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The Visible Church

A Consecrated Gathering of Embodied Believers

By Lina Cole

There is no question on how technology has improved and increased reaching opportunities and comfort. Through technology, parents can video call their daughter who is studying in another country. Through technology, businesses can have meetings with high executives of other companies on the other side of the world. Through technology, the mom of five children can grocery shop from the comfort of her home. Through technology, the class of 2020 was able to graduate in the middle of a pandemic. Finally, through technology, Christians were able to stay connected with their church through a time of restrictions and lockdowns.

Although the online church is not a new concept, it was not until the year 2020 that an online platform was the only way most churches were able to “meet.”[1] The year 2020 brought restrictions to the church that hindered the in-person gatherings. The pandemic urged the church to adopt technology and get creative to allow their members to stay connected at some stent.[2] Churches used online platforms to share a message of hope as Christians struggled with fear and pain. Small groups opted to meet through Zoom. Pastors counseled and discipled through videocalls, and as people got sick or passed away, the only way to comfort them was through technology. However, as restrictions are being lifted and the church is able to meet in person, church leaders need to evaluate the effects of streaming church services and question whether this practice is misrepresenting God’s intended purpose of the church.

To this issue I argue that, although online church services serve as a means for believers to stay connected to their church during a time where physical attendance is restricted, the online church as a permanent choice distorts God’s intended purpose for the church as it is a misrepresentation of the biblical church and the bodily nature of human beings.

To develop this argument, I will expound on the biblical and historical definition and marks of the local church. Then, I will expound on the bodily nature of human beings as created in the image of God and created with a body and a soul. Also, I will illustrate how Jesus’s incarnation and his ministry emphasize the importance of community and his bodily nature. Finally, I will argue that the online church as a permanent choice affects the way Christians think of and engage with the church which leads to a misrepresentation of the biblical foundations of the church and the bodily nature of human beings.

The Biblical Church

There are two ways to define the church. There is the universal church and the local church. The universal church is the compilation of all the believers throughout the world and time that one day will be gathered by Christ to spend eternity with him.[3] Although this universal aspect of the church is essential to the doctrine of the church, this argument will focus on the particular aspect of the church, which is the local church. The Charleston Association defines the local church as “a company of saints incorporated by a special covenant into one distinct body, and meeting together in one place, for the enjoyment of fellowship with each other and with Christ their head, in all his institutions, to their mutual edification and the glory of God through the Spirit.”[4] The church is not a building, but rather a collection or a body of gathered people.[5] Throughout history, the church has always been characterized by the togetherness and fellowship of the people of God. Whether it is at a mountain, a tabernacle, a temple, a house, under a tree, or an underground place, the people of God have come together intentionally and obediently to worship the Lord with their lives and grow spiritually.[6]

In the Old and New Testament, there is an emphasis on how the people of God are to come together to worship the Lord. In the story of the Exodus, the Lord wants his people to come out of Egypt to worship and serve him together.[7] In Exodus 25 through 31, the Lord gives instructions to Moses on how to build a dwelling place for the Lord to abide in the midst of his people while they did not have the Promised Land. In 1 Kings 6, Solomon builds the Temple, and when they consecrate the place, the Temple is filled with the presence of the Lord. In both the Tabernacle and the Temple, the importance was not in the building but in the presence of God among his chosen people. The people of God gathered to offer sacrifices, bring tithes, and celebrate the festivals ordained by God. Through these accounts, the Lord emphasizes the importance of having a consecrated time for corporate worship. Moreover, the laws in Leviticus stress the need for the community to be pure and clean in which the practices at the Temple and the work of the Levites are crucial. Although some of the Old Testament Temple and worship practices are fulfilled in Christ in the New Testament, there is a continuity between Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament: both are the “visible people of God.”[8]

When Jesus died, the curtain that separated the dwelling place of God in the Temple was torn apart in the physical sense and in the spiritual sense. Because of Jesus’s interceding work, believers do not need a mediator anymore to approach God, and the presence of God is in each believer through his Spirit.[9] Ronald L. Giese Jr. explains three different ways to understand how God is present among his people. God’s presence everywhere is his omnipresence, God’s presence in each believer is the Holy Spirit, and God’s presence among his people is found in the local church.[10] These differentiations are crucial to understand the importance of the gathering of the church. The dwelling of the Holy Spirit in each believer does not negate the need to gather in corporate worship. On the contrary, the Holy Spirit is the one who makes possible the unity, fellowship, and sanctification of the believers.

