COVID-19 and Assembly Gatherings
We are certainly living in strange days! And the strangest thing of all is that we are unable to meet together in the way that many of us have done for a lifetime. Most believers discipline their lives around the gatherings of the Lord’s people. The Lord’s Day is devoted to Him; work and domestic life is arranged to enable attendance at the prayer meeting, the Bible reading or the ministry meeting. Suddenly, it’s all gone.
‘What shall we do?’ is the question many have asked. And, it seems, there are many who feel that things can go on pretty much the same as before but with the assembly meeting online. Cyber gatherings have taken place for the Lord’s Supper and, no doubt, for all other meetings usually held. Local elders focus on local needs. The motives displayed in this are admirable: the care of the flock is always paramount to a true shepherd.
But is this a right approach to the present circumstances? Here are some considerations.
1. Should we assume that we ought to carry on as normally as possible when the Lord has clearly changed our circumstances to the degree to which He has? Is it not possible that He desires that we should learn some deep lessons in solitary exercise of heart before Him?
He has always dealt in this way with His people, whether Joseph in the pit and prison; or Moses in the backside of the wilderness; or David keeping sheep in the wilderness; or Elijah at the brook; or Paul in Arabia. In isolation they all learnt great lessons for life which could not have been learnt in the company of others. It is not for nothing that the Lord said, ‘And when thou hast shut to thy door ...’ And what could be said about the lonely isolations of our Lord on so many occasions?
2. The word for ‘church’ in the New Testament is ekklesia (from ek, ‘out of’, and klesis, ‘a calling: kaleo, ‘to call’). It expresses the fact of being called out of the world and gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Assembly’ or ‘congregation’ suitably expresses its meaning. It is no surprise, therefore, to discover that the word ‘sunago’, meaning ‘to gather or bring together’, is so often used of the meetings of the assembly. It is the word used in
· Matthew 18:20 ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’
· John 20:19 ‘Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.’
· Acts 4:31 ‘And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.’
· Acts 11:26 ‘And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people.’
· Acts 14:27 ‘And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.’
· Acts 20:7 ‘And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.’
· 1 Corinthians 5:4-5 ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan …’
Connected with this is another vital truth, that the Lord is in the midst of His gathered people. This is the greatest of all the principles of gathering. Christ in the midst. And further, ‘the Spirit of God dwelleth in you’, 1 Cor. 3:16, and ‘the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are’, v. 17. The reference is to the local church, gathered. This means that the believers are in one place. Clearly, this cannot be replicated in cyberspace, however encouraging it might be to meet up there.
Of course, the Lord is always with His people individually but there is that which is distinctive about the Lord in the midst of His own. The Lord was always with Moses, but this was not the same as the presence of the Lord among His people in the tabernacle.
Online ‘meetings’ are absent His presence: can we really carry on without it?
3. It is, of course, impossible to remember the Lord online. From 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 it is evident that we remember Him in an action. ‘This do in remembrance of me’ is stated of both the bread and the cup. This means that we only remember Him if we participate, in the appointed way. We do not remember Him simply by being present at the meeting. Nor are we remembering Him, in the way the passage speaks of, when we are quietly contemplating His person and work or singing hymns together, all of which is done in all meetings. The remembrance of the Lord and the proclamation of His death consist in the eating of the bread and the drinking of the cup.
It is also inappropriate to think that a couple of people should attend the hall where the assembly meets and break bread together whilst others view this online. Again, the motive will no doubt be admirable but basic truths are being ignored. The remembrance of the Lord in the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the cup is a function of the assembly rather than a merely individual exercise. The saints at Troas, for instance, in Acts 20, gathered together to break bread on the first day of the week. Where everybody is excluded, save for a couple of the saints, the church is not gathered.
It is because it is a function of the gathered church that Scripture does not contemplate the emblems being taken out to the housebound or sick. It is not as if grace is administered by eating and drinking!
I believe that it is not putting it too strongly to say that it is absurd to think that the assembly is able to remember the Lord online.
4. Undoubtedly, there can be help given to the Lord’s people through online meet ups. This has been done locally in many places and on a wider scale. A word of ministry or the making known of the way of salvation could not be criticised in an online meet-up any more than this could be criticised if it was given, under normal conditions, at the end of an evening of social fellowship in a believer’s home. Again, it is not possible to conclude that such a meet-up could constitute a gathering of the local church.
However, one of the dangers associated with such online meet-ups would be that they are continued when normal conditions prevail once again. They could never take the place of local church gatherings. There is a danger that some might so like the convenience of not needing to leave the house that once the present circumstances relent an element of cyber activity will remain. Convenient as it might be for the housebound, holidaymaker or traveller laptops and smartphones used in this way will diminish, and may ultimately ruin, the whole concept of gathering in the Lord’s name.
As noted above the truth of gathering is clearly taught in Scripture but it is also practised as a result of exercise of heart and deep conviction. Care needs to be taken that no precedents are set that would result in the breakdown or diminishing of this much-loved truth.
It is also possible that believers might be beguiled by large numbers logging on, in contrast to the small numbers who actually gather in so many places; although the technology seems to determine that only those who are speaking can be seen when there are large numbers involved.
Accordingly, perhaps we should not act in haste and consider what long term implications might need to be balanced against short term advantage.
5. Consideration should also be given for those saints who either do not have the technology or the know-how to use it. Everything that is done in the local church should be for the benefit of all the saints. The introduction of anything that practically divides the saints might have detrimental consequences for the whole even though there might be advantage for the majority.
6. I would not wish to impugn the motives of those who think differently. There is an undoubted desire to encourage the Lord’s people and maintain the ‘togetherness’ of the company. However, we must be guided, as ever, alone by the word of God, remembering that the first object of the local church is not our benefit or blessing but glory to God as He dwells in the midst of His gathered people.