There are scenarios in which there is a convincing case for churches not gathering, for example because of the severity of the health risk if they do gather or because of the vulnerability of a particular congregation as a whole. There are individuals who should not gather because doing so would be recklessly irresponsible given their health. Christians should not play Russian roulette. There are also situations where a church cannot gather because its landlord will not allow it to do so.
In saying that churches should gather, I grant all such scenarios and I refer only to church meetings that are ‘Covid-secure’: no mingling across households, seating widely spaced, masks worn, and no Bibles or hymn books handled. My arguments thus have a limited focus: I am addressing a situation where a church a) is legally allowed to meet, b) is able to meet, and c) can do so in a Covid-secure fashion d) for those who are not in high risk categories or in close contact with them. In such a situation I believe that it is imperative for such people to gather, while making provision and caring for those who cannot.
We are commanded to gather: ‘And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching’ (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The centrality of gathering is not just established by one proof-text. Gathering the people of God together is one of the central themes of the whole Bible. Babel was an idolatrous self-gathering (Genesis 11:4). The family of Abraham established in the next chapter of Genesis is the true expansive gathering in the Old Testament (Genesis 12:1-3), centred ultimately on a single place of worship (Deuteronomy 12:4-7).
In the New Testament that place is the church, God’s temple (1 Peter 2:4-10), which finds expression in local gatherings: ‘You have come to Mount Zion’ (Hebrews 12:22). The current activity of heaven is worship gathered around the throne (Revelation 4 & 5). This is what we join when we gather: ‘you have come to… the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly’ (Hebrews 12:22).
This is the place where we hear his voice preaching, hence the ensuing warning: ‘See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks’ (Hebrews 12:25). Gathering to worship God is the eschatological goal of human existence and the gathering of God’s people now is a divinely mandated foretaste of that goal, its weekly in-breaking in the present age. ‘The Lord’s day’ anticipates ‘the day of the Lord’.
The command to gather referred and refers to embodied gathering. Disembodied ‘gathering’ via screens cannot fulfil the command as the equivalent of embodied gathering unless we downplay the importance of embodiment. We cannot accept the equivalence of screen presence with embodied presence because God created us as embodied creatures (Genesis 2:7) and he sanctified our bodily existence.
He did this when he took on flesh in the incarnation (John 1:14), when he made that body the locus of our redemption by bearing our sins in it upon the tree (1 Peter 2:24), when he raised that body again in glory at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:43) as the firstfruits of his future embodied people (1 Corinthians 15:23), and when he ascended to sit bodily at the right hand of the majesty on high in the heavenly throne-room (Hebrews 1:3).
He underlined the place of embodiment in the subsequent life of his people by commanding the two sacraments that involve the physical elements of water, bread, and wine being applied to and consumed by embodied people.
There is a long history of denying the importance of our embodied life. This manifests as gnosticism (typified by a radical dualism between the physical and the spiritual) and docetism (the denial of the reality of Christ’s flesh). This history should make us very cautious about diminishing the importance of physical, embodied human presence.
The gathering is the arena in which the principal means of God’s grace to us are found, most notably the preaching of the Word and the sacraments. If he has ordained his body to function like this then we will find that not doing so is spiritually and psychologically harmful, as it has evidently been for many in recent months.
God’s people cannot flourish apart from their gathering. The under-shepherds of the flock therefore have a particular responsibility to maintain the gathering for the good of the flock entrusted to their care.
Online ‘gathering’ is a peculiarly recent idea that works only for the better off. Like online schooling, it does not work for the many who lack the technology or the skill to use it. To insist on a technological replacement for gatherings might be to exclude many.
Any argument that we must not gather as churches must be applied consistently by those who make it. For example, gathering as a Covid-secure church is significantly more managed than entering a shop, so if we are to argue that we cannot gather as churches then we must also argue that we must not shop, unless we deem shopping to be more important or necessary than gathering to worship God.
If we find ourselves saying ‘But people need to go shopping’ then we reveal that we do not think they need to gather to worship God. Such an argument reveals a pre-existing estimate of the importance of gathered worship.
It is not a bad witness to gather because gathering signals the importance of worshipping God. There is a crucial difference between provoking criticism and being a bad witness. The church rightly provokes criticism in many ways but that does not automatically mean she is doing something wrong and being a bad witness.
In this instance it is not gathering that is a bad witness because it signals that gathering to worship God is less important than the other things we are still doing such as shopping, going out to work, and attending school (things many still do even in a lockdown). Gathering expresses the priority of the end-goal of creation to a watching world.
Not gathering is particularly dangerous given the pre-existing spiritual condition of many churches. One of the major issues facing churches before Covid was increasingly irregular attendance. The statistics show many attending monthly or less and therefore already on a spiritual starvation diet and failing to play their part in the functioning of the body of God’s people.
Some have also been taught that there is nothing special about the Lord’s day among other days, that church services are no different from homegroup, that preaching is no different from other Bible study, and that the Lord’s supper is just a reminder that Jesus died. With this kind of teaching in the background of much evangelical culture and with many already in a semi-detached relationship to the body of Christ, many churches are arguably sitting ducks for an attack on the importance of gathering.
This is the spiritual context that pre-dates Covid and needs to frame how we respond to it. We should be acutely concerned not to teach or do anything that downplays the importance of gathering; indeed, we should seek to underline it by doing it even in adverse circumstances. This lesson is particularly important for children growing up in church: if we have taught them that they can just as well attend church via Youtube, then how will we be able to insist that they put church before the weekly hockey match after the lockdown?
For these reasons, churches should either meet, or, if circumstances prevent us from doing so, we should constantly lament our inability to do so and persistently ask the Lord to open the way for us to meet again. As we pray that, may we be reminded afresh of the bitter plight of those precious people for whom exclusion from the gathering is, through no choice or fault of their own, their permanent condition.
Garry Williams is director of the Pastors’ Academy and an elder at ChristChurch, Harpenden.