GRAPEVINE—Responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have varied among pastors in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
Bart Barber of First Baptist Church in Farmersville has performed a baptism since the congregation he leads stopped gathering in person, but he feels the Lord’s Supper should not be administered online. Pastor Nathan Lino hasn’t administered either ordinance since coronavirus scattered Northeast Houston Baptist Church, but he believes both are permissible online. Pastor Tony Mathews of North Garland Baptist Fellowship is concerned about nonbelievers potentially participating in an online Lord’s Supper, yet he suspects benefits will outweigh risks if the stay-at-home order drags on for months.
Those are just some of the views expressed April 23 in an SBTC webinar entitled “Online Ecclesiology: Worship Services, Preaching , Ordinances, Membership, and Social Distancing.” Joining Barber, Lino and Mathews in the discussion were SBTC executive director Jim Richards and Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin.
Webinar panelists agreed that the biblical norm for a church is gathering physically and that the Baptist Faith & Message defines parameters of Southern Baptists’ doctrine of the church. But they differed over which church functions can be performed online during the COVID-19 pandemic, with congregations unable to assemble.
The discussion has taken on heightened relevance in recent weeks. By the end of March, just 7 percent of U.S. Protestant churches were still meeting in person, according to data from LifeWay Research. Only 8 percent of pastors were not providing video sermons or worship services. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents to stay at home except for essential trips out beginning April 2, effectively pausing most church gatherings.
Panelists were unanimous that the pandemic has temporarily removed an essential element from church life.
“There is, in the physical gathering of a church, a supernatural presence and dynamic that is not present when the church is not gathered,” Lino said, citing Matthew 18:20. “We are still the church” despite physical separation, but believers are “missing out” whenever they are not able to assemble.
Richards went a step further, asserting “there really isn’t a church scattered. There are believers that are scattered,” but “the only time the church exists is when it’s together.” By definition, the Greek term for “church” in the New Testament (ecclesia) refers to “a called out assembly,” he said.
Webinar host Tony Wolfe, SBTC director of pastor/church relations, asked viewers in a poll whether they agreed that “for the local church of tomorrow to be effective in the Great Commission, she must integrate online ministries and activities with on-campus ministries and activities.” Of roughly 100 participants voting, 57 percent agreed, 39 percent disagreed and 9 percent were undecided.
All panelists disagreed with the statement in the poll question, citing online ministries as helpful in many circumstances but not demanded by Scripture.
Online ministry is “not required at all,” Mathews said. Still, North Garland began offering online worship services amid the pandemic, and they have yielded both additional attendees and new givers to the church. When physical services recommence, he said, “we have to be prudent” not to present online worship as an alternative to gathering with the church.
All panelists said it is not biblical to join a church and be considered a member in good standing without ever gathering with the congregation physically.
Regarding online baptism, webinar viewers were split but all panelists said the practice is permissible. In response to a poll question, 41 percent of viewers agreed it is “biblical” to video baptisms privately and share them with the congregation through an online platform. Thirty percent disagreed, and 28 percent were undecided.
In support of online baptisms, Sanchez cited “examples in Scripture where there were true baptisms” under “irregular circumstances” apart from a local church assembly—like the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism beside a road in Acts 8:39. “Some flexibility” seems to exist in how a church administers baptism during the pandemic, he said, provided the congregation practices believer’s baptism by immersion and regards baptism as “the initiatory rite for the new covenant community.”
When discussion turned to administering the Lord’s Supper online, opinions varied among both viewers and panelists. Just 21 percent of viewers agreed it is “biblical to lead observance of the Lord’s Supper through an online platform with church members participating in their own homes.” Fifty-four percent disagreed, and 26 percent were undecided.
In expressing his openness to online administration of the Lord’s Supper, Lino cautioned that it “should take place under the authority of the local church.” He will “probably” observe the Lord’s Supper online if the stay-at-home order extends for months, but he wants to help Christians understand it is improper to observe the Lord’s Supper on their own, apart from a local church.
Barber grounded his opposition to online communion in a congregation’s responsibility to take the elements as a body.
Baptism can be administered online “because the function of the congregation is to witness the baptism” after affirming the new believer’s testimony of faith in Christ, he said. “But in the Lord’s Supper, we are partaking together and that is a different mode of participation for the congregation.”
All topics considered in the webinar “are tough issues,” Sanchez said. “Each pastor and each church leadership is responsible to the Lord for studying the Scriptures” and obeying according to their conscience. “We’ll all give an account.”
The full video from the event is available at https://training.sbtexas.com/onlinetraining