What does the Bible say about Gathering?

Many times during the pandemic, especially when church gatherings are being restricted, people resisting restrictions quote Hebrews 10:25, that reads, “Do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing,” as a defense that church gatherings should not be restricted. 

An initial appropriate counter to this argument is Matthew 18:20, that reads, “Where two or three are gathered, there am I in their midst.” This is the only verse in the Bible that sets a number to the assembly.[1] While this verse does apply a number to the concept of gathering, it does lead to several questions. What if you are alone? Does that mean that God isn’t “in your midst”? Not at all. The Bible also has examples of God meeting people who are alone, including Hagar in the desert (Genesis 21), Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28), Moses in the desert (Exodus 3:1-4:17) and on the mountain (Deuteronomy 34), and Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19).

It does raise the question however of what exactly the gathering is. Has gathering always been the same? Is there a mandated “biblical gathering model” that can be universally applied to all settings and situations? Can the Bible help us in understanding what exactly gathering is?

What follows is my rather lengthy attempt to answer these questions. I approach it from the perspective of how the Bible conceptualises religious or holy space. I will then talk a little bit about some post-biblical historical conceptualisations of the same. For those who have neither time nor desire to read such a long approach, here is the TL;DR version: Both the Bible and church history describe multiple examples of religious or holy space, some good and some bad, none of which are prescribed for us today.

The Worship of God and Holy Space.

One important aspect of understanding church gathered and scattered is to look at how people in the past have used space to meet God. Perhaps the strongest resistance to change is seen in the simple statement, “We haven’t done it that way before.” It implies that our own experience represents the whole of knowledge. This of course isn’t true but does lead us to ask how this relates to issues of church gathered and church scattered? How does history prove or disprove what we have or have not done before? Holy spaces have changed over the course of the history of the world. As described in the Bible, we see varying forms of what holy space is, depending on the situation or the time.

Positive examples of Holy Space.

There is a wide variety of positive holy spaces in the Bible. These are places where people approach God through means the Bible approves of. 

Garden of Eden. At the very beginning of the Bible, sacred space was in the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve lived.[2] God would come down in the cool of the day, and they would talk together. So, there was direct conversation with God in this holy space, in this sacred space of the garden, which represented the entire world. And so, there is no need to have any special place where that would happen. In the age of innocence, the space and the time were the same. The cool of the day in the space of the Garden of Eden, God would talk to his people. 

Sacrifices and Altars. As humans became slaves to sin, we see that there was a new way of interacting with God, we see the story of Cain and Abel, and were they brought “offerings” to the LORD.[3] And so, it seems that these sacrifices were offerings of the produce of the land, whether it was flora or fauna, to God. It would appear that at this point there’s some kind of burning involved. These happened on altars, but it wasn’t simply the use of an altar, it seems that there is also the proper use of an altar because God accepts Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. This implies that is seems to be more than simply the place where the offering is given – there seems to be some kind of an attitude that gets developed through the offering of sacrifice.[4] Prior to the flood, the process of “offering” isn’t clearly explained, but after the flood we are introduced to the word “altar” and this word is used 338 times in the Old Testament. As the story progresses, you see these sacrifices happen on altars as the key ways that humans interact with God. In fact, The Bible tells us that only some of the animals came to Noah’s ark two-by-two. The rest came in sevens – and these were the clean animals that Noah and his family would subsequently use in sacrifices and offerings after they were saved. Abraham interacted with God through altars. Wherever he and his descendants Isaac and Jacob went they would set up an altar to God. That makes altars a kind of a very specific religious space. 

“You are standing on holy ground.” Moses is in the wilderness herding sheep, he sees a burning bush that isn’t consumed by fire. When he approaches, God says to him, “Take your sandals off because you’re standing on his holy ground.” Perhaps this is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden where the ground the earth and everything God created was holy. This event, however, appears to be a one off – there are no further accounts of encountering God at burning bushes. 

