Assembly Is Essential Too: A Response to J. D. Greear

One of the major arguments used to support multi-site church structure (one church in multiple locations) is that the idea of covenant is what constitutes a group of people as a church, not the idea of assembly. In other words, as long as a group of believers have covenanted together it really doesn’t matter if they all assemble together or not, they can still consider themselves a church. Pastor J. D. Greear has made this argument. In a 2009 article for 9Marks, he wrote:

Some argue that since a local church is by definition an assembly, a multi-site strategy fundamentally skews the nature of a local church. The essence of a New Testament local church, however, is not “assembly” but “covenant body.” . . . “Assembly” is a much-needed function, but “covenant” is the essence.

He recently tweeted about it again, which prompted me to write this post. Let me explain what I consider to be the main problem with this argument.

The main problem with the argument that the essence of a church is “covenant body” and not “assembly” is that the biblical pattern reveals that covenant and assembly go hand in hand. More than that, the pattern is that a covenant is in fact established in the context of an assembly of the covenant partners. In other words, those entering into covenant with one another do so in the context of an assembly.*1*

To give an Old Testament example, when God established his covenant (the Mosaic Covenant) with Israel at Mt. Sinai, he did so in the context of an assembly of all the covenant partners. All Israel gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai in the presence of God in a solemn assembly to receive the stipulations of the covenant (the Law). And it was in the context of this solemn assembly that the covenant was made. This gathering at Mt. Sinai was later referred to in Deuteronomy as “the day of the assembly” (Deut 9:10; 10:4; 18:16). It was on this day that the people of God were constituted as “the assembly of the Lord” (Num 16:3; Deut 23:1, 2, 3, 8; 1 Chr 28:8; Mic 2:5). The day the covenant was established was also the day the assembly was established—in fact, it was established in assembly. And this original covenant assembly of all Israel at Sinai became the basis for the other worship assemblies throughout the year when Israel would gather again in the Lord’s presence (Exod 23; Lev 23). Here’s the point of this example. The reason Israel could consider itself “the assembly of the Lord” was not only because it was a “covenant body,” but also because it was a group that was characterized by actually assembling together in one place—the assembly component was just as essential as the covenant component.

Brief Excursus
This would be a good place to respond to one of the key points in Greear’s argument against the church-as-assembly view. Greear believes that “if the local church is essentially an assembly, then it only exists when it assembles and only when all the members are present” (see the article mentioned above). This is simply not true. Israel is frequently referred to as “the assembly of the Lord” or “the congregation of the house of Israel” throughout the Old Testament whether they are actually in an assembled state or not. The reason for this is that the congregation or assembly of Israel is characterized by assembling together on a regular basis (first at Sinai, and then at other times every year). This is common sense, really. When we say Israel is the “assembly of the Lord” we mean that they are the group that is characterized by assembling together. In the same way, a New Testament “assembly” (church) is called an “assembly” (ekklesia) because it is a group that is characterized by assembling together.

Now this discussion of the Sinai assembly is not some random Old Testament example that has no bearing on the nature of the New Testament church. Without going into a lot of detail, let me simply say that the New Testament word for “church” (Greek: ekklesia, “assembly”) is based on the idea of Israel as the “assembly of the Lord” in the Old Testament. As Tom Schreiner puts it, “The term ‘church’ (ekklēsia) reaches back to the OT term qāhāl, denoting Israel as God’s assembly.”*2* In fact, I would argue that there is an entire biblical theology of the people of God as the “assembly of the Lord” that starts with Israel at Sinai and that is fulfilled in the “assembly” Jesus is building now (Matt 16:18), the New Testament “church.” This New Testament assembly, like it’s Old Testament counterpart, is an assembly of all the covenant partners (i.e., the new covenant). Spiritually, all of those new covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ (Hebrews 12:18-24; note the comparison here to the Sinai assembly). Physically, that one heavenly assembly is manifested on earth in the form of multiple local assemblies or churches, each of which is a microcosm or manifestation of the one heavenly church.*3*

