Ecclesiological Gnosticism & The Importance of "Place" In Christian Worship & Discipleship
How often have you heard the phrase “Church is not the building”? It’s a true statement and one that resonates with many of us, but I wonder if it subtly communicates that perhaps place doesn’t really matter all that much in the life of a Christian.
When the pandemic began (or at least our acute awareness of it) around mid-March 2020, many churches decided to temporarily pause services in order to cooperate with government officials in slowing the spread. That was absolutely the right call, but as restrictions have wore on from days, to weeks, to months, and even now approaching a year, many churches have been “streaming” their services online. Even one of the most rural churches I know—which is so small they don’t have any speakers in the sanctuary—has found a way to prop up an i-phone and have their services available through Facebook live. In the early months of the pandemic, it didn’t take long until a new cottage industry was born, with a whole host of organizations filling pastors’ Facebook feeds, all promising to help them do a better job at producing polished online services. Pastors began to learn how to interpret “online engagement” data and many of us have learned how to host Zoom meetings for a variety of ministerial purposes. Of course, all of this was always seen as a temporary solution until we could gather again when “normal” finally resumed. Then it happened… By late Spring 2020, many church growth gurus began to hold the torch, boldly claiming a new way forward for the church, even after the pandemic has finally been allocated to the pages of history. As a representative example, one very influential “expert” commented,
Prior to COVID-19, most churches were still anchored in the past—gather here at a set time and we can be the church. Miss it, and well, you miss it. But as more and more churches move seriously into online and social, that will change. In the future, the church will meet anytime, anywhere, and sometimes meet in person.
In the remainder of the article he goes on to demonstrate how people now view digital as “real” by the way they constantly slip in and out of digital environments throughout their day. Therefore, the reasoning goes, “…if people live that way, so should the church.” To put it another way, we are being told from a different angle “church is not the building!” Not only can churches use digital platforms, one gets the impression from these types of articles that it has practically risen to the level of a moral imperative. To not utilize these digital tools might suggest you don’t really care about reaching people “where they are”. I have decided to refer to this “new way” of “doing church” as Ecclesiological Gnosticism. This whole conversation that we’re now having, by the way, will have broader implications in our understanding of the nature of Christian discipleship beyond the worship gathering.
DEFINING ECCLESIOLOGICAL GNOSTICISM
Okay, so first off, what is Gnosticism? That’s a deceptively short, but rather complex question. Even though there’s a lot that could be said, I think I’ll sum it up this way: It was a sort of philosophical system/worldview that had its roots in the Greco-Roman world and which sought to embed itself within the Christian faith by the 2nd century AD. It held that everything in the material world is evil and that physical matter is devoid of having any spiritual value. Accordingly, salvation was found in finally being able to escape the physical body and the physical world.
Now I’m certainly not saying that modern church growth experts who advocate for the superiority of digital platforms are equivalent to these ancient Gnostics (especially with regard to their view of salvation). Nevertheless, I think the phrase Ecclesiological Gnosticism captures well the now growing idea that the physical place where we worship is, at best, of no real importance and, at worst, is morally deficient if we do not prioritize establishing a strong digital presence. Viewing the worship gathering in this way will also inevitably extend to the remainder of a church’s discipleship efforts. In other words, I think digital technologies pose the temptation for us to lose sight of the fact that God made us as embodied people who occupy actual space. Digital environments where we interact with one another as avatars are only a shadow of the true substance of biblical community. So, how should we respond? Is it time to finally let go of those “anchors” that have held us down to the clunky, slow, non-efficient, time consuming method of physically gathering together or prioritizing face-to-face discipleship in favor of online options? I don’t think so, and to show why, let’s sketch out a brief Biblical theology of place.
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF PLACE
The Role Of “Place” In The Old Testament
In Genesis 1, God declares His work of creation as being good. After creating the first human pair (whom He outfitted with physical bodies, mind you) He declares them very good. Then, with rich tabernacle imagery to depict the scene, God dwells with His people in this physical place. Is that not remarkable? This glorious God setup creation with the goal of being in close spatial proximity to His human creation!
