Ten Reasons Why Online Church is Not Real Church

Now is the time to insist that churches be re-opened. For everyone: vaccinated and unvaccinated.

With the harsh, prolonged lockdowns in Australia’s two most populous States, there has been much spruiking of “online church” over the last eighteen months. Churches in the city of Melbourne have been prohibited from physically meeting for some 50 weeks cumulatively—including 40 consecutive weeks between March and November 2020.  

While they have been unable to get together physically in any way, shape, or form, Christians have resorted to interacting via Zoom and Skype, and watching live or pre-recorded church “services” on platforms such as YouTube and Facebook.

“Virtual church” is again being endorsed in light of State Government plans to segregate Australian society on the basis of Covid vaccination status. The “fully vaccinated” will soon be able to re-enter real-life church, along with restaurants, shops, cinemas, gyms, hairdressers, camping grounds, galleries, and stadiums.

Some Christians are arguing that the exclusion of the not-fully-vaccinated from church is acceptable, in light of the fact that such people will still be able to “attend” church online, and online church is an adequate (if perhaps not ideal) substitute for real-life church.

These sentiments about “online church” could not be more wrong, and here are ten reasons why:

1. The Meaning of “Church”

The Biblical word for “church” is ekklesia, which means a physical assembly of people. The ancient ekklesia was a Parliament-like civic assembly of Greek citizens in Athens. “Online ekklesia” is thus an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, like “peaceful war” and “ordered chaos”.

Perhaps Christians are becoming comfortable with Orwellian uses of language because governments have been encouraging such things throughout the coronavirus pandemic:

2. Church in the Old Testament

The first ekklesia in the Bible was not on the Day of Pentecost. It was not in the upper room. It was more than a millennium earlier, in the wilderness of Sinai, when Israel (over half a million men plus women and children) physically assembled to receive the Law of God.

This is he that was in the church [ekklesia] in the wilderness with the angel that spake to him in the Mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received living oracles to give unto us (Acts 7:38).

Physical assembly of the people remained important throughout the Old Testament. All Israel were required to gather physically for worship at designated times in the year (Deuteronomy 16:16)—an onerous requirement when travel was mostly on foot. The most important of these events was of course Passover.

The people of Israel assembled at other great moments, such as at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8), and at times of national repentance and renewal (eg. 2 Kings 23; Ezra 10; Nehemiah 8-10). The inconvenience of bringing together well over a million people (cf. 2 Samuel 24:9) into one place cannot be understated. Yet it was considered a necessary part of relating correctly to God, and to one another as the people of God.

3. Church in the New Testament

From the very beginning, a hallmark of the New Testament church was its regular, physical gatherings to partake in “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

The epistles of the New Testament were written to churches, with the assumption of a regular physical assembly. For example, in 1 Corinthians 5:4, Paul instructs that the discipline of the sinner must occur “when you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus”.

When Paul rebukes the Corinthians’ corrupt practice of the Lord’s Supper, he is addressing the circumstances “when you come together as a church [ekklesia]” (1 Corinthians 11:17-20, 34). Paul’s later instructions about spiritual gifts and collection of money likewise pertain to the physically assembled church (1 Corinthians 14:26; 16:2).

4. Church is Physical Togetherness and Physical Contact

Even if you want to argue that information can be communicated via letter or email, church is not a mere transfer of information. Church requires physical contact with other believers. It is very significant that in Acts 2:42 the breaking of bread is included along with the other practices of the gathered church.

Because many Protestant Christians tend to have a low view of the sacraments, it can seem somewhat odd to them that Luke includes bread-breaking alongside teaching and prayer, but that is indeed what he does and it is important for us to grasp the theological significance of this (see also Acts 20:7; 27:35).

