Thursday 9 April 2020

Zooming in on the Lord’s Supper? Some reflections… Part 1

This has become a sprawling debate. I have tried to capture the major arguments here without naming lots of names. Of course no-one is making all these arguments; I’ve just found it helpful to spread out the pieces and try and organise them a little…

By way of a headline, I don’t think we can celebrate the Lord’s Supper until we physically gather again as God’s people. But I want to acknowledge the breadth and quality of many arguments for a different conclusion. There are some biblical arguments that need addressing and there are very tricky questions around what it means to be “present” online. Could it not be said that the church has gathered in a Zoom chat room?

Let’s begin with some basic convictions about the Lord’s Supper, widely recognised:

1. The Lord’s Supper is the sign of a sacrifice for sins offered once for all. The loss of the Lord’s Supper would be much, much worse if we believed it atones for sins. 

2. The Lord’s Supper is a sign for the new covenant community.

a.       It signifies the unity of God’s people. There is one loaf, one body, one cup. Indeed, it constitutes us as one. We who are many are one “because there is one loaf.” (1 Cor 10:17)

b.      It is to be celebrated as the gathered church. Paul’s instructions on the Lord’s Supper are given along with other aspects of corporate worship under the category of things to do “when you come together” (1 Cor 11:18, 20, 14:23, 26).

c.       It is closely related to church discipline. To excommunicate someone is to ex-communion them, to deny them the right to eat at the family table. 1 Corinthians 5-6 speaks of those who should be excluded from table fellowship because of their sinful conduct as an act of discipline.[1] Likewise Matt 18:17 speaks of ending fellowship as the climax of a process of discipline.

This responsibility to “judge those inside” the church falls to the whole church community in 1 Cor 5:12-13 and the unrepentant sinner’s case is brought before the whole church in Matt 18:17. That said, there is a clear need for mature believers to be engaged in the process (Gal 6:1) and it is the responsibility of leaders in particular to refute error, rebuke, correct, and restore, as the Pastoral Epistles demonstrate.

Protestant churches have developed a number of ways of administering the Lord’s Supper which will raise some more specific issues, beyond the need to observe the basic contours on the Lord’s Supper. In some traditions, it is only the ordained ministers of the gospel or elders of the church who may preside. In others, the bread and wine must be consecrated by an ordained minister and any surplus reverently consumed.[2] To the extent that these are felt to be important, they will feed into our decision about what is permissible or advisable in this season.

But, to return to those broader convictions about the Lord’s Supper, the basic question emerges clearly enough: if the church can’t meet together, then how can it celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

The next few posts looks at a number of recent arguments arguing it can...

[1] In the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism Question 173: “May any who profess his faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper, be kept from it?” Answer: “Such as are found to be ignorant or scandalous, notwithstanding their profession of the faith, and desire to come to the Lord’s Supper, may and ought to be kept from that sacrament, by the power which Christ hath left in his church, until they receive instruction and manifest their reformation.
[2] What is meant by consecration varies; it can mean that bread and wine are accompanied by words which proclaim their significance (thereby keeping word and sacrament together). See Calvin Institutes 4.17.39 on this); it can also include the prayer that the Spirit would enable the people to feed in Christ in the Supper.