A New Controversy
Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, a new controversy arose. After centuries of church attendance, people began to question the necessity of Sunday Church attendance and being part of a local body of believers. These people ask the question, “Does God command us to attend Sunday church?” To be more specific, does God require Christians to go to a building where a body of believers sit in pews, stand to sing worship songs and then sit again to receive the message from the pastor of the church? While this particular response during COVID-19 is somewhat unique, it is not entirely new. This same question has echoed throughout the millennia of the Church Age. Did God establish his church as a local body of believers? We will delve into this question and more.
According to Barna Research, about 1/3 of Christians remained attending their given church since March 2020.
What is the Church? The new answer from some is God’s church is the collective body of believers, not those who attend a given church within a specific building. But is this true? As a believer, we must obey Christ. Jesus said in John 15:10, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” This charge is indeed serious and one should treat it such.
From my study of this controversy, there are two main arguments against Sunday worship.
- The Old Testament requires observance of the Sabbath. Sunday worship did not come from God, it is man-made.
- Where two or three are gathered together, I am in their midst. Considering this, it is only necessary for a couple of people to get together for collective Bible reading and worship.
Argument #1 – The Old Testament and the Sabbath
One key argument about forgoing church attendance is the Old Testament. The Old Testament or rather the Old Covenant instructs the reader to remember the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. There is no specific instruction in the Old or New Testaments telling Christians to change the day from Saturday worship to Sunday worship. Furthermore, the change from Saturday worship to Sunday worship occurred under the directive and leadership of people, not God. Nowhere throughout the whole of scripture will you find God directly saying that it is permissible to forsake the Sabbath.
This argument is subtle and we must unpack it thoroughly.
First, there is a significant flaw in the understanding of what the Sabbath was. Second, God made it clear that Christians no longer reside under the obligatory nature of the Law.
What is this key flaw in the argument? God never set aside the Sabbath Day as a day of worship. I challenge the reader to find any verse that instructed Israel to conduct any form of worship on the Sabbath. Many Jewish (and some non-Jewish) people practice the observance of Shabbat – which includes a ceremonial meal along with doing no work on the Sabbath. Depending on the circles in which you travel, the Shabbat meal can be quite extensive and includes instructions such as:
- Chicken and meat are fine.
- Do not bring dairy as dairy is not mixed with chicken or meat.
- Generally people are expected to dress a bit more formal than normal.
- The “Shalom Aleichem” hymn is sung – which is an invitation to the angels who attend the Shabbat meal with the family.
- The The song of “Eishet Chayil,” is sung as a tribute to Jewish women written by King Solomon.
- The assembly stands for the reading of Kiddush.
- Challah follows Kiddush – where everyone goes through a ritual hand-washing ceremony for bread.
- During the ceremony and meal words from the Torah are included.
All of the above represents quite an elaborate and ornate celebration. But, is this actually rooted in anything Biblical. The answer is no. God’s instructions to Israel were rather simple. They were to set aside the Sabbath Day as a day of rest.
The argument suggesting that Sunday is man-made and that Sabbath is God-made is rather weak when you see to the extent Shabbat has gone. The focus is on the ritual rather than being a day of rest and about God. Let’s read what Jesus said about the Sabbath:
And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. – Mark 2:27 (ESV).
I urge the reader to read a separate paper that I wrote about this topic that explains how Jeremiah the Prophet (Jeremiah 31:31) prophesied precisely as to the nature of The Old vs. New Covenant. I’ll quote three New Testament verses that explain that Christ broke the bounds of the Law bringing it to completion.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. – Galatians 2:19 (ESV)
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. – Galatians 3:23-26 (ESV)
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! – Romans 6:14-15 (ESV)
If you’ve received Jesus as your Messiah, your Savior, then you are a believer, a Christian. Once you’ve received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Salvation, you are no longer under the law. Jesus made you dead to the obligatory nature of the Law and He ushered in the New Covenant. The New Covenant is the age of grace. We have a whole new set of requirements and expectations. One of those expectations is church attendance as a body of believers.
