Crises in the world and in the church have always forced believers to wrestle with new ethical dilemmas. These challenges have compelled God’s men to bring Scripture to bear on scenarios they had previously never considered. The Apostle Paul never addressed the finer points of homoousios in his letters, but Athanasius did. Athanasius never addressed Popish anathemas, but Luther did. And Luther never addressed transgenderism, but here we are today.
One question the Covid crisis brings to the church’s doorstep is the matter of communion in abstentia. What should happen to communion when God’s people can’t commune? Is virtual communion valid? As a missionary, I’ve wrestled with versions of this question before. Suppose your church gathers in the middle of Mozambique and only has access to porridge and orange Fanta. In a more familiar setting, what about a deacon that brings the bread and wine to an isolated mother in the cry room? Are these legitimate?
This question is more difficult than it seems. It’s not as simple as saying: The Lord’s Supper demands gathering and virtual doesn’t gather. Is online church, then, always off limits? Even in crisis? Online prayer? I wouldn’t give a hard negative answer to this larger question in every scenario. But with our current situation, current timeline and current location, I believe the most biblical answer is no to virtual communion. My three reasons below would be biblical, logistical and ethical.
First, Scripture never commands Christians to take communion weekly or even monthly. The Christians in Acts were devoted to the consistent breaking of bread (Ac. 2:42) and Scripture commands Christians to celebrate Christ’s death frequently (1Co. 11:24-29), but it never attaches a number.
Churches need to decide if the failure to take the Lord’s Supper physically for just a few weeks constitutes an emergency. “If we don’t have communion this week we’ll be sinning against God!” Does Scripture say it is wrong not to have the Lord’s Table for a month? Some churches have communion quarterly anyway. Moreover, this may even build anticipation when the church finally does gather physically around the table.
Second, it is difficult to carry out the purposes of the Lord’s Table virtually. The goal of communion is proclamation (1Cor. 11:26), participation (Mt. 26:26), examination (1Cor. 11:27-29), unification (1Cor. 10:17), and provision (Jn. 6:53-57). How does one proclaim Christ’s death in a room by himself? How does one fellowship alone? How does one guard the table through Wifi?
Third, “rule bending” laws in Scripture address different scenarios. The argument goes: If David could bend the rules by eating the holy bread, can’t we adjust parliamentary procedure by taking virtual communion? But a closer look shows unequal circumstances. Just because David took the bread doesn’t mean we can take the bread. In 1 Sam 21, David and his famished warriors ate the bread out of absolute necessity. Even though the law stated only the priests could eat this bread, Ahimelech put mercy ahead of the law by giving his OK. He was placing moral law above ceremonial law. Jesus later used this story to illustrate that Sabbath labor isn’t restricted when done out of necessity (Mt. 12:3-4) or by essential workers (vv. 5-6). See, essential workers existed back in David’s day too.
Second Chronicles 30 is another story illustrating that God allows for flexibility in extraordinary circumstances. King Hezekiah was so committed to carrying out the Passover, that he did so quite unconventionally. It happened a month later than it should have (v. 3) and the participants were unfit due to uncleanness (vv. 18-20). And yet, warts and all, they went ahead. Hezekiah offered a special prayer and essentially said, It’ll do. Why? Because the hearts of the participants were repentant, which is what God really wants (Isa 29:13). Again, moral law overrides the finer points of the ceremonial law.
So I’m not convinced one can use the two OT examples above (along with its moral/ceremonial law motif) to urge computer-generated communion. As precious and vital the Lord’s Supper is, I’m not persuaded the church is sinning or in a state of emergency by not taking the bread and wine for a month.
In the meantime, believers should focus on tasks one can always do alone: prayer (1Th. 5:17), Scripture reading (Ps. 119), and meditation (Josh. 1:8). And when this mess is all over, our hearts will brim with joy when we hear those words before the table: “Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.”