Now in Genesis 3, humanity’s rebellion against God’s authority really did spoil everything, as sin penetrated both the human heart and the world around us. Paul himself says in Romans 8:19-23 that the entire created order has been groaning ever since it was subjected to futility, waiting for the time when God would create a new humanity for Himself in Christ. However, the Biblical storyline doesn’t radically shift in Genesis 3 in terms of God’s purposes. In other words, God’s desire to share physical proximity with His people doesn’t suddenly dissipate. Instead, He continues His redemptive program by creating a people for Himself through Abraham. We read in Genesis 12:1-3 that God would once again designate a place where He would enjoy spatial proximity with His people in the land of Canaan. According to verse 3 of that same passage, this was to be the arrangement until God would bring blessings to “all the families of the earth” through them.
The Role Of “Place” In The New Testament
Today we understand that this promise of global blessing has been fulfilled in Christ, as He came through this lineage and then offered Himself as the substitutionary sacrifice for His people’s sins. And who are His people? Not just ethnic Israel, but people from every place all over the world (cf. John 10:16).
This is where it is crucial to understand how the theology of the New Testament has its roots firmly planted in the soil of the Old. The hope of the Christian faith is not to escape our physical world and our physical bodies. Now as a quick caveat, Paul certainly affirms that when believers die, they are spiritually present with the Lord Jesus immediately upon their death (cf. Philippians 1:23, 2 Corinthians 5:8). But according to 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, he also plainly lays out his case that bodily resurrection at the consummation of this present age is the center of Christian hope. Why do we have this hope in a future, bodily resurrection? Because of our once-crucified, but now resurrected King. In Adam, we inherited both spiritual and physical death. In Christ, because He has dealt with our sin, we inherit both spiritual and physical life (cf. Romans 5:12-21).
As we approach the end of the Bible’s storyline there is a glorious unfolding as the new heavens and new earth are ushered in. There we find Christ’s universal Church, living in this space with resurrected bodies that are now forever freed from the curse of sin. What is the pinnacle of this Story? It is found in Revelation 21:4
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.’ (ESV, Emphasis mine)
Notice the repeated use of that tiny word “with”. Tucked within it is a powerful, jaw-dropping theological claim: God will once again share actual, physical proximity with His embodied people in the actual, physical space of the new heavens and the new earth. As it turns out, “place” is very important to God because “place” is where embodied interaction happens.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
But where does that leave us now? Well, we occupy this sometimes weird-feeling space in between. We are now citizens of heaven, but we are still awaiting the return of our King and the consummation of the age (Philippians 3:20). This is precisely where the local church comes in. Think through Paul’s Spirit-inspired methodology in the Book of Acts. When he goes to a new location and preaches the Gospel, what does he do after God saves His people there? He forms them into a local church, together with elders & deacons (1 Timothy 3) and an embodied membership of people who come together in real space and time each Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7). Together, they receive instruction in the Word (2 Timothy 2:42), observe the ordinances of baptism (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34), practice biblical church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5), and care for one another (Galatians 6:2). And throughout the week they were to be in one another’s real lives, exhorting and encouraging one another daily in face-to-face, embodied conversations (Hebrews 3:12-13).
My point here isn’t that we should ditch all digital technologies and white-knuckle our way back to “the good ol’ days” (as if those really existed anyway). Instead, what I am pushing back against here is the ecclesiological Gnosticism that I see being advocated for so strongly in some circles today. Yes, digital technologies may serve as a nice complement to our physical gatherings and shared lives together. They may even offer a way for us to keep a sense of continuity within our faith families as we make our way through the current crisis. But that’s just it. We should utilize these tools as an on-ramp to our real-embodied local churches, not as an off ramp so that we can stay in our pj’s and enjoy the comforts of home while “watching” a service on Sunday mornings. As we begin to see the light at the end of this long pandemic tunnel, let us keep pressing in on the importance of spatial, embodied Christian community. In a world that is overrun with digital environments, let us tell another, better story. One where real people really do matter. Where the warmth of a hug is felt, the sound of other voices in gathered worship is heard, and the moisture of tears shed together leaves real stains on our shirts. This is the local church. This is our family. It is worth every effort on our parts to keep pursuing this counter-cultural life together in the real place God has put us right here in Warner Robins, Georgia. ________________________________________________________________________________ This article is a part of our series called Vision 20/21. To check out the other articles in this series, look for the Vision 20/21 tab in our blog section