There’s been a fierce debate going on about whether or not our current church gatherings using social media platforms actually are gatherings. For those who think we are not gathering, one of the primary concerns is that our gatherings should be “physical” or “embodied” because if not this may encourage a form of gnostic thinking that prioritises the spiritual over the physical.
Gnosticism has become the card of choice to play in Christian debates. It is the lurking fear of modern day Evangelicalism. The word describes a type of heresy that emerged in the early church. Here are some of its features
- A belief that the true divine entity was spirit, was distant and was unknowable
- A belief that spirit was good and that matter was evil
- A belief following on from this that the creation of the world was accidental and not intended by God.
- A belief that our primary need is to escape from physical matter and be reunited with the divine spirit. This is achieved through the discovery of special, secret knowledge (Gnosis).
At this point, we can see that Gnosticism is not so much a one off heresy but rather, the alternative worldview to worship and trust in the true and living God. Whilst Yahweh is the transcendent creator and ruler of all creation, he is also near or imminent. He intentionally created the world and it is good. Salvation therefore is from sin not from matter and further will lead to bodily resurrection not a loss of personal identity. So, getting this right matters.
However, I want to suggest that we can be over-quick to play the card sometimes and find Gnosticism lurking everywhere, perhaps along with the reds under the bed. Now, of course someone does not have to believe the whole system in order to take on an idea informed by Gnostic thinking and it is important for our thinking to be challenged. However, it is important to remember that Gnostic ideas are rooted in a way at looking at the world, us, God and the future. If that way of thinking is not there, I would suggest that we have not accidentally started believing Gnostic ideas.
The discussion about coronavirus, church and lockdown is a good example of this. I have read comments by people who have suggested that online church is fine because the body does not matter and it is spirit that counts. This view suggests that we should really have been doing this much more before lockdown and continue afterwards. I can understand some of the motivations here, usually it is a concern to see people isolated due to disability cared for. However, my view is that whilst we maybe should be looking at doing more stuff to reach people who can’t get to church services, we cannot ignore the physical aspect of meeting when looking to care for people pastorally.
However, what most people are saying (including many who have been long concerned about ministry to the isolated) is something different. We are not saying that the physical aspects of gathering don’t matter. We are saying that they do. That is exactly why we don’t think that sitting alone at home with your Bible and feeling a sense of spiritual connection with the wider church is okay. We have to do something to gather.
The question then is not whether non-physical (spiritual) gatherings are okay or not but whether what we do counts as physical. I have argued strongly that they do. The reason for this is that what we use technology to do is not to create a virtual alternative reality but to project communication so that people can see and hear us physically. Seeing and hearing are central to what it means to be a physical, embodied person.
Now, some people have then gone on to suggest a distinction between “physical” and “embodied.” Online church may, they argue, be a physical event but it is not embodied. Trying to understand what this meant, I did two things. First of all I asked my wife, an English teacher what the difference was and she looked at me like I had just asked her why there were little green men in the garde. Then I looked up “embodied” in the dictionary. So, here it is from the Oxford English Dictionary. To embody is to:
“give a tangible or visible form to…”
But, we knew that already didn’t we. If you were to hear my voice coming from nowhere with no visible sign of how that is happening, you would refer to that as “a disembodied voice,” So, what are we doing on our zoom and skype calls? Well we are showing a commitment to embodiment so that people not only read or hear some words but that words and actions are embodied both within the people speaking and hearing, and within the church family as part of the body of Christ.
This is important because, the thinking that underpins a desire to use technology to meet comes not from a Gnostic worldview but from the opposite. Why do we arrange zoom gatherings?
- We arrange them because we appreciate the importance of physical/embodied gathering
- We believe that the call to gather is essential to church life and we cannot sit back and rely on some disembodied spiritual connection for a few months.
- We believe it is possible and necessary because we have a loving God who draws near to us, is present in our gatherings and enables us to draw near to one another despite all the obstacles.
I know there is a concern that provision of church gatherings in this format will encourage people to believe that gathering in one place is no longer necessary or even desirable. If we can stay home and join a zoom communion during coronavirus then why not all the time. I want to suggest that the opposite is true. If we say “Head off and don’t worry about church gathering, sharing communion etc..” for the next three months, it is then that people are going to think “Ah it isn’t that important. Why not take another three months off.” Rather, it is those who have been so keen to find ways to gather, have meaningful fellowship and share the Lord’s Supper together who are going to be hungering for a return to gathering in one place.
I could be wrong on that but not because I am slipping into Gnosticism.