What is the Scriptural Ground of Gathering?
The New Testament is full of instruction regarding the collective aspects of Christian living. Christians all over the world seek to practice these collective instructions, and yet there is a great disparity between the practice, and the clear teachings of the Word of God. The reason for much of this confusion is a problem with the foundation… the ground, or basis, on which Christians gather together. For many, gathering together is based on ethnicity (e.g. the African or Russian church). For others, it is based on their preferred style of church government (e.g. the Presbyterian or Congregationalist model). Others rally around a human figure such as Martin Luther or John Wesley (e.g. Lutheranism or Methodism). Others align themselves because of a position on believer’s baptism (e.g. Reformed and Baptists). Still others meet on independent principles (e.g. non-denominationalism). But what does the Word of God say?
The scriptural ground of Christian gathering is very simple. It involves acting on what is true of us. We might ask: what is true of us? There are really two great principles that form the scriptural ground of gathering. One was taught by Jesus on earth, the other by the Apostle Paul.
- The Name of Christ is the attractive center for Christians meeting together as a local assembly.
- The Body of Christ is expressed by Christians meeting together as a local assembly.
I would like to explain these two principles very briefly below:
The Name of Christ is the Attractive Center
In Matthew 16, Jesus asks His disciples to identify Him, “but ye, who do ye say that I am?” Peter gives the answer beautifully, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This was the correct answer, and Jesus goes on to explain that Peter’s confession would be the foundation of the Church; the truth of the Person of Christ… “on this rock I will build my Church [or Assembly]”.
Jesus would later commission the Apostle Paul to unpack the full teaching as to the Church, but in the meantime, Jesus references the Assembly as what would replace His physical presence on earth after the ascension. This is seen in Matthew 18, when the Lord gives instructions for what to do in the case of a personal trespass. Though Christ would be absent, His authority could still be appealed to on earth in the local assembly. This is a precious resource! Then Jesus explains what a local assembly is, and why His authority is invested there:
“For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
How could there be any other center than Christ? Sadly, many Christians today gather around a denominational name, an influential leader, a constitutional list of teachings, or even a set of cultural norms. The Bible teaches that the Spirit of God is seeking to glorify a Person… Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, and is drawing Christians around the Person of Christ, and unto His Name.
The Local Assembly is an Expression of the Universal Assembly
The Word of God clearly teaches the unity of the Church. “For even as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of the body, being many, are one body, so also is the Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12). And again, “There is one body” (Eph. 4:4). However, it would be impossible for every person in the universal Assembly (hundreds of millions) to meet in one physical location. Accordingly, the New Testament identifies local meetings of that universal Assembly; e.g. the “assembly of God which is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2), “the assemblies of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2). We may refer to these gatherings as “local assemblies”.
Now, the local assembly (e.g. in the city of Corinth) was the official gathering of the Body of Christ in that location. A scripture to show this is 1 Cor. 12:27; “now ye are Christ’s body” referring to the Corinthian assembly. While there is only one Body, the local assembly is an expression of the whole, and enjoys all the rights and privileges of the universal Church. A simple example has often been used: there is a U.S. Army base in Watertown, N.Y. I can drive up to the fence and say; “there is the U.S. Army”. I do not mean that the entire U.S. Army is in front of me. That would be impossible because the US Army is not only enormous in size, but distributed all over the world. And yet, what I see before me is an installment of the US Army, which has all the character, privileges, and authority of the whole Army, to act on its behalf. This is true of the local assembly as well. There is no concept in the New Testament of independency, or of division within the Church of God. The local assembly must recognize what is true of the whole, and act on its behalf.
While the local assembly embraces all believers in a location, not all are involved in the fellowship of the assembly. We see this in 1 Cor. 14:23-25, where the whole assembly is gathered into one place, and a simple believer comes in as a visitor. Just because not all believers in a location are actively in fellowship, the local gathering nonetheless acts on behalf of the assembly.
The Ground of Gathering in 30 Words
This is not a complicated subject, although sometimes explanations of the ground of gathering become long and complex. To summarize, in just thirty words, the scriptural basis for meeting together is:
God is gathering Christians, members of the one Body of Christ, to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and each gathering is a local expression of the universal Assembly.
The Ground of Gathering in Practice
How does the scriptural basis of gathering work itself out in practice? The answer, I believe, is found all across the pages of the New Testament. Let’s look at a few examples.