So, the old covenant assembly of the Lord was constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners were characterized by assembling together in one place—assembling together was essential. And the new covenant assembly of the Lord in its ultimate form (the universal church) is constituted as one assembly by virtue of the fact that the covenant partners are assembled right now in the heavenly places in Christ—the assembly is essential. So, the question is, why would we expect anything less from each local manifestation/microcosm of the new covenant assembly? It’s true for the Old Testament “assembly” (ekklesia in the Septuagint), and it’s true for the universal “assembly” (ekklesia) of the New Testament; so why when we see the New Testament authors referring to each local manifestation of this as an “assembly” (ekklesia throughout the New Testament) would we not assume that being characterized by all assembling together is essential if a group is to consider itself a local assembly? Yes, each local church is a “covenanted body” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant body), but each local church is also an “assembly” (a microcosm of the larger new covenant assembly).*4*

The pattern from Scripture is that for a group of people to be constituted as one assembly (or church) they must not only covenant together, but must also be characterized by assembling together as well. Covenant is essential, but assembly is too.

_________________________

1. Peter Gentry argues that “a formal and solemn ceremony,” which is what the Sinai assembly was, is what gives a covenant its “binding and quasi-legal status.” See Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, 152.

2. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 694.

3. This is why, for instance, Paul can call the church in Corinth “the church in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2) and “the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27). As John Hammett states,“The local church is not regarded here [1 Cor 12:27] as merely a part of a larger body of Christ, but as the body of Christ in that place.” See John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches, 37. Hammett goes on to say, “This is another support for a proper understanding of the autonomy of the local church. No local church should be isolated, but no local church needs a larger body to complete it or enable it to function. It is the body of Christ, possessing full ecclesial status” (ibid.). Each local church is a local manifestation of the whole body of Christ and of the whole assembly of Christ. See chapter 4 of my dissertation on how the NT assembly is a fulfillment of the OT assembly, and see especially pages 76-90 on each local church being a manifestation in time and space of the ultimate heavenly church. The dissertation can be downloaded here.

4. I argue that local churches in the New Testament were in fact characterized by whole church gatherings in chapter 5 of my dissertation.

14 comments

  1. Grant, thanks for the thoughts. Helpful historical context.

    Just to be clear, no one is arguing (at least I never have) that local churches should not assemble, or that assembling is not a necessary function of a local church.

    What we are saying is the assertion that a local church must assemble weekly in the same room at the same time is an unjustified, and (in my view) biblically unwarranted leap. I don’t see any passage you cited above that requires that, or even implies it. It takes the translation of a word, ekklessia, and extrapolates huge mandates from it that I don’t think we would consider sound hermeneutics in any other context.

    The Summit Church assembles weekly in eight locations across the Triangle, hearing the same message; contributing to the same budget; participating in the same mission, and voting on the same issues. We are one covenant body who assembles weekly.

    From time to time, we do assemble all together; in fact, about as often as the nation of Israel did. We believe assembly is a necessary function for a church; but we believe that when are not assembling all together weekly in the same location, that does not mean we cease to be a church. Do you think that? Does our not being together weekly invalidate our covenant to one another and our submission to one elder team?

    The analogy of a family is a good one. If my wife and I grow our family so large that we can’t fit around one table, but eat in two separate rooms, we do not cease to be a family (although if I actually suggested this my wife may leave me!). And if we grew it so large that it made more economic sense to live in two side by side houses rather than one, we would not suddenly become two families, would we? You may argue that such is not an ideal situation (and I would agree), but what makes a family a family is our legal relations. The essence of family is not eating altogether every right, even though healthy families do that as much as they can.

