Dearly beloved, our members of the Lutheran Urban Parish, our neighbors, and all readers, grace to you and peace in Christ Jesus.

Due to the prolonged nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, St Paul Lutheran Church has adopted a practice of hybrid in-person worship with available live-streaming on our Facebook page, which you can find embedded on the home page of this site and will continue to be available indefinitely. In-person attendance is limited to 20 persons in the sanctuary, well below 25% capacity, and all CDC recommended practices are required, including 6 ft social distancing and mandatory masks. We also ask that attendants limit their singing to approximately one verse per hymn. In addition, we are currently investing in HEPA filters for our worship spaces.

Holy communion is provided for those who desire but is not required. The current epidemiology shows that droplets and aerosols are the primary transmission vector for SARS-CoV-2. While contact with physical surfaces can transmit the virus, the probability is significantly less than the other vectors mentioned, meaning it does not significantly increase the risk of transmission beyond simply being present in the space together. For more information on this point, please see the World Health Organization’s explanation of “fomite transmission” here. The presiding minister is careful to thoroughly sanitize their hands before administering, and the host is dropped into the hands of the communicant without physical contact. Nevertheless, it is impossible to completely protect from transmission of the virus if physically present, and therefore all attendees must accept responsibility for the risk of attending. 


Online Communion?

For those who are remaining at home and joining us via live-stream, the desire for online communion may be very strong. There is currently a considerable controversy among many churches within the ELCA and beyond about whether to adopt this practice. Our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, and Bishop Suarez of the Florida-Bahamas Synod, along with many other bishops of our church, have counseled our ministers and congregations not to practice online communion because they believe it is inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, and that it places a strain on one or more of our ecumenical agreements with other denominations. I agree with this guidance. However, many lay and clergy persons have strongly expressed their opinion in favor of online communion, creating additional disunity and tension within our churches. For this reason, I feel compelled to publish my theological understanding in favor of the guidance of our bishops, which you will find below.

In short, the current debate is not a matter of whether the sacrament is valid if administered online or even without the presence of ordained clergy. The issue is about what methods of distribution are appropriate to the nature of the sacrament, or whether a particular method undermines the message Christ speaks in it. Online interactions are exhausting and alienating to the body, as is felt by nearly all of us when we speak of “Zoom fatigue.” This is tolerable with respect to the other means of grace, such as preaching and absolution, but in the case of holy communion it cuts against the heart of the matter, namely that God here says to us, “This is my body.” This refers not only to the elements but also to the bodily nature of the gathered community and the material solidarity of that community (1 Cor 10:17 & 11:17-34). Online communion partially denies Christ’s bodily presence in the community and therefore is inappropriate as a normal method of distribution for this sacrament.

My pastoral counsel to those who are refraining from the sacrament of the altar at this time is first to recognize that it conveys its full benefits even from a single eating precisely because it is Christ’s true body and blood given for us. We remember these benefits every time we hear the Words of Institution even when we are unable to eat it again. We can know for sure that if we have eaten it then its benefits still apply to us now by faith in Christ’s Word. Secondly, we can engage in a practice of spiritual communion rooted in a remembrance of our baptism, which is also a powerful sacrament that gives us the assurance of God’s gracious presence within us by faith in it. Although it is difficult for those who are abstaining from communion, I myself am also abstaining in solidarity with those unable to receive, and I call us to recognize that Christ comes to us through more ways than one.

The following reflection offers more detailed reasons for my support of the original guidance given by Bishop Eaton and Bishop Suarez, with the hope that others might find something helpful for working out their own practices. However, since we are called to be of one mind, I believe the current disunity is something which we ought to seek to reconcile, and I offer the following analysis also in service to that greater goal.[1] Although I bring certain convictions to this debate, I offer them with an openness to further dialogue, and ask only that readers respond to the specific claims made here and not repetitively state the same arguments. I want to be clear in saying that I caste no aspersions on other pastors if they find it necessary in certain emergencies to administer communion online to provide pastoral care to someone who may be isolated for health reasons in a hospital or other setting. My opposition is only to the proposal to normalize online communion as a regular invitation during live streaming of worship, and I offer my reasoning for this position below.


