Here in early 2020, the corona virus is making people rethink many things. We have learned a new term: social distancing. Many are facing self-imposed or government-imposed quarantines. Even congregations have had to ask important questions. Do we continue to assemble, even when it is not recommended by medical experts? If we do not assemble, do we stream some version of the normal worship on our computers? How do we balance the health threat to individuals with the aspects of congregational worship? For many groups, this is somewhat simplified by broadcasting a sermon or Bible lesson. In the Churches of Christ, however, one of the central aspects of our assembling together on the first day of the week is the weekly observance of the Lordís Supper. How does social distancing affect such an observance?
We really donít get an answer from the gospel accounts of the institution of the Lordís Supper. We see the elements of the Passover that have been incorporated into a memorial. Jesus made one comment that mightWe are in communion with Christ; however, we are in communion with each other as well. apply. In Luke 22:19 he commands that the breaking of the bread (and according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:25, the taking of the fruit of the vine which followed) be done ďin remembrance.Ē So, other than that it was a memorial, we have to look elsewhere for details. That elsewhere is Paulís discussion in 1 Corinthians 11.
When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not. For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be condemned with the world. Wherefore, my brethren, when ye come together to eat, tarry one for another. And if any man hunger, let him eat at home; that ye come not together unto condemnation. (1 Cor 11:20-34)
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Cor 10:16-17)
It is from this passage that we get the other common designation that the churches of Christ use for this memorial. It is communion. Paul is here saying we are in communion with Christ when we partake. However, in the passage in chapter 11 he indicates that it is a communion with one another as well. He chided the Corinthians for not waiting for each other in their eating the Lordís Supper. Instead he commands them to ďtarry for one another.Ē
If Acts 20:7 is a mention of the Lordís Supper, then Paul and his companions apparently waited most of a week just so they could partake with the congregation at Philippi. That would seem to indicate further that Paul felt that the communion with other Christians was important.
In the passage in 1 Corinthians 11 (verse 29) Paul says that in our participation in the Lordís Supper we should, in addition to examining ourselves, discern the Lordís body. Most people take this to mean that we should be aware of the physical suffering of Jesus, in the words of the rabbis ďas if we were there.Ē That might be part of what he is saying. On the other hand, what is the current body of Christ? Are we not the body? (1 Cor 12:27) If we are to partake of the Lordís Supper ďdiscerning the Lordís body,Ē and if we donít do so we will become sick, how are we to do so without being assembled with that body?
In the Churches of Christ it is not uncommon for someone to take the elements of the Lordís Supper to someone who is unable to attend the assembly because of illness. This is because of the importance we place on the communion. Often the person visiting the sick individual will pray over the elements and give them to the other person, but not partake themselves at that time. Failure to join with the other person in the observance of the Lordís Supper is not communion. It would be like those to whom Paul wrote that failed to ďtarry for one another.Ē
For many years it has been common in the Churches of Christ to prepare the communion on Sunday night for those who were unable to attend on Sunday morning. At least one congregation has stopped this practice. Their reasoning is that if one partakes, all should partake. Therefore, setting up in another room, or even having those desiring to be served stand, is, in their thinking, a violation of 1 Corinthians 11. Are they wrong? That is for each congregation to decide.
In verse 26 of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul gives another reason we partake of the Lordís Supper. We do so to proclaim publicly (show or show forth in some versions) the Lordís death until he comes. While many churches do not hold weekly observances of the Lordís Supper, what then is the point of their assembly? Is not the death and resurrection of Jesus the central dogma of Christianity? This is the opportunity for every member to preach. This is especially true if there is a visitor to the assembly who is unfamiliar with what we do, and why. This is the opportunity to explain to them that Jesus lived as a man, died as a sinless sacrifice to take away the sins of men, and arose in power to validate his standing as the Son of God.
It is not just to visitors that we proclaim the death. We proclaim it to each other. This is an opportunity to tell fellow congregants, ďI still believe.Ē We ask for a public confession of our faith before immersion; and we continue that public confession through partaking in the Lordís Supper. Faith is not a one-time thing. Neither is our proclamation of that faith.
Some states have not exempted churches, synagogues, and mosques from their closure orders during the current crisis. Some congregations have no choice whether or not to continue to assemble. We have entered a time of live-streamed or recorded sermons and, theoretically, online assemblies in real time. How does that affect these stated purposes of the Lordís Supper?
Muslims are required to wash their hands before the daily prayers. What if no water is available, as in a desert environment? A special dispensation has been granted that they may go through the motions of washing using sand as the cleansing agent. (That would probably work for the corona virus, too.) People find ways to fulfil an obligation under difficult circumstances. Is weekly observance of the Lordís Supper one of those obligations that requires a special dispensation?
Jesus did not specify how often the apostles were to break the bread and take the fruit of the vine. Many people see in Acts 20:7 a weekly observance, since every week has a first day. The Jehovahís Witnesses say that since it was a Passover meal, the observance of the Lordís Supper should be an annual event, on Passover. Paul simply said, ďas often as you eat.Ē There is even some indication that the earliest Christians may have had daily observance (Acts 2:46), although this may have ended when they were dispersed from Jerusalem.
If the aspects of fellowship and proclamation are rendered impossible by an isolation order (or by personal illness), is it wrong to skip the Lordís Supper? In those cases where a whole congregation can see each other online, is that the same as being together and proclaimingIf a church does not observe the Lordís Supper, what is the point of their assembly? the death? Perhaps in such a case. But in the case of a streamed sermon where the congregants have no interaction with each other, one runs the risk of not discerning the body while partaking in private.
One other phrase Paul uses may be helpful here. ďLet a man examine himself.Ē If one is taking the Lordís Supper by himself or in the privacy of their family only because we do it every Sunday, then there may not be any self-examination. If one examines himself in the light of scriptures and decides that it is acceptable to partake of the Lordís Supper in private, then he should do so. What Paul said in a different context applies here, as well. ďLet every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.Ē (Rom 14:5)
This is a time when many churches are streaming their sermons. Some may even be managing some form of mutual singing, although many people would hesitate to sing in their homes who would have no problem joining in with the congregation in one room. The issue for the Churches of Christ that partake of the Lordís Supper every week is how to do that in isolation. Perhaps, like the Muslims in the desert, they may make some sort of dispensation. Perhaps they can distribute the bread and the fruit of the vine during the week so that all may take it together. Others may purchase their own supplies. Still others may choose not to participate because they cannot be in communion with the congregation and cannot proclaim the Lordís death.
Disclaimer: The opinions and conclusions in this article are those of the author alone. They are not the position of any specific congregation or group of elders.