The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has impacted essentially every aspect of our lives. Many of the things we previously considered routine have been disrupted or foregone altogether. For most Christians, this has included the cancellation of in-person church services. I’m thankful that my local church is able to and has decided to transition our Sunday morning service to an online format. Although less than ideal, this allows my church family to worship God through singing songs and hearing the preaching of the Word. I know many other churches have also shifted their services to an online format.
Although these online services have been a blessing, I am keenly aware that not every aspect of a church service can be transitioned to an online format. One such element is, I believe, the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is one of two (among Protestant churches) ordinances which the church was commanded to follow by Jesus Christ. Thus, it is an essential ceremony for churches to observe in order to be legitimate churches. Since this is the case, it would be understandable if churches attempt to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a part of their online services during this time, whether by distributing the elements to their people by some means ahead of time or by asking members to provide their own elements.
While I appreciate the desire to be obedient to Christ’s command, I think attempting to celebrate the Lord’s Supper digitally would fall short of the guidelines given in Scripture, especially by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. A digital observance of the Lord’s Supper would be inconsistent with what Paul describes in at least two ways. The first inconsistency is that Paul clearly envisions the Lord’s Supper being celebrated among the gathered church body. He states this explicitly at least five times (“Come together”; 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; perhaps even six if the New Testament concept of “church,” which is mentioned in 11:22, is related in any way to the Jewish concept of Synagogue, which means “assembly”) within this brief instruction on the Lord’s Supper. Furthermore, the need for a gathered church to celebrate the Lord’s Supper is implicit in the contrast Paul creates between the church, which is the gathering of believers, versus the home (11:22, 34). Paul’s verbiage rules out any attempt by believers to celebrate the Lord’s Supper privately or even with their own family. Notice Paul instructs them to go to their own homes if they are not observing the Lord’s Supper appropriately. That is, the home was the place for whatever eating the Corinthians were doing that was causing a division among them and the church was the place for celebrating the Lord’s Supper as a sign of their unity. Paul’s statements should certainly cause us to consider whether it is appropriate for modern Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper within their own homes, physically away from the gathered church body, even if they are being led by their church leadership online.
Obviously, Paul would have been unable to envision the capabilities of our modern technology. Perhaps, it may be argued that, if he were aware, then he may have chosen his words differently. Is it right to rule out a digital observation of the Lord’s Supper based on Paul’s statements if Paul clearly could not have envisioned a digital observation? My answer is “yes” if Paul’s words reveal other key aspects of the Lord’s Supper that would be voided by observing it digitally. The second inconsistency between a digital observance of the Lord’s Supper and Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 is that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, according to Paul, is a proclamation of Christ’s death (which always implicitly includes his resurrection in the New Testament!) until Christ returns again.
The act of proclamation inherently requires a gathered assembly. I cannot watch someone lead me in the Lord’s Supper digitally and still maintain this proclamation aspect. To whom would I be proclaiming Christ’s death? At best, my wife and two kids, but this would hardly seem to fit what Paul envisions in this passage. There is a proclamation element in observing the Lord’s Supper among my church body. When I see others eating the bread and drinking the cup, they are proclaiming to me their faith in Jesus Christ, and I to them when they see me taking the bread and the cup. Furthermore, the Lord’s Supper is a proclamation of our faith in Jesus Christ to any unbelievers (who are not participating in the Supper!) among the church body. Observing the Lord’s Supper digitally would be void of this proclamation in the way that Paul intends.
Again, while I’m thankful for the opportunity to be led in some aspects of a traditional worship service during this time when churches cannot gather together physically, the inability to celebrate the Lord’s Supper is just one way in which these online services cannot completely substitute for gathering together with the local church. I will continue to tune in to these services and reap the spiritual benefits of doing so, but as I do, I will be looking forward to the day when we may meet together safely again. In the meantime, I hope this blog post will encourage church leaders to think deeply about how the Lord’s Supper may be observed within a church setting. It is possible that we have unwittingly introduced other aspects into our celebration of the Lord’s Supper that are not well aligned with how the Supper is presented within Scripture or that we have failed to emphasize the aspects of the Supper that are emphasized in Scripture (such as the importance of a gathered church body and the proclamation of the gospel). Perhaps one positive aspect stemming from this pandemic is that churches will observe the Lord’s Supper more faithfully in the future.