On Good Friday, we shared the Lord’s Supper via Zoom. Following on from that I wanted to take some time to talk to us as a congregation about celebrating the Lord’s Supper online. You may know that many denominations are not sharing communion “virtually” and there has been some online criticism of those who are. I am also aware that some of you have been questioned about why we as a church are doing this so I wanted to explain our position.
Firstly, you should know that we are not simply sharing the Lord’s Supper online as a pragmatic decision. Our decision to have online Communion is a decision that I have thought about Biblically and theologically, read widely about and consulted some former theology lecturers and fellow pastors to hear their views. The conclusion I have come to based on this is that while sharing the Lord’s Supper online should never become the normal way that this ordinance is celebrated at Westlake; because of our theology it is a permissible way in these extraordinary circumstances.
Perhaps the best way to explain why I have come to that conclusion is to start by thinking about why some other churches have chosen not to do so. These denominations, such as the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans and some Methodists have largely come to this view because they have a differing view of ordination and how the Lord’s Supper is beneficial than we do as an evangelical congregation in what is broadly called the “low church tradition.”
These churches on the whole believe that for the Lord’s Supper to be of spiritual benefit that ordained clergy following a prescribed liturgy are necessary. (they vary on whether a congregation needs to be physically present) I think it would be fair to say that the focus is on the celebrant being properly ordained rather than on the person receiving the bread and wine having the proper attitude and being a born again disciple of Jesus. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that by simply partaking in the sacraments administered by a priest who has been ordained by a RC bishop that grace is bestowed to the individual “automatically.” The Latin phrase for what I have described as “automatically” is “ex opere operato”, which means “by the work performed”. The other Protestant denominations I mentioned whilst not going that far do see the need for ordained clergy to administer the Lord’s Supper and doing so online becomes problematic because no clergy would be physically present. There is a further argument against on line Communion connected to not all the congregation being “gathered” together.
At Westlake have a different view of church leadership and its relationship to the sacraments. As the pastor of Westlake, I am not a priest, I’m not a member of the “clergy”, I am a teaching elder who serves with other elders who are equal as leaders in status before God. As a Church we don’t believe that there is a division between “clergy” and “laity” that comes about through ordination. Let me explain, the word “clergy” derives from the Greek word “kleros,” which means “lot” or “inheritance.” It is often used figuratively, as in, “we are God’s inheritance,” or “we share in the inheritance of Christ,” In the New Testament without exception it refers to the whole people of God. Not once can we take the meaning to refer to some special elite subgroup of people of God, the clergy, who are specially ordained and commissioned to administer the sacraments.
In New Testament terms as far as I can understand it, “Clergy” and “the people of God” (laos tou theou) are one and the same people. I believe that this division of God’s people into clergy and laity is both unscriptural and unhelpful, it undermines what theologians call “The Priesthood of All Believers.” One of my theology books defines the Priesthood of All Believers in this way “The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers states that all believers in Christ share in his priestly status; therefore, there is no special class of people who mediate the knowledge, presence, and forgiveness of Christ to the rest of believers, and all believers have the right and authority to read, interpret, and apply the teachings of Scripture.”
What all this means theologically and practically is that as a Church we don’t see the necessity of having an “ordained” member of the “clergy” physically present to administer the Lord’s Supper. Instead, we believe that as a member of the Priesthood of All Believers it is permissible for all of God’s people with due reverence and in accordance to the New Testament’s gudiance to share the bread and wine of Communion with one another in their homes.
Secondly, we also see online communion as being permissible because we have a different understanding of how the Lord’s Supper conveys “spiritual benefit” or becomes a means of grace to us. In my view the Protestant reformers rightly rejected the idea that the sacraments bestowed grace upon a person without faith and that Jesus was physically present in the bread and wine. In contrast they taught that it was only through partaking in the sacraments by faith that the individual would receive any grace or benefit. John Calvin wrote, “But what is a sacrament received apart from faith but the most certain ruin of the church?” So, for us what is vital is not the presence of an ordained person administering the bread and wine but the attitude of faith in the heart of the person receiving it. This can be present equally as well at home as in a church building.
John Calvin went on to argue that Jesus is present when we celebrate Communion not in the bread and wine as the Catholics believe but through the presence of the Holy Spirit. As believers we are “in Christ” we have union with Christ and at the Lord’s Supper it is this union made effective and experiential through the work of the Spirit which makes the act of taking communion a potential means of grace if we come in faith. Calvin says “The bond of this connection is therefore the Spirit of Christ, with whom we are joined in unity, and is like a channel through which all that Christ himself is and has is conveyed to us.” Because as Christians we have been united to Christ by faith, through partaking in the Lord’s Supper we can now receive spiritual nourishment. As we take the bread and wine we remember and receive afresh the benefits of our union with Christ through the Spirit. Without union with Christ, through the Holy Spirit, the Christian cannot come to be nourished in any way by the bread and wine. It is the Holy Spirit’s work, in union with Christ which brings to the Christian the benefits of participation in the Lord’s Supper. We see no impediment to this happening in our homes as we celebrate together on line.
As to the question of the congregation needing to be gathered physically in one place for the Lord’s Supper to be properly administered and received. We agree that this should be normal and is the ideal but of course we are currently living through circumstances that are neither normal nor ideal. We understand the Church as the Body of Christ which is gathered, empowered and animated by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not confined physically and can therefore unite us wherever and however, we are gathered. Currently as we gather as the Body of Christ we may be scattered in different homes present only to each through a screen, but we are united by the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, who is not confined to any building. The Holy Spirit both unites us with Christ and each other and so although celebrating Communion physically separated is not ideal, I see it as being permissible because of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit who is omnipresent with us all. If the Holy Spirit can gather and unite us physically as God’s worshiping people in a building I can see no theological reason why He cannot gather and unite us virtually on line.
I recognize that this has been some “deep” theology but I hope it conveys to you the idea that as a church we are still taking the Lord’s Supper seriously and have good theological reasons for taking a different view from other denominations about whether it is legitimate to celebrate it “virtually” during this time of enforced separation.We are not issuing this statement as a criticism of the decisions made by other Christian traditions but simply as an explanation for how and why we have reached our decision concerning the Lord’s Supper and the appropriateness of celebrating it on line while we cannot be physically together. I am happy to answer any questions you have just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org