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Does A believer Christian Have To Gather In-person To Be Obedient | A Thing Worth Doing Blog with Daniel Webster - worship, ministry, and culture

Does a Christian Have to Gather in Person to Be Obedient?

Other than what I am writing here, what you find below was written long before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19. When I originally wrote (pre-Coronavirus) to answer the question “does a Christian have to gather in person to be obedient?” I was mainly thinking about believers who refuse to gather with other believers on the Lord’s Day. With the dawning of the Coronavirus, we now have three more questions to answer:

  • Does the church have grounds to suspend gatherings (or temporarily meet virtually) during a pandemic?
  • Does the church have grounds to switch to a virtual meeting altogether (even after the danger of Coronavirus has passed)?
  • Does the church have grounds to meet even when forbidden by the government?

I will address these three questions in Three Questions for the Gathered Church during a Worldwide Pandemic


What Is Meant by “Gathered Church”?

What is meant by the Gathered Church? In this essay, the Gathered Church is taken from the verb συνέρχομαι, used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:17-18, which means to come together or to gather together.

The church consists of many people, so Paul addresses the church in the plural form. He says, “You (ὑμεῖς, second person plural) are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” The KJV’s use of “ye” is helpful in distinguishing the second person plural (ye) from the second person singular (you). One from Michigan might say “you guys,” while someone from Tennesee might say “y’all” or “you’ins.”

As we’ll see through this essay, one person cannot claim to be the church, and much of the Christian faith cannot be lived out apart from the Gathered Church.

First Corinthians 1 – “Among you” (ἐν ὑμῖν)

In the opening words of this epistle, Paul makes it clear that he is not just writing to a believer individually (“to those sanctified in Christ Jesus…” 1:2); it is evident that he is writing to a body of believers (“To the church of God that is in Corinth…” 1:2). Since the Corinthian church would have been composed of small assemblies scattered from house to house, Paul’s use of the singular “church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ) was likely a call to unity, since there were divisions among them.[2] As the epistle progresses, it is all the more evident that “the church of God that is in Corinth” was encountering problems when they gathered for their weekly Lord’s Day meetings.

Paul’s reference to the Gathered Church is subtle in the opening chapter; he never actually uses συνέρχομαι as he does other times in the epistle, but Paul uses a favored phrase ἐν ὑμῖν, translated “among you,” three times (1:6, 1:10, 1:11). He uses this phrase often in his other writings in the context of the assembled body of Christ (see Appendix 1 for all of Paul’s 49 uses of ἐν ὑμῖν).

In a world of social media and technology with which much Christian fellowship is conducted apart from face-to-face meetings, it is difficult for modern readers to understand the magnitude of these ἐν ὑμῖν references. But in first-century Christianity, the Gathered Church was the only form of church. Paul told the Corinthian churches that he was sure that the “testimony about Christ was confirmed among you” (ἐν ὑμῖν, 1:6). He goes on to share his distress that is reported that there are “divisions among you” (ἐν ὑμῖν, 1:10) and “quarrels among you” (ἐν ὑμῖν, 1:11).

First Corinthians 11 – “Come together” (συνέρχομαι)

It is evident that these divisions mentioned in 1:6 were happening while the church was assembled. In chapter 11, as Paul begins his teaching on the Lord’s Supper (which is practiced in the midst of the assembled church), Paul states, “But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you” (11:17-18).

The verb translated as “come together” or “gathered together” (from συνέρχομαι) is repeated five times in 11:17-34 and, as Gordon Fee observes, “is one of the keywords that holds the argument together. Given its similar usage in 14:23 and 26, it had probably become a semi-technical term for the ‘gathering together’ of the people of God for worship. Thus the concern is with what goes on when they ‘come together as the church’ (11:18).” [3] Fee also notes that “the Corinthian problem was not their failure to gather, but their failure truly to be God’s new people when they gathered.”[4]

The Gathered Church in the Rest of First Corinthians

In chapter 5, when Paul deals with the immorality of the man who had desired to have his father’s wife, he commanded that this individual should be “removed from among you” (5:2), and that this should take place “when you are assembled” (5:4). This makes the excommunication of this man the act of the whole body; this is “not simply an individual act of Paul, but a corporate act of the whole community.”[5] This authority which was vested in the community would carry over into the next chapter when Paul questions why there is not “one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers” (6:5).

In the latter chapters of 1 Corinthians, when Paul gives instruction as to the proper procedure for exercising of gifts, he uses several phrases that indicate he is concerned with the Gathered Church: “for the common good” (12:7), “the body does not consist of one member but of many” (12:14), “but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (14:4), “If, therefore, the whole church comes together” (14:23), “When you come together” (14:26), and “On the first day of every week” (16:1).

