Virtual Symposium Set

by Jackson Watts

2020 has been a year of changed plans, but the Commission for Theological Integrity is committed to fulfilling its mission despite the obstacles created by the current pandemic. For this reason we will be continuing with our annual Theological Symposium as a virtual event. It will still be held on October 5-6, with the schedule to be available soon. We are making every effort to make this event both accessible and interactive, so we will be hosting the event as a live Zoom webinar, which participants can access using the information below. While we know this is less than ideal, we’re hopeful that this format will make the content and discussion more available for those who, in years past, have been unable to travel to Welch College or Randall University for in-person events.

We have a solid slate of papers that you won’t want to miss! We’re preparing a digital version of the paper digest for participants to purchase from our website prior to the event. Print copies will be available to purchase and have mailed following the event.

Below are our presenters and paper titles:

Matthew Bracey: Considering the Influence of Helwys’s Religious Liberty Ethic in England and the United States

Ben Campbell: The Role of Spirituality in Sermon Preparation and Delivery

Jeff Cockrell: Paul’s Telos in Romans 10:4: Understanding the Unity of Jews and Gentiles

Joshua Colson: Prevenient Grace and the Word of God: A Reformed Arminian Perspective

Matthew Honeycutt: Does Arminianism Lead to Legalism?

Jesse Owens: Matthew Caffyn, Thomas Monck, and English General Baptist Creedalism

Matthew Pinson: Jacobus Arminius and the Diversity of Reformed Theology Prior to the Synod of Dort

Chris Talbot: A Free Will (Baptist) Defense: Reformed Arminianism and the Evidential Problem of Evil

To participate, you can click on the link below at the time of the first scheduled presentation, or at the time of any presentation you may want to hear and respond to. Despite the challenges of this present moment, we look forward to continuing to live for and serve the Lord in a theologically faithful way.

Please click the link below to join the symposium:
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Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 2)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the second part of a two-part article)

In Part I, I have defined Molinism and evaluated its view more basically. I have other criticisms of Keathley’s position, some of which might not be shared by all Molinists but all of which seem likely to result from Molinism’s effort to achieve a stance between Calvinism and Arminianism.  I will treat three matters.

Other Problems with Keathley’s Molinism

1. Keathley confronts the objection often posed by Calvinists who say that requiring a person to exercise faith for salvation makes faith something the saved “do” that is in some way virtuous and distinguishes them from unbelievers. He states the objection as follows:

If I freely believe, but my neighbor freely does not, does not this imply that somehow I was nobler than my neighbor? Did I not use my freedom to a higher end? Yes, salvation is a free gift, and receiving redemption incurs no merit, but is not the one who accepts it in some way wiser, more humble, more virtuous, more appreciative, more aware of his need, or more sensitive to sin than the one who rejects it?[1]

In essence Keathley accepts this as a “problem” and proceeds to resolve it by viewing faith as a gift and not something the elect “do.” He represents the elect as “doing” absolutely nothing; they don’t even choose to accept Christ. By contrast, the non-elect actively “do” something; they consciously resist God and thereby become solely responsible for their damnation. So, for Keathley, the salvation of the elect is totally the work of God, while the damnation of the non-elect is totally their own work.

I would urge, however, that as long as one regards salvation as conditional, there will inevitably be a difference between what a believer “does” and what an unbeliever “does” (or “doesn’t”) and this can theoretically (but mistakenly) be regarded as making the one more “worthy” or “virtuous” than the other. The very reason for unconditional salvation is to avoid that.

Keathley says the elect “refrain” from resisting, whereas the non-elect actively resist. Well, to “refrain from resisting” is still to “do” something—which simply substitutes for “choosing Christ.” The difference between one who “does” this refraining and one who actively resists can still be (falsely) accused of amounting to a difference in “worthiness.”

The way to deal with this Calvinist objection is to deny that it is valid. Biblically speaking, believing (faith) is not a “work”; accepting a gift with the empty hand of faith is not offering any worth or merit or virtue to God. The actions of the elect and non-elect are parallel: one chooses for and the other chooses against. If libertarian freedom means anything at all, it is exercised by both the elect and the non-elect. Otherwise, only the unbeliever acts with libertarian freedom, while the believer does not lest he be guilty of offering something he has “done” to God.

