With the COVID19 pandemic controlling much of what we do, many churches have opted for placing their sermons online, placing their worship online, and moving to live-streaming their Sunday services. Some churches are having their pastor and worship team gather on Sunday morning and live-streaming an entire worship event so that their members at home can have church at home. The question is, are we really having church at home via the internet? Some say yes. Some say no.
The historic view of the Church since the time of the Protestant Reformation is that baptized believers, who have covenanted together, must physically meet together in one location, and that there must be present certain biblical elements of worship prescribed by scripture, in order for a biblical local/visible church to exist. This debate arose during the Protestant Reformation because as Christians began breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church and forming their own groups and churches and denominations, the question quickly arose: What constitutes a biblical local church? And by extension, what does it mean to have church? Do two Christians meeting in the forest to pray together and study the Bible together constitute church? There were political and government reasons for wrestling with this question as well. Must the government recognize two Christians meeting together in the forest as a church and be given all the rights and privileges and protections as any other local church? The answer the Reformers came to was no. Two Christians meeting in the forest together to pray and study the Bible together is not a local church. On this point, Al Mohler is correct when he said, “In Matthew 18:20 we are reminded that Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them.’ That does not mean that every place that two or three Christians are gathered together is a church”, and I would add, nor is it a church service.[i] Then what is a church and what is church worship?
Before answering that question, let me first be clear that the universal/invisible Church continues to exist and will always exist. It is equally true that we are engaging in worship on Sunday mornings. Believers may worship God anywhere and at any time. Single believers can rightly worship God by themselves in the privacy of their own closet and this would be glorifying and pleasing to God. Thus, on Sunday mornings we are certainly worshiping God as we watch or listen to a sermon online, pray, and sings worship songs to God. However, what we are not doing is having church online.
The word church comes from the Greek word ekklesia, which is a compound word comprised of two words: ek: out of, and kaleō: to call. Literally, it means to call out from. From extra-biblical Greek literature, it originally and simply denoted that the Greek citizens were called out of their houses to assemble for public meetings or other such events. Thus, the word itself inherently possesses the idea of people coming out from their homes and physically assembling together in one location. In the New Testament the idea of the local church takes on an added theological meaning, of being a body of believers who have covenanted together for the worship of God and for mutual edification, and which possesses and practices certain biblically prescribed elements of worship and church government.
The first biblical element is the public reading and teaching of God’s word (1 Tim 4:13). Paul wrote this letter to Timothy whom he had left in Ephesus to pastor the church he had planted there and to give Timothy clear instruction on how to shepherd that local church. A pre-recorded sermon video or even live-streaming does not constitute the public reading and teaching of God’s word. By Paul’s very use of the phrase “the public reading of Scripture [and] teaching” to Timothy, he clearly has in mind people being physically gathered in front of their pastor/elder and publicly receiving the word of God being read and taught to them.
A second biblical element is ordained pastor-elders. Pastor/elders are the ones who are charged with the responsibility of teaching God’s word to the flock, protecting the flock from false doctrine, and defending orthodox theology. Paul instructs Timothy, the first elder of the church, to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” He gives him instruction on how to appoint additional elders and to ensure that they are “able to teach” (3:2). He exhorts the Ephesian elders by his own example to ‘not shrink from declaring to the church the whole counsel of God and to pay careful attention to themselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood’ (Acts 20:27-28). It for this reason Christ gave to the church “pastor-teachers (from the Greek, this is one group) to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). It is also for this reason Paul instructs Titus whom he left in Crete to pastor the church there: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders” (1:5). In other words, if the church in Crete is going to be a biblical local/visible church, she needs to have ordained ministers. In the mind of Paul, there is one critical element left to be done in the church in Crete—appoint elders.
