Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

The Nature of the Church and the Possibility of Virtual Church

Part 7 of series: Is Online Church Really Church?
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If you’ve been following along in this series dealing with online church, you know that I see many ways the Internet can extend and enrich the experience of church. I affirm churches that are seeking to reach out through online church in its various forms. Moreover, I recognize how the Internet can enhance the worship, education, and fellowship of a church.
Yet, having said this, I must say that I’m not as enthusiastic about efforts to have online church become the whole shebang. Those who argue that a person can experience all that is essential to church through the Internet are mistaken, in my view. In the last two posts, I supported my critique with examples of church activities that either require physical presence or are significantly enhanced by being with people in the flesh.
Nevertheless, I do think the case for online church does find some grounding in the New Testament. Before I explore what I believe to be the inadequacy of online church, I want to explain where I would look in the New Testament for support of this form of congregational life.
I would not, by the way, put too much weight down upon an argument I have often heard in favor of virtual church. It goes something like this: “The church is not a building, but people. People can get together online. Therefore gathering in a building in not essential to church. Online church is real church.” Of course I have simplified this argument, but I think I have the basics right. In response, let me say, first, that I profoundly agree with the statement that the church is not a building. The church is the people of God in some configuration and relational connection. Real church does not require a building or even meeting in a building. But it does not necessarily follow from this truth that online church is real church. That conclusion assumes another truth, namely, that physical presence is not essential, that “gathering” online is really gathering. I find this suspect, though not completely impossible, from the point of view of New Testament experience and theology.
The Church as Ekklesia
Our word “church,” which comes to us by way of Germanic languages, is ultimately derived from the Greek word kurios, or Lord. The church is the Lord’s house. We use the English word “church,” however, to translated the New Testament Greek word ekklesia (from which we get words like “ecclesiastical”). In the first-century A.D., ekklesia was not used in ordinary Greek to refer to religious communities. Rather, it meant “gathering” or “assembly.” It also had a technical usage, referring to the assembly of voting citizens in a city. Essentially, then, ekklesia referred to an actual gathering of people. That was its primary sense among the early Christians. The ekklesia happened when they got together for worship, fellowship, ministry, eating, praying, or whatever else. There was no ekklesia when the Christians were not actually assembled.
Yet a secondary sense of the word ekklesia referred to the people of God, essentially connected in Christ, but not necessarily physically gathered. You find this use of the word, for example, when Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Whatever Jesus envisioned for Peter, it’s clear that he wasn’t thinking of building a building called a church, or forming one small actual gathering of his followers. Rather, the ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 is something like the aggregate of all local ekklesiai.
The Apostle Paul and Church Over a Distance
Nevertheless, there is plenty in the New Testament to suggest that church, in this broader and less physical sense, was something that needed to be experienced in actual churches of actual people actually meeting together. Yet there were times when one or more members of a church could not be physically present in the gathering. The Apostle Paul, for example, planted churches in various places and then left those places to plant new churches. Could he somehow be part of the churches where he was not present? While physically distant, Paul envisioned being present with his churches. How? He spoke of praying continually for his churches. He wrote letters that represented his presence and conveyed his teaching. Furthermore, in several passages he spoke of being spiritually present with a church even though he was physically absent (1 Cor 5:3; Col 2:5).
Paul’s example supports the idea that physical presence is not always essential for genuine Christian community. Yet Paul offers little help for those who are trying to argue that physical presence with other Christians isn’t important or desirable. In fact, Paul often speaks of how much he longs to be with his churches (for example, 1 Thes 3:6). Of course he was not able to chat online with these congregations or livestream their gatherings. But his yearning to by physically present with his churches indicates a strong psychological preference for in-the-flesh church, if not an equally strong theological conviction about physical nature of church.
I’ll examine this theology in my next post in this series.

  • Evan

    A thought from C.S. Lewis:
    “I was going to say that in adoration, more than in any other kind of prayer, the public or communal act is of the utmost importance. One would lose incomparably more by being prevented from going to church on Easter than on Good Friday. And, even in private, adoration should be communal, –‘with angels and archangels and all the company,’ all the transparent publicity of Heaven.”
    From Chapter 19 of “Letters to Malcolm.”
    I will let that speak for itself, but mention that this was the last book that was published before Lewis’ death. I mention this because it has become a fashionable notion (see the Hollywood version of “Shadowlands”) that “A Grief Observed” is Lewis’ final word and that his faith was gone. The subtitle to “Malcolm” is “Chiefly on Prayer,” and it can be challenging in many aspects to read, but it is a work of a man trusting in Jesus Christ.

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