Iron sharpening iron
This post presumes the content of my earlier critique of the idea of an online Lord’s supper (see here) and my defence of the need for legal embodied gatherings (see here, especially the opening qualifications). My aim in all of these posts is not only to persuade but also to provoke to thought. It is one of the most disturbing features of evangelicalism that we think an argument has been closed because individual X has expressed an opinion, be he pastor or theologian. It is the kind of attitude that makes churches cultish and places leaders beyond criticism. I once sat in a marquee with hundreds of people and listened to a Q&A session at a big Christian conference in which all our questions were answered over an entire session by one man, despite the easy availability of other teachers at the same event. I found the experience deeply disturbing, not because I doubted his wisdom or learning or even his answers, but because of the entire presupposition of the exercise. Please don’t think I am getting above myself here by even entertaining such a role for my own blog posts. You would only need to approach the main entrance to London Seminary or to see the royalty cheques for my books to see that the Lord provides reminders of quite how small and obscure the corner of the kingdom is where I labour. He has even given Paul Levy more twitter followers than me (for now – I am coming for you Levy). But I do want to clarify at the start of another post that in my own mind the purpose of posts like these is as much to help pastors and elders to think through the theological issues surrounding gathering as it is to defend a particular position.
Is corporate worship worth the mental effort?
Along the way in this post I am going to be making some nice distinctions, so I want to say a word at the outset to those suspicious of them. If you feel at some point that I am getting a bit pedantic, even jesuitical, and that you cannot be bothered with all of these distinctions, then I challenge you to reflect on how committed you are to considering the content of corporate worship. I do deliberately intend to spend this much effort on pondering the details of corporate worship – it is not that I got carried away or am locked down with nothing better to do. The reason for spending time pondering the details of corporate worship is that it matters so much. One of my fears is that we spend so much effort on preaching but neglect the other elements of our gatherings so that they end up undermining the very things that we preach. Thus a sermon on the majesty of God is brought down by the ensuing triviality, or even has its balloon deliberately pricked for fear of things getting ‘too intense’. Or perhaps its effect is smothered by a service that communicates that God is dour and boring. People sometimes ask about the big threats to the church and I increasingly think that this is one of the major ones from within, driven by a lack of confidence in the proper elements of corporate worship or a wrongheaded desire to design services principally around the tastes of people who do not worship God or by being constitutionally so buttoned up that we cannot express joy. The gathering, even more than private worship, is the wellspring of the life of the people of God. Private worship is essential and without it corporate worship is a sham, but the engine of growth is found in the body gathered, as Paul makes clear in Ephesians: ‘Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work’ (4:15-16). If the body gathered is the body growing, then it is also the heart of our hope for a lost world. If the gathering is neglected or misconstrued then the church will malfunction in her mission. If we are serious about reaching the lost, we need to attend patiently to the details of corporate worship.
An important counter-point: legal gatherings are abnormal
Among the disagreements I have seen with my previous post there was one counter-argument posited separately by two friends that most struck me. They warned that in defending the currently legal form of gathering I am defending a kind of gathering that is itself sub-biblical. One commented that I would never have dreamt of defending such a gathering a year ago. This seems to me to be an excellent and important point worth pondering. It doesn’t make me think that churches should not gather, but it is a vital corrective for those of us who delight to be able to do so.
My friends arguing this have pointed out that we cannot have all the congregation present together (in some cases because of space, presumably in all cases because some do not wish to come or are shielding), we cannot see each other’s faces, we cannot talk to one another at length, we cannot pray together personally, we cannot sing together, and we cannot receive the Lord’s supper. These details are of course not fixed in stone because churches will differ in their practices even within the boundaries of the law. For example, some may think it right to administer a COVID-secure Lord’s supper following the government’s guidance on food and drink in worship, or to continue congregational singing against the very strong thrust of that guidance (the guidance on food and drink and singing is here). I am not here commenting on or commending these approaches; my point is simply that what is deemed possible for a gathering varies, so when some churches ask about the adequacy of a legal gathering they may have in mind something different from others, and more or less distant from the ideal. My aim here is not to argue for any particular set of activities in a gathering, it is to parse the different kinds of activity in the hope that this will be useful for those reflecting on whether to gather. For the sake of argument I will envisage a gathering where there is no corporate singing but there is the Lord’s supper.
‘Gathering’, ‘meeting’, and ‘viewing’
It is further important to note that it is not just the embodied gathering that may vary from case to case, it is also the various types of online activity. Following the argument of my previous post I will distinguish gathering from meeting, taking the former to denote an embodied service attended in person and the latter to denote an interactive online service. But we need a third term too, viewing, because many online services actually involve no meeting at all, even of a cyber-kind, because they are not synchronous. If I watch a pre-recorded upload or even a one-way live-streamed Zoom-to-YouTube service then I am not ‘meeting’ anyone. You may initially baulk at that statement but I think you are losing your grip on reality if you think that watching someone who cannot see or hear you is meeting them. No one in their right mind says they have met George Clooney because they have watched his films. Even if he made a film for you personally you would feel it necessary to admit to your amazed friends, ‘Of course I’ve never met him’. It makes sense to speak of a ‘meeting’ on Zoom if you are able to speak into it, but not if nearly everyone is on mute; I would class that too as a viewing. When we compare an embodied gathering to what are we comparing it? The online option must itself be parsed.
