Every church in America faces this dilemma. What do we do when the state tells us to close up shop and meet out of doors or online only? There are two famous pastors who are vividly demonstrating the two obvious options.
John McArthur in California says, “We will obey God and continue to meet just as God has commanded us. We must obey God rather than man.” He is doing so with a congregation of thousands, continuing to meet every Sunday morning.
Andy Stanley in Georgia says, “God does not command us to meet but to love one another, and what does love require us to do?—sacrifice. We will sacrifice meeting weekly as usual for the community around us.” His church of thousands will not meet until after the first of the year.
Christianity is not an individual sport. It is not like golf—it cannot be played alone. Yes, the Bible makes that clear in Hebrews 12:25, throughout 1 Corinthians and the book of Acts. The New Testament church met together regularly because God had made that clear to them—that’s the only way this Christian life can be lived. Jesus saved a corporate body, not a group of individuals. The church reflects that, as it is called the Family of God, the Body of Jesus, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. As individuals, we are children in the Family, members of the Body, and stones in the Temple.
As a result, we each make up an invaluable, indispensable part of the whole that God is redeeming, and that whole is expressed whenever and wherever Christians meet together. When the state tells us we cannot meet, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) must be our answer, and in America, the church has the freedom, constitutionally, to do that, unhindered by the state, or to not meet, if they, not the state, deem it is unsafe to do so.
Loving others outside the church has nothing to do with it. They can stay away and be perfectly safe. Those who come do so, do it at their peril. They are free. They can choose to come to church or not.
So, if our source of truth is the Word of God, the Bible, the corporate church is 1.) visible and attendable, and the church must meet regularly to function as a church, regardless of the state’s mandate. Closing the church is robbing Americans of their constitutional right to worship as they please. I stand with McArthur on this issue.
But there are two other biblical distinctives of the church that our “standard of faith and practice,” the Bible, clearly describes that both McArthur and Stanley do not practice and would most likely resist adopting in their churches, What are they?
The church is also made up of 2.) intimately related members. They do not come to church hiding behind plastered-on smiles to demonstrate their pharisaical righteousness. Instead, they come as broken sinners to meet with other broken sinners to remember, together, what God has done for them in Jesus Christ.
They are in the process of learning to transparently “walk in the light” together (1 John 1:7), and “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another” (James 5:16). The church is led by a group of “elders” (with gray in their beards!) who show us, as the congregation, in their own lives and from their own failures, how to walk this way on a daily basis. We are reinforced in that walk every Sunday as we meet together to remember that our loving, Heavenly Father has forgiven and forgotten every one of our sins (Jeremiah 31:34). Then we eagerly and enthusiastically worship Him together!
So, along with a visible, attendable, regularly meeting church, the biblical church is also a transparent, open and honest body of forgiven, still sinning, repentant members.
Finally, the third distinctive of a biblical church that McArthur and Stanley may not know that the Bible calls them to emulate is 3.) a church where all participate and contribute. Paul says, “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14:26).
Here Paul makes it clear that “each of you” can make a contribution—whatever the Lord has shown each individual to share with the church. Earlier in Chapter 12, he has made it clear that the least gifted or “honorable” member is important, and when even he is absent, or does not participate, the whole church suffers. The contribution may be a song, a message from the Bible, or a supernatural manifestation, and it is not only permissible but mandatory that each member brings his gift to the church.
With this biblical pattern being followed, Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:11-13 what the result is: “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”
The elders equip the church to minister to one another when they meet together by fully participating. Theological differences are argued and ultimately resolved, truth is learned, maturity is attained, unity is achieved, and the whole church begins to reflect the image of God. This is the first thing we are called to do in Genesis 1:26!
That is having church as the Bible instructs us. As this message is proclaimed and obeyed, personal empires, national reputations, and financial gold mines will begin to crumble, along with the gates of Hell that cannot withstand our attack!