Is it possible to celebrate the Lord’s Supper online?
At the root of this question lies the idea that something mystical is conferred to the believer on partaking of the physical emblems of the Lord’s Supper—an idea based on a misapprehension of John 6: 53: "unless ye shall have eaten the flesh of the Son of man, and drunk his blood, ye have no life in yourselves". This Scripture refers in fact to spiritual eating, enabling the believer to be spiritually satisfied: "I am the bread of life: he that comes to me shall never hunger, and he that believes on me shall never thirst at any time" (v35). No physical emblem can have that effect, but is merely there to prompt our minds to a spiritual reality. Through not seeing this, many think that physically partaking of the bread and wine is so critical that other key elements of the Lord’s Supper can be jettisoned to achieve this—hence the so–called cyber-supper when believers are unable to meet up in actuality.
To answer a question of this nature, it is always best to go back to first principles, and ask ourselves what partaking of the bread and wine means in a Scriptural context. In relation to the cup, the Lord Jesus said "Drink ye all of it" (Matt. 26: 27, my emphasis). That this means common participation by the disciples, rather than draining every drop, is proved by examining the parallel passage in Mark 14: 23: "and they all drank out of it". Participation in drinking out of the same cup is an expression of fellowship: "the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not [the] communion of the blood of the Christ" (1 Cor. 10: 16). We have a common interest in the Lord’s death, and we demonstrate that by sharing one cup. Note the repeated mention of ‘this cup’, ‘the cup’ and so on in 1 Cor. 10, 11 proving the singularity of the vessel. The loaf is similar: "because we, [being] many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf" (1 Cor. 10: 17, my emphasis). Common participation in the physical elements demands a physical coming together, and we see this from how Paul criticized the Corinthians: "when ye come therefore together therefore into one place, it is not to eat [the] Lord’s Supper" (1 Cor. 11: 20). Now it is impossible to come together virtually in this way—into one place. At most, you can only have the appearance of doing so. Indirect proof of the collective nature of the occasion is also indicated by v 21: "For each one in eating takes his own supper before [others], and one is hungry and another drinks to excess". This could hardly be much of an issue where physical participation in another’s meal is impossible due to the occasion itself being virtual!
In an online communion service, each person has his own cup and his own loaf, and there is no actual sharing (indeed, not even any virtual sharing), for the cups and loaves remain separate. Though the participants may not realise it, this is actually a denial of fellowship not an expression of it. There are many cups and loaves in the city in which I live, and the reason is because there are also many denominations—Christians are not in fellowship with one another. Certainly the saints in Ephesus would have a different loaf and a different cup to the saints in Corinth because of the geographical necessity, but Scripture leaves no room whatsoever for each saint to have his own loaf and cup. Even those who think that communion can be celebrated by invalids in their own homes at least partly acknowledge the truth in that they insist that the emblems must be brought to the individual from the ‘Church’. Despite Scripture insisting repeatedly on both the plurality of the participants, and the singularity of the cup and the loaf, there are many who try to circumvent this plain teaching by emphasising that ‘breaking bread’ is ‘the one thing the Lord has asked us to do’. This kind of attitude is objectionable. Lordship implies obedience—full, not partial—and to do otherwise is to dishonour Him.
When the Lord Jesus said "this do in remembrance of me" (Luke 22: 19, my emphasis) we can hardly imagine that He meant in every particular, from being in a "large upper room furnished" (v12) to laying down at table (see Matt. 26: 20)! Scripture itself makes clear the intent of the Lord’s words: "For as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye announce the death of the Lord, until he come" (1 Cor. 11: 26, my emphasis). Thus it is the emblems of the Lord’s death that are the critical factor in "this do", and to which we must pay special attention. "Drink ye all of it" (Matt. 26: 27), for example, although narrower in focus, is just as much a divine instruction as "this do in remembrance of me" (Luke 22: 19). Where people ignore these critical factors (as in a so-called online communion service) they have no right to call it the Lord’s Supper. Each is eating his own supper.