Whenever new church models, technologies, and techniques come along there are some who embrace them and some who question them. For me, it has been interesting to see how some of the questions about the “new” are equally valid to ask about the “old.”
In “Online Questions for Offline Churches.” I’ll look at some of the questions raised about recent high tech church models and how they reflect back on the churches who choose not to partake in the new models.
In this post, we’ll jump right into the online communion question which was covered by Newsweek last fall.
1. Does Something “Mystical” Happen to the Elements at the Table?
This question has been hotly debated over the last 500 years and certainly won’t be solved here. The question often asked today goes something like, “Can communion be transferred over the Internet?” To get a grasp of why this is a question, I’ve laid out (and totally oversimplified) the three main views on communion:
|“This is my body, do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)||“This is my body, do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19)||“This is my body, do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19) (Luke 22:19)|
|The Roman Catholic view is that the bread and wine fully become the body of Christ and are offered as a means of grace.||The Reformers believed that Christ’s body is present with the bread and wine, so there is a mystical element with the memorial.||The Anabaptist (those of the Radical Reformation who reject almost all tradition) see the Lord’s supper as purely a remembrance. Many evangelicals unreflectively hold this view.|
|Definitely not compatible with online communion||May not compatible with online communion||Probably is compatible with online communion|
Among Protestants, the two main views may be more or less compatible with online communion. Luther and Calvin’s views differed slightly, but they both basically felt that something mystical or spiritual occurs at the Table, while later Anabaptists saw communion as 100% memorial with no spiritual or mystical event taking place.
Today’s churches who only have communion one a month or quarter usually have Memorialist roots. These churches are probably the most likely to accept online communion, while more Reformed or high church traditions are more likely to reject online communion – though not always as evidenced by a Methodist pastor (from a “spiritual presence” background) in Texas that has been offering online communion for years. Rev. Neal offers a detailed theology explanation for why he offers communion online, but only while someone is unable to attend a local congregation.
Before making a judgment on whether online communion is “good” or “bad,” one needs to look at his or her beliefs about what communion actually is and what happens at the Table.
2. Does Church Leadership/Authority Matter?
As far back as as Augustine’s day, there have been questions about the role of leadership in offering communion. In the Donatist Controversy, the question was whether baptism and communion were valid if they were given by a priest who had ever recanted his faith.
In our day, the questions are whether or not anyone can offer communion to anyone else in any setting, or if it is reserved for a “local church” with leaders and elders. Can parachurch organizations (seminaries, college campus organizations, etc.) offer communion? Should families offer communion to one another? Should small groups, Bible studies, etc.? Can you “break bread” with yourself?
These questions are particularly hard to answer for Protestants, those from democratic countries, and those living in a post-modern world – all of which are anti-authority to various extents. These questions also show how weak (flexible?) evangelical ecclesiology is. We know we are the church, but it seems we’re not quite sure what the church is.
3. Do Relationships Matter?
In some early churches, a convert could not participate in communion until he or she had undergone a one year catechetical training in the faith. The Didache (an early manual of church practice) also said that all participants in the Elements must publically confess their sins to one another before participating. (aside: J.I. Packer has recently written on when communion should be withheld)
Online churches are often criticized because attendees do not having deep, physically-present relationships, but instead only know each other by discarnate, disembodied avatars. But the truth is that many congregants of today’s “offline” churches are far less relationally invested in one another than what we see in the early church. There might in fact be serious problems with online churches, but there are also serious problems with community in the offline world as well.
The point here is that many “offline” churches who criticize online communion as well as online churches who embrace it are often unaware of the origins and meanings of their own communion practices. Technological questions like “Can we?” and even “Should we?” are answered before “What does it mean?”
Before calling online communion good or bad, church leaders would do well to study the doctrine, its meaning, and its history and then clearly teach it their congregations. That way, however you come down on the online question, this precious means of grace can be more than just “that thing we do with the crackers and grape juice every quarter.”