Col 2:1-5 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, (2) that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, (3) in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (4) I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. (5) For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.
Col 4:15-16 Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house. (16) And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
Several years ago, as most of you know, I began to invite any genuine Christian to join us here at Christ Reformation Church (CRC) and even become members online – to make this your church. And I extended (as I still do) that invitation because so many Christians in this day have found it next to impossible to locate a sound, genuine local church in their area. In addition, many victims of abuse were so further abused (even ex-communicated) by their once local church when they asked for help, that continuing in such a place became impossible. Many of you have made CRC through this means your church, and you have been a huge encouragement to me and the tiny congregation here.
Now, more than once we have been criticized for offering such an outreach. Critics claim that nothing can substitute for face to face, in person church. And that to be part of an online church is to violate the Lord’s command to us not to forsake the gathering together of the saints (see Hebrews 10). We cannot “know” one another in an online setting, it is claimed. And certainly none of us take these points lightly. This is not a flimsy excuse not to get out of bed on Sunday morning and have to go to church (as many professing Christians do when they stay home and watch a TV preacher out of laziness and disobedience to the Lord).
But those flimsy excuses for fellowship do not characterize anyone I know of who has become part of our fellowship online. Rather, they are brothers and sisters in Christ who have no real church they can be part of. At least at this time, the fallout from evil suffered causes even walking into a conventional church building or picking up a hymnal to be fearsome.
So we have offered a safe place. I know, I know, there are critics and even some who are actual enemies, who shout whenever they can that we are not a safe place, or a spiritually healthy place. We have heard those accusations for 30 years now, even before we began the online outreach. But in the face of those missiles, we reply that the Lord raised up this ministry and continues to bless it.
Now, a biblical defense of this – is there one? I suggest to you, as seen in the Scriptures quoted above, that real fellowship by distance, even among those who have never seen one another face to face, IS biblical and always has been. Paul wrote letters. That is why we have most of the New Testament. He wrote letters to believers who had never seen him face to face, and he encouraged them to “pass it on” once they had read his words. It was the first century version of email and livestream. Do you think for a moment that Paul would not have used our online tools if they had been available to him?
In person church was much more difficult in the first century (and indeed at many other times in the history of the church) than it might be in the modern era. Think of the times of persecution by Rome when Christians met in catacombs. Or during the Protestant Reformation when Rome once again sought to kill them. What will it be like when that man of lawlessness one day effects his worldwide kingdom and seeks to stamp out the church once and for all? Does anyone think that Christians will get up on Sunday, put on their Sunday finest, and drive the family to the brick and mortar church building on the corner?
What I mean by this is to get us all thinking about real fellowship in Christ? Is it better to be physically in a local church where God’s Word is compromised, where the oppressed are further oppressed, where the wicked are protected, than to be among real believers by some other, perhaps “non-conventional” means? Christ Himself removes lampstands from His presence when they are no longer a church. Will we maintain that God must be worshipped “in Jerusalem” or “in Samaria” – or will we start to understand that the worshippers the Lord is seeking are those who worship Him “in Spirit and in truth”?
My wife, and I know some of you as well, love a church choir ministry. I mean, who doesn’t like being able to go to a Christmas Eve service in a church where there is an organ, a piano, a sizeable choir, Christmas decorations and so on? These things are (can be) wonderful. But again, my wife and many of you, have had to “suffer the loss of all things” in order to gain Christ. And speaking of Christ (as we always should), turn your eyes to Him. What was His experience in this world? Did He enjoy a big cathedral with choir, massive pipe organ, big congregation? What was His church like? George Whitefield, a man used mightily by the Lord, was hammered by the conventional “church” and clergy for daring to preach to the lost sheep outside in fields instead of in a church building.
And so I say to those of you who have perhaps some honest doubts about non-conventional church ministry (gospel ministry is better), think on these things and be encouraged. You really can enjoy genuine fellowship in Christ in ways that are not face-to-face. And by the way, how many members of especially the big local churches really have ready access to their pastor or pastors? I am able to communicate with you regularly – just email me or text me, meet me “face-to-face” when we livestream our Sunday school hour, our worship service, and our two mid-week Bible studies. How is that inferior to being physically present in a local church where evildoers are protected and covered for? (All this in no way is meant to reject the local church where believers can enjoy authentic Christian fellowship and ministry. BUT – how easy is that to find these days?)
