The Church and presence: Spiritual, Physical, and Virtual? (doing some ecclesiology in a pandemic)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

— John 1:14

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.

— 2 John 12

There’s lots of fun new debate in the realms of ecclesiology happening right now. Ecclesiology is our understanding of the ‘ecclesia’ — which is the New Testament word from which we get the word ‘church.’ It’s a word that means gathering. Part of this debate manifests itself in the question of whether what’s happening on Sundays right now is actually church — a gathering — (or just virtually approximates it), and then whether it would be appropriate to participate in the Lord’s Supper (or communion, or the Eucharist depending on your theological tradition).

There has always been a tension in how we Christians understand the nature of ‘gathering’ and what the ‘church’ is. Revelation (also, I believe, written by the same John who wrote the above, though I acknowledge this position is contested) has pictures of a heavenly gathering of all those who belong to Jesus; and this heavenly gathering is one that happens by the Spirit uniting us to Jesus. John records Jesus’ prayer about the church in his Gospel, which includes this bit:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

John 17:20-24

Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ in the world; parts of a body gathered by the work of the Spirit. The church is a spiritual reality; and because metaphors work in a particular way (metaphors are concrete smaller things that point to a bigger thing, or they are exaggerations), the reality of this gathering of the church as the body is a reality in some ways realer than the physical unity of the parts of our own bodies.

The spiritual is real.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

1 Corinthians 12:12-14

He later says (linking this concept of the ‘body of Christ’ to ‘the church’ in what he writes to a particular church):

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31

This is true of the global, universal, eternal church. I, as a Christian in the modern west, am connected by the Spirit of God to Jesus — one with him — but I am also united with brothers and sisters across time and space. This reality is a profound comfort — especially in uncertain moments like this when I can remember that not only Jesus, but those others I am united to, have been through worse than this and yet the church survives and even thrives. And yet Paul also opens his letter to Christians in the city of Corinth by saying:

“To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours”

1 Corinthians 1:2

There’s a certain sort of exegetical gymnastics some Christian traditions do based on a word study of ‘ecclesia’ to suggest that church is only church when physically gathered; that Paul writes here to an ‘event’ where his letter is read, rather than the people who will read this letter in different physical gatherings — gymnastics that produce a phenomenon known as the ‘Knox-Robinson Ecclesiology’ which is popular amongst a subset of evangelicalism in Australia (specifically those trained through Moore College who are convinced by the ecclesiology taught there, and largely practiced in the diocese). But I think this is essentially an over-reliance on a word study, rather than an observation on the way this letter might have been received within a community in Corinth, and the theology of God’s gathered people and how that spiritual gathering is expressed in communities that are connected to one another in order to carry out the functions of the body that evidently operate on more than just Sundays, and in contexts wider than the Sunday event. In most reconstructions of the church in Corinth from Acts, and Paul’s letters (including the ending of Romans, written in Corinth) he writes to a church that met together in several houses, but also came together as a “whole church” on occasions — Paul mentions that Gaius offers hospitality to the whole church in Corinth in Romans 16:23). I don’t think Paul’s statement about God placing a range of people in “the church” in 1 Corinthians 12:28 can bear the particularity placed on the word by the Knox-Robinson model that sees ‘church’ only happening in the event of gathering. But, criticisms of the Knox-Robinson theology notwithstanding, Paul certainly has a category for church not simply being the universal gathered people of God, but particular people who meet together as an expression of the body of Christ in particular places and times (so he can write to ‘the church in Corinth’ but also to ‘the church that meets in Priscilla and Aquilla’s house’ (Romans 16:5), and he can say ‘all the churches of Christ’ (plural) send their greetings (Romans 16:16). My argument is that Paul uses the word ‘church’ to refer to the ‘gathered people’ (those connected by the same Spirit, as one body), not simply to the ‘gatherings of the gathered people,’ but also he often limits his use of the word ‘church’ (ecclesia) to those who make a practice of physically coming together as one body.

In 1 Corintihans 11 Paul describes this community he is writing to (“the church of God in Corinth”) coming together “as a church.” He writes: “I hear that when you come together as a church…” the ‘come together’ (συνερχομένων) would seem to be redundant if the ecclesia itself is the ‘coming together,’ but what they are doing physically gathering together is an expression of their existence as a particular church.

