Are virtual meetings the equivalent of a physical coming together?
A virtual meeting takes place over the internet rather than the participants being physically together in one place and involves the exchange of moving electronic images. By definition, such a meeting can only give the appearance of gathering together. There is no direct interaction and the distance between those taking part remains. These facts ought to make us very cautious in how we employ such inventions in the things of God. An invention may not in itself be wrong, but its application might.
The divine intention is that believers should not be isolated units for “we, [being] many, are one body in Christ, and each one members one of the other” (Rom. 12: 5). It follows that togetherness is part of the essence of Christianity. Thus: “And all that believed were together … when ye come together in assembly … whenever ye come together … not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (Acts 2: 44; 1 Cor. 11: 18; 14: 26; Heb. 10: 25, my emphasis; see also Acts 2: 1; 11: 26; 14: 27; 1 Cor. 11: 17, 33, 34; 14: 23). The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has brought government restrictions upon such gatherings and this has led to the use of virtual meetings.
Now, of course we can thank God for the mercy of being able to interact with other members of the body of Christ over the internet (particularly if we have nothing else). However, that is a long way from accepting that virtual meetings are the equivalent of the real thing. Meeting with others in the Bible is direct and physical, hence: “the place in which they were assembled shook … When ye come therefore together into one place … if therefore the whole assembly come together in one place” (Acts 4: 31; 1 Cor. 11: 20; 14: 23, my emphasis). This being so, there is no basis whatsoever for extrapolating the promise of the Lord’s presence in the midst in Matt. 18: 20 into non–physical gatherings. There is no midst when there is no one place. Some attempt to get round this problem by making out that the Bible could not be expected to anticipate today’s technology, but that is really saying that God does not know the end from the beginning. Others think they do find support for virtual meetings in Scripture, and draw attention to 1 Cor. 5: 3, 4: “absent in body but present in spirit … ye and my spirit being gathered together”. However, this is a case of fitting Scripture to belief rather than the other way round. Paul was not in Corinth and was not able to talk or see the Corinthians. If this Scripture is to be used as an argument that meetings do not have to be physical, then it is also an argument that a Christian can have no contact (whether physical or virtual) of any kind with saints anywhere and still say he is meeting with them in spirit! The fact is, Paul was no ordinary Christian, but an apostle, and as such, he was able to act before the Lord in disciplinary matters in relation to Corinth as if he were in Corinth. That is all the passage means.
All technologies have benefits and dangers. Virtual interaction has certainly allowed saints to communicate in a profitable way, but it has also had the effect of causing the realities of fellowship and true assembling to fray at the edges. Sadly, some professing Christians may never go back to physical meetings once restrictions are eased. In their eyes they can ‘do it all online’—and in one sense, the internet being what it is, more is indeed available to them there. What they do lose, however, is the reality of genuine togetherness that is so fundamental to Christianity. Indeed, it has been very troubling to see the haste with which real meetings have been forsaken by some in the present crisis—and also the reluctance to reassemble when restrictions have been eased. The primary driver for this behaviour appears not to be the law itself for that has rarely prevented believers gathering entirely (and then only temporarily). Rather the impetus seems to be a fear of death that is quite unbecoming for those whose hope is professedly in Christ. Regrettably, virtual meetings have facilitated this attitude by seeming to provide a credible alternative to the real thing. The fact is, if believers under severe persecution can manage to function as Christians then there is really no excuse for anyone else. God is not mocked, and it is a solemn principle that “them that honour me I will honour, and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed” (1 Sam. 2: 30). Thus, when normality is restored some may dismayed to find themselves left behind in a spiritual famine—both individually and collectively. We need to be absolutely clear that so–called online meetings, while useful, are not a substitute for actual gathering and that Christians should certainly not persist in them whenever government restrictions are eased. We need each other, and we need to be together.