Can a church function properly if the members are never gathered together?
The Christian Post article we’ve been examining assumes it can. The article highlights Oasis Church VR, which meets exclusively through Facebook’s metaverse as an alternative to physically gathering. Craig Groeschel’s Life.Church also recently opened an avenue for forming a metaverse “congregation.” Amazingly, neither of these groups requires that their members are ever gathered together—which redefines what it means to be a biblical church.
On top of that concern, separating the members of the church indefinitely fundamentally contradicts a common illustration the New Testament gives for the church: a human body.
Many Members, Many Gifts
In Romans 12:4–5, Paul writes, “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
His analogy here is not difficult to understand. Just as a human body has various parts that serve various functions, so does the church. This is why Paul immediately follows with, “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly” (v. 6).
Commenting on this passage, John MacArthur writes,
Paul now focuses specifically on the diverse uniqueness and importance of each member to the body’s proper performance. He points out the obvious truth that, although “we have many members in one body,” nevertheless “all the members do not have the same function.”
“Function” translates praxis, which has the basic meaning of a doing of something, that is, a deed. It later came to connote something that was ordinarily done or practiced, a normal “function.”
Spiritual gifts do not always correspond to what we commonly refer to as church offices—such as apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor-teacher, or deacon . . . . Most church members do not have a specific office or title. But every believer, from the youngest to the oldest and from the newest to the most mature, has a Spirit-given ability to minister to the body of Christ through some spiritual gift. It is the use of the gift that is his God-ordained “function” in the kingdom.
In the spiritual organism that is Christ’s church, every constituent part—whether obvious and important, such as the arm, or hidden and unnoticed, such as the small blood vessels and glands—is critical to its proper functioning as a whole. “So we, who are many,” Paul explains, “are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”John MacArthur, Romans 9–16, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 163–64.
Paul returns to this same image in 1 Corinthians 12:12–14: “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.”
Just as in Romans 12, here Paul uses the image of a human body to illustrate the different gifts given to each believer by Christ. He then expounds the importance of each individual member:
If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body. (1 Corinthians 12:15–20)
John MacArthur again explains the emphasis of this passage.
Paul reminds us that a body could not possibly function if it were all the same part. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?” Common sense should have told the Corinthians that, as a fellowship of believers, they could operate more effectively with members performing different ministries.John MacArthur, 1 Corinthians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), 315.
If that weren’t clear enough, Paul again uses the image of a body in Ephesians 4:15–16. He writes, “We are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”
Just as in the previous two examples, Paul employs the analogy of a body in order to highlight the importance of each individual Christian’s service to the church.
Once again John comments,
The “proper working of each individual part” recalls the importance of each believer’s gift (v. 7; cf. 1 Cor. 12:12–27). The growth of the church is not a result of clever methods but of every member of the Body fully using his spiritual gift in close contact with other believers. Christ is the source of the life and power and growth of the church, which He facilitates through each believer’s gifts and mutual ministry in “joints” touching other believers. The power in the church flows from the Lord through individual believers and relationships between believers.John MacArthur, Ephesians, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 161.
Paul’s point in these passages is unmistakable: Every Christian is gifted by God for service in the church. Peter agrees: “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10, emphasis added).
Amputating the Members
So what does this clear biblical teaching have to do with the meta-church?
The simple fact is that many spiritual gifts cannot be properly rendered from a distance. As we saw in the last post, human beings are not disembodied spirits. We are a unified body and soul. So our service to one another should not be relegated to some type of disembodied, virtual service. Can a genuine exercise of service, exhortation, giving, leading, or mercy be practiced at a distance (Romans 12:7–8)?
Yet even if some gifts can be used to serve the church from a distance, excluding just one believer’s gift from the body is a blatant rejection of Scripture’s teaching.
Paul is direct in 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
Yet when a congregation congregates only virtually, they are in effect saying, “I have no need of you,” to certain members of the body. This is a clear contradiction of 1 Corinthians 12:22–25.
On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
I think most Christians would readily agree that there are no unimportant members of Christ’s body. But by isolating the members and preventing them from serving the church, proponents of the “virtual church” imply that the body can be healthy even while it actively excludes certain members.
Maiming the Church
To separate the members of Christ’s body must necessarily have disastrous effects. First, the congregation loses the benefit of the amputated members. As we noted earlier, 1 Peter 4:10 says the gifts are for spiritual service to one another; likewise, 1 Corinthians 12:7 says they are given “for the common good.” So removing any member from the body deprives the whole body of that member’s service.
Theologian Thomas Schreiner writes, “If any member of the body thinks he or she can dispense with weaker members, they will soon find out they are radically mistaken. . . . Pride introduces serious weakness into the body, and such conceit in ourselves should be identified and put to death daily.”Thomas R. Schreiner, Spiritual Gifts: What They Are & Why They Matter (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2018), 42–43.
Any ecclesiology that functionally says, “I have no need of you,” to members of Christ’s body must be rejected outright.
Second, separating members of the body in any way severs the church from her head—remember, it is Christ who builds the church (Matthew 16:18). It is Christ who gives the gifts (Ephesians 4:11–12). It is Christ who gives ministries to the members (1 Corinthians 12:5). As the head of the church (Ephesians 4:15; 5:22; Colossians 1:18), it is Christ’s prerogative to distribute gifts to the members and to assemble them as He chooses. Therefore, when any man attempts to rearrange Christ’s body to fit his own sensibilities, he is usurping Christ’s position as Lord of the church.
For these two reasons, among others, we should firmly reject the notion that a church can remain healthy while her members remain separated. While virtual reality may be a useful tool in some respects, it is no replacement for Christ’s body “being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, [by which Christ] causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).