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Can the Church Remain Faithful While Not Gathered?

Posted by Joshua Claycamp on

Dear First Baptist Church,

I have posted below the comments of Dr. Albert Mohler from this morning's episode of The Briefing, March 20, 2020. You can listen to it here:

The Briefing, March 20, 2020

Stay safe, brothers and sisters. I love you.

In Christ,

Pastor Josh


Can Christian Churches Remain Faithful While Not Gathered Together? Understanding the Challenge Churches Face by the COVID-19 Pandemic

News is coming from much of the Muslim world that one of the major impediments to stopping the rapid spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, is the fact that so many Muslims insist on continuing to go to mosques and shrines. Both of those are places where human beings are put together in very close contact and furthermore, often for many different parts of the world and because of that, it is now believed that this is a major energizing factor when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus.

It's clear that at least some Islamic leaders are trying to curb the spread of the coronavirus by telling Muslims to stay away by closing mosques and shrines. But on the other hand, there really isn't much of a precedent in the Muslim world or in Muslim history for arguing that Muslims for any considerable amount of time should not be obedient to the call of the pilgrimage. The Hajj after all was one of the pillars of Islam, but that's a problem that is now exacerbating the situation in nations like Iran, most importantly, but also throughout the Middle East. It's also affecting the largest Islamic nation in the world by population, which is Indonesia. Indonesian authorities announced yesterday that the mosques in that nation would be open, although they would be thoroughly sanitized. As might be imagined health authorities are alarmed because that is likely to continue to spread the virus rather rapidly.

But all of this raises some very basic questions that are of even greater urgency to those of us who are Christians trying to think about our responsibility not to neglect the assembling of ourselves together in Christian worship. How should Christians think about the orders coming from government and the instructions coming from health authorities that we ought not to meet together? For how long and under what circumstances? What does this mean theologically?

Well, it's first most important that we as Christians turn to Scripture. For example, to Hebrews 10:25, the very text that I had just mentioned. As the writer of Hebrews tells us, Christians are not to neglect to meet together "as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” We are not to neglect the assembling of ourselves together.

Looking at this as a whole, it is really very interesting for us to look at the issue of the gathering of God's people both under the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. For example, if you take a text such as Acts 2:42-47, we're reminded from the earliest chapter of the church, "And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

What we need to note here is that the Christians were gathered together. There's reference here to the communal activity of breaking the bread together and of course of sharing fellowship together. We also know that the earliest Christians, more importantly than anything else, met together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the preaching of the gospel, for the preaching of the Word of God. Now consider the fact that in the Old Testament, the people of God gathered together over and over again. They assembled. Text after text tells us of the people of God being called together to assemble, of assembling themselves together, hearing the Word of God together, as was the case in Nehemiah 8 where Ezra and his fellow companions were preaching the Word of God. They read from the book and then they explained its meaning.

Consider the sacred assemblies that took place. Consider the fact that even by the time you reach the New Testament, the word "synagogue" is central to our understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus and to the missiological activities of the Apostle Paul. He went first to the synagogue and preached Christ. Christ read the Scripture in the synagogues. He went repeatedly to the synagogue. What is the synagogue? Well, it is a Greek term that means "the gathering together," and thus the Jewish people gathered together. The synagogue, unlike the temple, was the place where Jewish people gathered together for teaching and for prayer, and of course the word “synagogue” continues all the way to the present day, especially in the Jewish world.

By the time of the emergence of the Christian Church, it is very clear that the Christian Church was a gathered assembly. The assemblies gathered themselves together in city by city they gathered themselves together. Lord's day by Lord's day, they assembled themselves together.

In Acts 2:1, we come to understand even as the day of Pentecost and that great sermon is described that the Christians had gathered themselves together in one place. In Matthew 18:20 we are reminded that Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them.” That does not mean that every place that two or three Christians are gathered together is a church. It does mean that wherever two or three Christians are gathered together, the Spirit of Christ is the bond between them.

In 1 Corinthians 14:26, Paul writes to the church at Corinth about when they come together, meaning their corporate worship, which took place, we now know, on the first day of the week that Christians renamed as the Lord's day. We know of this practice of communal assembled Sunday worship in a text such as Acts 20:7 where we are told that, “On the first day of the week, we assembled to break bread.” Furthermore, the first day of the week is formally named the Lord's day in Revelation 1:10 where the Apostle John writing from the Isle of Patmos speaks to the fact that he was in the Spirit on the Lord's day.

