Updated: Aug 30
Staunch defenders of church attendance are quick to point to Paul’s exhortation to “Forsake not the gathering of ourselves together” when defending their assertion that believers must go to a church, faithfully attend a church, or be members of a church. They see this verse as a divine imperative and habitually point to it as an infallible proof-text to support their argument.
I have used this same canned response many times in the past as well without ever taking the time to consider the context of this passage. Those who are quick to use this verse presumptuously read a lot into it which, upon a closer look, just isn’t there. Consider the following:
1. First on all, it does not specify where this gathering together is supposed to take place. Since the early church for the first 300 years didn’t meet in church buildings or in temples made with hands, just where were the saints supposed to gather together? We know that they met in houses and in the open-air colonnade called “Solomon’s Porch” surrounding the outer walls of the temple complex for teaching, but nothing is said or implied that it was to be a meeting in a temple, synagogue, cathedral or officially designated church structure. So, trying to defend the mandatory necessity to gather in a church building is little more than a house of cards. Our “gathering” could be in a home, a jungle clearing, the marketplace, a coffee-shop, a garage, by the seashore or even on the internet for that matter.
2. The second major flaw with this verse concerns the actual number of those who are gathering together. Just how many people have to gather together to constitute a true, authentic, bona fide church gathering? Those who try to use this verse as a proof-text to establish our need to attend a church building packed with people are in error. Are we to gather in the 1,000’s, 100’s, or 20’s to constitute a legitimate gathering together? Would 250 be enough? How about 100? Would 50 make the cut? How about 37, 23, 14, 0r 7? The only place I can find where a number is used in conjunction with our gathering together is when Jesus stated, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” - (Matt. 13:20) Our gathering together doesn’t get any better than that whether it includes only 2 or 3 or 34.
3. Thirdly, this verse says nothing about what we should be doing when we gather together. Those who staunchly defend the building-oriented model of the church would have you believe that our gathering together would generally include an opening prayer, a staged worship service, church announcements, taking up a tithe offering, a lecture style sermon to a passive audience and occasionally an altar call or communion service. But none of this is found in the N.T. as church service requirements. I won’t even get into all the manmade liturgies and religious rituals we have added on over the centuries. In fact, if early Christians were to attend one of our typical services, they would be dumbfounded about what we called church.
Acts 2:42 & 46 is the seminal verse describing the nature of that gathering together; “And they continued steadfastly together in the apostles teaching and fellowship, in breaking of bread (eating meals together), and in prayers….So they continued in the temple (“Solomon’s Porch” - not the temple building itself because it was strictly off limits to anyone but the Levitical Priesthood), and breaking bread from house to house…” Their meeting seemed to be organic and fluid and not restricted to a set place at a set time on a set day. Rather than being a weekly, staged spectator event, the early church was largely spontaneous, interactive and participatory. (See I Cor. 14:26) It was about quality not quantity.
As I have said before, nowhere in the Bible does God describe the New Testament church as: “God’s holy people going to a holy building for a holy length of time on a holy day at a holy hour to act holy by participating in holy rituals during a holy service with a holy schedule and give a holy amount of money to pay a holy salary to a holy man to perform holy duties and God is orchestrating it all from His holy headquarters every Sunday.” If we are really going to be honest, their desire to gather in the typical church, with the typical religious rituals and artificially programed formats means that we are to gather together to practice many of the same pagan practices borrowed from pagan temple worship centuries ago.
4. Fourthly, just how close in physical proximity are we supposed to be in order to satisfy the biblical admonition to gather together? This is not as flippant as it may seem. Are we supposed to be next to each other, at least two rows in front of us, across a crowded room or on the far side of the stadium from one another? Would the confines of a 30-meter by 50-meter building be sufficient? What about a football stadium or mega-church? What about a drive-in theater converted to a church where everyone gathers their cars anonymously, hook up the speaker to listen to the voice 0f some preacher through the speaker box, don’t talk to each other, then drive home? Would that “gathering together” constitute an acceptable gathering together? First and foremost, our gathering together has far more to do with an environment that promotes genuine fellowship, individual interaction, participation, accountability, Christian authenticity and relationship nurturing than satisfying some arbitrary measurement.
Since most church gatherings are not conducive to any of these, just being in close proximity with others doesn’t guarantee any of these being facilitated compared to the inherent qualities found in the early church gatherings. Even a box of inert ball bearings or a church building filled with anonymous strangers and passive spectators is not gathering together in the N.T. sense of the term.
5. Scripturally speaking, the church is a “state of being” not a place where we go. The word “church” (Gr. ekklésia) in the New Testament never refers to a building or physical location. It fundamentally means “assembly, gathering, meeting or congregation”. Nowhere in the New Testament is the church referred to as a building we go to or an address we look for. When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he wasn’t addressing the First Church of Philippi on the corner of Broadway & Main. He was addressing a community of believers scattered throughout the city of Philippi. Early Christians knew no such thing as a designated place being “church.” This would have been a completely foreign concept to early Christians.
Church was never meant to be a building we go to on a set day in order to be “in” church. I don’t have to go to a specific location to be “in church” No more than I go to a specific place at a specific time to be, Bill Kimball. I am Bill Kimball 24/7, not just for a few artificial hours during the week when I cloister myself in a holy room removed from society. We were meant to be the church each day, every day, everywhere we went because “WE ARE THE CHURCH!”.