What About These Communion Alternatives?

A recurring question that arises as many churches deal with the inconvenience and horror and heartbreak that these lockdowns and quarantines entail, is whether it may be appropriate to observe the Lord’s Supper—either virtually with their church, or privately with their own household.

I understand and sympathize with those who are looking for a way to continue to celebrate the Table even while being unable to gather for corporate worship. Some churches have resorted to serving communion “to go.” Others have sought to observe the ordinance virtually via Zoom. Still others have encouraged their members to observe the Supper with their own families.

As I said, I understand the sentiment; but I would strongly urge against such practices. I understand the Lord’s Supper to be an ordinance of the local church, to be observed by the local church, when the local church is gathered as the church. The physical, embodied gathering of the body, and the onetogetherness of partaking of the elements together, is essential to (meaning, not just “really important,” but “of the essence of”) the observance of the Lord’s Supper.

We can no more properly observe the Lord’s Supper virtually or privately, than we can truly assemble for corporate worship without actually assembling. It’s just not possible. We can communicate online; we can maintain unity and some semblance of fellowship online; we can lessen the tragedy of being apart by overcoming relational isolation online. But we can’t assemble as the body online. We can’t teach and be taught face to face online (not really). We can’t greet one another with a holy kiss (or your more sanitary and contextual application of the principle) online. We can’t join our voices together in physical (vs. digital) union as we sing of our God together online. And we can’t observe the meal that marks out who the church is and embodies our union with Christ and one another without actually partaking of the elements together, being together physically as the body of Christ.

Now, I know I’ll receive a lot of pushback for that view, and I’ll share a few articles for further reading that better explain this position. My contention is, first, that we have an emaciated doctrine of the body (individual and corporate). Meaning here, simply, that the fact that so many modern churches do not uphold and cherish the primacy and import of the embodied physical gathering, is a symptom of a larger doctrinal and philosophical famine; and, second, that the desire (nay, the apparent need) to do everything we can to replicate the normal while everything about us tells us there is nothing normal about this, is, I think, indicative of the larger cultural attitude (which—and I say this to our shame—has so seeped into the church that we hardly recognize the problem) that demands the comfort of met expectations. And so, unable to acknowledge the need to accept a time of lamentation and longing as we are hindered in the providence of God from gathering with the body, we seek to replicate our worship services to such a degree that we can continue to deliver our services (and note the strategic equivocation there) to the consumers congregation (uncongregated though it may be).

So, I encourage you to maintain family worship with your households—to pray and read the Bible together, and perhaps even sing together—but do not confuse that for the corporate worship of the church. I’ve encouraged our church to be intentional about keeping in touch with one another, interacting and encouraging one another as best we can, as our modern technology certainly does help mitigate the relational isolation caused by the quarantining. Just don’t be deceived into thinking this distance communication can truly do what physical, face-to-face interaction and edification can do. I have been providing teaching each Sunday and Wednesday via Zoom and Facebook live. But we do not call this “church,” and I’m careful to note that it is a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching, and I dearly miss the embodied interaction and gathering of the regular assembly.

Additionally, bread and wine have, since at least the days of Abraham and Melchizedek, been the standard and common elements of celebratory meals among the people of God, even apart from/in addition to the special significance tied to them as part of the Passover and, later, the Lord’s Supper; and so I would heartily encourage you to recover that ancient habit of celebrating with bread and wine—not just generic merry-making, but truly Godward celebration of the Lord’s blessing through the enjoyment of two foods that represent and epitomize our Creator’s good provision for and blessing on mankind in general, and on His own people in particular (Gen. 14; Judges 9:13; Amos 9:14; Isa. 25:6, 55:1; Dan. 10:3; Deut. 14:26; Ps. 104:14–15; Prov. 3:10; Eccl. 9:7; 1 Tim. 5:23; John 2:1–11).

Just don’t pretend that eating bread and drinking wine (or juice) with your family, or by yourself, or while watching other believers doing the same thing on the computer screen, is actually doing what the New Covenant ordinance of the Lord’s Supper does.

Finally then…

To learn more about this, I would commend to you the following articles. I may not agree with every way they worded something, but I think these three did an excellent job of upholding the biblical understanding of the Lord’s Supper, and articulating well my convictions about the impropriety, ordinarily, of trying to observe the Lord’s Supper in any way other than in the physical assembly of the local church.