The latter level of the presence of God is evidenced when Jesus says in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”[11] Moreover, in 1 Corinthians 3:16 and Ephesians 2:21-22, Paul tells the churches in Corinth and Ephesus that their gathering is the temple of God. Moreover, Acts 2:42-47 paints a picture of a physical community that is in constant fellowship with each other praising the Lord and sharing meals and their possessions with one another. Finally, Hebrews 10:25 emphasizes the command to meet together as it brings encouragement for the believer’s spiritual walk. These references are just a few examples of how the New Testament illustrates the church as the visible people of God. These churches set an example of fellowship and worship. Their corporate gathering was the Temple of God, and his presence was among their gathering in a distinct way. Therefore, it was no longer the place that was consecrated, but the visible and physical gathering of people of God.

The Church’s Marks

Being the visible people of God brings within visible marks. First, the church has been characterized by communal ordinances such as the baptism of believers and the Lord’s Supper. Following Jesus’s example and obeying his command in the Great Commission, believers are to be baptized as a public testimony of their faith in Jesus.[12] The ordinance of baptism is to be done by the immersion of the physical body into water.[13] Moreover, baptism is the invitation for the believer to join the church community and be a disciple of Christ. It is worth noting that a believer cannot baptize himself, and a community of witnesses is necessary for it to be a public proclamation of faith.

As for the Lord’s Supper, this command is found in Luke 22:19. Although Jesus does not explicitly say that this is an ordinance that needs to take place in community, the church follows the example of how Jesus did it, alongside his disciples. 1 Corinthians 11:24 and Acts 2:42 are examples of the first century church partaking in the Lord’s supper as a community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this ordinance when he states, “as the members of the congregation are united in body and blood at the table of the Lord so will they be together in eternity.”[14] By doing the Lord’s supper in community, the church foreshadows the Lord’s Supper they will have in heaven alongside Jesus. As Mark Dever refers to it, the Lord’s supper is a “regular rehearsal” of the heavenly celebration all Christians will have when the Kingdom of God comes.[15]

The second mark of the church is the use of the spiritual gifts to edify the body of Christ. During Pentecost in Acts 2, believers were given the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit gave them spiritual gifts. In 1 Corinthians 12 through 14, Paul explains what these gifts were and how they were to be used. As believers gather, they are to exercise the gifts given to them in the community of the church to aid the spiritual formation of the body.[16] Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 explains that the church is one body with many parts, and each part plays a crucial role in the wellbeing of the body. Whether they have the gift of exhortation, faith, healing, speaking in tongues, administration, evangelism, service, or hospitality, Christians should exercise their gifts in the setting of a unified body of the church.[17] Within that unified body, the members of the church fulfill the commandment to love one another. Evan Howard explains this fellowship as, “a deep and sincere sense of mutuality among members, many of whom are willing to offer others financial help, a listening ear, or a word of correction.”[18] Through the fellowship they have together and the spiritual gifts the Holy Spirit gives them, the church is able to show love to one another through service and strive to be in unity and peace as one body.[19]

Finally, the church as the bride of Christ is to be holy, and the community of believers aids the sanctification process. Proverbs 27:17 says, “iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” The image of iron sharpening iron is an image of constant physical interaction. When a group of believers come together in the same space, they bring with them all their attitudes, words, facial expressions, and actions that let each other see their Christian walk in a tangible way. As stated before, the spiritual gifts are one of the tools that God uses to sharpen his church. Through the teaching of the Word, exhortation, and discipling, the members of the church can grow in their sanctification. Throughout the New Testament, there is evidence of how the church is called to be a means to sanctification. In Galatians 5:20, Paul admonishes the church in Galatia to live out the fruits of the Spirit which are evidenced in a context of community. Moreover, in Ephesians 4:31-32, the church of Ephesus is encouraged to be kind and compassionate to one another leaving behind sinful attitudes and emotions. Finally, in Galatians 3:16 Paul encourages the church to admonish each other in wisdom through the activities of corporate worship.