The argument expanded into theological or scientific territory
My friends’ argument that I wish to reflect on here may be dubbed an ‘Argument against gathering based on the inadequacy of legal gatherings’. I have seen it developed in two main forms:
Form 1: Permitted gatherings fall so far short of the ideal that they are inferior to what can be done online.
Form 2: Permitted gatherings are not sufficiently superior to online gatherings to merit the risk entailed by them.
It seems to me that Form 2 is harder to defend because it entails a pastor and elders making a scientific judgement of risk that goes beyond the judgement made by the government on the basis of its own expert scientific advice. A church closing its services on the basis of Form 2 has deemed itself or its alternative experts to be more expert than the experts. I know that my use of the word ‘expert’ will already have triggered some readers. You may be so suspicious of the experts that you default to thinking that they are wrong. I have some sympathy with such scepticism given how often experts are wrong and given how partisan some of them appear to be. But the difficulty for a pastor with taking a scientifically-based stand that goes against the experts is that he is not just doubting other experts, he is also placing his own judgement above theirs. It is one thing for me to be highly suspicious of the experts, it is another altogether for me to endue my own assessment of the scientific evidence with such a degree of authority that I am prepared to lead my church in taking a stand against them. In this argument right here and now the consequence of denying my own expertise is to follow the government’s rules and to gather, because they have deemed the risk entailed to be permissible. In another context I might on the same logic conclude that, even though I personally disagree with a government instruction not to gather and think it needless as far as I can tell, we should still obey it because to refuse to do so would be to over-estimate my own expertise. I am not saying that would necessarily be my view if gathering were banned (because there are other factors that would need to be considered, such as the even-handedness of the policy), but I would in all circumstances be very wary of placing too much confidence in the scientific assessment of a theologian with no qualifications in chemistry who fell at the first graph in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Thus, for what it is worth (given that I actually defend neither of them), it seems to me that Form 1 is more easily defended than Form 2 because it entails purely theological considerations in which pastors and elders have more expertise.
The stages parsed
With the difference between its two forms duly noted, I turn to distinguishing the different stages that have been noted along the way from a viewing to a meeting to a gathering. My aim is to set out some of the distinctions and to make initial comments on the significance and relative magnitude of each of the stages in the hope of helping those who are weighing up the value of the two types of meeting. Even if the vaccines work with astonishing alacrity and this post becomes practically irrelevant very soon, the exercise of pondering what we do when we gather is itself always fruitful for the corporate life of the people of God, and therefore, as I have argued, for the mission of the church. (And of course, there is always the next pandemic.)
1. The move from disembodied to embodied means according to some a shift from conversation between believers to minimal or no conversation.
Whereas there can be in-depth interaction in a Zoom meeting there can be almost none as people are ushered into and out of an embodied gathering and despatched quickly to their homes.
The lack of interaction for a church holding gatherings would be a major issue if it were true. If embodied gathering limited interaction to barely saying more than ‘Hello’ from several metres away then they would indeed impoverish our relationships and ultimately ruin the body. But this is surely not actually envisaged by anyone proposing gatherings. For the advocates of gatherings this is not a zero sum game: churches can gather and have online meetings. For example, on the morning of the Lord’s day there might be a series of gatherings. Then in the afternoon there could be online meetings or calls (with individuals or groups) for those who heard the sermon (in person or online) to discuss and pray through what they heard. Alternatively, such conversation could occur in midweek groups and pastoral phone calls. It is only the case against gatherings that is a zero sum game because it alone is an argument that we should not do something. Conversation online is not lost by embodied gathering.
The same reasoning would apply to a church that is viewing but not gathering. It might lack all interaction but it need not if it added meeting to viewing.
2. The move from disembodied to embodied means a shift from unmasked to masked attendance.
Under this heading it might even be possible to construct an argument for avoiding masking based on biblical texts about being ‘before the face of God’ or about beholding him ‘with an unveiled face’.
The problem with such an argument is that God sees right through our masks (not just metaphorically as we might be accustomed to say), and a medical mask is not a veil since the eyes – crucially identified by the Lord Jesus as the lamp of the body (Matt. 6:22) – are still seen above a mask.
Even if we were to grant some kind of theological criticism of masks, a viewing would not involve interacting with live unmasked images of the rest of the congregation. What about a meeting? A meeting would involve no gain in terms of seeing the preacher unmasked, since in an embodied gathering or a viewing the preacher would also be unmasked. Viewing would entail the loss of his embodied presence. Having members unmasked on a genuinely interactive meeting would be better. But as with the first stage, a church could always have unmasked interactive meetings as well as embodied gatherings with masks, so we do not have to choose. I find it hard to identify any loss in having masked gatherings in addition to unmasked online meetings rather than just the latter or just viewings.
