Can We Celebrate Communion Online?
Editor’s Note: This article is an edited and abridged version of Can Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Go Online? originally published at thegospelcoalition.org. For more resources related to COVID-19, visit our new site: COVID-19 & The Church.
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For the next who-knows-how-long, churches in many parts of the world will be unable to gather. So pastors like me are lovingly scrambling for solutions. There’s no playbook for this. When the church can’t gather physically, what can we do to encourage and nourish God’s people?
Most evangelical churches are livestreaming something resembling their Sunday service. Although one could raise questions about the wisdom of this practice, I don’t think anything in Scripture prohibits it. But what about the Lord’s Supper? Can this element of the church’s gathered worship be performed remotely? I answer no.
Let me underscore that my goal in this piece is not to slap any pastors’ wrists, but simply to look to Scripture for guidance. When we have few practical precedents to appeal to, it’s even more important to let God’s all-sufficient Word direct our steps.
The Lord’s Supper can’t be carried out when the church is scattered. That’s because the physical act of gathering is essential, not incidental, to the ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time (e.g., “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you,” 1 Cor. 11:18; cf. vv. 17, 20, 33, 34).
But is this just what they happened to do, or what we must do? Is the church’s physical presence with each other essential to the ordinance? Paul would say yes. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” 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 if baptism binds the one to the many, the Lord’s Supper makes the many 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.
All suffering involves loss; every loss is a form of suffering. Right now, amid much other loss and suffering, Christians around the world are suffering the loss of weekly, face-to-face fellowship with one another. Compassion prompts us to mitigate that loss however we can. But we can’t erase it. And so we should learn what God would teach us through the temporary loss of these embodied, tangible, necessarily face-to-face ordinances, especially the Lord’s Supper. The house of feasting—together, on Christ, in his Supper—is closed for now. What will you learn in this providentially ordered visit to the house of mourning (Eccles. 7:2, 4)?
The Lord’s Supper itself is meant not only to satisfy our hearts with Christ’s goodness, but also to stoke a desire for when we will see his face: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29).
Let the absence of this meal make you hunger even more for that future meal.