Why ‘Virtual Lord’s Supper’ is Impossible
Can Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Go Online?
There is No Such Thing as Virtual Lord’s Supper

“Eat your break with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” — Eccl. 9:7

How Should Christians Respond to Crisis?

On our new podcast, By the Way, we sat down with missionary and Bible teacher, Gene Cunningham, and asked him about the pandemic panic (and a few other things)—specifically, how we, as Christians, ought to respond to crises like the coronavirus in a manner that is markedly different than the unbelieving world. Here’s a short preview. Be watching for the full episode at anchor.fm/termon!

Coronavirus Conundrum

My gut reaction tends to be “people are crazy.” And I certainly am more concerned about what irrational people do when they panic than I am about the source of panic. However, I do think we ought to be thinking seriously about COVID-19 so that we can respond in a manner that is wise, prudent, and faithful rather than fearful. I’ve already had a few people ask me about church being canceled, particularly in light of the CDC’s recommendation to avoid gatherings of more than 50 people. So, how should Christians and churches respond?

My current leaning would be to continue meeting for church until your governor puts out a mandate, as many other states have, banning gatherings of a certain size, or until the virus shows up in your county or surrounding area. Then, I think it may be prudent to cancel services for a week or two at least.

In the back of my mind, I agree that this feels much too close to a test run of flexing government power. This whole crisis has shown that it is, in fact, completely viable to orchestrate large-scale, voluntary quarantining. And so I do think we should be wary of the indications this all might have for moves toward tyranny in the future—perhaps particularly the potential for targeting churches. However, I think that some level of quarantining and recommended restrictions are appropriate and within the lawful authority of the magistrate (not just constitutionally—for states that is—but also biblically: Lev. 13–15; Ex. 20:13; Rom. 13:4). So, I think churches, not only out of love for brother and neighbor, but as a matter of cheerfully submitting to the lawful directives (and not all are) of the governing authorities, should adhere to those directives with joy, patience, courage, and faith. And I believe we can do this without compromising our commitment to Christ or to His commandment not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (thought the spirit of that commandment ought to impel us to be diligent not to readily abandon the regular assembly of Christ’s church).

We, as Christians, must not panic. It’s wise to take common-sense precautions; but we are not overcome by fear. Even if this ended up being on the level of the Black Death, God is still sovereign; and we will never be asked for a reason for the hope that is in us if we aren’t demonstrating a hope that is in stark contrast to the panicking, fearful world around us.

C.S. Lewis gave a wise and balanced perspective in 1948, writing “On Living in an Atomic Age.” (His references to atomic bombs have been changed to the virus so you see the principle applying to our current crisis just as readily as his.)

In one way we think a great deal too much of the [coronavirus]. ‘How are we to live in an [viral] age?’ I am tempted to reply: Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the [coronavirus] was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an [virus], let that [virus] when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about [viruses]. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”

Martin Luther once wrote a letter to Johan Hess about how he was responding to the Black Death: “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague.” His words here convey the calm confidence in God’s providence that ought to characterize all believers.

I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.

Christians ought to be marked by a distinctive courage, love, wisdom, faith, and hope, in the midst of a world that is marked by cowardice, selfishness, foolishness, fear, and despair.

So, what does this look like in the weeks ahead? We will continue to meet for worship and study, remaining alert to the spread of the virus. When the virus reaches our area, we will reevaluate and keep our church updated. If you are high risk, it would be wise to stay home. If you or your children have been feeling ill, again, as always, it would be both wise and loving to stay home rather than risk the spread of any sickness, regardless of the scare surrounding the particular disease. This is a matter of course and common courtesy, but it bears reiterating here. Hebrews 10:25 indicates that one of the primary purposes of the local assembly is the mutual encouragement and edification of the church family. So while we recognize the concern surrounding the COVID-19 scare, we want to be slow to give up our time of corporate worship, study, and encouragement on the Lord’s Day, even for a short time.

So, to borrow some helpful direction from Christ Church Moscow:

As we all watch the evening news regarding the coronavirus, one question that naturally occurs to everyone is this: “what about Sunday worship?” We do not want to have any part of spreading either virus—whether we are talking about the coronavirus or the panic virus (which is also quite contagious). The two viruses have this in common—the carriers often don’t know that they are carriers.

So here are a few prudent measures that we would ask you to observe as we worship this coming Lord’s Day.

