Has the church as we know it out-lived its shelf life? Do we need to redesign our congregations to fit modern sensibilities and technological advances?
That’s the argument put forth in a recent series of articles at The Christian Post promoting virtual congregations and churches designed for the metaverse.
As we saw last time, God’s Word is sufficient and authoritative for church conduct, so we are not free to reorganize the church as we see fit. Instead we must seek to bring every aspect of our Christian practice into conformity with Scripture.
By contrast, The Christian Post seems to assume that the familiar, biblical practice of church assembly was formed on purely pragmatic grounds. One of the article’s purported experts writes, “Digital platforms are disrupting churches. This didn't happen during the pandemic. That happened when Web 2.0 came out. So if you look at the history of the church, you see that our model, our prevailing model right now, was invented 1,700 years ago.” He claims that this church model was built to accommodate a different time and culture.
In reality, the practice of believers regularly assembling on the first day of the week wasn’t “invented 1,700 years ago” for pragmatic purposes. It was established 2,000 years ago by Christ Himself. The nature of the church, the practice of the apostles, and the commands of Scripture make this clear.
A Called-Out Assembly
When the state of California forbid churches from gathering in any capacity, the elders of Grace Community Church responded: “The church by definition is an assembly. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word for ‘church’—ekklesia—the assembly of the called-out ones. A non-assembling assembly is a contradiction in terms.”
Additionally, John MacArthur comments on Christ’s words, “I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18):
The word ekklēsia (church) literally means “the called out ones” and was used as a general and nontechnical term for any officially assembled group of people. It was often used of civic gatherings such as town meetings, where important announcements were made and community issues were debated. That is the sense in which Stephen used ekklēsia in Acts 7:38 to refer to “the congregation” of Israel called out by Moses in the wilderness (cf. Ex. 19:17). Luke used it of a riotous mob (“assembly”) incited by the Ephesian silversmiths against Paul (Acts 19:32, 41).
Matthew 16:18 contains the first use of ekklēsia in the New Testament, and Jesus here gives it no qualifying explanation. Therefore the apostles could not have understood it in any way but its most common and general sense. The epistles use the term in a more distinct and specialized way and give instructions for its proper functioning and for its leadership. But at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus’ use of ekklēsia could only have carried the idea of “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.”John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 16–23 (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988), 32.
Even though Jesus speaks of the church universally in Matthew 16:18, the term ekklēsia is used throughout Scripture to refer to specific, local churches as well. Mark Dever notes, “The book of Acts usually refers to specific local gatherings with the word ekklesia, such as the assemblies in Jerusalem, Antioch, Derbe, Lystra, and Ephesus.”Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2012), 8.
As John MacArthur noted, the New Testament uses this word in its most natural sense. It cannot be twisted to mean anything other than an actual assembly. Therefore, the church is an assembly by nature.
The Practice of Assembling
Because the church is an assembly by nature, we see organized assemblies on display in the practice of the apostles. John MacArthur writes,
We learn from Scripture, for example, that the first day of the week was the day the apostolic church came together to celebrate the Lord’s Table: “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them” (Acts 20:7). Paul instructed the Corinthians to do their giving systematically, on the first day of the week, clearly implying that this was the day they came together for worship [1 Corinthians 16:2]. History reveals that the early church referred to the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day, an expression found in Revelation 1:10.John MacArthur, Worship (1983; reis., Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 38–39.
The church in the New Testament began calling Sunday “the Lord’s Day” because that is the day that on which Jesus rose from the dead. By the time John wrote Revelation, around AD 95, that term had apparently become so familiar that the apostle was able to use it without any further explanation (Revelation 1:10).Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 2:94.
As Dever explains,
The fourth commandment established a weekly rhythm among God’s people, and whatever the relation of the Old Testament Sabbath to the New Testament’s Lord’s day, the nature of Christian obedience always demanded that believers regularly assemble. It is not surprising that the New Testament churches apparently met at least weekly (if not more) and even began referring to the “Lord’s day.”Dever, The Church, 136.
He adds that weekly gathering was necessary for the practices of preaching, the Lord’s Table, and church discipline. So although not explicitly commanded in these passages, it is clear that the apostolic church consistently gathered on the Lord’s Day for corporate worship and fellowship.
A Command to Assemble
Besides the facts that ekklēsia literally means “assembly” and the apostolic church assembled on the Lord’s Day, the New Testament also explicitly commands believers to assemble. Hebrews 10:24–25 says, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.”
The author of Hebrews wrote to a Jewish audience tempted to return to Old Covenant practices, either partially or entirely. As John MacArthur explains,
The Jewish readers were having a hard time breaking with the Old Covenant, with the Temple and the sacrifices. They were still holding on to the legalism and ritual and ceremony, the outward things of Judaism. So the writer is telling them that one of the best ways to hold fast to the things of God—the real things of God that are found only in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ—is to be in the fellowship of His people, where they could love and be loved, serve and be served. There is no better place . . . to hope continually in [Christ], than the church, His Body.”John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Hebrews (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1983), 268.
Hebrews 10:24 contrasts “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” with “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” (NKJV) in the next verse. The clear implication is that gathering as the church produces mutual encouragement for Christlikeness in the members.
F. F. Bruce writes,
This will never happen, however, if they keep one another at a distance. Therefore, every opportunity of coming together and enjoying their fellowship in faith and hope must be welcomed and used for mutual encouragement. Our author exhorts his readers to continue meeting together the more earnestly because he knows of some who were withdrawing from Christian fellowship.F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), 257.
Sadly, those who propose virtual reality “church” are suggesting that we forsake assembling together, even if they don’t realize it. The result is that believers miss the opportunity to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds.” So rejecting God’s command to assemble is not only blatant disobedience, it also spiritually cripples the church.
The Church of the Future?
Since the New Testament era, Christians understood that they must regularly assemble because of the nature of the church, the practice of the apostles, and the commands of Scripture. But today’s disciples of the digital revolution want to overthrow this time-tested biblical practice for a new, man-made model.
Another so-called expert in this article states, “Church of the future is a network. And it’s going to be digitally based. It’s not going to be geographically based.” This new method not only disregards the biblical imperative to gather and ignores the biblical pattern of gathering, it proposes changing the very nature of the church—it argues for a non-assembling assembly.
In other words, this “Church of the future” is no church at all.