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Online Church Part 3: Are Online Sacraments Legit?

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When discussing online churches that never gather in one physical location, two questions that often come up are

  • How do you do baptisms?
  • How do you celebrate communion?

In SimChurch, Douglas Estes does an excellent job of looking at the various options online churches have for the sacraments.  He breaks them down into 4 categories.

1) Symbolic virtual sacraments – This is reading about and meditating on the sacrament, but not actually physically performing them.

2) Avatar-mediated virtual sacraments – This method is specifically for churches in virtual worlds like Second Life and is where the avatars actually engage in the sacraments but the people in the physical world do not.

3) Extensional virtual sacraments – In this situation, people are logged in to their online church and then physically engage in the sacraments at their own location.  For communion they get out their own bread and wine/juice.  For baptism, there would be a web cam broadcasting the baptism for the rest of the online church to witness.

Whether extensional virtual sacraments are legit or not, may depend on what you believe about communion and baptism.  If you believe the sacraments must be overseen by an ordained minister, then is it OK for each person to get their own communion elements?  Is it biblical for an unordained family member baptizing a person in front of their virtual church?  If you believe the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus, can that happen in an online church where the participants are not sharing the loaf and cup blessed by the minister?

4) Outsourced virtual sacraments – With this method, people of a virtual church find a local church to specifically for the sacraments.  Most advocates of online church, dislike this option because going to a physical church undermines the belief that an online church can be a fully-functioning equal to an offline church.

Which if any of these expressions of baptism and communion are (most?) biblical and why?  Where can online sacraments excel?  What obstacles and difficulties do online churches have to overcome when it comes to the sacraments?  If you are a part of an online church, how do you do them?

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    Paul Steinbrueck

    Paul Steinbrueck is co-founder and CEO of OurChurch.Com, husband, father of 3, blogger. You can follow him on Twitter at @PaulSteinbrueck.


    • No doubt. This is the hardest issue for our online church to come to a consensus on, and at the same time will likely be a make-or-break issue for online churches as a whole. At present time, our community skirts the issue by doing nothing. We don't celebrate the sacraments as such — the only reason this works is that most of us are also attached to physical world churches where the sacraments are regularly observed. But I imagine there will come a day when our membership includes those for whom we are the only church presence in their lives. At that point, I'm not sure what route we'll take. I would like to think that the Holy Spirit will guide us in a creative solution that is true to the original intent of the sacraments, to our denomination's understanding of them, and at the same time true to our synthetic-world context.

      Personally, I have thought that something in our denomination's polity (we're presbyterian) might actually work in our favor: Our "Book of Order" (which, after the Bible, governs most of the way we do church) says that the particular elements of communion (aka bread and wine) may, if necessary, be replaced with substitutes that are more appropriate to the local context. This has been used for places or situations where wine or bread are not easily available, or would be impractical for regular use.

      So…when physical bread and wine are unavailable in a synthetic meeting space made up of bits and bytes….our polity *should* allow us to use something appropriate to that local context. Our local context is bits and bytes. Our location/locality is a synthetic world. By this line of reasoning, synthetic bread made of bits and bytes would be the most appropriate substitute. I think that falls into your category 2 above. You say that the "avatars actually engage in the sacraments but the people in the physical world do not." I might push back on that a little, especially because you used the word "engage." When one's avatar participates in communion, is not the actual person "engaged" at some level in the process? Many protestant traditions view communion as a symbolic act — symbols are interpreted in our minds…so if I am doing something symbolic, and using my avatar to do it, is the symbolism somehow lost on me? I'm not 100% sure on this one yet, but I don't think so.

      Businesses and courthouses have recently started accepting "online signatures" for some legally binding documents. What makes them acceptable is nothing more than a general consensus (in the courts and businesses) that they are so. Likewise, if communion is a symbol, then general consensus should suffice.

      On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Roman Catholic church, which believes that the elements of communion are far more than symbols–they actually become the real body and blood of Jesus in the partaking (transubstantiation). If one believes this, then it is dependent upon some miracle of God. And, of course, if God is capable of transforming bread and wine in a miraculous way, then I for one would not be so arrogant as to presume that the same God could NOT (or would not) be able to transform bits and bytes into flesh and blood in some equally mysterious, equally miraculous way.