    And that, of course, is where the analogy breaks down. Churches are not biological families, and expressions of unity are different, and how we commune together is not the same. The NT is clear, as you note, that churches should assemble. But to go from there to say that it must be weekly in one room, at the same time, is an unjustified jump. It almost seems to me to be a kind of “hedge about the law,” an added layer to ensure that we are fulfilling the communal aspects of being a church.

    For us, multisite is the alternative to a) turning people away or b) building a 100 million dollar building that people drive from 45 min away to come. We only do campuses locally, in Raleigh-Durham, and we do assemble all as one on a periodic basis. The red herring that some bring up here is planting churches, as if we have chosen to plant campuses instead of churches, and that planting churches would solve our space needs just as well. That sounds good in theory, but unfortunately it just doesn’t work that way.

    We planted four domestic churches last year and sent out 120 members to plant those churches. Two of those churches were local. But planting churches NEVER alleviates the needs of a growing church. If you are growing by more than 10%, you’ll either have to turn people away, build a gargantuan assembly hall (which takes years and wastes millions upon millions of dollars, in my view), or you will pursue a multi-service approach. Our elders, after much prayer, determined that the multi-service approach best balanced all the biblical responsibilities given to us: We will indeed answer to God for how much we knew and cared for our members; we all also answer to God for how flexible we were to do whatever it took to reach our community. We’re trying to “not make it hard for the Gentiles who are turning to God,” and so want to avoid restrictive laws not mandated by God. We believe that if God’s pattern of assembly was everyone altogether every week in the same location, he would have said that.

    Hope this helps. Thanks for the biblical challenges and the caution. I appreciate the discussion! (Though I probably won’t be able to come back and respond to comments)

  2. Thank you for responding, J. D. I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

    I don’t believe the Bible mandates that a local church has to assemble all together every week to be one church, but I do believe that the group must be characterized by assembling together. It seems like you guys are doing this quarterly or so. I do think churches that are at least characterized by assembling all together like this at the whole church level can consider themselves one church. It might not be ideal or the wisest thing, but then again few church situations are ideal in a post-Genesis 3 world. Along those same lines, I also agree with you that Summit Church is still a church when they aren’t in the act of assembling, as long as they are characterized by all assembling together. I’d be interested in knowing why your church feels compelled to have whole church gatherings throughout the year. Is it because you think it’s just wiser to do it that way, or is it because you believe that whole church gatherings are at some level essential if you are to claim to have one church? If it’s the latter, then I think you agree with me that assembly is essential for a church to be one church and not multiple churches.

    I don’t think the family analogy is very helpful here. There are all kinds of institutions that establish the bonds of their membership in different ways depending on what the institution is. As you mention, “Churches are not biological families, and expressions of unity are different, and how we commune together is not the same.” I’m arguing that one of the essential ways that a local church expresses its communion is by its members all assembling together (being characterized by that, that is).

    I understand the pressure you’re under to go multi-site rather than build a bigger building, and that planting churches can’t solve the problem. But I believe that most multi-site churches are actually doing straight church planting anyway. If the people from the multiple campuses are not characterized by whole church gatherings (like you guys and Highview in Louisville, for example) then those campuses are really multiple churches. Calling them “campuses” or “sites” is just a misnomer. What you have is classic episcopal or presbyterian connectionalism—multiple churches subsumed under one church governmental hierarchy. I think it would be really helpful for everyone if multi-site churches who aren’t characterized by whole church gatherings would just come out and call their campus “churches” and say “we’re okay with having multiple churches under one church government.” Are you okay with having multiple churches under one church government? If so, why would you not want to just call your campuses “churches”?

