What is assembly? Is there such a thing as the assembly which might designate one (or more) above others? If so, how is this particular assembly defined and determined? It may be that these questions seem unnecessary; however, because the idea of assembly bears on other questions in the Bible, such as the authority of women to speak and what we do collectively therein, it is important to understand what the term means.
In Greek, the word for assembly is ekklesia, from two words: ek, “out” and kaleo, “to call”. For a good discussion of ekklesia, see the article by Wayne Jackson here. In our modern translations, the Greek word may be translated “church”, “assembly”, or “congregation”. See the previous article on this site for a discussion of the word church which, in these cases, I do not believe helps us to understand anything about the idea at hand.
The definition of assembly/congregation (ekklesia) is a general one that means a coming together of people and seems only to be determinable by the context in which it is used.
1) An assembly can be any gathering of people as in Acts 19:32, a randomly and hastily-gathered mob.
2) An assembly can be a body of Christians meeting locally as in 1 Corinthians 1:2. Certainly, 1 Corinthians 11:18 carries with it the assembling together of those who are called out, the coming together of the ekklesia. It exists there in the sense of the local body of Christians assembling in one locality, Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 1:11.
3) Another use of the word would be in the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18-24), in other words, the universal collective of all Christians. The universal body, however, is never assembled in one place. Only local Christians are assembled together.
In-and-of-themselves, these assemblies have real defining qualities only by context. In the first example above, the gathering was a random mob which included Christians and non-Christians; in the second, Christians meeting locally; in the third, the entire body of Christians. No one would say that the assembling of Christians would be a random mob. Certainly, there is a difference in these assemblies.
So is there such a thing as “the assembly” for Christians as opposed to or differentiated from “an assembly”? Clearly, this must be the case. As described above, we see that there are various assemblies that can be undertaken with various purposes; and even though they are assemblies, they are not necessarily “the assembly”. As issues bear on the deciding of this question, how would we go about determining the answer? How would “the assembly” be constituted and when?
The question is not really about “the assembly” in the abstract; it is about the literal assembly that is the coming together of brethren. It is about the practical functioning of the local body. How is the local body to conduct itself when it comes together? There is much said about this in the idea of “coming together”.
In 1 Corinthians 11:18, Paul chastises the brethren because it has been conveyed to him that there are divisions among them when they come together. I suppose it would be true that if they are divided outside of the assembly generally, such would be a problem also. It may be, though, that such private divisions are only a private concern between God and the two divided while public divisions become an issue for all in the assembly. Paul clearly defines what he means when he says specifically, “when you come together as a church.”
In what manner could we determine when “the assembly” is constituted? Is it simply anytime the local brethren come together? Indeed, whenever the local brethren come together, they are assembling. How, if at all, is one gathering of brethren different from another? It seems that various factors may be considered.
1) The specific people – We have seen that an assembly can be made up of any kind of people. It might be the guild of craftsmen as called together in Acts 19:25. It might be a nebulous mob of people as in Acts 19:32. Certainly, we are only concerned with gatherings of Christians, but does a mere gathering of Christians constitute “the assembly?” If it were only the coming together of the local Christians, a potluck or Bible study could constitute “the assembly.” If we say not, then we are using more factors to define our assembly.
2) The place or time – Since we have no designated place, there can be no assembly definition constituted around a particular location. Since Christians are to assemble on the first day of the week, maybe this time of meeting determines “the assembly”. Is any gathering of Christians on the first day of the week “the assembly?”
3) The amount of people – Is “the assembly” when a majority of Christians are present? Is it when all Christians are present? It cannot be any of these because God puts no such strictures on an assembly.
4) The local congregation’s designating it as such – If so, what scripture shows it? Could we designate a potluck as an assembly beyond just a mere gathering? Specifically, if the congregation designates a “worship” time in the morning and evening on Sunday, are these both assemblies? In the general sense, they are; but do they carry the same weight? If so, is it just because we say so? If we were to designate every hour of Sunday as an assembly, does it make it so? Would we then have the power to dictate hours of other days as assemblies? Some seem to see Wednesday night Bible study this way. And if Wednesday night study is not “the assembly”, then neither is the Sunday AM Bible study. If those hours are assembly, then is it because we say so, and why? Because they are designated as religious functions, i.e. studying the Bible?
In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul speaks about the coming together of the Christians and gives them a host of instructions for an orderly assembly. In v23 we read, “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place….” Is the idea expressed here, “the whole church comes together in one place” a definition of “the assembly”? In other words, anytime the whole church comes together, is it “the assembly”? Paul is speaking of the assembling of Christians together in what we might call the “worship assembly” on the first day of the week.
There are three ideas expressed by Paul to show the assembly. First, “whole”. Whole means just what you would expect it to mean; entire, complete, as opposed to partial or incomplete. The expression “whole church” is used also in Romans 16:23 where it does not seem to be speaking of the congregation as gathered and Acts 15:22 where the congregation was gathered. Those uses do not say anything more than that what is being discussed is the whole congregation. Whole would be a state that is most often not observed in literal practice today. It may be that one Christian is at work or sick or some may be travelling. Some see a distinction made between the Bible study classes when teachers are not assembled with the rest of the Christians and “the assembly” when they are. Such a distinction is only valid if what constitutes “the assembly” is that every Christian is present.