1. Fellowship & Letters of Commendation
The first result of putting these principles into practice is unity in fellowship. After three chapters of expounding God’s purpose for Christ and the Church, Paul exhorted the Ephesians to “walk worthy” of those truths by demonstrating grace and love towards other Christians “using diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the uniting bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). The unity of the Spirit is not something we need to manufacture; it has already been formed on the day of Pentecost, when believers were incorporated into one Body. The Spirit of God has formed one Body on earth; “For also in the power of one Spirit we have all been baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bondmen or free, and have all been given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13). We need to be diligent to publicly maintain a testimony to the unity of the Church. This included displaying the oneness in ministry and the oneness in administration that ought to characterize the Church of God.
The Church of God is ONE, and Christians meeting on scriptural ground will recognize that. The only prerequisite for fellowship is membership in the Body of Christ. If we add restrictions to fellowship beyond that, we become SECTARIAN in principle. Scripture does not require allegiance to any name but the Name of Christ! It does not require subscription to any list of doctrines but the Living Word of God! To be received into fellowship, believers simply bring a letter of commendation signed by two or three, showing the fellowship of a local assembly. The Church is ONE, and other local assemblies will receive a brother or sister who carries such a letter; e.g. Paul wrote a letter of commendation for Phoebe, see Rom. 16:1.
Does this mean that a biblical assembly must receive Christians who hold evil doctrine, or practice evil deeds? No. Scripture is abundantly clear on this issue (read 2 Tim. 2, 1 Cor. 5). There is a related principle
of separation from evil that will always characterize the unity of the Spirit. But in general, the ground of gathering “in practice” will result in happy fellowship “with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart”
(2 Tim. 2:22).
While it may seem obvious, following from the previous point, another great result of practicing the scriptural ground of gathering is liberty in both worship and ministry.
We read that as Christians we “worship by the Spirit of God” (Phil. 3:3). Worship is often in an individual context, but it is also found in a collective context; e.g. the Lord’s Supper. The Spirit of God ALONE is our worship leader, and directs our hearts to consider the greatness of God and His Beloved Son. Those who deny the ground of gathering in practice unwittingly exclude true believers from collective worship, which robs God of the worship He deserves.
While it is not necessarily worship, the administration of the Lord’s Supper also demonstrates the unity of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 10 we learn that in the breaking of bread believers express their identification with the one Body of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 11 we learn that the breaking of bread meeting is one of the primary purposes of a local assembly coming together, although there are a number of assembly meetings.
We read too that the Spirit of God is the great conductor of all the members in the Body of Christ for ministry. God has given gifts to EVERY member of Christ’s body, and these spiritual abilities are often diverse from one another; “But all these things operates the one and the same Spirit, dividing to each in particular according as he pleases“ (1 Cor. 12:11). The ground of gathering in practice gives the Spirit of God liberty to use whom He will in ministry. The result can be profitable and coordinated Christian ministry!
: There is a difference between the times when believers are gathered together “in assembly” (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:18) and the times when believers meet together for recreational purposes, casual fellowship, or even a bible study. Assembly meetings
are official meetings, where the assembly comes together in a purposeful way. An illustration of this could be the Unites States Congress. There are certain set times when Congress comes together in an official capacity. They may meet after hours for social events, etc. but no laws can be made. It is only when Congress is “in session” that they can act in their official capacity. Scriptural assembly meetings are:
- the Breaking of Bread (1 Cor. 11)
- the Prophecy Meeting (1 Cor. 14)
- the Prayer Meeting (Acts 12)
- a Meeting for Administrative Action (1 Cor. 5)
- perhaps, a Meeting for the Public Reading of the Scriptures (1 Tim. 4)
Another result of putting the ground of gathering into practice is unity in administration. The doctrine of the Church is unfolded in the New Testament under various figures or pictures that communicate important concepts. For example, the Church is pictured as a body, a house, a bride, a candlestick, and a city. Each has a special connotation. Primarily, the doctrine of the assembly is unfolded under the figures of: (1) the House of God, and (2) the Body if Christ. The Spirit of God not only indwells believers individually, linking them together to Christ in one Body, but He also indwells the Church collectively forming one House of God! While ministry is connected in scripture with the Body (1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4), administration is connected with with House of God (1 Tim. 3). The unity of the Spirit is connected with both the Body and the House; c.p. Ephesians 4:3 with the previous chapters where both the House and the Body are expounded.