    I saved my most important response for last. People tend to dismiss the argument from ekklesia too quickly, writing it off as some kind of word study fallacy. In appealing to ekklesia I am not simply “taking the translation of a word and extrapolating huge mandates from it.” The whole point of this post (and I develop it much more fully in my dissertation) is to show that ekklesia is part of a whole biblical theology of the people of God as the assembly of the Lord that stretches across the canon. Just because there is such a thing as a word study fallacy doesn’t mean that all word studies are fallacious. I’m arguing (and I think I give plenty of proof here) that the word ekklesia and the concept of God’s people as “assembly” carries a lot of freight by virtue of the way the concept is developed throughout the canon. That is not a word study fallacy or bad hermeneutics. That’s the way biblical interpretation and biblical theology is supposed to be done. And just because we don’t have specific laws laid out in the New Testament about these things doesn’t mean we’re free to do whatever. Saying that if God wanted us to do something or not do something “he would have said that” is simplistic. That, I would argue, is a faulty hermeneutic.

    I appreciate your thoughtful response, and your ministry, brother.

    Blessings

  3. Grant,

    I find myself in an airport this afternoon with a little down time, and I’ve given up on this weekend’s sermon (ha), so I have some time to respond.

    Thank you for the helpful, well-researched and very insightful thoughts. Hopefully there is some iron sharpening iron going on here. (And I would remind any readers that the places where the Grant and I agree on church, mission and evangelism are much more profound than in this small area we disagree.)

    If I could make a reduction here, we seem basically to agree that the essence of the church is covenant, because, as you acknowledge, we continue to be a church when we’re not assembled, and those who can’t make the assembly on a particular weekend do not cease to be part of the church. The only way those two things are true is that if the true essence of a church—what technically makes a church is a church—is the covenant.

    But we also agree that assembly is a *necessary* function of the church. So, if Calvary Baptist decided that it would not assemble for the next 6 months, and had no compelling reason—like disease or war or the like—you would be a disobedient church, and at some point you would have to ask if you really are a church at all—much in the same way that if a man from here in Durham arbitrarily marries a woman who lives in Russia, but never sees her, talks to her, or goes to be physically with her would have a sham marriage. They may technically be married in the legal/covenantal sense, but their marriage has become a sham.

    Churches that are genuine churches assemble for, as you point out, “assemble” is a meaning of the word “ekklessia.” Thus, Leeman’s implication that a church of 100 meeting individually in their houses each weekend is the same as multisite is not a valid one. If there’s no compelling reason you are not coming together, you should.

    So, while we agree the essence is covenant and assembly is a *necessary* function, where we disagree, it seems to me, is that that assembling must be all people in one place at one time. Where is your biblical justification for that particular? It seems your response is, “Well, that’s just what the word means: assemble means everyone together in one place at one time.” While I would consent that assembly certainly means “come together,” where is the mandate that it has to be all people in one place at one time—or its not really an assembly?

    Let me ask you a few questions to clarify: Do all people have to be able to see each other in the room to qualify as an “assembly?” For example, if you have a church with 3 balconies, and the people in the upper back of the balcony can’t ever see the people on the bottom floor, is that still an assembly? What if some people, for space reasons, have to sit outside the lobbies and along the steps, and they can’t see the preacher, only hear him? Still an assembly? What if you install monitors so they can see and hear the sermon better—does that move it to “non-assembly”? What if that group grows to fill up the church basement and they pipe in the sermon by video (which Capitol Hill did for a season; in a great turn of irony, I preached at CHBC during that season!)? Has it ceased to be an assembly? Did I preach to two “churches” that day at CHBC? I never laid eyes on that group in the basement. What if a group of members, for space reasons, moves across the street and watches on video? Has it *then* ceased to be assembly?

    In the above, what is the line for where you declare it “no longer an assembly” and where is your biblical or logical justification for doing that? (I realize I am being a bit pedantic, but I think the distinction is worth clarifying.) Right now it seems to be arbitrary, based mostly on a nuance you have read out of the word “assembly.” That is where the questionable hermeneutics come in to me. Isn’t that just begging the question? That we should assemble is not in question—whether it has to be everyone in the same room, at the same time, within site of each other—that is the very thing we are trying to determine.

