I understand that many people are wrestling with these topics and I want to be extremely patient with those that are thinking this through and have not arrived at the same conclusion that I have. Admittedly, it’s taken me a lot of time, study, thought, and prayer over the last couple of months to arrive at these conclusions. And so my goal in writing this blog post is not in any way to create division, rather it is to help you biblically think through these issues. When it comes to an emotionally-charged topic like the one discussed in this blog, we must learn to put aside our changing feelings and stand firmly on the unchanging Word of God, using it as our guide.
A few days ago I wrote a blog arguing that when the government commands us not to do something that the Bible commands us to do, we should “obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29).
For example, if the government banned all proselytizing of any faith or any ideology, Christians would civilly disobey because God has commanded us to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation,” (Mark 16:15). God’s command to do something trumps man’s command not to. Therefore, we must obey God rather than men. This is precisely why there are missionaries all over the world serving in closed countries. Because Christian churches and ministries have decided that the authority of God on this matter overrides the authority of civil governments.
Similarly, I argued that since God commands us to gather as the church, a passage like Romans 13 does not obligate us to obey our government’s assembly bans, much like it wouldn’t obligate us to cease from evangelizing if the government were to place such a restriction upon us. Of course, churches may voluntarily choose to (temporarily) suspend worship services out of love for neighbour in obedience to the greatest commandment (what I called the “Matthew 12:7 principle”), but their rationale for doing so should be the desire to preserve human life, not simply the desire to obey the government over God’s command to gather.
This argument is based on the assumption that God does indeed command us to gather as a church, similar to how he does indeed command us to evangelize. If this assumption is true, then similar biblical logic must be applied to how a church should weigh Romans 13 against both types of restrictions—one from evangelizing and one from assembling. If both bans ask us not to do something that God requires us to do (this is known as the sin of omission), then we are not obligated by Romans 13 to comply. As I’ve already said, we might be motivated by the greatest commandment to suspend worship services for a season, but that’s an entirely different argument than believing that Romans 13 obligates us to.
So the question then is this: does God require us to meet?
Pastor Jacob preached on this last Sunday, concluding that Jesus commands us to meet. You can watch his sermon here. But I’d like to add a few more reasons to the ones he gave. With that said, here are 10 reasons why God requires us to meet.
1) The Church As ekklesia
I’ve already written about this concept in a blog post a few weeks ago. But it’s a very important part of this discussion, so I’m bringing it up again. Every time you see the word “church” in your New Testament, you’re seeing a translation of the Greek word ekklesia. This word literally means “the gathering” or “the assembly.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines ekklesia as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place.”
The church is not a building. It is not a location. But it is a gathering. It is an assembly. If there’s no assembly, there’s no church. Church = Assembly.
So in one sense, an assembly ban is a church ban. It’s a ban against ekklesia. If the government is literally banning us from being the church, are we really obligated to submit to that? Do you think the apostle Paul would admonish Christians to #stayhome and cease from being the church (the ekklesia) for as long as the government says so? He certainly went against his government’s evangelism ban. Don’t you think he’d go against an ekklesia ban too?
2) The Precept Found in Hebrews 10:24-25
Hebrews 10:24-25 says this, “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.”
This passage is what’s known as a “hortatory subjunctive.” A hortatory subjunctive is a phrase usually translated “let us” that carries the weight of a command. So Hebrews 10:24-25 should be read as a command. We are commanded not to neglect the meeting together of the saints. And we are also then commanded to encourage one another, with the urgency to do so “all the more” as we see the Day drawing near. The implication here is that in order to be able to properly stir one another to love and good works and to encourage each other, we have to meet together. If there’s no gathering, then we cannot fully obey these commands.
Further, the author of Hebrews explicitly calls us not to neglect the gathering together of the saints. The word translated “neglect” can also be translated “abandon, cease, leave, or forsake.” It’s a present, active, continuous verb which implies that the neglect is an ongoing, perpetual habit, not a one-time thing. Some argue this does not 100% apply to the situation that we are in because we aren’t choosing not to worship together. Still, the underlying assumption of regular gatherings remains. Additionally, the commands to stir one another in love and good works as well to encourage one another are tied to the gathering together. We cannot fully obey these commands according to these verses without gathering. Gathering then is required.
Finally, consider the context of these verses. A few verses later, Paul explains that these Christians “endured a hard struggle with sufferings” (v. 32), were sometimes “publicly exposed to reproach and affliction” for their allegiance to Christ (v. 33), knew Christians that were “in prison” because of their faith (v. 34), and “joyfully accepted the plundering of their property” (v. 34). This is the context in which they are told not to neglect gathering together with the saints!
3) The One Another Commands in Scripture
You can extend some of the biblical logic that I gave in the last point to all the one-another commands found in the Epistles. Here is a small snapshot of some of these commands:
- Welcome one another (Romans 15:7)
- Address one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19)
- Serve one another (Galatians 5:13)
- Greet one another (Romans 16:16)
- Speak the truth to one another (Ephesians 4:25)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2)
You have to remember: these one-another commands are found in letters that were written to local ekklesia‘s. You cannot obey the one another commands in isolation. They are to be lived out in local church assemblies. In a way, every one another command has the command “meet together” built into it because saints have to gather in order to obey the command. In other words, when you read the command to “serve one another,” it’s as though Paul is saying “Meet together and serve one another.” For you cannot serve one another without gathering.
