I’m still looking for something else to talk about other than coronavirus. But, obviously, almost nothing else is going on. The brother of the Manchester Arena bomber was sent down in the last few days, it was nowhere near being front page news, as it would be at any other time. We are living in strange times.
In those strange times, we have to start thinking through other strange issues. First came the questions of how we can meet without physically meeting. From where I’m sitting, the short answer is that you can’t. Fact is, we are not meeting together as the Lord’s people by sitting at home and tuning into a live feed. The issue isn’t whether we are meeting, which seems beyond credible doubt that we evidently aren’t, but more to do with how we mitigate the fact, as best we can, that we currently can’t (or, more accurately, shouldn’t) meet.
But along with that question comes others. We have somebody waiting to be baptised into membership. What happens for him now? The membership have ratified it in a vote but we’ve yet to baptise him. Can we somehow baptise him without water apart from a meeting of the church? I think you can guess my answer based on the above. What is a baptism without water or public witness?
Under the circumstances, then, should we waive the importance of baptism in order to welcome him into membership? I’m not sure we have much biblical warrant for doing that. Setting aside that not insignificant concern, I suppose comes the more pragmatic question of what, exactly, would be the point? If the church can’t meet, what exactly would they be joining? They won’t be able to serve or participate in anything the church usually does and they won’t any more be able to take up their responsibilities than they can now. Even from a pragmatic point of view, it’s not clear why our not meeting would mean we would want to jettison other commands.
But the one that has cropped up perhaps with most frequency is what we do about communion. Now, inevitably, one’s view of communion is going to influence exactly what we do. If you take a somewhat individualistic approach, communion being about little more than me and my relationship with God, there isn’t much reason not to take communion at home on your own or with your own family. If, however, you reckon the communal aspect of communion to be important then that isn’t going to do.
The traditional Baptist view of communion is that it acts as a sign of membership. One can receive communion only as a member of the universal church – brought into it by the baptism of the Holy Spirit – and a member of a local church having been brought into it by baptism. Baptism acts as the one-time affirmation of the church that here is a believer, whilst communion acts as its ongoing statement to that same effect. It is both a sign of our belonging to Christ and our belonging to each other. Our unity together as God’s people, brought together in this local body, is symbolised by the one loaf and cup.
Given all that, it is difficult for us to symbolise any of those things while we are apart. Some would argue having individual communion cups – even if poured out of a larger, single receptacle – and pre-cut squares of bread undermines the symbolism well enough (an argument with which I have some sympathy, if I’m honest). How much less, then, can we symbolise those things have entirely separate emblems, in our separate homes, when we are not even meeting together. The symbol somewhat loses its potency.
Communion is only communion when it is communal. There is a reason that we don’t consider the taking of bread and wine at home privately to be the Lord’s Supper. It is a specific meal designed to constitute the church. It marks off Christians from the world around them (even the world sat in the same room as them). It is the meal that allows us to say, ‘there is a church’ rather than simply, ‘there are some Christians.’ But apart from the meeting together of believers who have enjoined themselves to one another, how can we meaningfully affirm those things?
It is for these reasons that Baptists have generally eschewed private communion. It is, they aver, not in any meaningful sense communion. If private communion is not appropriate, then nor is separate communion in the midst of a coronavirus-induced lock down. Just as we don’t want to claim that we are meeting via the internet – we are simply mitigating the unfortunate circumstances of not being able to meet as best we can – so we don’t want to claim that we are somehow taking communion whilst social distancing and isolating ourselves. In fact, such things are specifically contrary to communion.
We are all trying to mitigate the worst effects of the imposed isolation. But what we shouldn’t do is try to dress up what we’re doing. If we are, in point of fact, meeting on the internet there really is no reason for people not to carry on merely tuning in from a distance when restrictions are lifted. If we are, in reality, able to take communion when we’re apart, all individually, then there isn’t much stopping us from sacking off the public gathering of God’s people and doing that at home by ourselves. Whilst we rightly want to provide for our people as best we can under the circumstances, let’s be clear that this is making the best of a situation, rather than claiming we are in essence carrying on with business as usual. Really, we know that we’re not.