Would a live-streamed sacrament be an appropriate emergency measure?
During this current crisis, churches are harnessing various online tools in the absence of physical gatherings. Live-streamed services, sermons, and video-conferenced bible studies are now common.
But what about the Lord’s Supper? The prospect of six months or more without this sacrament is a painful one. Would a live-streamed sacrament be an appropriate emergency measure?
What would this look like? Proponents of this position say that this would not be each household hosting private communions—the Lord’s Supper is an ordinance of the church, not the family. Instead, the minister would lead the service online, giving the words of institution and the prayer of blessing, while each household would provide its own elements of bread and wine/grape juice. The preference would be for an online platform that allowed the congregation to see each other while communing simultaneously, not at different times.
No one would argue that this is ideal, but many would argue that it is legitimate. After all, the congregation is ‘gathered’, if only online; the minister is presiding, together presumably with the elders; the word of institution, without which there is no sacrament, is pronounced; and the biblical elements have been provided.
Still, there are serious concerns with such a proposal. Is it really necessary to take this step? Does it respect the Biblical institution? Is it pastorally useful for congregations? Does it reflect the unity of the wider Church?
IS IT NECESSARY TO HAVE THE SUPPER ONLINE?
1. THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD IS NECESSARY FOR THE CHURCH
Faith comes by the Word (Rom 10:17). Our spiritual life depends on God’s Word (Deut 8:3). It is God’s instrument for our growth in knowledge, holiness, and usefulness (2 Tim 3:16–17). There can be no public worship without the Word.
The Word is also necessary for all Christian proclamation in the world. We should speak and teach the Word to anyone, anywhere. The apostles in Acts taught publicly and privately; in synagogues, prisons, ships, courts, and market-places; before believers and unbelievers, religious leaders, governors, and philosophers. The Word is universal and indiscriminate in its reach.
Thus, various word-based ministries can readily be moved online, at least temporarily. Any minister or Christian worker could use any lawful means at their disposal to reach out to all people, Christians and non-Christians alike, with the saving and sustaining message of Christ’s gospel.
2. THE LORD’S SUPPER IS NOT NECESSARY IN THE SAME WAY AS THE WORD
The necessity of the Supper is quite different to that of the Word. First, the Supper is dependent upon the Word, whereas the Word exists and can bring life quite apart from the Supper. Secondly, the Supper does not originate faith but is a support and an expression of faith in those who already believe (I Cor 11:27–29). Thirdly, the Supper is not a tool for evangelism, nor an act of private devotion. Fourthly, it only takes place when we gather for public worship (see further below). Even then, there is no command to celebrate the Supper at every gathering. Only ‘as often’ as it is commemorated is the Lord’s death proclaimed (I Cor 11:25–26).
This means that the Supper is occasional, particular, and limited, whereas the Word is constant, general, and expansive in scope. This is not a weakness—it is part of the beauty of the Supper. Its exclusivity means it is always a precious privilege to participate in this tangible sign and seal of that union we enjoy with Christ by faith.
The Supper is as the exchange of wedding rings between a loving married couple. The rings are not of the essence. You are still married if you take your ring off to clean it or protect it from damage.
Thus, the Supper is not so absolutely necessary that faith in Christ cannot exist without it. Faith came before our first communion, and faith can be nurtured and strengthened by other means apart from it as well.
3. THE SUPPER ONLINE IS NOT NECESSARY
The conclusion is that our inability to meet in person for a season is not sufficient reason for the virtual celebration of communion. We need to be thoughtful and creative about encouraging each other in the Word in this difficult time, but the same is not true for the Supper. The current emergency creates no necessity for the Supper to be administered online.
DOES THE SUPPER ONLINE RESPECT THE BIBLICAL INSTITUTION?
A virtual Supper is not necessary, but there are significant questions to be asked about whether it is even an appropriate way of administering the Supper. Is it enough just to have the words of institution pronounced by a minister and the two elements present in some way? Is it appropriate to have the elements separate across numerous homes, between a virtually ‘gathered’ congregation? Reflecting upon the Gospel narratives and Paul’s account of communion in I Corinthians 10–11, two observations are made.
1. THE PHYSICAL GATHERING OF GOD’S PEOPLE IS ESSENTIAL TO THE SACRAMENT
Jesus had already gathered his disciples before he instituted the Supper, and his actions are inconceivable without them. Paul uses the phrase ‘when you come together’ five times in 1 Cor 11:17–34 (vv. 17, 18, 20, 33, 34) and expressly links gathering with their identity as a church (vv. 18, 22). In fact, Paul goes so far as to use this phrase as a type of shorthand for the Supper as a whole: ‘when you come together it will not be for judgment’ (v. 34).
The burden of proof is on those who argue that an online ‘gathering’ could ever approximate Scripture’s strong emphasis on the physical assembly of God’s people.
Furthermore, any such attempt is in danger of rendering the elements themselves virtual, if 1 Cor 10:17 is to be our guide. Here, Paul connects the physical gathering with the elements themselves: ‘because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’ The one body of believers is gathered around the one bread, which points to the one Christ. How can the proposal for each member or household to provide their own elements separately be squared with Paul’s insistence? As Scott Swain says, ‘no covenant assembly, means no sacrament’.
