by Ken Cooper (England)
Some people speak about the “church” they attend and of “going to church”. Some use the word “congregation”. The words “church” and “congregation” are found in the Scriptures. However, when speaking about Christians coming together according to the New Testament pattern, then the words “assembly” and “gathering” are to be preferred since they convey more clearly the spirit and intention of the meetings. These words more accurately describe the sentiment of the word in the original Greek text “ekklesia”. The words indicate a company who have come together with a common faith, mind and cause and who have gathered out from worldly influence, form and organisation.
There were a number of different occasions when believers came together for spiritual activity in the New Testament. These included:
- The Breaking of Bread, Acts 2.42; Acts 20.7; 1Cor.11.20-34:
- The Prayer Meeting, Acts 4.23-31:
- Bible Teaching Meetings, Acts 11.26; Acts 15.30-31:
- The Missionary Report Meeting, Acts 14.26-27:
- An Elders’ Meeting, Acts 15.6:
- A Meeting for Discipline, 1Cor.5.8:
- Occasions for Gospel Work
While a specific Scripture is not cited to support Gospel work there is no doubt that there were many occasions in the New Testament when God’s people came together with unbelievers present and the Gospel was proclaimed; see 1Cor.14.23; 1Thess.1.8. Frequently men stood together in public places to preach the word, Acts 17.22. Today Gospel Halls, tents, prisons, community centres, streets and individual homes are used in Gospel work. These are all public places. We must not therefore think that preaching in a Gospel Hall is not part of fulfilling our commission to “go into all the world”. There is a present danger that the Gospel meeting is being relegated in its importance and even discarded in many places on the false premise that it does not have Scriptural support. The writer of this article strongly believes that every assembly should convene regular Gospel meetings (weekly as a minimum) and that these have an important place in a wider range of outreach activities. The commandment we have to “preach the word” should not be relegated to a place of lesser importance compared with social type work among the deprived and vulnerable in society. There is a place for both preaching and the practical expression of the Gospel to the “whosoever”.
Even a superficial examination of the gatherings and Scriptures cited above shows us:
- These gatherings were not necessarily in a building. It is not the building that is important. Location does not determine whether a meeting is an assembly gathering.
- These gatherings were generally in connection with a local Church (as a company not necessarily in a building).
- This is not an exclusive list of gatherings. There were in New Testament times other occasions when God’s people gathered together on a wider basis than a local assembly. Nowadays, conferences for ministry of the Word and specially convened Gospel outreach activities are arranged to bring believers from different local assemblies together. These are wholly consistent with the Scriptural aims of building up, encouraging, exhorting and feeding God’s people and reaching the lost.
- The whole assembly could not and, in certain cases, should not be present at all these gatherings. An assembly gathering cannot therefore be defined as a meeting at which all members of the assembly have the right or ability to be present. Some meetings are for specific members of the assembly. It is obvious that only elders will be present at an elders’ meeting unless others are invited to discuss a particular aspect of the work of the local company.
- Some of the gatherings listed are generic descriptions. For example our present Bible teaching meetings would include ministry of God’s Word, Bible Readings and Bible Classes. These meetings may have the same purpose but take different formats. The same is true in relation to Gospel activity.
- It is possible for a gathering to have more than one purpose. For example, suitable ministry of the Word may take place at the Breaking of Bread or prayer meeting. Prayer and reading of the Scriptures should take place at every meeting.
DEFINITION OF AN ASSEMBLY GATHERING
Assembly gatherings cannot simply be defined by reference to location or a list of meetings as presented in the New Testament. Assembly gatherings would generally be characterised by the following key features as a minimum:
- The saints “come together”, see 1Cor.11.17,18,20,22,33,34:
- The Lord is present, see Matt.18.20:
- The Holy Spirit is present and active in the company, see 1 Cor.3.16; Eph.2.22:
- The Lordship and the pre-eminence of Christ are acknowledged, 1Cor.11:
- There is godly order, 1Tim.3.15; 1Cor.14.40:
- The saints are functioning in priestly capacity, 1Pet.2:
- Spiritual gifts are being exercised, 1Cor.14; Eph.4:
- The purpose is that the Lord has His portion and the saints are edified, Eph.4.
We must note that it is possible for believers to meet and for outward form to be in order, but the Lord may not be present because of other difficulties. The Lord’s presence can be conditional upon godly order, see 2Cor.13.11. Such a meeting may not therefore be a Scriptural gathering in the fullest sense of the term.
