Breaking news: church isn’t about you. Sorry, it just isn’t. But this always comes up. I’ll chat with someone and they’ll say, “I’m done with organized religion”. Church is evil. Or boring. Or corrupt. Or outdated. They’ve been doing church from home for years and they’re doing great. That church over there did them wrong and they’re never going back to any church. They’re doing church their way. They’re better off alone without the church. Just different ways of saying church is ultimately all about you.
As of late, this has only gotten hinkier (yeah that’s a word). I’ve heard people rehash all this but with new accessories like video conferencing. Since they’re able to “do church online”, they’ll never go back to the way it was before. As if to justify the benefits, they’ll happily claim that now they attend more services than ever so they’re just going to keep doing it.
But hold up: what exactly are they doing? I have a feeling that people think because they get their worship-on for thirty minutes and top it off with some Ravi Zacharias (or whoever), they’re doing church. Some think that if they get some bread and juice involved, makes it even better—even if they’re doing this while watching a screen which may-or-may-not be recorded.
I’ve heard of people baptizing their kids in bathtubs with no one but mom dad and little sis around, of people setting up pulpits and preaching to their wife, and of others just hopping from service to service when there’s a lag in the signal.
In all of it, I think that people are just showing a basic misunderstanding of what the church is and why “just doing church at home” isn’t really a thing.
Wait, come back!
I’m not being a graceless legalist. I’m trying to help you grow. You listen, you learn, and hopefully, you change in light of that new information. Or maybe I’ll appeal to your sense of pride: fix my mistakes. I’m not judging you as a person, I’m pointing out that your practice is faulty and if I’m wrong point out how I’m at fault. Listen, if you came into my house and saw me pounding a screw into a wooden beam with a hammer or rolling out some bread with a fork, I’m hoping you’d say something. In that same sort of way, I’m telling you that if you think you’re doing church, you’re using the wrong tools.
Do I Really Have to Go to Church?
Here’s another way you can ask this question: “Am I not free to do church how I want?” Direct answer is no. This is not like your freedom to paint your walls or change the color of the carpet. If you’re a Christian, you need the church!
Like I said, this isn’t about legalism. People like to throw legalism around when they don’t like what they hear. If they hold an opinion and hear a mandate, then all of a sudden, it’s legalism. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Legalism is when a mere human establishes an unbiblical rule by which people are either declared righteous before God or established as having grown in holiness before God. In this context it would mean that for me to be a legalist in this issue, you would have to show that the concept of meeting with the church is unbiblical, not mandated, and is flexible to the point that you don’t even have to do it.
The thing is, we have a verse that outright says people shouldn’t stay apart from the church. Hebrews 10:25 says:
And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.Hebrews 10:25
Someone reads that and they immediately have a work around. “Nuh-uh, this isn’t about doing church at home!” Or, “So you’re saying we have to meet during a global pandemic?!?” or “Excuse me, good sir, this is written to Christians who were being persecuted and they were in danger of abandoning Jesus.”
Now back in the first century, abandoning Jesus looked like not-meeting with the rest of the church. The best way to hide was to disconnect. It’s not so much that they were missing a meeting here or there, it’s the fact that they had willingly decided that it’s better to not-meet together with God’s people and to fall back to what they perceived as better. The writer says that on this side of Jesus’ return, the church must not-neglect-meeting-together but instead encourage one another while meeting together.
That right there is what we call a Biblical mandate. It’s something Christians are obliged to do. But not because it’s about you.
Ignore pandemics, plagues, terrorism and aliens for a now and ask yourself how can you “assemble” to “encourage one another” if you’re “doing church” on your own? What you need to think through, apart from some catastrophe which I’ll get to below, is if you have ability and opportunity to “meet together and encourage one another” why aren’t you doing it?
I Can Learn at Home, Why Do I Need to Go to Church?
