What is the Church? (Why is it important during COVID-19?)

This is the first of a three-part series on the church’s response to COVID-19. Before diving into the church’s response, we need to be clear on what the church is; part 1 is focused on that question. Part 2 will seek to gauge whether church leaders have appropriately responded to this crisis. Part 3 will look at why i believe church leaders have responded inappropriately to this crisis.

(At the outset, I am not trying to shame anybody who is more susceptible to the COVID-19 virus, and who would have chosen to stay home even without government “recommendations.” I just ask and pray that your decision is rooted in and surrounded by prayer.)

By way of introduction, as will be further discussed in part 2, i have had a rocky relationship with the church throughout my Christian life. I grew up in the church, but when i turned 18, i decided i wanted to become one of the 80% of people who grow up in the church but leave it after high school. Thankfully, God–in His infinite wisdom and sovereignty–sought to not only draw me back to the church but to also–and more importantly–draw me effectually to the salvation found in the blood of Jesus.

Since that fateful day–July 1, 2010–this walk has been anything but a piece of cake. I have experienced varying levels of commitment to the church, but i will save that for the introduction in part 2. I bring it up now merely to explain that i know i have no right to pen this series of posts, but also that (in a very real way) the church has saved my life. What we think about the church–and how we do church–is vitally important every day. And it is especially important during the crisis in which we currently find ourselves. Lives could very well be at stake.

To answer the first question properly, we must answer the underlying two questions. We will look at each in turn.

“What’s wrong with doing church online?”

Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.  And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works,  not staying away from our ⌊worship⌋ meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:23-25 (HCSB)

You cannot assemble together online, and the church is commanded to assemble together. (Edit: You actually can assemble online, but live-streaming does not count as assembling together. The focus of this series is the concept of one-sided live-streams, not platforms that actually promote two-way communication.)

Mark Dever writes,

A biblically faithful church is a gathered church. It is a voluntarily assembled congregation that is not bound together by nationality, ethnicity, or family alone . . . Christians choose to gather together regularly out of obedience to God’s Word.

Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2012), 131.

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats (and if you spend much time on this blog, you’ll hear/see me often refer to this passage). In fact, this is more than a parable. The only parable-like aspect of this passage is the simile in verse 32: “as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” As such, this is a picture of the final judgment. And for this reason, we must pay careful attention to Jesus’ words in these verses. In verses 41-45, Jesus says:

Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!  For I was hungry and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me nothing to drink;  I was a stranger and you didn’t take Me in; I was naked and you didn’t clothe Me, sick and in prison and you didn’t take care of Me.’
Then they too will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?’
Then He will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.’

The final judgment will be based on our love for one another. And love involves physical interaction. You can’t feed people if you’re not with them. You can’t give people water if you’re not with them. You can’t clothe people if you’re not there to give them clothes. You can’t visit people in prison if you’re not visiting people in prison. You can’t care for people who are sick if you’re not going to the hospital, going to the nursing home, or going to wherever it is that you need to go to visit them.

Also, as a local church, we do communion. It’s got the word union in it. You can’t do communion if you’re not together. The things we are doing right now for all this stuff should never become the norm.

Tim Challies, a blogger i follow, respect deeply, and recommend often, recently wrote an article about how he travels around the world a lot. He has to be separated from his wife during these trips. But due to technology, he can FaceTime with her, both see her and communicate with her. He writes,

Aileen never worries that I won’t come home. She is never concerned that I’ll conclude FaceTime is good enough and decide to only ever stay in touch virtually. She knows that while FaceTime may be a blessing, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face time.

There are certain aspects of relationships that can’t be there if you are just FaceTiming. And so, in the same way, church is not truly happening if we are not gathering, locally and together.

In 1 Peter 5:14a, Peter writes:

Greet one another with a kiss of love.

We cannot do that virtually. And, while kisses were a form of greeting specific to the biblical context, you can’t give someone a hug or a handshake virtually either.

Technology currently allows us to interact (to some extent) virtually, and the government has told us that we are not supposed to be gathering right now. (But compare the discussion in part 2.)

I stand by my statement heading this post. If we are concerned about sickness, there should be no shame if we don’t gather right now. Sick people can’t meet. It’s not just a COVID-19 reality. If you or your child is throwing up Sunday morning, you would usually opt to stay home. People who are stuck up in the hospital with a broken leg can’t meet either.

Matthew 25 also implies that those of us who are healthy should be going to the sick people and visiting them. It’s not merely about the congregation coming together, but it is also about the congregation going out and helping one another with needs.

Church comes from the word ecclesia, which literally means “called out ones.” Colossians 3 says that “we have been raised with Christ.” So if Christ was raised from the dead, and if we were raised with Christ, then we were called out of the grave with Christ. It’s why the New Testament is full of the phrase “In Christ.” If you are in Christ, you were called out of the grave with Christ. We have been called out!

