To read a different perspective on whether to do the ordinances amid the COVID-19 pandemic, see Bill Riedel’s entry.
Can baptism and the Lord’s Supper go online?
For the next who-knows-how-long, churches in many parts of the world will be unable to gather. So pastors like me are lovingly scrambling for solutions. There’s no playbook for this. When the church can’t gather physically, what can we do to encourage and nourish God’s people?
Most evangelical churches are livestreaming something resembling their Sunday service. Although one could raise questions about the wisdom of this practice, I don’t think anything in Scripture prohibits it. But what about baptism and the Lord’s Supper? Can those two elements of the church’s gathered worship be performed remotely? With baptism, it depends on what you mean; with the Lord’s Supper, it’s a definite no.
Let me underscore that my goal in this piece is not to slap any pastors’ wrists, but simply to look to Scripture for guidance. When we have few practical precedents to appeal to, it’s even more important to let God’s all-sufficient Word direct our steps.
We’ll consider baptism first, then the Lord’s Supper.
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus commands, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Our most basic question here is, can this be done without face-to-face contact between the baptizer and the baptizee? The Greek word rendered “baptize” means to dunk in liquid. The point of the ordinance is that the external act of submersion in water signifies the spiritual reality of union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:1–4). In Jesus’s command here, the responsibility to baptize lies with those making disciples; the responsibility to get baptized lies with the one who has become a disciple. The disciple-maker dunks; the disciple-made gets dunked.
So I don’t think a virtual solution is possible here. The command is not “tell them to baptize themselves,” but “baptize them.”
In these extraordinary times, however, I do think it’s permissible for a church to be flexible about how it baptizes. (It’s also worth considering whether it might be prudent to delay baptizing until we can all gather again.) For instance, it’s normally fitting for baptism to take place in a gathering of the whole congregation. This is because baptism isn’t only a personal profession of faith, but also how the church publicly endorses a believer’s profession and thereby enfolds them into their membership (Acts 2:38–41).
Can those two elements of the church’s gathered worship be performed remotely? With baptism, it depends on what you mean; with the Lord’s Supper, it’s a definite no.
Baptism binds the one to the many. And having the whole “many” witness the act wonderfully underscores this. But when the “many” are prohibited from gathering, I think it’s entirely permissible for a pastor, as an authorized representative of the congregation, to baptize someone in a less public setting. After all, Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch had no more witnesses than those who could fit in the eunuch’s chariot (Acts 8:38). A baptism in a bathtub may be irregular, but it’s still a baptism.
The same can’t be said, though, for a “Lord’s Supper” carried out when the church is scattered. That’s because the physical act of gathering is essential, not incidental, to the ordinance. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul refers five times to the fact that they celebrate the Lord’s Supper when they all come together as a church, as one assembly meeting in one place at one time (e.g., “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you,” 1 Cor. 11:18; cf. vv. 17, 20, 33, 34).
But is this just what they happened to do, or what we must do? Is the church’s physical presence with each other essential to the ordinance? Paul would say yes. Consider 1 Corinthians 10:17: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The Lord’s Supper enacts the church’s unity. It consummates the church’s oneness. It gathers up the many who partake of the same elements together, in the same place, and makes them one. (So if baptism binds the one to the many, the Lord’s Supper makes the many one.) So to make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper.
To make the Lord’s Supper into something other than a meal of the whole church, sitting down together in the same room, is to make it something other than the Lord’s Supper.
So, it’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.
This Meal and That Meal
All suffering involves loss; every loss is a form of suffering. Right now, amid much other loss and suffering, Christians around the world are suffering the loss of weekly, face-to-face fellowship with one another. Compassion prompts us to mitigate that loss however we can. But we can’t erase it. And so we should learn what God would teach us through the temporary loss of these embodied, tangible, necessarily face-to-face ordinances, especially the Lord’s Supper. The house of feasting—together, on Christ, in his Supper—is closed for now. What will you learn in this providentially ordered visit to the house of mourning (Eccles. 7:2, 4)?
It’s not the case that a virtually mediated, physically dispersed Lord’s Supper is less than optimal: it’s simply not the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper itself is meant not only to satisfy our hearts with Christ’s goodness, but also to stoke a desire for when we will see his face: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29).
Let the absence of this meal make you hunger even more for that future meal.