Too often people assume that church is a sort of optional continuing education program where Christians come to learn Christian stuff and for whatever reason can take a day, week, months or years off. After all, we have no need for anyone to teach us because we have the Holy Spirit, right (1 John 2:27)? That goes right there goes back to the mentality that church is ultimately about us.
Let’s get a hold of this: If church was only about learning about God, we never would have needed it. Synagogues already existed before the church began, and those places were chockfull of scripture and commentaries. The early church didn’t consist of a bunch of scholars but was rather made up of fishermen and farmers. There weren’t many wise! (1 Cor 1:26). The people learned at church, but it wasn’t the reason they gathered as a church.
The church was built by Christ as a new thing that belongs entirely to God for God’s purposes and that extends beyond learning. Paul writes to Timothy to tell him (and the rest of the church) this is how you ought to behave in God’s family—that goes beyond knowing facts.
if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.1 Timothy 3:15
As a true Christian, you need the church because you are part of the church. The church is God’s family, a pillar and buttress of truth: that’s big. People don’t decide that. Christ sits as the one and only head of the church (Eph 1:22; 5:23) and as the one who takes upon Himself the task of perfecting the church (Eph 5:27), under God who formed the family. God doesn’t leave this mission in the weak feeble hands of people but takes it upon himself to create the desire and work (Phil 2:13) within us, His church (1 Tim 2:5).
Each member is a living stone in God’s building (1 Pet 2:5) being built up as a spiritual family and holy priesthood. You need church because when you gather, you are functioning in the united way God wants His people to function.
But My Church Was Made by People: What Does it Matter?
The God who is three persons in one essence does what he does in the church by being completely involved in her. The Father chooses the church, calls her, then forms her to reflect the image of the Son. The Father empowers, the Lord grants duties of service, and the Holy Spirit empowers with gifts.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.1 Corinthians 12:4-6
The individuals aren’t selected alone. They’re chosen as brothers and sisters to be conformed to the picture of the Son.
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.Romans 8:29
The church was never made by human hands even if you attend a chapel that was hand-built by people. The triune God builds and perfects the church. The Spirit sent by the Father (John 14:15-31) through the Son (John 20:22) indwells believers individually (1 Corinthians 6:19) and corporately as the church (1 Corinthians 3:16). The members of this triune Godhead indwell each other so we the church dwell in the triune God.
Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.John 14:10
that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.John 17:21
This indwelling is so deep and so interconnected that it can be said that as the Spirit dwells within believers and the corporate church, Christ and the Father dwell in the church as well.
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.John 14:23
God in all three persons is deciding what the church is about and he doesn’t grant that option to humans. It is no wonder then, when Jesus was leaving the disciples, he didn’t speak to them as individuals who needed individual comfort in their personal quiet time, but as a group who needed to understand the trinity!
This has infinite value: your local assembly meeting together is the Holy Trinity working in people and calling them together. If this is that important to God, it shouldn’t be less important to us.
Isn’t It More Important to Do Church Where and When I feel that I’m Truly Worshipping From the Heart
People quote John 4 to justify that we can do exactly what we want as long as we’re authentically worshipping God in a non-localized place and in a deeply personal way.
God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.John 4:24
You wind up having people doing church by themselves at a river, on a mountain, at the beach—places that allow reflection—all to the exclusion of other believers. Or, you have people just not going to the church gathering because they feel disconnected or not ready.
But in John, Jesus explains who the truth is and what does it mean to be of the spirit. Jesus is the truth (John 14:6). The spirit is the Holy Spirit (John 3:6). John 4 is not merely a discussion about zip codes and population numbers. It is a discussion of three houses: one house where God never lived, another house where God lived and left, and a new house that gets its life by the Spirit who is sent from the Father through the Son. This life that was in the Father and is in the Son springs forth in his collected people because of the Spirit indwelling them and drawing more to the family.
This community isn’t together because they feel like it. This community is a church because God decided it apart from us.