      In between, are (I think) Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and my own tradition: Presbyterians. These believe in something called "real presence" — that the bread and wine are just bread and wine, but somehow in the partaking of them, Christ is "really present." I may get some pushback on this, but I don't think that view is incompatible with an avatar mediated communion either–especially if you already believe (as most online churches, including ours, do) that "where two or more are gathered" Christ is already "really" present, even when the gathering is online.

      So none of this addresses Baptism, but I think the arguments are similar. First, is baptism as symbol, and if so, then symbolism is entirely possible online (in fact, one might argue that the use of symbolism is even *more* pronounced in a synthetic world where almost everything is a symbol representing something in the real world). If, on the other hand, there is something mysterious and miraculous that happens in baptism, then we ought to be reminded that it is God who does the mysterious and miraculous, not us. And I don't question God's ability to use virtual water to accomplish Heavenly purposes.

      • Neal, thanks for sharing your thoughts about online sacraments. Sounds like you're basically saying that because you believe communion and baptism are symbolic they can pretty much be done in any what that holds the same symbolism or meaning for the participants. Am I understanding you correctly?

        If so, I'll have to give that some more thought. It just seems like there is something about the physical elements – the baptismal water and the communion bread and wine – that are important. Scripture doesn't show much deviation in the way these 2 sacraments were celebrated in the early church.

        • Actually, scripture doesn't show these elements being celebrated in the early church at all. In fact, church history and several early church documents (see Frank Viola's recent book Pagan Christianity for some sources) record that in the early days of the church, fish and bread were just as likely to be used as wine and bread — and they weren't considered "sacraments" by any stretch…that only came centuries later, and mostly from the church in Rome.

          When Jesus said (in scripture) "Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, do so in remembrance of me" –was he talking about some sort of specialized ritual (what we've made it) or did he just mean we should remember him whenever we sat down together for a meal? There is much serious scholarship in the church that supports this idea, too.

          For myself, I'm not necessarily saying I believe the sacraments are purely symbolic. My denomination (Presbyterian) in particular does not believe this. Baptists, on the other hand, do. I'm still up in the air about what the sacraments mean, but then again, I'm a seminary student…I'm supposed to be figuring all this out 🙂

          What I've tried to lay out in my comments above is that whatever of three classic positions you take on the sacraments, there should be at least *some* room for some acceptance of synthetically mediated sacraments from a theological standpoint.

    • I've never been asked to do a baptism. I personally would probably request that that be done by a pastor in person , either at the individual's home or other location of the parent's choosing. However, as far as communion goes, I personally agree with Neal. King's Highway doesn't exist to be a substitute for the local church; rather, it's for individuals who, for whatever reason, cannot get to or choose not to attend a local church. We're there until they can find a local church to attend and support them in their Christian walk until they do.
      So we have a business person who is far away from his local church. He wants to take communion. To not grant him that opportunity, or for some shut in who want's communion and not grant them the opportunity to partake, seems terribly unchristian. We believe in the Methodist tradition that while the elements are symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus, He is present, as Neal says. I have given communion online via chat room, with the partakers present, and I have a service of communion available on my website. And I agree with Neal: with God, all things are possible.
      Remember the loaves and the fish.

      • Hey Russ, thanks for sharing the perspective and experience from your online church. That makes a lot of sense for a church that is not out to be a substitute for the local church. Many online churches these days want to be a local church, they are out to prove they can be a person's only church. Like Neal said, figuring out if/how to administer the sacraments in a biblical manner is one of the greatest challenges for online churches.

        • Exactly. And I think there's a place for each type of church, too: Those that are purely physical and tied to geographic location; those like Russ's church that exist as a supplement or temporary stand-in, but not a replacement for physical churches; and finally, those like Koinonia Congregational Church in Second Life that seek, as Paul said, to be a person's primary or only church.