Adiaphora and the Word of God

I believe the current controversy is about what we call “adiaphora” in Lutheran theology, a term that refers to practices which are neither specifically commanded nor forbidden in scripture. That is to say, it is a controversy not about what is a valid sacrament, but about how certain practices of distribution may undermine the Gospel.[2] There is a range of potentially relevant biblical evidence here, but many authors have cited anything having to do with a “meal” in scripture as if the relevance to the current debate is obvious when this relevance must be shown.[3] Theology is not philosophy; it is not about abstract principles applying to a range of “cases,” but about following the Word of God in each specific case.[4] The present situation is an emergency, this is true, but the justification for online communion as an emergency practice is different and far easier than that for normalizing the practice, and it is dishonest to equivocate on this matter.

Although the dispute in question is neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, it is no less the case that any adequate response to it must be centered in the Word of God. Along with the historic Lutheran Church, I believe that the Word of God has power to give life equally and in all of its forms: spoken, written, incarnate, and sacramental.[5] Although decades of dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church have demonstrated that what unites us is greater than what divides us, and although a significant part of that unity is that we are both sacramental churches that emphasize the centrality of holy communion, nevertheless it is a distinctive feature of Lutheranism that the sacraments are considered to be of equal power and importance to the written and proclaimed Word. The sacrament of holy communion, while essential to the Christian life, is one of the means by which God delivers the Gospel to us. God also gives us this gift through the proclaimed Word, through baptism, through absolution, through the mutual consolation of the faithful together, and through the written Word of holy scripture.[6] If one of these means is not readily available, there are other, equally powerful means God uses and to which we can cling just as firmly. While it is preferable to celebrate and receive all the means of grace frequently, we also do not lose the assurance of the Gospel when one of them may become temporarily inaccessible. This should remove the sense of urgency that some are trying to force upon this debate in the church at the expense of respectful dialogue. Thankfully, the gift of baptism is always accessible to the baptized because through those waters God baptized us into Christ’s death and resurrection once and for all.[7] Since baptism is once and for all, it is in truth the most readily accessible of the means of grace and should be a focus of our prayer and meditation more than it is. Nothing other than our unbelief prevents us from the immeasurable and continual benefit of the waters of baptism.

It is worth asking whether everyone who is attached to holy communion and cannot abstain is actually clinging to Christ’s Word, which makes the sacrament what it is and which they can find also through other means, or whether it is merely an attachment to a familiar ritual.[8] Not only did the Lutheran Reformers specifically reject the notion that the sacrament conveys its benefits by mere performance of the rite without faith in Christ’s Word—a.k.a. ex opere operato—this posture may also reflect what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the religious attitude, which is preoccupied with individual salvation at the expense of community and worldly responsibility. I will return to this second theme. The comfort of familiar rituals is a legitimate pastoral concern, but it is not the same thing as the necessity of the Gospel. Requests for online communion should probably be assessed with this in mind, as conversations with parishioners often reveal that a plurality may not believe the sacrament to be Christ’s true body and blood according to his Word. Online communion has a different, and I would argue a detrimental, effect in this case.


Digitalization and the Alienation of the Body

While it is possible to utilize a variety of different methods for administering communion, such practices can become symbolic of other issues. Since many of the advocates for online communion are proposing a permanent change to church practice, this means that the merits of this practice must be considered as if it were a regular practice and the message this would convey. In our society, loneliness and its effects on to mental health are among our most serious problems. While I recognize that the proposal for online communion is made with the intent to combat this problem, nevertheless one of the major reasons for the pervasive problem of loneliness is the time that people spend on social media. I recognize that such forms of communication are essential and life-giving for those who are isolated for a variety of reasons, such as for severe medical conditions.[9] We may have no choice in certain circumstances, and many of our churches have needed to develop their social media presence, as we have done. However, the general message this may send is one of continued digitalization. The advocates for normalizing online communion really need to respond to the objection concerning the estrangement of the body in digital media, a valid concern debated by many in philosophy and the tech industry for decades.

