Why virtual fellowship is insufficient
Working toward a theology of embodiment
We live in a highly-technological age. And this advancement has brought with it many benefits and conveniences. One of these is the ability for us to see our friends and family on our devices from pretty much anywhere in the world with the click of a button. Many believed COVID would illustrate how important these virtual mediums would be. However, as physical fellowship has dwindled, people have been realizing the inadequacy of virtual interaction over the long haul.
But why is this the case? Why is it that virtual fellowship seems so insufficient? Well, the Bible has surprisingly much to say about this. Although not new, these realities are shedding new light on the doctrine of embodiment, an important part of the Biblical teaching regarding our very nature.
In the 2nd century, one of the first heresies that threatened the church was that of Gnosticism. By combining the Platonic principle of the “true self” that existed within the shell of our bodies with Christian teaching, some tried to argue that our spiritual nature was our “true nature” and our physical nature was a bad thing to be freed from. This led to the heretical belief that Christ was not fully human. The church strongly rejected this.
Although few modern Christians have even heard of Gnosticism, there is a clear tendency (with the coming of the technological age) to view our physical nature as less important than our spiritual nature. If you were to ask the everyday Christian, “What is more important, your body or your spirit?” most would probably say, “My spirit.” Unfortunately, the Bible makes no such claim and to do so is to fall into a subtle version of Gnosticism.
1. Our nature: a unified body and soul
In the Christian worldview (over and against naturalism) there is more to the universe than simply its physical matter. Human beings uniquely are endowed with a dichotomy: a body and a spirit. We have that which is physical and that which is spiritual, the material and the immaterial. These two aspects of our being are deeply united. In the Bible these aspects are variously termed, body and soul [e.g. Matt. 10:28], body and mind [e.g. Rom. 12:1-2], body and spirit [e.g. 1 Cor. 7:34; James 2:26], flesh and spirit [e.g. 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 7:1], flesh and heart [e.g., Rom. 2:28-29], and the outer man and inner man [e.g. 2 Cor. 4:16].
Both are affirmed as critical aspects of our nature. They are ontologically inseparable and neither are regarded as more important than the other. Even in passages where Biblical writers say things like, “while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:8), the intent is not to diminish the physical reality of our beings. Both the physical and the spiritual are a vital part of who we are. We are commanded to take care of the physical creation and our physical bodies.
2. The greatest miracle: the Incarnation
As C.S. Lewis rightly noted, “The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation…. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.” Even the miracle of the resurrection pales in comparison because billions will be resurrected in the age to come. In the grand scope of reality, it is not unthinkable that the God who breathed life into the dust to make man could bring Jesus back from the dead.
But there was only one moment in the timeline of the universe when the eternal God took on physicality. In the Incarnation, Jesus Christ became a sufficient substitute for mankind and truly became Emmanuel (God with us) because he shared our physical nature. The fullness of God came to dwell in a baby, born of a Jewish girl about 2,000 years ago (Col. 1:18-19). This is a profound truth that the infinite God would condescend to physical form out of love for those who were his enemies. It is this miracle that surpasses all the rest.
3. Our future: a physical reality
But Jesus did not become physical for a short period of time. His physical (though glorified) body remains and will remain forever. This is why he can be called the “Firstborn of the Dead” (Col. 1:18). This is why when he left the tomb on Easter Sunday, there was no body left behind. This is why he continued to bear the scars of the crucifixion and told Timothy to confirm that they were still there (John 20:24-29). This is why when he returns he will come bodily (Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4).
This is our hope as well. Because Christ rose from the dead physically and will return physically, we have assurance that we too will be resurrected physically (1 John 3:2; 1 Thess. 4). And although to “be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8), we know this is only a temporary state. Our eternal state will be with glorified physical bodies in a new heaven and new earth, a new physical earth (Rev. 21). We are made for an eternal physical existence.
Why this matters: we are made for embodied fellowship
The physical nature of who we are and what we are made for illustrates that we need physical, embodied fellowship. The very word used in the NT for the church (ekklesia) literally means, “gathering.” To be devoid of embodied fellowship is to open ourselves up to temptations of various kinds (Prov. 18:1). We need each other. We are physical beings created for physical fellowship. It is not good for us to be alone. We cannot carry out many of the commands of scripture, receive many of the corporate benefits in scripture, or fully display the purpose of the church in scripture without embodied fellowship. When we cannot be together physically, it matters.
Our response when embodied fellowship is absent
Many Christians and churches are trying to apply wisdom in our current situation with COVID and some are coming to vastly different conclusions. It is not my intent to provide a definitive answer. However, there is much that scripture can teach us about times when individuals were not able to experience embodied fellowship for a season.
Almost every time that Paul addresses churches that he is physically separated from because of persecution or imprisonment, he states that he is praying always and with passion that he can be physically reunited with them (Rom. 1:9; Phil. 1:4; 2 Tim. 1:3-4; 1 Thess. 3:10). Because of the reality of temptation and the pain of not being able to experience the joy and benefit of physical fellowship, we should pray constantly for God to allow us to see each other again.
Even when Paul knows that it is God’s will that was preventing him from experiencing physical fellowship, he “endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see [others] face to face” (1 Thess. 2:17). Understanding how important embodied fellowship is should drive us to do what we can to experience it. But we must do so with wisdom.
Many times individuals in scripture are led into seasons without physical fellowship. Many of the prophets had periods of preparation in isolation, including Jesus himself (Luke 4). Paul acknowledges in Romans 1:9 that it is God’s will that determines the ability to physically fellowship together. Sometimes, it was Satan that hindered him (1 Thess. 2:18). So, although we pray for it to end and we pursue physical fellowship, we must trust in our sovereign God who is ultimately in control. We never need to doubt his faithfulness in hard seasons.
We need embodied fellowship. We all know this inwardly. Anyone who has experienced a long-distance relationship or been apart from someone they dearly care about would never say that it makes little difference if they see them in person or over Zoom. When I spent two weeks in Malaysia, I FaceTimed with my wife and kids every night and even in doing so, I missed them terribly. I longed to hold them in my arms. This is because we are all made for embodied fellowship. So while we walk through seasons where it is hard to be physically with each other, let us pray fervently, pursue wisely, and trust patiently in our good God.