The Land of Goshen. When the children of Israel first arrive in Egypt, they are given the Land of Goshen, which becomes their religious space (Genesis 46:3-4; 47:27). Eventually during the Egyptian captivity, the people call out to God and God hears their voice, and he answers their plea for help. And he comes down and frees them from the land of slavery, and brings them into the land of promise. And while they’re on the journey, they go to several other holy spaces. 

Holy Mountains. Mountains are also key religious spaces in the Bible. There’s Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb, which is a holy space.[5] Moses had several encounters with God on this mountain including the burning bush[6] and receiving the decalogue.[7] It was on Mount Carmel that Elijah and the people of Israel had their encounter with Yahweh and the prophets of Baal were defeated.[8] The ultimate example of a holy mountain is talked about in both the story of Abraham and the story of Jesus. Richardson (2005) notes that Moriah, the mountain where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac,[9] as the same mountain where both Solomon’s Temple was constructed[10] and where Jesus was crucified.[11]Mount Zion is also a key mountain especially with regard to God’s kingdom extending to all peoples of the earth. Mount Zion is in many ways a virtual space, sometimes identified with Jerusalem,[12] sometimes with heaven,[13] and sometimes with the place where God encounters the nations.[14]

The Tabernacle. The tabernacle is a portable holy space that the children of Israel carry with them wherever they go. Within this holy space we see a variety of spaces each with a reducing number of authorized users. In addition to the tent spaces there was also a special place between the cherubim on top of the ark of the convent. This was called the mercy seat and was where there was an interaction where people were reconciled to God, through the blood of the sacrifice. 

The Temple. The Temple was the permanent dwelling place for God, planned by David and built by Solomon on the Temple Mount. And this, this becomes a place of connection between the Jewish people and God. There were in fact a series of temples, each rebuilt after the destruction of the previous temple. There were also a series of tools and implements that were used inside the Temple.  

Jesus and Holy Space. Jesus does some of his teaching in the temple, but he also teaches in other holy spaces. He preaches on a mountain, he preaches in people’s homes, and he teaches in a new place called the synagogue. Eventually Jesus returns to heaven. The people of God continue to worship in the temple, they gather in the temple for prayer, even as they live in community together outside of the Temple. Ultimately the Romans attack and the temple is destroyed so that it is no longer a place of worship for Jews nor for Christians. 

Synagogue and ekklesia. The Jews focus their space on synagogues, and Christians focus their space on the church. Synagogues appear to be gatherings of God followers, in small communities, that are apparently spread throughout the Roman world. The diaspora of Jews throughout the Roman world meant that they couldn’t bring the temple with them so, the synagogue is created as a way for them to connect to God in an appropriate way. In many ways churches are the same. Both of these terms mean basically the same thing in Greek, it’s just that there is this agreed upon idea that Jews call their gathering a space “synagogue” and Christians call theirs a “church,” but in Greek the meaning for both words is essentially the same. Related to church and synagogue are “The Church that meets in their home.”[15]

Negative examples of Holy Space.

We also need to point out some other religious spaces that are not good examples. There are times where people seek God through means that the Bible disapproves of.

The Tower of Babel.[16] The Tower of Babel introduces a different kind of sacred space, one that wants to usurp God’s position as the ruler of the universe, almost as if to say if the tower is built then humans be able to reach to the heavens, the dwelling place of God, and then become like God. Even God himself says, “What can these people not do?” So, then he talks about messing with their language, and that’s where the different languages come out.

Under every spreading tree and on every hilltop.[17] Even though the people of Israel had the tabernacle as a center for worship, we discover that the people are constantly trying to create their own holy spaces for themselves. “Under every spreading tree, and on every high Hill” becomes a way to describe holy spaces where people worship God in inappropriate ways. We also see Gideon and Micah and the idols that they set up, complete with Levites to oversee the proper use of worship. 

