One Assembly: A Biblical View of Gathering

worms eye view of spiral stained glass decors through the roof

This Sunday our church is making plans to go outside to hold one service in our parking lot. Last year, from May until November, we took up this practice in order to meet under Covid guidelines. Along the way, a strange (read: providential) thing happened: We saw in practice what we held to be true in theory, namely that the single gathering of God’s church is God’s good design for his local church.

Since our church entered its building in 2005, we have had two Sunday services. But over the last year, we have grown dissatisfied with this practice. We believe Scripture calls the church to assemble as one body, and we are now planning (in the present) and praying (for the future) for ways to assemble as one.

On our church blog, I explain some of the history that resulted in multiple services, but for this post, I want to consider a biblical argument for gathering as one assembly. In particular, I want to offer three reasons for a local church to hold one service, not multiple services, on the Lord’s Day—one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, and one from our contemporary non-application of Scripture. These three arguments do not exhaust the subject, but they do give us a place to begin thinking about how our decisions about assembling the church are not inconsequential. Just the opposite, how we gather says something about what we believe about God and his purposes in the world. To that end, let’s consider three reasons for gathering as one.

The Old Testament Pattern of Worship : One People Gathered in One Place

In Exodus, God promised Moses he would deliver his people from Egypt and bring them to his holy mountain (Exod. 3:12). After ten plagues in Egypt, Yahweh fulfilled his word by leading Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, across the wilderness, and to Mount Sinai. At Sinai, God revealed to Moses a pattern for worship that would be carried throughout the rest of the Old Testament and into the New. This pattern included a tabernacle that reflected the glories of heaven, a priesthood that mirrored the angels in heaven, and a calendar of worship that would regularly assemble God’s people around God’s house.

In the wilderness, when the twelve tribes encircled the tabernacle, the children of Israel worshiped at their tents as Moses entered the tent of meeting (Exod. 33:8–10). Then, when Israel entered the land, God put his name in a particular place (see Deuteronomy 12), so that Israel could gather at his holy mountain as one people. In Leviticus 23, God’s people were called away from their homes three times a year to assemble at the place established by God. Eventually, this would be Jerusalem, and so important was this assembling together, that God promised protection from the nations, as Israel gathered to worship.

Both at Sinai and later in Jerusalem, therefore, worship included the assembly of God’s people. Even with the problems of accommodating so many people—Passover eventually had to be celebrated on multiple days—the pattern of worship revolved around one people, praising one God in unison together.

Even more, Psalm 133 speaks of the unity that existed among the priests who constantly stood before God, serving in his holy house. Put all this together, and you have a pattern of worship that gathered God’s people to God’s holy hill. There were not multiple places of worship, only one. And thus, there existed in Israel a pattern for gathered worship.

The New Testament Practice of Worship: Local Churches Come Together as One 

Entering the New Testament, we find Jesus telling the woman at the well, that there would no longer be one mountain where God would be worshiped (John 4:19–24). Because of the Spirit’s arrival on Pentecost (Acts 2), God would gather his people all over the world. But importantly, such geographical expansion does not deny the place of gathering, nor the pattern of assembling as one unified body in various locations.

This truth may not be immediately evident, but as soon as we look at how the apostles spoke about local churches, we learn that the same commitment to unified gatherings in the Old Testament remained in the New. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul speaks about the “church of God in Corinth.”

In other words, there is no such thing as a church devoid of place. That place might be in the shade of broom tree, in the cafeteria of a local school, or in the cramped quarters of a church building. The main point is that wherever two or three, or two or three hundred, of God’s people are gathered in the name of Christ, a church is formed. As the Reformation taught us, a true church is gathering of saints who rightly preach the Word and practice the ordinances. Even the phrase “where two or three are gathered in my name” comes from a discussion of church discipline, which is also practiced in the local church.

So from these two passages—1 Corinthians 1 and Matthew 18—we begin to get a sense of how the New Testament continues the practice of a unified assembly, even as it follows Jesus’ command to go make disciples of all the nations. Indeed, what is changed in the New Testament is not the need to gather in a place (the Temple), but to gather in every place (local churches in all nations). As Malachi 1:11 prophesied, a day was coming when people who offer incense in every place.

Paul is evidently telling us this has been fulfilled in the gathering of saints in Corinth. But it is also true in the churches (notice the plural) of Galatia (Gal 1:2 ; 1 Cor 16:1) and the churches of Revelation 2–3. Each of these assemblies, as Hebrews 12:22–24 puts it, is a place where the saints are coming to Mount Zion. Because the Spirit has been poured out, we are now able to ascend the hill of the Lord from any address on the planet. Yet, the hill of the Lord is something experienced when the living stones of Christ are brought together. Local churches are identified as a specific gathering of the saints at a particular time and place.

The assembly of the saints is what constitutes a church. In fact, the identification of a people as one church is a point Paul brings up in multiple ways in 1–2 Corinthians. First, in correcting the abuses of the Lord’s Table Paul in 1 Corinthians 10, he speaks of the church coming together: “When you come together” (v. 17), “when you come together as a church” (v. 18), “when you come together” for the Lord’s Table (v. 20), and “when you come together to eat” (v. 33). Clearly, there is something unique that happens when the church “comes together,” and not when the saints are apart from one another.

