There are few greater joys for the body of Christ than regular participation in the Lord’s Supper. The sustaining grace of physically participating in the broken body and spilled blood of Christ is the best meal of the week. It doesn’t matter how materially meager it is (although I’ve been known to tear some big pieces off), it never loses its spiritual sustenance. After all, we don’t partake because we are psychically hungry, we’ve got homes for that after all (1 Cor 11:34). We partake because we are distracted, disunified, disenchanted normal folks who need the physicality of a meal to hammer home the truth of the gospel. To take gospel truth we hear on Sunday and drive it into our hearts often requires more ingesting than we can do with our eyes and ears.
Because of its sustaining power, Lord’s Supper should be taken regularly—at our church this means we take it weekly—and not neglected for extended periods of time. In his admonition to the Corinthian church, Paul assumes that they are taking (and abusing) the Lord’s Supper “when [they] come together” weekly (1 Cor 11:17-34). This should be read as descriptive and not prescriptive, but it does present a strong argument for the regular partaking of the supper. Many evangelical churches practice monthly or on other schedules, and there is room for Christian freedom to decide how often is “regularly”. But due to the nature of the Lord’s Supper, it’s hard to argue that weekly observance is not a significantly helpful practice for the health of the local church, the strengthening of the Christian, and the unity of the body.
It makes sense, then, that in a time when churches across the world are canceling services and offering worship services virtually that there would be a desire to partake in the table as well. Why neglect this great gift? Can we take communion virtually?
Covictionally, I’m just not there. No one I know has ever pastored through a pandemic like this, and if there has ever been a time for charity and nuance, it is now. But this Sunday, and any other Sunday that we cannot gather as one body, our church body will not be partaking in communion together. This is lamentable, to be sure, but necessary. The nature of the Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal of covenant renewal, realities which virtual communion fail to signify appropriately.
A Covenant Meal for a Covenant People
In the ancient world, every binding covenant was sealed by a meal, a feast that demonstrated the new relationship between the two covenanting parties. Even today we do the same: our marriage covenants are often sealed by a marriage supper. The Lord’s Supper is a covenant meal, signifying the realities of our new covenant union with Christ. Every week before communion we recite the words of institution, which Jesus said before he instigated the practice of the Lord’s Supper. It is recorded in Luke 22:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
So Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:16,
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
And perhaps the most striking reference to the reality of what is signified in the supper, in John 6:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
It can’t get much more up close and physical than “feed on me”. Through this covenant meal, the Christian is not only remembering their union with Christ, they are communing with him in the process. J. Todd Billings is helpful in showing that “remembrance” in the language of Jesus and Paul is much deeper than our modern word can convey.
...to “remember” in this sense is not simply to “call to mind” the mighty acts of God, but to assign them an active role in one’s “world”... Some “remembering” is trite—like remembering a shopping list; but other remembering is identity forming—opening up a new world, a new drama to inhabit.
In other words, we tend to think of the Lord’s Supper as simply a meal of remembrance of Christ’s cross. Surely it is since he said “do this in remembrance of me.” But it is so much more, a kind of unique “spiritual remembrance”. The “remembrance” of the Supper is an invitation to participate in union with Christ, to belong, to feast, to be shaped by a new identity. The image of the cross we remember is an identity-shaping one. We partake of his blood and his body, and in doing so, we abide in him, and he abides in us. The Lord’s Supper is a weekly act of saying: I am one with Christ! This meal is an invitation not only to eat and drink forgiveness, but eat and drink covenant relationship.
But here is the thing about union with Christ: we aren’t the only ones in on this. Our deep and spiritual remembrance of Jesus acts as the means of communing us with him and sparking our intimacy with his body, the church. This is a community meal, signified by the corporate nature of the covenant that we are remembering and taking part in. This is why we often encourage one another, when we take communion on Sunday, to keep our eyes open. We look around at our brothers and sisters and remember that this is a meal of unity, designed for the gathering of the body of Christ. We feel deep encouragement as we put names to faces and watch the ones we love participate in the same grace we are. We heal personal wounds together as we realize the even ground of the supper: one loaf, one cup, one body, one blood. Sure, it’s personal. But it’s much, much, more than that.
Virtual communion struggles with tangible ways of promoting unity. It takes a physical participation with a physical people and strips away the central piece that makes it so powerful: it’s physicality. It takes the covenant meal and risks flipping it on its side, ever so slightly, into an individualized meal. There is a very real danger in virtual communion of taking union with Christ, the whole Christ head to toe, and turning it into union with “your own personal Jesus”.
