WHAT WOULD PAUL SAY TO THE PRACTICE OF ONLINE COMMUNION? by Harshit S.
One of the challenges faced by Christians during these days of “social distancing” is how this impacts the life of the church. In particular, what does this mean for the practice of communion or the Lord’s Supper? Many churches across the world, and in our country, have decided to partake in communion virtually. I am sure that pastors who are practicing online communion are doing this with the best of intentions. But we are called to lead God’s people by relying on God’s Word, not our good intentions. I would like us all to think about this practice through the lens of Scripture. Good intentions don’t justify unbiblical practices. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul has a few things to say about communion. It would do us good to pay attention to his teachings. Doing so would be to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit as Paul’s writings are inspired by God the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians chapter 10:17, Paul says, “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.” (ESV: “one bread”) In the immediate context, Paul is addressing the believers at Corinth about the issue of eating meat offered to idols. Here, he is urging believers to flee from idolatry. He says that you who identify yourself as believers cannot continue to partake and participate in idolatry any more. You are united to the body of Christ, which is, in their case, the local church at Corinth. And while he is urging them to flee idolatry, he inadvertently makes a very important point that is relevant to our discussion today.
We are one body (10:17): Notice in verse 17 Paul appeals to the practice of participating in the Lord’s supper to make his case against idolatry. He says that we are one body. We are united. Because we eat one bread. Now that we are united as one, we cannot go and partake in another table, another bread which is of the evil one. I find it intriguing that Paul makes a big deal of this one bread. The one bread is symbolic of Jesus’ body. Moreover, Paul assumes that the believers at Corinth are gathered together at one place to partake from one bread which was a potent symbol of them being united to one another and being one body! Please pay attention to the language there, Paul says, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf! In using this argument, Paul is making an assumption which is easy to miss. He is assuming that the believers at Corinth are gathered at one place to partake from one bread. This one bread or one loaf was only visible to them in reality when they gathered as one people in one place. How do we do this when we, as a church, are not in one location? If symbols have meaning, shouldn't the symbols symbolize something? If our communion is not communion with one another, then what are we doing? Why even do it online with others? When we break bread at homes, are we truly representing the theological purpose of breaking of the bread, which is the church partaking together in one loaf (powerful symbol)? Let’s go on and have a quick look at 1 Corinthians chapter 11 from verse 17-34 which has more to say about the Lord’s supper.
Come together (11:17,18,20,33,34): We are not only a one body spiritually, but as a body we also "come together" physically. Notice that Paul repeats this phrase come together at least 5 times in this passage. In fact, in verse 18 he makes it even more clear by saying when you come together as a church. Now it cannot be made clearer than this. In Paul’s mind, the church is when people gather together. The word church comes from the word Ekklesia which means “gathering”, “assembly” or “congregation”. And it is only when they come together that they should partake in communion. Because it is here that they will break one bread, and it is here when they break one bread that the many will become one! A very compelling, potent depiction of Christian unity.
Remembrance (24,25): "It is clear that communion is to be observed when we "come together", but what are we to do when we come together?" Well, many protestant Christians are still influenced by Roman Catholic sacramental view of communion which is because of their doctrine of transubstantiation (i.e. the conversion of the elements into the body and blood of Christ). Many folks think that it’s a means of grace and as we partake of the bread and the wine. In their mind we are infused with some sorts of grace, so to speak. Paul would have none of it in this passage. Paul is very clear that the benefit that we receive is remembrance. Reminding ourselves yet again, of what Jesus has done for us (for His community) in and through his life and death on the cross. Paul wants us to do this because it is what Jesus wanted us to do. As you partake of this bread and wine, remember what I have done for you. It’s a memorial! A very meaningful one indeed, where our hearts are full of gratitude for what he has accomplished for us in his life, death and resurrection. Have you noticed that Paul (or none of the NT writers for that matter) never encourages believers anywhere to do this act of remembrance by themselves in their homes? It is something that is done with one another! Interestingly, he said to believers to have personal supper at homes if they cannot have the Lord’s Supper meaningfully as a church (see 1 Cor. 11:33-34). Breaking bread as individual families is personal supper whereas the Lord’s Supper is breaking as a church.
