Biblical Basis for Remaining Open
The church is not the church unless it is meeting together in person. No virtual or online format is a suitable substitute for the church being the church. The Greek term for “church” in the New Testament is “ekklesia” and it literally means “an assembly of called out ones.” Obviously, a non-assembling assembly is a contradiction in terms. For the church to be the church (biblically) it must assemble together. In fact, Scripture commands believers to do this. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day [the day of Christ’s return] drawing near.” A key element in the ability for Christians to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” and to encourage one another is by assembling together. According to Scripture, this is not to be forsaken.
The New Testament also contains a number of “one another” commands that are impossible to fulfill apart from assembling together in person (Rom. 12:10; 13:8; 14:19; 15:5, 14: 16:16; 1 Cor. 11:33; 12:25; 2 Cor. 13:12; Gal. 5:13; Eph. 4:2, 32; 5:19; Col. 3:16; 1 Thess. 4:18; 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:24-25; James 5:16; 1 Peter 4:10). Many of these have to do with the important aspect of mutual accountability which cannot take place apart from gathering together. These are intentionally given in the context of the assembled church.
When government entities restrict the assembly of believers in the church they make it impossible for the church to function as Scripture commands. For example, when officials prohibit singing in worship services, it makes it impossible for Christians to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16. When governments seek to inforce distancing, it prevents Christians from obeying the commands of Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all these things, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
Christians are to submit to governmental authorities (Romans 13:1ff and 1 Peter 2:18) unless we are asked to do something that is a clear violation of God’s Word. When that occurs the priority shifts to that of Acts 5:29. Civil government has authority to rule the state, but does not have authority over the church. Jesus Christ is the ultimate authority in the church (Eph. 1:22; Col. 1:18; Matt. 16:18; 28:18) and He has delegated that authority to godly elders (Matt. 16:18-19; 2 Tim. 3:16-4:2). When COVID-19 first came on the scene, churches (rightfully) went along with requests to “flatten the curve” and allow for hospitals to prepare. Most churches were willing to refrain from meeting temporarily for the purpose of public health and safety. However, this purpose has long past. Now it is a question of whether or not the church will be allowed to be the church.
When Jesus said (in Mark 12:17) “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” He was enunciating the distinction between church and state. Caesar clearly has authority in some things, but not in regard to the things of God. And when it comes to how often, when, and how a church worships, the civil government has no authority to determine that. Such authority belongs to Christ alone, and to the elders He has delegated to govern his church (1 Peter 5:1-4; Heb. 13:7, 17). Local church elders alone have the biblical authority to determine all matters of membership, policy, discipline, benevolence, and government in the church (Acts 15:19-31, 20:28; 1 Cor. 5:4-7, 13; 1 Peter 5:1-4).
In the same way that the admonition of Rom. 13:7 would not allow for government entities to subvert biblical doctrine, corrupt biblical morality, or determine church polity, so it does not have the authority to determine how we worship, how many people we are allowed to assemble together, or the manner in which we do that.
In addition to the “one anothers” listed above, the Bible teaches that the church is the body of Christ on earth (Eph. 1:22-23). Each believer is a different body part (Eph. 4:16; 1 Cor. 12:15-16) yet we are intricately knitted together (Eph. 4:15-16). We’re not independent but interdependent. The Bible makes it clear that we are all to exercise our spiritual gifts to build up the whole body (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Cor. 12). It is impossible to do this if we are not assembling together with one another.
The Bible also indicates that the church is the “household of God” (1 Tim. 3:15). That implies a family, and a family was never designed to be apart but together. The New Testament consistently utilizes the language of family in regard to the church (for example, see 1 Tim. 5:1-2). Healthy families are those who live together, laugh together, embrace one another, support one another – and all that requires being together.
First Timothy 3:15 also tells us the church is “the pillar and support of the truth.” This primarily has to do with the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, and while that is possible via digital technologies, biblically this is limited unless it is “in the moment.” Of course a sermon can be streamed, but God’s Word is best communicated live, as the Spirit of God empowers the preacher to articulate the truth in a powerful, sacred moment. In those moments the sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd (Jesus Christ) as His under-shepherd articulates His message (John 10:27). But in these moments, the sheep are struck, not just by the message but also by the gravity of the moment. And this can only be accomplished when the church is gathered together.
In addition to this, there is nothing that can replace the experience of congregational singing. Psalm 95:1-2 admonishes, “O Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; Let us shout joyfully to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving; Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.” Again, we can only do that if we are together. And, in fact, the Bible tells us we do not just sing to glorify God; we also sing to encourage one another (Col. 3:16). We can’t accomplish this through digital means.
Not only that, but we also cannot observe the biblical ordinances unless we are together. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are only possible in a public “in person” setting. The Lord’s Supper in particular is a corporate observance. It is to be conducted as an act of “communion” with all of God’s people gathered together (1 Cor. 11:20). Baptism is to be done “before the whole congregation” as a new believer publicly identifies with Christ (Rom. 6:3-5).
Lastly, our gathering together is an important witness to our community. As people see us gather together it gives testimony to a broken world that we know the answer to the issues of life. As Jesus said in Matt. 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” It is important for our lost community to see that we are committed to gathering together to worship our Lord.