Jeroboam’s Golden Calves. Jeroboam sets up two golden calves in Israel, after Israel seceded from Judah during Rehoboam’s reign. Jeroboam doesn’t want to maintain any connection with worship at Jerusalem because that would undermine his authority. Ultimately two events happen to destroy this second holy place: Assyria comes and carries the 10 tribes off into permanent captivity and Josiah destroys the two calves. 

Historical Religious Spaces.

Now we move on from biblical understandings of holy space and move into other historical expressions of the same. 

Christendom. The time of Constantine saw a change in Christian religious space. Whereas before the church was in a largely persecuted state and had to hide out in places such as the catacombs in Rome, now the church experienced official sanction. This allowed for the construction of church buildings, perhaps the most famous of which is the Hagia Sophia. Throughout this time the church transitioned from a group that met in homes to what we have today where churches largely meet in specially constructed facilities called churches. This has resulted in a theology where our worship is largely centered on a building; we’re used to “going to church.” In the Philippine context, you have churches that were also built as a kind of fortress, to protect the priests and members from harm.

The persecuted church. Christendom is not always the norm for how churches gather. There are vast areas of the Christian world where Jesus’ followers are not allowed to gather. In Iran, for example, you have Christians who have never met with another Christians because of the danger of doing so. If they haven’t experienced any sense of corporate worship at all does that mean they’re not church? Does that mean not a part of the family of God? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. 

A theology of Church Scattered.

We have seen that from the beginning of time that people have been able to approach God in a wide variety of ways – there is no universal system for doing so. That directly addresses present-day concerns about churches have to forego face-to-face gatherings because of the pandemic. We need to develop an alternative theology of church that will assist us in moving forward into the new normal. We will begin with defining the concept of church and then move into a discussion of the functions that the church is designed to perform. 

[1]  Some see this verse as applying only to situations of church discipline. However, I would argue that the proximity of the word ekklesia in the surrounding verses also allows its application to other church activities as well. What is interesting is that at least one church that is opposed to the restrictions bases their argument partially on the fact that they need to practice church discipline. 

[2] This story is found in Genesis 2-3. 

[3] Genesis 4:3-16. 

[4] It should be pointed out that there are no clear reasons given in the biblical account for why Abel’s offering was accepted while Cain’s was not. 

[5] See for example, John Calvin (1847-50) Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 3: Harmony of the Law, Part I, tr. by John King https://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/calvin/cc03/cc03006.htm (retrieved Feb 11, 2021). 

[6] See Exodus 3. 

[7] See Deuteronomy 4:10, 4:15, 5:2, 9:8, 18:16, 28:69; Psalms 106:19; Malachi 4:4. 

[8] See 1 Kings 18:16-45. 

[9] See Genesis 22:2. 

[10] See 2 Chronicles 3:1

[11] Richardson says, “Where was Golgotha—The Place of the Skull—located? Just outside the wall of Jerusalem and within, at the most, 1,600 meters of the tip of Mount Moriah. King Solomon, centuries earlier, had erected the first Jewish Temple on Mount Moriah, probably to commemorate the exact spot where Abraham stretched Isaac upon that pile of wood (see Gen. 22:1-19). It was there that Yahweh placed Himself under oath to fulfill both lines of the Abrahamic Covenant” (p. 147).

[12] See 1 Kings 8:1-2; 2 Chronicles 5:2. 

[13] See Hebrews 12:22-23; Revelation 14:1. 

[14] See Psalm 9:11; Isaiah 2:3, 14:32; Micah 4:2. 

[15] References to churches meeting in homes can be found in Acts 1:13; Romans 16:3,5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15. 

[16] This story can be found in Genesis 11:1-9. 

[17] References to these places can be found in passages such as Deuteronomy 12:1–4; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 16:2-4, 20, 17:10; Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 2:20, 3:2, 17:2. 

Image by @vladhilitanu

One thought on “What does the Bible say about Gathering?

  1. Pingback: Church and Crisis Today: How Philippine Religious Consciousness can better inform how the rest of the world does church? | Michael J. Fast

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