    For the record, I do not believe in multiple churches under one government, nor do I see it as anything like what we are doing. I am a Baptist, and I believe that each church is autonomous. All the members of the Summit Church at our eight campuses in the Triangle are covenanted together, submitted to one church government. We assemble weekly, but for space reasons, not always in the same place at the same time.

    We do that because it is evangelistically profitable and pastorally helpful. When you say it is “unwise,” I feel that—and it creates a lot of problems for us. Having a church that can fit in one room where I know everyone’s name would, in some ways, be an advantage. But is it wise to turn away those hundreds whom our members are bringing every year to our church to hear the gospel? There’s no excuse for ever departing from the biblical pattern, but nor is there any excuse for not doing everything you can to get the gospel to as many people as possible as fast as possible.

    So, until someone can show me that assemble *necessarily* means every person in the same room at the same time, we will continue (hopefully with humility, wisdom and the leadership of the Spirit) to pursue multi-site with a completely clear conscience. I believe that if God wanted to make the specifics of assembly clearer, he would have, and would not have left us with any ambiguity. Why not stop our ecclesiological specifications where the Bible stops its own? Can’t we leave freedom and flexibility where the Bible leaves it? If we believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, I feel like I have no choice but to leave some latitude here for churches to figure out how best to accomplish their God-given functions in their particular context.

  4. P.S. I have enjoyed the insight and challenges. I hope we can both add to this conversation in a way that we both come out the better for it. I feel like 80% of multisite models I am NOT in support of. Thanks for your careful work in ecclesiology.

  5. J. D.,

    Thanks again for this response. I hope your flight goes well! I too agree that this issue is of secondary importance, and that when it comes to ecclesiology we agree on much more than we disagree on.

    I wouldn’t be comfortable saying that the reason a church can continue to be a church even when it’s not in assembly is because the essence of the church is covenant. I would say that the reason Calvary is a church/assembly today (Tuesday) even though we aren’t currently gathered together is because we are a group of people who are characterized by actually gathering together all in the same place at the same time. So, really I would say that the essence of the church is assembly *and* covenant or commitment (or however one might want to describe what it means that both the individual and the congregation have identified with one another). This is where I think Jonathan Leeman is on to something. Let’s say it’s not 100 individuals meeting in 100 separate places, but 100 individual family units meeting in 100 separate places. If my family and your family had individual family worship gatherings during the week, but our families never gathered together in the same place at the same time, and our families “covenanted” together, I don’t think we would be justified in calling ourselves one church. The covenant commitment is there, and the act of assembling is there (each family assembles with itself), but because our families are never gathering in the same place at the same time we are two separate assemblies and cannot call ourselves one church. So, I think both components have to be there for one church to exist. You need the covenant commitment *and* you need to be characterized by gathering together in the same place at the same time. Otherwise, it’s just multiple churches, even if we let you preach to our family in Tennessee through FaceTime, and pool our money together, etc., if we *never* gather together as one how can we consider ourself one gathering? Again, I’m not saying it has to be every week. But never? I know Summit Church does get all together sometimes, but what about most multi-site churches that don’t ever have whole church gatherings? How is that not the same as the scenario above where our families never gather together though we do gather separately and covenant together?

    That leads me to the main point of your last response. I do believe that biblical warrant exists for requiring a church to be characterized by whole church gatherings if they are going to consider themselves one church. I believe that a multi-site church that is not characterized by campus-wide gatherings does not have a sound biblical or theological basis for considering itself one church. The biblical warrant for this doesn’t come in the form of commands about the way we need to assemble or the frequency of it. That doesn’t make me uncomfortable at all, because I recognize that the Bible doesn’t come to us primarily in the form of commands. There are many genres of literature in the Bible and trying to deduce how we should live from narrative literature, or poetic literature, or epistles is a complicated task. In a nutshell, I believe the right way forward is to see the Bible as giving us the story of God, and that by immersing ourselves in the story, and by paying careful attention to the way the story unfolds with its various themes throughout redemptive history, we can determine whether contemporary church practices like multi-site are fitting or not.

