13 April 2020

Virtual Communion?

by Phil Johnson



ne of the questions prompted by the quarantine is about "virtual communion." After all, in lieu of regular worship services, we are listening online every Sunday while our pastor preaches from the pulpit of the church. So why not have a kind of virtual communion service, where we all take the elements simultaneously in the privacy of our homes?

Five times in Paul's instructions regarding the Lord's Table, he uses the phrase "when you come together as a church" or its equivalent (1 Corinthians 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). In verse 34 he expressly contrasts "eat[ing] at home" with the act of eating the bread and drinking the cup as a church body "when you come together." Clearly, the communion ordinance is supposed to be shared by the gathered assembly of the church collectively, not taken by individuals in solitude. It is not a private sacrament.

We might sometimes serve communion with a small group of 5-10 church members gathering at the bedside of someone who is homebound or permanently confined to a nursing home or long-term health-care facilities. But there's a significant difference in a case like that—because you have a subset of the church in genuine communion together, contrasted with isolated people in quarantine who serve themselves (which destroys the symbolism of the Supper).

I agree that extraordinary times do sometimes call for extraordinary measures, and I understand the desire to be flexible in a time of emergency, so although I don't approve and wouldn't participate, I wouldn't necessarily inveigh publicly against a church that offered a "virtual communion service." There may be some well-meaning church leaders who sincerely believe some kind of makeshift online Eucharistic ceremony (sans any actual communion among the saints) is better than none at all. They are wrong about that. But if done anyway, such dramatic revision to the sacrament needs (at the very least) to be carefully and thoroughly explained, along with clear instructions telling participants that this is a temporary measure only, a one-time exception to the normal practice, and it should not change how the church normally observes the Lord's Table or regards its significance.



In practice, however, "virtual communion" services do confuse people—or worse. Saddleback Church, for example, has embraced the idea of "virtual communion." In an email message to church members during Passion Week, Rick Warren wrote, "Last weekend, thousands of our members participated in this tradition at home in our first online Communion in the history of this church. Many people just used what they had: cheese crackers, pancake bits, and various juices. It's hilarious seeing on social media all the things our members used!"

They have literally made a mockery of the Lord's Table—the very kind of thing the apostle was rebuking the Corinthians for in 1 Corinthians 11.

So the best course of action—and what Grace Community Church's elders will be doing—is to wait to serve communion until the church can legitimately assemble. Better to forego the ordinance altogether during the quarantine rather than risk confusing people about the meaning of the Lord's Table and how it is normally to be administered.

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12 comments:

Phil Johnson said...

No, I'm not re-opening the blog. But I'm getting this question from so many people I needed a place to post an answer I can refer people to. It might be another year before I post anything more.

solascriptura146 said...

👍👍

Thanks for this

Sharon said...

I'm glad you were able to take a leave of absence from your leave of absence to address this issue. I was confused myself, but understand now that Communion should be done corporately, and not privately with pancakes and Pepsi.

And I so look forward to the Sunday we can all gather again to celebrate the Lord's Table, lift our voices in songs, and worship our Lord together!

Irish Rev said...

Thank you for your thoughtful response.

Brian McCrorie said...

Phil, I'm still thinking through this. In an age where the technology allows us to see and hear one another, even in large numbers (zoom, etc.), could we not argue we are gathered together, led by our church leadership, and proclaiming together the Lord's death in this ordinance, even as we are separated physically? I'm not advocating one way or another, but just trying to think through this unusual and temporary time given the technology we have available which was not in existence in the early church.

Cathy Samuelson said...

How is it “normally to be administered”? What does Scripture say about the administration of it?

FX Turk said...

10,000 times, exactly right. Thanks Phil for the clear voice on this critical matter of obedience and wisdom.

Bill O'Neill said...

“It’s hilarious” is about as saddening as it gets. Thank you, Phil, for your Biblical clarity on this. God bless, brother.

Unknown said...

