Who would have thought it would ever be necessary to defend the physical meeting of local churches as the New Testament norm?
But the rhetoric of some church leaders during the coronavirus lockdown seems to call for this. For example, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently declared in a video that ‘when we don’t go to the church building…we recover the sense that Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name I am there with them”. And they don’t even actually have to be physically gathered; virtually gathered does very well indeed. Jesus is quite up to date on this stuff’.
Certainly, there is plenty of Christian proclamation happening online and on social media during the lockdown. Christians are continuing to share the good news of God’s forgiving love in Jesus Christ. In some ways, they are seeing new doors opening for the gospel with people stuck at home having more time on their hands to face up to spiritual issues.
Furthermore, Christians at home are able to access livestreamed services and to inter-act with fellow believers online. The lockdown would not seem to demand the absolute negation of the command to Christians in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews: ‘And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day (Christ’s second coming) approaching’ (Hebrews 10v24-25).
Can Christians do that via livestreamed services or a Zoom meeting? They can. But how can an online meeting live up to the glorious New Testament definition of the church as the body of Christ?
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of the working of a human body to teach a congregation inclined to disunity about their spiritual inter-dependence as Christ’s people: ‘For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free: and we have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many’ (1 Corinthians 12v12-14).
This New Testament description of the church as the body of Christ surely rules out putting online meetings on an equal theological footing with the physical gathering of God’s people. Christ had a physical body in his incarnate state on earth. Now in his exalted heavenly state he continues to have a physical body on earth. His body is the human members of his church gathering together locally in a shared physical space for corporate worship and mutual edification.
So, virtual Christianity will not do. Thank the good Lord, the body of Christ is not an avatar.