Video sermons and the marks of the church...
In an earlier post, the subject of the intentional planting of virtual churches served by moving images of preachers not physically present during Lord's Day corporate worship has been under debate. And I've been surprised to find how casually some have accepted this practice, justifying it by saying that when more people come than the fire marshal will allow in the sanctuary, you can't simply turn them away.
Although there's much, much more that could (and should) be said against this method of church planting and Lord's Day corporate worship, here's a beginning...
Whether today the Apostle Paul would correct the Galatians by a sermon delivered by videoconference rather than a written letter is an interesting question. I think not, but that’s not my concern, here.
Churches are popping up all over the country that have deliberately chosen not to have a pastor or shepherd who knows them and preaches to them each week, replacing such a shepherd with a moving image of another church’s shepherd who knows his own sheep and allows other churches vicariously to share in that relationship. This is not corporate worship nor is it church. Protestants have always accepted at least two marks of the church, one being the right preaching of the Word of God and the other being the proper administration of the Sacraments. Calvin puts it this way: “Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail.”
Explaining the significance of a pastor made of flesh and blood who lives in their midst preaching to his flock, Calvin writes:
Those who think that the authority of the doctrine is impaired by the insignificance of the men who are called to teach, betray their ingratitude; for among the many noble endowments with which God has adorned the human race, one of the most remarkable is, that he deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them. Wherefore, let us not on our part decline obediently to embrace the doctrine of salvation, delivered by his command and mouth; because, although the power of God is not confined to external means, he has, however, confined us to his ordinary method of teaching, which method, when fanatics refuse to observe, they entangle themselves in many fatal snares. Pride, or fastidiousness, or emulation, induces many to persuade themselves that they can profit sufficiently by reading and meditating in private, and thus to despise public meetings, and deem preaching superfluous. But since as much as in them lies they loose or burst the sacred bond of unity, none of them escapes the just punishment of this impious divorce, but become fascinated with pestiferous errors, and the foulest delusions. Wherefore, in order that the pure simplicity of the faith may flourish among us, let us not decline to use this exercise of piety, which God by his institution of it has shown to be necessary, and which he so highly recommends. None, even among the most petulant of men, would venture to say, that we are to shut our ears against God, but in all ages prophets and pious teachers have had a difficult contest to maintain with the ungodly, whose perverseness cannot submit to the yoke of being taught by the lips and ministry of men. This is just the same as if they were to destroy the impress of God as exhibited to us in doctrine. For no other reason were believers anciently enjoined to seek the face of God in the sanctuary (Ps. 105:4) (an injunction so often repeated in the Law), than because the doctrine of the Law, and the exhortations of the prophets, were to them a living image of God.
What is a video preacher but the dead reproduction, icon, or image of a living image of God?
We are now to speak of the order in which the Lord has been pleased that his Church should be governed. For though it is right that he alone should rule and reign in the Church, that he should preside and be conspicuous in it, and that its government should be exercised and administered solely by his word; yet as he does not dwell among us in visible presence, so as to declare his will to us by his own lips, he in this (as we have said) uses the ministry of men, by making them, as it were, his substitutes, not by transferring his right and honor to them, but only doing his own work by their lips, just as an artificer uses a tool for any purpose. What I have previously expounded (chap. 1 sec. 5) I am again forced to repeat. God might have acted, in this respect, by himself, without any aid or instrument, or might even have done it by angels; but there are several reasons why he rather chooses to employ men. First, in this way he declares his condescension towards us, employing men to perform the function of his ambassadors in the world, to be the interpreters of his secret will; in short, to represent his own person. Thus he shows by experience that it is not to no purpose he calls us his temples, since by man’s mouth he gives responses to men as from a sanctuary. Secondly, it forms a most excellent and useful training to humility, when he accustoms us to obey his word though preached by men like ourselves, or, it may be, our inferiors in worth.
Having a video image of a preacher present the sermon each Lord’s Day during corporate worship would be a great help to any seeking to escape this “most excellent and useful training to humility.”
Did he himself speak from heaven, it were no wonder if his sacred oracles were received by all ears and minds reverently and without delay. For who would not dread his present power? who would not fall prostrate at the first view of his great majesty? who would not be overpowered by that immeasurable splendor? But when a feeble man, sprung from the dust, speaks in the name of God, we give the best proof of our piety and obedience, by listening with docility to his servant, though not in any respect our superior.
But if we could take to ourselves a preacher who is closer to angelic, further from the dust, and less feeble than the “frail earthen vessels” preaching in our own little church, wouldn’t we be able to carry our heads just a wee bit higher the other six days of the week—particularly when we had an opportunity to announce whose preaching we sat under each Lord’s Day?
Accordingly, he hides the treasure of his heavenly wisdom in frail earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7), that he may have a more certain proof of the estimation in which it is held by us. Moreover, nothing was fitter to cherish mutual charity than to bind men together by this tie, appointing one of them as a pastor to teach the others who are enjoined to be disciples, and receive the common doctrine from a single mouth.…
By these words he shows that the ministry of men, which God employs in governing the Church, is a principal bond by which believers are kept together in one body. He also intimates, that the Church cannot be kept safe, unless supported by those guards to which the Lord has been pleased to commit its safety. Christ “ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). The mode of filling is this: By the ministers to whom he has committed this office, and given grace to discharge it, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the Church, and thus exhibits himself as in a manner actually present…
Well, not “actually present,” but almost. And really, Calvin didn’t know how much technology would help us build the church. Imagine if we could have had a videocam recording all Calvin’s sermons during his lifetime! To this day, we could continue to have Christ “exhibit himself as in a manner actually present” through that prince of expositors, John Calvin! Ooooh, I get shivers just thinking about it! Can you imagine?
If Calvin, then Chrysostom, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Knox, Baxter, Whitefield, and Edwards! And we wouldn’t need to get Edwards secondhand. We could drink directly from the fire hydrant. Think of how the church would grow, and how mature we’d all be. None of these cheap imitations, but simply the pure Word of God preached by men we don’t know personally, nor do they know us...
…by exerting the energy of his Spirit in this his institution, so as to prevent it from being vain or fruitless. In this way, the renewal of the saints is accomplished, and the body of Christ is edified; in this way we grow up in all things unto Him who is the Head, and unite with one another; in this way we are all brought into the unity of Christ, provided prophecy flourishes among us, provided we receive his apostles, and despise not the doctrine which is administered to us. Whoever, therefore, studies to abolish this order and kind of government of which we speak, or disparages it as of minor importance, plots the devastation, or rather the ruin and destruction, of the Church. For neither are the light and heat of the sun, nor meat and drink, so necessary to sustain and cherish the present life, as is the apostolical and pastoral office to preserve a Church in the earth.
A last quote, often posted to this blog:
(People) will give you leave to preach against their sins, and to talk as much as you will for godliness in the pulpit, if you will but let them alone afterwards, and be friendly and merry with them when you have done, and talk as they do, and live as they, and be indifferent with them in your conversation. For they take the pulpit to be but a stage; a place where preachers must show themselves, and play their parts; where you have liberty for an hour to say what you (desire); and what you say they regard not, if you show them not, by saying it personally to their faces, that you were in good earnest, and did indeed mean them. (Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor.)
A virtual church served by a moving picture image of a preacher never has to worry about their preacher coming out of the pulpit and “saying it personally to their faces, that he was in good earnest, and did indeed mean them" for the simple reason that he isn't their preacher.
A church that puts a moving picture image of a pastor preaching at the center of corporate worship on Lord’s Day is not a church because it lacks one of the two marks of the church--namely, the sincere preaching and hearing of the Word of God.