Josh Laxton currently serves as the Assistant Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, Lausanne North American Coordinator at Wheaton College. He has a Ph.D. in North American Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article and has updated the article.
Around the world, churches have begun to “reopen” for in-person gatherings (though some have already shut down again due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases). Likely, over the past months you have seen or read countless tweets and posts around the following ideas: “The church has never been closed” or “The church isn’t a building; it is a people.”
Yes, the church is a people—the “called out” ones, which was more a political descriptive in antiquity. But I only half-agree with the premise “the church has never been closed” with regards to the shutting down of in-person gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis.
The church’s gathering has been closed in many cases, and seeing that as a bad thing and a necessary thing are not contradictory.
We need to think through more about how gathering really matters.
The church, like God’s mission, has a centripetal force and a centrifugal force—it has both a gathered and a scattered function. And when people espouse that the church has never been closed, in my mind they are saying this “new normal” of not being able to gather is acceptable.
That’s not the best way to think of it, I believe.
Theologically, if the church cannot gather corporately (in-person), an element or part of the essence of the church has been closed. And, in line with being closed, we need to prioritize it being open—and see it being closed as a deficient practice to be remedied at some point.
To be clear, I am not arguing that churches should have never postponed in-person gatherings due to COVID-19. And I’m not arguing that churches should reopen as soon as possible.
Here I want to simply provide four (broad) theological categories as reasons why gathering with the saints is an essential component to New Testament ecclesiology and thus argue that an element of the church has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
And that we should yearn for reopening if we are currently closed.
First, the church is the ekklesia.
In an age where the culture is rapidly becoming digitized, the church must not lose its analog—assembly—nature. The Greek word ekklesia means “called-out ones.” In antiquity, especially in Athenian democracy, the ekklesia gathered (frequently) to inform their body politic—public policies—as a city-state.
Applied to the church, the church is the assembly of the kingdom of God, united under King Jesus, that gathers for:
- Singing songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16)
- Praying (Matt. 21:13)
- Preaching/Teaching the word (Eph. 4:11–12; 1 Tim. 4:13; 2 Tim. 4:2)
- Observing the ordinances (1 Cor. 11:26), and thus
- Corporately worshipping the king.
I understand many would respond to this and say they are doing this online. They are “gathering” to sing songs, pray, preach/teach, and even practice (in some form) baptism and communion. I know that the local church that I am part of has been doing these things.
Let me ask a question, however: Would you really call this assembling with your family every day? If you received Marco Polos (an app to send videos) from your wife and children every day, would that really count as being assembled? Would that really be sustainable? Growing up, what if the only way you saw your siblings was through video chat?
When watching church via video, I find my heart longing to be assembled with my family.
I am just not convinced that the digital connection is the same thing as the corporate gathering. This may be why, according to Barna, online attendance is dropping. However, this doesn’t mean that churches shouldn’t continue to utilize the digital platform as a ministry and mission tool.
In short, the ekklesia—the assembly of the King—is a mark of a biblical church and we should want it, long for it, and work toward it.
It can’t be OK to stay away, even if we must for a season for the sake of our church community and our neighbors.
Second, gathering is part of being a covenant community.
We need to gather with feet and faces, not just electrons and avatars. Furthermore, gathering is central to the church’s identity as a covenant community.
We can be the church without gathering for a season— millions are in churches like that right now. Churches don’t cease to be churches when they lack a mark of the church. For examples, biblical leadership is a mark of a church, but a church that is leaderless for a season does not cease to be a church.
However, what is normative should be pursued. Churches without biblical leadership should seek to raise up such leaders. And, churches that don’t meet should not only long to gather again but seek to meet in some form.
Part of the reason is that we need to be in community with one another, gathered for worship (which typlically means weekend worship and small groups in our context).
In an article I wrote on membership, I explained:
“We find in Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth that they were putting people out of the body. So Scripture teaches that we can be a part of the body, and we can be apart from the body. It is difficult to get around Scripture when it talks about being brought into the body and also being put out of it.
And yet for most churches there’s no way to put somebody out because they’re not even in. While there seems to be flexibility according to various bodies, there is no such thing in the New Testament as a church without some recognition of belonging—of membership in community.”
An online community makes such accountability difficult, if not impossible. For many, they don’t use their own names on the screen, and we hardly ever present our true selves online.
I know accountability and church discipline aren’t popular topics in the church today. Although they aren’t popular, they are still biblical. And the Bible describes accountability and discipline happening within the church gathered.
I don’t see how accountability and discipline happen outside a gathered community of believers. Imagine trying to parent your children virtually. How do you think that would turn out? The physical distance between you and them would become a barrier. The same rings true for the church.
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Source: Christianity Today