The last time that we assembled together as a church was on March 15. Since then, due to COVID-19 assembly restrictions, we have ceased from gathering publicly and have instead uploaded pre-recorded worship services for the past seven Sundays. The purpose of these online worship services is to feed the sheep and to help individuals and families worship their Saviour each Lord’s Day. They have been a blessing from God during this dark time. And we’re planning to post another one this weekend. I praise God for his common grace in the provision of this modern technology which has allowed us to record and distribute these services each week. But even as we watch these online services, we all need to understand this truth: online services are not an adequate substitute for public gatherings.
Two weeks ago, our elders sent an open letter to the civil magistrates and in this letter they said this: “We want to express to you how eager we are to work with you so that we, too, can gather in face to face to face worship services.” This letter received news coverage from both 570 News and CTV News. It was rather interesting to see the responses of people on the social media feeds of these news outlets. One of the more common responses we received (from both unbelievers and professing Christians) were along these lines: “Why can’t you just do church online at home? The church is not a location. It’s the people. So if you can pray and worship at home, then worship gatherings are not essential.” True, the church is not a location. But the church is a gathering. It is an assembly. No assembly = no church. Let me explain.
The Definition of Ekklēsia
The New Testament was not written in English. It was written in Koine Greek. And in our New Testament, ekklēsia is a very important Greek word. It appears a total of 118 times. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, ekklēsia can be defined as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.” Similarly, Strong’s Lexicon simply explains it this way, “an assembly.”
Do you know how our English versions translate this word in our New Testament? Church.
Do you know what that means? It means that whenever you see the word “church” in your New Testament, you should think “an assembly.” That is the definition of the word. In other words, you can’t have a church without an assembly. A physical gathering of people is part and parcel to what a church is. It’s literally what the word “church” means! Thus, to say you can have an ekklēsia without an assembly is incoherent. If there’s no assembly, there’s no church.
In his helpful article on this very topic, Matt Merker explains it this way:
“A church is more than a gathering, of course. It gathers, then scatters, then gathers again. Its members continue to be part of the church throughout the week, as they serve and represent Christ in their homes, their workplaces, their neighborhoods. But a church is never less than a gathering.”
The church is never less than a gathering. To say you can have church without a gathering is like saying you can have the Lord’s Supper without the bread and the cup. Or that you can have baptism without the water. It’s simply impossible. The Lord’s Supper requires the bread and the cup. Baptism requires water. And church requires assembly.
Consider Some Analogies
In response to the argument given above, I’ve seen some people say: “but we are still gathering each week…we’re just doing it online.”
Is it really still a gathering if there’s no physical presence? Have we really still been doing ekklēsia for these past seven weeks? Let’s try to apply this line of thinking by considering some analogies.
Watching an online worship service and concluding that you’ve attended a church gathering is like:
- Watching the Raptors win the 2019 NBA Championship on TV and concluding that you were at the Oracle Arena when it happened.
- Or watching a Sandals Resort infomercial and concluding that you’ve vacationed in Jamaica.
- Or watching the 1969 Lunar Landing and concluding that you’ve walked on the moon.
Attendance at a sporting event requires you to actually attend it. Vacationing in the Caribbean requires that you actually be there to do so. Walking on the moon requires you to…well…actually physically be on the moon. Similarly, gathering with God’s people necessitates physical presence. Don’t get me wrong, online services have been helpful during this time. But language does matter. When you watch an online service, you haven’t had church at home. You haven’t done ekklēsia. You haven’t “met together with the saints,” (Hebrews 10:25).
There is much more that could be said. We could talk about how obedience to the “one another” commands in Scripture requires us to actually be with one another. We could look at the example of the early church in Acts, how day by day they met together (Acts 2:46) and how they especially prioritized coming together on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). We could consider how essential the coming together of the church is for the observance of the Lord’s Supper (although I kind of did that last week). We could even do another word study on the Hebrew word qahal which in the Septuagint is translated ekklēsia and which in our English Old Testament is often translated as “congregation” and “assembly”. But for the sake of brevity, I won’t belabour the point.
A few weeks ago someone suggested to me that over the past seven Sundays we’ve more closely resembled a televangelist ministry than we have a church. We’ve put out a weekly broadcast to people’s screens each Sunday but we haven’t actually gathered together. Admittedly, I bucked against this assertion at first. It has taken me a while to process it. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to agree with it. An online service is not ekklēsia. It’s not church. Because for us to faithfully operate as a church, assembly is required.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” – Hebrews 10:24-25
For Further Reading: