“Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer [singular] was made without ceasing of the Church [singular, spread about in Jerusalem] unto God for him.”
“For I [Paul] verily, as absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present… in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan…”
1 Cor. 5:3-5
“If there be in the land famine, if there be pestilence, blasting, mildew… whatsoever plague, whatsoever sickness there be; What prayer and supplication [singular] soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this House [they being outside of it]: Then hear Thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive…”
1 Kings 8:37-39
Order of Contents
Bible Verses that a Gathering in One Physical Place is Not Absolutely Necessary
. for Public Worship
Gathering into One Place is Incidental, though Beneficial to Public Worship, by
. Natural Law
An Assembly in One Location is Not Necessary to Public Worship
Physically Gathering is Not Necessary to Public Worship
On Circumstances & Things Indifferent in Worship
That Holding Public Worship over Technology Preserves the Essence of Verbal,
. Public, Worship Ordinances & Spiritual Communion Therein
That there is a Visible, Spiritual, Communion Amongst Those who Publicly
. Worship by Distance
On Satellite Churches
On Civil Courts Meeting by Distance
On the Ideal of Meeting Physically Together & Having a Local Session of Elders
On the Biblical, Historic Principles Below
The historic resources below do not necessarily speak explicitly to the exact, particular issues involved in modern day questions relating to holding public worship, church courts and satellite churches by distance through technological means, as if the presbyterians and puritans of old could have predicted the advances in technology that we enjoy, and the sources should always be interpreted in light of their immediate and larger, original, historical context. However, they do elcuidate the natural and Biblical principles that have been guiding, formative and even determinative to classical presbyterian practice (as reformed according to the Word of God) during the era of reformed orthodoxy.
These principles, mostly leveled against the Independents in their day, it is contended, do very pertinently apply to our modern Church and theological issues (especially Church planting), which issues not new in their root. It is our hope that through this light from the past (which far surpasses our own), that the contemporary Church may reform herself more according to the Word of God as she seeks to faithfully press forward the Kingdom of Christ in this world across often difficult and complex terrain.
A Few Arguments
For those that disagree with the principles here elucidated, two counter-arguments are offered (though much more could be laid out):
(1) The issues involved in holding public worship over technological means are at root similar to Churches holding days of prayer and fasting, or thanksgiving, together in ages past. To deny the validity of the former is to deny the validity of the latter.
In a called-day of prayer and fasting, Christians are praying as part of the same Church, with the same ends, by the same Spirit, unto the same Lord, through the same Mediator, though the exact content of the prayers are different.ª The persons are also separated by place and the exact times in which the prayers are occurring are different.
ª Note that the acts of worship held over public, technological means have the exact same public content, and in this way have more unity and publicness than days of prayer and fasting.
Yet Scripture gives an example (to only mention one of many) that such prayer of many different persons in many, several places constitute one public prayer of the Church to God (and are not merely received as unconjoined, individual, non-public prayers). When the early Church was spread throughout Jerusalem, divided by geography and walls, not being able to see each other, and Peter was in prison (the news being spread by mouth), “prayer [singular] was made without ceasing of the Church [singular] unto God for him.” (Acts 12:5)
To give a contemporary example following upon this Biblical precedent, the Orthodox Presbyterian Chuch in America called for Aug. 21, 2021 to be a day of prayer and fasting. Though churches, famillies and individuals were separated by great distance and circumstances, yet the OPC called for this “that the whole church may pray as one people, and call upon the Lord with one voice…”, reflecting the Biblical language of Acts 4:24, “they lifted up their voice to God with one accord…”
(2) According to historic presbyterian practice, the meetings of Church-courts can only be consituted through corporate prayer (Mt. 18:20), the presbyters together and corporately calling upon the name of Christ.
If a presbytery meeting is held over conference call, persons not meeting together in the same place, and the opening prayer is not in fact a public prayer of the presbytery, but is only the synchronous praying of the individual presbyters, then all such distance-presbytery meetings (which many or most presbyteries have at one time used, or might use out of necessity) are invalid, along with all of their transactions.
Needless to say, the verbal acts of worship performed over conference call retain their nature as worship, and as a common, public worship in these circumstances.
