The Rev. Dr Joe Boot, Wilberforce Academy Director and Christian Concern’s Head of Public Theology, comments on how ‘virtual church’ in lockdown can never replace physical fellowship.
If a recent Evangelical Alliance (EA) article by Danny Webster entitled, ‘The Media Have it Wrong. Churches are not rushing to reopen their Doors,’ first published by Premier Christianity, is a true reflection of evangelical opinion in the UK, then the Covid-19 related social crisis has only further highlighted the precipitous decline of the evangelical mind. As such, should we be asking ourselves whether in some measure we deserve our present exile and if so, will we learn anything from it?
When it comes to reacting to the spread of a virus, Webster and the EA apparently believe that the UK government’s treatment of the churches as equivalent to restaurants, bars and cinemas is appropriate. It strikes me as tragic that the EA can find no evidence of UK church leaders anxious to get the churches open as soon as possible, suggesting instead that the vast majority of pastors implicitly support the notion that the people of God gathering for Word and sacrament and its wider ministry in the community is non-essential at this time. For the EA, being a good witness in our cultural moment means passive compliance with government policy and protecting people or being ‘safe’ means not meeting at all. If that were in fact the churches’ primary mandate, to keep everyone safe from all risk, then the persecuted church in communist and many Islamic nations today are dangerously irresponsible for continuing to meet and develop underground movements, because all such action exposes their congregants to extreme risk. Perhaps they have something profoundly significant in mind in terms of the overall well-being of the church of Jesus Christ that makes trusting the sovereign God with the ordinary risks of life more important than the illusion of ‘being safe.’
Yet the good news, we are told, is that there has been an effective pivot to ‘online’ church and other technological innovations. With much modern evangelicalism already miles away from a historic evangelical understanding of the centrality of the Word, sacrament and church discipline, some movements like Hillsong have already indicated they may not gather in person again for another year!
Webster uses familiar missiological phrases about the role of the church being to “proclaim Christ and to witness to his kingdom coming,” but he argues, “we do not do this by increasing the risk of harm to those we love and those we want to come to know Jesus.” Of course, this argument obviously begs the real question about how to measure the harm of the present lockdown of the churches weighed against risks of infection, and overlooks the radical reductionism involved in reducing human health and wellbeing to biology and avoidance at all costs of exposure to viruses. And predictably, exactly how the indefinite lockdown of the churches and mass quarantine of God’s people does enable us to ‘faithfully proclaim Christ’ and ‘witness to his kingdom coming’ – as like children we hide in the sofa cushions and heroically save the nation in our pyjamas via Zoom – is left unexplained.
I should add, whilst the Bible has important things to say about quarantining the seriously sick, I have yet to find the scriptural text where Christ or his apostles hid from the diseased and destitute, the lonely, depressed or dying in the interest of loving and saving them. If ever Christians should be wearied by empty evangelical platitudes to justify our inaction, it’s now.
I have no doubt the article expresses a majority ‘evangelical’ opinion in Britain, but the real question is whether it represents a Biblical and faithful response to an unprecedented indefinite lockdown of the Church by civil government – one consistent with the historic witness of God’s people? At times like this, the truth and power of the gospel of the kingdom must be seen and heard – the Christian faith should come into its own as it has since plagues and panic struck Rome in the time of the early Church. Yet some are actually abandoning the historic practices and gospel ministry tradition of God’s people in times of panic, sickness and crisis by hiding or fleeing. Some weeks ago, it was widely reported that members of the Church of England hierarchy (not the civil government!) actually banned their own clergy from ministering to the sick and dying (whether from Covid-19 or not) and even prevented them from streaming Easter services alone in their church buildings.
Civil authorities can lock down a business, but they cannot switch off the essence of human nature. We are cultural beings made specifically to work (Gen. 1:28; 2:15) and social beings made for fellowship; most especially fellowship with the living God (Gen 2:18, 21-23; Ex. 29:45; Jn. 1:3, 5-7; Jn. 14:23; Rev. 21:3-4). To deny human beings these things, even amidst the risk of infection or sickness, is to deny part of the essence of their humanity and fundamentally undermine their life and wellbeing. Work and corporate worship are both pre-political; they are part of the normative structure of human life and existence. Human governments do not bestow on people a right to worship and work, they are merely called to recognize and protect that right. It is God himself who commands human beings to rule and subdue, to work and serve (and observe a sabbath rest).