Over and over again, Scripture makes the point that God doesn’t need us, nor does he require us to be in a contemplative headspace to be obedient.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples made by human hands. Nor is He served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He Himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.Acts 17:24-25
Let’s think about Thomas for a moment. The community of believers is gathering but Thomas isn’t there. Jesus shows up and does an amazing thing: he breaths on them saying “Receive the Holy Spirit”. He didn’t need Thomas to be there nor did He wait for Thomas to show up. Jesus did His work and we hear no mention of Him individually showing up for Thomas. Instead, we see Thomas demanding evidence for what happened.
During the week, Jesus still didn’t show up. In the past, I called this Thomas’ Long Week. On the next Sunday, Thomas is gathered with the community. I don’t know if Thomas had any internal conviction to go to the gathering, but he was there, maybe even wondering what the point was. And yet, Jesus showed up. This time Jesus speaks exactly into Thomas’ situation. (John 20:19-29). It was at that point, not because of the people but because of the Lord Himself, that Thomas confesses “You are my Lord and my God!”
Now this doesn’t mean that true worship doesn’t come from a place of authenticity, honesty, and purity. But it does mean that you’re not required to personally be in a place where you feel authenticity, honesty, and purity. All we have is the fact that God formed the community and the people assemble to wait on Him.
God doesn’t need you in the church to make Him holy. And God doesn’t want you separated from his people gathered together where they get the benefit of his community.
What’s the Point of Church?
To get to the heart of that we have to ask what is the church? Here’s a good point to do the standard Greek word study on the church. You’ve heard most of this before but I end in a different place. The word for church is ekklesia. It’s a compound word of two segments: ek, which means out of, and kaleo, which means to call. People have taken this to mean “called out ones” then tie it back to election or whatever.
But just like butterflies aren’t really flies made out of butter, we can’t just decide that the definition of church is whenever Christians are called out . The word just really means a council, a congregation, or an assembly. It’s why ekkelsia is also used of the rebellious nation of Israel in the wilderness (Acts 7:38), a legal gathering (Acts 19:39), or rioters (Acts 19:40).
Church therefore is just another word for the assembled or the gathered or the congregating. If we’re asking what’s the point of This Building for Me or what’s the point of this religious activity for Me, we’re missing it. I’ve covered a lot up top about how the church isn’t about me or you but all about Him. I’ve pointed out that it’s when the assembled do what they do in assembling, that they find the operation of the triune God. If the point of the church was ultimately found in us, the whole thing would collapse.
The gathered are God’s family as the pillar and buttress of the truth. When the pieces come together, they are functioning as that pillar and buttress. All three persons of the Godhead are working in the gathered so that they glorify Christ Jesus in adoration to the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit.
No individual segment of the gathered can operate in this way in opposition to the whole while still belonging to the whole. Family units or groups of friends can’t stop and call themselves the gathered in opposition to the whole while still belonging to the whole. I’ll get more into this down below but realize how carefully I worded that.
When the gathered congregation properly functions, they operate in a unique fellowship with God the Father over the Son without any intermediary or division in between. Whereas in the Old Testament, the people of God were to function before God with a veil separating them from thunder, glory, holiness, and power; we as the church come into the very holiest of holies through a veil that was torn in half by Christ who offered his body in our place on the tree. Christ picks up the broken relationship that was torn by Adam and puts it back together in Him so that we can be called the Sons of the Living God. He doesn’t do this so that we get a new title. He does it so that we are never kept at a distance from the eternal God, ever again. We are forever tied to Him, proclaiming Him, growing in Him and glorifying Him.
The local assembly, like the church universal, is to be grounded in honoring God via glorifying God’s son Christ Jesus while, through the one Spirit, growing together to the full stature of the head (Eph 4). That takes eternity and it begins today.
…so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.Ephesians 2:7
With such a massive goal, we should see how pitifully weak, how utterly paltry, it sounds to try to boil down church to a me-centered and insignificant purpose. We’re speaking about the unsearchable riches that are revealed in God through Christ Jesus for world without end and not the pithy whims of our internal desires for an extra non-work day. Assembling is not a matter of mere two-legged animals with papers, pencil, an audio player, and maybe some juice and crackers.