By creating a habit of meeting together in community, the church members give way for spiritual formation to happen.[20] Carl Trueman emphasizes that community shapes the moral consciousness of individuals, and he argues that the church should thrive to be a real physical community that deals with real physical struggles.[21] As long as the church is here on earth, the members of the church will deal with sins that are either individual or communal sins that need addressing and correcting. Bonhoeffer says, “only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is giving to it.”[22] Only through fellowship, the church fully experiences their journey of sanctification and looks forward to their glorification. Therefore, meeting together is a habit that must not be neglected. The sanctification of the body is the importance of the command found in Hebrews10:25. The spiritual war against sin cannot be fought in isolation, but rather, it needs to be fought alongside a strong spiritual community.[23]

 

Humans as Embodied Beings Made for Community

The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.[24]

 

The First Baptist Church in Cali, Colombia was one of the leading churches in dealing with the COVID-19 restrictions by using technology to keep the church connected. One of the ministries that thrived at using technology was the youth group. They used any means available to keep the connection they had obtained through their habit of meeting together. Every Saturday through Zoom, they played games, worshipped, prayed, and heard God’s Word. However, after a while they were longing to meet in person. The church could not use any of its buildings to allow them to gather because of the restrictions. Nevertheless, one of the parents offered their house for them to meet in person. When they did, there were shouts of joy and tears. They had seen each other through zoom, but the joy to be physically with each other was overwhelming.[25]

The church from the beginning has sought to gather in person. Paul, through his letters, continually emphasized his longing to be with the congregation. There are people in today’s digital age that are risking their lives just for the sake of meeting in a place with fellow believers. There are testimonies of believers gathering in underground churches in China in the midst of persecution and believers gathering in Ukraine in the midst of war. But why? Why the commandment to not forsake the gathering? Why the longing for a community? Why the longing for a hug from a neighbor? Why risking one’s life for the sake of fellowship? The why is found in the creation account and in Jesus’s incarnation and ministry.

            Genesis 1:27 says that God created man in his own image, and part of that image is God’s trinitarian nature.[26] God in himself is a constant relationship. He is a community between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Their relationship defines perfect fellowship. Therefore, human beings as image bearers are made to long for community and fellowship. God said in Genesis 2:18 that it was not good for man to be alone. God not only gave Adam a companion, but also a way to create community. Gregg R. Allison explains this condition of the desire for community as “sociality.”[27] He argues that the triune God created the human race in his image with the duty of multiplying and filling the earth as they construct a society.[28] The outcome of this command is evidence in the genealogies throughout Scripture in the Pentateuch, the historical books, and the gospels.

            Furthermore, God made human beings as embodied souls. The connection between the body and the soul is seen in the way believers engage in worship through the physical gestures as responses to spiritual truths. Allison also speaks to this idea and argues that “God’s design for his people gathered to worship him is that we express bodily what is transpiring in our heart and mind.”[29] Through gestures such as bowing, prostrating, lifting hands, dancing, clapping, and so forth, worshippers are engaging their bodies to express devotion, praise, and thanksgiving to God.[30] Throughout Scripture, there is also an emphasis on the engagement of the body in holiness or wickedness because there is a constant war between giving one’s body to the flesh’s desires and giving it as an offering to the Lord. On the one hand, Paul speaks of the importance to present one’s body as a living sacrifice and as an instrument of righteousness.[31] The people of God are called to be a holy nation whose faith is seen through their actions and engagement in the community. On the other hand, Paul encourages Christians to leave behind their bodies ruled by sin so they are not instruments of wickedness. Therefore, the journey of sanctification is both a spiritual and physical process because one’s beliefs and thoughts influence one’s actions.[32]

            These aspects of community and embodied soul are also evident in Jesus Christ. First, Jesus’s ministry gave an importance to community. Jesus did not only preach to the crowds, but also built relationships, discipled his followers, had meals with them, prayed with and for them, exhorted them on their sins, and showed his power in their lives. The lives of his twelve apostles, Zacchaeus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, the Samaritan leper, the Samaritan woman, and others who Jesus healed and taught are evidence of Jesus’s engagement in community. Finally, the disciple John highlights the embodied soul nature of Jesus. In John 1, John describes how Jesus, the second person of the trinity, is the Word made flesh. There is an immense importance placed on the bodily nature of Jesus. It was by his physical and spiritual life of obedience that He earned righteousness for believers.[33] It was because of his human nature that He was the perfect substitute for the atonement of sins through the death of his body.[34] It was his resurrected body that defeated death.[35] Finally, it is in his resurrected body that He will come to gather his bride.[36]

The Consecrated Gathering of Embodied Believers

There is no doubt technology helped the church to stay connected when the government placed restrictions on gatherings and people’s lives were at stake because of a virus. Through technology, the church has been able to reach communities that are outside of their physical reach. Also, pastors have been able to cut down costs of gas, electricity, and the structure needed to keep a church building running. Through technology, the church has found new efficient ways to stay connected. Counseling, discipleship, and the preaching of the Word has been facilitated for those that are physically unable to go to church even before the pandemic. However, John Dyer notes that leaders have not taken time to think how the form the church is being presented shapes their message.[37] The online streaming has in fact changed the way people think about the church and their involvement within the community of believers.