Webster conveniently overlooks the fact that the Bible and centuries of tradition oblige Christians to gather weekly for worship and witness around the Word of God and sacraments because we need one another to flourish in our relationship and service to Christ (Ex. 20:9-11; Acts 2:42, 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:1-2; Heb. 10:24-25). Recognising there will always be faithful believers who through sickness, inability or persecution are not able to join with God’s people for corporate worship, neither confessional Christian faith nor the church institute can faithfully exist without a normative Lord’s Day gathering. This divine obligation and hard-won historic freedom supersedes all human legislation and regulation.
Whilst acknowledging that closed church buildings make it harder for people to ‘find their way in,’ since the church on the corner is a reminder that we exist, Webster claims without regret that church buildings and the sacraments are just not that relevant to evangelicals anymore, and I believe that, sadly, he is largely right. This means that many pastors and leaders are relatively untroubled by the current circumstances and speak of thriving successfully ‘online,’ some even envisioning lasting new iterations for ‘how we do church’ – to adopt the nauseating language of contemporary ‘evanjelly’ speak.
Leaving aside the historic symbolism and meaning of church buildings as large ‘houses’ for corporate worship – visual centres of meaning in towns and villages, their spires inspiring awe and their bells calling communities to worship – the gathering of the people of God corporately in a church building is not some pointless relic of ‘cultural Christianity,’ as Webster seems to suggest. To begin with, how is Christian culture in itself an evil? I would rather live in a Christianised culture than in the grip of cultural atheism, Marxism or Islam. Modern evangelical critics of ‘Christendom’ ought to go and live with their children in such cultures and experience the suffering of our brothers and sisters there before presuming to castigate Christian culture.
Furthermore, the 1700-year-old practice of gathering in privately owned halls has been central to the Church’s witness since Christians were first permitted to own buildings under the Emperor Gallienus in A.D. 260. By the third century A.D. there were several such buildings in most ancient cities in the Roman Empire. Prior to legally owning buildings for worship, the primitive Church met in the large homes of its wealthy members – so the principle was the same – corporate gatherings in a house for worship. At the present time, neither gathering in a church building nor gathering homes is permitted.
This situation and the legal precedent currently being set is more serious than most people realise. Church buildings were and remain a critical mark of legal independence (as a sphere of private law) and religious freedom in the West. The reason why you cannot build a church or display the cross in Saudi Arabia today is the same reason why Diocletian sought to take away this freedom of Christians during a great persecution beginning in February A.D. 303 – there is no such thing as religious neutrality, and the Christian gospel is a threat because it introduces a radical concept of sovereignty rooted in the Lordship of Jesus Christ that militates against all idolatry and totally alters human society wherever it is embraced. Understanding this threat, the Diocletian terror was launched with an edict requiring the destruction of all church buildings.
To argue that houses of worship to the living God are relatively unimportant to the faithful is as ignorant as saying a house for a home is not central to the life of a family. We all know that a house itself is not the family, and we all know the body of Christ is not the bricks and mortar, but that does not reduce either to relative unimportance. Shuttering the churches indefinitely so that Christians cannot meet corporately doesn’t destroy the body of Christ, but it radically curtails the covenant life, worship, service, discipline, and witness of God’s people and threatens our spiritual health and eventually, our survival. Evicting a family from their home does not destroy the family, but its well-being and functioning is endangered.
Finally, the notion that the Church can manage just fine online is a fatal error. A scriptural theology of creation and incarnation militate in every way against a neo-Gnosticism and Docetism that believes the body of Christ can exist and function very well in an abstract digital world, reducing the Lord’s Table to relative unimportance, and the preached Word to a ‘talk’ just as effectual digitally via pre-recorded video or live feed. If these things were even partially true, person to person contact where believers are gathered in Christ’s name would become optional for Christians.
As we look at Scripture, and especially the doctrine of creation, we notice that human society, manifest most obviously in the family, reflects something of the character and nature of God. The image of God in humanity is neither individualistic, nor virtual, but finds expression in a covenantal and procreative marriage relationship. Because God is triune and in eternal personal relationship, the image of God is inescapably social in us. We can no more have an individualistic virtual church than we can have a virtual and individualistic marriage.
