Since the spring, Christian commentary on COVID-19 restrictions and church closures has focused on the authority of government. Do we as Christians believe the Bible gives Caesar the authority to ask churches to cease gathering in times of emergency?
That’s a conversation worth having. Yet an equally important theological question has quietly lurked in the shadows, which many Christians have missed: What is a church? More specifically, must the members of a church gather on a weekly basis to be a church?
A recent lawsuit has brought this theological claim into the light. Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) in Washington, DC, served DC Mayor Muriel Bowser with a complaint and restraining order in federal court. It argues Bowser’s limits on public gatherings violate the church’s first and fifth amendment rights to gather as a church.
Since June CHBC has been meeting across the Potomac River in Virginia in another church’s field. The church first requested a waiver from the mayor’s office in June to be able to gather outdoors with social distancing. In September it was denied. Now it is taking legal action by pointing to the mayor’s own participation in recent mass protests and by asking for the same opportunity as protesters to gather.
CHBC does not contest the government’s right to require churches to refrain from gathering temporarily for reasons of public health. It is, however, asking the government to recognize that the gathering is essential to a church being a church.
Quoting pastor Mark Dever, the motion observes, “A ‘biblically ordered church regularly gathers the whole congregation’ because ‘without regularly meeting together, it ceases to be a biblically ordered church.’” You might summarize the lawsuit like this: Ms. Mayor, by denying our ability to gather all together, you’re effectively disbanding the church.
This case becomes interesting because it raises questions about the government officials playing theologian, as CHBC has one definition of a church and the mayor has asked them to adopt another. But it also reveals how the American church itself has evolved away from an understanding of church as a single gathered assembly.
Gathering Makes Us a Church
CHBC believes that the New Testament defines a church as a single gathering, as did most churches for 1,900 years—between Pentecost and the 1960s. The Greek word that our English Bibles translate as “church” (ekklesia) literally means “assembly.”
A church is more than an assembly, of course. You also need biblical preaching and the mutual recognition of heavenly citizenship believers provide one another through the ordinances (e.g., Matt. 18:19; 1 Cor. 10:17). Further, we should expect the members of a healthy local church to meet “house to house” throughout the week, like the original church in Jerusalem did (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 8:3; 12:12).
Yet a church is not a church if its members do not all regularly meet together, minus those who are providentially hindered such as the sick, the traveling, the childcare workers, or even the quarantined.
We learn this pattern from the church in Jerusalem, which all met together weekly if not daily in Solomon’s Colonnade (Acts 2:46; 5:12; 6:2). We also learn it from the church in Corinth, which all met together in Gaius’ house (Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 5:4; 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34; 14:23). There’s no example of a New Testament church that didn’t regularly meet together. Again, this makes sense if the Greek word for church means “assembly.”
Like millennia of Christians before them, CHBC believes (as do I) that something that never assembles, such as separate services or sites, is not actually a church.
Instead, we believe that each site or service, where Christians regularly assemble for biblical preaching and the ordinances, is itself a church by the biblical standard—not by the fact that the sites or services happen to be united by one vision, budget, board, and legal papers. The 9:30 a.m. service is a church, and the 11 a.m. service is a church, and so with the north campus and the south campus.
Under Dever’s leadership, CHBC has refused to expand to multiple services or sites, even though their building, which is landlocked on Capitol Hill, has been stuffed to the gills for years. Instead it has planted and helped to revitalize nearby churches.