            Christians have decreased the engagement of their body in worship. Church has become something they watch rather than engage. H. Wayne Johnson calls this phenomenon the “worship concert”[38] mentality, and Dyer calls it the “watching church mode.”[39] Church members are opting for watching a video of their local church or another popular church, thus becoming spectators rather than participators. Watching church through a device cannot replicate the engagement of all five senses a person experiences in the physical gathering.[40] All the engagement from gestures in worship to physical touch between members is diminished or nonexistent. Moreover, participating in church is more than just hearing the Word. The church is a community of believers that make the gospel visible through their actions and life together.[41] The church is also an embodiment of heaven where the members come together as one and wait for Christ’s return. Through their time on Earth, the members of the church are transformed as they have community with each other and encourage each other as they deal with real physical struggles.[42] Therefore, for a believer to be part of the church in the biblical sense, they need to be active participators rather than spectators.

Furthermore, online church members have stopped participating in the ordinances or have diminished the reverence that characterized them. The participation of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are crucial characteristics of and commandments for the church. The ordinances carry within a call for reverence as both represent the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and a testimony of belief in him. Watching church online limits the opportunities the members have to participate in either of these ordinances. As stated before, a believer cannot baptize himself and there needs to be an audience for it to be a public proclamation of faith. Some online churches have resulted to baptizing their members through avatars which completely misses the procedure of the baptism which is the immersion of the body into water.[43]

Moreover, church members have lost the habit of coming together in community to shape each other spiritually. As spectators, church members think of Christianity and sanctification as an inward experience rather than a communal reality.[44] The church’s community is an accountability family that wants and prays for the sanctification of their brothers and sisters. Gathering as one body allows for members to shape each other through their interactions and deep relationships. In addition, church members are limited in their opportunities to serve the body of the church and to encourage each other in love. Christians have stopped serving in the church and using their spiritual gifts because the engagement they have through the online platforms limits them in their interaction with the congregation. If the members are not musicians, teachers, or good at technology, the opportunities to serve are scarce.

Finally, through the online church, Christians have lost the sense of reverence and importance of meeting together to worship the Lord. Church has become something optional to do when it is convenient. The commandment in Hebrews 10:25 of not neglecting the gathering is being forgotten because church members are led to think that watching a video of the service is enough in order to be part of the church. In the book The State of the Online Church, online streaming is presented as a low-investment solution for church members and visitors.[45] However, David in 2 Samuel 24:24 sets the example of worship being a sacrificial act. He says, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing.” Through the online church, there is no longer a mindset of sacrificial worship. When the church gathers to worship the Lord, each individual member is sacrificing at least their time and money to be in the presence of the Lord among fellow believers. When the church gathers to worship the Lord, they are presenting their bodies as living sacrifices through their service to the Lord and to each other. When the church gathers to worship the Lord, they do so in reverence as they respond to the revelation of the holy and only God.

Conclusion

In a time of restriction of physical meeting, the resources of online platforms are the best solution for the church to stay connected nowadays. However, the use of online streaming does not fulfill the biblical purpose of the church and is affecting how church members engage to the point where they become spectators rather than participators. Church leaders need to teach a biblical view of ecclesiology, the bodily nature of the members, and the importance of gathering. The church is the consecrated visible people of God, coming together as embodied souls to worship the Lord, serve one another, and sanctify each other as they wait for the coming of Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer speaks of the physical gathering of believers as a blessing when he states,

“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive thus blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the Gospel in heathen lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing.”[46]

Coming together as the visible people of God was a blessing for the 1st century church, for the church in 1954 when Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, and it is still true for the church today.

 

ENDNOTES

[1]  The first online church was founded in 1985 by the Church of England. Then, in 1994 Charles Henderson, a presbyterian priest, founded “The First Church of Cyberspace.” After that, other churches opted for online campuses, and as broadcasting became more accessible, churches that met in person also streamed their services online. Tim Hutchings, “Creating Church Online: A Case-Study Approach to Religious Experience,” Studies in World Christianity 13, no. 3 (2007): 244-45.