A third biblical element is the proper dispensing of the sacraments—baptism and the Lord’s Supper. All evangelical churches believe that baptism is prerequisite to church membership, if they have an official “church membership.” Where the debate often arises is on the issue of the Lord’s Supper. There is so much confusion regarding the proper use of the Lord’s Supper that Michael Horton rightly states that “It is not surprising, then, that our own period is filled with examples of this tradition of American sectarianism, where even the Scriptures do not have to be followed when there is a practical argument to be made. One of the most extreme examples I’ve run across is in an article titled ‘Supper for One,’ in which the writer advocates supplementing private devotions with a private communion service with water or juice and crackers. ‘Communion helped me focus blurry thoughts in the morning, she said.’”[ii] The Lord’s Supper was given by Christ to the Church, the twelve disciples being representatives of the Church and clearly all being physically gathered together in one location. The Lord’s Supper was not designed nor intended by Christ to be taken apart from the local body of Christ on our own or in private. This belief is clearly practiced and taught throughout the NT. In Acts 2:42, regarding the NT church, we read that “they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread [the Lord’s Supper] and the prayers.” And when Paul gives the church in Corinth instructions on the proper use of the Lord’s Supper, he says “when you come together as a church” (11:18). Paul assumes they will come together for the taking of the Lord’s Supper and not partake of it separately in their homes. This is because in the prior chapter Paul explains that “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread” (10:16-17 NKJV). Again, Horton rightly states: “The word here for ‘communion’ is koinonia, which can also be translated ‘fellowship’ or, better yet, ‘participation.’ It is the perfect word for this ‘sacramental union’ or the sign and the thing signified. In receiving Holy Communion, believers share in the Christ’s true body and cannot identify with Christ apart from our identification with his church”[iii] (emphasis added). We refer to the Lord’s Supper as Holy Communion not only because it is a time when we commune with the risen Christ, but because it is also designed to be a time when believers commune with one another. Of course, exception can be made, such as the senior citizen who is a shut-in or the soldier on the battlefield being administered the elements by the chaplain. But ideally, the Lord’s Supper should be taken within the context of the corporate gathering of a local body of believers who have covenanted together.
Additionally, the proper administering of the elements should be by an ordained pastor-elder. This is because scripture charges elders with protecting and defending the flock and being “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9; Acts 20:29-30). This would necessitate properly administering and fencing the Lord’s Supper from those who should not partake of it. For this reason, Theologian Louis Berkhof rightly states that “the sacraments should never be divorced from the Word, for they have no content of their own, but derive their content from the Word of God; they are in fact a visible preaching of the Word. As such they must also be administered by lawful ministers of the Word, in accordance with the divine institution, and only to properly qualified subjects, the believers and their seed.”[iv]
A fourth element for a biblical local/visible church to exist and, thus, to engage in church worship is corporate prayer; that is, praying together, not just praying at the same time. The Bible commands and fully expects that believers should come together in one location and pray together as one body (Acts 2:42; 4:31; 1 Tim 2:1-2). While believers can certainly coordinate their time so they might pray at the same time, God expects believers to come together and pray together.
A fifth element for a biblical local/visible church to exist and, thus, to engage in church worship is “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Col. 3:16). It is not possible for a local body of believers to teach and admonish one another through songs if we are not together in one location. Clearly when Paul wrote this he expected believers to be standing together in one location and singing to each other and thereby encouraging one another. In his book, The Deliberate Church, Mark Dever rightly states that “congregational singing is an expression of the unity and harmony of the gathered congregation. Privatizing corporate worship, then, defeats the purpose of corporate worship and often confuses true worship with privatized emotion.”[v]
A sixth element that must be present for a local/visible church to exist and, thus, to engage in church worship is church discipline. The Reformers argued strongly for this point. Of course, church discipline does not simply mean excommunication. It means looking after the flock, watching the flock, interacting with the flock so they can be kept accountable and gently nudged in the right direction when needed. This is nearly impossible when the flock is not gathered together. This is why believers must earnestly pray for God to bring a quick end to this current crisis so they can come back together soon as a church and be able to engage in church worship.
Until then, worship God; pray to God; stay in his word; pray for our government and pray for our nation.
[i] Alber Mohler, “The Breifing.” Accessed on April 6, 2020. https://albertmohler.com/2020/03/20/briefing-3-20-20
[ii] Michael Horton, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of Christ-Centered Worship, Page 94
[iii] Idid, page 120
[iv] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, page 577-78
[v] Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel, page. 118
*Photo by Victor He on Unsplash