To read a different perspective on whether to do the ordinances amid the COVID-19 pandemic, see Bobby Jamieson’s entry.
Churches are scrambling to figure out how to love and care for people well in the face of an unprecedented challenge. While we can learn from some historical examples, technology offers us new opportunities to care for and shepherd people through this crisis.
It’s essential for pastors to do what they can to encourage and nourish people, even when we can’t gather physically. This has raised the question of how best to gather—whether to livestream services, provide a liturgy guide to be practiced at home, or shut down entirely—along with appropriate questions about the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Challenges and suffering provide us with rich soil to work out deeper theological considerations, and we ought not waste that opportunity.
The church never shuts down, even when our ability to gather physically has been suspended.
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.” In my understanding baptism is the one-time proclamation of God’s covenant promise that has come to fruition in a person’s life by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
It’s essential for pastors to do what they can to continue to encourage and nourish people, even when we can’t gather physically.
In general, it’s best to baptize with the celebration and witnesses of the universal church, manifested in a particular local church. However, there’s biblical precedent for flexibility, depending on circumstances. We see that with Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:38, though we need to be careful not to read and interpret Acts as necessarily normative for church practice today. There’s also something to be noted in Paul’s reluctance to tie anyone’s baptism to his ministry (1 Cor. 1:10–17), emphasizing the gospel rather than the baptismal officiant.
We know that Christians are called to make disciples and participate in the baptism of new followers of Christ. Because of the temporary nature of the present crisis, we would encourage people to wait to be baptized, but there’s grace in this view. If someone is facing death or another similar urgency, we can follow Philip’s example.
While baptism is a one-time event, the Lord’s Supper is an ongoing celebration in the church. Our church celebrates the Lord’s Supper weekly. That makes the discussion around this ordinance more complicated.
For our church, it was already pressing over the past two Sundays as we debated whether or not to extend our church’s practice. We chose to continue to observe the Lord’s Supper through this unprecedented time. Here are some of the factors that led to our decision.
1. This isn’t the norm.
The discussion of whether to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as the scattered church as a normative practice isn’t the same as whether temporary changes can be made to accommodate abnormal circumstances. It’s true that nothing can match the church gathered physically together in worship.
There’s biblical precedent for flexibility, depending on circumstances. We see that clearly with Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:38.
Still, providing a regular rhythm for a highly irregular time can help our church focus on Christ. It seems dangerous and unhelpful to write definitively on what must be done in times that are so unsettled and temporary.
2. This isn’t ideal.
Our streamed gatherings are but shadows of our in-person worship gatherings. And it’s also true that our normal patterns of gathering together are shadows of what’s to come in eternity. Technology offers ways for us to be present with each other, even while physically distanced. Our community groups continue to share meals, opening the Bible together, and praying for one another. While a shadow of being in the same room, it’s still encouraging to our hearts to gather to the extent that we’re able.
In the same way that it’s not ideal to administer the Lord’s Supper individually for the sick and shut-in, it’s better than depriving a suffering saint of the spiritual nourishment that comes through the ordinance, so it may be better to practice a shadow of our gathering while we’re forced to be scattered.
3. We’re not sacerdotal.
The elements themselves gain no special power from my hands because I’m a pastor. In light of this temporary challenge, while we’re unable to be together physically, we continue to believe in the priesthood of all believers and the importance of the encouragement Christians receive through the Lord’s Supper. As John Calvin explains in The Institutes:
What we have so far said of the Sacrament abundantly shows that . . . it was ordained to be frequently used among all Christians in order that they might frequently return in memory to Christ’s Passion, by such remembrance to sustain and strengthen their faith, and urge themselves to sing thanksgiving to God and to proclaim his goodness . . . . [T]he Lord’s Table should have been spread at least once a week for the assembly of Christians, and the promises declared in it should feed us spiritually. . . . All, like hungry men, should flock to such a bounteous repast.
4. We’re spiritually present together.
While it’s true that 1 Corinthians 11 emphasizes the Lord’s Supper “when you are gathered together,” it’s also true that Paul considers himself to be spiritually present with the Corinthians as they practice church discipline (1 Cor. 5:3).
Further, Colossians 2:6 reflects the pastor’s heart for a church with whom he can’t gather in person, “For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.” It’s powerful and moving to know that our local church is gathered (even if virtually) to worship together in an uncertain time.
As we introduce the Lord’s Supper, we continue to emphasize the communion of the saints in God’s presence, trusting that God’s presence isn’t bound to any facility. The streamed services are for our church, under the authority of our pastors and elders, even if others tune in along the way.
5. There’s biblical precedent for Sabbath flexibility.
Jesus was confronted repeatedly for not falling into the expectations of religious leaders on the sabbath. He continued to heal people (Luke 13:10–17) and defy norms (Matt. 12:1–8), citing examples in the law and in David’s life of extenuating circumstances that lead to a flexibility of Sabbath norms. We’re in an extenuating circumstance. If a church chooses not to observe the Lord’s Supper, they can look ahead to celebrating it again when people are able to physically gather.
It’s powerful and moving to know that our local church is gathered (even if virtually) to worship together in an uncertain time.
By the same token, if a church extends the practice of the Lord’s Supper, they can anticipate how sweet it will be to celebrate when gathered physically again.
As pastors and elders discern what is best—within the bounds of Scripture—for their church there is a measure of flexibility.
6. There’s biblical precedent for the Lord’s Supper while scattered.
Acts 2:42–47 shows the power of the witness of the church as a community, and that the witness of the church isn’t limited to single events as assemblies. As people gathered together both in the temple courts and breaking bread in their homes, their hearts were nourished and encouraged. They worshiped God together, and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Any time Christians share a meal together, they reflect Christ as the one who has set the table for their friendship and unity, which shadows our unity in the Lord’s Supper. We feast in anticipation of the ultimate wedding feast of the Lamb, and raise a glass to our risen King and his kingdom.
The same can be applied for the temporary situation as our churches continue to gather together, with family, small groups, or Zoom meetings. We encourage our members to prepare elements before our services begin as best they can, and prepare to participate throughout the service as best they can.
Christ Still Nourishes, Even in Uncertain Times
All of these arguments can apply to the rest of a Sunday liturgy: call to worship, confession and assurance, singing together, hearing God’s Word read, praying together, receiving the proclamation of God’s Word through preaching, the call to worship through giving, and sending out through a benediction.
Of course it’s better to be together physically. Lord willing, we will be. For now, we do our best to continue to provide for people what only Jesus’s church can provide. Even if it’s a shadow of our normal rhythms and gatherings, it’s a shadow that points us to the ultimate reality and hope we cling to in times of suffering and uncertainty. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, when celebrated in genuine faith, still confirm and nourish the believer in Christ—even if it’s celebrated online.
Wherever you land on this discussion, let’s extend charity to others. Pastors and churches must work hard to develop our theology and ecclesiology in the face of new challenges. We have the opportunity to point people to the one true source of hope in the face of uncertainty and suffering. In season and out of season, proclaim the Word of God and the excellencies of the one who has saved us from darkness to light.