Argument #2 – Where Two or Three are Gathered Together
A favorite verse presented by those who oppose Church or collective-worship is Matthew 18:20 which reads in the ESV, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Let’s dig into this a bit because I’ve heard this argument many times. Let’s examine the history and context of the passage. The concept of two or three people is an Old Testament concept / tradition where a matter (decision) would be decided upon the basis of two or three witnesses. Examples are Deuteronomy 17:6 and Deuteronomy 19:15.
On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. – Deuteronomy 17:6 (ESV)
“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. – Deuteronomy 19:15 (ESV)
Matthew 18 is a directive to believers on how to handle conflict with another person. Verse twenty refers back to verse sixteen where Jesus establishes the requirement for confirming a charge or fact. If a person sins against you, you are to initially go to the individual and attempt to resolve it one-on-one. If the person does not listen to you and the matter remains unresolved, then you gather two or more people and you go to the person. If the person still does not listen to you take the matter “to the church”. How can you adhere to Matthew 18 principles if you are not attending a local church?
The context of this argument is about problem resolution and has nothing to do with the gathering of a few families at your home. Jesus is indicating that he is there in their midst to help bring this problem to resolution. Using this passage to indicate that a “church” is a couple of people getting together to read the Bible is not accurate.
Summary of Arguments against Church Attendance
- The New Testament contains man’s opinion about matters regarding the Old Testament and Jesus. These passages are not binding in the way that the Old Testament is.
- God gave us the holidays to celebrate and the days to set apart as holy in the Old Testament. We are to follow those.
- Where two or more are gathered in Jesus name – he is among them.
The Directives for Church Attendance
God’s Holy Word
The arguments against church attendance presented above represent a binding nature to the Old Covenant but not so much with the New Testament. The New Testament is regarded as man’s interpretation of what God was doing or what Jesus did/said.
This is where I take a strong stand. God’s Word = God’s Word. If you hold to the position that the New Testament is man’s opinion, then you do not regard it as God’s Word. If you don’t regard it as God’s word then it is not binding. This position causes you to tread on some seriously thin ice because the same arguments can be directed toward the Old Testament.
- The Old Testament was also written by men. How do you know they recorded everything precisely as received from God? Most of what they received was through private revelation or visions. You have no way to authenticate that this is accurate?
- The Ten Commandments were written by God’s hand. But remember, Moses destroyed those and then created a second set – carved with his hand, not God’s. How do you know that Moses didn’t alter the commandments?
In the end, we accept God’s word by faith. We certainly have much scientific evidence to prove the original manuscripts were not tampered with; however, in the end, we accept by faith that these people recorded God’s words precisely as given to them. Furthermore, we accept by faith that for two thousand years, God gave us scripture as preserved in both the Old and New Testaments. Based upon everything I’ve studied for many years, I accept Jesus promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church. I also believe that God orchestrated the miraculous preservation of His word as found in both testaments. The New Testament is our current guide representing the contract / covenant between Christ and the Church.
If you declare yourself to be a follower of Christ, from whom did you get the information? You got this information from the followers of Christ or from those who received it indirectly through a follower of Jesus. Matthew was one of Jesus’ disciples. Mark was a follower / student of Peter. Luke was a follower / student of Paul and John was also one of Jesus’ disciples. Through these “man-written” documents, you read about Jesus and what He did for you and how he put you in right standing with God. How can you accept these Gospels as eternally binding, but set aside the remainder of the New Testament?
Let’s take a look at a difficult scenario.
Genesis 17:10 – “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”
Galatians 5:2 – Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. [and verse 6] For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
There is no Old Testament scripture or words recorded by God saying that the circumcision requirement for male-born children ceased. There is, however, a statement from Paul saying that circumcision is of no value and is not required. You are now faced with a significant dilemma. If you accept the Old Testament as binding – remaining so today, then the New Testament is directly contradicting the Old Testament. Paul clearly states (several times) that circumcision is not required. God in the Old Testament says that it is. So what is it? Do we have a contradiction in the Bible? If you cannot accept Paul and what he wrote, then you cannot accept the writings of the New Testament – which include the Gospels of Jesus. You are left in the Old Testament still waiting for the Messiah to come. Jesus was a nice person – perhaps a prophet – but he is not your Messiah. These are serious implications for which one must contend.
I urge you to carefully and prayerfully consider your position regarding the Church Age. Once you start to attack the foundational truth of God’s word, then you walk down a slippery slope of disbelief from which it is hard to return.
