This post is theological, not about public health. Obviously, these two things have been in tension recently. Let me state baldly my position, then defend it. It was critical, for a time, that churches forgo meetings of any significant size due to the public health threat. But, assembling together is essential to the very nature of the church, and the church is essential to the life of the Christian.
An analogy: holding my breath when my dad dunked me under water in the pools was critical. Breathing water would be bad. But, holding my breath is not sustainable for long because breathing is essential to me, you know, being human and all.
We as the Protestant, especially evangelical, church have failed to teach well about the church. Or maybe it’s that what we’ve taught is wrong. We have emphasized the invisible church like the Reformers did. We have not emphasized the importance, the necessity, of the visible church like they did. They were stable on two legs, we’re hopping around on one…and stumbling.
This has come home to me recently as I’ve seen a myriad of posts saying, in effect, the church doesn’t need a building to be the church. Or “we don’t go to church, we are the church.” Or, “any church worth its salt is doing more important stuff any other day of the week than it is on Sunday morning.”
Ok, we don’t need a building. But, buildings are particularly nice places to gather (given cold winters and rainy springs), and the church does need to gather. We are Christians, but Christians living in isolation, not gathering, not united in a body, are simply Christians, not the church. And, apart from gathering for worship centered around word and sacrament, what the church does is no different than what the Red Cross or Boys and Girls Clubs do. The early church did much to serve the world, but it began by devoting themselves corporately to word, sacrament, and fellowship (Acts 2:42). That is the root, the sine qua non of the church.
Maybe we need to go back briefly and consider what the word church means. The word church (or Kirk or Kirche) come from the Greek word κυριακός (kuriakos) meaning “belonging to the Lord”. The word only shows up twice in Scripture: once in 1 Cor. 11:20 where it refers to the Lord’s Supper and once in Rev. 1:10 where it refers to the Lord’s Day. The word became the customary word to designate the place where Christians worshiped as they conceived of themselves as the spiritual house belonging to the Lord.
This word church eventually became the translators preference when translating the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklessia), which literally means ‘gathering’ and need not carry religious overtones. (Side bar: saying the church means ‘the called out ones’ because its a compound word from ‘out’ and ‘called’ is kinda like saying butterflies are dairy products with wings. Etymology ain’t perfect). Robert Reymond asserts, “Because of this, English translations have lost a rich nuance of Scripture regarding the people of God.” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 805). The original word for church meant assembly. So when the the apostles were writing to ‘the church’, they were not writing to a nebulous collection of Christians dispersed and unconnected, but to the assembly – to the gathered Christians in one place (and by extension, all Christians gathered into their churches). That is what Reymond contends, rightly is missing in translation.
The word ekklessia is used in several places in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) to refer to “the assembly of the Lord” in the OT. For example, Deuteronomy 23:1-3 lists people who shall not enter “the assembly of the Lord”. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew is translated ekklesia, the same word we now translate church (similarly, see Deut 4:10, Josh 8:35, 1 Chron 29:10, etc.). In Acts 7:38 Stephen uses the word ekklessia to refer to the assembly of Israel in the wilderness.
The point of this word study is to emphasize the gathered nature of the church. By definition, the church gathers; like by definition a bachelor is single.
Again, this post isn’t about the public health crisis, though the crisis brought to the forefront our flawed thinking about the church. Pastors, elders, health officials and government officials must decide when the church should begin to meet again. But, without meeting, without assembly, there is not the church.
If you want to dive deeper into understanding the church, check out my series on Mother Kirk from 2013.