Please wash your hands before coming, and if you have portable hand sanitizer that you can bring, please bring it, and please feel free to use it; Please don’t shake anybody’s hand. Just beam at them, or do that new and interesting elbow bump… If you have a cough, or a cold, or any flu-like symptoms, please remain home; If you are elderly, or have any underlying medical condition that concerns you, please feel at liberty to remain at home… And if you are fearful or in any way panicky, we would ask you to remain home also (Dt. 20:8). If you are one of those who likes to share scary stories, statistics, or scenarios with the other saints, please stay at home. And if you do decide to come, please wash your hands and heart down with Ps. 91 and 121 first.

Composing a Doctrinal Statement [Church and State]

Composing a doctrinal statement (or any other essential documents) can be one of the most arduous (but crucial) projects undertaken by a church. In this series, I shared my own doctrinal statement, a section at a time, in an attempt to provide a helpful example of a detailed statement a church might use that is worded positively, but articulated precisely enough to exclude certain theological positions for the protection and unity of the church.

I’ve recently been working on an additional point, covering the relationship between church and state, and the political nature of the local church. I’d like to take the time to make notes on my wording choices, as I did with the other sections; but for now, I’ll share what I have in its entirety, and I welcome any questions or suggestions.

Church and State: We believe the church and state ought to remain distinct as institutions. God has delegated certain authority to various spheres, or governments—namely, the household, the local church, and the civil magistrate. Neither the family nor the church exists by the permission of the state. Nor does the civil magistrate bear the authority of the keys of the kingdom to declare individuals as citizens of Christ’s kingdom. Nor should the church swing the sword as a civil authority.

This distinction between the institutions of church and civil government ought not be construed, however, to mean that religion and politics should, or can, be separated. The religious convictions of individuals ought rightly to shape and direct their every action—including the policies, strategies, penalties, and measures employed by those in governing positions. Christians ought to seek to influence for good the public square, including the policies of the civil magistrate, through whatever course be available to them. Nor ought this be construed to mean that churches must not speak to political issues. Within the commission to make committed and competent disciples by teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded, churches are to teach what accords with proper justice, righteousness, mercy, and peace. Churches ought also to call upon the magistrate to uphold justice and to acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ, demonstrating the peace and righteousness of the coming King, to whom the nations owe their fealty.

The ordinance of the civil magistrate is established by God in Genesis 9 as the means for man to uphold civil justice under the administration of the Noahic covenant. The governing authorities that exist are in place by the providence of God to punish evildoers and to protect the lives of the innocent under their watch. God has delegated to the civil magistrate the power of the sword in order to be a servant of God for good, to establish the justice and tranquility needed for their people to be secure in their person and property and to pursue virtue and godliness. The civil magistracy receives its authority from the ordinance of God, and rulers must never presume to act above or outside the Noahic commission, recognizing rather that they too are subject to the justice mechanism of the Noahic covenant. God has delegated the authority of the sword to civil government for certain ends only, and its rule is legitimate to the extent it pursues just ends by just means.

The church is not the kingdom, but is an outpost, or embassy, of the coming kingdom. Jesus has been given possession of all authority in heaven and on earth; he has been declared Lord over all creation. However, the political reality of his reign is not yet being exercised until he returns in power and glory to sit upon the throne in Jerusalem, thus establishing justice and peace over all nations. As an embassy of Christ’s coming kingdom, the church does not swing the sword for itself, but it does speak on behalf of the coming king who will judge the nations at his return. As such, the church has a prophetic ministry to proclaim Christ’s lordship, and to teach the nations the proper standard of justice. The civil magistrate ought to govern by the standard of Scripture, as taught by the local church, so as to uphold justice and minister for good as ordained by God; yet the church is not to coerce the state, just as the state is not to coerce the church.

Christians are to render submission and respect unto the governing authorities in all things lawfully commanded by them. The Christian’s first and highest allegiance is to Jesus Christ, though Christ calls us to seek the well-being of the country in which we reside and to submit to the governing authorities. The Christian must not obey rulers when they command that which Scripture forbids, or forbid that which Scripture requires. We are to offer supplications and prayers for all who are in positions of authority, that under them we might lead peaceable and quiet lives in all godliness, piety, and dignity—which ought to be the aspiration of all men.

