Learning the wrong lessons: virtual church and remote pastoring

What happens to church during lockdown?  There are essentially * answers to that question

  • Option 1: Physical gathering never mattered much, the spiritual was always what mattered and therefore virtual online church is great. It is at least the equal if not better than physical gathering in buildings.
  • Option 2: It is impossible to physically gather. Attempts to do things online by zoom and Facebook simply do not count as church. Therefore, we should not be attempting this at all. We should encourage believers to endure this time patiently as a form of fast.
  • Option 3: It is impossible to physically gather and zoom/facebook do not count as actual church gatherings. However, we can do our best to offer some things such as contact and teaching online.
  • Option 4: Using online methods is a long way from the ideal but we are constantly using technology to help us when we are not experiencing the ideal of church life.  Hearing voices and seeing faces may not be ideal but is a physical event.  What we are doing is finding a way to gather the church in a meaningful way during a testing time.

This debate is central to questions about whether or not we take communion at this time. 

I have settled on option 4 in my mind. My reasons are as follows

  • The command to draw near and gather together in Scripture has not been rescinded.  Churches have gathered down the centuries in the face of persecution and death. If we seriously believe that our online events do not count as gathering, then we should be making every best effort to gather.
  • The purpose of our gathering is to worship God corporately, to hear Scripture read and taught together and to encourage/build one another up as we express our unity together as the body. The need for those things to happen has not gone away. Further our experience is that those exact purposes are being met through our Zoom and Facebook facilitated gatherings.

I’ve written extensively on why I believe we should be sharing communion together and the purpose of this post is not to go through those arguments again. The key thing I wanted to highlight here was another example of how we can learn the wrong lessons during a crisis. In this case it isn’t about lessons learnt through observing events around us.  Rather it is about learning the wrong lessons from Scripture when we are desperate to find and justify solutions.

So, for those of us who want to show that what we are doing at the moment in continuing to serve churches through teaching, communion etc, I believe that there is a strong Biblical argument. However, in the panic, we need to be careful that we don’t latch onto anything. Here is one example.

The question is “can we pastor our churches remotely?” The answer is that we can because the apostle Paul did using the technology of his day “letter writing.”  The problem with this is that Paul was not pastoring churches. When he wrote letters to Timothy and Titus, he told them to ensure that there were elders (overseers, pastors) in each local church. When he wrote to the church in Ephesus, he was writing to a church with elders who in Acts 20:25-30 he charges with pastoral responsibility to both feed and guard the church under their care.

So, what is Paul doing? Paul is an Apostle. This means that he has seen the risen Lord Jesus and has been commissioned as a witness part of the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). In other words, his role is to reveal Scripture.  So, when Paul shares these letters, he is sharing Scripture.  In other words, each local church had in its position God’s Word through Paul’s letter writing. If Paul was in some sense remotely present with them through his letters, we might argue that he is remotely or virtually present with us but we do not look to him to pastor us!

We cannot use Paul in this way to prove that we can pastor remotely/virtually. However I don’t think we need to because we are not trying to find ways to do things at a distance, rather our aim is to be brought near to each other.

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