We Always Need a Brother

Technology and Presence in Biblical Teaching

Modern men have a distinct tendency to think that we have to grapple with a number of things that are “new under the sun.” But from the fact that the ancient preacher had to make a point of refuting this peculiar idea (Ecclesiastes 1:9), it would seem that even this mistake is not new.

One of the assumptions we tend to make is that something called “technology” has somehow created this new thing called “distance learning,” and that we have to come up with some fancy new way of combating the new temptations that come with it. But these are not new temptations at all — they are ancient temptations. And if, as some of us suspect, the first few pages of Genesis were probably written by Adam (with Moses, of course, serving as editor), these temptations are almost literally as old as the hills.

Ephesians as Distance Learning

Think about it for a minute. In addition to the first pages of the Bible, to take another example at random, the book of Ephesians is a form of distance learning. The apostle Paul had certain thoughts in his mind, which he arranged to have recorded on parchment or papyrus. That letter was then entrusted to a courier or couriers, who utilized things like donkeys, ships, and wagons to cross a great distance of many miles so that the letter to the Ephesians might be received by them. Then someone unrolled it, stood up in the assembly, deciphered in his mind what was written, and read it aloud to the assembled. As he did so, the same thoughts that Paul had been thinking in a distant prison cell were duplicated in numerous minds throughout the room.

That is distance learning. Not only so, but that same book of Ephesians traverses the distance of centuries every time one of us sits down and reads it. That is greater distance learning.

Preferring Presence

Now let us push for a moment in the other direction. There is no doubt that the biblical writers preferred to fellowship with the saints face-to-face. They preferred actual presence to distant reminders.

  • “Since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face” (1 Thessalonians 2:17).

  • “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink [instruments of distance]. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).

  • “I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 14).

But the only reason we even know about this earnest desire shared by Paul and John is that they settled for second best and wrote it down. They refused to let the best become the enemy of the good. I would love to meet the apostle Paul, as I someday shall, but in the meantime, because of the great distance between us, I am exceedingly grateful for his letters. He doesn’t know me, of course, but I think I know a good deal about him.

Extending the Reach

I write this as — full disclosure, as they say — someone who is connected in various ways to different kinds of “distance learning.” I am an enthusiastic proponent of it — not as the “best” thing possible, but as a very good thing that will help us all pursue the best in our own churches, our own homes, and in our own communities.

For example, I am actively involved in promoting Logos Online School, a service in “distance education” for both homeschoolers and Christian schools. For decades, we have been recording the sermons that I preach in order to distribute the audio as widely as possible. We are now doing the same thing with the video of sermons. I write books, I blog, and I tweet. The point is to fill Jerusalem with our teaching (Acts 5:28), which would include clogging up all the RSS feeds.

There are people out there who read what I write that I have not met, or have met only briefly. This is lamentable, on the one hand, but it appears to be a design feature as well. From the beginning, God has wanted teachers to extend their reach beyond the people they could actually know.

Pitfalls and Rescue

But those who are concerned about possible pitfalls are not imagining things. The temptation that comes with this old reality is not a new development. As long as we have had books, we have had bookworms. And now that we have the Internet, we not only have video-game ninjas living in their mother’s basements, but astute theologians also.

And there is an additional temptation for those who are producers of what is these days quaintly called “content.” They can retreat into the kind of library that Calvin wanted to hole up in — at least until Farel pinned his ears back.

And so even if the library we are considering has wireless, we need to remember that we always need a brother (like Farel) who will bust in on us and tell us things we didn’t want to hear. In person.


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