While we are all locked down in our homes, we should be longing to celebrate the Lord’s supper together as a church, but we should not do so. Why not? Quite simply, because it cannot be done.
I have two possible forms of a locked down Lord’s supper in mind here. The first, considered at greater length, is a cyber-“supper.” By this I mean an online “Lord’s supper” in which we synchronize by video call our eating and drinking in different homes, led by a pastor on our screens. In the second, a household-“supper,” we celebrate in our separate households as and when we wish (or, if we have our understanding of the new covenant week right, on the Lord’s day) and without any online connection.
The issue in both cases is not whether a church that normally meets on the Lord’s day in a home can legitimately celebrate the supper there. If a church meets in a home as its venue, then obviously it can celebrate the supper in a home. The issue here is whether we can celebrate the supper as families or households either physically separated from the rest of the church yet connected online (the cyber-“supper”), or simply on our own (the household-“supper”).
My understanding is that both these versions of the “supper” fail to reckon with what the true supper is. At their worst, such “suppers” might foster some serious theological and pastoral misunderstandings.
Why get het up? It’s a secondary issue.
Perhaps you feel at the outset that we should not pay too much attention to the details of how we celebrate the Lord’s supper because it is not a “gospel issue.” The Lord’s supper clearly can and has at times become a gospel issue, for example when the doctrine of transubstantiation turned it into an idolatrous act that the Reformers rightly opposed. How striking that refusal of the mass was the reason that most of the English martyrs of the Reformation died. Any disagreement over a cyber- or household-“supper” is indeed second order compared to that, but there are many second order issues that remain nonetheless very important. We British evangelicals at least need to get better at classifying something as secondary and yet working hard at thinking about it because we hold that it still matters. Too often we stop thinking about subjects as soon as we decide that they should not divide us, and thus we neglect the proper study of God’s ordained means of grace to us.
The physical and the spiritual in the Lord’s supper.
The heart of the argument against the cyber-“supper” is very simple: the Lord’s supper involves a physically gathered church, a group of persons from different households, in an act of physical sharing in one broken loaf of bread and one blessed cup of wine. First Corinthians 10 and 11 contains vital evidence for us here. At the start of the passage Paul finds in the exodus and wilderness wanderings one baptism into Moses in the cloud and the sea (10:1–2), one and the same spiritual food and drink (vv. 3–4), and participation in the one Christ (v. 4; cf. 8:6). When in verse 16 Paul turns to the Lord’s supper, he speaks of one cup blessed and shared, of one bread broken and shared. The spiritual unity in the one body is manifested by the signs (the oneness of the cup and the oneness of the bread) and the act of sharing in both elements. When a little later Paul narrates the Lord’s supper, there is a repeated emphasis on actual togetherness: “I hear that when you come together…” (11:18); “When you come together…” (v. 20); “When you come together to eat…” (v. 33). The presence here is embodied, not electronic. It is striking that Paul draws a contrast between eating in the home and eating together as a church. He tells those who eat wrongly that they “despise the church.” This is an important instance of the word “church” (ἐκκλησία): the people despise the church when they mistreat the gathered body, by contrast with what they might do if they were to eat their food separately at home away from the church body. The church is distinguished from the home. It might be a useful (theoretical!) Popperian falsifiabilty test to see if we could commit the sin that Paul denounces in this chapter while celebrating a cyber-“supper.” It would be very hard to eat someone else’s meal on even the technologically brilliant Zoom.
Perhaps you may say that we could still celebrate the Lord’s supper without the physical togetherness and unity in sign and act because even without them we still share the same underlying spiritual reality. It is indeed true that the reality of the church as a spiritual organism transcends space and time. We are one in Christ by the Holy Spirit no matter where we are or what we are doing. But we cannot use the fact that our shared union with Christ is a spiritual reality constituted by the immaterial Spirit of God to neutralize the specified physicality of the intentionally embodied supper. In other words, just because our union is spiritual, that does not mean that we can play fast and loose with the physical aspects of the meal that symbolizes it. We cannot use the spiritual to justify a novel variation in the physical. To do so would be to attempt to conflate the realm of the physical with the realm of the spiritual; it would be to take the properties of the spiritual reality and apply them to the physical signs and acts, a sacramental monophysitism. The signs are given by God in the realm of the physical. That is where He intends them to operate. We cannot redesign them on the basis of the properties of the spiritual reality that they represent.
