Let’s Relax: Online “Church” Is not Church

Online churchThe COVID-19 shock-wave that turned the United States upside down knocked more than one pastor out of his pulpit. With the help of Facebook Live, Youtube, and lesser known platforms, ministers have begun to regain their footing, launching online services. As pastors have started “going live” they have also begun to criticize their sheep who fail to watch their the latest sermon or who watch that sermon irreverently. Pastors who a few weeks ago challenged the legitimacy of the Facebook users’ faith are now employing Facebook to question the faith of those who do not use Facebook enough.

Irony aside, the pastors’ complaint raise a foundational question: What is a church? Is the online service truly a church service? Do those members who fail to watch their pastor online break the commandment of Hebrews 10:25 and forsake the assembling of the church?

What is a Church?

A quick overview of the New Testament reveals that online church services cannot be equated with the typically weekly gathering of the church. Though the definition of the church can be expanded to cover pages as Dr. Greg Allison has done, it can also be reduced to two basic elements: the right preaching of the Word, and the proper administration of the sacraments. For a group of people to rightfully claim to be a church, they must meet regularly to preach the gospel, to administer the Lord’s table, and to perform baptisms.

Can people meaningfully do these things when they are not physically meeting together?

The Scriptures say no. When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he expected them to meet together as an assembled group of believers. He encouraged “the assembled” church to practice discipline, to rightly administer the Lord’s table, and to correctly employ tongues and biblical teaching (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 1 Cor. 11:18; 1 Cor. 14:23). The phrase, “When you are assembled” was the lens through which Paul shaped the church. When Christ spoke of the church, he too defined it as consisting of two to three people who physically gathered together to worship and to practice church discipline (Matt 16;18).

To borrow Jonathan Leeman’s terminology, the church is similar to a soccer team . The members of the team identify themselves when they play soccer together. Even when the teammates go home, buy groceries, and fly on airplanes, the members of the team can still be called “the team.”

In same way, the church is the church because it physically assembles together to hear the word preached, to eat the Lord’s Supper, and to baptize new converts. The church does not cease being the church between Monday and Saturday. Nor does a church’s inability to meet during the Coronavirus imply that the church has ceased being the church. But she has stopped meeting. Zoom meetings, phone calls, and live-streamed services are not the same thing as the game. The unassembled members can’t hear the whole church proclaim the gospel through prayer, song, and giving. They can’t pass the bread and the cup. They can’t dunk new believers in the baptistry.  They can’t hug one another and take each other out to lunch. Like Leeman, I too, “have a hard time envisioning an assembly that doesn’t assemble.” To worship, to play the game, the church, the team, must physically meet together.

What About Spiritual Presence?

Some pastors object to the exclusivity of physical assemblies, noting that 1 Corinthians 5:3 and Colossians 2:5 describe Paul as being spiritual present with distant churches. This spiritual connection between people hundreds of miles apart appears to negate the necessity of physical church meetings.

But when pastors place these texts in their biblical contexts, they will discover that Paul’s expression cannot be used to justify the live-streaming trend. Paul speaks of a spiritual presence precisely because he could not be physically present with the churches in question. Yet, he still connects with these assemblies spiritually because he knows they are possessed by the Holy Spirit that possesses him. Thus, he is confident that the churches he cannot physically attend will share his conclusions because all parties are lead by the same God. In much the same way a Brazilian church would expect a Bible believing Chinese church to condemn pornography or to pray in “Jesus’s name,” Paul expects the readers of his letters to live out the Christian the faith as he was doing. All Christians are spiritually connected by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.

Some pastors object to the above interpretation. As John Gill and Chrysostom, they argue that Paul was spiritually observing the congregations at Corinth and Colossia. But this view still cannot prove that YouTube is the equivalent of the physically assembled church. In Gill and Chrysotom’s view, Paul supernaturally saw the churches through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul went to the churches in much the same way that Ebeneezer Scrooge traveled to the shadowy visions of Christmas past, present, and future, seeing things no normal person can see. Even pastors backed by professional media teams cannot accomplish this supernatural feat and be present as Paul was present with these ancient congregations. For all its grandeur, live streamed services fall short of prophetic, real time visions. 

