The Lord Jesus introduced the subject of the church in Matt. 16:18: "Upon this rock I will build my church." The word translated "church" is ekklesia, which simply means an assembly or gathering. So this statement by our Lord amounts to a promise that He will gather together a group of people for Himself, standing upon the rock of truth revealed to Peter, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
This gathering will take place physically when the Lord comes for His own, when we will be "caught up together . . . to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess. 4:17). This event is called "our gathering together to Him" (2 Thess. 2:1). The gathering (or church) is then presented to Christ as a bride to her husband (Eph. 5:27).
Until this great assembly occurs, we as Christians remain geographically diverse and might not think of ourselves as a single gathering. But God calls us "the church" even now, perhaps because our gathering together to Christ is as good as done from His perspective. We also should view ourselves as one in Christ and always remember that we will spend eternity gathered together with Him.
The future gathering that Christ is currently building, in which all Christians will one day be together with Him, is not the only gathering mentioned in Scripture. Actually, the same word ekklesia ("church") can be used to describe any assembly or meeting convened for any reason, even nonreligious gatherings. For example, in Acts 19:32 the same word is used to describe a riotous mob-like assembly that was convened by Demetrius to put a stop to Paul and the Gospel.
But most of the assemblies mentioned in the New Testament are gatherings of believers, coming together on a regular basis to honor Christ, at least in pretense. In reality, not all of these gatherings are genuinely Christ-honoring. For example, Christ said of the gathering at Laodicea that He would spit them out of His mouth (Rev. 3:14-22). But God is generally pleased when Christians assemble together, and in fact He commands us to do so (Heb. 10:25).
Matt. 18:15-20 reveals a remarkable truth about gatherings or meetings of Christians that we can participate in here on earth while waiting for our physical gathering together with our Lord in heaven. Christ's promise is, "where two or three of you have gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst" (verse 20). So a literal meeting of even just two or three Christians can actually be gathered around the Lord Jesus Himself, just as the future gathering of all Christians will be around the Lord Jesus Himself.
The context of Matt. 18 shows that Christ's presence in such gatherings is unique and special. The passage is about a man who sins and refuses to repent, first when confronted individually, then with one or two others, and finally with the gathering, or church. At this point the gathering is to consider him "as a Gentile and a tax collector," which would seem to mean someone who does not even know the Lord. (Apparently, if this procedure is truly carried out in the Lord's name, with His selfless love, and the sinning person still does not respond, then there is real reason to doubt his salvation, though only God can know for sure.) The decision to no longer acknowledge him as a brother in the Lord is "bound in heaven," meaning that it is not considered simply the opinion of the two or more Christians who formed that gathering, but the decision is recognized by Christ Himself, with His authority. This can only be the case when Christ is truly in the center of the gathering, in a very unique sense.
The Lord is always present with every believer (Matt. 28:20), and so He is also present anywhere two or more believers are together, but His presence with the gathering of believers in Matt. 18:15-20 clearly goes beyond this. This is a gathering which Christ deems to be convened "in My name" (Matt. 18:20). Not all gatherings of Christians qualify, even when those gatherings consist of Christians who are truly in accordance with God's will. Not all gatherings can legitimately be said to represent Christ Himself and to have His authority behind them, as this gathering does. For example, the group of witnesses who are originally brought along to confront the sinning person (Matt. 18:16) apparently does not qualify, since another gathering which does qualify needs to be brought in afterwards (verse 17). The first group may conceivably be just as numerous as the second group, and it can equally validly be called an ekklesia (or gathering), but it apparently cannot be said to be gathered in Christ's name in the same sense as the second group.
The fact that the second gathering is done in Christ's name clearly means that its participants are in complete subjection to Christ, seeking His glory and not their own. But it also evidently implies a special purpose of gathering, in which the group does not meet simply as they see fit, to serve Christ in whatever way they desire, but rather it meets around Christ Himself, to do as He desires. It is only when we truly gather in this way that we have this unique promise of Christ's presence in our midst, along with His authority behind our actions.
