Online Communion?

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

‘The issue of whether we can share communion over the internet is becoming widely considered and several have expressed the need for help here. We are making available two different responses to this issue to help you in your prayerful consideration of this important issue. We are aware that godly men will come to differing conclusions from the same bible passages, but we are sure we would want to strive for unity and respect by holding our divergent conclusions in such a way as they do not lead, ‘to the troubling of the brethren’. God bless you in your consideration of this issue. Phil Swann

A message by Stephen Clark in response to Garry Williams' article on communion - https://www.pastorsacademy.org/blog/nova/can-we-celebrate-the-lord's-supper-in-lockdown-no./

As a result of some things on social media and telephone conversations with numerous ministers, I am setting out below some thoughts on 'virtual meetings' at present. While all are grateful for the blessings which digital technology gives us, some brothers have expressed concerns of greater or lesser gravity concerning the implications of online services. You may be aware that Mark Dever, who is the pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington (and he is not a crank!), is deliberately not streaming any services at this time, in order to bring home to God's people what is being lost at present and in the hope that it will increase 'thirst' for the gathering together of the Lord's people. Paul Blackham has posted on Facebook his grave concerns at the fact that at present the Lord's Supper cannot be celebrated. You will reacall that all the Protestant Reformers were agreed that two of the essential marks of the church were the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. (There were differences amongst them as to whether there was a third mark of the church: the administration of discipline. Some held that this was an essential mark of the being of the church, whereas others held the view that this related more to the well being of the church. This point need not concern us now.) The point that was being made was that, since one essential hallmark of the church is that she celebrates the Lord's Supper, inability to do this means that the church is not truly gathering when she meets online. I was informed by Phil Swann that a close colleague of mine in England has lamented, on his blog, all that has been lost for the church at the present time. Likewise, some brothers whom I greatly esteem have argued that the it is impossible to celebrate the Lord's Supper online.

I shall set out, first, some philosophical analysis, then some theological principles, and finally some passages of Scripture, all of which are relevant to this matter. I am mindful that philosophical analysis may not be your thing and that you may not have had to study any or ever chosen to do so. If so, you may skip my first point below: otherwise, it may put you off reading the rest, which is mostly straightforward. This having been said, I think that there is real benefit in the philosophical analysis, if for no other reason than the following: although common sense is really important in many areas of life, there are some areas where common sense is just plain wrong. (We would not have relativity theory or quantum mechanics if physicists stuck to common sense!) So here: we may blithely assume things about the differences between 'really meeting together' and 'meeting virtually online', which may seem to be common sense but which are, on analysis, demonstrably false. So, I encourage you to read the first bit; if you find it heavy going, don't let you put it off the rest!

So here goes.

1. First, the philosophical issue. It will be helpful to clear away some confusion by means of philosophical analysis. Leaving aside taste and smell (for obvious reasons!), we connect with people physically by the senses of touch, sight, and hearing. Someone who is blind, deaf and dumb (one thinks of Helen Keller) may be spatially present with people and may interact with them through touch. Therefore, run the same argument in a different direction: someone who does not occupy proximity of space with others and who cannot, therefore, touch them, may, nevertheless, through modern technology, see them, hear them, and interact with them through speech. Why should we privilege physico-spatial proximity over electronic proximity, and privilege the sense of touch over against that of sight and hearing? It might be said that in seeing someone on a screen, this is not the same as seeing the person as physically present. True. It may then be urged that in seeing someone on a screen one is only seeing an image of the person, rather than the person themselves. But this fails to take account of a pretty basic and unassailable philosophical point that has not been seriously queried since it was made by the medical doctor-cum-philosopher John Locke (a favourite of the great 18th century preacher-pastor-missionary-theologian Jonathan Edwards) in the 17th century: namely, that all we ever have are sense impressions of what we see - we do not have the person himself / herself in our head but only sense impressions or, as we now know, certain chemical and electrical stimuli. Likewise with sound. Thus when we see someone 'in the flesh', what is in fact happening is that light rays (photons, which are wave-like packets of energy) are being reflected from their body and these photons, on entering our eyes, cause a process whereby an image is 'experienced' by us. But that is surely no different from what happens when we see someone on a computer screen. In the former case we are not having immediate experience of the person but mediate or intermediate experience through sense impressions. This is the same with seeing the image on the computer screen, the only difference now being that the mediation process is once removed. In the following century the German philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out that our knowledge of the external world is, of course, controlled by our sensory receptive apparatus. For example, with respect to vision or sight, we can only see those objects from which are reflected that part of the electro-magnetic spectrum which constitutes what is known to us as visible light. But there are snakes, for example, which have infra red vision and can thus see an animal which may be hidden by foliage. We cannot see that. Similarly, a creature endowed with infra red vision can see certain objects in the dark. And so one could go on. We often assume that we can see things as they 'really are' but this, of course, begs all kinds of questions. In total blackness can I see you as you really are? Of course not. But if I had infra red vision what I see you as you 'really are'? Well, I would be getting certain sense impressions.

