The recent virtual church movement has both captured allegiance and anxiety. Many acclaim it as the dawn of New Testament Christianity, while others see it as a refrainment from the realities of established church life.
During the global lockdown caused by the novel Coronavirus pandemic, online church became the only available platform for Christians to continue their fellowship with one another.
During this period, Christian fellowships and church based organizations utilized the wonderful tool of the internet to connect with members of their spiritual community for fellowship, counsel, encouragement, prayers, support and updates.
The enormous benefits of the internet to the assembly of Christians virtually cannot be quantified. Organized body of believers from different church assemblies congregated independently in obeisance to God and his Word as the supreme authority over life and existence.
But in opposition to this unique privilege of virtual online church gathering, Rev. Chris Okotie, Pastor of the Household of God Church Lagos, Nigeria, recently said that online church service is unscriptural. He argued that God knows where we are; if he was not interested in the assembly, we would not need to gather physically.
In his words, “You cannot gather unto God until you are called out. That’s why Israel was called out of the world. So, this thing, this phenomenon that we are talking about, the internet and cyber churches, is totally unscriptural.
You praise in your house, I praise in my house; he can see all of us. He doesn’t need computers – that denies him who he is. That is why the bible puts that verse as an imperative – ‘you must not forsake the assembly of yourselves together.”‘
The screams of Christians against Rev. Okotie’s statement grew more frenzied as more Christians listen to his message to the church, titled: “The COVID-19 Mystery.”
How scriptural is Rev. Chris Okotie’s statement? Is online church unscriptural? What is the delimitation between a virtual gathering and a physical assembly? What are the scriptural distinctions between the two?
The early church community started as a house church that met in homes in small groups to stimulate a formal church life. The record in the book of Acts tells us that ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship… They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. Paul wrote, ‘Greet also the church that meets in their house.’
But during the times of persecution, church gatherings went underground into the catacombs. But after the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, church buildings began to multiply for congregational worship.
In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Reformation-fostered new churches as Protestants built their own places of worship. Yet in every century, under different circumstances, Christians have fashioned out ways to meet to supplement a more formal church life.
In all, the gathering of the saints, under any circumstance, whether during persecution or a pandemic, has always been the assembly of themselves together as the ‘called out’ ones.
While it is true that the novel COVID-19 is a satanic conspiracy against the church and the world, to challenge God’s plan for man on earth, the virtual gathering of God’s people as ‘online church’ is not unscriptural.
So the statement by Rev. Chris Okotie that says that online church is unscriptural does not reflect the true position of Scripture. While it may not be the best for us not to be able to congregate physically, it is not unscriptural to foster a new way of congregating in the face of a global challenge.
So for now, until everything returns to the way it used to be, unto the Lord shall the gathering of his people be – whether online or physical assembly.