Is the physical gathering of the church necessary? This question has been on a lot of people’s minds lately as the COVID-19 has brought many churches across the United States at odds with the civil government. In Iowa, the state I am from, the governor put out a decree that churches could not meet and if they did, they could be charged with a misdemeanor. The governor then changed her mind and admitted that she didn’t have the authority to tell churches not to assemble and capped this terribly confusing sequence off by telling the churches they now were allowed to gather in person again for worship services. Think about that for a moment, she admits she doesn’t have the authority to close churches down and in the next breath she is “allowing” them to meet, as if she had the authority to allow this. I bring this example up because many have said that Iowa’s governor has handled this situation better than most and yet it is clear she has bungled it. If such a confusing situation is better than most then clearly we need some clarity on the subject.
I want to start by stating three premises for you to keep in mind as you read this article:
I fully believe in the self-governance of churches; therefore, I may disagree with many of their choices, but I do maintain the church can and should self-govern.
Though a church can self-govern that does not mean the church is making the right decision and it does not mean the decision fits with the teaching of the Bible. Therefore, the church, even through self-governance, could be in sin.
Even before I recognized God’s call in my life to go into ministry, I loved church. This topic is not just a trivial doctrine to me it is a deep passion that I have had since I can remember.
As we consider the question, “Is the physical gathering of the church necessary?” We first need to define what the word “church” means. Ekklesia is the Greek word for church and it means “A called out assembly”. This definition will be important to remember throughout this article.
The church is made up of individuals who are called out of the world and sin and are called to live for Christ and in righteousness. The church, therefore, is under no obligation to follow the trends of the world nor to conform to the world, but to be separate and set apart for Christ. In 1 Timothy 3:15 Paul writing to Timothy says, “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” The church is the pillar and ground of truth, and as such the church is more than capable of making decisions without the world’s suggestions or dictates.
The second part of the word church (Ekklesia) is an assembly. Assembly means, “a group of people gathered together in one place for a common purpose.” Remember the church is not a building or a service, but the church is bound by the laws of nature on this earth and must have a shared physical location as a shared time in order to meet this definition. Many people during the COVID-19 debacle have tried to redefine what assembly means by saying you can tune into church. If we are to live within the bounds of the laws of nature and agree that words do in fact have meanings, then we cannot get around the truth that churches, by definition, must assemble physically.
I do want to make a quick note to another reason the internet is not qualified to be the church. An assembly is not just shared space and time, it is a shared purpose. This is even more true of church. The internet is a battlefield, on Easter Sunday we had someone heckling Christ and making fun of the resurrection in the comments on our live stream. Let me tell you what would happen if someone did that during a service at our church, I would tell them to leave and then some of the men in our church would help that person find the door. That isn’t because I don’t love the hecklers, it is because church is a holy place and of common purpose. The internet is full of trolls. Don’t misunderstand me, the internet is a useful tool (I use it all the time), but it is not capable of replacing the physical gathering of the church.
Physically assembling together is a command we are to obey. In Hebrews 10:23-25 it tells us,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.
When this passage is brought up many only think of one phrase, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves” and many who disagree with my position are ready to argue by telling me that a short government shutdown does not qualify as “forsaking the assembly”. That is fine, I must agree, not forsaking the assembly is clearly referring to individual faithfulness and I believe it is perfectly legitimate to draw the conclusion that many assemblies have forsaken faithful individuals during the COVID-19 panic. The portions of the passage I would like to point out are, “stir up love and good works” and “exhorting one another”. Let me ask a simple question, what are the means to “stir up love and good works” and “exhorting one another”? It is the assembly. In context we are called to “stir up love and good works” and “exhorting one another” in the assembly. Therefore, implicitly implied is the command to assemble. It is only through the assembly we can fulfill the commands God gives us in this passage.
It is true you will not find a Bible verse that says, “Thou shalt go to church”. This is because in the very definition of the word church is the command to physically assemble. It is also true Hebrews 10 doesn’t state, “you must physically assemble to be obedient”, but it is implied. In the midst of government overreach how should a church respond? I believe Acts 5:29 has the answer when Peter said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” Churches it is time to open your doors and keep them open and assemble!
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