Jesus Broke the Sabbath Laws
As an indication of what was to come, Jesus broke the laws of the Sabbath. While Jesus did observe the Sabbath to a certain extent, he also collided with the Jews over it. We find him allowing his Disciples to pluck grain, He healed on the Sabbath, and he instructed a man to carry his sleeping mat on the Sabbath.
- Matthew 12:12 – It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.
- Luke 13:16 – A women set free from Satan on the Sabbath – Jesus justifies his healing of a disabled woman on the Sabbath.
- John 5:17 – My father is always at work, I too am working (Sabbath).
Sabbath to Sunday – Who Authorized the Change?
Moving Sabbath worship to Sunday worship was never a thing. As described above, God didn’t set aside the Sabbath for an ornate and ceremonial meal to occur on Friday night – this is a man-made tradition. Nor did God set aside the Sabbath as a day of worship. He set it aside as a day of rest. Yes, one would assume it to be a day of reflection and prayer, but this isn’t in scripture. What you actually do on the given day is left unsaid. What we have in it’s place today is man’s tradition or man’s interpretation.
The Sabbath represents the Old Covenant which is now obsolete. Today, we have a New Covenant. A covenant represents a contract between two individual or groups. A contract is legally binding. But a contract can be abolished when a new one is issued. With Jesus resurrection, the Old Covenant was completed / finished and a brand new one written.
So, why do Christians meet on Sunday morning? Is there a directive that collective worship must exist on Sunday. To properly understand my argument, you need to understand everything I’ve written above, about us not being under the mosaic law. There is no direct command to meet on a particular day of the week. Paul, in his letter to the church at Colossae, wrote, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (ESV)
HOWEVER…. If we believe that God preserved His word for us in the form of both the Old Testament and New Testament, we must consider them to be profitable for all doctrine – including whether we attend Church with a body of believers; particularly with a structure of Pastor, Elder and Deacons. Before we dive into that, you’ll find several places in the New Testament that early believers made it a practice to assemble on the first day of the week.
- John in Revelation 1:10 refers to the “Lord’s Day”. This is Sunday.
- Jesus represents the New Covenant. Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday. This is the key reason that the Christians differentiated themselves from the Jewish practiced of Sabbath worship.
- 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 – Paul instructs the church to collect money on the first day of the week.
- Acts 20:7 – On the first day of the week, Paul gathered the local believers to share in the Lord’s Supper.
God’s Stamp of Authenticity upon the Early Christian Church
Jesus made a promise to Peter. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:17. Knowing this promise, is it possible that for two thousand years, the Church got it all wrong? Yes, Christians have mangled many different things over the millennia; however, one particular thing has stood the test of time and that is Sunday Worship. Without a doubt, God built His church through the first few hundred years of the Church Age. Through decades; yes, hundreds of years, the Church endured persecution from the Romans – attempting to stamp this new religion out. Yet, God blessed this time and the Church grew significantly — more than any other time in history. You cannot discount this.
Furthermore, we have direct reference within the New Testament – eye witnesses – to the effects of the Holy Spirit all giving us a stamp of authenticity to what was happening. Why would Jesus give his Disciples and some of their students the amazing gifts we read about in the New Testament only to remove them some years later. The reason is/was to authenticate the work of the Holy Spirit. The early days of Christianity were difficult. The concept of bringing Gentiles into adoption was completely foreign. The knowledge that the Law was no longer binding took some time to understand completely.
One would not expect an abrupt change to the day of worship early after the resurrection of Christ. The Jewish people being saved were brought up under the Law. The change would occur gradually for many as they didn’t have the internet to read extensive arguments and commentaries about what Jesus represented. God ordained Paul to be the person to tell the churches what this all meant. These letters had to be copied and they traveled slowly with the people being quite confused at times with many questions. Questions had to often wait as Paul and other disciples traveled about the middle eastern countries.
Pastors (Why Do I Need One)
Someone once recently told us that it isn’t necessary to be part of a church. It isn’t necessary to listen to a pastor preach because those are man’s words. We have God’s word with us. We can and should read from it and receive everything we need from Bible reading.