Elsewhere Keathley shows clearly that he understands that faith is not a work and that the verb “do” doesn’t require doing a meritorious work or deed. If one asks, then, why he bothers to offer a different solution, the answer is that he is determined to hold to Calvinism’s view of what it means for salvation to be wholly the work of God. To this end he is sustaining unconditional election, to which I now turn.

2. Keathley’s treatment leaves cloudy the question whether salvation is by faith. I say “cloudy” because he seems to speak both ways. On the one hand, he forthrightly affirms that salvation is by faith: “The Bible does not merely present faith as the evidence of regeneration or effectual call but as the condition to receiving salvation. Salvation is by faith.”[2] Again, he says, “We are required to exercise faith in order to receive salvation.”[3]

On the other hand, he also affirms things that appear to mean that salvation is unto faith instead of by faith. He follows the quotation just given with these words, “but this disposition of trust is a divine gift.”[4] He “understands the sinner’s coming to faith as a process by which the Spirit of God carries a person to the point of saving trust.”[5] He refers to this as “ambulatory faith” and illustrates with an ambulance carrying an unconscious man to treatment who wakes up on the way having had nothing at all to do with being transported to the emergency room.  This means that God’s “overcoming grace” carries a person all the way into faith. This way, God gives him or her the faith: “All that is necessary in this scenario is that a person refrains from acting.”[6] The man in the ambulance could rebel and insist on getting out, of course; but as long as a person being drawn to Christ doesn’t resist, he will infallibly believe.

We remember that this is the case for persons for whom God, knowing how they would respond to specific circumstances of grace, designed and actualized the world to include the very circumstances that they were certain not to resist.

As I see it, this is not salvation by faith,[7] and the matter is further complicated by the fact that Keathley defends unconditional election. In traditional theology, unconditional election entails unconditional salvation, and conditional election implies conditional salvation. For Arminians, election is God’s choosing believers for salvation, and so their salvation is conditional. If election is unconditional, the elect meet no condition.

I found myself trying hard to discern how Keathley’s unconditional election is compatible with his observation that salvation is by faith. Clearly, he means that election is not grounded in the believer’s faith: “Molinists agree with Calvinists that it is crucial to maintain that God did not elect on account of foreknown merit or foreseen faith.”[8] I concluded that for him “by faith” does not mean conditional salvation, precisely because he regards faith as a gift and therefore the initial element of salvation itself. In the end, Keathley is making a diligent effort to credit the work of salvation to God alone—with which we Arminians will enthusiastically agree. By the same token, he accepts the idea that if the individual must exercise faith in order to be saved then the individual has contributed something and the work is not God’s alone—with which we will firmly disagree. We are not synergists.

For Keathley, then, God’s decree to save the elect is completely independent of their faith. God’s “overcoming grace” carries them along to a faith that God gives them and which they do not actively choose to exercise. This is not the Arminian view of conditional election or of salvation by faith.

3. Keathley does not seem consistent in drawing out the implications of how God deals with the non-elect as compared to the elect. I do not intend to pursue this in detail, but I think it important to mention as a matter for further consideration. To sum up, his view makes God fully responsible, in grace, for the salvation of the elect; but he intentionally does not draw a parallel conclusion with regard to the non-elect.

However, I believe that if he were consistent his view of how God uses middle knowledge would make God just as responsible for the damnation of the non-elect as for the salvation of the elect. At least there would be more that is coordinate than he appears to realize when he compares the two as “asymmetrical.”[9] In both cases, a Molinist God acts in exactly the same fundamental way. For the elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will not resist and will lead them into faith. For the non-elect, God provides circumstances that He knows they will resist and will not lead them into faith. Both of them have, by His design at the moment He actualized the created order, been placed in circumstances which they will freely respond to in ways that accomplish God’s will for them. This is one of the problems of determinism that Keathley fails to avoid, I believe.