3. The move from disembodied to embodied means a shift from singing to not singing (presuming for the sake of argument that a gathered church is not singing).
With the loss of singing it seems to me that we come to a much more serious issue, because singing in the gathering is explicitly commanded in Scripture: ‘Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts’ (Col. 3:16). Surely if we cannot do this we would be better off not gathering?
The difficulty with this argument is that viewing and even meeting also cannot fulfil this command, because the command is not just to sing but to sing to ‘one another’. A viewing does not involve mutual singing because it is one-way. A meeting is no better because unmuting all the mics results, at least in my experience, in a cacophony (and we have only been saying the grace together). The main online platforms being used by churches do not enable mutual singing to one another.
The difference is therefore between singing alone in one’s own household as we meet/view, or only being sung to if we gather. There is therefore a gain here in not meeting together because those at home viewing or meeting can still sing to the Lord. In a household of more than one person that gain is increased because there is a degree of intra- (but not inter-) household mutuality in the singing.
All options (other than gathering and not following the guidance) thus fall short of the ideal, but there is more loss in gathering without song than in remaining at home to sing.
Before leaving this stage, I cannot resist a prod at those that do not sing Psalms and yet are worried about not singing if they gather. (Is a prod gentler than a dig? It is meant to be.) Paul does not just command singing, he commands singing psalms. How can a church argue against gathering because it would involve not singing to one another when it has for years gathered each Lord’s day and disobeyed the command to sing Psalms? If we have found ourselves arguing the former it may be time to examine ourselves on the latter.
The Lord’s supper
4. The move from disembodied to embodied means a shift from no Lord’s supper to sharing the Lord’s supper (presuming for the sake of argument that a gathered church is celebrating the supper).
This, it seems to me, is a major benefit of gathering. The Lord’s supper is a commanded element of Christian worship. It is a visible, edible word of grace, an act of covenant renewal. Some, like Calvin, believe that it should be celebrated every Lord’s day. The physicality of the bread and wine signifies the physicality of the body and blood of Jesus. Sharing in the elements together signifies the oneness of the gathered body, made one by the Holy Spirit. When accompanied by faith, the breaking of bread is an act of fellowship strengthening our bond to the Lord Jesus and to one another (1 Corinthians 10:16). I find it hard to imagine an argument against this being a major factor in favour of gathering other than one that misses the need for physical togetherness in the supper and mistakenly thinks that it can be celebrated online (a position I critiqued here).
5. Most basically, the move from disembodied to embodied is just that, a move from a disembodied screen image to an embodied presence with one another.
The incarnation of God the Son secures the great significance of our embodied existence and therefore of our embodied gathering. Before he even thought a human thought or spoke a human word, God the Son existed in his own body in the womb of Mary. He came to share in flesh and blood as the beginning of his human existence, the condition for everything else that he did as man. He came to share in flesh and blood because the children he came to save share in flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14). He came to share in flesh and blood in order to die in his body on the tree, to be raised in it, and to carry the thread of our enfleshed existence to the heavenly sanctuary as the firstfruits of an everlasting embodied future. Beginning, middle, and end: embodiment was the prerequisite of Christ’s entire work in his humanity, it was the locus of his redeeming work, and it will be his continued state forever. Embodiment is therefore the stage prior to all other stages for us as we gather, the foundational stage. This is why the term used by the writer to the Hebrews for the ‘gathering’ (ἐπισυναγωγή) should be reserved for an embodied gathering and not extended to a meeting or viewing. The shift from disembodied to embodied is self-evidently the most basic contrast between people being together or being apart. Any fiancé physically separated from his beloved knows this, any prisoner allowed Purple Visits but no physical contact feels it. If we must draw the line anywhere (and the writer’s injunction requires that we must if we are to distinguish gathering from forsaking it) then it is surely here.
Part of my aim here has been to distinguish the different possibilities when churches gather, meet, or view, with the aim of aiding our analysis.
Beyond that, my weighing of the possibilities has suggested the following conclusions:
i) For both churches that view and churches that gather it is vital also to meet online for conversation and prayer.
ii) The members of a church that does not gather are more able to sing than the members of one that gathers and follows the guidance, but they are still not able to sing mutually between households.
iii) The advantages of gathering outweigh any theological loss for two reasons:
a) Embodied presence is foundational to our created and redeemed humanity. To gather is to gather physically before it is anything else, as Christ’s incarnation involved flesh and blood before he did anything else.
b) Embodied gathering enables the celebration of the Lord’s supper which is a means of the grace of God that we desperately need, especially in a time of trial.
Whether or not you agree with my weighing, I hope that there are some useful distinctions here within the category of what the people of God can (or cannot) do when they seek to worship God that will prosper your own conscientious consideration of the choices we face in the short-term, and that will aid your thinking about corporate worship in the long-term.