As I type this email I can see many things in the distance. I can see a large area and a large volume of space, including clouds in the sky. The distances involved are huge, as I look into the sky, as is the volume of space, but it is not all this which enters my eye. How could all of that enter through a very small pupil? And the image on the part of my brain which experiences this is on something contained within my skull, the volume of which is but a very small fraction of the volume of material which I can see. It is simply photons entering my eye and creating an image.

2. Theological considerations.

(i) I shall set out a series of questions and answers in order to highlight the theological principles.

(a) Do we or do we not have fellowship with Jesus Christ? Answer: yes.

(b) Is Jesus Christ the God-Man? Answer: yes.

(c) As to his true humanity, does it consist of a body-soul union? Answer: yes.

(d) Do we have physical access to the body of Jesus Christ? Answer: no. The reason for answering in the negative is that the body of Jesus Christ is in heaven: this is one of the corollaries of his ascension and is spelled out specifically in numerous passages of Scripture: Acts 1:2,9,11; 3:21; etc. Therefore, through our physical senses, we cannot have physical access to him. Photons reflected from his body do not enter our eyes, nor do sound waves from his voice enter our ears; nor can we touch him.

(e) Do we have some kind of indirect, non-physical access to Jesus Christ? Answer: yes. This follows from the fact that, although possessed of both a divine and human nature, these are in union with the one divine person of the Son of God. Since, therefore, we have fellowship with that Person, it is fellowship with the God-Man. But this is non-physical or non-bodily, in that our bodily senses do not perceive his body: i.e., we do not bodily see him or bodily hear him. Yet our union with him and our communion with him is real: 1 Jn. 1:3.

(f) Does Jesus Christ presence himself with his people? Answer: yes (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). This 'gracious presence' is distinct from the omnipresence which he has by virtue of being God. God's omnipresence is celebrated in Psalm 139. But Jesus is speaking in Matthew 18 & 28 of something specific to his people. This being so, although this presence is mediated by the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-18; Rom. 8:9-10), it is Christ who, by his Spirit, is with us and in us. But Jesus Christ is God-Man. But we do not have his body with us. (This is one of the great errors of the R.C. Church, which teaches that in the Mass the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. This contradicts the clear teaching of Acts 3:21. Luther also was astray at this point, teaching a slightly different doctrine, namely that the body and blood of Christ are in and under the elements of bread and wine. This, too, flies in the face of Acts 3:21.)

(ii) Since we can have fellowship with Jesus Christ and have his presence with us, though he has a body but that body is not with us, may we not, therefore, also have fellowship with each other online, though we are not bodily present with each other? The answer may be made that since the Person of Jesus Christ is God and the Holy Spirit is God, these, as infinite Persons, can relate to us, though the body of Jesus is not present. We, however, are not infinite and, therefore, it may be claimed that we cannot have such fellowship. The fallacy here is that by being online, there is a bodily presence: we can see each other and hear each other, although we are not occupying the same proximity of physical space. This is where the philosophical analysis set out above is important. I shall refer later to biblical passages which establish this.

3. Biblical passages

(i) Col.2:5: 'For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.' What does Paul mean? Doug Moo, who preached with us some years ago, has, I believe, an excellent exposition and explanation of these words in his superb commentary on Colossians and Philemon. I shall quote: 'The contrast with "body" would naturally suggest that "spirit" refers to the human spirit. . . However, as Gordon Fee has argued, it is doubtful whether Paul ever uses the language of "spirit" without some reference to the Holy Spirit. Here, then, while the immediate reference may be, indeed, to Paul's own "spirit", it is his spirit as taken up into the Holy Spirit. His "presence" with the Colossians, then, is not a simple "you will be in my thoughts and prayers," but involves a profound corporate sense of identity, based on and mediated by the Spirit of God. It is on the basis of this union, effected in and by Christ and mediated by the Spirit, that Paul can address the Colossian Christians . . . he is "delighted to see" that they are at present doing well in the faith.'

