Online Communion Addendum

The LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) put together an addendum on Communion and COVID-19. It was written to address a document on online/home communion that has been circulating in the LCMS, endorsing communion at home through an online format (“Communion in Homes During Times of Crisis: Scriptural and Confessional Principles”). Four of our faculty members serve on the CTCR: Dr. Lawrence Rast Jr., President; Prof. John Pless, Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Missions; Dr. Naomichi Masaki, Professor of Systematic Theology; and Dr. James Bushur, The Carl and Erna Weinrich Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Church Studies. The addendum was written at the request of Dr. Matthew Harrison, President of the LCMS.

While the CTCR finds both common ground and empathy with their brothers in the ministry who seek to serve their people and congregations faithfully through online Communion (see, in particular, reason 1), they disagree with the conclusions that these brothers draw, fearing that, when practiced in such a way, the Sacrament raises doubts rather than strengthens faith.

From reason 2. It is the Lord’s Supper, not our supper:

The Sacrament of the Altar is not ours to do with it as we please. It is the Lord’s Supper and He is the true “officiant” since it is He who acts in the Words of Institution — and who instructs us regarding the proper use of His Supper.

“Our Lord Our Lord [sic] Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.’

“In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’”

In these words, He calls us (His disciples) to repeat His holy meal (Do this) in His remembrance. He tells us what to do (taking bread and the cup of wine), what we are eating and drinking (His body and blood) and what we receive with it (forgiveness). The synoptic Gospels reinforce one another in these essential facts while St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians corroborates them in the earliest church, showing both how they may be wrongly and rightly enacted…

“It is not a question of can one communion alone; rather, it is a question of should one commune alone.”* Similarly, the CTCR’s primary concern with online Communion is whether one can do it with certainty — whether it is a right use (“truly good, right and salutary”) of the Sacrament “according to Christ’s institution.”

Concern over right use is clearly evident in the Formula of Concord… These are matters of right use — the usus or actio that the Formula of Concord Solid Declaration discusses:

“In order to preserve this true Christian teaching on the Holy Supper and to avoid and eliminate many kinds of idolatrous abuses and perversions of this testament, this useful rule and guide is taken from the Words of Institution: nothing has the character of a sacrament apart from the use [usus] instituted by Christ or the divinely instituted action [actio]. (That is, when Christ’s institution is not observed as he established it, there is no sacrament.) This rule dare not be rejected in any way, but it can and should be followed and preserved in the church of God with great benefit. The usus or actio (that is, the practice or administration) does not refer primarily to faith or to the oral partaking, but to the entire external, visible administration of the Supper, as Christ established the administration of the Supper: the consecration, or Words of Institution, and the distribution and reception or oral partaking of the consecrated bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood. Apart from this practice it is not to be regarded as a sacrament — for example, when in the papistic Mass the bread is not distributed but is made into a sacrifice, or enclosed [in a tabernacle], or carried about in a procession, or displayed for adoration.”

This is very much pertinent to this conversation about online Communion. The “useful rule and guide” offered here is that “when Christ’s institution is not observed as he established it, there is no sacrament.” It has to do with “the entire external, visible administration of the Supper” and includes consecration, distribution and reception according to Christ’s institution.

And from reason 4. Emergency Baptism? Yes. Emergency Communion? No:

As we have noted, both Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have much in common. Both are instituted by Christ and depend entirely on the Gospel Word that empowers them and that defines their benefit — that both bestow forgiveness, life and salvation.

Yet, the different Means of Grace are also unique. The written Word can be disseminated in a variety of forms, while always retaining its character of divine inspiration and truth and offering throughout its pages the Gospel of salvation (e.g., John 5:39; Acts 17:1–2, 10–11; Rom. 1:1–3; 2 Tim. 3:16). The spoken Word of the Gospel, proclaimed individually by countless members of the royal priesthood and preached from pulpits as well as scattered abroad (“broadcast”) as far and wide as sound can be carried and without any restrictions on who would hear it, always retaining its character as the power of God for salvation (e.g., Matt. 13:3–9; Rom. 10:17; Luke 24:34). Baptism, administered always with water and always to a particular individual (even if thousands are baptized on the same day), retains its individual character as a means by which we receive discipleship, adoption, the Holy Spirit and new birth. And, in an emergency, any Christian baptizes (e.g., Matt. 3:11; 28:19; John 1:33; Acts 2:38–41; Rom. 6:3–4; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21).

So also, then, we receive the Lord’s Supper as a unique means of grace. It is not received by meditative reading alone, like the written Word. It is not scattered abroad, like the spoken Word. Unlike Baptism, it is not administered to the isolated individual except for when the pastor, who is called by the assembled church, carries the Sacrament on behalf of the assembly to the sick member. We value the Sacrament highly, but we restrict its administration rather than sharing it freely, having those with doubts and questions, visitors from other confessions and even our own children wait until they can share our confession (1 Cor. 1:10), examine themselves and rightly discern Christ’s body and blood. This is especially true in view of the sobering fact that the apostle’s instructions for the right use of the Supper contain a unique warning that its misuse can actually be harmful to the uninstructed and unprepared communicant both physically and spiritually (1 Cor. 11:27–32; see below under #5). Each of the Means of Grace is rightly used in a manner appropriate to it.

You can read the full 13-page addendum, positing ten reasons to question online Communion as good, right, and salutary by clicking here.

*Another resource is an unpublished paper written by Pr. Trevor Sutton (LCMS). His paper is “Making Sense of Online Communion: A Certain and Best Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” dated January 17, 2020, available from the author.