During the last several months of the Covid-19 limitations on gathering, I have regularly passed a church sign that says: “The church is not a building. Join us for worship online.” This is not in any way a unique statement. I have seen different versions of it in many settings, both at other churches and in statements online.
On the one hand, the first sentence does get at an undeniable truth. The church is not limited to a building. It is not a physical structure that defines the church. Christians can gather as church in a field or around the hood of a Humvee in a combat zone.
However when combined with second sentence, a new context for understanding is created which reveals how misleading – or just plain wrong – the statement can be. Taken together the sentences soon deny two points. First, they deny that the church has a located character; and second, they deny that the church is a gathering of believers.
The church has a located character because God created us as creatures who have a body (Genesis 2:7). Because we are this kind of creation – bodily creatures who live in a place – God has graciously chosen to come to us in this way. In the Old Testament, God commanded Israel to make a tabernacle (Exodus 25:8) to house the Ark of the Covenant. The glory of God, His holy presence, filled the tabernacle and the tabernacle became the means by which God located himself in the midst of His people. Yahweh told Israel that he would choose a place to establish his name, and they were to seek him there (Deuteronomy 12:5). Eventually God identified this place as Jerusalem on Mt Zion where the tabernacle’s replacement, the temple was built and the Ark of the Covenant was moved (1 Kings 8:9-10; 27-30). The temple in Jerusalem was the located means by which God’s saving presence dwelt in the midst of his people. In the Old Testament God located himself in the midst of His people through the means of a building on a mountain in Palestine.
knew that they met God there.
The apostle John presents the incarnation of the Son of God as the fulfillment of all that the tabernacle meant when he writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus identified his own body as the fulfillment of the temple (John 2:18-21). In the incarnation, God located Himself in the midst of His people through the located means of a human being in Palestine. God’s people learned that they now meet God in the located means of the body and flesh of Jesus Christ.
It was through the death and bodily resurrection of the incarnate Son that God won forgiveness and salvation for us. Yet we have not changed. We are still bodily creatures who live in a place. And Jesus Christ is still the incarnate One who meets us where we are through his Means of Grace. He has given us his Word to be preached and read. He has given us Holy Baptism by which are sins are washed away. He has given us Holy Absolution as he speaks forgiveness to us. He has given us the Sacrament of the Altar in which he gives us his true body and blood given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. In order for these gifts to go on in our midst he has also given us the Office of the Ministry, and his Spirit works through the Church to place a man in the Office to serve as pastor in a congregation (Acts 20:28).
In particular, it is the Sacraments of Baptism, Confession and the Lord’s Supper that demonstrate the located character of the Church. Under normal conditions, the pastor preaches in the midst of the people. We have seen how technology can allow the preacher and hearers to be separated. But Holy Baptism must always be located where water is present. Confession as defined in the Small Catechism occurs at the place where penitent and pastor can meet together (in the Rite of Individual Confession and Absolution the absolution is spoken as the “pastor places hands on the head of the penitent”; Lutheran Service Book, 293). The Sacrament of Altar is celebrated in a place where bread and win are present. None of these are limited to the confines of building. But all of them require a location where the incarnate Lord works through his sacramental means – through his located means. Because the Means of Grace are the work of the incarnate Lord who gives salvation to his bodily creatures (a salvation that ultimately results in the resurrection and transformation of their bodies; Philippians 3:21) they will always provide a location where the Lord is at work for his people.
At the same time the church is a gathering of believers. This gathering may be very small. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Believers gather together to receive Christ’s Means of Grace. The located character of the Christ’s gifts inherently pulls them together. To fail to do so threatens their very existence as Christians. With good reason, the writer to the Hebrews urged: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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). This gathering together actually joins them together as the Body of Christ when they receive the Sacrament of the Altar (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
The Augsburg Confession defines the church in the following manner: “The church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacaraments are administered rightly” (AC VII.1). Both the located character and the gathering of believers are emphasized by this definition. The Church is spread throughout the world, but wherever she is present she is defined by these characteristics.
We have passed through very unusual times. For the sake of health and safety we have made temporary adjustments (in many cases we have been forced to make far greater changes than were truly necessary for health and safety). But it is important that we do not allow these adjustments to shift the way we think about the church. The church has a located character because of the incarnate Lord and his Means of Grace. The church is a gathering of believers around those Means of Grace. There is a dangerous Gnosticism at work in the statement: “The church is not a building. Join us for worship online.”