Second, “comes together.” The assembly, as we have said, is a physical coming together. Third, “in one place”. The coming together of brethren can only constitute an assembly if they are all in one given location. Christians cannot come together in separate places. Such is an oxymoron. The whole church’s coming together is the same as the whole church’s coming together in one place. The whole church in one place is the whole church come together. “In one place” need not be said; yet Paul did say it.
Because Paul uses these three descriptions, one of which is not strictly necessary, it is my contention that Paul is employing a technique here that we employ as well, hyperbole, deliberate exaggeration for effect. He has just written at length addressing the Corinthians’ seemingly overwhelming desire to speak in tongues. It was to the Corinthians the “in thing” In chapter 14, Paul tells them that tongues are useful but that all other gifts and abilities are useful. In fact, he says pray especially that you may prophecy (v1). He says that tongues are like a trumpet that makes a strange sound (v8) and, as a result, confuse the hearers. He says if you speak in a tongue, pray that you might interpret (v13). Otherwise, the speaking is meaningless to the hearers. He says, then, that both the Spirit and the understanding are necessary for edification. The one who cannot understand your blessing cannot say “amen” (v16). He also expresses his thankfulness for tongues and his desire to speak five words with understanding rather than ten thousand words in a tongue (vv18-19).
With that context established, Paul says in v22 that tongues are a sign to unbelievers while prophesying is for believers. And here comes the hyperbole, verse 23. Paul says, in fact if every single one of you (the whole church/assembly) were here (come together) in one place and every one of you were speaking in tongues, the unbeliever who comes in will think every single one of you (and this assembly) is crazy. He will not be overwhelmed with the edifying expression of God’s power and the gospel of salvation. The same sentiment might be expressed as “if every single married person in America committed to their marriage, divorce would end” or “If every single person in America together stopped paying their taxes, the government would be forced to hear the American people.” Similarly, “If we spent every waking moment in the study of the Bible, we still would not have it mastered by the end of our lives”.
I believe Grotius captured this concept when he said, ‘The more there are assembled, and the more that speak in unknown tongues, the more will the impression be conveyed to strangers “coming in” from curiosity (“unbelievers”), or even from a better motive (“unlearned”), that the whole body of worshippers is a mob of fanatical “madmen”.’
I do not see verse 23 as a definition of assembly but rather an means of Paul’s trying to illustrate to the Corinthians the fallacy of their consuming desire to speak in tongues by using a statement of exaggeration.
It seems to me that “the assembly” is more scripturally definable by the reason or purpose for our assembly. In Acts 20:7, “Now on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul, ready to depart the next day, spoke to them and continued his message until midnight”. It seems that the main purpose of the gathering was to partake of the supper. It also seems that Paul took the occasion of their being gathered together to break bread to speak with them. There is also no mention of singing or praying. This idea that the Lord’s Supper was their primary interest in coming together is bolstered by Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 11:17ff. He speaks of their “coming together” in v17 which he further defines. The divisions are practically expressed in this coming together. Then in v20, he says, “Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper”. He is not saying that their assembly is not for the purpose of partaking of the Lord’s Supper; he is saying that when they come together it should be for that purpose. They have turned the assembly away from that purpose.
Paul proceeds to give instruction, to remind them of the institution of this memorial, and to admonish them to eat and drink in a worthy manner. So he says, in v33, when you come together wait for each other; in v34, if you are hungry, eat at home, lest you come together/assemble for judgment or judgment be on your assembly. Paul ties chapter 11 with chapter 14 by the same phrase in 1 Corinthians 14:26, “How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”
If “the assembly” is the time when we gather to partake of the Lord’s Supper, primarily (along with other aspects of our collective worship), and the time of 1 Corinthians 14 is that assembly, then the prohibitions of women speaking in that assembly in 14:34-35 would pertain to that assembly only – “the assembly”.
In 1 Corinthians 5:4, some assume that when Paul says “when you are gathered together” he means a separate assembly for the specific purpose of marking the one who had his father’s wife. Is this conclusion a necessary one, or is Paul simply saying that when they come together in “the assembly”, they should mark the man and put him out from among them? Is this equivalent to what Jesus meant in Matthew 18:17 when He said, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church?” Does he not mean bring it before the assembly? (By the way, not the men’s meeting or even elders.)
In Acts 15, some see a separate “congregational meeting” for the purpose of making a determination in the matter at hand. There seem to be various meetings in this chapter which also says, “Then it pleased the apostles and elders, with the whole church” in v22. At some point, it seems, the matter came before the entire local assembly. Is it a necessary conclusion to say that this was not “the assembly” of the first day of the week? Verse 4 says, “And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church (assembly/congregation) and the apostles and the elders.”
To sum up, I see in scripture one assembly on the first day of the week, constituted by the coming together of Christians primarily to partake of the Lord’s Supper. This assembly is, for Christians, “the assembly.” It is also the only assembly in which God restricts the speaking of women. (Which certainly precludes their preaching.) This manner, I believe, is the easiest and most scriptural way to define “the assembly.”
What do you think? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.