How can we be the body of Christ when we are physically separated?
Millions of Christians around the world are answering this question during the increasingly restrictive measures deployed to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The Bible uses the metaphor of a body to describe the church. One only has to briefly consider the separation of body parts to wince and throw the mental gear into reverse, backing out of that unnatural thought. The body is meant to be together. And likewise, the body of Christ should also be together. God’s people come together in myriad ways, but most primarily by gathering on the Lord’s Day for worship. But now, in this current crisis, we cannot.
How can we be the body of Christ when physically separated? While being physically present substantially enhances our fellowship in the body of Christ, it is not the exclusive sphere of our togetherness. In other words, the bond together as a body is not primarily physical but spiritual. This means that we as Christians can still do good to one another, even when we are apart.
Here are five ways we can be the body of Christ, even when we are physically separated.
We need to spend time in the Word of God ourselves (Ps. 1). Neglect of the bread of life is the neglect of our souls. But, to neglect the Bible is also to neglect the body of Christ. Paul exhorts the Colossian church:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
Likewise, staring into the teeth of apostasy, the writer of Hebrews instructs the church to deftly deploy the Word in the ministry of exhortation. We really are our brother (and sister’s) keeper!
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Heb. 3:12–13)
How can you serve the body of Christ while apart? Read the Bible. Meditate upon it. Memorize it. Write it upon your heart. Why? Do all of this so you can have something to encourage your brothers or sisters with. There are real needs. People are hurting and confused. If you can take from your own freshly prepared meal of God’s Word and share it with others, then you will be serving them well. When we speak to one another, we need to say words that fit the need of the moment and give grace to those who hear (Eph. 4:29). To do this, we need to give ourselves to the daily reading of the Scriptures.
Prayer is one of the most obvious things we can do. Being separated by space does not limit the service we can provide to each other in this way. An example of this is found in 1 Thessalonians, where Paul had a great desire to see the church face to face (1 Thess. 2:17). Nevertheless, he prayed continually for them (1 Thess. 1:2–9) and requested prayer from them (1 Thess. 5:17, 25). Similarly, Paul writes to the Colossians, telling them, “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,” (Col. 2:1). But this distance and burden only served to fuel his prayers for them (Col. 1:9–14).
While being physically present enhances our fellowship, it’s not the exclusive sphere of our togetherness. In other words, the bond together as a body is not primarily physical but spiritual.
Likewise, in our time of separation, we can pray for one another. We can take these prayers from Paul and make them our own. We can take the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9–14) and pray it for one another. We can also take the manna we find in the Word and pray for God to make these truths sing in our brothers and sisters’ ears. I use a form of our church directory to pray for church members. I also include guests and attendees, missionary partners, sister churches, and friends in ministry. Work through an organized list of petitions for your local church. Pray for your elders and their families also. While you may be personally quarantined, your prayers are not. They ascend to the nostrils of omnipotence. And he delights to hear his people pray.
Since we are members of one body, it matters what we do with our physical bodies. There are implications for our union as a church. We are to pursue holiness and be intolerant of sin. The point of church discipline (Matt. 18:15–8; 1 Cor. 5:1–14) is to purify the church. If a church member is not living in light of their profession of faith, another member comes alongside to lovingly remind them of God’s Word. If the person yields to sin and continues to live in an unrepentant manner then they are affecting the church. Paul rebukes the Corinthians negligence here by saying, “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:6–7).
The fighting I’m talking about is against our own sin. With the understanding that we are part of the body of Christ we then want to fight against sin that would pollute the body. Just like you wouldn’t want to do something that would hurt yourself, so too, you don’t want to injure the body. During the time of isolation for coronavirus reports indicate that all sorts of undesirable activities are increasing. Sins like drunkenness, abuse, pornography, and others are on the rise. As Christians, we don’t see this time as a season for moral laxity or self-indulgence but of holiness through self-denial. We are to fight against sin and put it to death because we are Christ’s (Rom. 8:13; Col. 3:5). And if we are Christ’s then we are part of his body.
Being apart can make serving more difficult. It forces us to be creative. Instead of meeting face to face, we can pick up the phone and call each other to check-in. We can also text, email, or video chat. At present, we can even write a letter and drop it in the mail. Make it a goal of the intentional interaction to speak words of encouragement and grace to one another. Remind them of what God has impressed upon your heart. Tell them how you’ve been praying for them. Ask if they have any physical, financial, or other needs. Perhaps some groceries need to be picked up, leaks need to be fixed, or bills need to be paid. As these needs arise, be in contact with your elders and deacons to advise of the needs. Be careful not to reduce service to just the things we do at church. Service is what we do together as a body helping one another to know and follow Jesus.
One expression of being a part of the body of Christ is the regular, joyful, and sacrificial giving to the Lord’s work in our local churches. While the current crisis has far-reaching implications, the local church is not exempt. Even though churches are not meeting publicly, they continue to have needs. The church relies on the regular giving of her members to support missionaries, pay church staff, pay the mortgage and utilities, as well as the benevolence needs in the body. Each member should carefully and prayerfully consider their service to the church in this area as well.
There are many other ways the church can be the church when not gathered together physically. I’m thankful that while these are new challenges for us today, they are not a surprise to God. He is in control, and he remains unflinchingly committed to his church. Let us seek his wisdom to do the same.