This is God’s gathered people exposed to the light of what the God who is three in one and one in three has done in bringing them into his eternal family.
Which Church is Right For Me? Which Church is the Best?
Once you come to terms with all that theology above, it stops being a question about what you’re free to do and instead a question of what you should be looking for. Hopefully we stop hunting for some sort of authentic emotion-driven experience or powerful speakers that we enjoy or a way out to meditate.
Rather, we look for the place that aligns with who God truly is in His being, in His persons, and in His characteristics. The following is a mixture of stuff from Mark Dever (in his book 9 Marks of a Healthy Church), my own study from years ago, and some other stuff. But basically, it’s about hearing everything I said up top and now looking for how the ideal assembly functions.
ONE: The Right Church has Biblical Preaching. It is an Assembly That Theologically and Expositionally Preaches the Word
Christ-followers are to function as heralds: they proclaim the Gospel—the Good News. They shout it from the mountain tops. They shout it from the riverside.
And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”Romans 10:15
This individual work isn’t alone. In John 14-16, Christ sends a Helper to convict the world of sin (because it rejected Christ), of righteousness (because Christ’s death has been overturned and Christ went to the Father) and of judgment (because the ruler of the world has been judged). This Spirit then is working as the individual Christians shout. As the hearts of people are awakened, they’re brought into this eternal fellowship.
The church as a whole has a similar mission but the proclamation of the Gospel is to the church herself: here it is called preaching the word. The Spirit is sent to the church to bring into remembrance the words of Christ. Its why Timothy is called to do the work of an evangelist (2 Timothy 4:5). Not so that he only goes out and individually preaches but so that he preaches to the assembly while they want to hear and when they don’t want to hear.
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and encourage with every form of patient instruction. For the time will come when men will not tolerate sound doctrine, but with itching ears they will gather around themselves teachers to suit their own desires.2 Timothy 4:2-5
The theologically grounded local church does this because it has a biblical understanding of God speaking.
…and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…2 Tim 3:15-16
The theologically grounded local assembly breaks into our individuality by consistently, in line with established Biblical theology, and verse-by-verse, preaching the word. It’s the only way God has promised to work.
…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.Isaiah 55:11
TWO: The Right Church Has Biblical Fellowship. It is an Assembly That Edifies One Another
All Christians proclaim, but the church as a whole is to build each other up as Christ builds it. This equipping is a complete unity of believers in Christ’s crucified death and resurrected life (Eph 1, Eph 4, Rom 6) and culminates in a unity in Christ’s glorification (Rom 8:17).The church universal (as in the entire church, not any single local gathering), says Paul, has been gifted with apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor-teachers for this very purpose. As if that were not enough, Paul mentions (in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 12) that believers have been individually gifted so as to support the entire body in this endeavor.
This therefore is the reason why Paul doesn’t tell believers to go to a chapel. He refers to churches (plural) and the church (singular) but in every place he’s saying to assemble.
The assembly, by God’s triune design, transforms our individuality into corporate unity. We are built up because we partake in the taking and giving. No one is there for their own needs but for the needs of the other.
THREE: The Right Church has Biblical Membership. It is An Assembly That Understands the Priesthood of All Believers in the Local Body
The New Testament, when speaking about the congregation can show these assemblies comprised of a city (Acts 8:1; 13:1) or homes (1 Cor 16:19, Col 4:15) or multiple gatherings in an area (Gal 1:2). It’s one global family that has diverse but unified clusters in a locality. It’s not separate families that sometimes come together as a gathering.
What it comes down to is that we don’t apply family to the assembly. God, who is an eternal community in one, created the family unit, as a picture of Him. It is why Paul in Ephesians 5 speaks about the picture of a man in family with his wife is actually a picture of Christ and the church. He created humans in that way to depict that unified diversity and diverse unity of the Godhead.
In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks about how this diverse unity and united diversity looks like: a body that needs all its members. It’s why we can truly say “I am a member of that local church”. It’s not because we’re part of a club that we can cancel membership but rather because we are parts of an eternal body and some of those members are meeting here.
Each member of the local assembly therefore is a priest with some function. They might have different roles and different levels of activity, but they are each vital to the offering that is given up to God while critical to the life of their fellow priests. Our individuality is swallowed up in diversity. It’s no longer about “what’s in it for me, the individual?” but rather “how else can I help the body worship our triune God?”
FOUR: The Right Church has Biblical Observance. It is an Assembly that Takes the Lord’s Supper
Some call it the breaking of bread, others communion, and yet others the eucharist. Christ established the meal for the community of believers. The early church was in the habit taking it on the first day of the week (in remembrance of the day Christ was resurrected: John 20; Act 20:18; 1 Cor 16:2). Called by Christ, they were to do it in remembrance of Him because:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.1 Corinthians 11:26
They were never to do this as individuals. In fact, Paul says that it was better that people stayed home and had a meal than do what they were doing with the Lord’s supper—acting like individuals.
In the following instructions I have no praise to offer, because your gatherings do more harm than good. First of all, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. And indeed, there must be differences among you to show which of you are approved. Now then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat. For as you eat, each of you goes ahead without sharing his meal. While one remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have your own homes in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? No I will not!1 Corinthians 11:17-22
Do you see that? Feeding themselves, worshipping on their own before others are there, the desire to go to the gathering to satisfy themselves was pitted against the purpose of the gathering or the “coming together”. Paul says that the gathering as an assembly is different from the gathering of the home:
So, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you come together it will not result in judgment.1 Corinthians 11:33
At this point someone would say “The early church met daily in homes and they took the Lord’s Supper”. First, these folks will point to this passage about what the church did as foundational:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.Acts 2:42
Afterwards they’ll hop down to verse 46 to show a similar phrase:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts…Acts 2:46
They assume then that either (1) the early church jumped from home to home having the Lord’s Supper or (2) there were plenty of small groups that were breaking bread whenever they wanted in homes.
But there are other options like (3) Acts 2:46 an Acts 2:42 are speaking of different things (breaking bread vs. The breaking of bread) or even (4) the church in Jerusalem was so big that it was really multiple churches that each would take the Supper in homes. That last one makes a lot of sense when you examine Acts 2:41:
So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added.
These weren’t people or small groups that were meeting in opposition to the church gathering; these gatherings in homes were churches!
The local assembly that gathers to take the bread and the cup depicts our unity as one body in Christ while taking the Lord’s Supper. When they do this corporately, they together proclaim their unity in the Lord’s death until He returns.
FIVE: The Right Church Contains the Biblically Obedient. It is an assembly of Baptized Believers
Christ tells the twelve that they are to make disciples, baptizing them in a tri-fold authority of the Godhead (Matthew 28:19). The believers who are going out are preaching the word. Those people who believe make a public confession that they are part of the assembly of Christ’s People. They do this by being baptized in the eyes of the community to which they belong and in opposition to the world that they leave behind. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances, but there is always some established reliable leadership element that can proclaim that yes, this believer has confessed and been baptized.
Baptism becomes such a fundamental aspect of every Christian in that early church that Paul can reference it (Rom 6, Gal 3, Col 2) to teach a lesson about proper Christian living. True, Paul does say he personally wasn’t called to baptize but that is not to say he didn’t do it (because he did 1 Cor 1:14) but it is to say that his work was not to be solely focused on the markers but establishing the foundation.
The right church has a true understanding of conversion and community so as to obey in baptism. They don’t merely employ water for the sake of getting dead men wet but rather baptize confessing believers into the community of faith. When they baptize confessing believers, they understand what they are confessing so as to join together as truly assembled.