In short, Pastors today can only be spiritually present with their congregation when both the pastor and the congregation assent to teaching of the Bible, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This connection can occur and be furthered when the church is assembled together and when it is scattered. It can transpire when the pastor is online and when the pastor is offline.

So Are Online Service Bad?

No, they are beneficial. Online services and activities should be an encouragement to our souls. Throughout church history, Christians have encouraged one another with letters built around scriptural instruction, admonishment, and encouragement. Christians still enjoy and cherish gospel letters.

In a similar manner, live streaming platforms allow pastors to send meaningful notes to their entire church team and family. Just as a man enjoys Skyping with his wife and kids while on a work trip, pastors have a great rational for wanting to be in the living rooms of their church members during times of separation. And church members have every reason to want to hear from their spiritual fathers.  The family of God should love to communicate while they wait for the next face to face interaction. Live streaming blesses family relationships, allowing the team to stay in communication while apart.

In my experience, a word of encouragement from one’s spiritual father caries far more weight than a message of truth from a famous uncle or cousin whose lives thousands of miles away. But if a team member finds the online ministry of Pastor Joe in Oregon or Pastor Steve in New York to be more encouraging than my church’s online ministry, praise God for the ministry of other gospel centered pastors.

Online streaming has proven to be a phenomenal tool on the pastoral tool belt. Pastors and church members can embrace it with enthusiasm, sending and receiving digital messages.

Is It a Sin Not to Attend “Online Church?”

And now we return to the question which started our discussion: Do people sin when they neglect the church’s online service?

No, Christians have not sinned when they failed to watch Pastor Bob’s latest sermon or when they caught the last ten minutes of his sermon in their pajamas. Though Pastor Bob may have been at the church building, the church was not assembled. Moreover, some saints lack the technology to keep pace with their pastors digital evolution. Other members encounter a host of environmental struggles such as power outages, screaming children, and defective technology that keep them from watching. Though these members fail to watch online, their heart motives remain pure. Pastors who criticize their sheep for not watching their online services or for watching their online services “incorrectly” go beyond the bounds of Scripture. Like the pharisees of old, these pastors turn blessings into burdens. These pastoral rebukes bear a striking resemblance to the actions of a crazy uncle who complains about his nephew because the nephew did not regard the uncle’s birthday card highly enough. Instead of criticizing their spiritual children for not liking them more, pastors should examine their hearts to see how well they have loved their congregation. The pastor who loves people well will have no difficulty finding his people online.

Let’s relax, embrace the technology, and remember that our online services are not church services. Are you ready to relax?

Your Church Needs Elders!

EldersThe church stands as a beacon of hope in this crazy fallen world. Believers are able to survive the trials and storms of life by depending upon the Holy Spirit who nurtures and sustains their souls through the faithful local church which preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

God cares very much about the leadership of his church. He does not entrust the local church to someone who may have a penchant for leadership, a lust for authority, or a heart for novelty.

He entrusts the church to elders. Elders are also called pastors or overseers and bishops in the Bible. Though Biblical writes use three terms to describe the office, all three terms refer to one office, the office of elder or pastor.

bible-2110439_1920.jpgIn 1 Peter 5:1, Peter addresses the elders in the church. He does not address the elder but the elders, plural. God designed his church to be ruled by a plurality of men. A quick survey of Acts and the Pauline letters supports Peter’s assumption. Acts 14:23 says, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” Acts 20:17 states,  “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” In 1,2 Timothy and in Titus, Paul tells his sons in the faith to, “put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” And in Philippians 1:1, Paul writes to, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” The local church should be led by elders and served by deacons (Acts 6).

The traditional Baptist model of one pastor leading a church surrounded by a group of deacons may be necessary because the church is new or in a state of ill health. But, the Bible calls for the local church to have multiple elders. The church should be led by multiple godly men who fulfill the requirements of Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. The presence of multiple pastors protects the church from being destroyed by the sudden impulses of one man and from being dominated by one’s man ideas.

What Do Elders Do?

Peter commands elders to shepherd the flock of God that is among them, by exercising oversight. Peter’s idea of elders and pastors who shepherd is not unique to him.  In John 21:16, Jesus commands Peter to “Tend my sheep.” Peter is commissioned by Christ to shepherd or tend the sheep of God. The elder the pastor is to care for the spiritual needs of the people of God. The elder is called first and foremost to be a preacher. The words of Paul found in Colossians 1:28 should be true of all elders,

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.

Elders have been appointed by Christ to care for the souls of their congregation by teaching them and warning them so that they may flee from sin, grow in their faith and find hope in Christ as the adversities of life crash into their lives like ocean waves pounding the beach. The elders tend the sheep through preaching. Yes, they also exercise oversight and provide direction for the sheep, translating the gospel into real actions that benefit the sheep. But the elders are under-shepherds who have been charged by God to tend the sheep through the ministry of the Word (1 Tim 4:16).

 How Do Elders Shepherd?

First, elders shepherd “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (1 Peter 5:2). The elders do not have to be forced into the ministry like a Dad who took little league coaching because all the other parents twisted his arm. The elders are also not those who serve simply because no one else will serve. They do not serve because they seek to impress their wives, in-laws, or mentors. The pastors who have been called to pastor do not have to be pushed into the ministry.

No, the good elders are the elders who serve  willingly. The me who are qualified to pastor should already have a heart for people. They should not see counseling, evangelism, and teaching as burdens that have to be done, like some divine honey-do-list. No, the elders should be those who jump at the chance to counsel, share the gospel, and preach. They should be those who seeks to willing serve others.

Second, elders shepherd, “not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2)!  The pastors should not shepherd for dishonest gain. Many men are attracted to the pastorate because they see some of the nominal perks of ministry. They see that the pastor is respected by some men and women. They see people care about the pastor’s opinion. They see that the pastor gets a nice gift for his tenth anniversary. And they say to themselves, “I like that.” I like being noticed and being well thought off. I like getting gifts. I would like having a nice office. I would like having nice things and the occasional conference trip. Brothers do not go into pastor ministry for what you can get.

Rather go into the pastorate because you can do nothing else. Go into it because you heart beats for one thing and that is to see the kingdom go forward by the preaching of the word. Romans 1:15. He says,

So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

The pastors preach because they cannot help but preach. Title or no title, office or no office, pulpit or no pulpit, the elders will preach and teach. John Bunyan, the man who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress, was a shining example of this truth. When his judges offered to drop the charges against Bunyan if he would promise to stop preaching, Bunyan responded,

If I were out of prison to-day, I would preach the Gospel again to-morrow, by the help of God.

Pastors should tend the sheep because they can do nothing else.

Lastly, pastors are called to shepherd, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). Pastors are not called to domineer their flock. The word domineer is the same word used in Acts 19:16 when Luke describes the demon possessed man attacking the sons of the high priest Sceva. Luke writes, “16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered (domineered) all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.” Brothers, let’s not strip our people of their ideas. Lets not suppress their ingenuity and gospel gifts. Let’s not rule our church as a religious despot, manipulating the church structure to make sure our ideas always win out.  As Christ said in Matthew 20:25-28,

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant. and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The pastors are called not to domineer but to serve. They lead people to the truths of the gospel by serving them. advance the gospel by leading his family well, by visiting people in the hospital, by taking time to counsel with his congregation. The faithful elders lead by service.

And they serve willingly because they know their reward is secure. Their reward is not dependent upon the opinions of the old ladies, or of the choir members, or of the deacons. They are rewarded by God. Thus, the pastors willingly, eagerly, and sacrificially press on because God will give them, “the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).

How about your church? Do you have elders? If not, Why not? And if you do have elders, are they shepherding well?

Hope For Lonely Christians

Pastors-lonelyWe are a lonely bunch. Only slightly more than 1 in 4 Americans (27%) have a close group of friends according to a recent UCLA study. And less than 1 in 4 Americans (24%) believe that have close relationships they desire. The loneliness epidemic pervades Bible believing churches as well. We  often feel detached from the person down sitting just a few inches down the pew from us.

And we cannot blame Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook for our lack of social interaction. Those who like to tweet and post as if the just release their first blockbuster film feel just as connected as those who thrown away their smartphones and unplugged their T.V.’s. According to the UCLA study, the main predictor of loneliness is time spent with people.

