Introduction to the Problem
In January of 2020, a viral pandemic from Wuhan, China spread to the United States and caused a near complete shut down of the American economy. As stocks plunged and infections rose, local and federal governments mandated that all public gatherings of ten people or more be banned. Corporations, small businesses, schools, and churches were forced to close their physical locations and convene their meetings online. While the social and economic impact was widespread, perhaps the most effected of these groups were the churches. For the first time ever, churches were forced to conduct their services through digital mediums like Facebook or Zoom.
In a pragmatic sense, the closing of all public gatherings seems essential to the utilitarian needs of the community. However, there does arise the legal question of whether or not the federal government has the authority to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of Christians. And yet, beyond the legal arguments for whether or not the government has the power to suspend the gathering of religious worshipers, a greater question has emerged for the Christian community as a whole:
Is the Church merely a spiritual collective of believers or is there something fundamental to the physical gathering of Christians in corporate worship?
With the advent of social media and the telecommuting of many corporate and private institutions, the Church must decided whether it is obligated to capitulate to the technological desires of the modern era, or whether there is a theological case to be made for the necessity of physically convened worship. Therefore, the theology of the Church must be examined biblically, historically, and theologically in order to shed light on this dilemma in its contemporary context.
Surveying Biblical, Historical, and Theological Data
Without the Scripture, we would have no concept of the Church. The Church was looked forward to during the ministry of Jesus and born at Pentecost. In no meaningful way can we understand the Church outside of the New Testament witness. Therefore, to present this issue with precision, we will focus on a New Testament ecclesiology in order to give insight into the Church’s corporate, teleological, and ministerial purpose. However, before we can look to the teachings of the apostles, we must first examine the final instructions of Jesus to his followers.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ final words before his ascension are, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Jesus is obligating those who follow him to physically go out into the world and make disciples. Immediately there is a relationship between disciple-making and one’s physical presence. It seems as though Jesus expected the Church to worship as a physical presence in the world, if it was going to be effective in making disciples.
The apostle Paul used numerous metaphors to describe the Church as the physical presence of Christ in the world. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul seized upon anatomical language to describe the Church at Corinth as the body of Christ, comprised of many members, but working as a unified whole. The purposeful usage of a physical body performing physical tasks was to demonstrate that there is a necessity to be both physically present and in unified harmony with one another. And, given Paul’s anthropology as a Second Temple Jew, there was no way he could conceive of a body as nonphysical. Beyond the metaphor of body, however, Paul would include examples of a house, kingdom, family, and ultimately as a bride. While the bride metaphor is of a spiritual marriage, it cannot be understood as simply nonphysical. For Paul, and for presumably nearly every marriage in history, a bride cannot be merely a spiritually present person. However, Paul was not the only voice in the early church to argue that the Church must be physical if it is to be the body of Christ.
Like Paul, John wrote of the Church in physical terms. In his apocalyptic vision, John was given a revelation of the Church as represented by seven lamp stands. While this image came as an apocalyptic vision, there is an inherent physical nature to the imagery. These lamp stands represent the Church as being the physically present light of Christ in the world. Just as real candles illuminated the darkness during the first century, so too is the Church to physically be the light of Christ. Yet in all of these powerful images of the Church, John’s clearest sense that the Church must be physical comes in his second epistle, “though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete.” As the body of Christ, there is an inherent lack when we are not gathered together. For John, this meant that his joy could only be complete when he was face to face and worshiping with his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. He knew that neglecting to gather together inhibited one’s ability to fully be the Church.
Perhaps more than any other disciple, Peter realized the physical necessity of the Church. It was to him that Jesus declared, “on this rock I will build my church,” and it was Peter who delivered the first sermon at Pentecost. As Acts 2 records, the Holy Spirit came upon those who were physically present and gathered together. Both the ecclesiological and theological importance of this event cannot be seen as inconsequential. The Church of Jesus Christ began at Pentecost as a physically present body of believers. The Holy Spirit descended upon those present in a shared public display of out pouring. Together, the physical and spiritual were united, and the Church was born as a living presence in the world. It was this very spiritual-physical union that led Peter to declare that we are to be as living stones, both spiritually alive and physically present in the world.
Likewise, James, the brother of Jesus, understood that the Church’s greatest power was its physical presence in the world. In his only epistle, James outlined a practical theology of the Church as a community of believers. While time does not allow us to fully examine all of his theology, we can summarize it into two main teachings: 1) faith is inseparable from our physical lives, 2) the church is obligated to be physically present in the lives of its members. For James, it was not enough for the Church to just pray for one another or hope that lost souls would come back to Christ. The Church was and is obligated to physically lay hands on the sick, anoint them physically with oil, physically bear the burdens of each other, and to physically bring back those who have wandered away from their faith. Only a physically present Church is able to do these things.