The local assembly stands as a corporate witness to remind us as believers about our baptism. This is why it is important that a believer should be old enough to proclaim his or her belief and remember their baptism. Not because the washing of water does anything but because the picture depicts a spiritual reality that speaks against our individuality. We have each been crucified with Christ, buried in his baptism and raised again to newness of life.
SIX: The Right Church Biblically Loves. It is An Assembly That Sacrificially Loves God and The Members
Christ gave the church an example of washing each other’s feet (John 13). In Acts, disciples sell their possessions and form a community. When distance proved impractical, the churches in an entire region would, at one point, gather up money to give to a church they’ve never seen and probably had some huge cultural issues with. Paul explains (1 Cor 13 ) that the church was to operate on the principle of love, to one another and without reserve. This law of love (Romans 13-15) becomes a driving principle in all believers’ interactions with each other.
This love isn’t fluffy emotions. This does not mean that the love the church showed was couched in romantic or enabling language that left people in their sin and depravity. This love is drawn out of the fact that the church is brought into an intra-trinitarian love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and the Spirit loves in return. That God who is love draws us in to love one another as He has loved (1 John 4:7). This is the same love poured out by Christ into believers by which we cry out Abba Father yet is truly concerned for the truth.
As the church loves God, the church loves that which God has loved. God loved us and gave Himself for us, so we are to love those he gave Himself for—the church. To hate the people of the church is to hate the God who gave Himself for them.
The assembly that sacrificially loves turns its gaze away from their own needs but to God and to His household then out to the world who is dying.
SEVEN: The Right Church Holds to Biblical Discipline. It is An Assembly That Corrects Members
Jesus specifies the way that the believers were to deal with a brother who has caused offense and eventually, if the brother is stubborn, bring the issue up before the congregation (Matt 18). Paul points out what must be done with an openly sinful person within the congregation (1 Cor 5). The Hebrews writer points out the necessity for the group to remain a gathering because the falling of individuals from this group is tantamount to the sin of the Israelites before Canaan.
An assembly that loves God as He is and People for whom the Son died, is one that corrects. An assembly that enables and leaves its members in the depravity of sin is one that doesn’t love enough.
EIGHT: The Right Church Strives for Biblical Holiness. It is An Assembly That Strives for Purity in Life and Worship
The church members are to maintain purity by (A) not embracing pagan worship practices (Acts 15, 1 Cor 10); by (B) not going back to the sacrificial system of Judaism (Hebrews); by (C) adhering to the Scriptures of the Bible and the Apostolic Teaching (2 Tim 4) by (D) maintaining a corporate life of continual prayer (1 Thes 5:17) and by (E) maintaining pure moral practices in their sex lives (1 Thes 4:3), their business lives (1 Thes 4:6), and their interpersonal interactions (Matt 5 – 7)
An assembly that is worse than a local business in how it handles money brings a low witness of the God they confess. If a local assembly is filthier than a local brothel in purity or more polluted than the most heathen temple in worship, they have strayed from the truth and therefore God. The assembly that strives for this purity speaks against our individuality by calling us to be better not only for our own good but because we are part of God’s family that has been purchased with a price.
NINE: The Right Church Adheres to Biblical Plurality. It is an Assembly that has Shepherds Serving in Community
In the Old Testament as the children of God wandered through the wilderness for forty years. Not once during those 40 years did Moses command where the people would camp. Not once during those 40 years did the people decide that they could camp somewhere else. God was always the one who moved the pillar of smoke by day or a column of fire by night and the Israelites had to pack their bags and follow! Forty years of walking and going and not once did they have the right to say, “now we are assembled here”. No, God always dictated where they were to be and who consisted of the gathered.
At the same time as God led and builds His house, God clearly established leaders who would be over the congregation. He established Moses and Aaron (Ex 7:1-3) as leaders. He gives clear guidelines on how Aaron’s leadership is to function and how the leaders under him would operate (Num 3). God then allows Moses to appoint other leaders to function as judges (Exo 18:1-27; Deut 1:9-18). Through it all, God is consistently the Father to His Son Israel (Exodus 4:22) establishing the fact that God’s congregation isn’t a management system by which people can subscribe or unsubscribe, but a rather a family.