When we truly gather around the person of Christ Jesus, our gathering is no longer just an assembly of faulty people, but rather it is identified in a special way with Christ Himself. He is in the midst to lead the assembly, and the assembly thus represents Him. This shows the connection between local gatherings convened in Christ's name and the universal gathering of Christians that He is now building to be physically convened when He comes. This future gathering also represents Christ Himself. It is called, "the church which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all" (Eph. 1:22-23).
1 Cor. 5:3-5 gives an example of a local gathering in Christ's name as described in Matt. 18. Here Paul says that he will be with the Corinthians in spirit when they are thus assembled together (verse 4). So the connection between Christ and His body is such that when Christ is in the midst of a gathering of Christians, we are all with Him and them in spirit, even though we may have absolutely no physical connection with the gathering. There is therefore no such thing as an independent gathering in Christ's name. When we gather in Christ's name, there is a sense in which we are meeting with the whole universal church. We are a representation of the whole body of Christ.
The scheme of Matt. 18:15-20 would fall apart without this representative connection between local gatherings and the whole church. Christ cannot fulfill his promise, "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (verse 18), to different gatherings of believers if the different gatherings make conflicting judgments. But this promise to individual gatherings for the purpose of discipline in Matt. 18:18 is a word-for-word restatement of the promise to the whole gathering of all believers in Matt. 16:19. The promise to local gatherings only applies inasmuch as the local gatherings represent the whole church, as they will if they are truly convened in Christ's name. Two different gatherings cannot both represent the whole church in conflicting judgments. One or the other of the conflicting judgments must not have been truly made in Christ's name.
The power behind the gathering described in Matt. 18:15-20 is clearly Christ Himself. It is only when we are truly gathered in His name that we are truly representative of His body and have the promise of His presence and authority.
There is absolutely no indication that this promise applies directly to either denominations or local organizations. No organization or association can truthfully claim that all of its meetings are always held completely in Christ's name, or in accordance with His will. Similarly, no organization consisting of true believers, no matter how poorly taught, can be legitimately ruled out of this promise, since some of their gatherings may indeed be deemed by Christ to be in His name.
It is not our association with any group or organization that determines whether our gathering together is in Christ's name and representative of His body. Rather, it is the condition of our hearts as we physically come together. We can truly gather in His name when and only when our hearts are in complete subjection to Him. We need to make every effort to do this whenever we come together for this purpose. Each and every time we meet, to whatever extent we allow our own selfish wills to enter, to that same extent we must also confess that we are not truly gathered in His name, with Him in our midst, in that particular meeting or at that particular time in the meeting.
We often want to leave many important matters up to the organization rather than having to deal with them in a gathering. For example, discipline is often handled solely by the pastor or the elders. But the examples of Matt. 18 and 1 Cor. 5 show that it is the whole gathering which has the responsibility and authority to discipline, not the pastor or elders or any other group that does not represent the whole church. The Scriptural basis for discipline is the authority of Christ in the midst of a meeting which represents Him and His whole body.
The fact that it is individual gatherings in view in Matt. 18 rather than organizations should make us wary of putting excessive emphasis on denominational ties, administrative structure, or any other form of human organization, whether completely local or worldwide in scope. There is a tendency to think of a local church as a broad concept encompassing such organizational aspects. And it is obviously necessary to have some amount of human organization in order to gather together. At minimum, the time and place of the meeting must be agreed upon, and in most cases there are also many other organizational features, possibly including policy statements, governmental appointments, etc. But we should remember that the word ekklesia does not refer to the organization, but rather to actual gatherings of believers. It is the meetings, not the associated organizations, that represent Christ and His body, and that Christ recognizes and is present in.
Since gathering together in Christ's name involves representing Christ's body, it is clear that such gatherings must be open to all who are living as true believers. No one is excluded from the body of Christ on any other basis, and similarly no one should be excluded from gathering in His name on any other basis. This explains why the group of witnesses in Matt. 18:16 did not qualify as a gathering in Christ's name. This was a select group, chosen specifically by the plaintiff. It was not a general gathering open to all true believers.
In like manner, gathering in Christ's name is not possible for those who are not living as true believers. A gathering at which unsaved people are encouraged to actively take part cannot be said to represent the body of Christ, which consists of saved people only. That is not to say that unbelievers should not be allowed to observe, but they are not to be considered participants. An example of this is given in 1 Cor. 14:25, where an unbeliever observes such a meeting and is convicted by what he sees. He clearly is not a participant in the meeting, for he reports that "God is truly among you" not "God is truly among us."