The most important New Testament word describing the church is the Greek word ecclesia, that means "called out ones,” called out from the world, called into something, called into someone, called into Christ, into the body of Christ, and called into assembly and worship and fellowship as the church gathered together. Now, of course, I'm speaking to this background not only as a matter of biblical theology and a consideration from the New Testament of the New Testament vision of the church. I'm also speaking without apology as a Baptist, as one who defines the church as and only as the body of Christ made up of regenerate believers who have followed him in faith and in obedience.

The church in the New Testament is a believer's church and it gathers together in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. First of all, in obedience to the gospel and then in obedience to all that Christ has taught. And that includes most formally the ordinances that Christ has given the church: baptism and the Lord's Supper, also the commands of Christ concerning proper worship that centers in the preaching of the Word of God, the prayers of God's people together, and in the assembly—beyond that also, as Paul writes to the Colossians, “encouraging one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”

And so as you look at the history of traditional worship as understood not only by the church throughout the centuries, but in particular by the Reformers and their heirs including the Baptists, what you would find in worship is the centrality of the preaching of the Word of God and the essential obedience to Christ's commands that is made clear in sharing hymns together—psalms and hymns and spiritual songs—and also praying together. So there is fellowship, there is prayer, there is the preaching of the Word of God. All of this, of course referred to as the ordinary means of grace.

But that points to a major distinction, it reminds us how theology matters. In the context of the current crisis related to the coronavirus, COVID-19, many churches, indeed, most churches are not gathering themselves together Lord's day by Lord's day, at least for some time.

Now, there are many issues attached to this. For one thing, when the call came from some government authorities for churches not to meet on Sunday, it was a singling out of churches as opposed to calling out all mass gatherings of people of any certain size. That was corrected by most government authorities rather quickly, but it is a reminder to us of the fact that churches are quite easily singled out. It's also a reminder to us of something more positive and that is the fact that if you are looking at the primary reason why so many Americans still gather together at any one time, in any one place, at any one specific hour, you're going to come back to the fact that the church remains that central gathering place for the majority of those who in the United States are going to be gathering anywhere in similar circumstances. So that's more positive, but nonetheless, that's just one aspect to our understanding of the current crisis.

The question is, can Christians and Christian churches remain faithful in not meeting together, in not assembling ourselves together, not hearing the Word of God preached together in the flesh, in space and time in history? Can the Christian Church be faithful under that context? The answer is yes, for some time with adequate justification.

Now, the immediate argument could come, well at any time there could be what someone would claim to be adequate justification. Indeed, there could be and we are sobered by the centuries of Christian history to remind ourselves that there should be extremely rare exceptions to the regular gathering of ourselves together, and these must be justified not by any specific address to the church not to meet, but by some overarching cultural situation that means that it is advisable that no persons gathered together in groups of any size considerably because there is some threat by the gathering together. That is exactly what we now face in the COVID-19, coronavirus crisis, and we will face it for some time.

But that then leads to a host of other difficult questions—biblical questions, theological questions, ecclesiological questions, obedience questions. Most importantly, it comes down to this, is it really possible for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, for a local, faithful, biblically established congregation to worship, to gather, to be together in some sense online rather than in the flesh? Well, that's a perplexing question. Let's go back to any answer we would give to that question before the coronavirus crisis. Any answer I would give and one that I've given repeatedly is that YouTube is a lousy place to go to church, which is to say there is no electronic digital social media replacement for what Christ intends by calling his church to gather together—the exhortation, the command that we find in Hebrews 10 not to neglect the assembling of ourselves together.

The examples are given clearly in the New Testament over and over again of the church gathering together, assembling itself together, participating in the example of Christ, enjoying the fellowship of the church together, hearing the Word of God preached together. But at the same time, we do understand that we are now under a moment of emergency. As I have said repeatedly on The Briefing, at this point, the clearest metaphor or historical parallel to what we're talking about is a time of intense warfare. We're talking about the fact that only something like World War Two at the present moment serves as any kind of useful precedent or historical understanding for the challenge that we now face.

We do understand that at certain points it can be actually physically impossible for the body of Christ to gather itself together in the context of a local, biblically established congregation. It can be physically impossible, but again, throughout Christian history, those examples would rare. It just seems that right now we are living in one of those moments of exception. But here are some deep theological concerns about this moment of exception. We should not as biblically minded Christians actually believe that anything we can do online is actually the same as what it means for us to gather together in physical space, in our physical bodies, and to experience the ordinary means of grace together, to experience the fellowship of Christ church together, to enjoy and to experience the singing of hymns together, our voices coming together in unison, praying together, and hearing the Word of God preached together.

