How the Apostles Wrestled with Technology

The Bible is not silent on evaluating issues of technology. There are five passages that speak reference face-to-face communication.

One of the more powerful urges of the digital age is to do what is easiest when it comes to exchanging information with others. Whether it’s simply news that you cannot make it to dinner or that you no longer want to date your significant other, we are tempted to use the mode of communication with the least amount of friction or discomfort, like texting or email.

The Apostles faced a similar temptation, albeit from a different medium.

New Testament Technology

They had access to a new technology which allowed them to communicate with groups of people they had loose connections to but lived miles and miles apart from.

It was called letter writing.

Letter writing is old news today, of course, but it was an amazing technological innovation in that day. John and Paul, two pillars of the early Church, actually wrestled with when to write letters and when to meet face to face with the people they ministered to. Let’s look at each of these passages.

2 John 12

At the end of John’s second letter he writes,

“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, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).

John is aware that letter writing, though potentially useful and profitable, has its drawbacks. So he expresses a preference for embodied, face-to-face communication over writing a letter.

David Mathis, executive editor of Desiring God, writes, “John is not angling to erode our appreciation for paper and ink (or pixels), but he is celebrating the priority and vitality of relating face to face.” John even says that meeting in person with those he ministered to would lead himself and those he met with to a place where their joy would be complete, a benefit readers are left to assume is not capable of happening to the same degree through technology.

You’ve said similar things before. When you really need to talk about something sensitive or want to spend time with someone close, you want to do so in person. If you really want to learn something, you find someone to show you in person.

John’s third letter finds him wrestling with similar things.

3 John 13–14

At the end of his third letter, John wants to continue writing down his thoughts and instructions, but wonders if it would be better to visit his audience in person. He decides on meeting in the flesh:

“I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 13–14).

While John reiterates his preference for embodied, in-person communication, he still clearly saw value in communicating through the medium of letter writing, otherwise, he wouldn’t have written them.

When he’s prevented from being with the church he wishes to join in person, the Holy Spirit worked through the circumstances and the letter. “So,” writes John Dyer, “fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the new technology of writing, John makes a calculated choice to use a disembodied form of communication in service of the embodied life of the church, and in doing so he honors our Lord and builds up his body.”

Now let’s look at some of Paul’s writings.

1 Thessalonians 2:17

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church traces a similar theme as John’s letters. Paul writes,

“But 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, because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thess. 2:17–20).

Just like John, Paul longs to see the people of the church face to face, for somehow his joy would be increased by being in the same place at the same time.

At the same time, one can sense Paul’s heartfelt and genuine longing to see his brothers and sisters in Christ in the flesh.

He has resorted to letter writing to keep communication going, but he prefers to be present with them if at all possible.

This sentiment is most apparent in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

1 Thessalonians 3:10

Paul could pray and write letters remotely — and he often did — but he stilled prayed “most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thess 3:10 ESV).

David Mathis notes Paul’s disposition, writing,

“For Paul, writing letters presented an opportunity for fruitful ministry, and seeing his people face to face represented even more fruitful ministry. Similarly, with the many churches he planted, he knew he could only do so much from a distance. Letters could be misunderstood, and recipients could get the wrong impression.”

Both John and Paul’s comments suggest there would be something lacking if they could not meet with those they ministered to in person; that something would be lacking without the embodied experience of being present in the same place at the same time.

Hebrews 10:24–25

Though it doesn’t mention the term “face to face” explicitly, Hebrews 10:24–25 stresses the importance of in-person communication and gathering for the purpose of building up the body of Christ:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

This text makes it clear that there will always be some who forsake the physical gathering of the saints, but this should not be so, for in the gathering of the people of God there is room for encouragement, building up one another, and urging each other to keep doing good works and pushing the mission forward.

Deciding How to Use Technology in Ministry

Can these things be done remotely? Yes—to a degree.

But according to John, and Paul, we should be striving to spend the majority of our time ministering to people in the flesh. And when we do need to resort to digital communication, it should be for the express purpose of building up the body in love, in service of people with whom we have in-person relationships with.

Face-to-face interactions are part of incarnational life, or bearing the image of God in the world He entrusted to us. And what does bearing that image look like in a technological world?

This brings us to a framework for assessing and applying technology, which I’ll cover in my next post.