Square Circles, Cold Fire, and Online Church

The year 2020 has forced Christians to think hard about important issues. One of them pertains to gathering for corporate worship on the Lord’s day. Covid-19 and government restrictions caused many churches to suspend their gatherings for a time. Many churches, like my own, chose to stream sermons online when we were not meeting. Our members, along with Christians around the world, stayed home on the Lord’s day to participate in an online “service.”

Naturally questions arose about this new way of “doing church.” Was it church? Is online church actually church? To put it another way, is assembling together a necessary component of a church? I have heard many people say things like, “The church is a people. The church is wherever Christians are. We don’t have to gather.” Or, “We are the church, not some building.” Their point is that gathering is not an essential part of what makes a church a church.

Ungathered Gatherings?

Let’s hold on. While it is true that a church is a people and not a building, it is also true that a church is a people that gathers together in one place. Perhaps here it is important to clarify the distinction between the universal church and the local church. The universal church is all of God’s people everywhere. The universal church includes all regenerate believers scattered all over the planet. The universal church never assembles this side of glory. It’s impossible.

But the local church is different. The local church is where the universal church finds expression. The local church by definition is an assembly. The Greek word ekklesia that we translate “church” means assembly. Local churches are local because they are an assembly of believers together in one place—hence the title of this blog post. While saying “online church” is not exactly the same thing as the oxymorons square circle and cold fire, it’s pretty close. Online Church is like talking about an ungathered gathering or an unassembled assembly. How does that work?

No Gathering, No Institutional Church

Is there more to this discussion than definitions? Jesus thought so. In Matthew 18, Jesus gave a very specific kind of authority to the church gathered that he didn’t give to individual Christians. He gave local assemblies the authority to declare an unrepentant “brother” as a Gentile and a tax collector (Matt 18:17). In other words, Jesus gave local churches the authority to affirm or disaffirm a person’s citizenship in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 18:18). No individual Christian wields such authority. Instead in Jesus’ words, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20, ESV Italics mine). Only the gathered church—even if it’s as small as 2 or 3—possess an authority from Christ to represent heaven on earth.

Clearly Jesus expected his people to gather. He promised his presence at their gatherings which gave them a special kind of authority as embassies of his kingdom. No gathering, no institutional church.

The Gates of Hell Will Not Prevail

There might be legitimate reasons that churches suspend their gatherings for a period of time—like figuring out if a novel virus is going to kill millions of people! But the local church is never going away this side of the eternal state. Local assemblies of believers called churches will be around until Jesus comes back again. No amount of persecution or technological convenience will ever undo what the Bible clearly calls Christians to do. Churches might employ livestream technology to spread the gospel and serve shut-ins, but what they employ (live video) is different from what they are—assemblies of believers proclaiming the true gospel, administering the ordinances, and wielding heaven’s authority on earth until Jesus comes again.

Have you ever seen a square circle or touched cold fire? How about an unassembled assembly? Me either.

Hebrews 10:24–25 (ESV) — 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

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