    When it comes to the question of whether a group of people who are not characterized by all assembling together (in whole church gatherings) are justified in considering themselves one church, here are the major relevant biblical data that direct me toward my view:

    – Everything I said in my original post above about Israel being constituted as the assembly of the Lord by virtue of the fact that they were characterized by gatherings of the whole assembly of Israel.

    – The fact that this serves as the background for the church as the assembly of the Lord in the New Testmaent (again, I think this is why the word ekklesia is used to refer to the new covenant people of God—to show that in the new covenant through Jesus God is reestablishing the assembly that was scattered during the exile [see the promise in Deut 30:1ff]). If Israel was constituted as the assembly of the Lord because they were characterized by all assembling together, then we would expect the same of the new covenant assemblies (churches) unless given reason to believe otherwise.

    – And then there is the picture of the church practicing regular whole church gatherings in the New Testament (See below for specifics). This evidence leads me to believe (given the background I’ve already mentioned) that these whole church gatherings are not coincidental, but that they (like the assembly-wide gatherings of Israel in the OT) are essential to what makes a church a church. So the fact that each church is called an ekklesia (which does mean “assembly”) coupled with the fact that we see these assemblies observing whole church gatherings makes me think that they are doing this because it “fits” with the pattern of God’s people as assembly throughout redemptive history. Considering yourself one church because your members are characterized by whole church gatherings “fits” the biblical data, and considering yourself one church when your members are not characterized by whole church gatherings does not “fit” the biblical data.

    _______________________

    Here is a section from my dissertation where I lay out some of the evidence for whole church gatherings in the New Testament church and why they are significant:

    Many scholars point out the fact that there were times in which the entire church in a city came together in one place, something most multi-site churches never do. Gehring states that “the primitive [Jerusalem] church gathered for two different types of worship services.” One type of gathering was “in the temple in a large meeting as the whole church,” and the other was “in private homes as individual church bodies in small groups as house churches.” The gatherings in the temple, says Gehring, were assemblies of the church as “a publicly visible unit.”

    The fact that the Jerusalem church met together at the “whole church” level is made clear in texts such as Acts 2:44 and 5:12. Acts 2:44 says of the Jerusalem church, “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” What the ESV translates “together,” in this verse, is the Greek phrase “ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό,” which is best translated “in the same place” or “in the assembly.” The same phrase is used in Acts 1:15, where the disciples were gathered together waiting on the Holy Spirit: “And in those days, Peter, standing up in the midst of the brothers (a multitude of about one hundred and twenty names was in the same place [ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό]), said.” The phrase is used again in Acts 2:1, when the believers were gathered together on the day of Pentecost: “And when the day of Pentecost was being fulfilled, all of them were together in the same place [ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό].” The use of ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό in Acts 2:44 is similar to these other uses. The whole Jerusalem church, which now numbered in the thousands, were all assembling together “in the same place.” We are told in Acts 2:46 that this place was the temple, and we are further informed by Acts 5:12 that one place in the temple that was used for this large type of gathering was Solomon’s Portico. Gehring is correct, then; the believers in Jerusalem gathered “in the temple in a large meeting as the whole church.”

    The practice of gathering together for whole church assemblies is seen in the church of Corinth as well. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul states that when the believers in Corinth “come together as a church [ἐκκλησία]” (v. 18), they are “meeting together in the same place [ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό]” (v. 20). In 14:23, it is “the whole church [ἐκκλησία]” that “comes together in the same place [ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό].” Writing from Corinth, Paul says, in Romans 16:23, that the house of Gaius (cf. 1 Cor 1:14) was one such place used for whole church gatherings in this city: “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you.” So, the church in Corinth, like the church in Jerusalem, had whole church gatherings in which all the believers assembled together in the same location. Gordon Fee is surely correct when he comments on 1 Corinthians 11:18 (“when you come together as a church [ἐκκλησία]”), “The people of God may be called the ‘church/ assembly’ first of all because they regularly assemble as a ‘church/assembly,’” and that “this is further confirmed by the ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτό (in the same place) in verse 20, which is nearly synonymous with this present usage [of ἐκκλησία].” Whole church gatherings were a central and constituting factor in the churches of the New Testament.

