This article is not a critique of government or a politically charged rant about the difficulties of containing a virus. It is not a shout-out to “Fake News” or a demand for accurate unbiased data on the pandemic. It is not a debasement of the opinions and intentions of our fellow people who share a wide array of emotions and concerns like indifference, government, fear, social responsibility, apathy, anger, frustration, despair or loneliness, to name a few.
No, this article is simply a Scripture-focused reflection. The hope is that in the midst of this pandemic, our readers will lay aside the confusion of politics, news, emotions and argument…and instead focus on what really matters: our relationship with Christ.
On the advice of Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. David Williams, the Provincial Government of Ontario has approved the re-opening of churches up to 15% capacity as of March 15, 2021.
Yet, even amongst ‘Christians’, the debate on whether or not we should be gathering together in worship continues. Of course, ancient times are VERY different from modern times. Today, we have the ability of sermon streaming, video chat and other means to communicate without physical gathering. However, is this sufficient to satisfy the Lord’s command we have to gather together?
How Did the Early Church Gather?
In Acts 2, Peter held a sermon during Pentecost that “cut to the heart” in Jerusalem a number of “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.” In their own languages, they heard the Gospel and on that day, those who received Peter’s word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. How did these new followers respond after they were baptized? In Acts 2:42-47:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 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 favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.Acts 2:42-47 (ESV)
Breaking Down Early Church Gathering
In this example of the early church, the foundation for the believer’s spiritual growth and maturity was Scripture (i.e. God’s revealed truth), which was received by the apostles and faithfully taught.
Another word to describe this gathering of believers is “fellowship“, which should NOT be confused with our modern idea of what a community (or other easier to presuppose synonyms) are. We need to appreciate the full meaning of the word-group in the New Testament of the Bible that conveys the nature and reality of Christian fellowship. Translated from the Greek, the word “fellowship” may be applied as the noun koinonia [koinwniva], the verb, koinonein [koinwnevw], and the noun koinonos [koinwnov]). Thus, in applying the various meanings, there are two takeaways we need to draw from this:
- Christian fellowship ONLY EXISTS because God the Father through Jesus Christ, the Son and by/in the Holy Spirit established a new covenant with humanity. When we are connected in this way “in Christ”, we establish a relationship with Christ (communion) that is also shared with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Fellowship is this very relationship/communion.
- Our modern dictionary definitions of “community” and other synonyms to try to describe fellowship fall short of the biblical meaning behind what Christ-centered fellowship is. One of the Greek words to describe fellowship, koinonia [koinwniva], “has its origin in a movement out of the internal, eternal relation, relatedness, and communion of the Godhead of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Koinonia [koinwniva] for baptized believers is thus a participation within the human experience of the communion of the living God Himself.”
In the early church, gathering in fellowship was worship in the form of sacrifice, generosity, love, sharing, and most importantly…praising God. Christ was central in these gatherings. The actions of the church were a direct reflection of their faith.
Gathering Protected Against Apostasy
A full assurance of faith in Christ is provided in Hebrews 10:23-25:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 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 10:23-25 (ESV)
We are told to “hold fast.” This perseverance is not a way to maintain our salvation, but rather, it is evidence of salvation. Perseverance in faithfulness through Christ is proof of real faith (Hebrews 3:6). In the early church, when faced with difficulty and persecution for being Christian, returning to the rituals of the Levitical System in a futile attempt to be saved through works, was evidence that one was unsaved and truly did not believe in Christ’s redemptive work.
Collective and corporate worship is a vital part of a Christ-centered spiritual life. We are told to “NOT neglect to meet together…but encourage one another.” This statement is more than just an emphasis on gathering, it is a warning against apostasy.
Apostasy in biblical terms is an expression used to describe abandonment of the faith. In Proverbs 14:14, the term “backslider” is used to categorize the wicked, disobedient and foolish, in contrast to the godly wise. The prophets used terms such as “backsliding”, “faithless”, “bent” and “apostasy” to describe apostate unbelievers (Isaiah 57:17; Jeremiah 3:6; Hosea 11:7; Hosea 14:4).
Biblical examples to help us be aware of apostasy include:
- John 6:60-66 – Before the Holy Spirit has indwelled in believers, there were disciples that left Jesus because they could not handle His more difficult teachings. Only the original 12 disciples remained (including Judas Iscariot who would later betray Jesus).
- Galatians 1:6-7 – Paul writes to the Church in Galatia and addresses those in the church who are “so quickly” deserting Christ in favour of false teachers and their heretical teaching.
- 1 Timothy 4:1 ESV – After noting the presence of false teachers in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 1 Timothy 1:18-20), Paul confirms that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times, some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons.”
- 2 Peter 3:17 ESV – Peter warns us to stay on guard to “not be carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”
In urging us to not neglect to meet together and encourage one another as the Day draws near, our purpose for gathering is also eschatological (doctrine of the end of days). Whatever your eschatological position is, we can biblically agree that we gather together to assure ourselves:
- There will be a sudden, personal, visible bodily return of Christ (Matthew 24:44)
- We should eagerly long for Christ’s return (Titus 2:12-13)
- We do not know when Christ will return (Mark 13:32-33)
- When Christ returns, He will judge us all (Revelation 22:10-12) and create a new heaven and new earth for all eternity (Revelation 21:1).
We Gather to Break Bread & Share Communion
Because Christians unite in fellowship with Christ and other believers (1 John 1:13), it is our spiritual duty to stimulate one another to righteousness and obedience (Romans 12:10; Romans 13:8; Romans 15:5; Galatians 5:13; Ephesians 4:2; Ephesians 4:25; Ephesians 5:21; Colossians 3:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 3:13; Hebrews 10:24-25; 1 Peter 4:9-10).
One way we have been called to do this is through Communion. In the early church, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42 ESV) The breaking of bread in this context is a reference to the Lord’s Table or Communion, which is mandatory for all Christians to observe (1 Corinthians 11:24-29).
On a regular basis, early believers were “attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people” (Acts 2: 46-47 ESV). “Breaking bread in their homes” is a reference to the daily means that believers shared with one another.
Thus, gathering together physically in fellowship was more than just worship in the form of prayer, it was also done to celebrate Communion and to share resources with each other. By being together, we are held accountable for our actions and this prevents us from the temptations and difficulties of being alone. As a matter of fact, the bible tells us that we should NOT isolate ourselves from other people in favour of our own wisdom (Proverbs 18:1).
Do Not Squabble, But Harmonize Scripture
The bible tells us not to quarrel amongst each other (James 4:1-12).
One difficulty we face as Christians is that the enemy is more versed in the bible than we are. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert in Matthew 4:1-11, Satan used Scripture and twisted it to try to lead Jesus astray.
Unfortunately, as sinful people that is what we tend to do. Whatever our positions are, we ONLY focus on the aspects of the bible that suit our argument. When we argue on topics such as the need for physical gathering, it becomes more important to us to judge each other and win the argument than it does to glorify God.
Despite our sin, we must nonetheless do our best to imitate Christ. Not only did Jesus counter Satan in turn with Scripture, but Jesus also harmonized Scripture so that there was no contradiction. When our focus is on Christ, He will direct our paths.
We must encourage each other to keep our focus on Christ and sharpen each other with discussion on Scripture (Proverbs 27:17). But we also must also refrain from not speaking ill or judging each other (James 4:11-12). Study the word of God with the intention to honour Him with harmonization of Scripture, be open to a biblically supported discussion that may go against your opinion, and pray for each other earnestly that our choices will be focused on God’s glory.
Is Your Choice Being Made in Christ?
So we know that in making our decision to gather, what is paramount is honouring and glorifying God. If this central focus is not the predominant reason for whether or not you gather, then it may be easy for people to stumble. For example:
If the choice is not to gather physically, but the heart is not in Christ, it would not matter to that person that we are constantly told by God “Do not fear” (about 114 times in the bible). The health threats of Covid-19, no matter how real or fake the statistics are, will continue to paralyze us to action.
If the choice is to physically gather but the heart is not in Christ, it does not matter to that person that along with loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we are also called to love our neighbour (Mark 12:30-31). The annoyance of wearing PPE (i.e. a mask), or doing our part in reducing the pandemic will be overshadowed by our desire to resume a normal life or to rebel and deny the information being given by our government authorities.
Quite simply, regardless of your position to gather or not physically, without Christ:
- Your heart will deceive you (Jeremiah 17:9).
- You may be putting God to the test (Matthew 4:5-7).
- You may be relying more on your own abilities and knowledge (Proverbs 3:5).
- You may follow false teachers who tell you exactly what you want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
When Choosing Whether or Not to Gather, Pray and Ask Yourself…
As the societal and political pressures of gathering back to the church begin to assault you, seek God first in prayer and reflect:
- Is your primary concern to the glory and Honor of God? Or is it to your emotions and opinions?
- Does your choice encourage you to continue strengthening your faith and knowledge of the Word of God?
- Does your choice help you combat the doubts that may arise from God’s sovereignty and control? Or are you relying more on your own experience and knowledge (or the knowledge of the internet)?
- Is your choice drawing you to other material that is contrary to God’s word? Or does it help you avoid or actively seek out God’s word?
- Does your choice allow you to maintain a healthy relationship with your local church and its members?
- Does your choice allow you to celebrate Communion?
- Does your choice allow you to maintain obedience to God above all other things?
The pandemic has certainly made our lives more difficult, but if we truly believe that God is Sovereign, then there is nothing to fear. Slowly but surely, we are seeing the government move towards reopening. This may certainly change in the future but nonetheless each one of us has to make a choice about returning to church.
Be assured though, that If the decision is put thoughtfully in prayer with reverence to the Scripture, and 100% made in love and obedience to Christ, then there should be no fear of punishment. (1 John 4:18).