In the New Testament, God established elders in the local assemblies. They were set as under-shepherds to whom God’s flock was entrusted. They are to work preaching the word, being faithful to the text, and equipping the gathered saints so that they could be enriched as they functioned as individual living stones. In some assemblies that were large enough, God saw fit to supply deacons who would assist the elders.
The local assembly that has multiple leaders functioning in community under the principles I’ve stated above cares about any of the sheep who are in danger of falling away.
If I Can’t Find the Perfect Church, Why Should I Bother?
That listing up top was pretty impressive and yet most of us know that local assemblies fail in one or several of those aspects. Someone going through all of that might probably laugh and say, “that church doesn’t exist.”
At this point it is encouraging to see how Paul referred to the church at Corinth.
This church had believers who cared for nothing but themselves, some were getting drunk during the Lord’s Supper, some were visiting idol’s temples, some were visiting prostitutes, some were suing each other, others were questioning the resurrection of the dead, others were babbling during the Lord’s supper, and there was even a case of a man who had a relationship with his step-mother. If there was any place that could be listed as not a church it was probably Corinth.
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people1 Corinthians 1:2
I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.1 Corinthians 1:4-9
The assembly wasn’t perfect, but Paul saw them as a church with saints who are in fellowship with Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus himself, when telling John to write to churches refers to some pretty rough assemblies: losers of their first love (Rev 2:1-7), perverters of doctrine (Rev 2:12-17), impure worshippers (Rev 2:18-29), hypocrites (Rev 3:1-6), and apathetic (Rev 3:14-22).
In all of these cases the charge is not to stop assembling but rather examine yourselves, repent, and try again.
You should be committed to a local assembly that comes closest to all of these markers but know that an assembly always consists of first-generation Christians. In other words, no one is born a Christian. That being the case, each generation of believers can drastically change the tenor of a church. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, and wrote to the Ephesians again through Timothy, but Jesus still had to send the Ephesian church a corrective letter in Revelation. A local assembly can thrive and in fifteen years shutter the doors.
We’re not responsible for finding the perfect church. We’re responsible for being part of a local body and doing our part within that local body to aid in functioning as the right church for local believers.
How Do Special Circumstances Affect Church?
None of what I have written substantially changes. The theology, goal, intent and markers are all the same. Even the admonition is the same: there’s no such thing as an individual going to church at home in opposition to the local gathered body. But extenuating circumstances, whatever they may be, would call for some honest examination and then to think through things in a way that acknowledges the circumstance and the Biblical reality.
Imagine there was a blizzard that came through on a Sunday. It’s a special circumstance that calls for special actions. When it happens, those events don’t cause us to throw away the pattern that has been established in Scripture. Some things are modified, some things are paused, and some things are relabeled.
An everyday example is the matter of shut-ins. They have a medical condition that prevents them from leaving the home. That member of the body is a fully functional God-called member that is there for the good of the rest of the local body. James, noting the problem, tells this member to call the elders (James 5:14-16) who will then come. In that setting they’re functioning as a community. I can imagine that in that situation, some saints might come along to worship with this believer and break bread together as the church gathering there. It can even be communicated to the church as a whole that the church will take the Lord’s Supper this morning as well as at the home of sister so-and-so later that day.
Consider the matter of frequency of the Lord’s Supper. There’s no command as to how often we’re to take it. We know that the early church had the practice of taking the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week. We know that a marker is that the church takes it in obedience to the Lord. That doesn’t mean that the local assembly must take it every week. As often as we do take it, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns but when we don’t take it, we don’t corporately proclaim the Lord’s death until he returns. Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 11 when he told the Corinthians that it was better that they stayed home and had a party than come together and call the party the Lord’s Supper. If, during a state of emergency, the assembly under the oversight agrees that they are not gathering for several weeks then they can also agree not to take part of the Lord’s Supper until they meet together again. That’s not legalism. That’s theology informing practice.
