Regular readers of this space will know that I am a regular (or perhaps, more properly, an irregular) guest of the Presbycast podcast hosted by Brad Isbell (Chortles Weakly) and Wresbyterian. This is a valuable (if sometimes quirky) resource for the confessional P&R world. Yesterday Chortles was smoking pork in and broadcasting live his backyard for 8.5 hours (!) on YouTube. He has captured and condensed the audio of that program to 2 hours. You can hear it here. I joined them for about 25 minutes to talk about the phenomenon of “virtual communion,” wherein an ordained minister conducts a service live in the church’s auditorium, streams said service, and conducts communion during which members (and others?) watching the video stream are invited to give themselves communion at home. This is not a theoretical issue. Apparently some Teaching Elders (ministers) in the PCA are doing this. Bill Reidel (Acts 29) defends this practice at TGC. It has been endorsed Chris Ridgeway in his essay, “Online Communion Can Still Be Sacramental” in Christianity Today. He reports that Saddleback Community Church has been doing this since the 1990s. He even recognizes that WCF 24.7 forbids it (see below) but makes a typically pragmatic, American, modern evangelical argument. As I indicated in the interview, and as I have argued previously (see below), self-communion is a singularly bad idea. It is not authorized by God’s Word (that is the biblical rule of worship and the standard by which our services are to be conducted) and it is contrary to the language and intent of the Westminster Confession of Faith (27.4):
4. There be only two sacraments ordained by Christ our Lord in the Gospel; that is to say, baptism, and the Supper of the Lord: neither of which may be dispensed by any, but by a minister of the Word lawfully ordained.
The minister reading the form and consecrating the elements in prayer should no more be followed by families communing themselves than shut-ins should do so while listening to a live broadcast of the service before the outbreak of Covid-19.
Bill Reidel argues that virtual communion may be practiced because “we are not sacerdotal.” There is a difference between recognizing a distinction between the special offices institutes by Christ (prophet, priest, and king/pastor, deacon, elder) and being “sacerdotal.” Reserving Word and sacrament ministry to the special office of minister of the Word (or Teaching Elder in the PCA) is not sacerdotal. The Westminster Confession does this and no one could sensibly call the WCF sacerdotal.
There are ways to commune shut ins (which we all are now, for the time being) beside American entrepreneurial innovation. When it comes to worship and the administration of the means of Grace, the Lord has shown himself to be rigidly inflexible. Ask Uzzah or the writer to the Hebrews (listen to the Heidelcast linked below). Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 would seem to apply. To be sure, the abuses are markedly different but his words are true in this case too: “it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat.”
Here is the interview:
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
- Should You Give Yourself Communion At Home?
- Heidelcast 145: I AM That I AM (13): Some Implications Of The Divine Attributes
- Scott Swain Contra Virtual Communion
- Resources On The Rule Of Worship
- Reformed Confessions
- The Presbycast
- May A Christian College Administer Communion?
- Hodge On Every-Member Ministry (Ephesians 4:12)
- A Seventh-Century Opinion On Every-Member Ministry
- Jackson, “Unto” And “Toward” In Ephesians 4:11–12, And Every Member Ministry
- Calvin Against Baptism By The Laity
- Should Churches Do Ghost Town Worship?
Thanks for your discussion on this, it has not ever been something to cross my mind until now that someone would try ‘virtual communion’.
I wrote a post for White Horse Inn about fasting, in God’s providence, as a push back against Lent before all the present crisis erupted. I was struck, as mentioned in this episode, that church history is full of the notion that fasting is a corporate activity for when we need to seek God for repentance of for help in a very pointed need. Our session is considering jumping off this post to call a fast among our congregation (not imposed but a call to seek God earnestly about an actual issue).
This is a helpful interview. I totally agree. I think a further argument made by the “virtualists” is that the minister is instituting the Supper over the internet and the elements are just provided in each home. I think that this too fails to take proper account of the nature of institution, but also fails to account for the corporate nature of the Supper. It isn’t supposed to be just in our families, even if it COULD be by long distance institution. I also am glad people want to take the means of grace seriously but it seems we do need to reckon with the sufficiency if God’s Grace to deal well with us through his Word even as it is unideally distributed during this time.
Thanks for your good work Harrison. I agree that communing at home isn’t really a corporate communion, which is of the essence of the administration of communion.