Paul uses similar language in 1 Cor. 5:3,5. Thiselton, in his magisterial commentary on 1 Corinthians, understands the terminology in the same way as Fee and Moo. Unless, therefore, we confine Paul's language to what an apostle might experience - and this cannot be so because the union is two way, though the authority which Paul thereby exercised was confined to the apostles - then we must say that we may be spiritually present with each other, by virtue of our union with Christ which is mediated by the Holy Spirit, even though we are not physically present with each other. And this means something more than simply being in each other's thoughts. So, as a church, we may be spiritually with each other when we cannot gather together.

(ii) Heb. 10:25: 'Let us not give up meeting together . . .' Although we have this spiritual union, since we are body-soul units, we are meant and need to have physical presence with each other. This is part of the force of this verse. Therefore, the spiritual union we have at all times is not the same as what happens when we meet together.

(iii) 1 Thess. 5:26; 2 Jn.12; 3 Jn. 14. These passages indicate the importance of physical contact and 'touch'. (Although the cultural expression of that touch contact will change from place to place and period to period, the fact of touch contact is important.

4. Some provisional observations

(i) 3 (i) above indicates that we have spiritual union with each other, even when we are not physically present with each other. 3 (ii) - (iii), however, indicate that we need to meet together and must do so in a physical way. However, 1 above indicates that people may be physically present with others even though one does not have all the physical senses which human beings have: thus, someone like Helen Keller could be in physical proximity to others and could relate to them by touch. By parity of reasoning I have sought to argue in 1 above that where one does not occupy the same physical proximity to others as when one is physically present, yet by the senses of sight and hearing one is bodily present with others when one is so through electronic media. (What, after all, is the difference between electrical impusles along broadband and fibre optic cable, which leads to photons entering the eye and sound waves striking the ear than photons entering the eye as a result of being reflected from the body and sound waves entering from the voice?)

(ii) Although (i) above is true, the fact remains that, in his wisdom and power, God has given human beings the senses of touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. Since, under the new covenant, we do not burn incense (the prayers of the saints are incense: Rev. 5:8), the sense of smell and taste does not enter into our meetings, save in those situations where we eat together or celebrate the Lord's Supper. More on these last two a little later. We are, of course, meant to touch each other: this surely is part of the apostolic injunction to greet one another with a holy kiss. Therefore, meeting together online does lose something, just as a blind or deaf person in our physical gatherings together loses something. But we do not say that thereby such a blind or deaf person is not meeting bodily with us. Therefore, although we should desire to have our senses of sight, hearing, and touch engaged - and, God willing, when the lock down ceases, this should make us eager to meet together again; and although we are not meeting together as fully as we do when we physically come together: nevertheless, we are bodily meeting together and, on the principle that half a loaf is better than none, we should not despise this way of meeting.

5. Special Case: the sacraments

Is it possible to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper while we only meet together online? The following principles should guide us.

(i) Essential to baptism is the application of water, applied by a properly authorised person in Christ's name, to the person being baptised. One does not baptise oneself. Although baptism is a 'church ordinance' (this may be inferred from our Lord's words in Matt. 28:18-20), there are examples in the New Testament where the person being baptised was not being baptised by someone into a local church and certainly not into the local church to which the baptiser belonged. The classic example of this is Philip baptising the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip was one of 'the seven' in the Jerusalem church: Acts 6:5. As part of the scattering of the Jerusalem church by persecution, Philip went to Samaria (Acts 8:4-5) and was then told by an angel to go to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:26). It is there that he meets the Ethiopian eunuch. Ethiopians had not been present in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost to take the Christian message back with them to Ethiopia (Acts 2:9-10). There is every reason, therefore, to believe that there was no church in Ethiopia at this time. Philip does not wait to gather a church together or to gather a group of believers in order to baptise the eunuch. He does it there and then (Acts 8:36-38). In Acts 16:33 it would appear that the jailer and his household were baptised in his house. Thus, although baptism is public, in the sense that it is not to be a secret affair, circumstances may be such where the public element is not to the fore and where, provided one is satisfied that the person being baptised has a credible profession of faith, such a person may be baptised. For example, the pastor or elders of a church may interview the baptismal candidate by phone or online and he / she may then be baptised in their house by another believer in the house. Where there is no other believer to do this, an essential element of the symbolism of baptism would be lost if the individual tried to baptise himself / herself. This, therefore, should not be done. But where another believer lives in the house, it could be done. Furthermore, it might be possible to film it on a phone and even live stream it to the church.

