HOW IS CHURCH ESSENTIAL?
Allow me to be abundantly clear: I firmly believe with every fiber of my being that the Church (not merely individual believers themselves, but the gathered assembly of these believers on the Lord’s Day for the administering of the ordinary means of grace) is absolutely “essential.” However, this statement is not meant to convey that I believe the gathering of the church is “essential” under any and all circumstances. For instance, if the police arrived at one of our Sunday Gatherings and informed us that there was an active shooter attempting to pick off members of our church with a sniper rifle, we would immediately and happily comply (submit) to these civil magistrates and their instructions. Allow me to provide another illustration: If the Mayor of San Diego announced on a Saturday evening that there was a tsunami of biblical proportions headed straight for the city, and that anyone who remained within the city limits would be wiped out entirely, we would immediately and happily cancel our Lord’s Day Gathering so that all of our members could divert their efforts toward getting out of harm’s way.
If the police arrived at one of our Sunday Gatherings and informed us that there was an active shooter attempting to pick off members of our church with a sniper rifle, we would immediately and happily comply.
However, an important detail to recognize in both of these scenarios is that, under these circumstances, all other institutions (grocery stores, drive-through restaurants, parks, etc) would be deemed “non-essential” as well. However, in the case of Covid-19, churches have been deemed by the civil authorities as “non-essential,” while other establishments (grocery stores, drive-through restaurants, parks, etc) have been deemed “essential.” Sadly, it is quite possible that one of the reasons there has been so little push back by the American Evangelical Church in regards to this decision is because many Christians in our nation have held a low view of the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day. To our shame, many Christians in our nation have actually been completely content to miss multiple Sunday Gatherings for a whole host of substantially lesser reasons (vacation, sports, travel, etc). If a person is comfortable with missing upwards of 10 Lord’s Day Gatherings in a year for such petty reasons, certainly they will struggle to understand why pastors, such as myself, are making such a big deal about missing 6-7 weeks of church in the midst of a pandemic.
HOW IS CHURCH UNIQUE?
However, even if Christians are convinced that the weekly gathering of the saints is “essential,” they may still remain suspicious of its true necessity. This is due to the fact that although some Christians may be willing to confess that church is “essential,” they still fail to recognize that church is “unique.” In our day, there appears to be an alarming amount of Christians who are simply unaware of the fact that what occurs in the gathered assembly of the saints on the Lord’s Day is categorically distinct from what individual Christians do all week long in their personal practices of piety (scripture reading, prayer, fasting, catechizing their children, etc). Therefore, pastors must labor diligently to teach their congregations that when we come together on the Lord’s Day, we do not merely experience the heightened benefits of individual Christian practices due to the reality of being surrounded by many other brothers and sisters in Christ. Instead, what takes place in the gathered assembly is a spiritual reality which occurs in no other context.
What takes place in the gathered assembly is a spiritual reality which occurs in no other context.
According to Scripture, when “true churches” (orthodox churches faithfully proclaiming the gospel message) gather together on the Lord’s Day and rightly administer “the ordinary means of grace” (publicly preaching the Word, publicly praying the Word, corporately singing the Word, and corporately seeing the Word in the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism), Christ himself begins to walk among the “lampstands” (the lampstands are the churches themselves) and holds the “angels” of these churches in his right hand (the angels are the gospel-ministers who have been tasked with the faithful proclamation of God’s Word). And as these gospel-ministers begin to preach, while being held in Christ’s right-hand, a “double-edged sword” is extended from the mouth of Christ himself and begins to pierce the hearts of men (Revelation 1:10-16).
In addition to this, in Matthew 18:17-20, we find another biblical text which illustrates both the “essential” and “unique” nature of the Church: “If [the impenitent church member currently under formal church discipline] refuses to listen to [the two or three witnesses who have confronted him], tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever [the gathered assembly of the church] binds on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are “GATHERED” in my name [a true church], there am I among them.” According to Jesus, two or three baptized believers who have made a public and credible profession of faith, and have covenanted with one another to fulfilling the Great Commission in unity (which includes following all of Christ’s commands and teaching others to do likewise) constitutes a “true church.” And when true churches “gather in [Jesus’] name, there [is Christ] among them.” In other words, Christ (who is always present with all believers by virtue of the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit) is present in a “unique” way only in the context of the gathered church.
Christ is present in a “unique” way only in the context of the gathered church.
So when the saints physically gather with one another in worship on the Lord’s Day, they are doing nothing less than coming together to meet with Christ in a particular way, which does not occur anywhere else on earth. And not only are we gathering to meet with Christ, but we are gathering to offer him our worship and receive from him a “word.” 1 Peter 4:11 says, “Whoever speaks, [should speak] as one who speaks the [very] oracles of God…” And Matthew 4:1-4 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But Jesus answered, ‘It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Therefore, according to Jesus, if physical bread (grocery stores) are deemed “essential,” spiritual bread (every “word” that comes from the mouth of God) must be deemed as even more “essential” by the people of God.
Now, it is unquestionably true that Christians have been granted the immense privilege of receiving a “word from the mouth of God” in the context of their private practices of piety (reading the Scripture at home as individuals, or with family/friends). However, as we have already seen in Revelation 1:10-16, there is a “word” (“a double-edged sword”) which “comes from the mouth of God” (out of “the mouth of Christ”) when the “lampstand” is lit (the church is gathered) and “Christ begins to walk admist the lampstands” (Jesus is spiritually present with the church in a unique way). When Jesus says to Satan in the wilderness that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he does not specify which “word” referring to. Therefore, it is both reasonable and prudent for Christians to assume that both of these “words” are vital for the sustaining of our souls.
If physical bread (grocery stores) are deemed “essential,” spiritual bread (every “word” that comes from the mouth of God) must be deemed as even more “essential” by the people of God.
In order for Christians to spiritually survive, much less spiritually thrive, we must not only be diligent to study and meditate upon God’s Word privately, but we must also humbly and joyfully receive God’s Word as it is publicly proclaimed in the assembly of the saints on the Lord’s Day. In fact, a convincing argument can be made that for almost 1500 years, followers of Christ were only able to receive God’s Word in the Lord’s Day Gathering. This was due to the fact that the Scripture had not yet been translated and copied into the common language of the people. Therefore, when we survey church history (although there were some very dark times where the church immensely suffered by not having the Scripture available for private use), it appears that God has sustained his people through the administering of the ordinary means of grace on the Lord’s Day in a way which he has not through private Scripture reading, apart from the gathered assembly.
Furthermore, Jesus also says in John 6:27-35, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you… I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Again, if Christ himself is the true bread of life which all Christians desperately need in order to spiritually live, and Christ promises to be present in a unique way when the church gathers together (Matthew 18:20), then certainly this gathering must be considered both “unique” and “essential” by those who profess to be followers of Jesus.
HOW CAN THE CHURCH BE THE SOLUTION?
In 2 Chronicles 7:14, we find these words: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” Of course, there is a sense in which the people of God may humble themselves and repent of their sins individually. However, there is also a sense in which this humbling, repenting, and seeking of God must be performed corporately. Ironically, it seems as though one of the most effective ways that the people of God can work toward ending the destruction of the Coronavirus (as well as the destruction of some of the foolish reactions to the Coronavirus) is by carefully gathering together on the Lord’s Day, crying out to God in humility and repentance, and pleading with him that he might heal our land.