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Celebrating the Lord’s Supper while we’re not together

It wasn’t long after Governor Pritzker announced the imposition of a stay-at-home order before the subject of livestreaming the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper became a topic of discussion. I admit, I hadn’t given the matter much thought prior to those early conversations.

As elders we’re tasked—among other things—with ensuring that our worship is carried out in a manner that’s consistent with Holy Scripture, our Confessions, and with the requirements of our Book of Order.

This duty requires that we exercise careful deliberation about when and how we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper,especially during our separation (which appears will last till mid-June at the very earliest). 

Specifically, we must decide together whether the practice of livestreaming the Communion is consistent with the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Christ, the witness of the New Testament, and of our Confessions. This is an especially pressing question since you took action prior to my arrival to authorize the monthly celebration of the Eucharist beginning in May, a decision I support, but that has not been acted upon as yet.

Our denomination has not taken a position on this matter thus leaving it to the discretion of ministers and of church sessions. Some denominations have permitted it (the Presbyterian Church (USA), for one), others have opted not to (the United Methodist Church and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, for example). 

I have come to the conviction that we ought to refrain from celebrating the Lord’s Supper while we are separated physically. This is my recommendation to you.

Why?

A sacrament is a symbolic action instituted by Christ himself. Jesus himself attaches to that action the promise of his presence and of his blessing. The Lord’s Supper is not an individual act. It is a shared meal. 

The key issue, for me, is that the institution of the Lord’s Supper by Christ connected it with a specific context or place. That context is the physical gathering of God’s people in worship (1 Cor. 11:33). Clearly that need not be in a church building, but it must be in a gathering. 

It is for this reason that Presbyterians have opposed private communion services or communion services in which only a limited number of people receive the sacrament (i.e., at a wedding).[1] Even when communion is celebrated in a hospital room, the Presbyterian practice has been to bring elders to serve as a representative of the body of Christ.

That’s because the point of the Lord’s Supper isn’t simply that we individually are communing with Christ; it is that we are communing with one another as we commune with Christ. 

The failure to commune together while communing with Christ led Paul to rebuke the Corinthians: “when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers” (1 Cor. 11:20). As a result, Paul tells them that though they are outwardly receiving the sacrament, they are not receiving its spiritual benefit (“…when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat…”). 

In addition, virtual communion removes the opportunities to fulfill the duties that the New Testament attaches to “worthily receiving” the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:27). This includes repentance and restoration prior to partaking of the Supper. It also makes it nearly impossible for the minister and officers to attend to who is taking communion, a necessary part of pastoral work in ensuring that the sacrament is properly received.[2]   

In conclusion, we recently discussed whether we could ordain and install church officers while we are separated. The consensus was that the inability to gather and lay hands on these brothers and sisters meant that we needed to postpone it until we could be together again. The same is true for the Lord’s Supper. 

What we can do is lament, as did the Israelites, that we are kept from gathering in the Lord’s House for worship. And we can anticipate the day when we are together once more.

RESOURCES

I’ve attached two articles (there are many more on the internet) for discussion below:

  • “Online Communion Can Still be Sacramental” – Christianity Today – Link

  • “Should We Livestream the Lord’s Supper?” – Link


[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.4.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, 29.8.