Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28 are an amazing comfort…
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20)
Here Jesus claims to be ever present in a non-physical way. Just dwell on that for a moment… for 2000 years God the Son has remained incarnate and yet, for that entire time, he has also been physically absent (in this human nature) from his people, his bride. Jesus promised to be with us always, and yet has been self-isolating (physically) for 2000 years.
For Jesus’ words to be a comfort, he must be talking about a way of being with us that transcends physical proximity.
This is an important point to note during this time of Covid19 isolation, and especially as we think together about whether we can call what we do online ‘church’ or not. It seems that some Christians feel that their inability to gather geographically/physically means they can not be with one another in a sufficient way to call it ‘church’. They’ll say things like, “it’s not really church because we’re not gathered physically“.
However, I would want to suggest three things;
- The church is a people, not a physical event
An emphasis on the gathering sense of the Greek word ἐκκλησία can sometimes over-shadow the more significant idea that it is God’s redeemed people (who gather). Gathering is an important response to being part of God’s people, but we don’t stop being God’s people when we scatter on Monday.
- We are primarily gathered around Jesus, not one another
A church ‘event’ is when we gather spiritually around Christ in his word. A group of Christians going to see a movie in a theatre is not a church gathering because it’s missing its essential element; Jesus. In the same way, attending a church gathering in person does not make you a Christian, any more than being in a garage makes you a car. Christian gatherings are an attempt to express a spiritual reality; Since it’s not just me in Christ, but we are in Christ, so we together turn our hearts and minds to him in his Word and with thanks.
- It’s possible to be ‘with’ someone without being beside them
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that gathering is functionally equivalent to being with people. It’s possible to be with someone – in their company – and not be in their physical presence. Telephones, Zoom, Skype, etc. all allow us to share a common mind and attention on Christ in his word with other people and yet without being in their physical vicinity. (There’s a trinitarian basis for this also, since the eternal relationship of the persons of the triune God was not spatially with one-another; relationship and togetherness is not dependant on spatial and physical proximity).
But the main reason we can call our live online meetings “church” is because Jesus is – as he promised – with us. His Spirit lives in us and unites us to himself, his Spirit unites us to one another as his family, and his Spirit has called certain pastors to be over-us in Christ. In and through that Spirit we desire to gather in one place (even if it is an address that starts with http) and together with others who are in Christ (even if that togetherness is helped through technology) we are co-drawn into God’s word and into praise of the one who called us together with his Son – who will physically gather us to himself when he returns.
Until our Lord returns, all our gatherings – embodied and online – lack the physical presence of the one who truly makes our gatherings ‘church’.
The restrictions on gatherings have not brought concern to the Lord of Lords. When he sees your church tuning in and trying to make the best of a difficult situation… Jesus is not thinking “Tut-tut… that’s not gathering!!! How dare they call it church!?” Jesus is Lord. And whether you’re trying to gather in a building or in a zoom chat or in a live stream, he loves his people gathering around him. So don’t fret, keep going.
2 thoughts on “Church online through the one who promised, “I am with you always””
Love it Dave :) great to see you’ve rekindled the blog!
On Fri, May 22, 2020 at 10:19 AM MINISTRY PRINCIPLES & PRAGMATICS wrote:
> Dave M. Moore posted: “Jesus’ last words in Matthew 28 are an amazing > comfort… Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and > on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all > nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son” >
When this is all over and people are allowed to gather again, Tommy decides he will join the best online ‘church’ he can find and watch that. Even though it’s on another continent, its a lot better than his local churches, and the couch is a lot more comfortable than battling the traffic to sit in pews.
I assume we would want Tommy to gather physically with his local gathering when its allowed. But what in your theology expressed above would help him see the importance of that?
I fear your argument proves too much.
I think we feel a pressure to say that a replacement or supplement is the real thing… when I don’t see the problem with just saying its a substitute.
Take the example of being ‘present with someone’ over FaceTime. Only in a substitute way. The fact of the matter, and the cause of grief when my friend had a tragedy and all we could do was FaceTime, was that we were precisely NOT present.
That does not make the substitute bad. its good that we have a substitute. but calling the substitute the real thing doesn’t really honour the real thing.
So when people say we are ‘gathered’ online, I won’t quibble with them cos life is too short to quibble over words. but they are speaking phenomenologically, and not about the reality of things. The fact is that we are not gathered online, unless we change the meaning the word gather to mean exactly the opposite of what it originally and rightly meant.
So to the extent that church is a gathering, and I think this is a very great extent, then to that extent ‘online church’ is not church. [Church is not the same thing as God’s people. God’s people are still God’s people on Monday, but they are not doing church]
That is not to say it is not real. A great deal of it is real. We are really praying. We are really connected spiritually. We are really hearing from a real God by his word. It’s real, it’s just not church.
It’s not just that a Berocca is a less good version of an orange. It’s not an orange. If I can’t get an orange, a berocca is a good replacement and thank God for that. But it doesn’t help to pretend that it is an orange, or even to say that its not an ideal orange.
I think what you’re putting forward tends towards seeing humans as minds on sticks. As long as our minds are together, we are gathered. No – there is an inherent physicality to who we are as people, and the gathered bit includes that element essentially.
We may be UNITED temporally, we are IN FELLOWSHIP in focus and attention, we are PARTICIPATING through communication… but we are not gathered.
To borrow words from Adam Ch’ng in the Gospel Coalition article, calling something a gathering which is not a gathering (which is what we do when we apply the label ekklesia to pixels on a screen) “disembodies the Christian life, disconnects the spiritual from the physical”.
If I’m splitting hairs… if the experience of fellowship-in-one-activity of online “church” is close enough to a gathering that we could call it church… I still wouldn’t. Two reasons:
1. I don’t need to. To emphasise the value of being involved in our online thing, I don’t need to call it church. It’s enough to say that this is the best simulation or replacement for what church is for; that we will be spiritually poorer for missing it; that the soul will more quickly shrivel without the habits and nourishment that this substitute provides. I don’t need to call it church to say that. I think our leaders have communicated all of this without ever calling it church. And we have done so emphasising the togetherness of it.
2. I think there are practical, if not theological, dangers about calling it church. When we want our people to re-gather physically down the track, we will want them to see the importance not just of finding a live stream on youtube but of putting their kids in their cars and driving there. We will have a harder time of it if we have called both these activities church. But if all along we marked the shadow as clearly the shadow, it will be easier to point them to the value of the reality over the shadow.
Anyway – when my 2 year old says we are watching church, I don’t correct her. But when 25 year olds talk, and slip into calling it church, and happily correct themselves, I see that as a healthy thing
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