We publicly show that we have been called out when we come out of our houses and we gather together (whether on a Sunday morning [primary] or a weeknight for an organized Bible study).

So (at the very least) when it is safe to travel, if we stay in our houses and try to do church online, it does not evidence that we have truly been called out. We need to be gathering together.

I will let the author of Hebrews close this portion of the discussion:

Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.  And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works,  not staying away from our ⌊worship⌋ meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Hebrews 10:23-25 (HCSB)

“But aren’t people the church, not the building?”

In Christian circles today, it has become common to say, “The church is not a building.” I want to begin this portion of the discussion by saying that i agree wholeheartedly!

The church is not a building. Jesus said in Matthew 18:20,

For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.

I cannot emphasize this enough. The church is not a building, but it is a gathering. It is a gathering, whether in a home, or in a park, or at the beach. The church is not a building.

But, before we say that gathering together in our homes and watching sermons on our televisions or computers counts as church, i would like to point you 1) to the previous section, and 2) to the context of Matthew 18:20.

You see, Matthew 18:20 comes as the conclusion of a section describing church discipline. The whole section (18:15-20) reads as follows:

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother.  But if he won’t listen, take one or two more with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established.  If he pays no attention to them, tell the church. But if he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like an unbeliever and a tax collector to you.  I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.  Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.

Verse 17 is bold.

I want to pay special attention to verse 17. If he pays no attention to the two or three, then you go to the church.

But can’t a church be two or three people?

I suppose it could, but there is something that makes a church a church besides two or three random people.

Pastors. Elders. Overseers. These are the ones with authority in a local church, and as such, are required for church discipline to be biblically carried out.

Pastors (shepherds). Elders. Overseers.

These words are synonymous. If you doubt this fact, two passages should put that doubt to rest:

Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church.  And when they came to him, he said to them: . . . “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock that the Holy Spirit has appointed you to as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which He purchased with His own blood.”

Acts 20:17-18, 28 (HCSB), emphasis added.

The reason I left you in Crete was to set right what was left undone and, as I directed you, to appoint elders in every town: . . . For an overseer, as God’s administrator, must be blameless . . .

Titus 1:5, 7 (HCSB), emphasis added.

I say it all the time, and i try to live by this creed: “Love is not an emotion.” In other words, love is a verb.

Similarly, as is clear from Acts 20:28, pastor is not a title. Pastor is a job description.

And what are job descriptions for?

Job descriptions describe the actions required for the job.

Pastor is a verb. Pastors are to shepherd sheep. They are to feed and water and care for the people in their charge. They are supposed to know them. They are not just supposed to read their names on a membership role or on the chat bar of a live-stream church service. To remove people from the proximity of a pastor is to bring Jesus’ words in Matthew 9:36 to an unfortunate reality:

When He saw the crowds, He felt compassion for them, because they were weary and worn out, like sheep without a shepherd.

This is why Paul said what he did in Titus 1:5,

The reason I left you in Crete was to set right what was left undone and, as I directed you, to appoint elders in every town.

Things had been left undone.

What would rectify this situation?

Appointing elders in every town. We need to know that this means “appointing elders in every church.” As the church was new to the island of Crete, there would likely only be one church per town.

But the point is clear, a church isn’t complete until it has pastors/elders/overseers.

Therefore, when it comes to meeting in our own homes and watching sermons online, we are not churches, even though there are two or three of us gathered. Your house would need to have someone who has been appointed an elder by someone else qualified to appoint people as elders (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2).

I’ll allow Mark Dever to close out this section:

The local church is more than a congregation, a gathering, but it is never less. While the New Testament refers to a plural number of leaders in a single congregation (e.g., Acts 20:17), never does it refer to multiple meetings as constituting a single local church. Furthermore, the idea that there can be one bishop or presbytery with authority over various congregations is the essence of either an Episcopalian or Presbyterian understanding of church polity; it is the opposite of congregationalism, which understands that each gathering that has preaching and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper has been given the keys of authority of Christ and should therefore have its own leadership, accountable under God only to the gathered church.

Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2012), 132. Emphasis added.

Unless we want to all start calling ourselves Presbyterians or Episcopalians, online church (live-stream format) can never become the norm. And even in these types of churches, each congregation has its own pastor, so online church still doesn’t quite work.

Concluding Thoughts

These thoughts are the framework for understanding the ideas put forward in parts 2 and 3. It is necessary to understand what the church is before dropping a controversial statement like the one that follows this sentence:

The church (especially in America) has almost completely disappeared as an entity because of COVID-19. We must do whatever we can–within reason–to change this as quickly as possible.

If churches are no longer gathering together, and the houses where people watch services have no appointed pastors–for the most part–then it follows logically that the church has all but disappeared.

This can have devastating effects, not just for individuals, but for the world as a whole. The next two posts in this series will continue this discussion.

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Solus Christus
Sola Fide
Pro Ecclesia

Thanks for reading.

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