A few months ago I wrote an article that caused a bit of a firestorm among some of my writing compadres. Perhaps I gave it a provocative title, but I maintain its truth: Mark Driscoll is Not My Pastor. Amongst the backlash of that article there was also a curious phenomenon on the twitter chat: the affirmation of the virtual church.
What was being espoused by person after person was the reality that they considered their online friends their church. "Twitter is my church" and "You guys are my church and my pastors" were among some of the statements I read. The definition of virtual is "Existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form, or name."
Hear me out, one of the ministries to which God has called me is of the online variety. This blog and other publications I write for take a good amount of mental and spiritual energy. You are my ministry. But you are not my local church.
More and more I read articles lumping authors into clear and present camps. You have the Jesus feminists, the red letter Christians, the social justice-cause driven, the reformed, the story-tellers, the orthodox. There are these hard and fast lines boxing authors to a particular movement or theological framework, and once they have been flagged as such, they are blacklisted or embraced. There is little room for grace in this world because if I confess I agree with Rob Bell in this one area, that is a blight on my character to those who disagree with him. If I confess I agree with John Piper in this area, well, count me out of an entire sector of the blogosphere.
If we are in an age of the virtual church, then we are also in an age of virtual shunning.
You won't ever hear me disavow the importance of the global Church. That I can consider someone who lives thousands of miles from me one of my closest friends—that is the power of the bond we have in Christ.
But love for the global Church does not negate the biblical importance of the local church. Too often I hear great passion in my brothers and sisters for the health of the Church, without seeing evidence that they value it at its most local level. I see bloggers calling men and women to task, and shunning those who associate with them, without seeing any accountability to authority in their own lives. I see much concern for orthodoxy and discipleship and brotherly love, without seeing evidence of those things in their lives.
I am not saying those things are not happening, what I am saying is that I don't see it.
I don't see it because they are not my local church and I do not know them in the way I know the people alongside whom I walk. I don't see it because I am not privy to the conversations they have with their pastors (if they have pastors) or elders. I don't see it because I don't see them taking meals to new moms or visiting the sick or weeping with those who weep. Seeing those things is reserved for those who are not virtual, but real life, flesh and blood.
I'm writing this because too often the assumption is made that the virtual groups with whom I am associated are somehow the people to whom I am submitted. The assumption is we ascribe to the same set of theological ideals, we have discussions behind closed doors, spit-shake on how we'll handle certain situations, administer church discipline and the sacraments together. And it's simply not the truth.
I have pastors and a local church. I write for publications, enjoy friendships, but they are not my local church or my elders. Simply because a publication for which I write or a group of online acquaintances embrace a certain stance or ideal, does not mean I agree with them.
A year ago I had a conversation with one of my pastors. I met with him to discuss an opportunity put before me to participate in a publication where I would share the platform with some diametrically opposing authors. Should I do it? was my question. Yes, was his answer. Why? Because every opportunity we have to proclaim the gospel is good and we should prayerfully consider taking it. Some of the places I write, I write because I do disagree with their stance on certain issues. I write because it is my prayer that the gospel would go forth. My name doesn't matter, but Christ's does.
We proclaim Christ best by loving what He loves. What Christ loves best is the glory of His Father, and the Father is glorified when we are his disciples, when we love one another—at the most difficult, personal, beautiful level: right here, locally.
Love the Church, friends, but start by loving the church.