Six months ago as the Coronavirus forced churches into lockdown, many pastors were asking: should we share in the Lord’s Supper online? The Gospel Coalition published perspectives both in favour and against; for a variety of reasons, our church decided to abstain from taking the Supper online—just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
But as we slowly emerge from lockdown, churches are realising that we won’t be able to fully regather for quite some time. In a recent episode of The Pastor’s Heart, Dominic Steele advises that pastors should lead not for recovery but endurance. And that means providing concurrent online and physical platforms for corporate worship—pivoting to what he calls a “dual audience church”.
I want to encourage us to abstain from sharing the Lord’s Supper until we can all regather as one church.
This raises a slightly different but equally important question: should a dual audience church share in the Lord’s Supper? That is, should those physically gathered share in the same elements while those virtually gathered participate from their own homes? This is a question over which good consciences can graciously disagree but I want to encourage us to wait for one another—to abstain from sharing the Lord’s Supper—until we can all regather as one church.
The Supper as Our Point of Unity
Divisions over the Supper are not new. While the parallel is far from exact, the Corinthian church faced its own internal divisions over this meal. Apparently, the wealthier members of the church were not waiting for their poorer brothers and sisters. They were indulging in the meal they were supposed to share: “For at the meal, each one eats his own supper. So one person is hungry while another person is drunk!” (1 Cor 11:21)
When instituting the Passover, the Lord commanded that “the whole community of Israel must celebrate it” (Exod 12:47). The Passover united God’s old covenant people. Likewise, for the new covenant church, the Supper should be our point of unity not a flashpoint of division. It is intended to highlight the deep things we share not “humiliate those who have nothing” (1 Cor 11:22). But in failing to wait for their poorer brothers and sisters to celebrate this meal together, the rich of Corinth were “despising the church of God” and failing to “recognise the body” (11:22, 29). It’s ironic that in lockdown, many churches chose to take the Supper online in order to unite the body but in a dual audience church, sharing the Supper in two different forms might actually divide the body.
Five times Paul connects the Supper with “when you come together” (11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34). Notwithstanding the value of our churches’ online gatherings, the “coming together” envisioned by Paul is a fundamentally embodied experience. The sacraments are an outward sign of an inward grace, or as Martin Luther puts it, they are the “visible words” of God. The Supper engages not only our sense of hearing through the words of institution but our senses of sight, touch, taste and smell through the bread and wine. They give material expression to spiritual realities. To adapt Luther, they are the “tangible words” of God. Hence Paul’s connection of our sharing in the elements physically with our sharing in Christ spiritually: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (10:16).
Physically sharing in the Supper is a qualitatively different experience from its diminished online equivalent.
This means that physically sharing in the Supper is a qualitatively different experience from its diminished online equivalent. The depth of unity celebrated by those physically gathered cannot be enjoyed by those virtually present—at least not to the same degree. By offering the Supper both in-person and online, we fail to “recognise the body” by creating two different levels of belonging. Our divide might not be between the rich and poor but the physical and virtual.
Ironically, on this score, there may be better reason to celebrate the Supper entirely online rather than a mix of online and in-person. At least when the whole church “comes together” virtually, every member participates on an equal footing with equal access, but a dual audience church creates a structural divide between the physically present and physically absent. It risks the Corinthian sin of turning our point of unity a flashpoint of division.
Waiting as Protecting Our Unity
Even though celebrating the Lord’s Supper expresses our unity, deferring it until the whole church can physically regather might actually protect that unity. In order to heal the wounds of division, Paul exhorts the Corinthian church: “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33). Paul would rather defer the timing of the Supper in order to protect the integrity of the Supper for the integrity of the Supper protects the unity of the church.
Indeed, he prioritises the church’s unity over individual needs. Hunger and thirst are legitimate physical needs to be met within our individual homes but the Supper is intended to tangibly express our shared spiritual inheritance (11:22, 34). Understandably, in a crisis, pastors are grasping for whatever tools of emotional comfort we can provide. And alongside the word and prayer, the sacraments are precious means of grace “whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q 88). So it’s entirely understandable why a pastor might want to continue the Supper in whatever form as a means of spiritual comfort.
But are we are matching a good intention with a wrong solution? After all, the means of grace are God’s gift to the collective church before the individual believer. Not to diminish the value of our personal devotion but the primary context within which the means of grace are to be enjoyed is the physically gathered church—and failing to wait for one another compromises the value and enjoyment of that gift. So while we seek to comfort a church in crisis, a compromised Supper that is unequally shared and enjoyed will not strengthen our connection but merely highlight our separation.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we only celebrate the Lord’s Supper when we have 100 per cent church attendance. Every week, most churches welcome between 70 and 80 per cent of their members while the remaining 20 to 30 per cent are unwell, on holidays or at work, and we don’t ordinarily wait for them before celebrating the Supper. But in those cases, the initiative to not physically gather comes from the individual who on that occasion chooses to abstain from the open table. But with a dual audience church, it is the pastor’s initiative to create a separate virtual space for some of the church without any access to the physical table. In this sense, we are intentionally structuring a gathering with two unequal levels of unity; we who are many are one body but we cannot all share the one bread (10:17). If we wait for our churches to fully and physically regather, we protect our point of unity from becoming that flashpoint of division.
The God who Waits for Us
As we wait for one another, let us not forget that our Lord is actually waiting for us.
For the last six months, our church has been grieving the loss of the Supper, and the thought of extending our waiting brings another wave of grief. But in this period of abstinence, let us teach our churches how to wait well. Let us train them to more sensitively recognise the body, especially its weaker parts. And let us grow in the spiritual fruit of patience as we exercise the spiritual discipline of waiting.
As we wait for one another, let us not forget that our Lord is actually waiting for us. At the very first Supper, he promised: “I will not drink from the fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Mt 26:29; Lk 22:16). How remarkable it is to realise that Jesus is waiting for us so that we might feast with him. Just as our earthly Supper anticipates the heavenly Supper, may our waiting for one another honour Jesus’ waiting for us so that in the end, we will share in the fruit of the vine as one gathered people.