          Just like there's room in a city for both mega churches and house churches…just like there's room in a denomination for contemporary and traditional churches…but this goes back to the question of what constitutes a church. Basically, *if* we accept that an online church is indeed a church (and I realize not all of us do, yet) then there must be some way for them to obey the instructions of Christ in the sacraments.

    • I was moved by reading staff on the Online churches.I am still interested in how I can start one because I feel it is very important and relevant to this current inviroment.

      Mostly finances restricts us the churches and pastors from the third world to catch up with time.But however then, there is an old saying which reads-“If you don’t want to change with change,change itself will gonna change you.”Pray for us because we are still behind with no facilities or either finances but only ability and the blessed desire.

      May the good Lord richly bless you.

    • Because of this post, I think, this topic came up last night in our online church community weekly conversation group — we talked about it at great length (for over two hours), and there seemed to be consensus that this, along with the whole issue of "presence" are perhaps the most critical issue to online churches…and still the most "up in the air."

      There were several in our community who hoped that something "original" and unique to our context would ultimately emerge — something that might not "look" like what we call communion in the physical world, but that would nevertheless meet Christ's expectation of us. They felt that since communion sprang from the physical practice of eating, and that since eating (in a biological sense) is not something commonly practiced in synthetic worlds, that true communion would have to spring from whatever comparable practices online that fill the same "function" more or less that eating does in physical reality. And of course, just as we no longer use our appendix or our tonsils very much, some predicted that there will come a day in physical reality when eating as we currently practice it will not be part of our culture. At that point, perhaps whatever communion practices have developed in online churches might actually find their way *back* to physical world practices (how ironic!).

      There was another contingent who thought that communion as it's currently practised, has deviated so far from what Jesus intended, that it is just as meaningless in offline churches as it is in online ones. One person reminded us that some notable communities in our own era, such as the Quakers, make it a point NOT to practice the sacraments. (see here for their theological justification of this:

      Still, for our group at least, we ALL agreed that this is an issue which requires much careful thought, reflection, conversation, prayer, and guidance from God's spirit before we proceed. We also agreed that at some point, however, we MUST actually proceed on this in some way.

      • Neal, that's awesome! It's great to hear that discussions such as the one you had last night are happening in other circles.

        I also think it's good that you agreed that you must proceed with the sacraments in some way. Jesus commanded us to be baptized and to remember him in communion. We serve a God who is overflowing with grace. I think He appreciates our attempts to serve, obey, and honor him when it's done out of genuine love for him even when we don't get it 100% right (if there is such a thing as 100% right). We probably do the wrong things for the right reasons more often than we know.

    • <!– Begin top part questions –>
      First of all, the best and most important thing anyone could do is rename these four categories. As they read now, none of them will likely ever become accepted by anyone! Someone misused the word "virtual," and did it in all four categories. The word "virtual" means near or almost. Virtual reality seems almost reality, but it's not. Since all four categories are virtual sacraments, it means they're not real sacraments (they just play them on TV). If these were originally meant to be a joke, that's one thing. If someone is serious about these categories, they goofed–and on a KEY WORD, no less. For those who believe in real presence in the sacraments, that is the only human input into their supernatural nature: the power of the Words of Institution/Holy Baptism. Through them, God in Christ Jesus is making promises, conferring grace, building and strengthening God's family. We tend to forget the power in words; the ancients did not. Why did God refuse to tell Moses God's name? Because when you have someone's name, you have power over them. Moses was not about to find out God's real name and get real power over God!

      Anyway, putting "virtual" aside, symbolic and avatar-mediated sacraments, unfortunately, are going to bestow only symbolic and avatar-mediated blessings. Not good choices when the real blessings of baptism are needed. I don't like #4 for two reasons: (1) outsourcing adds a human requirement to receive God's grace: works are now required for salvation by grace, and (2) in the priesthood of all believers, no one is any higher or more important than anyone else, so why go elsewhere? For that very same reason, category #3 is the only one of the four that has a chance at being biblical…it could also miss the boat entirely. As part of the priesthood, we need not rely on others for God's grace and blessing. When an ordained minister, the pastor of her flock, is available to tend her sheep, she is responsible before God for the faith of everyone in her flock–she should want to do it. On the other hand, a commissioned deacon/ess, a DCE (Director of Christian Education), or a seminary vicar/intern work for me. It's comforting to know that someone is going out of his or her way to care for your spiritual life. At the very least, I would prefer at least a "kosher" Communion…products prepared in kosher facilities are periodically inspected and blessed by a trained rabbi, but he doesn't hang out there all the time. A "kosher" Communion would mean that the Lord's Supper was prepared under the auspices of Pr. Watsizname, meaning that the pastor has made sure that those consecrating the elements in her absence do it right, because she will still be responsible before God.

