November 2020 Newsletter: A Time of Consolidation: A New Season Unfolding
November 16, 2020
God Uses Ordinary People To Do Extraordinary Things
October 15, 2020

Distance Community Formation: Lessons from Paul

Nabil Habiby
November 13, 2020
Chapter six
ABTS will soon welcome its first batch of new students into the modified integrated program. We are in the middle of the “liminality” that Elie Haddad talked about in the first chapter of this series. Soon we will welcome students to a program that does not include a three-year stay in Beirut at our campus. Soon we will begin to teach them from a distance. The effectiveness of the academic program is not in doubt. Walid Zailaa has already outlined the program’s organization and general framework in the second chapter of this series. At its full potential, it can take up to 120 students studying at the same time at different levels.

The real challenge and the essential question we have been struggling with as ABTS faculty for the past six months revolves around community and character formation. Bassem Melki puts it well: “One might assume that online or distance learning lacks the element of formation. If we are not intentional about it, we can lose it. We are not willing to give that up, however, as ABTS’s main concern is forming leaders holistically.” Of course, this is part of a wider discussion among churches. Can we do church online? Can we “fellowship together” over distances? ABTS has been at the forefront of this discussion in both theological education and local ecclesiology. I want to briefly frame this conversation theoretically before I move on to the biblical framework.

On the theoretical level, it is an issue of embodiment. Can we build a community without bodies in space? Can we be together without being together? Can we affect change and transformation across disembodied distances? Bodies are “performative” and a “lived space.” They are at the center of the action, and not merely in the background.1 Our bodies express our experiences and psychological emotions (e.g. through signs of grief).2 Nast and Pile’s claim is spot on: we live our lives “through the body.”3 Granted all these researchers and body theorists were writing before the pandemic and Zoom (and yet unimagined advances in communication technology). But we have still not been able to re-create the experience of embodiment across space.

More importantly for our immediate context, The New Testament presents us with an “incarnational faith” which links Christianity’s origins closely to the body. Jesus was born, lived, and revealed salvation all in his body. “Every mystery of Christian faith bears a body dimension, including the core revelations concerning inner trinitarian life, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist.”4 This presents a challenge to any Christian community-forming activity, especially in light of the pandemic. But let us not fret. We do have a rather clear biblical example of disembodied community formation: the ministry of Paul the Apostle.

Paul’s ministry took a distinct and steady pattern. He travelled the ancient Roman Empire, mainly keeping along the coast of Asia Minor all the way to Italy. He stopped at major cities for months on end. He preached the gospel, formed new churches (in a synagogue or a house), and left the churches to local leadership. He would later communicate with the churches through letters, emissaries, or second (and third) visits. Notice with me this fluctuation between embodied and disembodied community formation.

Of his letters that have reached us, only Romans was written to a community Paul had not formed/visited in person. In all other surviving letters, Paul had an active role in forming and growing those churches physically. He tells the Corinthians: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow... By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it” (1 Cor. 3:6, 10 – all biblical quotations are form the NIV). We have similar statements in other letters. He reminds the Galatians that they welcomed him as an “angel of God” when he came with the gospel (Gal. 4:14). Notice how he tells the Thessalonians that he not only gave them “the gospel” but also “lived among you for your sake” so that they may imitate him (1 Th. 1: 4-6). This verse in the letter to Titus summarizes the way Paul formed his churches: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you” (Tit. 1:5).