I call attention again to these words from the three quotations I included earlier: “God predestines all events.” “God meticulously ‘sets the table’ so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined.” “By use of middle knowledge [God] ordained … with infallible certainty that Peter would [deny Jesus].”  “[God] rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” “Our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.”

The implications of these observations are as surely for the non-elect as for the elect. What Arminians call “prevenient” grace, which effectively enables even those who reject Christ to believe, is not the experience of any non-elect in Keathley’s view, so far as I can see.

The Problem of Order in Molinism’s “Middle Knowledge”

Molinism is about the logical order of elements of God’s knowledge—and, consequently, of His decisions. To begin with, I see no need for Molina’s “middle knowledge.” If God by virtue of His omniscience knows all possible worlds, then He already knows how anyone would respond to any conceivable circumstance.

Nevertheless, Molinism has a problem in its own presentation of order. Keathley and Molinism strongly distinguish between the three supposed “moments” of God’s knowledge.  First is God’s necessary knowledge of what could be, then His middle knowledge of what would be in any of the worlds that could be, and finally His free knowledge (or foreknowledge) of what will be in the world He decides to actualize.

The question is this: Where in this logical progression does election take place?  One would think that God’s decision to elect some out of the mass of fallen humanity cannot logically exist until He has first decided to permit (or cause, in supralapsarian views) the fall. And yet, in Keathley’s progression, God has already, prior to creation, identified the elect in considering what circumstances of grace to include for them in the world He actualizes.

In other words, the way God can provide “circumstances of grace” in the lives of the elect when He actualizes the world is if he has already identified them.  But that means (logically) that He must decide on the world to actualize before He (logically) decides about the fall and then about the election. That might work well if He were designing the world to provide equal opportunity for all, but instead He is designing its circumstances to the advantage and disadvantage of the elect and non-elect. And in order to do that he has to know who they are before He even knows they have fallen and need salvation.

If it should seem that I am violating my own uncertainty about Molinism’s logical “moments” in God’s knowledge, I say that I realize that some things known and/or decided must at least logically precede or follow from other such things. And it is clear to me that God must know/decide that He will create the world, before He knows/decides about the fall, before He knows/decides about election to salvation or about reprobation. But Molinism inverts the logical order.

Conclusion

In the end, the problem with Molinism is, precisely, a problem of order in God’s design for the world and human beings. Molinism offers that God, knowing all our tendencies, designed the world first in such a way that all those He willed to save would freely come to Him and all those He did not will to save would freely reject Him. This means that when we come into the world, God has already placed us in circumstances that will bring the elect to faith and will not bring the non-elect to faith. For such a view, Keathley is right to use words like determines and renders certain to describe the salvific acts of God.  And this is how God becomes a manipulator of human choices.

For the evangelical Arminian, however, the order is different. God designs the world, first and foremost, in a way that works in harmony with the libertarian freedom of all. In His universal salvific program, He provides for all and deals graciously with all in a way that enables each to respond positively to His wooing. Then both the elect and the non-elect, enabled by the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit, respond in libertarian freedom to accept or reject Christ.

When it comes to showing how God’s sovereignty and human freedom work together, then, Arminianism offers a much better understanding than Molinism.

________________

[1] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 102.

[2] Ibid., 119.

[3] Ibid., 116.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 104.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] I can tolerate saying that faith is a gift of God, but only if that is carefully explained to mean that God gives the opportunity and persuasion that enable faith.  But always the Scriptures attribute faith to the person exercising it.  See my Grave, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism & Arminianism (Nashville: Randall House, 2002), 167.

[8] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 11.

[9] Ibid., 145.

Can Arminians Be Molinists? (Part 1)

Robert E. Picirilli

(This is the first of two guest-authored posts)

I hear that some Arminians incline toward a Molinist view of God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Perhaps the reason is, Molinists say their purpose is to uphold libertarian freedom[1] in a universe governed by a sovereign God, sure to achieve His purposes. We Arminians believe in both of those things.

What Is Molinism?