My email is [email protected] and I am very happy to answer sincere inquiries about this online outreach. You can find our Sunday morning livestreams on Facebook (Light for Dark Times), sermonaudio.com/crc, and they are uploaded later in the day to Youtube (Light for Dark Times). Mid-week Bible studies are available on those same sites on Wednesday and Thursday mornings either by livestream (ie, in real time at 7AM PST) or by viewing them later. Entire teaching series are available there.
Critics who just want to throw stones? – don’t bother to throw them. They just land in the trash. And besides, yes I will say it – “who are you to judge the servant of another?”
3 thoughts on “In Defense of Fellowship by Distance”
As an online member, I confirm that everything you said is true as to why I joined CRC online. When my pastor of over two decades at a true church went to be with the Lord, I visited at least six churches in the area, and five of those I stayed at for awhile. One even had a choir, which I was thrilled about because I, too, love singing in the choir!
But each one proved to be unsafe for abuse victims, led by men (and some women) who did not exercise church discipline as the scriptures outline (see 1 Corinthians 5). One pastor from a PCA church handed out your book, “Unholy Charade,” and yet let an abuser sit in our midst and even serve as an usher! Another church I attended was a baptist mega church where I worked as a biblical counselor. My supervisor wanted to fire me for supporting a woman in an abusive marriage, so I left.
The rest of the churches I attended were non denominational and evangelical, yet time and time again situations would arise where an abusive person was allowed to remain in our midst. In one church, a guy confessed to the pastor that he regularly smoked pot and believed in a cult and the pastor didn’t want to kick him out because of the guy’s wife and the pastor didn’t want to “hurt his heart.” (That couple is now divorced and the wife contacted me to tell me how much she was hurt by all of it.)
The last church I attended (the one with the choir) I was part of the women’s ministry. One of the times I hadn’t attended due to sickness, the leader reported to me that a woman confessed to the group that her husband had molested children in the past and this man was allowed to serve in the children’s ministry at church! When I told the leader she had an obligation to report it to the pastor and staff, she said she was not going to violate that woman’s confidentiality because the woman asked the rest of the group not to tell anyone. If I had been there that day, I would’ve said what she shared is not covered by confidentiality because it could cause harm to others. When I told the leader this, she got angry with me and told me I had no right to say anything. I did not step foot back in that church.
All of this happened within a span of nine years, seeking to find and be part of a local church because I take the scriptures seriously about not forsaking gathering together. But it became evident that most churches out there are filled with unredeemed people and the leaders, many of them not born again, refuse to confront them.
My prayer was that I would have a pastor who knows me and whom I know because otherwise, how could he shepherd me? The Lord graciously answered my prayer by showing me the answer was right in front of me! I had been in contact with Pastor Jeff since the confrontation with the mega church pastor and Pastor Jeff was a great support and encouragement to me during that stressful and hurtful time. I have since been to Tillamook several times to visit my brothers and sisters in Christ and am honored to call CRC my church and to be part of this God-honoring ministry.
I heard MLJ talk about how the institutionalized church sometimes— if not always— is the greatest hindrance to evangelism. I don’t remember his exact quote but he was making the point that sometimes the church inside the fancy building IS the problem. I even heard him condemn Westminster Chapel, the very building he preached in, as being unbiblical because what most modern Christians think of “church” or “gathering together” or “fellowship” has nothing to do with what the NT has in mind.
Of course there are benefits to meeting in person if we can, but if we can’t, we’re not the ones doing something wrong.
THANK YOU Pastor Crippen, for this incredible post! You hit the nail on the head in so many places in this article. I cannot thank you, Verla and the local CRC family enough for being a voice for, and huge encouragement to, those who have been traumatized by wolves in sheep’s clothing and further abused by “local” churches. I praise the Lord for your online outreach! THANK YOU!!