As we have pled with churches not to call their sermon-streaming “online church” or “virtual church” in a desperate warning that the long-term consequences are dire, some have suggested that the church can do everything over the Internet that it does in person. Of course, this is not true. There has never been a “virtual church” in the history of mankind, whether or not a mild plague was the impetus.
Sermons can be streamed online, indeed. Software programs like Zoom and Skype can allow people to see each other face-to-face. Prayer requests can be shared in chat groups. Offerings can be sent via Paypal. But there is one thing that cannot be done, and that is the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
Claims that “the government hasn’t restricted our religious liberty, but only our ability to gather” or “you don’t need to be there in person to worship” fall flat upon the doctrine of Communion. Simply put, in God’s impeccable and omniscient genius, He laid blueprints out for the church that would ensure technology can never replace face-to-face gathering.
I rejoice that God has established the simplicity of his Means of Grace. God has made it so that we can have church, assuming the marks of his organized body (1 Corinthians 14:40) are met, wherever there is bread, wine, water, and Word. But it’s the simplicity of his church that ensures it can never be observed remotely. The Lord’s Supper, like baptism, cannot be conducted online. And without the ordinances of the church, or at least the means to observe them, you don’t have a church at all.
The reason why Protestants refer to Communion and baptism as ordinances is it was Jesus himself who ordained them (Lutherans have a few more, but we won’t quibble on this point). Simply put, Jesus ordered them. The term sacrament is also used often interchangeably (and again, we won’t quibble on this point). Accusations of “legalism” towards those of us who insist upon them are fallacious, considering it was the Son of God himself who commanded they be done. If it is legalism to follow a direct command of Jesus Christ (and it is not), I presume I wouldn’t argue that point, either.
Low-church Protestantism often treats the Lord’s Supper as an option, giving Lutherans, most Presbyterians, and Romanists something to rightly scoff at. If you’re of a church tradition that only observes the Supper once a month, a quarter, or a year, feel free to phase out and go read something at the Babylon Bee. But for those of who are convinced that it’s simply not church without it (church history agrees with us), Communion presents an insurmountable barrier to considering anything online to be “church.”
Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (John 6:53).
Instituting the Supper officially in Matthew 26, Jesus “blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.“
From all appearances in Scripture, it seems as though this is something the church did every single time it gathered on the first day of the week (Acts 2:42, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:20). It is, for those of us silly enough to try our best to imitate the worship of the First Century, something that is the very centerpiece of worship – even more so than the sermon (which is not an ordinance of the church).
As we have pointed this out, some have questioned why they couldn’t just observe the Supper at home, by themselves. The obvious answer is that Communion is communion…with God and with one another. It’s like asking why you can’t have a conversation with yourself. Perhaps you can try, but it will be contrived and ineffectual.
Communion is a weekly health-check for the church, as each member evaluates whether they are taking it worthily of the body (1 Corinthians 11:27). It is something done in close consideration of those around us and is only something done when the church has “come together” (1 Corinthians 11:17).
But there are other reasons why this ordinance can only be observed amongst the assembly. First among these is that the ordinance belongs to the church. Like Baptism, it is nothing that can be observed by Lone Ranger Christians. Not even Peter baptized Cornelius without first asking the cohort from the church of Antioch (Acts 10:47), and he was an Apostle. Commentaries rightly suggest that the Apostle asked the representatives of that local church because he recognized that it was an ordinance of the local church and not of Apostles at large. Anyone baptizing someone outside the local assembly in unique circumstances – like Stephen baptized the Ethiopian eunuch – was an ordained minister of the church (he was called and had the laying-on of hands in Acts 6).
Our confessions of faith recognize the ordinances are to be administered by an officiant (an officeholder, such as a bishop or elder) of the local church. The London Baptist Confession (1689) reads:
In this ordinance the Lord Jesus has appointed his ministers to pray and to bless the elements of bread and wine and in this way to set them apart from a common to a holy use. They are to take and break the bread, take the cup, and give both to the communicants while also participating themselves.
By continuing this two-thousand year-long apostolic precedent, the church is reinforcing the notion that the Lord’s Supper belongs to the church as a whole and not to any individual Christian. Just as baptism is done by the local church and the person is immediately received into the local church, the Supper works in the same fashion. It is dispensed by the representation of Jesus on Earth, the local Body.
By ensuring the ordinances are done by the Body of Jesus, we ensure they are done by Jesus Himself. If one does these ordinances outside the Body of Jesus, it is not done by Jesus at all.
This is the very reason why, again for two-thousand years, those in unrepentant sin would be denied access to the Lord’s Supper for their own good. If individuals could consecrate bread and wine as the metaphoric body and blood of Jesus, they could just receive their church’s admonition and go home and break up their saltines and break out their Welch’s.
Observing the Supper at home is in the same category of error as baptizing yourself or ordaining yourself. Certainly, there are people who do both, and history has demonstrated they are almost all heretics. The doctrine of the Priesthood of the Believer in no way abrogates the office of pastor given to the church by Jesus (Ephesians 4:11).
To claim that one “doesn’t need” the church for the Lord’s Supper is effectively denying one needs the church at all. It is to claim that Jesus can be your head, without you having to be in his Body. It is, for lack of a better word, ecclesiastical anarchy.
Churches that encourage these ordinances be observed privately are setting a dangerous precedent that will ensure no one returns to their churches once coronavirus is over. If they can have all the benefits of church without actually going, then why not stay home?
While Protestant churches do not believe in transubstantiation – that the elements (bread and wine) are actually the body and blood of Jesus – we do not believe these are mere symbolism, even though we acknowledge they are symbolic. Baptism and Communion are real and actual Means of Grace given by Jesus to be received in the local church and administered by the local church with real, yet inexplicable, supernatural blessing. If they are to be effectual, they must be observed as instituted by Jesus.
Sadly, many have celebrated the technology that allows them to “do church” at home because they have never once considered that a church without the Lord’s Supper isn’t church at all. The oversight is a systemic blight on our theological Downgrade.
Many might shout, “The church is not a building.” Of course, that sentiment is correct. The church is a gathering, however. The word itself means “assembly.” No individual is the church in and of themselves, they are only the church when they come together in that sacred throng. We are only “lively stones” building up the spiritual house of God (1 Peter 2:5), and that house is complete when it is placed together for worship.