Molinism was conceived by a sixteenth-century Jesuit, Luis de Molina, with the express purpose of maintaining human freedom in a world providentially governed by a God who accomplishes His purposes in all events. Molina did this by defining God’s knowledge as occurring at three logically different (not temporally different) “moments.”

First is necessary (or natural) knowledge, which includes everything God knows simply because He is an omniscient God. What He knows at this stage includes “all possible worlds,” as philosophers like to express this—everything that could be, in other words.

Second is free knowledge, which includes knowledge of everything that will be as a result of God’s choice—out of all possible worlds—to create this world that actually exists. (Understand that a “world” in this sense includes everything that occurs in it, all the circumstances that ever arise.) Since this world didn’t have to exist (else it would have been co-eternal with God), then God’s knowledge of it likewise didn’t have to exist, and wouldn’t have if He had not created it.

Third is middle knowledge. The distinction between the first two goes back well before Molina.  He added a third “moment” or phase of God’s knowledge that stands logically between necessary and free knowledge, called middle knowledge. This includes God’s knowledge of everything that free beings would do in every conceivable set of circumstances.

Now, what does this have to do with anything? According to Molina: when God decided to create this world and all its “circumstances,” He already knew just what every person would freely choose in every possible circumstance. The key idea, then, is that God didn’t just actualize a world, He actualized all the circumstances in that world that He knew everyone would respond to and “freely” make the very choices that fit into God’s eternal plan. This way, God remains in sovereign control and His plan is entirely successful, but human beings remain free to choose between live options.

At first glance, this may seem appealing. I myself have sometimes said that God can keep me from working in my garden, by sending rain, without infringing on my freedom. He can, of course, and that’s an example of “middle knowledge” at work, say the Molinists. But read on.

Molinism and the Theology of Salvation: a Specific Example

In the following three paragraphs I will summarize the view of Kenneth Keathley, as explained in his recent book presenting a Molinist view of soteriology.[2]

When God actualized this world, using His middle knowledge of how every person would respond to every possible circumstance, He designed all the “circumstances” of every person’s existence in such a way that all of them would respond—in their libertarian freedom—in the very way necessary for His plan to be successful.

For the elect, He included in their existence what I will call “gracious circumstances” which He knew they would find appealing and not resist, and which would therefore carry them along to salvation. While this grace is resistible, God knew just how to present it so that they, although free and capable of doing so, would not resist. This way, their salvation is entirely effected by God’s grace, from beginning to end. They “do” absolutely nothing, not even so much as choosing to receive grace. In the entire process that brings them to God, they remain free to accept or reject Him but certainly accept Him—I add, given the circumstances He has placed them in.

For the non-elect, perhaps God also placed them in gracious circumstances to which they could respond favorably, even though He knew they would not. But He did not place them in any gracious circumstances that would bring them to Him, although (I assume) He must have known of such circumstances and could have actualized them but didn’t. As is true for the elect, then, the non-elect remain free to accept or reject God but certainly will reject Him—I add, again, given the circumstances He has (or has not) placed them in. Thus their damnation is entirely their own doing; God in no way desired or caused it.

Lest the reader think I have misinterpreted Keathley’s view, I include here his own words.

From the repertoire of available options provided by His middle knowledge, God freely and sovereignly chooses which one [which option] He will bring to pass. … [By utilizing his knowledge] God predestines all events, yet not in such a way that violates genuine human freedom and choice. God meticulously “sets the table” so that humans freely choose what He had predetermined. Remember the example of Simon Peter’s denial of the Lord. The Lord predicted Peter would deny Him and by use of middle knowledge ordained the scenario with infallible certainty that Peter would do so. However, God did not make or cause Peter to do as he did.[3]

When God made the sovereign choice to bring this particular world into existence, He rendered certain but did not cause the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace. According to Molinism, our free choice determines how we would respond in any given setting, but God decides the setting in which we actually find ourselves.[4]

God determines the world in which we live. Whether I exist at all, have the opportunity to respond to the gospel, or am placed in a setting where I would be graciously enabled to believe are sovereign decisions made by Him. The Molinist affirms that the elect are saved by God’s good pleasure.[5]

Evaluation

It’s one thing for God to use such knowledge in providentially controlling circumstances after He actualized and designed the world. No doubt He does such things to “work all things together” for our good (Rom. 8:38) or for His own purposes. But it’s an entirely different thing for Him to use His knowledge that way to design circumstances for us at creation—before we even exist!—to bring about our salvation or the development of our moral character.

