The Western church is in a strange moment. We have long enjoyed the freedom of meeting together as a body of believers in person, locally, and frequently. But last year brought a new challenge (varying in intensity depending on where you live) to our freedom of assembly. Without getting into the legality of the situation (for Americans, at least), I would like to take a moment to consider one important factor that might be getting overlooked due to the politically charged atmosphere of 2020—the question of the communion table.
Depending on your particular denomination or doctrinal belief, the communion (or Lord’s) table/Eucharist might be all but missing from this year’s calendar of experiences. Most churches are either scrambling to learn how to live stream or tentatively opening their doors for socially-distanced services (and some are serving lawsuits to their local and the federal government) so it’s understandable that they might not have the time or energy to tackle something as situationally unexpected as whether to serve communion online (or not).
Even so, the consideration of such an option means that we must first deal with the questions of 1.) what do we believe about the communion table (or, what is the purpose/aim of communion), and 2.) is this possible to achieve online/over the internet?
What is the purpose of communion (the Lord’s Supper)?
I can only answer the question of online communion from my own experience and belief, so that is what I will do…but I strongly believe the quandary is worthwhile for anyone in ministry currently (or any believer, really) to go back to the text and wrestle with—so I encourage you to do the same.
When considering Paul’s charge to the Corinthians on their mishandling of the Lord’s table in 1 Cor. 11:17-34, the fact that Paul has to deal with certain problems (divisions/disunity, the elevation of certain members of the community over others, greed, drunkenness, and other expressions of selfishness) that only manifest in a corporate setting should not be overlooked. After admonishing the group for its behavior (v. 20-22) and instructing them to individually examine themselves before partaking (v. 28), Paul then says, “Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (v. 33). The point is that the brothers and sisters cannot show this kind of preferential love by themselves at home. They must travel a dusty road to the gathering place and be seated at a table next to the body of another believer (and then patiently “wait for one another”). By doing so, the members are embodying Christ’s sacrificial nature and preferring others over themselves.
We have often remembered the words of Hebrews 10:25 this year—that we do not forsake the meeting of the saints—and this can be done provisionally and virtually in circumstances that demand it (long-distance travel, members who are sick or immobile, etc.) We can virtually worship together in song, in receiving teaching and preaching, even in agreement with corporate prayer. But can we join together at the Eucharistic table if we are not physically together? Can we participate in the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for us -his corporate body- if we are alone?
While Paul is providing practical guardrails for the Corinthians to learn the proper way to partake in the supper, we find the true crux of what he is teaching in 1 Cor. 11:26,
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”
The Greek form for the word “proclaim” is katangellō, a word commonly used throughout the New Testament, which means to “declare openly, to proclaim, announce, preach, celebrate,”…you get the idea. To “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” through the sacrament of the supper inherently means that there will be one (or many) proclaiming while others listen and receive.
Paul’s emphasis here in “proclaim the Lord’s death” is something we do in the presence of one another—we don’t “proclaim” to ourselves, but to another person. It inherently requires us to be in a corporate setting. (Which, of course, we can do virtually via Zoom or Livestream, although I’m not sure can be done if you are alone and following a communion template.) The communion supper is meant to announce the atonement for the building up of the body (in celebration!) and to be a witness to seekers—it is a way that we “see” the beautiful work of the gospel while we await its fulfillment in Christ’s return.
5 Theological Dynamics of Communion (the Lord’s Supper)
At this point, I think it might be helpful to consider five theological dynamics that emerge from the communion sacrament. I assume that all five aspects can be achieved through the medium of a digital/virtual communion, but also believe the best scenario is an in-person and corporate expression of the table (for reasons stated above).
- Unity– the main purpose of the Lord’s supper/communion is unity. Primarily, unity between the believer and God, and secondarily (but still closely intertwined with the first) unity between the body of believers and God. Whether one believes that the elements transfer a kind of mystical exchange to achieve unity, or that the unity happens through remembrance/heart response, either way, the purpose is the welcoming, communing, and union of God’s Spirit with his people.
- Contemplation- Paul instructs the believers to engage in self-reflection at the table—to get quiet and allow the Spirit to search us inwardly and to be ultimately aligned with the Father’s heart and will (1 Cor. 11:28). This aspect goes hand-in-hand with repentance and renewal.
- Healing- Paul also mentions how neglecting the proper attitude toward the table has resulted in people getting sick and even dying, or “sleeping” depending on the translation (1 Cor. 11:30). On this point, we are keenly reminded of our holistic experience as people (body, soul, and spirit) and of the tangible effects of the power of the Holy Spirit moving in the corporate setting.
- Eschatological Hope- Time spent at the table causes us to turn our thoughts toward the ultimate rule of Christ as King -being birthed even now by the continual and progressive work of the Spirit- that which is our ultimate hope. Communion is an act of looking back, but it is also an act of looking forward “until He comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
- Resurrection Power- Approaching the table inspires us to remember the whole of Christ’s journey: the cross, the tomb, and the resurrection. It is our participation in all three phases that allow the Spirit of Christ to communicate real power to our lives. Communion is both a memorial to this process and participation in it (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
So is it possible to experience the communion table online?
To return to our original two-part question, I hope the (above) five points provide helpful contours for answering what we believe about the purpose of communion. In my view, the strongest argument for a church to offer a digital/virtual communion to viewers at home (via Livestream or providing an outline) would be for the general encouragement of the believer who cannot physically meet with their local congregation. The sacrament is meant to provide a moment of self-reflection for the believer to remember the Lord’s sacrifice (the memorial view) and this can certainly be done anytime, anywhere by the aid of the Spirit.
However, I take seriously the argument against doing a digital/virtual communion precisely because of the way the Lord exemplified the supper (and his entire ministry, ie; foot washing, healing by touching) as an in-person experience, as well as Paul’s encouragement for the believers to “wait on one another” before they ate (discussed in 1 Cor. 11). On the one hand, I think communion is meant to be a type or model for us to understand the spiritual nature of our relationship with Christ (we are to “eat” and “drink” of him daily; Jn. 6:35, 57) but on the other hand, there is supernatural power in coming together as a corporate body to worship, reflect, and respond to God.
My overall impression is that communion CAN be done digitally/virtually if necessary, but that it is BETTER to come together in person. The Lord knew that in every circumstance of the church -whether pandemic or government oppression or personal hardship- we would need each other to continue in the faith. The communion table is a beautiful and uniquely Christian sacrament; it is time intentionally set aside for us to be united together with our total focus on Christ and what he has done for the church. May we not forsake the breaking of bread together in his name.
Thanks to Professor Dony K. Donev, D.Min. at Lee University for feedback on the five-point framework of theological elements of the communion table from a Pentecostal perspective. Some of the language has been slightly changed to my own preference.