by Jonny Atkinson
Due to the Coronavirus, churches are unable to gather at this time. Many churches are using technology to live-stream their preaching and so continue to edify their flock. In this season, the question has come up: Can we have the Lord’s Supper online?
The Right Heart
I understand many who are asking this and similar questions are striving to do their best to care for their flock amid these unprecedented times, while also seeking to be biblical. To that end, this questioning is to be commended. And when we look at the Scriptures—and to ensure we are not being persnickety legalists—it is first worth noting that God does care more about the right heart than the form.
In Amos, God said he hated their solemn assemblies and would not accept their burnt offerings—the very offerings that God commanded to be offered!—because the people were walking unjustly (Amos 5:21-24). This is the Old Testament equivalent to 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul tells the Corinthians that when they think they are having the Lord’s Supper, it is not in fact the Lord’s Supper they are taking because they are acting selfishly when they take it (1 Corinthians 11:20-22; see more below). In other words, if you have the form without love, you have nothing.1
However, the right heart—one that loves God and others—will want to serve God in the right form.
Doing “Church” Online?
The question of having the Lord’s Supper during a pandemic stems from another problem—a weak understanding of the church. Though we may say things like “we are having church online” we must make it clear that this is in fact an impossibility. Church is not a weekly event to be attended and watched.
In the New Testament, the word church is used to describe the people who make up a local church when they are not gathered. So we have the “church in Jerusalem” (Acts 11:22) and the “church at Antioch” (Acts 13:1). As we often hear: “The church is not a building, it is people!” And so you are inside or outside the church (1 Corinthians 5:12), not when you walk through its doors, but if you are a Christian and have joined together with other Christians to make up a church in a specific place.
But the New Testament also uses the word church to describe a formal assembly, when all these people come together in a place. Paul speaks of “when you come together as a church” (1 Corinthians 11:18) and of being “in church” (1 Corinthians 14:19).
So a church (the people) can meet as a church (the assembly), but the church still exists (the people) when not at church (the assembly).
These two uses are often called the church scattered and the church gathered. There are many things a church is called to do that can be done as the church scattered (such as evangelism and prayer), but there are many other things that can only be done when the church has gathered, including the Lord’s Supper.
One reason the question of “online communion” is even being considered is because many have lost sight of one of the primary functions of the gathered church.
Who Has the Church Keys?
When the church comes together as a church the power of the Lord Jesus is with the church (1 Corinthians 5:4). To do what? Well, specifically in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul is dealing with the responsibility of the church to exercise their authority to remove a person from the church.
This delegated authority to remove people from the church is elsewhere called the keys of the kingdom. And these keys are used to bind and loose individuals (Matt 16:19). No Christian, no pastor, no elder board, or any other group within a church has any right to wield this authority by themselves. But rather it is when the church, even a church as small as two or three, gathers in the name of Jesus and agrees upon a particular action, Jesus is there with them granting them this authority to bind and loose (Matt 18:18-20).
In other words, one reason the church (the people) gathers as the church (the assembly) is to confirm by agreement who is in the church (the people).
And one of the most visible performances the church has to display who is inside and outside the church is the Lord’s Supper.
Isn’t the Lord’s Supper Just About Remembering Jesus’ Death?
Putting someone outside the church is regularly called “excommunication” or “disfellowshipping.” These terms make it clear that someone put outside the church can no longer fellowship or have communion with the rest of those inside the church.
The reality of excommunication is made visible and tangible at the Lord’s table when only those inside the church are welcomed to the table. The Lord’s Supper reflects both the positive and negative side of church discipline, the binding and the loosing. For, to welcome people to the table is to “bind” them, that is, to visibly and tangibly affirm their faith in the Lord Jesus.
And again, this authority to welcome someone to, or bar someone from, the Lord’s Supper is not given to the elders, the deacons, or to those serving the bread and wine, but to the whole church when they gather.
So, how could a church “giving out” the Lord’s Supper online practically be able to guard the table, appropriately binding and loosing? All members must assemble and must agree who is inside and outside the church, and express this visibly around the Lord’s table.
What About When Two or Three Gather in My Home?
But wait a minute, didn’t Jesus say he’d be among us even when there are just two or three of us?
The passage mentioned above in Matthew 18:15-20 about two or three being gathered should not be understood as saying that any time two to three Christians get together, the authority of Jesus is with them.
If five Christians from the same church (the people) went to the park together, they have not gathered as the church (the assembly). Even if every person from the same church (the people) went to the park together, to cook-out, or play ball, they still have not gathered as the church (the assembly). But if every person from the same church (the people) decided to gather as the church (the assembly) at the park, to perform their authoritative function as the church, then they would indeed be assembled and have the authority of Jesus with them to bind and loose, including performing the Lord’s Supper.
Remember, Matthew 18 specifically mentions the “church” (Matt 18: 17). And, to be consistent with other Scripture, this authority is only present when the church is assembled (1 Corinthians 5:4; 1 Corinthians 11:18). So the mention of “two or three” is hyperbolic language indicating that the size of the church is not proportionate to the authority given to the church. Moreover, the reference to “two or three” is a throwback to the Old Testament principle of requiring two or three witnesses in deciding legal cases (Deut 19:15), further emphasizing the “agreement” a gathered church must have.
Now, if a church has only 3 people, then they may rightly gather as the church while observing social-distancing guidelines and have the authority of Jesus present, and so take the Lord’s Supper. But for the rest of us who attend churches larger than that, until we gather “as the church,” we do not have the authority to administer the Lord’s Supper.
Eat and Drink in Your Home, Bind and Loose in the Church
While we are staying safe-at-home, let us remember and remind one another of Christ’s death in a multitude of ways. But let us not “despise the church [the gathering] of God” by assuming we have the authority to administer the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:22). If some did, I would have to conclude “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (1 Corinthians 11:20). So let’s keep our “houses to eat and drink in” (1 Corinthians 11:22) and keep the church to bind and loose in.
1. God also permitted certain Israelites to celebrate the Passover, which should’ve been celebrated in the first month of the year, to celebrate it in the second month if they were unclean or on a long journey in the first month (Num 9:9-12). God is not a stickler when the heart is right, legitimate exceptions were permitted. But a heart that says: “though I’m clean and not on a journey, I’d rather just take it next month” is not permitted to do so (Num 9:13).
Significantly, after the death of Nadab and Abihu for offering unauthorized fire on the altar (Leviticus 10:1-2), the other sons of Aaron—Eleazar and Ithmar—let the sin offering be completely burned! (If you’re rusty on your Old Testament sacrifices, only the burnt offering was to be wholly burned on the altar. Only the fat of the sin offering was meant to be burned.) Moses rebuked Aaron for letting it burn up and not bringing in the blood of the sin offering to make atonement. However, Aaron responds making it clear that he intentionally did not eat it because of the earlier tragic events of the day, and thus he did not think the Lord would approve (Lev 10:16-20). In other words, Aaron acted with a right heart and intentionally did not perform the sin offering as prescribed. And as a result, he and his other two sons were not killed. (This also hints at the fact that Nadab and Abihu, did not just make a minor mistake in forgetting how to perform a duty on their first day at the job. Rather, they were sinfully negligent, and were punished accordingly.)