Following the Apostolic era, the orthodox consensus of the Church was that it was to continue being the physically present body of Christ in the world. In fact, it was due in part to this very obligation of being physically present that Irenaeus attacked the heretical teachings of Gnosticism. Essentially, the Gnostics believed that we are incorruptible souls trapped inside corrupted bodies. Therefore, the teleological goal for one’s life is to shed the physical and be fully joined to the spiritual realm. This teaching denied two biblical principles: 1) the goodness of God’s physical creation 2) that Christ redeemed all of humanity, both their physical and spiritual existence. And so, when applied to worship, the Gnostics saw no reason why they had to be together physically, since the physical nature of our world was wholly corrupted anyway. It was to this end that Irenaeus firmly defended the necessity and biblical mandate that the Church must be a physical presence, including physically coming together in worship.
Finally, the eschatological and teleological purpose for the Church is inherently physical. Eschatologically, the New Heaven and New Earth are not spiritual planes of existence, but rather, they are physical new creations. Teleologically, the Church can be defined in two distinct ways. First, all of humanity is recapitulated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This redefining of our human nature means that we are to become like Jesus. Therefore, as the Church, whatever it means to be like the resurrected Christ, that is our purpose. Secondly, since we are to be like the resurrected Christ, we must realize that Jesus was raised from the dead both spiritually and physically. The Church, as the body of Christ to the world, is therefore obligated to be both spiritually enlivened by the Holy Spirit, and physically present in the world, because Christ is resurrected bodily. We must therefore understand ourselves to be the Church as inseparably spiritual and physical. In no other way can we rightly conceive of the Church than as a physically present worshiping body, empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Suggested Application to Ministry
In the era of political correctness and government overreach, and in light of the COVID-19 crisis, the Church must decide if it is willing to be defined by the mandates of elected officials. For pastors and laity, the way we navigate this period of uncertainty will greatly affect the the efficacy of the Church’s witness for generations to come. We have seen how the biblical picture of the Church is that of a physically present body. So the question now becomes whether or not we feel obligated to both uphold the biblical mandate of the Church and continue in the orthodox tradition.
The temptation to completely digitize all of church is now a greater threat than ever before. Arguments will be made in the name of safety, ethical obligation, and governmental order. However, it does not seem that the Church can continue to exist in any meaningful capacity, unless it remains as a physical gathering of believers. This is the decision that will determine our place in Church history.
Because of this, I am proposing three ways in which we might apply this to our ministries today.
- The Church must refuse to allow the state or federal government to infringe upon its First Amendment rights to worship and assemble. There has always been tension between the powers of the State and the Church, however our obligation is to Jesus, who has mandated that we be the physical presence of the resurrected Christ to the world.
- Pastors must make every attempt to continue holding physical services. Whether these services involve spaced seating, outdoor meetings, or perhaps even drive-ins, the body of Christ must remain a physical presence, even in the midst of crisis.
- The Church must rediscover its calling to fulfill the Great Commission. We must become a body of believers who physically bear one another’s burdens, physically lay hands on the sick, and minister physically to a lost and dying world.
When we realize that we are called to be the physical presence of Jesus in the world, everything about our ministry should change. Whether it is a global pandemic, a dictatorial edict, or the temptation to let technology simplify our lives; the Church can never be the Church unless it is physically present in and to the world.
- Matt. 16:18 (ESV)
- Acts 1:8; Acts 2 (ESV)
- Matt. 28:19-20a (ESV)
- 1 Cor. 12:12-27 (ESV)
- Cooper, John W. Body, Soul and Life Everlasting: Biblical Anthropology and the Monism-Dualism Debate. Grand Rapids, Cambridge: Leicester, 2001. Cooper’s book is helpful in understanding the anthropological view of the Ancient Hebrews and those of Second Temple Judaism. A type of holistic monism would have been Paul’s understanding of person’s as physically spiritual and spiritually physical. This also explains why bodily resurrection was so important to Jewish eschatology and Paul’s ecclesiology.
- Eph. 2:20-21; 1 Cor. 3:16 (ESV)
- Col. 1:13 (ESV)
- 2 Cor. 6:18 (ESV)
- 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25 (ESV)
- ibid. Cooper
- Rev. 1:20 (ESV)
- 2 John 12 (ESV)
- Heb. 10:25 (ESV)
- Matt. 16:18 (ESV)
- Acts 2:1-4 (ESV)
- Acts 2:4 (ESV)
- “neshamah” Gen. 2:7 and “pnoé” Acts 2:2 (Original Hebrew; Greek Septuagint). The use of “pnoé” to describe the coming of the Holy Spirit uses the same word as the breath of God, “neshamah,” that fills Adam’s body to make him a “living being,” in Genesis 2:7 (ESV). This enlivening of the Church at Pentecost is the same union of the spiritual and physical as God’s original creation of Adam.
- 1 Pet. 2:4-12 (ESV)
- James 1-4 (ESV)
- James 5:13-20 (ESV)
- IRENAEUS. AGAINST HERESIES. S.l.: CHRISTIAN CLASSICS, 2019.
- The Gnostic World View: A Brief Summary of Gnosticism. http://gnosis.org/gnintro.htm. (Accessed May 1, 2020.)
- Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. Wright is helpful in understanding eschatology from a biblical perspective. According to Wright, there is no biblical basis for a non-physical eschatological existence. We are to be bodily resurrected, because Jesus is bodily resurrected. Therefore, the Church and the individual are to become like Christ in every way.
- ibid. IRENAEUS
- ibid. Wright
- Rom. 5:18-21 (ESV)