NOTE: The item below expresses the views of the individual named as the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.
Virtual Communion: A Presbyterian Pastor Against It
WRF Member Rev. Cameron Shaffer
The coronavirus has forced churches to stop meeting and begin taping or livestreaming their services. My own congregation has done this several times, and it has been simultaneously a blessing to have the technology to remain connected and a horror that the church is left with a facsimile of corporate worship. This unprecedented crisis and the quality of technology have led to a significant debate for the church: can we consider the livestreaming of church services, church? Followed closely behind is the question of whether or not people participating (i.e. viewing) the livestream should be encouraged to give themselves the Lord’s Supper.
This is a serious issue: the administration of the sacraments is one of the marks of the church. Not our sacramental theology, but our sacramental practice. I am sympathetic to those who wish to have the Lord’s Supper, and hunger for it myself. Yes, these are exceptional times, and the church should use all available tools to minister during them. But even with the conditions being what they are, neither the teachings of scripture, nor our confession of faith, permit people to take communion at home away from the congregation of the church– even with access to a livestreamed service.
What is the Church?
The church is, broadly speaking, the kingdom and society of God’s people with their children (WCF 25.2, WLC 62). But that society is more narrowly defined by the church’s nature: Contrary to the faddish slogan, “You don’t go to church, you are the church!” church is a place you go; yet the church is not a building, but an assembly of people gathered (congregated, if you will) together for the worship of God. The Greek ἐκκλησία (“church”) literally means assembly or congregation. To be “in church” is not a scriptural description of church membership, but attendance (e.g. Acts 7:38, 14:23, 1 Cor. 14:19, 24, 1 Tim. 3:5). The coming together as a church (1 Cor. 11:18) is a description of Christians assembling together. People are the church only insofar as they are members of the worshiping congregation. The church is the body of Christ because he, as its head, leads it in worship (Heb. 2:5-13) and its members are united to him. The church, then, is a congregation to which its members attend, and that assembling together brings with it the rights and responsibilities of the public worship of God.
This is the logic that permeates the Westminster Standards (e.g. WCF 21.1-2, 8, 25, 27.1, WLC 62-63, 108, 117, 162, etc…). This goes a long way towards answering our first question: is livestreaming a church service actually church? The answer must be no. Arguments to the contrary have hinged on either the case that people are the church, so a livestreamed service is church service to the degree Christians participate in it, or on the other hand, that virtual services actually do constitute biblical congregating. The problem with the former objection is definitional, while the latter is more complicated. Are virtual services congregations of people? It can seem that way online sometimes, but the word “virtual” should be a dead giveaway. No one thinks video chatting with a loved one is the same as being present with them. It is better than nothing, but having a nice substitute is not the same as having the thing itself.
If the coronavirus was not an issue, would we think that virtual services were an adequate replacement for physical services? That the disembodied is comparable to the real? Of course not. Now, something being inadequate does not mean it is illegitimate, and livestreaming services for those who are prevented from attending due to the pandemic is a good practice. But it is a mistake to think that livestreaming being good is the same as it being a legitimate replacement for church. An exercise can demonstrate this well: livestreaming a service is giving people a video feed of it. If the feed were recorded and watched later, would it still be a congregation? How many people watching a recording at the same time are required for it to count as a congregation? What if the video failed, but the audio continued? Would that count as church? How long after the fact would listening to the service no longer count as congregating together? What if a transcript of the service were provided to those who wanted it? Would reading count as being assembled together? It may not feel as present as a livestream, but the reader is just as assembled together in reality as the livestream viewer. Increasing the quality of your absence does not make you present. This can be seen clearly with virtual communion contrasted with other aspects of the church’s worship, since receiving the sacrament requires the elements to be actually with you, not virtually with you. Livestreams of service are nice, but they are virtually church, not actually church.
The Administration of the Lord’s Supper
This understanding of church is necessary to answer the question of the appropriateness of virtual communion. Different groups which have authorized communion at home have taken several approaches to the practice. Some have encouraged people to have their own elements (bread, wine/grape juice) handy during the livestream, and to partake of them of them at the appropriate time. Some Anglican friends have had their priest bless the elements in advance, have parishioners come pick them up from the church before the service, and then take during the livestream.
What these practices recognize is that the Lord’s Supper is for the church and belongs to its worship. If the sacrament is really something that belong to the worship of the church, then attempting to partake of it at home even concurrent with a livestreamed service, is illegitimate and it is wrong for the church to authorize or permit this practice.
As the signs and seals of God’s covenant, the sacraments belong to the worship of the gathered church. Whether the breaking bread in Acts 2:42, 46 and 20:7 refers to the Eucharist is debatable, but the context of the activity is the gathered church. In 1 Cor. 11:17-34, the context of Paul’s instructions on the Lord’s Supper is the Corinthian church coming together as the church (v. 18, 20, 34). His conclusion in v.33-34 is that eating at home is not the Lord’s Supper, but the meal shared together in the gathered the church, when administered and received properly, is. The Reformed confessional tradition asserts that the sacraments are established for the church as God’s assembled congregation (e.g. WCF 21.5, 27.1, 4; WLC 162, 164). The Belgic Confession (Article 35) puts it, “Lastly, we receive [the Lord’s Supper] in the assembly of the people of God.” It is to this visible church that Christ has given his sacraments, and the purity of the church is reflected in the propriety of the sacrament’s administration (WCF 25.3-4).
The Westminster Confession has two sections on the Lord’s Supper directly related to this. WCF 29.3 outlines how ministers are to give the elements of the Lord’s Supper to the congregation, and concludes with “…[they are] to give both [elements] to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation.” This is very straightforward: no one absent from the congregation at the time of the sacrament’s administration is to receive the Lord’s Supper. The people who do receive the Lord’s Supper should be given it by the minister, which rules out giving it to yourself at home.
The next relevant section, WCF 29.4, reads, “Private masses, or receiving this sacrament by a priest, or any other, alone…[is] contrary to the nature of this sacrament, and to the institution of Christ.” It is common to hear people interpret this as exclusively addressing the problem of 17th-century British nobility segregating themselves off from the church and paying to have private communion. That may have been the situation which prompted the inclusion of this section, but the basis of the prohibition is that isolated communion is wrong because it belongs in the church. This was the common view of the Reformed; for instance, John Calvin and the pastors of 16th-century Geneva (which did not have an aristocracy) forbid the Lord’s Supper to ever be administered privately, even for the old and sick. It should be noted that neither the Directory for Public Worship published by the Westminster Assembly, nor the Calvin-approved, John Knox-authored Genevan Order included instructions to administer the sacrament in their extensive guides and instructions for pastoral visitations of the sick. This may seem harsh, but scripture, not sentiment, governs the church’s worship.
If the Lord’s Supper truly belongs to the worship of the church, something which the Reformed tradition has confessed as scripture’s teaching, then administering the sacrament outside the gathering of the church is in an invalid form of worship.
Rev. Cameron Shaffer is a pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, ministering in Clarkston, MI. He can be found online at https://cameronshaffer.com/