I indicate my rejection of Keathley’s approach with an analogy.[6] Consider a skilled chess-master, playing against opponents whose abilities are much less that his and whose tendencies he knows well. He decides in advance which opponents will win and which will lose. He chooses his moves carefully and designs them in accord with his knowledge of their tendencies and skills. By making this move or that one, he skillfully maneuvers each opponent to freely make moves that will lead to the victory or defeat that the chess-master decided in advance.  And the opponent never suspects a thing!

That’s the way I see Keathley’s Molinist view of how God deals with the elect and non-elect. As I see it, Keathley makes God a manipulator of human beings. He knows their tendencies—more, He knows exactly how they will respond to any circumstance—and ordains circumstances in the very structure of the world that will bring them to salvation or leave them for damnation as He has willed. I appreciate Keathley’s insistence that all the persons involved are free to choose, but I confess that this claim rings hollow.

Like Keathley, I will also affirm that when God deals graciously with people, He knows how they will respond. But he is saying much more than that: namely, that God, before our existence, has set up the world with circumstances calculated to bring the elect to Him and not to bring the non-elect. What sort of creaturely “freedom” is that? Wouldn’t it be better if God brings circumstances of grace into the lives of both elect and non-elect, influences to which all of them really can respond positively? Wouldn’t it be better if He does this without tailoring their circumstances to fit their tendencies in a way that guarantees the salvation of the elect and the damnation of the non-elect? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone, in libertarian freedom and without divine manipulation behind the scenes, can choose for or against Him? This is the Arminian position, and this is not Molinism.

If anyone thinks I am misrepresenting Keathley, I call attention to some of the words in the quotations above. “Humans freely choose what God had determined.” In Peter’s case God “ordained the scenario with infallible certainty.” God “rendered certain … the destruction of certain ones who would reject God’s overtures of grace.” This may be determinism by indirect manipulation rather than by direct causation, but it is determinism nonetheless.

This is not Arminianism. We Arminians agree that God has foreknowledge of the choices we make, but we insist that God’s “overtures of grace” (to use Keathley’s apt phrase) are made to all persons, with the same salvific intent of making possible the salvation of all of them. Molinism, instead, offers that God uses His knowledge of how people will respond to various circumstances to arrange different circumstances for those He chooses to save as compared to those He does not will to save. Arminianism believes that God extends saving grace to all alike and draws them all with the desire that all be saved, thus providing real opportunity for them all; and they choose whether they will meet the condition for salvation or not.

Does Keathley Portray Molinism Accurately?

I believe Keathley’s view, so far, is true to Molinism. Other representations of Molinism seem clearly to confirm this. For one example, consider the following summary:

Before all decision to create the world, the infinite knowledge of God presents to Him all the graces … which He can prepare for each soul, along with the consent or refusal which would follow in each circumstance. …Thus, for each man in particular there are in the thought of God, limitless possible histories … and God will be free in choosing such a world, such a series of graces, and in determining the future history and final destiny of each soul.[7]

That this is, after all, a form of determinism seems assured when the writer adds that in this way God actualized, out of all possible worlds, this very one in which all the circumstances and all the “graces” He likewise actualized bring each individual to the destiny God chose.[8]

William Lane Craig affirms that Molina himself viewed God as operating in this way, that God “chose for the one [the elect] and for the other [the reprobate] the order of providence in which He foresaw that the one would be saved and the other not.”[9]

G. Sutanto capsules Molinism to say, “In so decreeing [all that comes to pass], God elects to actualize a world in which free creatures do exactly what He wants them to do, but in a way that does not sacrifice libertarian freedom.”[10]

Part II of this article will appear next week. 

