The Spiritual Necessity of Gathering with Purpose
We are answering a practical, spiritual question. Since we are slaves of Christ Jesus, called, and set apart as a matter of faith in Christ, how do we connect personally with this reality that is now ours as believers and followers of Jesus? We’ve been examining Paul’s introduction of himself to the church at Rome in Romans 1:1-12 for clues that lead us to an answer. We have seen that love, humility, thanksgiving, and the personal discipline of intercessory prayer all contribute to our experience of the fullness of what it means to be doulos, kletos, and aphoridzo. We’ll find the final clue in the reason Paul gives for his consistent prayer to God that he (Paul) might “now at last succeed in coming” to them. He writes,
11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. (Romans 1:11-12 (ESV)
Paul desires to get together, to gather, with the Christians in Rome for the purpose of “mutual encouragement.” He anticipates personal, meaningful encouragement as they encounter each other’s faith. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit both in his desire and in his writing, sets forth a fundamental principle of discipleship, an essential for the practical life of faith: Every person of faith has, first of all, something to offer others and second, a need for what other people of faith have to offer them and the way in which those spiritual blessings are realized is in physically being together! One way in which the followers of Jesus experience the fullest grace of their identities as slave/called/set apart is in fellowship with other believers.
That doesn’t really surprise us, does it? In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul describes the church (believers in Jesus gathered from out of the sinful system of the world to faith, fellowship, and following Jesus) as a “body.” He writes,
1 Corinthians 12:4-7 (ESV) 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
Each believer is given a specific gift of the Spirit and that gift is intended “for the common good.” Paul goes on to rephrase the idea of “common good” in the picture of a fully integrated functioning “body.”
1 Corinthians 12:12 (ESV) For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:14 (ESV) For the body does not consist of one member but of many.
The “body” that is the church of Jesus Christ has many parts, but those parts function, as a body does, when all the parts are together. They function in relation to one another. The presence of each benefits the others. The absence of any puts all at a disadvantage. And this arrangement is not merely metaphorical. It is sovereignly ordained by God Himself.
1 Corinthians 12:18-19 (ESV) 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?
1 Corinthians 12:27 (ESV) Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
When the author of Hebrews exhorts believers to
24 . . . consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25 (ESV),
he is not merely adding another rule to follow. He is advocating and urging the individual believers to recognize and realize the significance of their role in the integration and health of the Body! We need you and you need us. We are of benefit to you and you, in your faith, are of benefit to us. That is how God made it to be. If we are together, our shared faith will result in mutual encouragement. But if we isolate from one another, as an ongoing habit, the Body is dismembered and everyone suffers.
Some of what it means to be a doulos of Christ Jesus can only be realized in fellowship with other believers. It is not enough to simply watch a worship service on television. Our personal encouragement in the faith, and the growing maturity and faithfulness of the church depends on the spiritual effect of gathering together.
The practice of gathering together as a Body challenges the falsehood that each of us runs the race of faith alone. We do not. We run with Christ as the Head of a fully integrated Body of which we are integral parts. While we may (and must) shed sin in this race, we are not to shed Body parts! In a race, muscles and skin work with nerves and bones and lungs and sweat glands and heart and liver and kidneys and spleen alongside mind and spirit and will to run. Shedding any of these not only sabotages the runner from winning, it would cripple the runner from even running. A key factor in success is the Body remaining gathered together under the Head!
Christians who fall into the habit of isolating from the Body risk the spiritually crippling effects of discouragement, defeat, and even spiritual death. A Body needs its parts to function and survive! There is a transfer of living energy in the common union of the Body that cannot be accomplished with disconnected parts. Cut off an arm, and the remaining Body may live, but that disconnected arm will die. Paul, as a doulos of Christ Jesus, longs to gather with the believers in Rome because he knows that both he and they will benefit from the experience of faith shared in person.
COVID forced a measure of separation on the church for a time. Now it is time for the church to find ways to be together again. We have to. It is how we are designed by God. Yes, we will need to be wise and avoid presumption, but we must more so act in faith, confident that what God ordains for us is best for His glory and for our joy. David Gundersen, pastor of Bridge Point Bible Church in Houston, Texas offers ten reasons Christians should come back to church. His whole article is here. Let me summarize his ten reasons as bullet points:
- We are embodied creatures. We live life through our senses. No loving church family should accept “long-distance relationships” as the norm.
- The church is one body. We are not independent but interdependent.
- The Spirit is drawing us. The Holy Spirit is always drawing the church toward genuine, spiritual unity.
- The church is a spiritual family. Families are not meant to be separated.
- Preaching is a sacred moment. “For a local family of believers, God’s word is best communicated live as the Spirit empowers an appointed preacher and trusted shepherd to articulate God’s word personally in a moment pregnant with purpose and possibility.”
- There’s nothing like singing together. See Colossians 3:16!
- We need baptisms and communion. “These two ordinances remind us that God communicates to us in sensory ways.” (And that His communication is real and not just subjectively perceived.)
- You have a job to do. See above.
- Our worship is a witness. The world is watching, and will find their way to grace and truth, when we live out the instruction of God fully reliant on the promise and power of God.
- Greetings change lives. “Greetings (among the gathered) symbolize the reconciling power of the gospel and foster our family dynamic.
You cannot say your church does not need you, because God says you can’t say that and because we do need you and because you need us. Paul’s longing to gather with the Christians in Rome was a spiritual desire planted and nurtured by the Holy Spirit for Paul’s good and for the good of the church. Just as a body needs its parts to be whole and function as intended, your church needs you and you need your church to fully realize and personally experience all that it means to be doulos, kletos, and aphoridzo.