Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Livestream Communion?

I was surprised to recently learn of a confessional Presbyterian church which has encouraged its members to come up with their own communion elements and take them at home as part of live-streamed services. During "these uncertain times" we have seen many unusual things, and it did not surprise me as much to see other denominations debating live-streamed communion. But Presbyterians hold to a confession of faith which says that the minister should give the bread and wine "to none who are not then present in the congregation" (WCF 29.3).

Not only does this practice seem to clearly conflict with our confession of faith, but I think it also departs from the directions for the Lord's supper we find in Scripture. The Lord's supper is a shared meal, to be eaten together. In it, the church partakes of one food.

Biblical Principles

1. When Christ instituted this supper (e.g. Matt. 26:26-29), after giving thanks and blessing the bread and wine, he took the bread and wine and gave them to the disciples who were gathered together in the upper room. They ate and drank of the same bread and wine, given to them by Christ. 

2. When the apostles and the early church observed the Lord's supper according to Christ's institution, they did so in the gatherings of the church. They gathered to eat it (Acts 20:7). When Paul spoke of the Lord's supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, he uses the word for "come together" five times. He even spoke of how they came together "at the same place" (11:20 NET). One of the Corinthians' problems was that they did not treat the Lord's supper as a meal for the church, but rather as an individual meal. "For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk" (11:21). "So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another" (11:33).

3. In 1 Corinthians 10, we are taught that the bread and wine are a participation in the body and blood of Christ, and thereby a bond of union with each other. "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (10:17). The fact that the church partakes together of the same meal is important. This shared meal with the visible church is a sign and seal of our communion with each other in Christ - it makes our communion visible.

4. In 1 Corinthians 5, we are taught that the church should not eat with one who bears the name of brother who persists in manifest immorality. Not only does this imply that the church should eat with each other, but it also means that the elders of the church ought to have oversight of who eats with the church. 

Problems with Livestream Communion 

1. In a livestream service, the people are not assembled in one place. They do worship together. They do hear the same preaching and pray the same prayers. But they are not assembled together. They are not sitting with the rest of the congregation, nor can they even see the rest of the congregation in most cases. 

2. Though you can send words through a livestream, you cannot send food through it. The minister is appointed to give the bread and wine to the people after giving thanks and blessing it as Christ did. The people are to receive it. When members produce their own elements, they do not receive the elements given by the minister. 

3. Another consequence of this practice is that the congregation does not receive bread and wine from the same source. This takes away much of the symbolism of a shared meal with "one bread." 

4. When the Lord's supper is practiced by livestream, the elders loose substantial oversight. They loose oversight of what people use as elements. More importantly, they loose oversight of who partakes. Those who are excommunicated or not yet admitted to the table can partake freely and anonymously.


This may seem like an insignificant issue, especially in the times in which we live. Certainly there are bigger issues. But this one is important if we believe that the second commandment requires "the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in his Word" (WSC Q. 50).

While we are in unusual times, the situation of a church's assembly being suspended is not much different from the situation of those confined to their home or a hospital for physical reasons. Some of God's ordinances are sometimes providentially interrupted for an individual (Ps. 42:1-4) or a people (Joel 1:13, Lam. 2:6). Yet, Reformed churches have always pointed to other appointed means to help those who are hindered from assembling, rather than risk distorting this ordinance. A home bound person can rely on other means of growth, such as reading God's word, prayer, sermons (written, recorded, live-streamed), as well as the visits of the elders and the saints and their prayers and words of encouragement. If necessary, pastors have sometimes come with others to the bedside and held a small church service there and administered communion. This is in fact what some churches have begun doing if unable to restore larger gatherings, holding multiple smaller services and/or the members taking turns coming in person. Another nearby PCA church is distributing communion at the end of their livestream service at the curb to people in their cars, the members partaking while parked with fellow members. Obviously not ideal, but I think it basically meets the biblical principles above.

That said, I understand and appreciate the difficulty churches find themselves in when they resort to livestream communion. It is a good desire to want to partake of the Lord's supper frequently. While our church was able to resume its gatherings a few weeks ago, other churches have decided to remain at a distance, and this increases the pressure to do something about the Lord's supper. I want to note the issue and the departure from our confessional standards (and, I believe, from Scripture), but these are brothers in Christ who are trying to navigate unusual circumstances. 

So may God continue to show his mercy upon us so that more churches may be able to gather soon without the threat of danger. May he restore and purify his ordinances and bless his people through them. And may he work through his preached word, which is not bound, that it may be fruitful and fill the earth with the children of God. 

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