Simply put: if we are unable to assemble together, then we are unable to live in obedience to these one-another commands.
4) The Example of the Church in Acts
The authorities banned Christians from speaking or teaching to anyone in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:17-18), let alone assembling for public worship. Yet:
“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.” – Acts 2:1
“And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.” – Acts 2:46-47
“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” – Acts 4:31
“And what they said pleased the whole gathering…” – Acts 6:5
“When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.” – Acts 12:12
“And when they arrived and gathered the church together…” – Acts 14:27
“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” – Acts 20:7
5) Paul’s Instructions for Lord’s Supper Observance
I wrote about communion a few weeks ago and I think the entire post is relevant to this discussion because it speaks to how the gathering of the saints is an essential part of what makes communion, communion. Paul assumes that communion takes place during a corporate gathering:
“When you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” – 1 Cor. 11:17
“When you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.” – 1 Cor. 11:18
“When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat.” – 1 Cor. 11:20
“When you come together to eat, wait for one another.” – 1 Cor. 11:33
“When you come together it will not be for judgment.” – 1 Cor. 11:34
If we cannot gather, we cannot observe the Lord’s Supper. Indirectly, an assembly ban is a ban on coming together to take the Lord’s Supper.
6) Paul’s Instructions for Church Discipline
The final step in the church discipline process is to occur in the assembly of believers. 1 Corinthians 5:4 says, “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” This final step must take place “when you are assembled.” This means then that a ban on assemblies is in turn a ban on the final step of the church discipline process.
Bonus: In Matthew 18:17, Jesus says (of the unrepentant sinner), “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” Remember, the word for church is ekklesia. In other words, tell it to the assembly of the saints.
7) Paul’s Instructions for Orderly Worship
1 Corinthians 11-14 are chapters about church worship services. Not only does he mention the “coming together” of believers in his teaching on the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper, he also writes about it in his section on spiritual gifts and orderly worship in 1 Corinthians 14.
“If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds?” – 1 Corinthians 14:23
“What then, brothers? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up.” – 1 Corinthians 14:26
This whole section and all of the commands found in it apply primarily to the gathered church. The discussion on the church as “one body” in 1 Corinthians 12 and the love chapter (1 Corinthians 13) are to be primarily lived out in the assembly—”when you come together”
8) The Call for Elders to Shepherd the Flock that is Among Them
In 1 Peter 5:2, elders are called to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you.” The word for among can be defined as, “a marker showing location among other persons or objects.” How can a shepherd care for the sheep if he’s not with the sheep? How can he adequately counsel and care for and lead the sheep if he’s not among them? How does he even know who belongs to the flock and who doesn’t if the flock does not assemble together? In other words, how can an elder live in full obedience to 1 Peter 5:2 with the assembly ban in place?
9) Corporate Metaphors for the Church
The New Testament contains several metaphors that are used to help us understand what the church is like. And several of these metaphors emphasize corporate aspects of church life.
The church is referred to as:
- a flock (Luke 12:32, John 10:16, Acts 20:28, 1 Peter 5:2-3)
- the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5, Revelation 19:7, Revelation 21:2,9)
- a holy temple (Ephesians 2:21)
- one body made up of many different members (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4-5)
- the family of God (Galatians 6:10, 1 Timothy 5:1)
These are all expressions that touch on the corporate nature of the church. So if there’s no corporate gathering, then how can these metaphors be truly lived out?
10) The Command to Make Disciples
In his final words to his disciples before his ascension, Jesus commissioned his disciples with these words, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:18-20). With all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus commands us to make disciples. How are disciples to be made? Through going, baptizing, and teaching. And this happens in the context of community. We’ve already seen why in many of the reasons given above. This means that you cannot adequately make disciples untethered from a local ekklesia. You cannot teach a disciple to observe the one-another commands of Scripture without a local ekklesia in which he can live those out. The assembly ban greatly hinders our ability to make disciples. It thwarts our ability to live in obedience to the Great Commission.
For the reasons given above it is clear in Scripture that God requires his people to gather together. For if we cannot gather, then we are unable to:
- be the church (the ekklesia)
- meet together for the purpose of mutual love and encouragement
- fully live out the one-another commands found in the Epistles
- follow the example of the church in Acts
- properly partake of the Lord’s Supper
- follow through with the final step of the church discipline process
- be adequately shepherded by our elders
- live out the corporate nature of the church
- disciple believers in the context of a local assembly
You see, an assembly ban is not just a ban on meeting together. It’s (indirectly) a ban on so much more. It’s a ban on ekklesia. It’s a ban on shepherding. It’s a ban on the Lord’s Supper. It’s a ban on one-another’ing. It’s a ban on church discipline. It’s a ban on church. At what point then do we conclude that Romans 13 no longer applies and Acts 5:29 kicks in because the government is forbidding us to do something that God requires of us? If Romans 13 does not obligate us to obey should the government ban evangelism, then similarly it doesn’t obligate us to obey when the government bans assemblies.