What is a church?
This question is usually reserved for punctilious theologians or analytical pastors. Many Christians simply take it for granted that they know what a church is, often having their own local church in mind, with all its present traditions and cultural peculiarities. But this kind of thinking often creates a definition of the church that is almost entirely bound to a particular society and a limited historical moment.
I am asking a question about the essence – not merely function – of what a church is. I am asking about the essential elements of a local church, that stuff that’s always included in the ingredients, no matter the date or geography.
I believe a church is a local congregation of baptized Christians who are associated with one another by their mutual agreement to enjoy and follow Christ together.
So, yes, a church must assemble.
Some of the content in my statement above is specific to my own ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) and not essential to a universal definition of the church. What I think is essential to a universal definition of the church are the aspects of locality and congregating – a church must assemble.
In what follows, I want to explain the necessity of physically gathering as a church by describing the meaning of a couple of important words – local congregation.
First, geographically local.
A church is a congregation of local Christians, those geographically nearby one another. Local means narrow, confined, or limited to a particular area. In order for a local church to be distinct from the universal church, it must necessarily be confined to a specific space and time. You cannot have a local church simultaneously placed in Singapore and in Seattle any more than you can have a local church simultaneously meeting on Sunday April 12, 2020 and on Sunday October 22, 1578.
Such an idea would not have been necessary to explain before the modern-day notion of a virtual presence. Some readers will immediately dismiss me as an old fuddy-duddy when I say that virtual reality simply is not reality, but there is a slew of experiences you simply cannot have virtually. You cannot virtually consummate a marriage, sustain a concussion, run a marathon, watch the sunrise, give birth to a baby, and the list goes on.
One essential part of a local church is its geographical locality – the congregation of Christians must actually be present (really, not virtually) to call it a church in any meaningful sense.
Second, a congregation.
A church is a congregation or assembly of local Christians. It is common to use the term “church” in reference to a building or even to an institution (the Presbyterian Church), but the New Testament never uses the word “church” in such a way. The Bible clearly understands the word “church” to refer most often to a specific gathering or assembly of Christians in a particular locality (the local or visible church; see 1 Corinthians 11:18 or 2 Corinthians 11:8) and occasionally to all Christians everywhere and from all time (the universal or invisible church; see 1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
Once again, Christians physically gathered together simultaneously in one specific location is part of the essence of what a church is.
The necessity of physically gathering is not only essential to what a church is, it’s also the basis upon which the whole life and function of the local church is built. Furthermore, to disembody the local church is to depart from the historical Christian understanding of unity between the spirit and the body, the ethereal and the physical.
A church is, by definition and by necessity, a local (physically present) congregation (gathering of Christians).
Therefore, a church must assemble. A church that doesn’t assemble is no church at all.
Third, and finally, some begging questions.
Are you saying that a church is only a church when it gathers on a Sunday?
No, I’m not saying that. A church gathers regularly, and afterward the members disperse. Between their gatherings, members are scattered about as individuals and small groups. But these are members of the church and not the church itself. The church is what we see when the members gather.
Are you saying that a church is only a church if all the members are present?
No, I’m not saying that. It is rare for every member of a church to be present on any given Sunday, even among healthy churches that take membership seriously. Some members are going to be sick, some on vacation, some will be visiting family or friends in another part of the world, and some are homebound until death or Christ’s return. And yet, the church that intends to regularly gather the whole of her members is a church, despite the fact that some of her members are not present.
Are you saying that church members can’t do meaningful Christian stuff anywhere besides the church house?
No, I’m not saying that. Christians can and should give time and effort to all kinds of meaningful Christian activities everyday of their lives. Christians should devote time to spiritual disciplines (Bible reading, prayer, meditation upon Scripture, confessing sin, etc.). Christians should show hospitality, both to their fellow church members and to non-Christian neighbors. Christians should intentionally disciple other Christians, helping one another follow Jesus together. Christians can and should do all sorts of good Christian activities, but we mustn’t call any of this “church,” because that’s not what this stuff is.
Are you saying that extenuating circumstances (like a worldwide pandemic) should not keep a church from physically meeting together?
No, I’m not saying that. As a matter of fact, as I type these words, I am experiencing the sorrow of having to cancel the last two Sunday morning gatherings of the church I pastor. It has been painful not to meet together, and we are not planning to meet together again on this coming Sunday morning. But we believe not meeting together for a time is one way we can express love and care for one another and for others in our community.
I am grateful for all the good Christians have done and are doing in the name of Christ in the world. I believe many Christians are providing a compelling witness to the world about what it means to love Christ and to love others. May many more Christians live productive and Christ-glorifying lives.
My aim with this brief article is to touch on one aspect of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church), which seems to be almost entirely unknown to many in American Evangelicalism. Christians can and should do all manner of good things in the world, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. But let’s be mindful of what we label “church.”
It may be that the temporary absence of the gathered church will stir our affections for what we are truly missing.
Marc Minter is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Diana, TX. He and his wife, Cassie, have two sons, Micah and Malachi.