God has ordained the realm of the spiritual reality and the realm of the physical sign in a given relation. In this regard it is striking that Paul can even make the spiritual rest upon the physical in the way that he writes in 1 Corinthians 10. In verse 16 he points to the one cup and says that it is a sharing in the blood of Christ, to the one bread and says that it is a sharing in the body. Then in verse 17 he does something that can only unsettle a low-sacramental evangelical. We would expect: “Because there is one body, we who eat share one bread, since all of us share the one body,” but instead he says the opposite: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, since all of us share the one bread” (v. 17). The physical sign is an instrument for the spiritual reality. Now of course we know that sacraments can be misused. They can be taken without faith, in which case they bring not deeper unity but judgement and even death to the unrepentant sinner (11:29). But received rightly the one blessed cup and the one broken bread are divinely ordained physical instruments to which God has attached the fostering of the spiritual unity of the body. The united act of a gathered church sharing in the one loaf is used by God to feed the unity of the church. Obviously God could, de potentia absoluta, render anything at all an instrument for such nourishment. He could attach spiritual nourishment to drinking Coke and eating chips individually in the virtual reality suits of the future. But He has not. He has done this: one bread, one cup, one gathered act of sharing, all embodied. Because He has done this, we may not do otherwise.
While I am arguing against collapsing the properties of the spiritual and the visible, I am not arguing against all attempts to draw them closer together. For example, it seems to me to be a serious sacramental anomaly that a church should have large numbers of young people who are held by the elders to be believers but are excluded from the sacrament of baptism. To attempt to draw the sign and the reality together by baptizing such teenagers would not be to collapse the properties of the sign and the reality but to put them in a proper parallelism “without the distinction of natures being taken away.” We should seek to administer the sacraments so that the visible realities correspond to the spiritual as far as God’s prescription and our knowledge of individuals determines, but we must not elide them.
The oneness of the elements and the togetherness of the sharing are not peripheral features of the Lord’s supper. The weight of Paul’s argument clearly falls on these features; as the medievals might have said (particularly in this context!), they are of the essence not the accidents of the supper. Saying that we cannot celebrate a cyber-“supper” is not like saying that we can only baptize people in water from the river Jordan because that is how Jesus was baptized, or that we must recline to eat the supper like a first-century believer. Such features are not underlined as central in the relevant biblical texts for the ongoing practice of the sacraments (which is not to say that the baptism in the Jordan bore no redemptive-historical significance in the light of earlier typal events; perhaps we might say that it had more significance for the historia than the ordo salutis). By contrast, the unity of the bread, the cup, and the sharing together do function as the central, pivotal moments in Paul’s argument about the conduct of the supper. The supper as described by Paul is in its essence a physically shared meal in an unmistakable form: people were gathered in a room together to drink one cup of wine and to eat one bread.
The particular physicality of the supper is arguably its distinctive contribution among the means of grace. What, students often ask when learning Calvin’s explanation of the supper, does he think it adds to faith itself? What does it add to preaching? How does it help those already united to Christ? The answer is not that it brings a different kind of union, but that by it the Holy Spirit fosters or augments our one union with Christ in a different manner. In the supper God pledges to strengthen believers through the seen, smelled, touched, and tasted elements and actions of the meal as well as its own heard words, in addition to the heard words of preaching. The spiritual is attached to the physical, not in a Roman Catholic ex opere operato sense, but by the promise of God and dependent on the proffered gift being met by faith in the recipient.
“Ah,” you may say, “you reveal that you only value the physical so much because you are a Calvinist on the supper. But I am a Zwinglian, a memorialist, so I do not share your belief in spiritual feeding on Christ at the supper.” Maybe not, but you do believe that the signs and acts are symbolic. And would you not you grant that they have been given by God? No matter what role the symbols have (to remind or to act as instruments of strengthened spiritual union), God has still given them: one loaf, one cup, and the physically gathered act of sharing. Who do we think we are to change what God has commanded?
At this point there is an interesting distinction between preaching and the supper. There are important physical aspects of preaching that are lost when we have to make do with listening and even watching online. I would speak of this as a diminished form of preaching. But the departure from the ordained pattern of preaching is comparatively less than the departure involved in a cyber-“supper,” because preaching is less dependent on and centered in multisensory physical engagement than the supper. The focus of preaching is on the word meeting the mind and heart through hearing. To remove spatial collocation from preaching is indeed to diminish it greatly, but it is not to render it impossible. If I cannot eat the one bread and drink the cup then I cannot share in the supper, but if I cannot see the preacher (for example because a Norman column obscures my view), he is still preaching to me. If I can see him and hear him but he is preaching live online rather than in the same room, then his preaching is still recognizably preaching, though it is undoubtedly diminished.