Critically, this coming together is not the random assembly of some Christians; it is the assembly of saints who know one another and who know when one of their members is missing. In 1 Corinthians 14:23, Paul writes about when “the whole church comes together.” Evidently, he expects the saints in Corinth to assemble together and to know when they are all there. Confirming this point, he later speaks of the “majority” of the church in 2 Corinthians 2:6. Without pressing language too much, it is axiomatic that a majority implies a given number, and that such a “number” recognizes when the assembled members are present or absent.

Such a practice of counting goes back to the church in Jerusalem, when 3,000 and then 5,000 were counted (Acts 2:41; 4:4). The apostles knew well the condition of their flock (cf. Prov. 27:23), and so did the other New Testament churches. For instance, Paul speaks in Romans 12:5 of the church as a people who are “members of one another.” Conversely, Paul can identify individuals who are members of particular churches. Phoebe is a servant from the church of Cenchrae (Rom. 16:1), and Paul met with the “elders of the church of Miletus” (Acts 20:17ff).

From all of these New Testament texts, we find a regular practice of churches assembling and knowing who is in their assembly. Accordingly, we should be a church who knows who our members are. This is necessary for the elders, but it is also imperative for all Christians.

If you are a local church member, you should know who your family members are. You wouldn’t start eating at  family meal, if you knew family members were still absent. And if you woke up tomorrow and your toe, or ear, or elbow was missing, you wouldn’t shrug it off. The same is true with the church. Part of being a New Testament Christian is living life in community with your local body.

While we cannot know everyone in the universal church, and we can’t know everyone equally well in the local church, the New Testament leads us to see that it should remain a goal to have a growing knowledge of the members in our church. Having two worship services makes this difficult. And this leads us to the third point concerning regular assembly of the whole church

The Modern Amnesia of Ekklesia

If knowing every member in the church seems daunting, burdensome, or impossible, I would suggest we are shaped more by modern (mega-)conceptions of church than the biblical of God’s household (1 Tim. 3:15). As we gather on Sundays, it is right for us be able to make a distinction between who our fellow church members are, and who is visiting with us. As we gather, our orientation is not only vertical in our worship of God, but it is also horizontal as we come to know, love, and serve one another. Part of this can unfold in smaller gatherings, but even those smaller groups are not the church, i.e., the assembly of our local church.

At our church, we don’t take communion in such venues, nor do we baptize members at a youth retreat, or practice church discipline in a Community Group. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and church discipline are for the church as God’s assembled people. And when Christians attempt to perform the church ordinances in spaces that do not make up the local church, they are moving against the grain of the New Testament, and neglecting Paul’s admonition to gather together for such things.

Again, while modern (mis)expressions of the church are legion, the New Testament use of ekklesia (church) always carries the idea of an assembly. Therefore, a church is a church because it “churches” (i.e., it assembles). As we have witnessed in the last year, a church that doesn’t church, can’t continue to be a church. Similarly, a church that has multiple gatherings, not to mention multiple campuses, functions as multiple churches, not one church—no matter what they call it.

The New Testament reality of church is one that is formed by the gospel, constituted by the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and maintained by the regular assembly of God’s people each Lord’s Day. Within that framework, there is incredible liberty to order the church as needed, but one of the anchoring truths that must remain is that local churches assemble together as one. Not only does this single gathering display the truth that the church is one body, not many; but it also enables members to know one another and grow with one another.

I realize that for many, such an approach to church seems foreign, perhaps even overwhelming. But consider where such impressions come from? Do they arise from biblical theology of the church, or from church experiences that were at odds with the New Testament church? The point of this blogpost is to say that Scripture gives us a model for how we should gather, and the biblical norm is for churches to assemble in a single gathering each Lord’s Day.

A Final Word of Encouragement: Assemble Together as the Lord Permits and Provides

In our church, it has been a process of learning that has led us to this point. But this learning began and continues as we submit ourselves to the whole counsel of God. If you want to hear more of this process, you can read our church blog post. But most important is forming a biblical conviction about what Scripture says about God’s ekklesia.

As I have argued here, the gathering of God’s people is not adiaphora, a matter of indifference. Instead, God gives us instructions about how to gather; obeying those instructions then is something local churches should strive to pursue. To be clear, such obedience may take time, in the same way that developing a plurality of elders takes time. But it is an endeavor worth pursuing in the life of the church, and we can rest assured that if God has called his church to gather as one, then we can pray and trust that he will provide a place for his people. Such a place might result in a church parking lot, a larger building, or the planting of new congregations.

But truly, if one assembly is God’s plan for the church, we can proceed with confidence that as he led Israel into a place for ordered worship, so he will do with his people today. This will look different for every church and different for churches in different geo-political contexts. Nevertheless, faithfulness to God’s Word begins with understanding what it says and then putting it into practice its instructions, as the Lord provides and permits.

May the Lord be pleased as our church and other churches move away from the modern habits of multiple services to a practice of assembling that better aligns with the biblical pattern. And may the Lord give us grace to fulfill this biblical instruction, as we strive be a church who gathers together as one.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds