What is the "electronic church"? If you turn on your TV, you will find a variety of religious broadcasting, from Roman Catholic masses to traditional Presbyterian services to charismatic talk shows. Some of these programs are rather amateurish local broadcasts of local worship services. Others are sophisticated and expensive programs syndicated all over the world. Some of these programs are produced by honest, earnest people trying to be helpful to others. Others seem to have questionable messages and methods. In one sense, all these programs are part of the electronic church.
Usually, though, "electronic church" is used to refer to those programs distributed beyond a single local area and supported by the contributions of viewers. For the purposes of this article, the "electronic church" will refer to any TV broadcast that becomes a central part of the religious experience and practice of its viewers.
My concern here is to argue that the electronic church at its best can only be a religious supplement in the life of the Christian. There are indeed many useful supplements for Christians today, including Christian bookstores, radio stations, and a host of local, national and international organizations for various educational, evangelistic and welfare goals. But the purpose of this article is to maintain that all those supplements must remain subordinate to and supportive of the Christian's commitment to the local church.
The necessity of the local church is clearly taught in Scripture and is indispensable for the Christian life. Before we critique the idea of an "electronic church," we should understand the nature of the institutional church.
The Institutional Church
God has a great redemptive purpose in the world. He intends to save a people from the judgment and wrath to come and has sent his son, Jesus, into the world to fulfill all righteousness and to die for sinners that such people might be redeemed. God's saving work, however, is not concerned with individuals in isolation. Rather, God is redeeming a people whom he calls the Body of Christ, the church: "And God placed all things under [Jesus'] feet and appointed him to be head over everything in every way." (Eph 1:22-23)
What is this church about which the Scriptures speak so highly? In the Bible, the word "church" is used in two ways. The first meaning refers to the universal or organic church-all believers in all times who are united to each other and reconciled to God by their union with Christ. The second usage refers to the institutional expressions of that universal church.
Many Christians today seem to assume that all God requires is a relationship to the universal church that occurs automatically for the believer. In other words, it is often said that "the church is people." Hence, belonging to the church means belonging to Christ, not to an institution. That, however, is not true. The Bible is clear that Christians are also required to be part of the institutional church's life, particularly the life of the local church, which God himself has brought into being and structured by his Word.
God's structuring of the local church began with the apostles. Jesus chose from among his disciples twelve apostles. (Lk 6:12-16) He sent them like the prophets of old to preach God's Word. (Lk 11:49) These apostles-specially chosen leaders who had been eyewitnesses to Jesus' life (Acts 1:21-25)-become the foundation of the life of the new church, and their teachings were authoritative for the church. (Eph 2:20)
The apostles were not the only officers appointed in the earliest church. In Ephesians 4:11 there is mention of pastors and teachers, and in Acts 14:23 the Apostle Paul is described appointing elders in each church he founded. In 1 Timothy 3 Paul gives qualifications for the offices of overseer and deacon.
It is clear that the apostles themselves established two or three officers as continuing positions of leadership and authority in the life of the church. Those officers have important responsibilities for the Christian community given to them by the Lord through the apostles. Look, for example, at the solemn charge Paul gave to the Ephesian elders concerning their care for the church at Ephesus. Elders are to guard the flock as a shepherd protects the sheep from the wolves. (Acts 20:28-29) They have hard work to do to protect the weak. (Acts 20:35) The danger is real, sometimes arising from within the church itself. The officers of the church are able to nip false teaching in the bud because of their official role in the church.
The care Christ and the apostles took to provide us with officers and an institutional church should make a great impression on us. Christ and his apostles established an institutional church to help us in our need and weakness. Elders are appointed for our sakes, and we need to submit ourselves to their authority in the local church if we are to be obedient to the Lord and his vision of the Christian life.
Submission to elders is closely tied to the question of church membership. Some people today object to the idea that Christians must be church members, suggesting that such a requirement is unbiblical. But surely Christ established eldership in his church. Elders are necessary to teach and admonish and discipline us. But how can elders carry out that work unless we submit to them? What is church membership but to join our local congregation and submit to the elders' authority?
To be sure, elders are not infallible. Sometimes they can deviate. Indeed, they have, from time to time, been known to leave the faith entirely. But the fact that some elders are unreliable does not eliminate our responsibility to find godly elders and submit to them.
The subject of the authority of pastors and elders, and church membership, is closely related to the matter of church discipline. Discipline is not a popular topic in America today. Parents may talk regretfully of a lack of discipline among the young, but many parents are short on willingness to insist on discipline at home or to support it in the schools. Adults in our society often fail to discipline themselves. Think of the misuse of drugs or alcohol, the high divorce rate, and irresponsibility on the job, to name only a few. In such a society, church discipline has almost disappeared. Churches often are so eager to attract people that they make very few demands upon them.
But the Bible teaches the importance of a disciplined church life. After all, the church is a hospital for sinners. Its members are going to continue sinning, even though they are Christians. They need the support and discipline of older and wiser Christians as they mature in their faith. Setting aside responsibility in the interest of independence is no more healthful for growing Christians than for growing children. Of course, there is Christian liberty, and the church cannot command the conscience where Christ has freed it. Nevertheless it can and must care for the flock in the way its Chief Shepherd has prescribed.
Jesus taught that when informal attempts to handle problems among Christians have failed, the church must proceed formally, even to the point of expelling someone from the church. (Mt 18:15-18) There are examples of this in the New Testament. (1 Cor 5:1-7, 2 Thes 3:14-15) The hope in such discipline is to restore the sinner to the Lord and to the church by repentance. (2 Cor 2:5-8) But if that does not happen, at least the church has been protected and purified from scandalous and unrepentant behavior.
Many people do not like the idea of a disciplined church. They believe they should be able to do whatever is right in their own eyes. Such an attitude reflects the militant individualism of our society. But it does not reflect Christ's teaching about the life of his church. Proper discipline by the officers of the church is necessary for the well-being of individual Christians as well as for the church as a whole. Such discipline can take place only in the context of membership in a local church.
Christ's structuring of the church is not limited to offices and discipline. Christ also directs the church as to its life and worship. From its earliest days after Pentecost, the church gathered with eagerness and devotion. (Acts 2:42) When some became negligent in worship and fellowship, a stern warning was issued: "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Heb 10:25) This warning stresses Christian worship as one source of the encouragement needed to lead the Christian life faithfully.
The Worshiping Community
Space does not permit a full look at the teaching in the New Testament on the way in which the church should worship. But it is essential to reflect on one text that relates worship to the priority of the local church. That text is Acts 2:41-42: "Those who accepted [Peter's] message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." This text promotes at least four elements of worship: the apostles' teaching, fellowship, the sacraments, and prayer.
The Apostles' Teaching
The first element is the apostles' teaching. Those early believers had the opportunity to hear the apostles themselves as they taught and directed the lives of the new converts and those growing into Christian maturity. Today the church finds the teaching of the apostles faithfully recorded in the Bible. It is in the study and preaching of the Bible that the contemporary church has access to that authoritative teaching of the apostles. That is why, historically, the reading and preaching of the Word of God has been such an important part of Christian worship. That is also why Christians have devoted so much time and energy to establishing colleges and seminaries. They have wanted well-educated pastors who could responsibly teach them the Scriptures.
Is the teaching of the Bible one area where the electronic church can do the job of the local church? Surely television can provide instruction in the Bible. But it would be a good test to measure on any given religious broadcast how much time is actually spent in preaching or teaching the Bible. On too many programs, entertainment and fund-raising greatly diminish the time spent in God's Word.
Even if the Bible is taught on a TV program, how is the listener to evaluate the reliability of what is taught? There are many programs that undermine or reject the teachings of the believer's local church. Many televangelists mock the institutional church-it is clear that cynicism is the dominant attitude toward the institutional church among many leading televangelists. There are also programs where outright heresy is taught under the name "Christianity." Who monitors and evaluates these programs and their teaching? How can the Christian be sure that what is taught is not blatantly or subtly undermining the faith? Surely it is the responsibility of the local church and its officers to ensure that God's people are fed apostolic truth. Once again we see the necessity of the local church and how, at best, the electronic church can only supplement the local church's ministry.
Even if the electronic church gives good time to reliable teaching of the Word, it still cannot effectively fill the shoes of the local church. The church can see to the pastoral preaching of the Word-the teaching of Scripture applied to the particular needs of the local group of believers. However faithful a televangelist may be, he cannot know the special direction that a particular local church may need to take, in the way a faithful pastor can. The encouragement to good works of which Hebrews 10 speaks takes place uniquely in the local community. Devotion to the apostles' teaching best takes place in the local church.
The second element mentioned in Acts 2 is fellowship. The word "fellowship" here is koinonia, which means sharing in common. It means being together and participating together in various concerns and activities. It means hearing and responding to the Word together. It means supporting one another in prayer. It means sharing financial resources to provide for the poor and to accomplish the work of the church. The central form of fellowship is found in the public worship of God. As we join our voices, hearts, ears and minds together, fellowship takes place in the highest degree.
Can the electronic church provide such fellowship? At first glance, some may think so. People from all around the country are united in hearing the same songs and sermons. TV as a medium seems to be personal, immediate, intimate. The speaker can seem close and concerned. But is this really the fellowship that our text describes? There is no human contact with fellow believers. The TV preacher cannot possibly meet his viewers on a personal, immediate, intimate level, since he has no personal contact with them. Once again, TV may supplement the fellowship of the church, but it cannot be a substitute for it.
First published in Modern Reformation, Vol. 2 No. 6
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