The church must gather because gathering is inherent to the identity of the church, MacArthur argues: “The church by definition is an assembly. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word for ‘church’—ekklesia—the assembly of the called-out ones. A non-assembling assembly is a contradiction in terms.” MacArthur goes on to state that the specific restrictions being imposed on churches in California right now impede the church’s ability to worship God:
When officials restrict church attendance to a certain number, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the saints to gather as the church. When officials prohibit singing in worship services, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible for the people of God to obey the commands of Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. When officials mandate distancing, they attempt to impose a restriction that in principle makes it impossible to experience the close communion between believers that is commanded in Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. In all those spheres, we must submit to our Lord.
Concluding his statements, MacArthur implied that those who choose to adhere to the state’s “overreach” may not, in fact, be a part of the “true church.” He writes, “As government policy moves further away from biblical principles, and as legal and political pressures against the church intensify, we must recognize that the Lord may be using these pressures as means of purging to reveal the true church.”
Other Church Leaders Emphasize Safety, Being the Church Outside the Walls
MacArthur’s view of churches needing to physically gather in order to worship properly and the fact that he didn’t address safety concerns surrounding gathering during a pandemic contrasts with other church leaders who have made a different choice concerning reopening their doors.
In May, Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (located just to the south of Sun Valley, in Orange County, California) announced the church would not rush to reopen its doors. At the time, Warren wrote: “our FIRST STEP back to reopening worship services will NOT be to open buildings that only allow 100 people to maintain social distancing, require you to wear a mask, and forbid you to sing! That’s a terrible atmosphere for worship! Instead, our first step back will be to move to ‘CHURCH IN THE HOME,’ which will use our small group structure of small groups.”
This is a similar approach the Summit Church in North Carolina is choosing to take at this time as well. Pastor J.D. Greear (who also serves as the president of the Southern Baptist Convention) told his congregation this week that they would likely not regather physically until 2021.
Andy Stanley of North Point Church in Atlanta, Georgia has also announced his church will not reopen until 2021. In an announcement to the congregation, Stanley said he could not guarantee attendees’ safety at the church’s multiple locations and thus feels it prudent to wait to reassemble.
You can read the entirety of MacArthur’s thoughts on this subject here.