Proclamation (26): Along with being for our remembrance, communion also functions as an act of proclamation. As we partake in the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the awesome work of our Lord Jesus Christ to those present around us. We remember and we proclaim. We sing of his praises. We say to one another who have gathered together, “we once were lost but now we are found.” Partaking in the Lord's supper is a very visual reminder and proclamation of the work of Christ on the cross. It’s the gospel pictorially depicted for us right before our eyes to be beheld and cherished not individually or even as a family unit, but with one big family of God, one body, physically present in one location!
As often (25b, 26a): So when or how often should Christians remember and proclaim Christ's death? Well, many Christians are panicking that they are not able to partake in the communion. They are not concerned that they are not able to meet and fellowship with other believers. Their biggest concern is that their weekly or monthly dose of special grace-filled bread and wine is missing. They are already wilting spiritually because they are not being nourished by that special, mystical almost magical means of grace. As I pointed out earlier this misunderstanding has been influenced by the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and sacramental view of communion. And I think in our country this is further exacerbated because of the all-pervading superstition where people think that consuming items blessed by gods, brings special grace and favor. We shouldn’t be surprised that many people think of communion in similar ways. No wonder people are desperate to get their hands on any cheap substitute for this means of grace. Paul instead says here, well, “as often as you do this, remember me!” It’s as simple as that. This could be once a month, once a week or less if circumstances don’t permit us to do so. There’s no instruction concerning the frequency of partaking in communion.
Not in an unworthy manner (27-34): Along with telling us what communion is and when we should celebrate it, Paul also warns us against participating wrongly. Interestingly, Paul spends a lot of time talking about not partaking in an unworthy manner. And the readers immediately jump to the conclusion that Paul must be talking about personal introspection. While that is a good and necessary secondary application of the text, the primary thrust of this text is to look out for the interests of other brothers and sisters in the body. When we partake in the communion without truly caring and looking out for the interests of one another, as though it is some personal mystical spiritual time of introspection without actually thinking about the body, then we are partaking in an unworthy manner. Such practice is only meaningful when we come together as a church and partake in the breaking of the bread. Paul goes on to say if you want to eat and drink by yourself, just thinking about yourself (albeit to be fair there they were concerned about their physical needs), then go home and do it on your own. I hope you see that eating and drinking at home is nothing more than eating and drinking at home. It is not communion! It’s a negative thing in Paul’s mind.
I hear this comment all the time “Something is better than nothing.” But this is not how we should think about theological issues and the church. It’s this minimalistic and reductionist approach to the church which ends up hurting the church. We do not make do with what we have. We do what we are told to do, in His Word! God has revealed how we must worship Him in His word, and we need to stick to that! We do not need to think out of the box. We need to keep it simple. “Something is better than nothing”, if we use this logic then well, maybe it’s time for us to practice online hospitality then after all something is better than nothing? What about online baptisms and marriages? It’s not too hard to recognise that there are a few things that can only be done when we are present together, physically in the same vicinity. That's what makes it what it is! I also hear from people that extraordinary times require extraordinary responses. But, sadly, the best that the church today can come up with is virtual communion, which is an ordinary response to an extraordinary practice. In doing so, churches are unintentionally trivialising the seriousness of the ordinance that is such a powerful picture of the unity of the local church. The ordinance that the Lord instituted engages all our senses and evokes emotions reminding us what a huge sacrifice was made to make us one. All that has been replaced by a cheap substitute in the form of online communion with loaves broken by individual families rather than one loaf broken by the church which represents the oneness of the body of Christ. Finally, we also need to think about God’s sovereignty and providence. This is a bitter providence of God when he has withheld this experience of communion from his people. So, what do we do? We humbly submit to his will. We long for a day when we can gather together again. We cry out to him to allow us to meet again to fellowship and break bread. And when the Lord allows us to gather again, we will take it seriously. We will embrace every opportunity to be a church that the Lord wants us to be. In the meantime, we will repent of our lackadaisical attitude towards the local church that we have displayed until now. And we will not try to find cheap substitutes for God’s gracious expression of mercy that can only be experienced when we are together!