The Priesthood of All in a Time of Pandemic
By Dr. Deanna A. Thompson
Before I was diagnosed with incurable cancer eleven years ago, I prided myself on being a digital skeptic who didn’t own a cell phone and stayed away from social media. Then stage IV cancer came along and broke my back, sidelining me from my full and wonderful life. And in the midst of my cancer quarantine, I was introduced to the loving and healing presence of the body of Christ mediated to me via digital technology. Since then, I’ve been on a mission to help shine a light on the power of the virtual body of Christ and its capacity to surround people with love, care, and support during the worst times of their lives.
I prided myself on being a digital skeptic who didn’t own a cell phone and stayed away from social media. Then stage IV cancer came along . . .
As the daughter and granddaughter of pastors, I’ve always been a big fan of the local church. But getting sick exposed me to the virtual body of Christ that extends far beyond the local church. While physical, incarnational presence of the body of Christ is at the heart of what it means to be Christian, the body of Christ has always been a virtual body.
The apostle Paul was almost never physically with those he considered fellow members of the body. To stay connected, he used the mode of virtual communication most popular in his day: the letter. And even though Paul’s virtual presence with the church was in some ways inferior to being there in person, being virtually present through letters opened up additional ways of being meaningfully connected in the body of Christ.
. . . the body of Christ has always been a virtual body.
In these days of COVID-19, many of us are grieving the many losses we’re experiencing due to the church’s forced exile into virtual spaces. Honoring those losses is important. At the same time, might it be possible to allow the power of the virtual body of Christ to provide care and support during this pandemic to enlarge our understanding of the scope and reach of Christian ministry?
Just as Paul had to rely on co-workers like Timothy and Phoebe to bring his message to fledging church communities and offer on-the-ground guidance in his absence (cf. I Cor. 4.17; Rom. 16.1-2), so too are many pastors and church staff relying on tech-savvy congregational members to move worship and youth group and other programs online. Many churches are experiencing increases in the numbers of people tuning in to online services compared to typical in-person attendance. And people living half a country away are finding new church homes as they participate in virtual worship experiences. The same digital tools often faulted for distracting us from what really matters are making more visible the power and reach of the virtual body of Christ that includes and extends beyond the local church community.
The same digital tools often faulted for distracting us from what really matters are making more visible the power and reach of the virtual body of Christ that includes and extends beyond the local church community.
One of the most powerful dimensions of Paul’s vision of the body of Christ is its call to pay special attention to the members who are suffering and in pain (cf. I Cor. 12.22, 26). Pastors and church staff are embodying a powerful capacity to minister through digital technology as we gather together from our homes to be nourished by the Word through worship. Even as enforced physical distancing is making it extraordinarily difficult to be physically present with those who are ill or in the hospital, those in nursing homes or in prison, church staff are relying on members of the body to be the hands and feet of Christ and provide care of the congregation through phone calls and in-person visits that keep a safe physical distance. Using the language of my Protestant heritage, I’m seeing the priesthood of all believers at work in new and transformative ways during these days of pandemic.
Using the language of my Protestant heritage, I’m seeing the priesthood of all believers at work in new and transformative ways during these days of pandemic.
All of us in the church eagerly await the end of physical distancing and the ability for the body of Christ to gather again in person. The toll of separation is great. But during this time of being physically apart, it is also the case that the virtual body of Christ is present to those who suffer in compassionate, healing ways. In addition to attending to our grief and lamenting what we’ve lost, let’s also notice and maybe even celebrate the empowering presence of the virtual body of Christ that’s been with us all along.
Dr. Deanna A. Thompson is the Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. She is the author of several books, including The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World (Abingdon Press, 2016).
 Jason Byassee, “For Virtual Theological Education,” Faith and Leadership, https://faithandleadership.com/jason-byassee-virtual-theological-education.