Let me offer an example from pop-culture. Netflix’s Altered Carbon is a gritty show about a future society that has figured out how to capture a person’s conscious identity digitally to be implanted in different bodies. At first exhilarating, the show eventually explores the tragedy of this estrangement from our bodies in the way that “sleeves”—the show’s term for different bodies a person might “wear”—still have residual memory from their original identity. The show is an imaginative projection of the future direction of our own society, one as alluring as it is dystopian. Even though there are many things that we are free to change in how we practice communion, sometimes a practice can symbolize something greater, and in our historical moment online communion may symbolizes the continued digitalization of human life and its estrangement from bodily life together. This is not the wholeness of divine healing and salvation, which brings life “even to our mortal bodies.”[10]

I believe that online gatherings have an intractably docetic quality and therefore are not a proper example of what scripture means by the gathered assembly or koinonia. Again, this is about the meaning of the body of Christ and not a mere matter of aesthetic. This docetic estrangement from the body is felt by all who express “Zoom fatigue” and other such complaints. It is not mere discomfort with the unfamiliar; there is a real psycho-physical stress involved with this form of communication that simulates bodily presence while denying it in reality. I say this as a millennial who grew up on video games, Star Trek, the Matrix, and online forums. While some aspects of community can be fulfilled online, such as the need for words of affirmation and some shared experience, the capacity for physical response to need is seriously diminished. Giving money over Venmo or boosting traffic is not the same thing as communal solidarity. The solidarity of a common chest for the good of all is a practice associated with holy communion that runs through the ancient and Reformation churches, but which has fallen away in modern practice.[11] I think we should reinstate this or a similar practice.


The Heart of the Matter: What is the Body of Christ?

Have we perhaps already “virtualized” communion too much before the pandemic by turning it into an individual piety disconnected from the gathered community? The New Testament uses the term koinonia, translated as “communion” or “community,” to refer not only to our communion with God through Christ and the holy supper, but also to refer to the material solidarity of the gathered community, rich and poor together.[12] This isn’t just a matter of preference or aesthetic, but something that scripture and the confessions teach is essential to the sacrament.[13] This connection was also recognized in the ancient church.[14] The current proposal for online communion could further solidify the practice of communion as an expression of individual piety, or the cheap grace of needing to feel good at church no matter what, rather than the communal solidarity of the new humanity brought together by the crucified and risen body of Christ.[15] To be frank, I can’t help but feel that online communion would reinforce the feelings of separateness that many who are homeless or houseless may already feel from church members who avoid direct interactions with them because they consider them “dirty.” Is online communion something that the poor even desire to do? Anecdotally, I can say that this is something I’ve only observed to be the desire of white, middle class Christians.

The sacrament of holy communion is the sacrament of the incarnation in a unique way. Here God says, “this is my body.” We seldom meditate on the profound meaning of God’s bodily presence in the world, a God who does not remain distant or constantly separated from us by an unbridgeable gap. No; here God can be tasted, smelled, touched.[16] Here the medium is also God. This is not a virtual presence but a true bodily presence, and we, the church community, are also God’s body because we partake of the one body of Christ together.[17] Based on this and other passages, the Lutheran Confessions rightly teach that the gathered assembly or community of the church is the proper place to celebrate and receive the sacrament.[18] Dirk Lange was right to cite this passage in his guidance published by the Lutheran World Federation.[19] While the church certainly can gather in spirit together with the aid of the internet, the proper sense of assembly is the physically gathered people of God, manifesting God’s bodily presence in the world. Just as God has fully communed with the bodily life of humanity in Christ, so we also commune with God through a bodily communion through bread with one another, and in bodily solidarity in holding all things in common together.[20] I would go so far as to say that one of the most pressing tasks for the church in the present age is to bear witness to the God who is present bodily for us, and to rediscover the simplicity of bodily presence and life together in an age of digital alienation and estrangement.

