The Ecclesiology of Virtual Christianity: Oneness and Catholicity

The Ecclesiology of Virtual Christianity: Oneness and Catholicity December 27, 2018

I have been writing about The Robloxian Christians (TRC), a church that exists in the virtual world of Roblox. We first looked at the mission and then “reality” of TRC. Last time, we considered the extent to which a virtual congregation like TRC does not necessarily inhibit our relational nature, but can actually abet it.

However, churches do not merely exist to provide us with a feeling of community. If that were the case, then “church” would be clubs, dinner parties, online gaming, school, social networks, coffee dates, and work. Indeed, for many, those experiences of community are sacred, and mediate grace. It seems that the most popular television shows are, at base, about a community of family or friends, and I think that is because we hearken to that essential reality. However, theologically speaking, community is not the same thing as church.

There are two Greek words in the New Testament that are often translated as “church” – ekklesia and koinonia. The more frequently used of the two, ekklesia, literally means “called out group,” and in ancient Greece referred to a form of political assembly that was most open to qualified citizens. The less frequently used koinonia means “fellowship,” a particular sort of community whose members share in intimate mutuality. In the New Testament description of fledgling Christian communities, it seems that koinonia was necessary for a group of people to be an ekklesia, but it was not sufficient. In other words, just because an ecclesia includes koinonia, it does not mean that the converse is true. What, then, in addition to community, is a “church”?

This is the question of “ecclesiology,” or theological reflection on the definition of church. There are a lot of different ecclesiologies within global and historic Christianity. Some – such as Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican congregations – emphasize the administration of the sacraments in defining church. Others, for instance Reformed and Lutheran traditions, emphasize the preaching of the Word of God. Still others, including Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions, emphasize the experience of the Holy Spirit, as in the practice of spiritual gifts or musical worship. These are generalizations, of course, and there are exceptions everywhere. But the point is that “church” means different things to different groups of Christians, so it is hard to state a universal Christian consensus on the question. Perhaps we can generalize the diverse set of Christian ecclesiologies by saying that church is where we corporately and formally enter into the presence of God in Christ by the power of the Spirit, and, hopefully, where we experience that presence.

There are a three different aspects of that definition I’d like to consider: “corporate,” “formal,” and “presence of God.”

First, by “corporate,” I do not mean that “church” simply consists of a bunch of people we know. It may, but the church community – or the “Body of Christ,” a metaphor used by Paul in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians – includes so many more than those with whom we have an affinity. In fact, the Body of Christ does not even consist of those that we can touch and see. Even more, the Body of Christ does not even merely consist of those who are alive. The church includes the great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) – all those followers of Christ bound together through space or time. It includes the congregation of which we are a part here and now, but it also includes Christians worshipping in Wisconsin and Alabama, in Malawi and Uruguay, in Thailand and Iran. And it includes the congregations of people that lived 500, 1000, and 1500 years ago.

The Nicene Creed tells us that the church is “one,” following on Ephesians 4:4-6 and Galatians 3:28, meaning that the church of Jesus Christ transcends all sorts of boundaries that we tend to place between people – sociological, anthropological, historical, and even material. Orthodox theologian George Dragas makes the point that, like the Trinity, the church exists as a “unity in multiplicity,” and that through Christ by the power of the Spirit, as members of a church, we participate in that truth. (Note, however, that he is speaking about the one unified church existing as a multiplicity of diverse congregations, not a multiplicity of diverse individuals, though certainly the former is ideally meant to include the latter.)

And so the Body of Christ also includes those who are present online. We have already established that online community can be a form of fellowship. While there are certainly drawbacks to virtual intimacy – for instance, we cannot touch someone, and the format curtails non-verbal communication – there can be advantages, too. Virtual community can encourage vulnerability in communication, especially for those who find it hard to articulate their thoughts to others. It can provide accessibility to those unable to meet together in person. And it can encourage those who are reluctant to join physical community to find it. Those who are hesitant or unwilling to attend a brick-and-mortar church – or those who do but cannot find relational intimacy – can be blessed by virtual fellowship.

Yet to be church does not merely mean that a congregation can make the claim that they are part of the Body of Christ. Participation in the church is not one-way; it requires commitment and not merely consumption. The Nicene Creed also tells us that the church is “catholic,” which means universal. The catholicity of the church means that the global and historic Body of Christ is related to each congregation. The indication of this is that, in addition to being included in the corporate Body of Christ, each congregation also represents the universal church. Just as all congregations are bound to the church, so the church is bound to all congregations. While all local congregations, at least in some sense, shape and govern themselves apart from other congregations – what the Orthodox call “autocephaly” – they do not shape and govern themselves independent of them.

TRC founder Daniel Herron has said that while his virtual congregation provides spiritual community for people who would not otherwise have it, he has also agreed that, in an ideal world, all TRC congregants would also be part of a brick-and-mortar church. Herron himself has been long ensconced in an irl church in his Tacoma neighborhood, and he, like the rest of his pastoral staff, has spiritual and ministerial advisors. He also guessed that the majority of members are also part of other Christian fellowships. In other words, it seems that the leadership of TRC very much sees itself as bound to the church universal; this is not anything like a group of people gathering together periodically to talk about Scripture and calling itself a “church.” TRC would be akin to a large independent church, except that, through both its leadership and membership, it is much more connected to other churches and spiritual bodies than most non-denoms are.

We’ll tackle if TRC is a formal gathering or if it provides an experience of God another time. But for now, I simply wanted to make the point that, if we believe that the church is one and catholic, and therefore made up of and represented in many different traditions and expressions, then we would be hard-pressed not to acknowledge TRC as a full-fledged church. It has its challenges to oneness and catholicity, to be sure. But what church doesn’t? What is interesting is the advantages is provides. One of those advantages is that binds together all different sorts of people in koinonia, and it represents the global and historic ekklesia, in a new space in ways to which many churches can only aspire.

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