      Certainly people should be able to get their own communion elements. With the exception of the Roman church (I'm not sure about the Orthodox), the elements are simply household items until they are consumed orally in Holy Communion with Christ. After which, the remnants are simply household items once again. (Some may say that they remain simply household items the entire time…those folks will not care where anyone gets their bread stash.)

      It is super-biblical for an unordained family member to baptize someone. The Holy Spirit seems to think so, too. On the first (Christian) Pentecost, in Jerusalem, Jesus' posse numbered what? Maybe 30? But 3000 were baptized that day. Even if we count the entire 30 as ordained by Christ, each one would still have to have performed 100 baptisms a piece! No, people were so jazzed that they were baptized, and then went off to tell others, baptizing as they went. Like in the Holy Communion scenario, it would be nice to have a pastor on cam during the online baptism but not necessary. Doing it on cam isn't even necessary. Community members are good to have because they are usually commended to help the new family member to grow in faith. And if you have a pastor onhand, he will be responsible for making sure the baptism is registered correctly. In any case, God is present and working and that's the most important part.

      Can bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus in an online church? We're talking about God, here…Twinkies and chocolate milk can actually become the body and blood of Jesus! Christ is being present in millions of bread bites all at the same time around the world, especially on Sundays. I would hate to think that the Internet could stop him. Anyway, if everyone is participating visually on Skype or something, the only thing those elements require of human beings is the spoken connection back to the first Supper; from there, Jesus takes over.
      <!– End top part questions –>

    • <!– Begin comments on comments –>
      After reading the comments left by Neal and others, I decided my experiences with the Sacraments (as a third-year seminary student I shouldn't have too many) might be of some help to someone, or at least help them get the ball rolling. By the way, I have a bad habit of writing too much; something I think I picked up from Luther.

      Ordained ministers of the Lutheran Church are to confess and teach the authoritative and normative character of the Scriptures "as the inspired [and inerrant*] Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life." The ecumenical creeds are to be taught as true declarations of the faith of the Church. The Lutheran Confessions (the contents of the Book of Concord) are to be acknowledged as true [and unadulterated*] witnesses and faithful expositions of the Holy Scriptures.

      That said:
      From the Formula of Concord (Epitome, Article VII): "Concerning the consecration, we believe, teach, and confess that neither human effort nor the recitation of the minister effect this presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, but that it is to be attributed solely and alone to the almighty power of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Also,] in the use of the Holy Supper the words of Christ's institution may under no circumstances be omitted but must be spoken publicly, as it is written, "The cup of blessing that we bless…" (1 Cor 11 [10:16]). This blessing takes place through the pronouncement of the words of Christ. The entire worthiness of the guests at the table of his heavenly meal is and consists alone in the most holy obedience and perfect merit of Christ. We make his obedience and merit our own through true faith, concerning which we receive assurance through the sacrament. Worthiness consists in no way in our own virtues, or in internal or external preparations. (Solid Declaration, Article VII): For the true and almighty words of Jesus Christ, which he spoke in the first institution of the Supper…retain their validity and power and are still effective, so that in all places in which the Supper is observed according to Christ's institution and his words are used, the body and blood of Christ are truly present, distributed and received on the basis of the power and might of the very same words that Christ spoke in the first Supper. As John Chrysostom says in his Sermon on the Passion, "Christ prepares this table himself and blesses it; for no human being makes the bread and wine, which are set before us, the body and blood of Christ. Rather Christ himself, who was crucified for us, does that. The words are spoken by the mouth of the priest, but when he says, 'This is my body,' the elements that have been presented in the Supper are consecrated by God's power and grace through the Word."