_________________

[1] The freedom to choose between alternatives, sometimes called the power of alternate choice, is called libertarian freedom.

[2] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2019).  Keathley is Southern Baptist, teaches at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.  Thanks to Matt Pinson for introducing me to this work.

[3] Ibid., 152.

[4] Ibid., 154.

[5] Ibid., 155.

[6] I know that analogies do not prove anything, but they enable us to express our view more clearly or forcefully.

[7] Portalié, Eugène. “Teaching of St. Augustine of Hippo,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), as transcribed in New Advent, ed. Kevin Knight, at  http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02091a.htm.  I thank Richard Clarke for pointing me to this article;

[8] My purpose here is not to vouch for Portalié’s interpretation of Augustine but to show how he understands Molinism.

[9] William L. Craig, “Middle Knowledge, A Calvinist-Arminian Rapprochement?” in Clark Pinnock, ed. The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1989),156–57, quoting the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, s.v., “Molinisme,” by E. Vansteenberghe, 10.2., col. 2112.  (Thanks to Matt Pinson for this reference.)

[10] Nathaniel Gray Sutanto, review of Sze Sze Chiew, Middle Knowledge and Biblical Interpretation: Luis de Molina, Herman Bavinck, and William Lane Craig (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016), in The Journal of Theological Studies 69:1 (April 2018), 389.

2020 Theological Symposium: Update

by Theological Commission

Many of our readers have communicated with us in recent weeks inquiring about the status of our 2020 Theological Symposium, originally scheduled for October 5-6 on the campus of Welch College.

Due to the significant rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and the overall uncertainty created for events like our Symposium where guests come to town from multiple states, we have decided to hold a virtual Symposium this year. Our intent is to still hold this event on the originally-scheduled dates. However, all of our event’s features will be taken online.

Many details are being worked out still, but we will be sure to keep you posted on how you can participate in this free, intellectually enriching event. While we completely acknowledge the undesirable nature of an online meeting versus an in-person event, we do anticipate that the event will be accessible to a broader array of people who, in the past, would not have been able to make the trip to Gallatin, Tennessee or Moore, Oklahoma for our event.

We are still receiving paper proposals at this time, and welcome your questions and submissions. As presenters will not need to be physically present to share their paper, we suggest you take this into account as you consider participating.

Please direct any questions or proposals to fwbtheology@gmail.com, or the comment thread to this post.

Why It’s Not the Same

W. Jackson Watts

It’s just not the same.” Most people have heard this phrase and uttered it countless times since March. It’s how Christians have expressed the sentiment of trying to worship together while not actually being together. After the suspension of worship services in March, the vast majority of congregations transitioned to various online expressions of Christian community and worship. These ranged from pre-recorded sermons being posted online to livestreaming full-length service elements from mostly vacant buildings—and quite a few other variations.

During this time pastors, teachers, and church members repeatedly said, “We know it’s not the same.” I’ve heard those words rolling off of my lips a time or two. Most people recognize that in doing something online, regardless of what they call it, they were engaged in something highly unnatural and undesirable.

Let’s zero in on the phrase itself: “Online ‘worship,’ ‘service,’ or ‘church’ isn’t the same.” I have two main concerns about this. First, it’s not clear to me that all Christians recognize that there is an inherent problem or limitation. Now if you asked them, “Would you prefer to gather in person or watch a video or something like a service online?” most would opt for the former. However, this leads to a second concern. Can we honestly articulate why an online experience isn’t the same as an in-person experience? Only in answering this question, based on biblical principle and practice, can we rightly address the first concern, which is to understand that there is indeed a problem or limitation that we need to face up to.