(ii) The Lord's Supper is to be celebrated when the whole church comes together: 1 Cor. 11;18,20, 22. Central to the celebrating of the Supper are the following: one loaf, which is broken (1 Cor. 10:16-17); thanksgiving for the bread (1 Cor. 11:24); one cup of wine (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:25); thanksgiving for the cup (1 Cor. 10:16); self-examination (1 Cor. 11:28); 'worthy eating of the bread and drinking of the cup' (1 Cor. 11:26-29); remembrance of Christ (1 Cor. 11:24-25); faith in Christ (because without faith it is impossible to please God, and ordinances of Christ only benefit us when mixed with faith: Heb. 11;6; Heb. 4:2; Rom 14:23). Can the Lord's Supper be celebrated online? All that has been said earlier about being bodily together by sight and sound, though without being in physical proximity and without touch, applies. The chief problem is that there is not one loaf which is broken and in which we all participate, nor is there one cup from which we all drink. (In FSC we do not use one cup but many small cups. This, I think, contravenes the passages which instituted the Lord's Supper. However, to have one cup really necessitates the drinking of real wine [alcohol killing certain bacteria]; our trust deed, however, stipulates that no alcohol should be brought onto the church premises. Strictly, therefore, I think that part of our trust deed - which is legally binding, unless we apply to the Charity Commissioners to get it removed - makes it impossible for us to celebrate the Lord's Supper as the New Testament lays down that it should be celebrated. The fact that so many churches have the same practice as ours does not make it right.)

Some have argued that the above means that we cannot, in lock down, celebrate the Lord's Supper. Indeed, it has been argued - and with justification - that we need to see the current situation as, amongst other things, constituting an element of chastening by the Lord of his churches by depriving us of a means of grace. There is, surely, an analogy here, if not a parallel, with what was prophesied by Hosea, when the Lord took from his ancient people the various festivals and feasts which he had appointed for them: Hos. 2:11. This is true; and yet I do not believe that this means that the Lord's Supper cannot be celebrated. There are two passages to which I would refer in support of the view that the Lord's Supper might still be celebrated.

(iii) 2 Chron. 30 The background to this chapter in the Mosaic law is crucial. In Exod. 12 the Passover regulations are laid down. Verses 2-3, 6 stipulate that it had to be celebrated on the fourteenth day of the first month (see also Num. 9:2). In Numbers 9:6, however, some Israelites could not celebrate it on that day because they had become unclean on account of a dead body. Therefore, the Lord told Moses to tell the people that when anyone had become unclean by a dead body or by being on a journey, they were to celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month. This was, therefore, a divinely ordained concession which was limited to the situation that had arisen (uncleanness through contact with a dead body) and, by extension, to but one other situation: where the uncleanness had arisen by being on a journey. In 2 Chron. 30 neither of these concessionary circumstances existed; rather, the reason that the Passover had not been celebrated by any in the first month was due to the fact that not enough priests had consecrated themselves and, further, because the people had simply not assembled in Jerusalem (v. 3). There had clearly been disobedience and this was a very different situation from that envisaged in Numbers 9. Nevertheless the king and the people agreed to hold it: for some time it had not been celebrated in large numbers according to what had been written: vv. 4-5. This was a Passover which was to bring together the people of God who had divided into Israel in the North and Judah in the South: vv. 6-12. The Chronicler stresses in v. 12 that, although this was a Passover being held irregularly - it was at the wrong time for none of the reasons for which the Lord had granted a concession - the hand of God was on the people to give them unity to carry out what the king had ordered 'following the word of the Lord'. This indicates that, although irregular, something of the spirit of what God had commanded was being followed. Verse 17 tells us that, although the people should have killed the Passover lambs, 'many in the crowd had not consecrated themselves'. This meant that they could not do what God had commanded through Moses that they should do. The Levites, therefore, improvised and did something for which there was no biblical warrant or sanction and killed the Passover lambs for those who were not ceremonially clean: v. 17. Verse 18 tells us that the majority who had come from certain tribes and districts had not purified themselves, 'yet ate the Passover, contrary to what was written'. But Hezekiah prayed for them that the Lord would pardon 'everyone who sets his heart on seeking God . . . even if he is not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary. And the Lord heard Hezekiah and healed the people' (vv. 18-20). Verse 22 informs us that what the Levites had done showed good understanding of the service of the Lord. Verse 23 then informs us that the whole assembly agreed to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread for a further seven days, in addition to the seven days which had been prescribed in the Mosaic law. The conclusion of the whole affair is stated in vv. 26-27: namely, great joy because there had been nothing like this since the days of Solomon, and God heard the priests and Levites when they stood to bless the people because God heard them, for their prayer reached heaven. The reference back to Solomon is in view of the fact that it was in the time of his immediate successor, his son Rehoboam, that the nation split into two, Judah under King Rehoboam, and Israel under Jeroboam son of Nebat. But Hezekiah brought the nation together to celebrate the Passover. It was truly a high point. However, the Passover was celebrated with huge irregularities. Had it not been so, it would not have been celebrated at all. I would argue that the same applies to the Lord's Supper and to baptism: it is better to celebrate these irregularly than not at all.

