During this time of physical-distancing and isolation, some have asked about having communion during the live-stream service. Since we live-stream the singing and the sermon, why not live-stream the communion service and allow each family to observe it in their own homes? This sounds reasonable, but our New Testament ecclesiology will not allow us to do it.
First, there is a general principle we have been pounding away at, and it is this: what is being live-streamed and participated in via the internet is not truly church, or the ecclesia. In order for the assembly (ecclesia) to be the assembly, assembly is required. This assembly cannot be a virtual assembly, it must be in person, a physical assembly. In our remarkable digital age, we miss something when we think we can duplicate things electronically. We cannot. We can no more reproduce the church virtually than the incarnation of the Son of God could have been a virtual incarnation. Flesh and blood requires flesh and blood (John 1:14; Heb. 2:14).
So although we are thankful for the technology that allows us to sing God’s praise in our homes, hear God’s Word in our homes, and connects us in an indirect way, what we are doing is not what the New Testament calls assembling. If that is true, then we definitely could not virtually participate in true koinonia around the bread and the cup.
The bread and the cup are one of the reasons the church gathers. We cannot miss this, especially in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Luke had already emphasised the corporate nature of the church in the book of Acts (Acts 1:6; 2:6; 20:7). There is an emphasis on the gathering of the church in one place. Paul emphasises this in 1 Cor. 11:17, 18, 20, 33-34. The Lord’s Supper is a celebration of the body of Christ, by the body of Christ, within the assembled body of Christ. Ray Van Neste comments, ‘To describe the Lord’s Supper as a church ordinance is to assert that this rite was given to the church to practice and not simply to individual Christians.’ John L. Dagg argues the same way, ‘The rite was designed to be social… [it] requires that it be celebrated by a company… The rite should be celebrated by the church, in public assembly.’
The Lord’s Supper is an ordinance that Jesus gave the church which underscores not only his sacrifice for our sins, but the church’s unity with each other. Paul emphasised this in 1 Cor. 10:16-17: the one loaf represents the unity of the body. Bobby Jamieson makes this point:
‘The Lord’s Supper enacts the church’s unity. It consummates the church’s oneness. It gathers up the many who partake of the same elements together, in the same place, and makes them one. So to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper. So, it’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.’
Our ecclesiology, the doctrine and practice of the church, requires us to think corporately (which is contrary to our individualistic culture). Our ecclesiology demands that we think about the nature of the Supper and the particulars of its observance. What the New Testament teaches and our forefathers confirmed is that the Supper is never an ordinance for individuals or families. It is for the gathered local church. (By the way, this is why we do not administer the Lord’s Supper to the sick, or at a wedding. When we administer it to the sick, we reflect a sacramental view of the Supper which is unbiblical. When it is administered to a couple at a wedding, we inadvertently do the same thing).
As sad as it is, the Lord’s Supper is one of the critical areas of church life that we are simply going to sorely miss. It is our prayer that it will indeed be missed, its absence painfully felt. But here is something to apply to your own heart: if you are not in the habit of being present at the Lord’s Table under normal circumstances, then your heart will not long for it under these unusual circumstances. To not miss the Supper is an indisputable reflection that the words, ‘Do this in remembrance of me,’ have not gripped your heart or conscience.
During this time of Covid-19 there are things that we are going to miss and should miss. We should miss seeing each other face to face, giving each other warm greetings, hearing the Word together, singing together, praying together. We will do our best using the means that we have for the Word to still go out, for the songs to still be sung. But we all know it is not the same.
But there are other aspects of life together that cannot and should not be done by using any means possible, and the Lord’s Supper is one of those things. So, let your heart yearn for it, look forward to it with eager anticipation, and let its felt absence drive you to a greater appreciation for it. May the next time you hold the bread and cup, next to the believers seated on either side of you, may you eat and drink with tears of joy for a wonderful Saviour who has reunited you to your family around his table.
Brian Borgman is founding pastor at Grace Community Church in Minden, Nevada, USA. He received his Doctor of Ministry at Westminster Seminary, California.