The center of this concrete reality is the local church. The universal church is present within each local expression of the church. There is no universal church without the concrete local church. The local church embodies the universal, and not the other way around. This is evident by the fact that there is no universal celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There is no universal baptism. There is no universal preaching of the Word of God. These are, by definition, concrete practices that require the corporeal and corporate presence of its earthly members gathered together in public worship.
Community is so important that even God cannot exist without it. The intra-Trinitarian relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means that there never was a time when God was without communion. Before there was anything else there was communion within the Godhead between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In that sense, community is the first reality in which our Triune God was both the cause and the goal.
Likewise, a person cannot exist without communion. If being a person is defined from a Trinitarian perspective, then personhood describes someone who is living in communion with others. True personhood is impossible apart from community.
In the same way, there is no church without this same type of communion. The church, as the Apostle’s Creed states, is “the communion of saints.” This is not just some abstract, ethereal, or merely spiritual, existence. The church, as the communion of saints, is a concrete reality, and not simply another social imaginary that can be reconfigured as we please depending on the situation. And as a concrete reality it encompasses all the saints: past, present, and future, in both heaven and earth.
The center of this concrete reality is the local church. The universal church is present within each local expression of the church. There is no universal church without the concrete local church. The local church embodies the universal, and not the other way around. This is evident by the fact that there is no universal celebration of the Lord’s Supper. There is no universal baptism. There is no universal preaching of the Word of God. These are, by definition, concrete practices that require the corporeal and corporate presence of its earthly members gathered together in public worship. It is in this local assembly that the church in heaven meets with the church on earth.
This understanding of God, personhood, and the church should encourage the people of God to rethink our response to the coronavirus.
I do not write this to be critical of the churches that have suspended public worship services. I understand that their motives are to love their neighbors and to do no harm to others. Pastors, elders, and deacons, and laypersons, should all be commended for how heartily they have responded to the difficult and unique position in which they temporarily find themselves. And so far, I believe their response has been reasonable.
The operative term here, however, is “temporarily.” Omitting church services is only reasonable if this situation is indeed temporary, and if the concept of temporary is clearly defined. That is to say, that the period of time defined as temporary needs to have definite limits. It cannot be indefinite otherwise the church ceases to be the church—the assembly.
Questions about whether or not the church should meet publically are not primarily a matter of the churches’ relationship to the state, or submission to the government, or the Bill of Rights, or the Constitution of the United States. As important as these matters are, they really miss the fundamental question? What does it mean for the church to be the church? And the church cannot be the church without the assembly.
Therefore, we can conclude, that all true being is ecclesial being—ecclesial community.
This means that it is urgent for churches to implement strategies that bring people back together again as a communion. This is not only necessary for the sake of the members of the church, it is necessary for the life of the world (whether the church and the world realize it or not). The church assembly is vitally essential for both its members and for the life of world.
Even more, the public worship of the church is one of the most distinguishing characteristics between the church and the world, and, at the same time, it is a protest and threat against all the world stands for in its anti-Christian posture. As the Reformed Theologian J.J. von Allmen proclaimed:
Every time the church assembles to… ‘proclaim the death of Christ’ (1 Co. 11:26), it proclaims also the end and failure of the world. It contradicts the worlds claim to provide men with a valid justification for their existence…Christian worship is the strongest denial that can be hurled in the face of the world’s claim to provide men with an effective and sufficient justification of their life. There is no more emphatic protest against the pride and despair of the world than that implied in church worship.
The church can only truly be the church if it is living out its most basic identity as a worshiping community. If it fails at this most basic aspect of its identity then it can neither claim to be for the life of the world, on the one hand, and against the ungodliness of the world, on the other.
Our God has summoned His people to worship. This is a truth that is both undeniable and indisputable. Now it is up to the elders of the church to figure out the best ways to obey this summons.
Like so many readers here, I have read the posts citing Luther and Baxter et. al., as well as the practical advice from the administrative committee of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) with whom I serve as a minister. It is all good advice when you consider what we were told about this virus. But in light of what we now know, and allowing that there is still much we do not know, it’s time for the churches to find a way to really and truly be the church again.
In calling the church back together again, there should not be a one size fits all approach, nor a top down approach. Rather, different churches in different locations should determine what approach will work best for them. Some churches in some locations will not, and should not, meet at this time. But others should begin to hold public worship in ways their officers and congregations believe are responsible. Those providentially hindered (the sick, the most vulnerable, or people who conscientiously object) should be gracefully excused and cared for by their elders and deacons. With all this in mind, it now seems reasonable for the elders of the church to call for the assembly.
Rev. Jim Fitzgerald is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a staff member of Equipping Pastors International.