Phil, I just read your rules of civility. I think I have stayed within them, but I do strongly disagree with your piece. I've worked through my response several times and asked others to review and comment. My purpose is not to violate the spirit or letter of what you have asked of your readers. With that please find my reply below.
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I was very sad to read your post about “virtual communion”. I have to say that I disagree with everything you have said at every level. You start out by proof texting your argument with references to I Corinthians 11:, pointing out that Paul used the words “come together” five times, as if this is some edict that all believers must be in one place to have communion. I’m guessing Paul was not thinking about heading off virtual communion when he was writing this. In fact, he was pointing out in the first three references that they were actually not participating in the Lord’s supper even though technically they were 1) Meeting in the same place, and 2) Using the correct elements. The point is it was not the Lord’s Supper because of the attitude of their hearts (i.e. selfish, gluttons, etc.).

You next try to make the argument that people who are physically in one place are somehow magically in “communion together” because they are physically in the same place. I’ve been in services where elders are looking on their I-Phones and doing everything but paying attention to what is going on in the service. In our virtual church service, we are all gathered together, in our homes, and we are all following each portion of our worship service together as one body. We all participate in singing together. We all listen to elders read scripture and pray together. We all listen to a message preached from the Word together, and we all listen to and follow the leadership of our elders during communion together. Through the gift of telecommunications, we are anything but isolated.

Next you make the argument that we can either have a sorry excuse for a communion service virtually or do it the “correct” way under the oversight of an elder within the “safe” 4 walls of a church building. You somehow divine that anyone who has communion at home is “WRONG ABOUT THAT” but make no reasonable argument to support your statement.

In your next attack you say that “virtual communion services do confuse people”. I would say that regular communion and church services also confuse people, but you don’t seem to be against them. The problem isn’t the fact that they are virtual but in what is being said and taught. Next you opine on how virtual communion is a “dramatic revision of the sacrament”, when we have been able to participate in virtual communion and found it is essentially the same thing, and that it can provide the same blessing to the worshipping church body who are participating in it. The only dramatic thing seems to be you and your arguments.

You then go on to criticize Rick Warren for the way he is lax in what elements are used and that he is not reverent enough in his attitude about having virtual communion. One could easily point out that at communion services that you hold in your church you use elements that would have been foreign to the original Lord’s Supper; grape juice and stale flakes of something that is supposed to resemble bread, but that the rats wouldn’t eat. I find that hypocritical.

You conclude with the position of the elders at Grace Community Church would rather forgo communion during quarantine than confuse your people. Good for you. Our elders have chosen to keep communion as a vital part of our weekly worship service, which I have found to be a better choice.

Unknown said...

I appreciate you weighing on this topic as it is relevant for the times. While you do make a salient point of the repeated emphasis of the church "coming together" to take the Lord's Table in I Cor. 11, you failed to give any credence to the reality that in some ways, a virtual gathering is coming together- especially in the absence of our ability to do so physically. We certainly have no qualms with people listening to sermons online or via CD as secondary means of hearing the proclamation of the Word, do we? While it would be always preferable to celebrate communion in the physically gathered worship of the church when at all possible since that is the established pattern of the NT (the same being said for the preaching of scripture), should we not leave room for less than ideal circumstances such as we face now? Is it really better not to celebrate communion at all because churches are closed rather than a carefully guided online celebration? Is celebrating communion at home with other believers who are connected through the means of technology (which we so readily use for other ministry purposes) prohibited anywhere in the Bible? Let's remember Jesus' words, "DO THIS....in remembrance of me." From my vantage point, this is the most important instruction related to communion from the very mouth of our Lord. We are to "do it" (no exceptions given) and we are to do it reflecting about what He has done for us. It seems to me that we have allowed a virus to become an excuse not to "do it." Thus, the ideal has trumped the necessary. I also think that the idea that communion can only be served by ministerially qualified agents (pastors/elders) smacks of sacerdotalism.

It's been four Sundays since our church has met and celebrated communion. Their position is the same one stated here. Yet, I think such think tends prohibit that which all desperately need- the invisible truths of the gospel made visible through our participation in the Lord's Supper.

It will be interesting to see how long the "shelter at home" orders will stay in place and how long those advocating this position will hold out until they realize that some form of sharing in communion is better than none.

Phil Johnson said...

https://robertstrivens.wordpress.com/2020/04/22/are-we-meeting-online/

DJP said...

Amen. Sadly-needed and of course true.

I told our folks I wouldn't be instructing them how to do at-home communion any more than I would be instructing them how to do at-home baptisms.