There Are No Lone-Ranger Christians

So, what are we to do with these gleanings about the Gathered Church? In his first letter to the church(es) in Corinth, Paul expresses little concern with the health of individual members, not because this is not important, but because members have been placed in a body and are at peak health and performance when functioning within the entire body (12:12-27). Paul says, “Now if the foot should say, ‘I do not belong to the body,’ it would not stop being part of the body” (12:15). But, he also makes it clear that “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you’” (12:21).

“The New Testament recognizes no individual or ‘lone-ranger’ Christians who are not attached to some local Christian fellowship. That is not to say it is impossible to be saved and uninvolved; however, this state of isolation is unhealthy.”[6] While there is no guarantee that everyone who assembles is a member of the church (5:1-5, 14:23), surely one who claims to be a member will be regularly gathering with the body.

It is a wondrous advantage yet a dangerous threat that twenty-first-century believers do not have to gather to have worship music; we have quality CDs and mp3s. Believers do not have to gather to hear sound teaching; we can download the best of the best sermons from the internet. Christians do not have to gather to interact with other Christians; we have social media, text messaging, and phones. The mystery of the Gathered Church is in danger of replacement by convenience and technology.

The Reason Why We Gather

Another important reality of this very clear theme of the Gathered Church is that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is for the Gathered Church to specifically guide them as they gather. Many churches don’t know why they gather. Still, many churches don’t know why they do what they do when they gather.

A story is told of a woman who would always chop off the end from the Christmas ham. When her husband asked for her reason, she replied, “That’s what my Granny always did, so that’s what I do.” When the man asked his wife’s granny why she chopped off the end from the Christmas ham, she replied, “Grandpa always bought a ham that was too big for my roasting pan, so I had to chop off the end to make it fit.”

Many churches are chopping the end off of the Christmas ham. We gather because it is what we’ve always done, and when we gather, we are guided by uniformed tradition and/or cultural liturgies. This is a dangerous road. If we gather mainly because our grandparents did, and we preach, teach, pray, and collect an offering because our grandparents did, then it is perfectly acceptable to do something different if what our grandparents did no longer suits our lives, our community, or our culture. We should be gathering because of a deep conviction that this is God’s desire for His Bride, and when we gather we should conduct our worship how God’s commands us to in His Word.

Appendix 1

Rom 1:12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.
Rom 1:13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.
Rom 8:9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
Rom 8:10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
Rom 8:11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Rom 12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
1 Cor 1:6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—
1 Cor 1:10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
1 Cor 1:11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.
1 Cor 2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
1 Cor 3:3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
1 Cor 3:16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
1 Cor 3:18 Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise.
1 Cor 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.
1 Cor 6:2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?
1 Cor 6:5 I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers,
1 Cor 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,
1 Cor 11:13 Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a wife to pray to God with her head uncovered?
1 Cor 11:18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part,
1 Cor 11:19 for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
1 Cor 11:30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
1 Cor 14:25 the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.
1 Cor 15:12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
2 Cor 1:19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes.
2 Cor 4:12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.
2 Cor 7:16 I rejoice, because I have complete confidence in you.
2 Cor 8:7 But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also.
2 Cor 10:1 I, Paul, myself entreat you, by the meekness and gentleness of Christ—I who am humble when face to face with you, but bold toward you when I am away!—
2 Cor 10:15 We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged,
2 Cor 12:12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works.
2 Cor 13:3 since you seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.
2 Cor 13:5 Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
Gal 3:5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
Gal 4:19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!
Gal 4:20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
Eph 5:3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.
Phil 1:6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
Phil 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
Phil 2:13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Col 1:6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth,
Col 1:27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Col 3:16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
1Thes 1:5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake.
1Thes 2:13 And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
1Thes 5:12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you,
2Thes 1:4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
2Thes 1:12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
2Thes 3:7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you,
2Thes 3:11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies.

[1] The KJV’s use of “ye” is helpful in distinguishing the second person plural (ye) from the second person singular (you). One from Wisconsin might say “you guys.” Those in the South might say “ya’ll” or “you’ins.”

[2] Mark Taylor, 1 Corinthians, ed. E. Ray Clendenen, vol. 28, The New American Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 39.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 536.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 394.

[6] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 252.

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Daniel Aaron Webster - blog a thing worth doing - worship, culture, ministry - early Christian music

Daniel Aaron Webster is a minister, writer, and teacher. His primary research interest is early Christian music, especially the musical thought of Clement of Alexandria.

Daniel serves at Welch College as Director of Enrollment & Marketing and as Adjunct Instructor of Music & Theology. He is also the Associate Pastor for Music & Worship at Immanuel Church in Gallatin, TN. 

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