It is impossible to partake in the sacraments via Zoom. The whole point of partaking in the “one bread” which is broken and distributed is to underline our corporate unity (1 Corinthians 10:17). Having bread and wine at home while watching a screen is no more an authentic practice of Lord’s Supper than getting in a bathtub at home while watching a screen is an authentic baptism.[1]

The New Testament repeatedly references the practice of “laying on of hands” (e.g. Hebrews 6:2). Christians are repeatedly commanded to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (eg. 1 Corinthians 16:20). When a member of a church is sick, the New Testament speaks of elders “praying over” him and anointing him with oil (James 5:14).

Physical contact with other believers is integral to church life. The concept of “online church” does serious dishonour to the sacraments, and to all other references to physical contact in the New Testament.

5. Humans Are Flesh

The fact that church requires physical contact is not surprising if we remember that humans are physical beings with physical bodies. Adam was created from the dust of the Earth. Eve was created from Adam’s own flesh and bones (Genesis 2:23). Jesus, in order to save us, had to become incarnate in “flesh and blood” (Hebrew 2:14) and he was raised bodily from the dead, flesh and bones (Luke 24:39). The apostles were not convinced that Jesus had been raised until they touched him physically (John 20:27).

Without our physical bodies, we are not fully human. Disembodied human existence is not authentic human existence (2 Corinthians 5:1-4), and likewise, disembodied human relationships are not authentic human relationships.

In order for members of a church to relate properly to one another, we must be able see one another in the flesh. We must be able to look one another directly in the eye (cf. 2 John 1:12). We must be able to touch one another—to shake hands, kiss and embrace. Being the physical creatures that we are, prolonged separation from one another is a cause of grief (cf. Acts 20:37-38; 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18).

6. “Online Church” is Gnostic

Those who have been advocating for the adequacy and legitimacy of “online church” are in fact promulgating Gnostic theology. Gnosticism is one of the earliest (if not the earliest) Christian heresies, and throughout church history it has been one of the most reviled.

Gnosticism teaches that the physical world, including our physical bodies, is unimportant, and indeed worthless and corrupt. Gnostics seek to escape from physicality. They believe that we should pursue an existence as spirit-beings. Many sections of the New Testament were written in opposition to early forms of Gnostic thinking, including Colossians 2:18-23 and 1 Timothy 4:1-5.

The epistles of John are the parts of the New Testament that most directly counter early Gnosticism. Such was Gnostic hatred for physicality that they taught that Christ was a spirit-being who only temporarily inhabited the body of the man Jesus. Thus, John attacks those who deny that Christ had come in the flesh, denouncing them as Antichrist (1 John 4:2; 2 John 1:7).

The login name, the digital profile, the avatar of “online church” is equivalent to the spirit-being of Gnosticism. It is an entity that lacks flesh. It thinks and “talks”, but it does not eat, it does not feel pain, it does not walk, it does not touch. It is cold. It has no tears. It has no sweat. It is a stream of zeros and ones transmitted along cables and stored on magnetic disks.

Please understand this: if you are someone who would argue that “online church” is church, you have joined yourself doctrinally to the people who John labelled as “Antichrist”.

7. Church Is a Family

If there is anything that the New Testament teaches consistently, it is that church is a family. The church is “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). Timothy is instructed to encourage an older man in the church “as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters” (1 Timothy 5:1-2).

The practice of calling fellow believers “brothers” and “sisters” is a startling one, and it spans the entire New Testament. After 2000 years it has become second nature to us, but to do such a thing in the ancient world was so unusual that early Christians were accused of practising incest.

In the cruel lockdowns imposed in Australia, governments have at least had the decency to allow most nuclear families to continue living together in the same homes. I say “most” because there have been exceptions.

It would be unthinkable to expect husbands and wives, parents and children, to carry on their relationships for any significant length of time via YouTube and Zoom. If the church is truly a family as the Bible so persistently teaches, then it would likewise be unthinkable to expect brothers and sisters in Christ to carry on their relationships for any significant length of time via YouTube and Zoom.