However, since Paul formed hundreds of churches, he was never in one church physically for too long. He did a considerable amount of his community-formation ministry, dare I say, “online.” Rachel Aramentos puts it well in a recent reflection: In a sense, Paul was disembodied in his letters written to different people and communities. Paul extended his thoughts through the technology of the alphabet to form words on paper with ink, which were then delivered to different groups of people that he was at the time physically distant from. His medium of communication disembodied him, yet it was a thoroughfare to reality.5 This was not a mild hope-you-are-doing-well kind of disembodied teaching and ministering. No, this was very much an apostle exercising his entire apostolic authority across the great distances. He unflinchingly issues judgements on a major early church debate, food laws: “All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble” (Rom. 14: 20). He unabashedly gave marriage advice in answer to a question from the church: “Now for the matters you wrote about: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman’” (1 Cor. 7: 1). I note here that Paul is aware of his boldness. He says so himself on multiple occasions. He describes his admonitions to the Romans as “writing boldly” (Rom. 15:15-16). He concedes that his words to the Corinthians are harsh and reminds them that he is writing “not to shame you but to warn you as dear children” (1 Cor. 4:14), and he confesses again to the Corinthians – a church which brought him much pain (see 2 Cor. 7:8-9 and 13:10) – that he has “spoken freely” to them (2 Cor. 6:11). Paul is also aware that at least some of his letters will be read for a wider audience: “After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16).

How then did he view this discipleship-from-a-distance model? He utilizes the notion of being present in spirit with them. Two passages are noteworthy here. “Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit...So when you are assembled and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:3-5). He repeats this same notion in Colossians 2:5: “For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.” Hence, Paul understood that the spiritual connection between him and his flock can transcend distances and give life to his “dead” written words.

However, as we note the power of Paul’s distance community-formation, we must also remember that Paul never saw this as the best way of doing things. It remained for him a choice driven by necessity. How else can we explain his constant yearning to visit his churches which jumps out to us in almost every one of his letters? To the Romans, whom he had not yet met, he writes “I long to see you” (Rom. 1:11-13); he repeats his wish in 15:23-24. To the Thessalonians, he describes his separation from them as being “orphaned” (1 Th. 2:17; see 1 Cor. 4:18-21 for a less amiable impending visit). How did Paul deal with this pressing problem? He sometimes visited his churches again. And often, he sent emissaries to the church to be his representatives. See for example his final words to the Ephesians: “Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you” (Eph. 6:21-22; see also Phil. 2:19-24; Col. 4:7-9). Paul then began his ministry with an in-person time. He kept up communication and community-formation with his churches through letters and missionaries. Nonetheless, he lived in constant yearning to meet with his churches face to face.

We come back to our original question. Can ABTS faculty do community-formation across distances? Paul seems to say yes. But, as per Paul’s model, this community needs to be started in person and visited time and again. I am thankful that our program starts with a two-week residency and has three more of those before the students graduate. Moreover, once the pandemic wanes, we plan to conduct faculty visits to the different locations of our students. Also, according to Paul’s model, the presence of a local vibrant community is crucial. Again, as Bassem Melki already pointed out in his chapter, the students’ presence in their local church will hopefully serve as a spiritual family for them as they embark on their journey in theological education. Finally, Paul kept up constant communication with his churches. I think that piece of the puzzle, considering today’s advancement in Learning Management Systems, is the easiest to solve.

In his last article, Elie Haddad described our work as innovation. Perhaps we are truly tapping into an ancient model, one used by the founders of our faith. We follow in the footsteps of millions upon millions of Jesus followers who sought to be in community together in shared spaces and across distances. It is not easy. Our hearts, as faculty are used to the invigorating dynamics of the classroom, yearn to be with our students. But perhaps as we face this “existential crisis” that Martin Accad discussed in his chapter on the changing role of faculty, we need to be encouraged that, technically speaking, we are adopting the hybrid program model used by Paul the Apostle himself. Let us walk into the future with hope.
1 Robyn Longhurst, “The Body.” In Cultural Geography: A Critical Dictionary of Key Concepts (eds. David Atkinson et al.; London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005), 93-4.

2 Avril Maddrell, “Mapping Grief: A Conceptual Framework for Understanding the Spatial Dimensions of Bereavement, Mourning and Remembrance,” SCG(2016). n.p. [cited 6 November 2020]. Online:

3 Heidi J. Nast and Steve Pile, eds., Places through the Body (London: Routledge, 1998), 1.

4 Mary Timothy Prokes, Toward a Theology of the Body (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 1-2.

5 (accessed 5 November, 2020).