This is not to say we must celebrate the Supper in exactly the same way as Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room—reclining at table, using unleavened bread, etc. None of those features is stressed by Paul, but the common bread and the physical gathering of the people are.
Does it really matter if we are together? After all, don’t we all share in our spiritual union in Christ, wherever we may be physically? Praise God that nothing can disrupt our Spirit-wrought union in Christ, even stage 4 restrictions! But that is in the spiritual sphere, not the physical. We should not conflate one with the other.
Our God has ordained the Supper to be a sign operating in the physical sphere but pointing to what is signified in the spiritual sphere. If we circumvent physical limits on the basis of spiritual realities, we actually overthrow the nature of the sacrament itself. Ironically, we would then fall into an error something like that found in Catholicism, where the elements themselves may receive veneration, be paraded about, adored from afar (‘virtually’!) and given to individuals removed from the congregation, because their ordinary substance has been transformed. Rather, we should preserve the sacramental union between the physicality of the sign and the spirituality of what it signifies. The physical sign cannot be separated from the physical gathering.
2. SACRAMENTAL ACTION IS ESSENTIAL TO THE LORD’S SUPPER
The Lord’s Supper is a sacramental action, not just the word of institution and the elements of bread and wine. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus broke the bread, blessed it, and gave it to His disciples, and likewise, He blessed and gave the cup. The disciples then received from Him, according to His invitation and instruction. ‘Take. Eat.’
These actions, along with the words Jesus spoke, define the significance of the elements for us. Think on the words again: broken, given. This is the atonement represented. And take, eat. Christ is signified as received.
Thus, Paul also takes care to recite the same sacramental action in I Cor 11:23–25. The symbolic sign is the Supper as a whole, practised communally by the believing body gathered together.
The Reformed tradition, as expressed in the Confession held by the Presbyterian Church of Australia, has captured this insight beautifully. Unlike Catholics and Lutherans, we have not been so distracted by speculation on the nature of the bread and the wine to miss seeing the symbolism of the action.
The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed his ministers to declare his word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to a holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation. (Westminster Confession 29.3)
This corresponds exactly with the scriptural accounts. The minister and elders are united with the congregation gathered around the common bread and wine. As there is one Christ and one sacrifice, there is one act of breaking, and one act of giving from the one table. A virtual ‘communion’ disrupts this sacramental action. The giving is a visual trick, as though that which the minister distributes is that in a person’s home. The taking and eating may be well-intentioned, but the signification is subverted at the very point where assurance of having received the one Christ is meant to be engendered.
IS IT PASTORALLY HELPFUL TO HAVE THE SUPPER ONLINE?
Questions are also raised as to the pastoral usefulness of a virtual Supper, quite apart from the issue of fencing the table, which is a significant problem in its own right. Without denying the immense benefits we receive from our current inter-connected, cyber-related networks, we are also increasingly aware of the damage that is caused when what is properly kept in the natural and physical sphere is conflated with ‘cyber’ reality. Social media bullying, online stalking, and internet pornography are the more obvious examples of even deeper trends—the loss of a sense of place, the re-visioning of the human body and sexuality, and so on.
What does such a culture need? The Gospel of Jesus Christ, of course, proclaimed in every possible way, online and in person. But as disciples are gathered from such a culture, never have they needed the unyielding physicality of the sacraments more. Here they must submit to the physical gathering of their brothers and sisters, under the authority of their ministers and elders, to share in common elements, all pointing to a spiritual union with their Saviour that far transcends any ‘cyber’ horizon.
Given the very particular temptations of our internet-saturated culture, we must guard a central act of our public worship from being diluted in any way—for the spiritual welfare of Christians themselves.
WILL AN ONLINE SUPPER REFLECT THE UNITY OF THE WIDER CHURCH?
Finally, we have a duty to consider not only our own needs and desires but those of the church at large.
As Presbyterians, we are not a polity that allows for such innovation on one of the central institutions of public worship to proceed in a maverick fashion at the congregational level.
This is not a question regarding the sorts of preferences (music style, etc) where congregations may legitimately differ. This concerns a sacrament expressly ordained by Christ to be celebrated in the gathering of His people. At the very least, given the Confessional position of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, hosting communion in separate households (even if synchronised online) would require an overture to the General Assembly of Australia and the considered scrutiny of the whole denomination in an unhurried and orderly fashion. One would also hope that our ministers and elders would realise that safeguarding the Supper is a duty we owe not only to our own denomination but to the church catholic, beyond our borders. This is indeed a time of trial that God visited on our churches, and we grieve that we cannot meet together as we would like. We are thankful that God has not taken his Word and Spirit from us and is never deaf to our prayers. We look forward to that day when we will gather again around the Lords’ table. But most of all we hunger for that day when we will see the Lord face to face and feast with him in the New Jerusalem. May we all be kept, body and soul, for that final day of our salvation!
Rev Dr Jared Hood (Acting Principal, Old Testament Lecturer) Rev Dr Felix Chung (Missions and Evangelism Lecturer) Rev Ben Nelson (Greek and New Testament Lecturer)
 For further discussion of this point, see the helpful article by Garry Williams, ‘The Lord’s Supper in Lockdown? No.’ [accessed 30/3/20]