Falling Off the Horse on Either Side
It ought to be emphasized that meeting by distance over technological means, with all the limitations it incurs, is not ideal. The main error of the Church-growth proponents setting up innumerable satellite churches through technological means in the first few decades following the year 2000 was in their holding such to be the ideal. Since then numerous such Church-growth leaders have seen the folly of this and have returned to the Biblical goal of having local shepherds and elders.
The error on the other side, of the traditionalists, has been to so strait-jacket the Church by customable practices, according to certain indifferent methods, so as to unnecessarily constrain the Church’s edification and growth, and hinder the flexibility and liberty God has given her in his Word and by Nature, especially in circumstances of necessity, unto her highest spiritual profit.
It is hoped that the immense, orthodox, spiritual sight of our forefathers long ago will greatly profit the contemporary Church as she seeks to faithfully serve her Savior in this life through this world’s complex terrain till He comes again.
Bible Verses that a Gathering in One Physical Place is Not Absolutely Necessary to Public Worship
Ex. 2:23 (also 3:7) “…the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry [singular] came up unto God by reason of the bondage.”
Ex. 22:22-23 “Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If thou afflict them in any wise, and they [plural] cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry [singular];”
1 Sam. 9:16 “…that he may save my people out of the hand of the Philistines: for I have looked upon my people, because their cry [singular] is come unto Me.”
Esther 4:3, 9:31 “And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes…
To confirm these days of Purim in their times appointed, according as Mordecai the Jew and Esther the queen had enjoined them, and as they had decreed for themselves and for their seed, the matters of the fastings and their cry [singular].”
Ps. 106:44 “Nevertheless He regarded their affliction [during the times of the judges and kings], when He heard their cry [singular].”
Isa. 19:19, 21 “In that day shall there be an altar [singular] to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord…
And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation [singular]; yea, they shall vow a vow [singular] unto the Lord, and perform it.”
1 Kings 8:37-39 “If there be in the land famine, if there be pestilence, blasting, mildew, locust, or if there be caterpiller; if their enemy besiege them in the land of their cities; whatsoever plague, whatsoever sickness there be; What prayer and supplication [singular] soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house [they being outside of it]: Then hear Thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive…”
Jer. 14:12 “When they [Israel] fast, I will not hear their cry [singular]; and when they offer burnt offering and an oblation, I will not accept them: but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence.”
Zech. 12:11-14 “In that day shall there be a great mourning [singular] in Jerusalem… and the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart… all the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart.”
Jn. 4:21.23-24 “Jesus saith… ‘…the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father… But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship Him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”
Acts 2:41-47 “…about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers… and all that believed were together, and had all things common; And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God…”
Acts 12:5 “Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer [singular] was made without ceasing of the church [singular, spread about in Jerusalem] unto God for him.”
Heb. 12:22-23 “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect…”
Eph. 2:6 “And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
Rev. 7:9-10 “I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice [singular], saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.”
Rev. 8:3-4 “And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers [plural] of all saints upon the golden altar [singular] which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense [singular], which came with the prayers [plural] of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”
Gathering into One Place is Incidental, though Beneficial (insofar as it is Beneficial) to the Church & Public Worship by Natural Law (& is Qualified Thereby); it is Not a Positive, Absolute Command.
Ashe, Simeon, William Rathband, John Ball et al.
p. 26-27 of ‘The Reply made unto the Said Answer [of the New England Congregationalist Puritans], & Sent Over unto Them, Anno 1640’ in A Letter of Many Ministers in Old England, Requesting the Judgement of their Brethren in New England Concerning Nine Positions… Together with… (London, 1643) Ashe, Rathband, Ball, et al. were conforming English puritans, here arguing against the New England Independent puritans.
“…that to meet at one time and place, as one assembly, is a thing merely accidentary to the unity of the Church and society-ecclesiastical, which is still one when they are dispersed asunder… The number of believers was so great in some cities [in the New Testament] as they could not conveniently meet in one place as one assembly to worship the Lord according to his will and for their edifying.
That there was a Church gathered in the city of Samaria by the ministry of Phillip will not be denied, for they received the Word and were baptized, but that the Church in that city was only a congregational assembly is more than can probably be concluded out of Scripture. For the whole city of the greatest part could not ordinarily assemble in one place to their edification. (Acts 8:6; 15:4; 8:12,14; 18:12)…”
The Due Right of Presbyteries… (1644), pt. 1, pp. 303-304
“And here it is to be observed that as preaching of the Word is an essential note of the visible Church, and agreeing to the visible Church as necessary ad esse simpliciter [to its essence simply], to the very being of a visible Church… and meeting in one place for Word and sacraments is but accidental for a ministerial Church…”
“So there be two sort of things in God’s worship: things either  merely moral, or  merely natural. And here also we consider things circumstantial, as time, place, etc. And circumstances are either [1.] merely physical, or 2. merely moral, or 3. mixed, partly moral, partly physical.