8. Church Is a Body

It is not only individual human beings who are bodies. According to Scripture, churches themselves—local assemblies of believers—are bodies. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it”, writes Paul to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 12:27).

In a healthy body, the constituent members will serve and strengthen one another with their various gifts (Romans 12:4-8; Colossians 2:19). The members of the body also share deeply with each other in trials and joy: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).

Paul’s “incarnational” description of the church is not something to be sneezed at. It is simply impossible for the kind of intimate fellowship described in Scripture to be replicated via the NBN.

9. Church Discipline and Accountability Require Physical Presence

I will not dwell on this point, but a church that has relegated itself to online interactions cannot exercise proper discipline. Just as a father cannot meaningfully discipline his son via Facebook, a pastor cannot meaningfully discipline wayward members of his flock via the internet.

It is significant that New Testament texts which deal with discipline speak of the church being assembled physically, and rebellious members being physically banished from fellowship (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:4-5; 2 John 1:10).

It is far easier to commit sin when you do not need to front up regularly to your church leaders and other members of your church family who hold you accountable for your thoughts and behaviour.

10. Church History Firmly Rejects It

The final reason that “online church” is not real church is that church history rejects it. As this essay demonstrates, the church throughout its 2000 year history has given utmost priority to its regular, physical gatherings. The church has continued to gather under circumstances far more dangerous than the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21—both circumstances of persecution and circumstances of contagious plague.

It is true that the church has adapted its gatherings to mitigate risk in times of danger. No responsible Christian would advocate in favour of conducting meetings in ways that expose people to unnecessary risk.

Nevertheless, it must be underlined: the church in history has never so prioritised “safety” that it has neglected its duty to continue assembling for the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments for long durations. Months-long closures, as we are experiencing today, are thoroughly unprecedented.[2]

Conclusion: Churches Must Re-Open

I am disappointed that I have had to write this article. Every Christian leader who has been through seminary will be fully aware of the theology and Biblical teachings I’ve outlined. Prior to 2020, they would have taught these things in precisely the same way I have laid them out here.

Indeed, our Christian leaders still believe all of these truths—in theory. The only problem is that various pragmatic factors have caused them to falter in the application of these truths. Foremost among these pragmatic factors are:

1. Governments have disallowed churches from meeting, and therefore doing so would require acts of civil disobedience with potentially costly consequences.

2. Many Christians, both clergy and lay, sincerely perceive Covid to be a dire threat to physical health and safety.

3. Many Christians, both clergy and lay, are afraid of a hostile reaction from the secular public if they were to act contrary to official advice and re-open.

On the flip side, the enormously positive reaction to the Ezekiel Declaration indicates that there is a massive groundswell of “grassroots” opposition to the prolonged closure of churches in 2021. While the Ezekiel Declaration is concerned primarily with the monumental social evil of Vaccine Passports, based on the fact that the declaration also condemns the prolonged, harsh lockdowns of society we can infer that most of the 25,000 people who have signed it would be strongly in favour of churches re-opening.

In addition, we can confidently say that in September 2021, every older and medically vulnerable Australian has had an opportunity to obtain a Covid vaccine, thereby relieving their anxieties about the risks posed by infection with Covid.

I would contend therefore that now is the time for Christians to call on their leaders, loudly, to heed the words of Scripture, and to put into practice what we believe about what it means to be the Church, the ekklesia, of Jesus Christ.

Now is the time to insist that churches be re-opened. For everyone: vaccinated and unvaccinated.

If you believe that church should re-open, please sign The Moses Statement today!

[1] There are of course extreme situations where the church resorts to “uber eats” communion, such as when a member of a church is very ill and unable to move from their bed. It should be noted that when this practice occurs, pastors usually endeavour to bring bread to the communicant which has been broken off the “one loaf” (and, depending on denominational theology, appropriately “consecrated”).

[2] Based on information available to me, churches in some American cities suspended their services for a period of approximately one month between October and November of 1918, during the Spanish Flu.

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