While further debate is welcomed about the proper sense of community for scripture and the confessions, the advocates for online communion cannot simply show that online gatherings fit their own idiosyncratic definition of community. Rather, they must show why we are mistaken to think such gatherings are alienating to the body, precisely because the sacrament of the altar is there to give and reveal the body of Christ.[21] The issue of the public nature of the gathered assembly is certainly relevant, although I suspect the confessional opponents to online communion have placed too much singular weight upon it and have gotten trapped in the inevitable ambiguities around the precise boundary between public and private. This ambiguity is especially intractable when considering the precedent of ancient house churches.[22]


Miscellaneous Issues

Several have also noted the risk of continued commercialization and consumerism with online communion, and I share this concern.[23] This aspect of the conversation would be helped considerably with greater clarity on the meaning and shortcomings of the term “postmodernism,” which often arises here.[24] Postmodernism has been variously defined as the breakdown of objective knowledge, as the loss of consensus in social engineering and progress, as the loss of a unifying meta-narrative, as the consumer culture of late stage capitalism, and as the deconstruction of language.[25] The postmodern condition has been helpful in deconstructing naïve notions of objectivity and restoring the value of narrative, but it has also led to the implosion of knowledge and the inability to effectively resist the proliferation of conspiracy theories and harmful misinformation from a shared knowledge and reality. This fraying of shared knowledge has profoundly immoral consequences and also undermines the church’s proclamation of the truth of the Gospel. It is worth asking whether a continued plunge into the virtual does not contribute to this ongoing breakdown of shared reality, something which the Gospel as revealed in the sacrament is precisely meant to overcome.[26]

The constant attacks against clericalism are exhausting, owing primarily to the fact that hardly anyone espouses this view, indicating a basic breakdown in catechesis in our church. The proponents for online communion have rightly raised the contradiction in our understanding of “proper call” from the confessions, namely that we allow people who are not ordained to preach and teach but not to preside.[27] Once again, this may refute clericalism but it does not show why we should normalize online communion. To be clear, I am not opposed to training lay leaders to preside over communion in small house gatherings, but I also recognize the need to follow the direction of the conference of bishops where it does not contradict the Gospel, and since they have asked us not to engage in this practice, I have so far refrained. What few want to address, however, is the role of church discipline as it traditionally relates to the sacrament. The reason the sacrament should be regularly and publicly administered by a pastor, and not necessarily exclusively so, is connected with the office of the keys to bind and to loose. Throughout church history it has been recognized as necessary in certain situations to temporarily deny someone communion in order to bring them to repentance around a highly damaging public sin. Today we appear to have decided such a practice is itself anathema to the welcoming of the Gospel, but we should ask ourselves whether this is faithfulness to the Gospel or a form of antinomianism that ultimately deafens our ears to the Gospel. Once again, cheap grace is grace without repentance.

The Lutheran Church embraces the catholicity of the one Church, and thus we are under a duty from Christ himself to seek to be of one mind where possible.[28] For this reason, we ought to honor our ecumenical agreements in our eucharistic practice, and our internal disunity has often been a barrier to increasing ecumenical consensus. I am now convinced that this internal disunity is really a sin for which we ought to repent and seek healing. Eucharistic fasting and spiritual communion, while not traditionally Lutheran practices, are not therefore to be rejected for that reason alone, and at the very least one cannot argue that such a proposal is a radically new invention when eastern traditions have on occasion observed such practices for over a thousand years.[29] Undoubtedly there will be long term consequences whichever direction pastors have led their congregations, and although the current practice is likely to remain so at this point, we ought to weigh which consequences do the least harm both pastorally and theologically. 



Having made these observations, I want to reiterate that my opposition is only against the normalizing of online communion. Once again applying Wengert’s guidance on adiaphora, I want to acknowledge and support my pastoral colleagues who may find themselves offering online communion in genuine emergency situations as a temporary means for reaching those who may be isolated in a hospital quarantine in a life and death situation, or for people who must isolate but have a genuine need to receive the sacrament. I am open to training lay leaders to lead communion in a house setting, but I will defer to the guidance of the bishop’s office on this matter. I otherwise want to express my support of the guidance of presiding bishop Elizabeth Eaton and Bishop Suarez in calling the church to meditation on the great benefits of baptism and holy scripture during this time in which we are unable to gather physically. I also call on all churches to embrace the material solidarity of the bodily communion of God in the world through the sacrament of Christ’s body by adopting a common chest or similar practice when we can gather physically again.