This does not mean that all of our meetings must be open to all true believers and closed to unbelievers, but only those gatherings which are uniquely convened in Christ's name, with His special presence and authority. Other kinds of gatherings are also very important. For example, if we have any heart for the lost we will want to have Bible studies or other meetings which they can participate in, with the hope of reaching them for Christ. Also, there is nothing wrong with having meetings that are limited in scope to a particular group instead of the whole assembly. For example, we may want to have men's meetings which are not open to believing women, or women's meetings which are not open to believing men, or youth meetings, etc. But these are not the kind of assemblies described in Matt. 18:20 where it speaks of gathering in Christ's name.
Scripture does not seem to give definitive rules about when we should meet in Christ's name as opposed to having other kinds of gatherings. But if we love Christ and value His special presence in our meetings, then we will certainly want to have such gatherings frequently. The admonition, "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" (Heb. 10:25) seems to be directed at those who do not value this as they should.
In spite of the lack of definitive rules, there are two kinds of gatherings that do stand out in Scripture as examples of those which should be convened in Christ's name. The first is any kind of meeting which is concerned with discipline, as has already been discussed. We have no authority to carry out such things in and of ourselves; we must only do them as representative of the body of Christ, with Him in our midst.
The second kind of meeting which stands out as something that should be done in Christ's name is our gathering to partake in the Lord's Supper. This is a very important assembly. 1 Cor. 11:20 implies that the eating of this feast should be the main objective of our coming together. It is to be done in remembrance of Christ and the fact that He bore our sin on the cross. But the bread not only symbolizes Christ's physical body which was broken for us, it also symbolizes the fact that all believers are one body in Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Thus this meeting is not something that unbelievers should participate in, or that believers should participate in in an unworthy manner (1 Cor. 11:27). Since it symbolizes the whole body of Christ, we need to partake of it as representative of the whole body of Christ.
This gathering together is described in 1 Cor. 11:18 as, "when you come together as a church," which is literally "when you come together in ekklesia." This is an interesting way of distinguishing these gatherings, which are intended to be convened in Christ's name, from all other gatherings. The phrase can probably be taken to mean "when you meet as the assembly," as opposed to "when you meet as a local group, not representative of the whole assembly." So such gatherings could be called "meetings of the church," meaning meetings which represent the whole body of Christ. 1 Corinthians goes on to give several rules of orderly conduct for such meetings (e.g., 14:27, 30, 34, 39). It would be almost impossible to make these rules apply to all meetings, unless they are interpreted very loosely. But they do apply when we gather together in Christ's name as a representation of the church, to partake in the Lord's Supper, for example.
There may well have been other gatherings which were also convened in Christ's name. The New Testament is not very clear on this point. But in spite of this lack of clarity, the book of Acts does illustrate something of how these concepts were put into practice from the beginning.
The Christians in those days did not own large buildings to hold meetings in, so they met in public places and in their own homes. The first public place they met in was the temple, more specifically Solomon's Porch (Acts 5:12). These seemed to be mainly Gospel outreaches, as evidenced by the many signs and wonders done. But the breaking of bread was clearly done in a different kind of meeting, held in individual homes (Acts 2:46).
Similarly, Paul's custom was apparently to start his missionary outreaches in the local synagogue, and then move the converts to other public places when they were no longer welcome there. In Ephesus, for example, after three months in the synagogue he began holding meetings in the school of Tyrannus (Acts 19:8-9). These were clearly open to participation by unbelievers, for his purpose was to reason with them, according to verse 9. These were therefore not the meetings representing the whole assembly, but of a fundamentally different character. The meetings representing the whole assembly were most likely held in houses, Priscilla and Aquila's being a probable example in this particular case at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:8, 19).
New Testament concepts are often rather abstract, and the idea of gathering in Christ's name is no exception. We must remember every time we seek to do this that we meet as a representation of the entire church of God, not simply as an independent local group of Christians. None of our local gatherings will accomplish this perfectly, but it is the ideal we should strive for.