Are we then excommunicated?
Does my argument inevitably have as a consequence the unacceptable conclusion that the church sans messe in a locked down country or state is effectively excommunicated en masse? If the Lord’s supper is akin to the tree of life in Eden (as I believe it is), then are we now cut off from the source of life? We are not, because Christ is the source of life, by the Spirit, and we remain joined to Him. But it is true that we are cut off from one of the ordained means by which our spiritual life is strengthened. That is a form of deprivation, but it does not amount to excommunication. There is a difference between not sharing in communion because no one in my church is gathering to receive it, and not sharing in it because the gathering has excluded me. The former is deprivation, the latter is excommunication. If there is no gathering for the supper, there can be no enacted excommunicatory exclusion from it. There are other differences between excommunication and enforced absence from the table. Excommunication is not an event or state that exists in isolation. It comes as the climax of a longer process of discipline, and it comes with some kind of formal pronouncement in the church.
Then is excommunication currently impossible?
Would this understanding mean that there can be no excommunication during a lockdown? What if just before the lockdown someone was brought into the early stages of church discipline and has still not repented? Must the process now stop? It need not do so. If there is currently no table then there is no actual excommunicatory exclusion from the table, but there can still be a pronouncement of excommunication, and that pronouncement should include an anticipatory declaration of exclusion from the supper whenever the super resumes (if there has not been repentance by then).
Here is the major problem with the church instituting the practice of household-“suppers.” If a church puts the administration of the Lord’s supper into the hands of households meeting on their own and as they wish, then it approves placing the Lord’s table beyond the reach of the elders of the church. Having mandated such a household-“supper,” how could the church excommunicate the self-celebrant and his mini-flock? It could not. The household-“supper” risks encouraging every nascent cultish leader to establish his own church in his living room and to consecrate himself as its unaccountable leader. The church on Acacia Avenue just spun off on its own.
Not excommunication, but it may be the Lord’s discipline.
We have not all been excommunicated as a result of the lockdown. But might we be experiencing our heavenly Father’s discipline? I do not mean that this is a full explanation of the Lord’s purposes with the coronavirus, or that it is the same for every nation, but might it be a part of His purpose for us in the West? Specifically, might it be that we are deprived of the supper because we have not taken the supper seriously? Expand the question: might it be that we are deprived of embodied, collocated fellowship because we have already so often willfully abandoned such fellowship ourselves? Many churches in the UK have an extraordinary rate of absenteeism week by week, often because parents are taking their children off to this or that activity. Bizarrely, many parents actually think that they are helping their young children spiritually by not insisting that they come to church (as if the question should even arise for debate in the first place). I would go so far as to say that a half-hearted commitment to the gathered church is among major sins of the church as an institution in many towns up and down this country. It is a sin that will have massive generational consequences. Children raised in Christian homes (I generalize here, and I speak humanly) will be unlikely to exceed their parents in their commitment to church. Children watching an example of persistent indifference to the meetings of the gathered church will soon learn the lesson: put sport first, Jesus second. Some think: “But surely we can love Jesus and sit loose from the church’s gatherings.” And thus the head is severed from His body. As to the church, so to Jesus, in the arena of caring for the vulnerable (Matthew 25:31–46), and in the arena of love for the gathering. Our indifference to the gathering is indifference to Jesus, and it would be no surprise if the Lord disciplined us for it.
Why think that we may be under discipline in our current circumstances in particular? We know from Scripture that the Lord often both punishes and disciplines (distinct things) by mirroring our sins in their consequences. For example the builders at Babel wanted a famous name for themselves (Gen. 11:4) and they received one in their punishment (11:9). David kills (2 Sam. 11:15) and the sword enters his house (12:10). Dig a pit and you fall in it, various Psalms and Proverbs tell us. If we find ourselves in trouble, our first instinct should be to put a mirror up against the trouble to see if it is the Lord’s response to our sin.
Some have asked if I would maintain my position on the Lord’s supper if the lockdown lasted for six months or a year. I see no reason not to do so because the right practice is to be determined by the nature of the supper, not by the duration of the lockdown. And if this is discipline from the Lord’s hand, then we must bear it for as long as He in His Fatherly wisdom imposes it. In the meantime it might be appropriate for a pastor to set out the Lord’s table and to show it during livestreaming of a diminished service. Indicating the table, he might remind the people of the day they long for when they can eat together again, and of the Day when there will be no more separations. And he might pray that the Lord would hasten both days.