One argument commonly heard by those who do not accept Church attendance as authoritative is that it is not necessary to set oneself under the authority of a pastor. Pastors are fallible men, prone to sin. Why can’t we just read the Bible at home and let God speak directly to us? The purpose sounds noble, but lacks any grounding in God’s instructions. Let’s read Ephesians 4:11-16.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds [pastors] and teachers,to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16 (ESV)
Notice the wording. He (Jesus) gave: Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers for the purpose of:
- Equipping the people within the church for the work of the ministry.
- For building up the body of Christ
- We all attain the unity of the faith
- We attain the fully knowledge of the Son of God
- We experience the fullness of Christ
We are no more children, tossed about by every wind of doctrine and by the craftiness and schemes of man.
The reasons given to us by the Apostle Paul stand in direct and stark contrast to the idea that we do not need to fall under the leadership of a pastor because he is a fallible man. The precise reason we attend church is so that we receive sound doctrine, so that we are not easily persuaded by those who would pull us from our churches through crafty speech.
Luke (author of Acts) wrote in Acts 14:23, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” From this we see the early Apostles appointing elders (overseers / pastors) in every church. If church attendance weren’t necessary what would the purpose be of their actions?
Answer this question, “if we are not supposed to be under the ministry and leadership or preachers, what then is the meaning or purpose of Ephesians 4?” The argument you must give is that the New Testament is not binding. If you take that position, you are effectively moving away from the Christian faith and back to Judaism.
The Church Leadership Structure
Paul gives the outline of hierarchy for the church.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. – 1Corinthians 12:27-28 (ESV)
How can we have a hierarchy if there is no church to attend?
Paul’s opening statement to the Corinthian church reads, “To the church of God that is in Corinth…”. To whom was Paul speaking? Was this letter to a whole series of house gatherings – occurring on the Sabbath? No. Paul wrote this letter to a specific church in a specific location. Furthermore, Paul addresses particular situations occurring within a particular church. Paul says later in the same book (11:18) – “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you.”
This scripture establishes as fact that Paul is addressing a body of believers coming together as a church. This is a local body representing a specific church.
Local Hierarchy – Why Does It Exist?
In Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul informs Titus as to his purpose of being left in Create — 1:5 — “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Who were these elders? These elders are overseers responsible for a particular church (vs. 7). Titus 1:6-9 outlines clear requirements for the Pastor. Why would Paul go to such trouble to tell both Titus and Timothy these requirements if we were only supposed to get together with another family or two and pray and read in our living room?
- Elder / Pastor Qualifications – Titus 1:6-9.
- Elder / Pastor Qualifications – 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
Furthermore, we have requirements for deacons.
- Deacon Qualifications – 1 Timothy 3:8-13.
Outlined within this passages are requirements for the local church and its authority. Why would one go to such lengths to describe a local assembly and provide instructions on its operation if one isn’t required to have a Church? That would be like having the US Constitution without a country.
Last Argument for Church Assembly
Do Not Neglect the Assembly
As a final argument for the inclusion of the local Church is for us to examine Hebrews. We have specific wording that implies a “church” and would require us to be part of this body. Also notice the Greek word:
not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:25) [Legacy Standard Bible]
Note the Greek word behind the word “assembling”, it is episynagōgē. This word means “a complete collection.” A thorough meaning is “a gathering or religious assembling of believers together in one place.” This would go far beyond a simple gathering of a few people or a couple of families at a local home.
A local church does not have to be a specific building. The structure can be someone’s home; however, the internal structure must outline or follow the work given to us by Paul and the Apostles. These were the founders of our faith in the same way that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob … Moses were founders of the Jewish Old Testament faith. We have a beautiful new covenant written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit as sent by God through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us not forsake it!
Final Questions for the Reader
- Do you accept the New Testament as God’s authoritative Word? If you don’t, then why do you call yourself a Christian? The Gospels were written by men.
- If you are meeting locally at your house who is your overseer (pastor)?
- If you do have an overseer do they meet the qualifications as outlined in Titus 1:6-9.
- If you currently do not have an overseer are you seeking one?
- The New Testament (beyond the Gospels) is largely a collection of letters written to specific churches answering questions and informing them of appropriate conduct. Why would we have this in our scripture if church attendance wasn’t necessary?
- Throughout the New Testament we have command for church leadership to rebuke, admonish and edify the people. How can this take place if there is no church?