It may be said, by way of reply and objection to what I have written, that there is a difference between what Hezekiah and the people did in celebrating the Passover irregularly, and our celebrating the Lord's Supper on line: the former was the true thing done irregularly, whereas an essential element of the latter is missing. It may be said, by analogy, it is the difference between what Hezekiah did and what would have been the situation if there had been no lambs. This would have made it impossible to celebrate. I think not, and shall appeal to a second passage of Scripture.

(ii) Leviticus 10. The crucial thing to bear in mind in this chapter is the following: in some sin offerings, the blood was to be taken into the Holy Place. Where this was so, the whole animal was to be burned: Lev. 6:30. Where the blood was not taken into the Holy Place, the priest was to eat the sacrifice: Lev. 6:26,29. In Leviticus 10 the sin offering which had been offered was not one where the blood was taken into the Holy Place. Therefore, it was to be eaten, and the eating of it was an essential element of this sacrifice: v.17. In fact, the eating of it was an essential element in taking away the guilt of the community by making atonement for them before the Lord: v. 17. Aaron, however, did not eat it: v. 17. Moses remonstrates with him about this: vv. 16-18. Aaron gives his explanation in verse 19. It relates back to the fact that two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, had offered unauthorised fire before the Lord and the Lord had killed them for it. This might suggest how dangerous it was, therefore, for Aaron to have not followed the Lord's instructions: the Lord had commanded that the sacrifice be eaten but Aaron had not done so. Would not this have displeased the Lord? Aaron, however, reasons, in a contrary way: in view of what had happened, would the Lord have been pleased if Aaron had eaten the sacrifice? As the great Puritan commentator Matthew Poole points out in his comments on this verse, the sacrifices were to be eaten with rejoicing and thanksgiving: Deut. 12:7; 26:14; Hos. 9:4. In the circumstances, this was something which Aaron, having seen God's displeasure in striking dead two of his sons, was unable to do. This being so, it appears that whereas Hezekiah had thought it better to keep the spirit of the Passover, even though it could not be kept according to the letter, Aaron thought it better not to keep the letter of the eating of the sin offering where he could not do so in the right spirit. And Moses was satisfied by this: v. 20. This suggests that although an essential element of this sin offering was not followed, Moses was satisfied that it was not vitiated.

Concluding observations on the Lord's Supper 'online'

It is obvious that to celebrate the Lord's Supper 'online' is highly irregular. We do need to acknowledge the element of chastening. But where the desire and the spirit are right, may it not be celebrated irregularly? One loaf will be shown and will be broken. Each in their own families may watch and break bread. We may all eat at the same time. Secondly, we may have a cup from which all family members share together, at the same time. By virtue of what has been said earlier about presence in terms of sight and sound, is it not better to do this than not to do it at all? I do not mean that this is mandatory but simply that, in the light of the principles I have sought to deduce from 2 Chron. 30 and Lev. 10, the matter is not as cut-and-dried or as black and white as some of my esteemed brothers have suggested. (And I mean exactly what I have said by 'esteemed brothers': I take no pleasure in disagreeing with men who are far godlier and far more theologically leaned than I.)

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