It is lawful for Christians to accept and execute the office of a magistrate, when called thereunto. In the managing thereof, they ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace, according to the wholesome laws of each commonwealth. To that end, they may swiftly carry out the just retribution of the wicked, and may lawfully wage war, upon just and necessary occasion, for the defense of borders. We affirm the Dallas Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel.

(Genesis 9:5–7; 41:39–43; 1 Samuel 8:10–20; 2 Samuel 23:3–4; Nehemiah 12:26; 13:15–31; Psalm 2; 82; Proverbs 8:15–16; Ecclesiastes 8:11; Jeremiah 29:7; Daniel 2:48–49; Matthew 14:4; 16:18–19; 18:15–20; 22:21; 25:31; 28:18–20; Mark 12:17; Luke 3:14, 19; 19:11–27; Acts 5:29; 17:6–7; 24:25; Romans 1:5; 13:1–7; Ephesians 1:20–23; Philippians 2:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:10–12; 1 Timothy 2:1–4; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Peter 2:13–17)

A Charge to Christian Parents

As we head into a new season, and settle back into the rhythm of the school year, I’d like to draw your attention to a few important matters.

The apostles instruct us to not forsake the assembly, as is the habit of some, but to encourage and stir one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:25). This means the weekly assembly of believers is for the encouragement and edification of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and it ought to be a priority in the rhythm of your weekly routine as a family. By neglecting the regular corporate worship of the church we’ve committed ourselves to, we not only become a discouragement to our brothers and sisters, but we inadvertently teach our children to devalue the local church—while also keeping them, during their most formative years, from one of the primary means God has given for the spiritual growth of His people.

Additionally, as we head into a new season, it would be wise to review with your children the expectations for respectful and godly conduct that they ought to strive for—whether culture and friends encourage it or not. This includes things like not running in the church building (because we must be considerate of others, especially considering the safety of older saints), listening to one’s Sunday School teachers, being kind to others, being respectful to adults, etc. Our society as a whole is facing a crisis as young people become increasingly disrespectful, selfish, unruly, and undisciplined—and this has seeped into the church. That ought not to be the case. The church is to be a contrast-culture. We are to demonstrate the righteousness of Christ, and to shine out as distinct and different and holy in the midst of the darkness.

The temptation, of course, is to say, let them be kids. But one of the most important aspects of raising children to be wise and godly adults is teaching them self-control, self-discipline, humility, respect for authority, and the importance of context (e.g. you don’t run in church, you run outside; you don’t talk in class without being called on) (Acts 24:25; Eph. 6:1–4; Phil. 2:3; Titus 2:4–6; 1 Pet. 5:5). Or, an even more subtly unbiblical temptation yet: they’re just going to be kids, what can we do about it? Well, train them. Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord—that’s our job (Eph. 6:4). Letting them be kids shouldn’t mean we allow them to do as they please. The goal is to train and teach them to be the kind of kids who know, love, and follow Christ.

And that is, first and foremost, our job as parents. At Fairview Bible Church, we believe the responsibility to raise children and train them to follow Christ rests ultimately and primarily with the parents. At the same time, we as a church body want simply to come alongside one another as we seek to cultivate Christlikeness in our children; and this means being involved in their lives, teaching what it means to be respectful, kind, and self-controlled young people who know God, think biblically, and live wisely. And that is a tall task—but it’s just one component of the church’s mission to make competent and committed disciples of Christ.

So, I encourage you to be in prayer for the young people in our church, our teachers, and for our congregation as a whole. We’re excited to see what God has in store for this next year!

Proximity, Sprawl, and Being Joyfully Inconvenienced by Your Church

In my posts on proximity and sprawl (here and here), I argued that living close to your church is important. In fact, I believe that, ordinarily, one of the most impactful ways to love your fellow church members, to “consider others higher than yourselves,” and to “look to the interests of others,” is by seeking to live geographically close to your church.

Of course, one of the dangers of being so close to your church is that convenience could breed complacency. For those who live close to their church and misuse that proximity, and for those who currently live a distance from the church, here’s an encouraging blog on why being inconvenienced for your church is actually an opportunity for your faithfulness and joy to shine.

…Those who are hungry for Christ consider it their joy to be inconvenienced for the sake of His church.

Unfortunately, this is in stark contrast to the way many people treat the church today. Countless multitudes attend church regularly, but view it as a commodity—a conveniently located provider of spiritual goods and services for which they make no real sacrifice…

Read the rest of the article here.