Whichever way we go, we must accept that we are on the road, as Emily Scott has written in a winsome article, and ask God to reveal new possibilities and lead us through this period as God once led the people Israel through the desert, through exile, and through sin and death itself. “Perhaps there’s something about being jolted away from our rituals and routines for a time that helps us see their value in new ways. We never planned to walk this path, but it’s given us a shock of clarity.”[30] I couldn’t agree more. Even if we lose regular reception of the sacrament on Sunday morning, somehow different forms of communion will find us anyway as we are scattered and sent with Christ’s commission to preach the good news.


May the peace of Christ be with you all,

+ Rev. Dr. Gabriel Morgan

7 October 2020


[1] Phil. 2:2.

[2] Timothy Wengert circulated this guidance on 16 March 2020. The same view was also by Rev. Dr. Carmelo Santos of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in their recent panel discussion on 27 July 2020.

[3] Cf. Clint Schnekloth, “Against the Bloviating Justifiers of Eucharistic Fasting and Opponents of Virtual Communion,” in Patheos, 24 March 2020,

[4] Martin Luther, 1539, Disputation Concerning the Passage “The Word Was Made Flesh” (LW 38:239-79). There Luther writes, “The Sorbonne, the mother of errors, has very incorrectly defined that truth is the same in philosophy and theology.” Bonhoeffer also applies this point to the whole field of ethics in his opus by the same name.

[5] As just a few examples of the power of God’s Word, see Gen 1:3, Is 55:11, Ps 46:6, Mt 4:4 & 8:8, Jn 15:3 & 20:31, Rom 10:17, 2 Tim 3:16, and 1 Pet 3:21. Luther’s impression of the power of the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments led him to distinguish between a Heisselwort (“Call-Word”) and a Thettelwort (“Deed-Word”). The former is a sign pointing to or describing an already existing state of affairs. By contrast, God’s Thettelwort brings into existence that which it declares. “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Gen 1:3). For an excellent treatment of Luther’s understanding of God’s powerful Word, see David Steinmetz, “Luther, the Reformers, and the Bible,” in Living Traditions of the Bible: Scripture in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Practice, James Bowely, ed. (St Louis: Chalice Press, 1999); Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 129-204; and Robert Kolb, Martin Luther: Confessor of the Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 131-151.

[6] Luther also considered the written form of God’s Word, i.e. holy scripture, to have the power to work faith and deliver the Gospel. See Lectures on John, on Jn 20:31, in LW 30:321.

[7] See Rom 6:3-10; 1 Pet 3:21; Eph 4:5. The idea of baptism being “once for all” emerges very early in Christian history. See John McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years, sec. 5, “Eastern penitential canons,” Kindle ed. (Downers Grove: IVP Press, 2017).

[8] See e.g. Claudio Carvalhaes who writes, “the preached word of God alone is not enough at this time. Not because the preached word is not enough in itself, but because for those who carry the sacrament in deep relation to the Eucharist, which that cannot be taken away,” in “Being Church as we live with COVID19—Challenges and Demands,”

[9] Someone who once rejected digital worship, Dr. Deanna Thompson defended online community winsomely in speaking from the challenges of her own struggle with cancer, which can be found in the LSTC Panel on Digital Communion, July 2020,

[10] Rom 8:11.

[11] On Luther’s support of the common chest in Leisnig, see LW 45:169-194. See also Samuel Torvend, Luther and the Hungry Poor, as well as Still Hungry at the Feast.