      In like manner, Lutherans have held that the manner of Baptism (immersion, pouring, sprinkling, etc.) does not determine the Baptism's validity, nor do the qualifications of the person performing the rite of Baptism. While Baptisms are intended to be events that are presided over by an ordained minister and that include the whole church community, this is not always possible and our hymnals contain "a short form for Holy Baptism in cases of necessity" which may be administered by any Christian. Like the Holy Supper, this is God's show. As God's name is joined to the water, God is present with all God's power and all of the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Christ consecrates the water of Baptism with His Word, so as we in Baptism stand with Christ in the water, the Father calls us beloved children, the Holy Spirit is given to us, and heaven is opened to us. The only things necessary to make a Baptism valid are the Word of God and the "element" (water), according to divine institution.

      Other than the Word of God and the elements in each sacrament, everything else is ceremony or tradition. While these are nice things to have, they are adiaphora; they are neither commanded nor forbidden in God's Word but have been introduced for the sake of good order and decorum. From the Formula of Concord (Solid Declaration, Article X): Therefore, we believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every time and place has the right, power, and authority to change, reduce, or expand such practices according to circumstances in an orderly and appropriate manner, without frivolity or offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the building up of the Church. The Reformation was concerned not with changing Church practice but with finding ways to bring the Good News to hurting souls, to comfort and console them, and to give meaning to their lives. At the heart of Luther's approach to things was the care of the weak. What may sound like good theology might be terrible pastoral care and, therefore, bad theology at heart.

    • Obviously, different church bodies have different rules usually contingent upon differing beliefs. Here is an historic Protestant tradition that would seem to encourage finding new ways of caring for the weak online–and this tradition insists on Word and Sacrament. At the time of the Reformation, Luther found the difference between Lutheran dogma concerning the Eucharist and that of the Calvinists (pre-Presbyterians) to be negligible. That was a point he was willing to compromise with them on, if only they didn't have those other non-negotiables that he wouldn't compromise on. Today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church USA are in full communion with each other, as well as with the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Christ–churches of the Reformation. (Personally, I think that if everyone has their elements in view on webcam, regardless whether anyone is checking them or not, the Word moves through the Internet like lightning. And don't be too concerned about the bread/wine thing either…two months ago, in my real-life building church, no one remembered to bring the bread for Communion. The body tasted funny when i went up, until I realized the whole congregation had taken Communion using doughnuts for Christ's body. There were comments, but not one person complained!)

      <!– End comments on comments; begin footnote –>

      *While all Lutheran groups hold the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, and the Lutheran Confessions as true and faithful expositions of the Scriptures, not all Lutheran groups demand belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, nor that the Lutheran Confessions remain free from adulteration after 500 years, especially if the Scriptures on which they are based may contain errors.
      <!– End footnote –>

      • Daryl thanks for sharing the Lutheran perspective on the sacraments. How do you believe they translate to online church? Which of the 4 methods described in the post do you think Lutherans would find acceptable?

        • Which of the 4 methods described in the post would Lutherans find acceptable?

          3) Extensional virtual sacraments – True Lutheranism finds this method completely acceptable. Ultimately, the heart of the Gospel and true pastoral care lie in answering the questions, "How do we strengthen the weak in their faith?" and "How do we unite around the Gospel?" Each person may certainly get his or her own communion elements, and any Christian may perform a legitimate baptism. Ideally, an ordained minister would be present in some way, though more progressive Lutherans will overlook that in cases of necessity. Lutherans believe in real presence in the sacraments–the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but Christ becomes fully present in, with, and under the bread and wine. Since God does the real work in the sacrament, it is with certainty of belief that Christ is present in everyone's elements. Likewise, the Holy Spirit works through the waters of Holy Baptism. God takes care of the spiritual aspects in the sacraments; the physical aspects of the sacraments fulfill the weak, human part of us that need these to connect with the Divine, and to unite around the Gospel.