Technology and “Face to Face” in the New Testament

I recently attended Church Tech Camp: Dallas (thanks to John Saddington, Rhett Smith, and Tony Steward for putting it on) and had a blast meeting a lot of neat people.

At one point, there was an interesting discussion about the “digital pastor” which brought up several issues regarding the nature of community and the Church in the online world. During the discussion, someone mentioned Paul’s use of the technology of writing when he could not be physically present. I happened to have looked at these passages a while back, and I thought I would share what I found.

Just to be clear up front, the goal of this post isn’t to answer the question of whether there should be “online church.” My understanding of these passages is that they alone can’t answer that question, and shouldn’t be used as proof texts for or against online church.

“Presence” in the New Testament

'Saint Paul writing his Epistles' by Valentin de Boulogne ca 1600 Greek has two main words for physical presence: πρόσωπον (prosōpon) which literally means “face” and στόμα (stoma) which literally means “mouth.” Both can also used to refer to the whole person’s physical presence and is sometimes contrasted with a spiritual presence or technological representation.

Here are some (ESV) verses in which the two words appear with the meaning of physical pretense, along with two other passages expressing the desire to be physically present, but not using prosōpon or stoma.

  • I answered them that it was not the custom of the Romans to give up anyone before the accused met the accusers face to face [prosopon] and had opportunity to make his defense concerning the charge laid against him. (Acts 25:16)
  • For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you (Rom 1:11)
  • For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face [prosōpon] (1 Cor 13:12)
  • I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face [prosōpon] with you, but bold toward you when I am away! (2 Cor. 10:1)
  • And I was still unknown in person [prosōpon] to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. (Gal 1:22)
  • But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face [prosōpon], because he stood condemned. (Gal. 2:11)
  • 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 [prosōpon, lit. “my face in the flesh”], (Col. 2:1)
  • But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person [prosōpon] not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face [prosōpon] (1 Thess 2:17)
  • as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face [prosōpon] and supply what is lacking in your faith? (1 Thess 3:10)
  • As I remember your tears, I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy (2 Tim 1:4)
  • Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face (stoma pros stoma), so that our joy may be complete. (2 John 1:12)
  • I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face (stoma pros stoma). (3 John 1:13-14)

Some Observations

Here are a few observations from these passages

  1. Paul and John longed to be physically present whenever possible.
  2. Paul and John preferred “face to face” to technological means.
  3. Paul and John often connected physical presence with “joy” and “completeness.”
  4. Paul and John embraced technological tools when they could not be physically present.

Clearly, Paul and John (as well as our Lord) highly valued being present. One might say they valued presence over representation. However, just because they valued being present didn’t mean they shied away from using technology when they needed to. Their use the technology of writing seems to indicate that we can and should use technology for ministry today. In other words, I don’t think these passages can argue against online church without also calling into question many other uses of technology in the Church.

Some Incongruities

While these passages do seem to support the idea of using technology for ministry, there is some incongruity with comparing what they were doing to the concept of online church.

  • Paul and John probably wouldn’t have considered their writing to be the fullness of “Church,” but something supplemental to it. They were transferring words to the page, but not other elements such as the sacraments.
  • Paul and John wrote for the benefit of church communities with existing pastoral leadership, not to individuals. This seems closer to something like piping in video to a campus, but might not quite the same as piping video to an individual’s screen.
  • Paul and John’s use of technology happened when they couldn’t be physically present. This might support the idea of online services for people who can’t come to church such as people living overseas, hospital patients, and parents of new babies, but it would be harder to argue for those who can be present, but choose not to.

Again, this is not meant to argue for or against online church services, but to flesh out the discussion of “face to face” and “technology” in the New Testament. Three things seems clear. First, physical presence was very important to Christ and to the apostles. Second, the apostles were not afraid to use technology. Third, these passages alone are inadequate for answering the larger questions about online church. Much more thoughtful study on the nature of the Church, Church leadership, and the sacraments would be needed to answer these questions.

In any case, may we all long with John for the day when we will see savior, the God-man, Jesus Christ, face to face:

Then they will see his face [prosōpon], and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Rev 22:4-5)