[12] Gustavo Gutiérrez cites Ives Congar in pointing out the three related ways the NT uses the term koinonia: 1) concrete, material solidarity of the actual gathered community (Heb. 13:16; cf. Acts 2:44; 4:32; 2 Cor 9:13; cf. 2 Cor 8:34; Rom 15:26-27); 2) union of the faithful with Christ through the sacrament itself (1 Cor 10:16); 3) union of Christians with the Father through communion with Christ (1 Jn 1:6; cf. 1:3; 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 13:13/14; cf. Phil 2:1), in Église et pauvreté, pp. 247-49, in A Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2010), p. 150.

[13] 1 Cor 11:17-34.

[14] See John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years, in the section “Christian Ascetical and Penitential Imperatives,” Kindle edition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017). There he writes, “The sacrament of the Eucharist is the social expression of the reconciliation anticipated with the divine, through the medium of the body of the suffering and glorified Lord. The horizontal and vertical axes are by no means the same (one a social, the other an eschatological-theological hope of divine communion), but for Paul they transect within the praxis of the sacramental life of the church. Charity is core. As the philosopher Cornel West has put it, ‘Justice is the public face of love.’ The failures of an ethic of charity among the Corinthians, for Paul, actually render ineffectual the very sacrament of reconciliation, which is the Eucharist.” Although Lutheran theology understands this relationship somewhat differently, the connection is essential in either case. Although our communion with God through the sacrament is a present reality that our sin cannot undo, nevertheless we cheapen this grace when we sever the sacrament from this horizontal dimension of our relationship with our neighbor.

[15] This could be a potential intersection with that other confessional concern about the blurring of the public nature of the sacrament.

[16] 1 Jn 1:1-3.

[17] 1 Cor 10:16-17; see also 1 Cor 11:17-34.

[18] Kolb & Wengert, Book of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article VII, sec. 83, p. 607.


[20] Heb 2:14; see also 1 Jn 1:1-3 and 4:1-3, Acts 2:42.

[21] On the issue of the intended sense of the koinonia or community for which the sacrament is given, see Dirk Lange, “Digital Worship and Sacramental Life in a Time of Pandemic,”; shortly after Wengert’s guidance on adiaphora, Bishop Jaech came out in favor of extending the sense of community to include digital participation. For some thoughtful discussion in favor of the same, see also the interview of Rev. Dr. Rick Bliese with the Rev. Dr. Clay Schmit, 23 April 2020,

[22] See e.g. the interview of Rev. Dr. Melinda Quivik with the Rev. Dr. Clay Schmit, 15 April 2020, Ben Stewart made similar arguments in an LSTC panel in July. As an historical example of this ambiguity, St Gregory of Nazianzus preached his five theological orations in defense of the Trinity at the “Chapel of the Resurrection” in Constantinople, but in reality this “chapel” was the private residence of a family member living in the city who agreed to allow their home to be transformed for liturgical purposes.

[23] See e.g. Paul Hinlicky, 2 April 2020, “Why Virtual Communion is Not Nearly Radical Enough,”

[24] Kirsten Mebust invoked this category with respect to the present debate in an interview with Clint Schnekloth,

[25] For example, these definitions reflect the philosophical writings of Jean-François Lyotard, Frederic Jameson, and Jacques Derrida, respectively. Mebust characterizes Gerhard Forde’s theology of the Word as a form of postmodernism by relating it to J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory, which I believe misrepresents both Forde and Austin, and lacks a clear definition for the use of the term “postmodern.” Austin’s philosophy could hardly be considered postmodern, as can be seen from this Stanford article, Austin does not reject classical concepts of knowledge but argues only that the assessment of the truth content of utterances must include not only their meaning but also their illocutionary and perlocutionary force. Oswald Bayer, a major Luther scholar and theologian, has also considered this theory to be useful for unpacking Lutheran theology in modern contexts.  

[26] Melinda Quivik has made a similar case in her interview with Clay Schmidt, referenced above.

[27] Clint Schnekloth has frequently raised this objection, and it is a fair to point out this inconsistency.

[28] Phil. 2:2.

[29] See Mark Roosien, “Fasting from Communion in a Pandemic,”

[30] Emily Scott, “Start Looking and You’ll See Roads All Over the Bible,” New York Times, 19 July 2020,