This intimate agreement is grounded in understanding the limits of how they operate and the necessity of the circumstances. A similar thing occurs in 1 Corinthians 7 when a husband and wife pause in their marital relations for a season. The husband is the head of the wife but neither of their bodies belong to themselves—and yet they both decide to have a prayerful pause. But then, after the pause, they have full intention to come together once again. There’s no law here. This is their theology (that they are one flesh and that marital relations only occur with each other) informing their practice.
Think through the marker of church discipline above. Yes, the local assembly corrects her members, but the timing is something that isn’t mandated. If a brother is caught in sin it is important for another brother to try to get him out. Sometimes, that looks like Matthew 18 (as above) with a couple of brothers having to visit the sinning brother. Yet nowhere in the passage does it say that the bringing the erring brother before the church must happen immediately (Mat 18:17). During extenuating circumstances, perhaps the elders meet with the sinning brother more often while there’s opportunity for him to repent. If the brother continues in his sin, when the church finally does come together again, they’ll have to deal with it.
Also, as above, it is clear that the assembly assembles and that looks different from an individual at home or his family—but that also doesn’t mean that an assembly can’t, out of necessity, become several assemblies. If a state of emergency is so comprehensive that the separation of a broader group is extensive, they can (and probably should) consider splitting into several sister assemblies. In this case, if an assembly consists of 100 people, maybe it breaks down into two assemblies of fifty and the elders and deacons separate and become the elders and deacons of those separate groups. We have precedent for this when we see that in Jerusalem the churches met from home to home: they were too big, so they had to have smaller assembly structures. Same thing probably happened in Ephesus (Acts 20).
Even the language that the assembly employs can be different. When the church gathers, we sit together under the preached word but when separated we might call it listening to a teaching. Or perhaps a recorded word of encouragement. Or attending a zoom study. In so doing the saints are equipped to think through the differences of the situation now versus what happens when they come together. We want to equip one another to consider that as a gathered church, we try to think like the Bereans who examined and believed together but when sitting at home, reclining in a love seat something is different.
You see, the theology and the principles are the same but that informs the decisions we take and the areas where we can properly operate.
Thinking through all of this helps with the actual in-practice scenarios. We don’t have the authority to change the pattern that God placed in Scripture but upon knowing and understanding the pattern, we are better equipped to think through tough situations when they rise up.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been struggling with wanting to continue an individual form of Christianity, I’m begging you to stop. Even if you have to stick to the back wall of the gathered assembly, keep coming. You’re not complete without being there and the church isn’t whole without you there.
If you’re reading this and wondering if your church can do the Lord’s Supper via video conferencing, I pray that you thoroughly study what we’re on about when we take the Lord’s Supper. Is it primarily about us, as individuals, remembering the Lord’s death while other people do that as well? Is it primarily about a known gathering corporately proclaiming the Lord’s death together taking the elements? In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul speaks about unbelievers stumbling in and being convicted based on the proclamation that is happening. Does this stumbling-in happen when dislocated and disembodied or does it happen in some other form?
You see, in some of this there are still open questions. During those unique circumstances, it’s good to wrestle with the questions and also to submit to the local leaders in the decisions they have prayerfully taken. I think churches need to be good Bereans and, underneath their local oversight, be shepherded along on the answers. In some cases, some gatherings might take a different stance when it comes to an extenuating circumstance but all believers, of any stripe, should know that the extenuating circumstances are not normalizing. In other words, just because your assembly gathers a certain way during a unique situation or catastrophe, doesn’t mean that it is the way it should normally gather after the catastrophe has passed.
To say that even more simply yeah, you might be doing church online right now during a global pandemic, but afterward, you need to go back to the meeting of your local assembly. At the end of the day, the church isn’t about you. It belongs to God. As for me, I hope this helps your thinking and discussion, especially when considering why church is important.