In a recent article I got us to think a bit more about communion and suggested that the question of “open v closed” communion was the wrong one. Another question that has come to the forefront during COVID is about what it means to gather as a church. This is of course related to the question of communion because the question of taking communion whilst meeting via zoom depends upon whether Zoom amounts to a gathering.
The dividing line has been between those who consider a zoom service to be a genuine worship service and those who consider it not to be. The latter argue that you cannot have communion at a zoom service and some go further arguing that failure to gather in person is disobedience to God for which no amount of technology can make up for.
As with the communion question, I wonder if we are focusing in on the wrong thing. My reason for saying this is that I think both sides of the debate are putting the focus all in one place, on what happens on Sunday morning in an owned or rented building for between 1 -2 hours.
The word frequently associated in Greek with the concept of church is “ecclesia.” The word refers to an assembly. I guess in English “congregation” is a similar word with the idea od congregating. The Old Testament talks about the assembly as the whole people of God gathering at festivals and such like to renew covenant vows and be reminded of the law.
Some people have loaded a lot onto this word in order to insist that the church is the assembly and therefore a local church is limited to those who specifically can gathering in one room at one time. I think the risk here is that focusing on the one word leads to fallacies in our thinking. I want to suggest that whilst a local church will not be less than a gathering in that Scripture calls us to assemble together, it may well be more than that.
It is worth noting that when Paul writes letters, sometimes he writes to the ecclesia in such and such a place, notably Corinth and Thessalonica but not always. Check out Colossians and Ephesians for example which refer to the saints in those places. Lest we assume that the lack of reference to an ecclesia indicates multiple churches in those places, please also check out Philippians 1:1 where the letter is once again to the saints, not the ecclesia … with the elders/overseers and deacons which implies that one church family is in mind.
Don’t get me wrong, what we do on the Lord’s Day matters. It matters as an act of hope as we look forward to the day when Christ will return and call all of us together to assemble before his throne and it matters because getting together for mutual encouragement and teaching and sharing the Lord’s Supper are important.
But that is not all that it means to be part of God’s people in one place and that’s why even those who think that online meetings don’t count as gathering, even when they’ve had to suspend physical gathering do not think that their churches have ceased to exist because there is still a body of believers seeking to encourage and build up one another, seeking to honour Christ and seeking to be witnesses in that area.
However, this is where I think it matters. I think the risk is that we may have spent so much time worrying about how to label a particular zoom based activity that we’ve not really talked as much as we should have about how to go on being the body of Christ, Monday to Saturday throughout a pandemic.