Now, we must be very careful to make one point; administration is local, not universal. By comparison, worship (part of Christian priesthood) and is not limited by time or space; every Christian can worship privately at home, at school, or at work, and publicly in assembly A, B, or C. Ministry also is not limited by time or space; a believer with a gift for teaching is a teacher in the private setting, or publicly in assembly A, B, or C. But administration is different. Office is one sphere of Christian activity that is limited to the local assembly, and for good reason. The denial of this leads to the evil papal system! In scripture, leaders of the local assembly only have oversight in that location only (see 1 Tim. 3, Titus 1). The concept of a bishop having authority over a large region is NOT scriptural!
However, with that point established, we must consider how administration is affected by the unity of the Spirit. There may come a time when the authority of the Lord is appealed to in matters of discipline or excommunication. Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5 cover binding and loosing of sins, and putting away wicked persons from the local assembly. When such an action is taken by a local assembly, “whatsoever ye shall bind on the earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt 18:18). As a result of the presence of Christ in the midst, and the associated authority, Heaven itself (God Himself) recognizes that action. To recognize the unity of the Church, other assemblies must also submit to that action, although it may be done in an imperfect way, using imperfect servants. A wicked person excommunicated by assembly A is not to be welcomed by assembly B or C. Then also, the time may come when grace has worked repentance and sin can be loosed from that restored brother or sister, “and whatsoever ye shall loose on the earth shall be loosed in heaven.” At that time, the person restored to fellowship by assembly A is to be welcomed by assembly B or C!
The question might arise: what if an assembly takes an action to imbibe evil, or refuses to divorce itself from evil? The Word of God – always perfect – has the answer for that as well. Such a local assembly would cease to be a true assembly (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9).
We can see that when the ground of gathering is put into practice, we can obey the Word of God even in a day when the outward testimony of the Church is divided. Through the working of sin, the testimony of the Church, once united in the days of the Apostles, has been fractured into thousands of denominations. Yet it is still possible to keep the unity of the Spirit! The scriptures are clear… it remains a question of faith. What an exciting opportunity to take God at His word!
Related Principles for the Local Assembly
There are a number of related principles that could be addressed, but are outside the scope of this article. They are often confused with “the ground of gathering”, and really need to be distinguished.
- Separation from Evil
- The Presence of the Lord in the Midst
- The Leading of the Spirit
- The Exercise of Oversight
- The Diversity of Gifts
- Worship and Priesthood
Please if you would like more information on these related subjects!
The basis for gathering is the same today as it was in the early days of the Church, nearly 2000 years ago! The Spirit of God gathered believers around the Person of Christ to form local expressions of one universal Assembly. Sadly, over time that foundation was lost sight of. Gradually, human wisdom replaced obedience to the Word of God. A colossal religious system emerged. It began united, but without Christ as its center, it began to fracture and divide. “For other foundation can no man lay besides that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). Large percentages of Christian doctrine were lost to the Church. The Church began to seek after worldly things, and soon lost her way, becoming distracted from her purpose. At this time the outward testimony of the Church became what is often called “Christendom”.
Around the turn of the first millennium A.D., God began calling out, from the darkness of Christendom, faithful witnesses who would hear His voice. This resulted in a great burst of light in the mid 1500’s when German and Swiss reformers (men like Luther and Zwingli) were used by God to recover the truths of salvation by faith and the supreme authority of the scriptures. The effects of this reformation are felt to this day! However, the reformation was sadly turned aside after the lures of national protection. The reformation soon became swallowed up by the National Churches of Europe, where a king or queen was the head of the church, rather than Christ.
It wasn’t until the early to mid-1800’s that the true biblical ground of gathering was recovered through men like John N. Darby and John G. Bellett. Thousands left the reformed churches, hungering for the truth and its liberating effects. The scope of prophecy, dispensational truth, the doctrine of the Church, and the pre-tribulation rapture were recovered. The effects were felt around the world. Sadly, while dispensational truth and pre-tribulation rapture were widely accepted, the ground of gathering was largely rejected. The large group that was gathered out the national churches with Darby and the earlier “brethren” (as they were called) began very well. Even among them, divisions came in as a result of pride and worldliness, and the numbers of those meeting on scriptural ground were greatly reduced.
If you would like more information about brethren history or the location of remaining brethren assemblies near you, please and I will do everything I can to help!