Is It Ever Appropriate To Celebrate a "VIRTUAL Lord's Supper?"
A few days after the Australian government introduced limitations on gatherings and ministers realised that churches would have to meet on-line, several ministers asked me about the Lord’s Supper. I wrote a response and circulated it around the Presbyterian Churches in our state.
Here are my thoughts (just slightly edited from the original version).
Not surprisingly, this is not an issue that the Bible addresses! So, we need to step back and think about the principles involved. What follows are my thoughts about why and how we can approach the question from biblical principles, guided by WCF chapter 29.
The Lord’s Supper is a good gift from God, established by Christ for the spiritual nourishment of God’s people. Through it, Christ offers himself to us, just as he does in his Word. The Word, read and proclaimed is the foundational means of grace. The Lord’s Supper focuses the promises of the Word for us and presents them in particular and physical signs. It explains the signs of the Supper and declares the promises which they seal.
The biblical pattern, in both testaments, is that the Word is a consistent element of worship (Dt 29:14-15; Neh 8:1-8; Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 14:26; Col 3:15-16, Eph 5:19-20; 1 Tim 4:13). Because the church is formed and sustained by God’s word, it is indispensable to the life of God’s people. A church has not really met for worship if the Word has not been read and proclaimed in some form.
When we turn the Lord’s Supper, it is a different situation. John Calvin protested the medieval practice of only having communion at Easter and argued that “Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually”. This seems to go beyond the New Testament directions, which simply speaks of what the Supper means “whenever” it is shared by the church (1 Cor 11:25-26). Reformed churches have generally considered that the Supper should be celebrated regularly but that it need not be weekly.
The first thing to note, then, is that the church cannot live without the Word but can live without the Lord’s Supper for a time. If you find it difficult or inappropriate to organise a virtual Lord’s Supper, then you are not robbing the church of its necessary nutrition.
I do think, though, that we can share the Lord’s Supper on-line (as it were). This would be an emergency measure, as is virtual worship. In the current circumstances, it is worth considering.
The sacraments do not depend on a particular form of administration for their spiritual blessing, and there is nothing in the fact that a minister physically handles the bread and shares it that contributes to the benefit of the Supper. I have been at Lord’s Supper celebrations with people sitting around tables and serving one other the bread and juice as the minister led the service. Whether you prefer that style or not, it seemed to me to a perfectly valid form of the Lord’s Supper.
The Westminster Confession says that those who receive the Supper with true faith “spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death” (29:7). This benefit depends on the work of the Spirit who gives faith. From the human side there are three elements which should be present: the signs of bread and wine shared, the fellowship of the church under the leadership of its elders, and the Word of God, especially the words of institution. If we are going to have the Lord’s Supper “virtually”, we should ensure these elements are present.
Here is my suggestion for sharing the Lord’s Supper over the next few months.
The first step will be to let people in your church know that you plan to share in the Lord’s Supper on a particular Sunday. It is important that it is shared by God’s people should be gathered together (though, needs be virtually). I would not encourage people to share in the Lord’s Supper ‘asynchronously’. I would not offer a recorded version which members can use and watch any time they choose — that would remove the fellowship aspect of the meal.
In preparation, ask church members to have some simple bread and some grape juice or wine. If it becomes difficult to access grape juice or wine, some other juice or even water can substitute. The point is to maintain the biblical symbolism as closely as possible, so people grasp the meaning of the meal. Paul condemned the rich Corinthians for indulging themselves at what they thought was the Lord’s Supper while the poor went without (1 Cor 11:17-21). Encourage people to have simple elements to avoid this kind of pattern.
The Lord’s Supper is meant to be a fellowship meal (1 Cor 10:17), so it should be ‘shared’ in a way so that people are aware of each other’s presence and not simply looking at the leader. A “Zoom” arrangement, rather than a “Facebook” live feed is better. A large congregation could be arranged into a series of smaller on-line gatherings to help people have a stronger sense of communion with each other.
As with a normal Lord’s Supper service, the minister should lead, reading the Scriptures and leading in prayer; then leading people through sharing the bread and the wine, inviting someone in each location to break and share the bread and the wine.
I do not think it is appropriate for families to share the Lord’s Supper in their own capacity. The Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance, not a family one (unlike the Passover).
If a service is ‘broadcast’ there is an extra responsibility to “fence” the table. The Bible warns about the danger of eating and drinking from the Lord’s Table in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27). As you lead the Lord’s Supper virtually, you should make it clear that the Lord’s Table is for those that have faith in Christ and are living for him in fellowship with his people.
It will take a while for us to get used to these new arrangements and I’m sure churches will find variations on the above which work better in their context. Whenever we share in the Lord’s Supper we anticipate the Day when we will share in the great wedding feast of the Lamb. Over the next few months, we will feel that even more intensely and will look forward to the day when we can eat together with our brothers and sisters.
by John McClean, Board Member of the WRF, Lecturer in Systematic Theology, Christ College, Sydney, Australia