Some may argue that the unity in mind at the covenant meal is a unity between the global church, not just a local church. To that, I agree. We do take part in union with the whole body of Christ, in every inch and in every time. But when we take the Lord’s Supper apart from our local expression of that body, we run the risk of abstraction. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul is not concerned with how they offended the global church by their misuse of the supper. Their actions ultimately won’t stop the building of Christ’s universal church; he is the foreman on that front. The concern is for the health of their specific body. We don’t have space to go into detail about what exactly is going on in 1 Corinthians 10-11, but suffice it to say that it is clear that the purpose of the Supper is a central weapon in the fight for the unity of the local body. It is by forgetting the importance of that unity that the Corinthians “eat and drink judgment on themselves”. The more we abstract from our local bodies who we know, love, affirm, and hold accountable, the more we run the risk of failing to “discern the body”. The argument is summed up in 1 Corinthians 11:33-34,
So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another— if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home—so that when you come together it will not be for judgment.
If we are hungry, we can eat at home. But for this meal, we wait for one another to partake, so that when we come together it will signify our unity and have no hint of judgement or division. It’s a covenant meal for the covenant community.
Covenant Renewal and the Importance of Fences
The Lord’s Supper is also an act of covenant renewal. Paul charges the Corinthian church to “examine” themselves to see if they are condemning themselves by failing to discern the body of Christ as they partake (1 Cor 11:28). The Corinthian church was isolating poorer and less well-known Christians from partaking in the unity of the Supper. The Supper is intended to be the place where in remembrance, the church of God is fueled to remain faithful to their covenant with God in Christ.
Of course, the New Covenant is not a covenant of works. This means that even as the people of God fail to uphold their end of the covenant, it is sealed with the perfect righteousness and blood of Christ, not the works and obedience of the people of God. And yet, even imperfectly, the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace by which the people of God renew their commitment to partake in Christ and obey his commands, to hold onto Christ imperfectly as he holds onto them perfectly.
For this reason, those who are in deliberately unrepentant sin and ignorance of the covenant should not partake in the Lord’s Supper. Those under formal church discipline due to lack of repentance from obvious sin or who have no profession of faith in Christ will only be “eating and drinking judgement on themselves” (1 Cor 11:29).
Many churches restrict the Lord’s Supper to only those who are baptized members of a gospel-preaching church (who can in turn affirm their salvation). This is most certainly an appropriate and Biblically faithful way of fencing the table of covenant renewal. Others do things a bit differently, offering the table to all those who are in Christ and making a conscious and careful effort to discourage and warn all those who are unrepentant. This means that every Sunday the meal is offered freely, but only to those who are in Christ and who are willing to come forward and partake with the body publically. In contrast, the invitation to those who are not unified with Christ is to repent and believe so as to enter the covenant family by faith.
In every example of the “fencing of the table”, the goal is similar: to make sure we aren’t giving out false assurance of faith. False assurance is perhaps the worst thing you can do for someone. It speaks comfort to the sinner and sin and blinds them to the reality of unrepentance heading their way. If the table is not well protected, we risk nullifying part of it’s BIblical purpose, to unify the true body of Christ.
Lack of accountability is a very strong argument for not partaking in virtual communion. You never know who is watching. Sure, online caveats may be given, but without the physicality of the gathered body, there is a higher chance that any warnings would prove empty, a chance we don’t want to be playing around with. Accountability comes with physical presence: Christ does not primarily protect his church with warnings spoken over internet streams, but with his Holy-Spirit sealed and empowered people. In the same way, any invitation to come to Christ by faith loses some of its potency when it is not backed by the call of the gathered body. We are all ambassadors of Christ, and by partaking in the Lord’s Supper together as an expression of our union with Christ, we are in a real way saying to the unbeliever “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
In short, the Lord’s Supper is a communal meal for the gathered church. No one is excluded. We take it when we “come together” to eat. It’s a physical meal of covenant that is displayed by a physically gathered body of believers who are covenanted together as a way to express their union with Christ. Only partaking when we are physically together signifies the importance of the meal being one of covenant renewal and helps us to guard against false assurance.
If you are making this tough decision for your church body, be careful not to condemn those who would disagree with your conclusion. We are not the arbiters of theological justice everywhere. And yet, every pastor, leader, and church member has a real responsibility to help guard and keep their church body, so a decision must be made. The sustaining grace of the Lord’s Table is a God-ordained means to do that guarding; let’s not minimize its potency unnecessarily.
When we do get together, by God’s providential grace, that meal will be exponentially sweeter.