Isn’t this perfectionism?
Is refusing a locked down supper tantamount to ecclesiological perfectionism because it entails waiting for the ideal circumstances rather than working with the real? I think the opposite: it is the cyber-“supper” itself that attempts to design out the real in favor of the ideal, because it will not accept the reality of the situation that the Lord has laid upon us. There is a difference between the normal non-ideal character of this life—which is a given for all who long for his coming (2 Tim. 4:8)—and the abnormal non-ideal conditions of a lockdown. We would indeed not want to construct a sacramentology that presupposes for its practice an ideal that will only be realized when Christ returns, especially since a key aspect of the supper is that it points ahead to that time by proclaiming His death “until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). The supper is inherently a sub-eschatological taste of the eschatological banquet to come, so it is firmly located in and indeed designed for the non-ideal present age. A lockdown, however, is not part of the normal non-ideal.
Isn’t the cyber-“supper” like taking communion to the house-bound?
Should the cyber-“supper” be automatically acceptable to those (such as Calvin) who endorse the practice of taking the bread and wine to believers who are forced to be permanently absent from the gathered church for health reasons? I do not think that communion for the sick justifies the cyber-“supper” because (when best practiced) communion is taken to the sick as a physical sharing extended from the church’s gathering. The elements should be carried to the house-bound person from the central celebration, the same pastor should administer them, and there should where possible be a small trans-household group from the fellowship accompanying him. By contrast, in the cyber-“supper” we find people feeding themselves with different bread within the bounds of a single household. The two are not the same.
Similarly, imagine a scenario in which my argument would allow the supper in subgroups of a church. In a catastrophic event, groups from a church out on a day-trip together end up in forced social isolation without technology. None of the groups is a single family or household. Each of the groups contains within it a minister. I think that in such circumstances the groups might celebrate the supper on the Lord’s day as part of their ongoing services. It would be analogous to a church growing in size and then deciding to separate into two churches one in the north of a town and one in the south. Each ongoing gathering has collocated within it what it needs to function as a church: people from multiple households and a pastor. The Lord’s day gathering does not have to be a gathering of the whole church in such unusual circumstances, but it does have to be a trans-household group. So imagine that the isolated groups are different. One consists of the pastor and his wife and his children, all of whom have been baptized and profess faith. I think that in such circumstances this group should not celebrate the supper because it is a family not a church made up of gathered households.
Do you really mean that?
Perhaps you are uneasy as you read this piece because you think “What he is saying doesn’t fit with how we do things under normal circumstances, let alone in the lockdown” or “He seems to be saying that we should ordinarily do X and not Y.” It may be that you are right about the implications of what I am saying, and that I intend them. If there is a conflict between your normal practice and what I have argued here then it could be that I am wrong, or it might be that the problem lies not only in the novel practices of a church in lockdown, but even in what we do normally when we are free to meet. Maybe the thinking we have to do about the Lord’s supper in the lockdown is a God-given opportunity to rethink our practice more generally. From what I have said two obvious issues to consider would be our liberty to change the given elements and the frequency with which we celebrate the Lord’s supper.
What about Roman Catholic views?
I have not here addressed those such as Roman (or Anglo-)Catholics who believe that the mass is an efficacious sacrifice and are used to the laity watching communion rather than participating by eating and drinking. Rome teaches that the mass is effective even for the dead, so efficacy for the living who are not sharing in the supposedly transubstantiated elements is no difficulty at all. On such an understanding the laity watch a priest or the Pope celebrate the mass on a screen and believe that it brings the whole church spiritual benefit, even that it keeps the church in being. I am not addressing such a view because it is not a view of the Lord’s supper but a fiction created in its place. For anyone who disagrees, I would commend the study of the reformer Nicholas Ridley’s brilliant Brief Declaration or Treatise against the Error of Transubstantiation (available online here).
The idea that we may celebrate the cyber-“supper” or a household-“supper” springs, I do not doubt, from a godly desire for the supper, from a longing to preserve our fellowship in these isolated times. It may even exhibit an appropriately high view of the supper when compared with the indifference of those who barely register that it has ceased. But to practice such suppers is actually not to give the flock the supper but to give them something else in its place, a pseudo-supper. If we do that we imperil the future of the gathered supper itself, because we risk confusing God’s people about the very means of grace that God has ordained.
Garry Williams is director of the Pastors’ Academy at London Seminary. This post first appeared on the Pastors’ Academy blog.