Navigating life with the coronavirus has prompted churches to wrestle with new questions. Back in March, many pastors wrestled with whether it was wise to live stream a worship service or not. There were questions about whether something of critical, spiritual importance is lost when we stop participating in person. What if someone gets used to “attending” church from the comfort of their couch? Are we training people that worshiping with the saints is a matter of personal preference?
To further complicate matters, additional questions arose for those who decided (like we did) to livestream a modified service. Should we try to replicate every element of service online or are there reasons to include some elements and exclude others? Does the Bible have anything to say about these sorts of wisdom issues? After all, video technology wasn’t exactly a thing back in the 1st century.
While I’ve provided some explanations of where our elders landed on these questions briefly on Sunday mornings, I was asked by one of our members to help explain our thought process a bit more on why the Lord’s Supper was excluded from our live stream. Providing an answer requires going back to the biblical nature of the church and the biblical purpose of the sacraments.
The Apostle Paul teaches in 1 Cor 12:12-27 that the church is not a building, a meeting, or a purveyor of spiritual products for consumption at our convenience. The church is a spiritual body to which we are joined by God’s Spirit. That’s why the physical gathering of the saints is so important. We’re not just obeying a biblical command (Heb 10:24-25) or following the example of the early church (Acts 2:46) by meeting in person. We are tangibly expressing our spiritual union in Christ (1 Pet 2:9-10), exercising the spiritual gifts the Lord has entrusted to us (1 Cor 14:12), guarding the purity of our witness to the world (1 Cor 5:4-5), and enjoying God’s manifest presence in a uniquely powerful way (Matt 18:20).
When unusual circumstances like a viral pandemic prevent us from worshiping God together, video technology is a gift. It enables us to listen in as our brothers and sisters pray, sing, read, and preach the Word of Christ. But there is no couch equivalent to the physical gathering of the people of God because we cannot accomplish many of the biblical purposes for corporate worship while we are sitting at home by ourselves. The church scattered is still a church, but it cannot do all the things God created the church to do.
Take singing for example. You can derive a measure of spiritual encouragement from listening to the band sing on your TV and (depending on how the kids are doing) attempting to sing along with them. Yet the biblical purpose for singing goes far beyond personal praise. It also includes corporate edification. In Eph 5:19, the Apostle Paul tells us to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
You can’t do that over a live stream, which is another reason why the presumed context for corporate worship in the New Testament is a physical gathering (see 1 Cor 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). That’s not because they lacked our technology. It’s because God knows we need the spiritual encouragement that comes from singing to one another in the same space where the Spirit uses our voices to strengthen each other’s souls.
Now at this point you might be thinking, “Ok, Matthew, I get it. Nothing is the same when we’re apart from one another. But surely there’s some residual spiritual benefit to sharing communion when we’re physically separated just like there is some residual spiritual benefit to singing when we’re physically separated.” I sympathize with the impulse, but there’s a problem with that sort of logic. It fails to distinguish elements of corporate worship that are public and private in God’s design from elements of corporate worship that are strictly public in God’s design.
Singing is a means of grace that is both public and private. The Lord instructs us in Ps 149:1 to sing to him “in the assembly of the godly,” and also in Ps 149:5 to “sing for joy” on our beds. Prayer is exactly the same. In Matt 6:6, Jesus says, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray for your Father who is in secret.” And in Acts 2:42-43, the church experienced God’s blessing as they devoted themselves to prayer in their corporate gatherings. Were they disobeying Jesus? No. They recognized that prayer, no less than singing, was a means of grace for both private and public settings.
The Lord’s Supper is different. In contrast to singing or prayer, it’s a strictly public means of grace. It’s not a meal for individual Christian to eat on their own. Nor is it a meal for small groups. It is a meal designed for the gathered church only because of the way it represents and affects our corporate unity in Christ.
The Apostle Paul is making a critical theological point about the corporate essence of the meal when he observes in 1 Cor 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing that we bless, it is not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (see also Acts 2:42, 20:7).
The physical act of partaking of the bread and drinking the cup together, as one body, in one place, at one time, visibly displays the spiritual reality embedded therein – King Jesus has joined us into one body by uniting us first to himself and then to one another as members of his spiritual family, the church. The Supper isn’t a “Jesus and me” thing, it’s a Jesus and us thing, which is why Paul describes the Supper in 1 Cor 11 as a meal eaten when the church comes together. It’s a family meal that unifies God’s family and distinguishes God’s family from the rest of the world.
That’s also why Paul strongly admonishes the church to not share the meal with a professing Christian if the conduct of their life undermines the authenticity of their profession (1 Cor 5:11). As Americans who are prone to overvalue autonomy, we instinctively think the choice to partake or not partake is a strictly personal decision. God says it’s not. While personal examination is required (1 Cor 11:28-31), participation in the Lord’s Supper is ultimately a corporate decision whereby the body of the church provides continued affirmation or denial of an individual’s profession of faith.
If we partake of communion apart from the gathered body of the church, we’re removing the meal from the context for which Jesus designed it. Doing so effectively denies the corporate reality the meal signifies. It’s a family meal by definition. So your biological family, like my own, might eat turkey together on Thanksgiving Day. But that doesn’t mean you’re participating in a family meal every time you eat turkey. Family meals require the presence of the family.
For that reason, we did not share the Lord’s Supper over live stream when we were unable to gather in person, and why, now that we are meeting in person, we are continuing to not live stream the Supper. A biblical theology of the Supper reminds us it’s not a meal for the church scattered, it’s a meal for the church gathered. It is a public and precious means of grace God designed for us to physically participate in together.