This axiom however does not tell us who to hang out with. Who should we spend our time with? With whom should we entrust our secrets, hopes, and odd sense of humor to?

The apostle Paul enters into this discussion at the end of 2 Timothy. As he concludes his letter to his beloved son in the faith, Paul discusses relationships. He encourages Timothy and the readers of 2 Timothy, to avoid those who deny the gospel, to graciously entrust themselves to those who love the Jesus, and to fully depend upon God.

Do Not Trust Those Who Reject the Faith

Paul warns Timothy about Demas and Alexander the coopersmith. Demas who once labored side-by-side with Paul and who appears in Colossians at a trusted friend abandon’s Paul to pursue the world. Demas counted the cost and deemed the world’s trinkets of sex, fame, fortune, and respect to be better than the God of the universe. Alexander directly and forcefully opposed Paul’s gospel doing great harm to Paul. Paul warns Timothy to watch out for both men.

We should make friends, but we should not entrust ourselves to those who openly reject the gospel. We should not try to win men and women who missed that past 6 years of Sunday services back to our church by offering them leadership roles on the coffee team or on the deacon board. Rather, we should warn our church members to not entrust themselves to those who love sex, gossip, money, and prestige more than the gospel. We should warn our teenagers not to go to the parties and to form close relationships with those who brazenly deny the gospel by boasting of their sins. And we must be cautious when seeking to partner with other churches. The presence of the word ‘church’ on a sign or the symbol of a cross on a steeple does not make an organization a godly church. If a church denies the virgin birth, if a church denies the miracles of Jesus, and if a church proclaims that there is more than one road to heaven, they have denied the gospel. We should not partner with such people. We should avoid them and warn other Christians about those who deny Christ. We should not entrust ourselves to those who despise the gospel.


Graciously Trust Those Who Love Jesus

The Christian should trust other men and women who love the Lord. Paul found great comfort in godly relationships. He wrote in 2 Corinthians 7:6:

But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the arrival of Titus.

We maybe struggling today, we may feel alone tomorrow, and we may be on the brink of despair because we have not fostered relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we must entrust our souls to them.

We were not made to live alone but in relationships with others. We are designed to fill up our brother’s or sister’s lack of faith. Conversely, they are made to fill up our lack of faith. Paul needs Timothy. He encourages Timothy to come to him quickly at the end of 2 Timothy. Paul needs help and Timothy can help him by bringing the scrolls, the cloak, and the parchment. Seemingly Paul needs supplies to keep doing ministry in prison. And he needs Timothy’s help. Brothers and sisters, depending upon others in the faith is not a display of weakness. It is a display of God honoring trust. We needs our Christian family. And they need us.

But we must not expect our brothers and sisters to be God. They will fail us and disappoint us. If you remember the story of John Mark mentioned in 2 Timothy 2:11, you know Mark had a less than stellar start to his ministry. He left Paul’s and Barnabas’s missionary journey earlier. And when it came time for the next trip, Paul refused to work with Mark. Yet at the end of his life, Paul is calling for Mark and declaring him to be useful. Paul is modeling forgiveness. Brothers and sisters we must entrust ourselves to other believer, but we must do so realizing they will fail. And we know this because we know that we will fail. We should entrust ourselves to other believers with hearts full of grace.


Entrust Yourself to the Lord

And Paul sees this playing out again during his last trial. He writes:

At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.  – 2 Timothy 4:16-17

Christians failed Paul. We will fail each other, but we can keep on going. We can forgive and repair relationships, because God never fails. He stands by us. He is there even when our friends don’t pick up the phone. He is there even when our pastor fails to take our concern as seriously as we take our concern. God is there. Because God is there, we base our life on him. And when people fail us, we can forgive them because God never fails us. God will save us. Though we might be at the point of death, God will save us. More importantly, God will keep us. Regardless of how lonely we feel, regardless how many people leave us, and regardless of how sick we become, God will never leave us. He will save us from the jaws of destruction. Nothing can separate you from his love and from his eternal salvation. He conquers all, including death!  Place you trust in Christ.


Lonely? Who are you trusting?