[2] Russell Moore, “When Will Your Church Be Back to Normal?,” The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, 2022, https://erlc.com/resource-library/spotlight-articles/when-will-your-church-be-back-to-normal/.

[3] Mark Dever, “The Church,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 611.

[4] Mark Dever, “A Summary of Church Discipline,” in Polity (Washington: Center for Church Reform, 2001), 118.

[5] Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) 157.

[6] Evan B. Howard, A Guide to Christian Formation: How Scripture, Spirit, Community, and Mission Shape Our Souls (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2018), 158.

[7] See Exodus 7:16.

[8] Dever, “The Church,” 604.

[9] See Luke 23:44-46, Hebrews 7:27, and Acts 2:1-13.

[10] Ronald L. Giese Jr., “Is ‘Online Church’ Really Church?: The Church as God’s Temple,” Themelios 45, no. 2 (2020): 355.

[11] I have used the English Standard Version through the entirety of this paper.

[12] See Matthew 3:13-17 and Matthew 28:16-20.

[13] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 335.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York, NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954), 122.

[15] Dever, “The Church,” 621.

[16] Howard, A Guide to Christian Formation, 158. See 1 Corinthians 12:7.

[17] See 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30; Ephesians 4:11-12, and Romans 12:6-8.

[18] Howard, A Guide to Christian Formation, 158.

[19]  Paul continuedly admonish the church to live together in unity and not division, showing the love the have for one another. See 1 Corinthians 1:10, Philippians 2, Ephesians 4, Galatians 5:3, and Romans 15. In addition, Peter encourages the church to love one another in service in 1 Peter 4:8-9. Finally, Jesus Christ commanded believers to love one another and serve each other in John 13:34-35 and Mark 9:35.

[20] Scott Aniol, “Practice Makes Perfect: Corporate Worship and the Formation of Spiritual Virtue,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 10, no. 1 (2017): 97.

[21] Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020), 405.

[22] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 27.

[23] R. Albert Mohler, Christ-centered Exposition: Exalting Jesus in Hebrews (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2017), 158.

[24] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 19.

[25] Interview with Pastor Richard Rodriguez, interviewed by Lina Rodriguez, Online, March 31st, 2022.

[26] Interview with Dr. Chris Shirley, interviewed by Lina Rodriguez, Fort Worth, March 28th, 2022.

[27] Allison defines Sociality as “the universal human condition of desiring, expressing, and receiving human relationships.” Gregg R. Allison, Embodied: Living as Whole People in a Fractured World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2021), 66.

[28] Allison, Embodied, 67.

[29] Allison, Embodied, 151.

[30] See the following passages for examples of physical gestures in worship: 1 Samuel 24:7-8, 2 Samuel 6:14-17, Nehemiah 8:5-6, Psalm 28:1-2, Psalm 35:13-14, Psalm 47:1-2, Psalm 134:1-3, Psalm 141:1-2, Daniel 6:10-11, and 1 Timothy 2:8.

[31] See Romans 12:1-2 and Romans 6:11-14.

[32] Paul Akers Richardson, “Spiritual Formation in Corporate Worship,” Review & Expositor 96, no. 4 (1999): 519.

[33] See 2 Corinthians 5:2 and Romans 5:18-19.

[34] See Peter 1:18-19.

[35] See 1 Corinthians 15: 55-57.

[36] See Revelation 1:4-8.

[37] Jason Thacker, Jay Kim, John Dyer, and Julie Masson, “Technology Can’t Replace In-person Community,” The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, 2022, https://erlc.com/resource-library/spotlight-articles/technology-cant-replace-in-person-community/.

[38] H. Wayne Johnson, “Practicing Theology on a Sunday Morning: Corporate Worship as Spiritual Formation.” Trinity Journal 31, no. 1 (2010): 34.

[39] Dyer, “Technology Can’t Replace In-person Community.”

[40] Masson, “Technology Can’t Replace In-person Community.”

[41] Dever, “The Church,” 604.

[42] Kim, “Technology Can’t Replace In-person Community.”

[43] Giese, “Is ‘Online Church’ Really Church?,” 349.

[44] Johnson, “Practicing Theology on a Sunday Morning,” 29.

[45] Jay Kranda, State of the Online Church (Houston, TX: Vanderbloemen, 2019), 34.

[46] Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 18.

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Rodriguez, Richard. Personal Telephone Interview by Lina Rodriguez. Online, March 31st, 2022.

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Trueman, Carl. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020.