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Easter and ecclesiology: Is church that doesn't meet, still church service?

church, coronavirus
St. John's Incarnation Lutheran Church promotes dial-in church service on April 5, 2020 in Lynbrook, New York. |

By now, you have probably been inundated with articles surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Some articles have told you about the dangers of the virus and why you should heed the advice of the CDC, whereas other articles have claimed that the pandemic is nothing more than a governmental conspiracy aimed at bringing forth socialism into the nation. To be honest, I had planned to write earlier than I have concerning today’s topic, but my PhD coursework and sermon preparation hindered me from doing so.

One of the greatest challenges that have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is a theological question that has been posed to the Church. The Church[1] has been unable to meet in person. However, due to the advances in technology, churches across the nation and the world have met virtually through online services and alternative styles, including drive-in services. The question has been asked, “Are these still church services?” An even bigger theological question is, “Who is the church?” These questions are part of the theological branch known as ecclesiology or theology of the church.

As we approach the Easter season, many churches will find themselves unable to meet in person. However, does this mean that the Church is no longer in operation? Jesus had challenged the disciples and Jewish leaders early in his ministry. It was something that resonated with both.

The disciples only fully understood his message after the resurrection had transpired and the leaders used his message as fodder to fuel Jesus’s condemnation. Jesus taught the following controversial lesson, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days” (John 2:19).

The Jewish leaders exclaimed, “This temple took forty-six years to build, and you will raise it up in three days?” (John 2:20). Oddly, the message is not included in the Synoptic Gospels. However, it is reflected in the accusation of the Jewish leaders against Jesus during his trial, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58). Even on the cross, Jesus was ridiculed by individuals who said, “You who would destroy this temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Matt. 27:40).

The correlation of these verses across the Gospel accounts amounts to what Dr. Lydia McGrew calls an undesigned coincidence. That is, a correlation that was unplanned, but which shows a common source behind all the Gospel narratives.

The aged apostle John explained the message of Jesus. John notes that Jesus “was speaking about the temple of his body. So when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made” (John 2:21–22). But what does Jesus’ teaching tell us about the Church this Easter season, especially during this pandemic?

1.  The Church is a people and not a place. This is a recurring theme throughout the teachings of Jesus and something that makes him quite the controversialist. Early in Jesus’s ministry, he met with a woman that most modern Christians would turn away. She was a woman who had been divorced five times and was living with a man (John 4:17–18). While Jesus shared the gospel with her, she turned to the debate over place. She, being a Samaritan, said, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the place to worship is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20). Jesus redirected her attention to the true mode of worship. While admitting that Jerusalem was the chosen place to have the temple, he said something even more revolutionary about worship. He said, “But an hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth. Yes, the Father wants such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21–24). As the CSB Study Bible says in its commentary, “Jesus’s point was that since God is spirit, proper worship of him is also a matter of spirit rather than physical location.” This is something to which God is directing our attention during this time. Worship is not just something that happens corporately on Sunday mornings even though that is extremely important, but rather worship is something that can and should happen every day of the week.

2. The Church is a body and not a building. I have been concerned for quite some time that we as Christians worship the buildings in which we worship the Lord. I think that this pandemic has proven that to be the case. By Jesus’s teaching concerning the temple of God being his body rather than the building, he was directing people against the idol worship of the temple building. Jesus warned the disciples that the temple would be destroyed (Matt. 24:2). Yet, the Church would be the bride of Christ (Matt. 25:1–13; Rev. 21:1–2). That is, the Church is a body — a universal body — which cannot be restrained by bricks and mortar. What makes us think that a building could ever hold the totality of God’s presence in the first place (Acts 17:24)?

3. The Church is an organism and not an organization. Jesus taught that the Church would not be built by organizations but rather through the organism of his Church. When Peter proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus noted that Peter had this truth revealed to him by the Father. He calls Peter blessed before saying, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18). The reality is that the Church is a larger assembly of people that one could ever realize. It spans across denominational lines, transcends time, and unites various nationalities and ethnicities.

We have long accepted the idea that the Church is equivalent to a local community club. However, the Church is an unstoppable organism of the like that COVID-19 shutters and flees. No organism can stop the Church. Several viruses much worse than COVID-19 have tried in the past and lost. Smallpox has hit numerous times throughout history from 165 to 748 and the Church lived on. The bubonic plague, otherwise known as the “Black Death,” killed thousands of people from 1348–1352 and the Church continued. Throughout the 1400s and 1500s (the time of the Reformation), the bubonic plague arose from time to time and the Church remained formidable. The 1600s continued to see the bubonic plague strike and even into the 1700s. The Church has remained steadfast even still. We will survive COVID-19. If we return to the ecclesiology of Jesus, I think that we will have a better picture of the Church and a better theology to accompany what and who the Church is supposed to be. Remember, it was after the resurrection that the Church began to understand what Jesus meant by the temple being his body. Despite the challenges we face, may we remember the victory found in the resurrection of Jesus and our identity found in him.

[1] I use the capitalized Church to indicate the universal Church.

Brian G. Chilton is the founder of and is the host of The Bellator Christi Podcast. He received his Master of Divinity in Theology from Liberty University (with high distinction); his Bachelor of Science in Religious Studies and Philosophy from Gardner-Webb University (with honors); and received certification in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Brian is enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Theology and Apologetics at Liberty University. Brian has been in the ministry for over 15 years and serves as a pastor in northwestern North Carolina.

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