    Though it does not explain the way a church in a city would function, the plural use of ἐκκλησία serves as evidence against a provincial or national church, and shows that (at least at this regional level) the principle seems to be in use that unless the Christians of a particular location could all meet together in the way the churches in Jerusalem and Corinth did, then they were not considered a single church, but a plurality of churches. Robert Banks writes, “The plural references to “the churches in Galatia” (Gal 1:2; 1 Cor 16:1), “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), “the churches in Macedonia” (2 Cor 8:1), and “the churches of Judaea” (Gal 1:22) demonstrate that the idea of a unified provincial or national church is as foreign to Paul’s thinking as the notion of a universal church. Only if there were an occasional provincial meeting of all Christians could he have spoken of them in this way.”

    Bruce Button and Fika J. Van Rensburg agree with Banks, and argue that “when he [Paul] intended to refer to groups of believers in different places he used the plural ἐκκλησίαι or a statement such as ‘every church’ (Rom 16:4; 1 Cor 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 16:1, 19; 2 Cor 8:1, 18, 19, 23, 24; 11:8, 28; 12:13; Gal 1:2, 22; 1 Thess 2:14; 2 Thess 1:4).” They go on to say that “this criterion [for what constitutes a church as one church] may be more precisely specified by saying that, for a group of Christians to be called an ἐκκλησία, it had to gather together.” A single church was not present unless its members were characterized by meeting together in one place.

  6. I forgot to respond to part of your questions. I don’t think everyone in the assembly has to see everyone else in the assembly. So, blind people can be part of the assembly, for instance. But I do think you have to be physically present in the assembly. Any configuration that prevents a group from being characterized by (and there’s the slightly subjective part) whole church gatherings prevents them from being one church.

  7. Grant,
    I’d love to hear your responses to JD’s questions regarding multiple services and overflow rooms. As you know, I’ve followed your thoughts on this for a while and have raised several questions of my own, and this is one of the questions I’ve wondered about regarding your particular ecclesiology.

    Particularly, do you see two or three back to back services as an unbiblical gathering? What about churches that have multiple venues worshipping at the same time due to space issues? Do you see these as contradictory to your interpretation of the New Testament assembly?

  8. Hey BJ,

    That’s what I was responding to in my last short comment. I think any configuration like multiple services, multiple venues, or multiple campuses that prevents a group of believers from being characterized by whole church gatherings prevents them from being one church.

    If Calvary ever needed to use an overflow room, we would want to make that a temporary fix and still make sure there are times during the year when we all gather together as one. Likewise, if for some reason Calvary went to multiple services, though we would try to avoid that, we would make sure that there were regular times throughout the year when we had whole church gatherings. We could rent out the local civic center, or the chapel at Union University, or some other larger venue to make this happen.

  9. Grant,

    I love your heart and passion for the local church and am so proud of the man you have become. You did an excellent job of fleshing out the dual nature of assembly and covenant, in that order, both historically and biblically.

    However, where the thread always seems to break down is in who gets to define the phrase “characterized by whole church gatherings”.

    Even more so when you attempt to tackle that on the micro-individual level as opposed to the macro-gathered church (i.e. homebound senior or steel plant worker who cannot attend the weekly, quarterly, yearly, whatever gathering). Are they no longer a part of Calvary if they cannot assemble? Are they assimilated somehow through vicarious visitation? Moreover, if they show up solely for one “whole church gathering” do they get to retain their status as part of the local church? (I’m positive they do if they keep cutting the tithe check:) I’d love to hear your thoughts from the perspective of the individual.

