As the church of Jesus Christ, we face unprecedented times. Although the church has in the past faced pandemics of disease and times where physical gatherings have been difficult (if not impossible), never before has the church faced these difficulties with our current technology. Never before have we been able to “meet” while not meeting – to meet virtually, connected by the internet.
Although this brings some blessings, it also brings challenges. It is a situation for which the church was not originally intended, and we are forced to think through what is possible in comparison to what is Biblical. For instance, it is possible to meet remotely and even engage in true worship; it is not possible to fully function as the church in a true expression of corporate worship, in that only a limited number of God-given gifts can be used. As we have noted elsewhere, the church is far more than songs and a sermon; all of the church body is supposed to be available to minister to one another with the gifts given them by God (1 Cor 14:26)…something that is impossible to do remotely.
With that in mind, how is the church to engage in the ordinances given by God? The New Testament outline two specific ordinances: baptism & communion. Both are instituted by Christ – baptism as an expression of the Great Commission (Mt 28:19), and communion as a regular memorial of the cross and our worship Jesus as the sufficient sacrifice for sin (Mt 27:26-29, 1 Cor 11:23-26). How are these ordinances to take place during a time of “virtual” meetings? Can they take place?
First of all, it needs to be emphasized that we do not hold to a sacramental view of baptism or the Lord’s Supper. That is, we do not believe that the grace of God is conveyed upon the faithful when engaging in the ritual. Instead, we hold to the memorial view, recognizing these ordinances as important and spiritual, but symbolic. Baptism is not necessary for regeneration to take place, nor do Christians ingest the physical body of Jesus in the eucharist. These acts are pictures – symbolic rites that point to the finished work of Christ and the gospel.
Because they are symbolic, the symbolism is of prime importance to preserve. These acts convey a specific message intended by God, so we want to be careful to observe these things Biblically, if that message is to be properly conveyed. Even in terms of general worship, we want to be careful to worship God according to God’s word. As Moses warned Israel prior to entering the Promised Land, they were not to do what was right in their own eyes, but they were to worship God according to His word, and (contextually) in the place where God commanded (Dt 12:8-14). Likewise, we should follow the regulative principle in our worship of God, worshipping Him according to His command as found in the Scripture. What has He specifically commanded us to do in our worship? That is what we do – no more, no less.
What does this mean for the ordinances in a “virtual” world? It means that these are two things for the church that might be put on hold during the time the church is unable to gather. Each act is a public declaration even while there is private worship among the individuals. No one denies that the baptismal candidate worships when entering the water, yet that worship is joined by the rest of the congregation as they thank God for what He has done in that person’s life. It is a public testimony of the person’s faith in Christ, as he/she is visibly identified with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). Because it is testimony, it must be celebrated publicly…at least, as publicly as possible. The singular exception of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch was made in an area where there were no other Christian believers to be found – a situation in which we do not find ourselves.
Likewise, with communion. Biblically, the act is always demonstrated as a common participation of the gathered church. From the original act surrounding Jesus’ final Passover meal, to the churches of the New Testament, the Christians physically gathered together for the purpose of communion. Not once is there an example of “individual” communion seen celebrated in the pages of the Bible. Indeed, “individual communion” is a contradiction in terms. We celebrate “communion” because we hold to a “common” Lord and Savior. We partake of our one Lord, symbolized through the one table (bread & cup). Paul addresses this explicitly: 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, "(16) The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (17) For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread." Note the use of the plural “we” with the singular “one.” The reality is that all the church is united in Christ, symbolized/pictured by our common shared meal of the Lord’s Supper.
Later in the same letter, when Paul gives specific instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper, he places it in the context of coming “together as the church,” (1 Cor 11:18) and coming “together in one place,” (1 Cor 11:20). In fact, the whole reason Paul gave these explicit directions was because the Corinthians were practicing communion irreverently and wrong. It was because the Corinthians were not taking the picture of the Lord’s Supper seriously enough that Paul said that many were sick and some among them had died (1 Cor 11:30). There was one Lord whose one body and blood were shed for the people, and this needed to be recognized with solemnity and reverence.
The broader context of 1 Corinthians continues to support this. Through Chapter 14, Paul continues to write of corporate worship, how the gathered church is supposed to act among one another, and the various ways the gifts and spiritual worship is to be shared. The few times individual worship is addressed, it is normally in the context of the selfish abuse of the gifts, rather than in the better use of building one another up in the Lord (1 Cor 14:1-3).
Must the entire church be gathered for the singular act of communion, as other religious traditions and denominations contend? Not necessarily. There will always be some individuals missing from a corporate gathering, and some gatherings will naturally be smaller than others. There is no specific number provided within the Scripture as a “quorum” required for the Lord’s Supper to take place. However, there is clearly a specific intent of gathering together as one body to celebrate the one broken body of our Lord Jesus.
For those who wonder, “How can I still be obedient to God while not celebrating the Lord’s Supper?” remember that the Scripture never once says how often communion is to be practiced; it simply commands a regular practice of it. Traditionally, Calvary Chapel Tyler has celebrated it twice per month (1st Sundays and 3rd Wednesdays), but that is a worthwhile tradition; not a Scriptural mandate. If we cannot celebrate Communion rightly and Biblically, it would be better to postpone the celebration until we can do so.
Do we wish to celebrate the ordinances? Yes! But we also wish for normal days, and these are most certainly not normal days. There are many things we can do as a church “virtually,” but there are others we cannot. This is yet one more reminder that “online” church will never be a replacement for the physical gathering of the saints. This is not our ideal, although it is our current reality. May God grant His grace and change this soon!