It is also possible for believers to meet together for social reasons. The whole assembly may be invited to someone’s home for supper but this would not make the occasion an assembly gathering. The Scriptures might be read and prayer offered for food or before departing but few would suggest that this becomes an assembly gathering. It is appropriate to distinguish occasions when certain Scriptural principles of gathering do not necessarily apply.
SOME ISSUES TO CONSIDER
There is the potential for us to adopt a rather simplistic approach to assembly gatherings. Some may argue that since Scripture only shows us a limited number of gatherings anything outside these examples does not constitute an assembly gathering. If this very restrictive approach is taken, it could be argued that Scriptural order need not prevail at any other gathering outside the list irrespective of the nature of that gathering.
There are many occasions when the saints meet together and the definition of an assembly gathering (as set out above) is met yet these circumstances may not be in the New Testament “list”. We would not suggest that practices which prevail in the recognisable local assembly gatherings should not be observed at these other occasions. It would grieve the vast majority of the readers of this article to suggest that tent meetings or conferences for example are gatherings where Scriptural order need not apply. Notwithstanding the format of a meeting, its location, its composition or its purpose, it is perfectly reasonable to expect Scriptural principles (particularly those set out in First Corinthians in relation to participation, headship and dress) to apply whenever the saints come together unless it is explicitly a social occasion.
Taking account of the definition given it is not helpful to categorise some meetings as assembly gatherings and some otherwise. For example, the view of the writer is that Sunday Schools are assembly gatherings. Others take a different view. But both may be missing the point. It is not what a meeting is called but what Scriptural practices should be observed that is important. A rigid definition based on the New Testament “list” only could lead to certain meetings becoming occasions when Scriptural principles are set aside.
It is also important that we do not adopt practices within a specific meeting to accommodate unscriptural actions. For example the suggestion that a gathering stops being a gathering at a certain point or after certain things have taken place is foreign to Scripture. To divide a meeting with prayer after which Scriptural principles no longer apply borders on the bizarre. Commonly used expressions such as “the meeting proper” have no Scriptural sanction.
APPLYING THE TRUTH
There is a need to take a broader view on the definition of an assembly gathering. It is not simply limited to a list of six or seven meetings. A work might take place outside a normal place of meeting or with only a proportion of the saints present which can be legitimately considered an assembly activity and where Scriptural order must apply. For example activities in Gospel tents, in the open air or through the use of Local Authority accommodation can be undertaken by a single assembly or a number of assemblies acting in unity and should be deemed to be an extension of assembly testimony. In such gatherings Scriptural principles should apply. Sunday Schools, Children’s Meetings and conferences would also come within this category and should also be occasions when Scriptural principles should be adopted. Just as it is inappropriate for a sister to take a public role in any meeting so it would be inappropriate for sisters to speak (including the public reading of Scripture and asking questions) in a Bible Class or in an open air. The subject of sisters taking a Sunday school class is not addressed within the compass of this article.
Sometimes assembly meetings or outreach activities are convened in a house. These are extensions of the work of the local testimony and Scriptural order should again pertain. As a general principle, extreme caution should be taken in developing any work in the home. It should have the support of the assembly as a whole. Meetings in a house should not be a means of side stepping Scriptural principles, a device to allow sisters to take part or go uncovered or a basis for the development of a clique. Regrettably these problems do arise.
The question has been raised as to whether weddings and funerals are assembly gatherings. The simple answer is that they are not, they are private functions. However as far as believers are concerned, there will be a time when prayer is offered, Scripture is read, the Gospel may be presented, the Lord is present and there is a desire for God’s blessing. On this basis they can be considered as an extension to the testimony and the view of the writer is that sisters attending should both be covered and silent. When believing sisters attend these occasions and have their heads covered this is often noticed by those “outside” and may lead to healthy enquiry.
Unless individual assembly members are specifically excluded (because of the nature of the meeting) then there should be a deep desire and determination to be at all assembly gatherings, Heb.10.25. We are in a poor state when attendance at meetings is treated in a casual way. Some saints stay away from the meetings because “we do not like Bible readings” or worse “the Gospel meeting is for the unsaved not for us”. Sadly these comments are frequently heard. We need to be careful not to adopt an approach whereby we arbitrarily determine that some gatherings are not assembly gatherings and therefore that attendance is optional and Scriptural order does not need to apply.
If we believe in the autonomy of the local assembly, subject to the Lordship of Christ and obedience to God’s Word, then it is not for other assemblies to judge the practices elsewhere (often from a position of ignorance). There is an onus on local elders to promote Scriptural practice in relation to assembly gatherings and to ensure that all the saints are aware of the standards that are expected. Elders should therefore give guidance about suitable behaviour and attire at every occasion of gathering.