The physical gathering matters for our understanding of a certain expression of church (those gathered by the Spirit to express their unity as the body of Christ in the world). A local church is an expression of the global, universal, church (those gathered by the Spirit). My particular theological tradition makes a distinction between the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ church for this reason — to distinguish physical, local, expressions of the gathered people of God — those members of the body directly connected to each other who express that unity by gathering. This distinction is also helpful because not everyone who joins our visible, physical, gatherings is a member of the universal church; not everyone present is a member of the Body, with the Spirit. Which for Paul has implications for how the physical gathering participates in the Lord’s Supper.

I think for John, in the quotes highlighted above, the physical nature of our relationships as Christians is an important expression of our oneness in Christ, by the Spirit, but also of the nature of the incarnation — that Jesus came into the world visibly as a body, a body who dwelled, and that we followers of Jesus are sent into the world in the same way Jesus was. Writing — our disembodied presence — doesn’t cut it. It’s a useful tool, but it is incomplete. Though we might be spiritually connected and virtually present to one another, and this connection might be remembered in disembodied ways, physical presence really matters. We are still the church whether gathered in the flesh or not, but our virtual gatherings, recognising our spiritual unity, are lacking. And I think can only be described as expressions of the visible church, rather than the invisible one if they are reflections of a body that gathers in the flesh. Physically.

Paul explores the ‘presence/absence’ paradigm in 2 Corinthians 10 (it’s also interesting that he often appeals, in writing, to people’s experience of him and his example in the flesh).

“His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” Such people should realise that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.”

2 Corinthians 10:10-11

Something of Paul is absent when he is not physically present; and it isn’t simply that he is not face to face with them; that they are lacking his non-verbal communications (though I think Paul would’ve loved video calls if they’d been around). It’s that physical presence is actually where life together happens. Life together in community as the body; not attending an event.

When Paul writes to “the church” in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:1) he describes his life among them, exercising the role of an apostle (you know, the types God gave the church in 1 Corinthians 12), and this makes it seem pretty difficult to justify the idea that the church is just the church when the whole body gathers for an event.

For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit.

1 Thessalonians 1:4-6

And then:

Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.

1 Thessalonians 2:8-10

Here he appeals to their experience of his example while physically present amongst them, and then he’ll go on to talk about how much he longs to be with them again, though that desire has been thwarted. He says:

But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 

1 Thessalonians 2:17-18

Would a video call in this moment have cut the mustard for Paul? Would a video call constitute in person, or hover somewhere between ‘in thought,’ ‘in writing’ and ‘in person’?

I don’t think we can argue that virtual presence is presence in a way meaningful enough to make virtual gatherings ‘church’ — but virtual gatherings can be an expression of a church community (not ‘church as an event’). I think this is part of what reveals the hollowness of the Knox-Robinson ecclesiology; if church is just an event then that event can happen online with a tangible, but different, sense of loss. If church is a community, then that community can stay in touch online, but like John and Paul, might see such measures as temporary impositions and expressions of community that prevent our physical gathering for a time but do not stop us being ‘church.’ Online church is not “church,” not because online church is only virtual, but because church is not an event, it’s a community of people who meet together as a discernible ‘body of Christ’ in a place and time, as an expression of the universal, spiritual, union of all believers to Jesus. Online church cannot replace physical church beyond this moment (or even act as a replacement for it any more than a letter replaces face to face embodied presence) because we are sent into the world, by Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, as those who gather physically in life together as an expression of the Gospel that has saved us; that God’s word became flesh and made its dwelling among us, so that we might dwell with him for eternity.

I do think there are implications for the importance of the physical on the question of how the Lord’s Supper might happen during this time. I think it’s clear that Paul uses the word ‘church’ to describe the universal church (to whom God gave apostles, teachers, etc), the local church that comes together as a whole in Corinth, and communities that meet in houses as a sort of household. I believe that the ‘whole church’ in Corinth was several, connected, house churches. I think the example in Acts 2 is of Christians meeting as households (physically) sharing in the physical reminders of the Gospel instituted by Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. Different traditions differ on the nature of the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. Most modern protestant evangelicals are functionally Zwinglian and so see the Lord’s Supper mostly as being about remembering the body and blood of Jesus, where a more traditional Reformed take sees Jesus as spiritually present in the physical elements of the sacrament, while the Catholic tradition has the elements actually physically become the body and blood of Jesus. The further you are on the spectrum of thinking that the physical elements matter, the less likely you are (I think, at least if you’re being consistent) to think the sacrament can function virtually. The more Zwinglian you are, the more flexible you are. I’m moving from a fairly Zwinglian position to a more Reformed one (partly in recognition that my Christian faith and practice has been thoroughly disenchanted by how wedded we are to the secular age mentality). I’m suspicious of technological solutions to ‘enchantment’ issues because I think technology actually serves to push us away from enchantment by replacing spiritual realities with human endeavour/our ability to pull the right levers of technique and technology. I think technology claims to make disconnected people present to one another, and like a letter, it kinda does, but I think at the same time technology does what philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘excarnation’ — it pulls us out of our bodies, out of the physical (enchanted) world, and in to the disembodied (virtual) world. And it doesn’t equip us to navigate the difference between virtual connection fostered by technology or a medium, and spiritual connection. It claims to make us present to one another while at the same time pushing us away from our own bodies (and bodily presence with one another). It’s a terrible analogy, but church via video is in some ways to church in the flesh what pornography is to sex, and what sex is to the consummation of the new creation (you can read my essay on Charles Taylor, enchantment, technology, and sexuality here).

One thing Paul calls the church to do as it gathers as the church and celebrates the Lord’s Supper is to ‘discern the body’ — I don’t believe we can do this virtually; I think it’s actually a task on physical presence with one another, as a community, in more than just the moment that one shares in the meal. And I believe he’s deliberately theologically polyvalent (rather than ambivalent) on his use of the word ‘body’ here, given the context. I think he’s talking about discerning the body of Christ in the bread being broken and in the people physically present to feast on it. Paul says:

“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.  Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.”

1 Corinthians 11:27-29

And then:

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

So where I land on the Lord’s Supper in this time is that we shouldn’t be doing it virtually where everyone rolls their own elements — BYO bread and wine — in part because I don’t think we can discern the body of Christ virtually; I think that’s centred on a physical expression of a spiritual reality. Like the elements; and like the church community. But then, because of the “priesthood of all believers,” households should ‘break bread’ together participating in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with one another. This is a position different to that of the Westminster Confession, though the Presbyterian Church of Australia has already amended its understanding of this bit because the exceptional circumstances of a world war meant ministers weren’t as available to oversee the administration of the sacrament). For an alternative version of why it might be ok to shift our practices around the Lord’s Supper from institutional to something else, this Twitter thread is pretty great. I think this moment simultaneously reveals the weakness of our ecclesiologies, and the weakness of a society that has flattened ‘households’ (those who live together) into biological, nuclear, families, and one of the best things churches could be doing right now is facilitating shared living arrangements to last this 6 month period.

I think, in this time, we functionally have a collection of house churches (households who meet together physically) within churches (communities that typically would meet together physically) within the universal church (those who will meet together for eternity) in this period. We can express any of these spiritual relationships virtually, but the virtual never truly replaces the physical (there’s another soapbox I could get on about how our approach to this present crisis reveals how Platonic we all actually are when it comes to diminishing the importance of the physical, but I think that critique is assumed in just about everything I’ve written already).

These are confusing times, and every church leader out there is making the best of this situation sometimes coherently based on ecclesiological or missiological principles, and the Spirit of this post isn’t to beat people up with correct theology, but, like my last one on disruption, to keep talking about what we’re doing at the level of principles. My favourite verse about an ecclesia in the whole Bible is this one (note: it’s not a church, it’s an event; a gathering of idol worshippers in Ephesus after the Gospel has disrupted their technological practices and worship, which is the opposite of technology disrupting the practices and worship produced by the Gospel), I just want us to be a little less like this group, and a little more like the throne room of heaven.

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.

Acts 19:32

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

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