With that being said, I have composed a list of reasons why an online experience is inferior to an in-person experience. I offer this list with conviction, but also with compassion. I fully understand that we’re still in a transitional stage where many of our brothers and sisters are not yet able to gather  owing to health concerns of various kinds. Yet the importance of addressing this issue is three-fold: (1) Crises are an occasion for us to grow in virtue and understanding. If we must be apart now, and if we want to make sense of the months we were apart, thinking this through will benefit us. (2) Because many who are new to the faith, or who aren’t believers, will likely not fully understand God’s design for the church, this is an occasion for discipleship. We don’t want to squander such an opportunity. (3) Pastorally speaking, there are many who think it’s safe enough to go on vacation, go to Walmart, protest while surrounded by thousands, and/or attend large family gatherings, but gathering at a socially-distanced worship service is somehow not sufficiently safe. Walking through such a list may cause them to reevaluate what is truly essential to our Christian experience.

With those being said, here are my 22 reasons, largely in no particular order:

  1. Church means “assembly.” It’s a gathering. You can’t gather apart.
  2. “Online church” or “Online worship” are oxymorons (see #1).
  3. God made us as embodied creatures to experience life.
  4. It’s impossible to look someone in the eye on a screen and the camera simultaneously.
  5. You can’t hug someone you’re not with.
  6. You can’t shake the hand of a person you’re not with.
  7. You can’t take the Lord’s Supper with the body when you’re not with the body.
  8. You can’t wash feet[1]
  9. You can’t practice congregational church discipline online.
  10. You can’t easily hold a church business meeting online, if at all.
  11. It’s easier to get distracted when you’re apart, behind a screen, and no one else can see what you’re doing.
  12. Online ministry uniquely furthers the problem we already have among some Christians—which is to see the church as a religious content provider (i.e. Here’s a file to download at your leisure!).
  13. Virtual “altars of prayer” don’t provide us a place to weep together as we might need
  14. I can’t hear God’s Word being sung all around me online, no matter how good the audio and amplification are.
  15. The preacher can’t look his listeners in the eye in an empty
  16. The congregants can’t fully experience the depth of multi-directional communication that live preaching achieves.
  17. You can’t have the fullest range of volunteers assisting in leading the worship service.
  18. Online “visitors” don’t experience your church as it truly is, but as an online product.
  19. Younger children don’t get the opportunity to learn to be still and attentive in a service surrounded by other people.
  20. Younger children don’t get to learn about the act of giving by placing money in the offering plate that their mother, father, grandma, or grandpa handed them.
  21. Empty or sparsely filled parking lots diminish yet another opportunity churches have to give a visible witness to what they value in life to the surrounding community.
  22. Participating in Sunday school, small groups, and other similar ministries online loses a significant personal

I want to acknowledge that there may be a counterpoint to most of these. People are finding new ways to perform normal parts of life online. Yet I’ve tried to combine both principles (like #s 1 and 3) with both practical situations (like #s 20 and 22) to help us understand what’s really at stake. You can’t work your way around a biblical principle; it is what it is. It’s God’s good design for us. When it comes to the practical situations, I’m trying to paint a picture of specific experiences we miss when we’re apart. I do see these as practical ways we apply biblical principles, even though they aren’t all commanded of God (i.e. I don’t think Scripture requires Christians to hug as the only culturally-appropriate alternative to a “holy kiss.”). But some of these are ways we express our love and unity in the faith together that can’t be supplanted easily—if at all—in virtual reality.

Let me offer a final thought to those still at home who reasonably must remain there, and those able to gather but may have grown to devalue our embodied, physical gatherings:

To those at homebound or in nursing homes, you are not somehow less than God’s child because you are unable to be with other Christians. This simply means we who are able have a greater obligation to minister to you where you are, as best as we reasonably can. Pray for us as we pray for you. Do what you can from where you can. We miss you, and we love you.

To those able to gather but refuse to, or who deep down doubt the importance of in-person worship, what would you like to say to those stuck at home? After considering this list, do you still feel the same way? How might we honor, respect, and love God and His people well? Seeing why our online experiences fall dramatically short should help us to recommit ourselves to the importance of our gathered life of worship and service, and help us to be more intentional in serving those who weren’t able to gather, even before we ever heard of COVID-19.

[1] I am not advocating that we practice the Lord’s Supper or Feet Washing during a time in which social distancing is still necessary for health reasons. I’m speaking about what is possible (or not) during non-pandemic conditions.

Preserving and Promoting Free Will Baptist Doctrine