    1. Troy,

      Great questions. I do believe there is a lot of room for wisdom to be applied when it comes to defining what being “characterized by whole church gatherings” looks like. I certainly don’t think I can draw the line in the sand for everyone myself. Each church will have to take an honest look at their situation and ask themselves, “If we do it this way, can we honestly say we’re characterized by whole church gatherings.”

      When it comes to exceptional cases of individuals like homebound members or folks whose work keeps them from whole church gatherings, this too is an area where wisdom must be applied. Thankfully, these kinds of scenarios are the exception and not the rule in most churches. Is the homebound member who cannot come to corporate worship services still a part of the church? Yes and no. Yes, they are if by that you mean they are still under the care of the pastors, deacons, and other members who minister to them, and are still involved in praying for the church, and giving, etc. But, probably all of Calvary’s homebound members would tell you that they know there is something huge missing now that they can no longer join the worship assembly. The curse of sin is horrible. It causes our bodies to grow old and eventually die, and in the mean time disrupts the way things are supposed to be (the ideal)—even the way church is supposed to be.

      When it comes to the person whose work keeps them from assembling together with the church, I think the same rule would apply at the individual level that applies at the corporate level. If the person can say “I am characterized by gathering at the whole church level with my local church,” then that person can say they are a part of that church. If they cannot say this over a long enough period of time (and the length of time is another area of ambiguity that calls for wisdom) then I don’t think they can claim to be part of the church. I have counseled many people in my own church whose work schedule was keeping them from our gatherings on Sundays, and so far all of them have been able to rearrange their schedules so that even if they can’t gather at the whole church level every week they can do it often enough.

    1. Ted,

      I wouldn’t say that ekklesia is “defined” by covenant in either the Old or New Testament, but the two words are used in tandem in both the Old and New Testament. For the New Testament I would point you toward one of the quintessential texts on the new covenant assembly, Hebrews 12:19-24. Here, both ekklesia and covenant are used together, and interestingly in a passage comparing the Old Testament covenant assembly to the New testament Covenant assembly.

      1. Hi Grant,

        I didn’t ask my question of you rightly. You prefer the word “essence.” A better way of asking is,

        “Where in the NT is the essence of a local NT ecclesia defined by covenant?”

        You wrote to JD,

        “So, really I would say that the essence of the church is assembly *and* covenant or commitment (or however one might want to describe what it means that both the individual and the congregation have identified with one another).”

        Like you, I’m thinking about the local church (Heb. 12 is universal church, no?).

        blessings,

      2. Ted,

        Great question. There are a few layers to this. First, there’s the sense in which the new covenant assembly as a whole (the universal church) is bound together in the “new covenant.” Then there’s the question of local church “covenants” used to spell out in detail what one is committing to when they join a local church’s membership (which I think are a helpful tool). Then there is the more general concept of “identifying with,” “committing to,” or “covenanting with” a particular local church, and often a written covenant is used to aid in this. The biblical evidence I see for the latter is the same evidence I see for local church membership. So, for example, I think passages like Matthew 18:17 (“tell it to the church”), 1 Corinthians 5:13 (“Purge the evil person from among you.”), and 2 Corinthians 2:6 (“For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough”) imply that there are particular local churches that Christian individuals have identified themselves with. When we say that identifying with (or covenanting with) a local church is part of the “essence” of a local church, we’re saying that if a group of Christians doesn’t identify themselves with one another, then they aren’t a local church. I think identifying with and covenanting with a particular local church is consistent with the way it works at the universal church level. At the universal level, all Christians identify with all other Christians, and to God, with and through the new covenant. Each local church needs to do the same, because, in my view, each local church is a manifestation in time and space of that heavenly, universal church.

        Hope this answers your question.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s