To better understand what this means in practice, it may be helpful to make an analogy with secular representative government. We Americans are fond of Lincoln's phrase, "government by the people," but it isn't technically the people who make the decisions, but rather the elected officials who are supposed to represent the people. The decisions made by these representatives are supposed to be a reflection of the desires of the people. It isn't a perfect reflection--every candidate will occasionally make decisions that the people did not really want--but still it is generally true to the ideal of government by the people instead of by the officials.
The situation with the church of God is similar. Each action by a local gathering should be a reflection of the desires of the assembly at large. More accurately, each action should reflect what the desires of the universal assembly should be characterized by, and what God sees it characterized by even now, although from our perspective we often see more of the flesh than of the new creation.
Some of our hymns speak of our meetings being a foretaste of what it will be like when we all meet together around the Lord Jesus in glory. That is a fitting description of what it means for our gatherings to represent the one assembly. Our meetings here should be characterized by the same things that will characterize that future gathering.
Most importantly, our local assemblies should be focused on Christ, just as the whole of Christianity will be focused on Him in the future and should be focused on Him even now. Our meetings should be centered around Him, not on entertaining music and programs, or self-help advice, etc. Those kinds of things may have their place, but we should realize that they are of a fundamentally different nature than the true functions of the assembly, since they are not a reflection of what the whole church of God is about.
Whether we like it or not, the Bible simply does not get into a lot of detail regarding how our gatherings should operate in practice. God has left us the Holy Spirit, who is certainly the perfect guide, but we do not always follow His leading. So the reality is that there will be disagreements about the specifics, even among very Godly Christians.
The end result of these disagreements is a lack of the unity that the whole church of God is supposed to enjoy. Practically speaking, the church is very fragmented in our day. Even when all those in one particular gathering are in perfect agreement with each other, they are clearly not in perfect agreement with the whole church. This means that our local gatherings are very far from being perfect representations of the body of Christ.
There are two extreme ways of dealing with this practical failure, neither of which is Scriptural. The first is to define a rigid sectarian boundary, or "circle of fellowship," wherein unity can be humanly enforced. Those who are within the boundary are all in agreement on the major issues and judgments of the church, and those outside the boundary are assumed not to be gathered in Christ's name. This scheme totally depreciates the concept of the body of Christ, since each assembly really only purposes to be a representation of its own circle of fellowship rather than the whole body.
The other extreme is to assume that all matters of government or judgment are strictly limited in context to the local church, and not to the whole assembly. Each local gathering is considered totally independent from all others, and is not really concerned with the unity of the whole assembly, but only with the unity of its own people. Thus, this extreme also depreciates the concept of the body of Christ.
It would seem to be a more Scriptural approach to acknowledge the ideal of having unity with the entire body of Christ, not just within our own circle of fellowship on the one hand, or our own local gathering on the other hand. The New Testament views every local gathering as being very practically tied to one another. Not only do they share a common Lord, they also have common teachings and practices (1 Cor. 14:33-34), and they are concerned over one another's doctrinal issues (Acts 15). But we cannot acknowledge that ideal without realizing how far short of it we come. We have to honestly admit that the unity envisioned in the New Testament is simply not what we see. The fragmentation of the church into various sects and denominations, not to mention our own pride and selfishness, puts this perfect unity out of reach.
The fact is, we do have disagreements with other Christians, and some of these disagreements are serious enough to cause a breach in the unity of the church. We cannot maintain perfect fellowship with assemblies of Christians who insist on tolerating sin in defiance of 1 Cor. 5:11, for example. Fortunately, we are not responsible to actually keep the unity of the Spirit, but rather we are told to endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit (Eph. 4:3). This shows it is not always possible to actually keep that unity, but that we must not give up trying.
When a group of Christians goes in a direction that we feel we cannot Scripturally accept, we must always obey God rather than men, even if that seems to cause a breach in unity. We must assume that their decision was not truly made as gathered in Christ's name and representative of His body. But we must also remember that not all of our decisions are truly made that way either. We cannot break off all ties with the other assembly simply because we disagree in one particular case. It is our Scriptural responsibility to continue to strive for unity with them in whatever practical ways that we still can.
This page copyright © 2001 Edward A. Morris. Created May 29, 2001. Last updated May 29, 2001.
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