Letter to the Congregation
March 27, 2020
The Coronavirus pandemic is the not the first crisis through which the Church has persevered. During the Roman persecutions, congregations met in the catacombs of the city in order to worship. Indeed, persecution is the very reason for which the Apostles’ Creed was not published until the fourth century. The church father Rufinus is the first author to provide the Latin text of the Creed. He explains, “The Creed is not written on paper or parchment, but is retained in the hearts of the faithful” (Rufinus, Commentary 2 [NPNF2 3:543]). The Creed was memorized to keep it from being compromised. He explains the fact from the safety measures of the early Church. In order to guard the Church against possible infiltrators, the Creed—also known as the Symbol of the Apostles—was used as a codeword to verify identity: “So that if one is met with, of whom it is doubtful to which side he belongs, being asked the symbol (watchword), he discloses whether he is friend or foe” (3:542-543). The Creed itself was a password, the articles functioned as a series of security questions. So, in fear of persecution, the Creed was kept secret among communicants until after the conversion of Emperor Constantine (AD 311-312).
COVID-19, however, presents a different challenge, that is, social distancing and prohibited public and private gatherings. During persecution, the congregation still gathered together. Now, out of wise medical precaution to curb the spread of the virus, we can’t. So, we are utterly grateful to God for modern technology which allows us to, at least, gather online for worship. What a blessing that we are able to remain connected!
Yet this unusual online experience has raised the question within our congregation—indeed the blogosphere—whether the Lord’s Supper can be administered virtually and celebrated in private homes, as families or home groups. The Session has addressed the question. The short answer is no. The long answer is below for which the Session acknowledges three reasons: biblical, theological, and ecclesiological.
1). Biblical: House communion would perpetuate the problem of the church in Corinth, that is, dividing the church. The Apostle Paul addresses the problem in 1 Cor. 11:17-34. During the apostolic era, many of those who came to faith were servants and slaves. There was no Sunday with respect to a cultural day of rest. Most worked the day and therefore the churches met at night when all could attend (Acts 20:7). Moreover, the churches usually met in the house of a rich patron whose home was large enough to host the gathering. In the case of Corinth, there were divisions in the congregation (1:12-13; 11:18). The upshot is that the wealthy, who didn’t need to work on Sunday, celebrated the Supper early without the rest of the congregation—at least, what they thought was the Supper. Paul corrects and asserts, When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you are eating (11:20). Though they are eating a meal which they think is the supper, they are not observing the supper. Why? For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk (v. 21). The rich goes ahead with his own meal, i.e., a private meal apart from rest of the church, without all the members assembled together. They celebrate until all the wine is consumed leaving some drunk. By the time a “have-not” arrives, there is nothing left for him to eat who thereby goes hungry. In so doing, they (a) despise the church of God and (b) humiliate those who have nothing (v. 22). Instead of being “together” (the nature of the church in v. 18) they are tearing the congregation apart and thereby despising the church and shaming and abusing the poor.
So, Paul repeats the words of institution (vv. 23-26) emphasizing the “remembrance of Me” and “proclaiming his death” which eliminates the idea of seeking one’s own selfish interest at the Table. He then provides two correctives. The first (vv. 27-32) is to discern the body (v. 29), i.e., the church, the body of Christ. They should examine themselves to see if they are dividing the body of Christ; disregarding one another, neglecting, humiliating, mistreating, etc. The second corrective (vv. 33-34) begins, So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another (v. 33).
In sum, the Supper should only be celebrated when the entire church can come together to eat and participate in the sacrament. Until then, we should wait for one another, however long that may be due to the COVID crisis.
2.) Theological: Virtual communion is arguably Docetism. Docetism was one of the earliest heresies within Christianity. The Docetics and Gnostics were both heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism which had been become very popular in the Mediterranean world by the first century. Plato taught that what was wrong with mankind (as compared to the biblical fall of Adam from his state of righteousness) is that man fell from an ethereal realm of the Ideal. In the Ideal realm, existence was in soul only. For Plato, incarnation is incarceration. The body is a prison for the soul. The body itself is evil. So, for Christians influenced by Neo-Platonism, they denied that Jesus came in the flesh as it contradicted their platonic assumptions. Thereby Docetism arose on the scene. It was a heresy that taught that Jesus was not incarnate but just appeared as a ghost, an illusion, a hologram. Basically, Jesus appeared in a virtual body.
In sum, virtual communion repeats Docetism. In virtual communion, the church as the body of Christ reduces to a Docetic illusion.
3.) Ecclesiological: The Westminster Standards prohibit private communions and restrict the administration of the Supper to ministers. See WCF "Chapter 29. Of the Lord’s Supper.”
“The Lord Jesus hath, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to …. give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation” (29.3).
“Private masses … are all contrary to the nature of their sacrament, and to the institution of Christ (29.4).
For these three reasons, ChristChurch will not administer the Supper virtually. The point is not that a virtual supper is less than ideal, but that it is simply not the Supper.
Given that the Lord’s Supper should be celebrated every time the church gathers publicly for worship, our empty Table itself is a statement that the public worship of ChristChurch has been suspended. Let us not waste this crisis. Let us learn from the nature of the Supper itself what it teaches about the communion of the congregation. Perhaps God in His mercy will use this abstinence from the Supper to stir more desire for it thereby making us eagerly anticipate the day when the whole church can gather together publicly again.