Now, if we're honest, this is just a matter of common sense. Just consider what it means, for example, to watch a movie. Consider the distinction, the qualitative, but very real distinction between watching a movie with a crowd in a theater and watching a movie as a private event streaming the movie on whatever device you may be watching. You are watching exactly the same film, at least theoretically, but you are not having exactly the same experience. The experience of watching a movie together means that you have the communal experience of emotional response. There is a laughter together. There's a cringing together. Sometimes there's even a scare together. The reality is that it is together. Emotional movement is multiplied by the fact that it happens in a communal experience.

And there's also something beyond that, that psychologists, if no one else understands, educators have at least some understanding of this, even in our intellectual appropriation, even in the exercise of our cognitive capacity, we think differently together than we will think alone.

God made us not only spiritual creatures but social creatures as well, and in the experience, for example, of hearing a speaker speak—let's be more specific, hearing a preacher preach—we are hearing the words together differently than we would hear them alone. The same thing is true of a teacher in the classroom. There's a social experience that helps to define even the cognitive and intellectual event.

But even if we were to go to that period before the coronavirus, even as I would have told you that YouTube or any other media platform is a lousy place to go to church, I would've said it is a good place to go to find the preaching and teaching of the Word of God beyond and in addition to the preaching of the Word of God, which we have obediently heard in the context of our own local congregation. I'm very thankful to be able to go to the internet and hear men who are dead yet speak, such as Martin Lloyd Jones or you could come up with many others. There is an enormous library and enormous repository now of Christian preaching. Furthermore, even amongst those preachers who are living, we are able to listen to one another. We are able to listen in on other congregations, but there's a crucial distinction theologically and spiritually between listening and listening in. Listening among is very different than listening in.

An Encouragement to Local Churches and Pastors in a Time of Extraordinary Circumstances: God Be With Us Till We Meet Again

So how do we put all of this together? I hope to encourage local churches to do as much online as you can possibly do. That is, have the preaching of the Word of God online. Sing together, insofar as it's possible, online. Read the Scripture together online. Pray together online. But never make the mistake of believing that you are doing the same thing and you are having the very same effect that you would have in the body, in the flesh, in the room. For some time, under extraordinary circumstances, we can understand that this is the best that we can do, but it is not in the full New Testament sense, what it means for the church to gather together. But still looking at all those periods during church history when the church was persecuted, wouldn't it have been helpful if the church had had access to the preaching of the Word of God that we will have even when we do not have access to the worship center or the church building or to the church of which we are a part gathering together?

It is still something very important for churches to be able to maintain connection. We will not have the fellowship that we would have in the room, but it is particularly important right now that churches take pastoral responsibility to reach out to those who might be an even greater need in isolation. We cannot reach out to them as we would wish in person, but there is something to reaching out even by means of social media or a phone call or just about any means of communication that does not require us to be face to face, just a few feet apart.

There are some other very important dimensions we need to think about here. For one thing in the course of traditional worship, there is the collecting of the offerings of God's people and what we need to recognize is that the financial needs of Christ's church continue even when we cannot gather together. Thus, I just want to encourage faithful Christians continue to support your local church just as generously when you are apart, as when you are together. If anything, being apart must underline the reality and urgency of just how soon we hope to be together again and we hope to sustain the ministry of the church vibrantly and faithfully even when we are apart until we can gather together again.

We also have to remember the thousands of missionaries and other servants of Christ who are all over the world deployed for the glory of God and the service of the gospel and they will continue to need that generous financial support because they are still right there on the field and on the front lines. Find a way to continue that generosity to keep those missionaries, those preachers, and others on those front lines.

Pastors need to reach out to their people and pastors need to reach out to each other. Congregations need to hold themselves together as best we can even when we cannot be physically together, and congregations need to encourage and to strengthen fellow congregations established in the gospel of Jesus Christ and according to the Scripture. We need to do everything possible in this moment of urgency, even emergency, in order to call out faithfulness in one another by any means possible and by any means necessary until we can return to the means that are most clearly, faithfully biblical—the gathering of ourselves together.

But as we bring these thoughts to a conclusion for now, I think of that song that I learned as a little boy in church. With the congregation at the conclusion of worship, holding hands across the aisle and singing to one another, a song that concluded with these words, "God be with us till we meet again.” Indeed, that must be the prayer of Christ's church of every congregation—God be with us till we meet again.

Tags: worship, faithfulness, gathering, kamloops, corona virus