In addition, human beings are quite obviously embodied beings. I am not essentially a soul that happens to have a body, one that I am at liberty to reckon with or not – I am a body. All of life, our relationships, work, knowledge, love and worship, are experienced and expressed in the flesh, in the fullness of our personhood. We see how critical this is when we look at the incarnation – God Himself becoming flesh.
The self-revelation of God cannot be abstracted in the fashion of the Greek philosophers to the realm of ideas or concepts. The apostle John reminds us that the Word “became flesh and took up residence among us. We observed his glory” (Jn. 1:14, emphasis added). God the Son did not join us via Zoom, nor send a video via Whatsapp. Rather, he literally ‘tabernacled’ with us. In the incarnation, the Glory of God and the Word of Life shines forth from an embodied human being.
In John’s first epistle we read:
“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life … that life was revealed… What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may have fellowship along with us; and indeed, our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4).
A virtual relationship could never substitute for face-to-face relationship. The joy of true fellowship is lacking as long as believers are apart – something expressed by John when he writes: “I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12).
The clear meaning and implication of this is that we truly know the fellowship of the Father and the Son in our face-to-face fellowship with one another, by the Spirit (1 John 4:13). Any effort to reduce the central and crucial importance of face-to-face fellowship in the life of the Christian church is to downplay our fellowship with the Father and the Son by the Spirit. This same Spirit joins us to the incarnate Son and to one another. As my pastoral colleague and patristic scholar, Dr. David Robinson, noted to me recently:
“If we settle for a virtual communion with each other, we must also settle for a docetic Christology and deny the work of the Spirit who makes us members of one another in Christ and who will raise and glorify our bodies on the last day. Our communion in the age to come will not be virtual, but bodily. Our in-person fellowship now is an anticipation of that glorious fellowship. Virtual church now denies that anticipation of future glory.”
The apostle Paul’s chosen images for the church reinforce this reality. He speaks of the church as a vital body, a chosen family, a temple of living stones and as a betrothed bride. We cannot be vitally connected to one another in this way if we are only virtually connected. We cannot honour and practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the definitive marks of the church, signifying and confirming the realities of the incarnation and our fellowship with the Triune God, if the life of the church is abstracted into the ether. As grateful as we should be for advancing technologies that assist communication, from the telephone and radio to the internet and mobile phone, the preached Word is not digital, the sacraments are not virtual and their faithful administration presupposes a congregated body of faithful believers.
The deeply ingrained dualism of modern evangelicals inherited from the Western philosophical tradition – that tends to view the outer cultural world of material life and ‘flesh’ as a lesser domain in creation tainted by evil, whilst seeing the inner ‘spiritual’ and invisible life of the ‘soul’ as a higher, purer and more ‘real’ domain in creation of greater importance – makes evangelicals highly susceptible to gnostic tendencies. This is reflected in attitudes to the various cultural battlegrounds of our time. It means a relative inability to grasp the devastating and self-destructive implications of queer theory and its manifestations in issues like transgenderism where people claim, ‘my body is male, but inside I am a woman.’ It also dulls our ability to apprehend the importance of the scriptural sanctions forbidding homosexual practice or fornication, because we don’t adequately understand why it really matters what people do with their ‘bodies’ so long as they ‘love’ each other – and surely that is what Christianity is all about! In both cases an ‘inner’ life of feelings and ideas trumps the reality of an embodied created world and reinforces our disengagement with cultural life.
All this makes Webster’s claim that, because our hope is in Jesus and not in our ability to meet in a building, the present circumstances do not hinder our passion and ability to ‘make Jesus known,’ both naïve and seriously wrong-headed.
Whether they appreciate these implications or not, the EA’s implicit celebration of a so-called ‘pivot’ of the church to an online new normal for the foreseeable future and complacent satisfaction with the current status quo implies a docetic, deistic and unitarian view of God and a dangerously gnostic view of both humanity and the church.
Perhaps British evangelicals should consider looking to the example of their brothers and sisters in Christ in the USA and in Canada as inspiration to stir themselves to reopening the churches, reassessing the significance of Word and Sacrament and our role in a free society. I have had the privilege of spearheading a provincial campaign to reopen Canadian churches in Ontario which have been shut down despite businesses and factories opening up. Over 400 churches have now signed our letter and counting (www.reopenontariochurches.ca). The EA would do well to begin a similar campaign for faithful churches to get behind before an abstract Christianity and virtual church sees what is left of British evangelicalism vanish into the ether.
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