The very first time we see the term church used in the New Testament is when Jesus said to Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). The English word church is the translation of a Greek term, “ekklesia” which means, “a called out assembly.” The term can have a couple of meanings in reference to God’s people. For instance, it can be centered on the universal church (or as the Apostles’ Creed refers to it: the holy catholic church), or it can be a reference to a local assembly, such as the church at Ephesus.
By the very definition of the church, assembling is part of what the people of God do on a regular basis. Yet, during this season of social distancing due to a pandemic that has nearly shut down the entire modern world—the church must continue to worship. We are called to worship God, and yet, even in our very best attempts, our worship is incomplete.
The Incomplete Assembly
Recently, after the COVID-19 spread was raised to the level of a pandemic, health officials in conjunction with the COVID-19 Coronavirus task force, released a statement requesting that mass gatherings be reduced to a group of 10 people or less. Unless your church is a small plant the size of a large family unit—the regular gathering of the church is a violation of this request. While this is not a law or local ordinance that mandates the non-assembly of the church, it is a wise move nonetheless to prevent the disease from spreading rapidly. Just yesterday, Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General, issued a statement stating that this week we can expect things to “get bad” as things continue to develop.
In short, this season of social distancing that requests the Church to disassemble is a Romans 13 issue whereby the Church in America seeks to demonstrate compliance and proper submission with the governing authorities. If anyone should demonstrate proper respect to this health crisis, it should be the Church. To violate the request and continue meeting demonstrates a lack of proper concern and love for your neighbor and it puts on display a rogue attitude that resembles the world rather than Christ (see Rom. 12:2). Before you continue gathering as a church, ask yourself a series of questions:
- Is this a violation of Romans 13?
- Is this wise and good for the care of our church?
- Is our gathering during this pandemic the proper way to love our neighbor?
- Is this a poor example that can be viewed as rebellious or irresponsible by the watching world?
- Is our gathering during this pandemic necessary? We know that the receiving of the ordinary means of grace is not salvific, so while necessary for spiritual growth and the proper worship of God, is it proper during this season to assemble?
This is not an unbiblical law that demands the Church to bow to Caesar. Instead it’s a temporary move in the midst of a massive health pandemic in order to reduce the spread of a deadly disease. We could learn much by the practical steps of the churches during the 1918 Spanish flu that claimed some 50 million lives at the end of World War I. Local churches were moved to drastic action including a limited season of disassembly for the wellbeing of the people. What if the people during Cyprian’s day (AD 249 – AD 262) had known about the practical nature of germs and how to prevent the spread of disease? The total impact of the mysterious Plague of Cyprian is unknown, but the city of Alexandria, Egypt dropped from 500,000 to 190,000. While some of these numbers could be the result of people fleeing the city, the report from the bishop of Alexandria stated the following:
This immense city no longer contains as big a number of inhabitants, from infant children to those of extreme age, as it used to support of those described as hale old men. As for those from 40 to 70, they were then so much more numerous that their total is not reached now, though we have counted and registered as entitled to the public food ration all from 14 to 80; and those who look the youngest are now reckoned as equal in age to the oldest men of our earlier generation.
Before we overreact and move to embrace the idea of First Internet Baptist Church—we must remember that the unassembled church will have incomplete worship until we gather together once again. There are certain pragmatic church growth leaders who are already suggesting that this pandemic has caused us to see a new and better way to “do church” through the lens of technology. It would not shock me if a book is written on the unassembled church ministry and conferences are held to teach pastors how to grow their church without brick and mortar and large overhead costs. However, such pragmatic decisions might look good on a fancy website, but that fancy website will not enable the church to be the church as God designed. Assembly is required. When we consider the language of Scripture that points to our adoption (Rom. 8:15; 9:4; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), God as our Father (Matt. 6:9), and the members of the church as a family of faith or household of God (Eph. 2:19; Gal. 6:10)—it’s clear that the assembly of the church is a necessity.
An unassembled church ministry is an incomplete church ministry. Only during a limited season as a result of an act of God (disasters, snowstorms, and other natural disasters) do local churches disassemble. However, that is simply out of necessity and it’s always limited. Such is the case with this pandemic. We must seek to care for the church, encourage one another, and worship through the means of technology to the best of our ability while remaining disconnected from the world and one another—but it should be an extremely limited season with the ultimate goal of gathering together in the near future.
Extraordinary Common Grace Cannot Deliver the Ordinary Means of Grace
The assembled church gathers to worship God weekly, and the worship should be centered around what is commonly known as the ordinary means of grace. Biblical worship must be guided by the boundaries of Scripture and should have both a vertical and horizontal aspect, but such design is regulated by God through his Word. Scholars have maintained a theological consensus that whatever considers itself a church must be engaged in the right preaching of the Word, the proper administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. Some add church discipline to the equation as well, although it’s not required for weekly worship practices, but the ongoing regular practice of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, and prayer are absolute necessities for the local church.
In short, the church must be nourished through the preaching of Scripture. It’s a mistake to think that the church can survive without preaching. During this season of social distancing some leaders are suggesting that the church needs less preaching and more conversing. O. S. Hawkins stated the following on Twitter this past Sunday:
Listened to so many of my buddies on line this am….if I had one suggestion it would be the shorter and more succinct the better w/ on line messages (15 minutes)….our listeners are concerned-draw them in as if you are conversing w/ them not peaching to them or at them imo
The church needs preaching. The people need for their pastors to actually preach to them. This is God’s intended means of growing the church—both spiritually and physically. So, through this entire disassembly season, the church cannot live on a steady diet of short talks or conversational chats. The church needs the right preaching of the Word weekly—and especially during this season filled with doubts, fear, and disease.
While technological advancements have provided some good tools for churches to use and consider as a bridge during this pandemic (see the article I published last week offering suggestions and ideas), such extraordinary common grace remains incomplete for the church’s worship. True assembly cannot happen through the screen. So, the church will be limited no matter how good the production may seem on the screen. Furthermore, the very best technology will never be able to facilitate the distribution and oversight necessary for the church to worship together at the Lord’s Supper. Such attempts will be cheap imitation and will fall flat—no matter what pragmatic solution is offered. The Lord’s Supper is a church ordinance and must be guarded against abuse—even as trendy church leaders seek to offer up solutions during this season of social distancing.
As we seek the wisdom of God during this time of economic and medical uncertainty, we can be certain that our God remains sovereign and is working out all things during this pandemic for his glory. We can likewise be certain that he is worthy of the Church’s worship, and we must strive to worship him—even if our worship is incomplete and lacking—we must nevertheless seek to worship our God in spirit and truth.
In closing, if I can offer up some practical suggestions to my brothers and sisters in Christ, I would encourage us to be an encouragement to one another. The Church’s leaders are discouraged and stretched thin as they seek to care for the church during this strange season of church history. Make use of technology for sure, but remember soon enough, the need to assemble will come and we must turn off the screens and assemble together. Last of all, the watching world is watching the Church. May our testimony have the aroma of God’s grace and may their eyes see God’s people exercising solid faith and humble submission to governing authorities as we care for one another and demonstrate love for our neighbor.
Soli Deo Gloria