In the last week or two, many of us have had announcements that our churches would not be meeting as usual. There is a shift for the months ahead where many Christians will be meeting virtually, or not at all. For all of us this raises important theological questions about what we believe the church is, and whether the church continues when we are commanded not to ‘gather’.
Throughout the Bible the people of God are depicted as the people called into a covenant relationship with God. One of the key identifiers of this people is the fact that they meet together with one another, in the presence of God, to hear from God’s word. This is what the Bible teaches is the ‘church’: the gathering of God’s people. God called the Israelites to be his people, and he assembled them (gathered them) together in his presence to receive his word (Deut 4:10). It was at this assembly, in the first instance, that God established his covenant with the people (Ex 19:4-6). Likewise, new covenant believers are charged to continue meeting (Heb 10:23-25). Historically, the distinctive marks of the church are the word preached and the sacraments duly administered—these sacraments being signs of the new covenant in Christ.
But if gathering together is something so crucial for the people of God, what are we to do—and believe—in times such as these, where meeting together physically is not possible?
I want to consider four abiding theological truths about the church, before turning to four practical implications for our lives today.
1. Our identity is Primarily in Christ
First, it is Christ who establishes us as a people. This statement is important because of its ordering. Our identity as the church is to be a collection of God’s people, brought together because of our union with Christ. This union is what is celebrated in the sacraments. But the union is not dissolved because of our inability to gather. Rather, we gather because of a union that transcends time and space. This should be deeply reassuring to Christians: your identity isn’t fundamentally as a church member, but as a person united to Jesus. Right now—in this very moment—you are part of the people of God. And, it is precisely because you are one of God’s people by faith—not insignificantly, a faith given to you by the Spirit (Gal. 4:6)—that you meet with other Christians regularly.
Christian, your identity isn’t fundamentally as a church member, but as a person united to Jesus. Right now—in this very moment—you are part of the people of God.
2. Our Life is Defined by The Word
Second, the definitive marker of our life together is hearing God’s word—the word that saves us and tells us who we are by the grace and mercy of God. In Scripture, God communicates rich truth about who he is, the way he has made for us to relate to him, and what it means to live in that relationship. The word of God transcends the inestimable chasm between God’s transcendent, infinite holiness and our fallenness and finitude.
3. Christ’s Promised Presence
Third, God promises his presence amongst us when we gather together. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus made it clear that he is with believers whenever two or more are gathered. This is intended to reassure us of Christ’s abiding presence with us corporately, even in the tiniest gathering. Furthermore, the Apostle John tells us that though no one has ever seen God, he is manifested to us in our love for one another in the Spirit (1 John 4:12-13). This means that life-together presents us with more than may initially meet the eye: God’s presence is known through the presence of others, as we demonstrate mutual love for one another.
4. Mutual Dependence
Finally, our Christian growth and maturity depends upon our relationships with others. We don’t simply grow through receiving from others, but also giving—by assuming our proper place in the body. Put simply, the Christian life requires both active and passive participation: other people need you, and you need others. God’s plans for the church are illustrated wonderfully in several of the key metaphors used in the New Testament for the church. The temple (Eph. 2:21-23) depicts a place where God’s presence dwells, and a place that is being built of many different pieces (people). This image highlights how we are being constructed together, and the wonderful promise of the presence of God in the midst of our life together. The body (1 Cor. 12:12-26; Rom. 12:3-8; Eph. 4:11-16) depicts a unity of purpose and mutual dependence on one another. There is an interconnectedness that is indispensable. There is a building and developing as we ‘grow up together’ into Christ our head.
Four Practical Implications for Christians Today
First, don’t despair that you can’t meet as usual. You are still in Christ! But precisely because you are in Christ, seek out ways to ‘meet’ with others. We have unprecedented opportunities to gather virtually as a church. So, even in days like these, we should not forsake coming together. In fact, especially in days like these we should be all the more diligent to seek out opportunities to meet together. Because the times demand change for us, we must be patient and persistent. And we must remember that there is great promise even in few numbers; even where two or three are gathered, for Christ has promised us his presence.
We must remember that there is great promise even in few numbers; even where two or three are gathered, for Christ has promised us his presence.
Second, when you ‘meet’ with others, don’t forsake the significance of hearing from God’s word. The word of God is the richest thing we can offer to someone. We should find ways to mutually encourage one another from the truth, especially when the world seems turned upside down. Helping brothers and sisters to fix their eyes on Christ once more will prove to be an anchor in the midst of much turbulence.
Third, recognise how important we are to one another. On our worst ‘usual’ Sundays together, we allow church to be a passive experience for the majority of the congregation. Now more than ever we are in danger of only ‘receiving’. But in the midst of change, we should expect different people to exercise gifts that may otherwise lie dormant in church life. We must prayerfully consider the needs of others and how we might serve our brothers and sisters. In particular, we should be mindful of those in our churches that will be most needy in times of isolation. In times of forced seclusion, there is a temptation to turn inward and only think about our individual needs in the confines of our own bubble. But we must pursue a thoughtful awareness of others. This will be an opportunity for us to be appropriately counter-cultural, rejecting the panic-hoarding of the world around us, and turning instead to think of our neighbours. And, as people serve us, we should be prepared to offer them encouragement and gratitude.
But we also should consider how we can help others be more aware of needs. People will both need to seek others out, but also communicate openly when they are struggling and have practical requirements.
Finally, we should not lose hope. Though things look, feel, and certainly are very different during this pandemic, we must remember the promise that Christ gave us: he is building his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Even if we are unable to physically gather, we can still ‘gather’ together under the word. As we do, even then as we meet virtually or in few number, Christ has promised to be with us. And, when we meet under the word of God, in the presence of Christ, we can be assured that He is maturing us as his people.