The public worship of God's people is not an optional matter for the Church. It is a commanded by Christ, it's head, and therefore must be maintained no matter the cost throughout the ages until his return. "As Alexander Shields (1660-1700), the seventeenth century Covenanter, wrote in his classic work, 'A Hind Let Loose', It is necessary at all times that Christians should meet together, whether they have ministers or not, and whether the magistrate allows it or not. The authority of God, their necessity, duty, and interest, makes it indispensable in all cases." (Worship and Witness in Crisis, 32) Or as John Calvin put it while commenting upon Ephesians 3:8, "Therefore let us know that when the gospel is preached and we are assembled together to be taught, this is not due to a policy or order of man but because of an ordinance of God. It is an abiding law, against which it is not lawful for us to attempt anything."
This might seem like an extreme statement to make. However, let me remind you that the concept of non-church attending Christians would have been a contradiction in terms up till recently. And in case we have quickly forgotten, the Westminster Confession reminds us likewise that public worship is not to be neglected or forsaken when God calls to worship (21.6), and that the Lord is to be worshipped on the Lord's day (21.7) by coming to public worship (21.8).
So how do we square this with what we have seen in most of the Church over the last two years? One thing that has struck me has been how the public worship of God's people has ceased and yet many Christians appear to have been unperturbed by this. In the space of three months, most of the Christian world went from stating that Church was an essential necessity worth dying for, to stating that we must not attend the public worship of God lest someone die!
The question that rings in my head as I meditate upon this for myself and those around me is, "Do I really believe the public worship of God is essential?" I was struck recently by a comment that Douglas W. B. Somerset made. He said, "If God takes away public worship, we can be certain it is because of sin in us and the church. Closure of public worship should therefore make us tremble and drive us to self-examination and to seek repentance before God." (Worship and Witness in Crisis, 90) Was that your reaction when you saw your Church doors shut Sunday by Sunday? Did it cause lamentation to arise in your heart, or was it just an exciting moment to do things differently? Was your first thought whether you or your congregation had done something to bring God's judgment, or were you wondering if you should buy some more toilet paper?
The public gathering of God's people is essential and mandatory, not because the government or the church decided, but because God himself has commanded that the Church of Jesus Christ is to gather week by week to worship his holy name. When we neglect this important ordinance, there are three deadly side effects: we rebel against our head, we do deadly damage to the body, and we kill our witness.
Any of these in isolation would be bad enough, but to do all three would surely be a death sentence, wouldn't it? Yet in so many corners of the world, this is exactly what the Church has done. We have shut the Church and retreated to our lounges with comfortable couches and large screen television sets, waiting for 'someone' to approve church again. Meanwhile, the world is watching on.
"The sight of a group of Christians gathering together is in itself a witness to those who see it. Passing a closed church during the recent lockdown, a taxi driver was heard to say, 'That shows how much their religion means to them.'" (Worship and Witness in Crisis, 108)
I know these have been challenging times. I know that there are health issues at stake. I know we must "obey the government", "love one another", and "be a good witness". Yet I can't help but wonder, have we been so worried about trying to do these things that we have lost sight of what we have lost? I can't help but wonder, what would have happened if every Christian around the world had responded to the last two years by fasting, praying, and returning to the worship of Christ? If, like Moses, we would have "considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt." (Heb. 11:26) If we had, by faith, "desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city." (Heb. 11:16) Or, if like previous generations during much more severe plagues where "the leadership of both church and state well understood that, if the outbreak was a judgment from God, it was more dangerous to close churches than it was to keep them open. As such, in some places during the outbreak, churches were thronged and prayer meetings were held almost every week night. To some, this may seem idiotically reckless. However, it really demonstrates a calculated balancing of the physical dangers with the spiritual dangers, and a deliberate prioritising of spiritual health over temporal concerns."
In saying all of this, let us remember it is never too late to remember, repent, and redo. As Jesus says to the Church at Ephesus, "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first." (Rev. 2:4-5) Is Christ calling us to do likewise as it relates to the public worship of God? Should we repent of lacking enough love of Christ to risk it all to worship him? Should we remember from where we once gathered together without shame singing praise to the King of kings and Lord of lords? And should we do the works we did at first, gathering together and calling others to do likewise?
This article was contributed by Pastor Logan Hagoort from Covenant Presbyterian Church.