Circumstances merely physical are such adjuncts of divine worship, as are common and unseparable concomitants of both civil, natural, and religious or sacred actions performed by men, and as they are such, contribute no moral goodness or badness to the action or agent in the performance thereof…
…as as they are in themselves mere physical acts, kneeling, sitting, standing… time, place, family, country… 1. All these are common concomitants of civil, natural, and religious actions, for all actions performed by man of what kind soever, as natural, to eat, sleep; or civil, to declaim an oration before the people; or religious, to preach or pray, must be done… in some time, in some place, for they are not actions eternal, and so must be done in time and place… and they are inseparable adjuncts of all these actions because neither actions natural, civil, nor religious, can be performed, but by some persons… in some time, in some place: and lastly, they are mere circumstantials, and contribute no moral goodness or badness to the actions, as they are but common, inseparable circumstances; for because he preaches in time, or in place simply, the preaching is neither morally good, nor ill, better or worse…
3. There be some mixed circumstances, as these same physical circumstances, clothed with their own seasonable conveniences; so time for worship, and due and convenient time is required… a place is required for private worship, and a fit place, such as is not the market-street for private praying; the inconveniency of the circumstance may vitiate [impair the quality or efficiency of] the worship.
I did say that Christ Jesus has set down in the Word a perfect platform of Church-Government, in all morals; I say in all morals, because the Word does not teach us any thing of circumstances, physical as physical…
And therefore there is no greater reason to put us to prove all the natural and unseparable circumstances of worship, such as time and place, without which it is impossible any action at all can be performed…”
“Men can place no religion in circumstances.”
“…but to… sacrifice… at eight of clock in the morning, rather than at ten, in this place physical, rather than this, is no worshipping… but a mere physical circumstance, neither up, nor down to the worship; and time and place-physical are neither worship, nor religious means of worship.
2. Time, and place, name, country, form, figure, habit [dress] or garments, to hold off injuries of sun and heaven as such are never commanded, never forbidden of God, and therefore the change of these circumstances can be no change of a Commandment of God: We never advanced circumstances, as such to the orb and sphere of morals;”
“Time, place, pulpit, tablecloth are new, physically, often, not new morally, or religiously; they have no spiritual influence in worship.”
“‘Occasional‘, properly, is that which has a reason, not from the nature of the thing itself, but from such occasional occurrences of providence, as God will not alter, and its that which has no moral nor sacred conveniency with the nature of worship, but has only a conveniency for such a time and place, as Christ’s preaching in a ship, when He is at the sea side, and a multitude are to hear Him, the ship has no agreement with the nature of preaching, more than a house has.
Time, place, and persons are clearly such as agreed with that [Last] Supper, as [a supper] first, not as a sacred worship; and therefore [these particulars] were merely occasional, and so not imitable [by us]; and though Christ might have altered them, yet had they been occasional, and they have no sacred conveniency with this Supper, as this Supper; and if Christ had altered these for mere will, upon no reasons that concerns all suppers, they had not been occasional, but positive points of worship, and so had obliged us;”
A Gathered Assembly in One Location is Not Necessary to Public Worship
Ashe, Simeon, William Rathband, John Ball et al.
p. 28 of ‘The Reply made unto the Said Answer [of the New England Congregationalist Puritans], & Sent Over unto Them, Anno 1640’ in A Letter of Many Ministers in Old England, Requesting the Judgement of their Brethren in New England Concerning Nine Positions… Together with… (London, 1643)
“In aftertimes when the Church was within the cities as of Rome, Ephesus, Alexandria, Carthage, Jerusalem, etc. the number of believers did greatly exceed the bigness of a convenient and fitting assembly which might ordinarily congregate in one place to worship God according to his appointment when the Church was but one.”
The Due Right of Presbyteries… (1644), pt. 1
“Because there is a difference betwixt carrying the colors [banner or flag] in an army tali modo [in such a way] as all the army at once may see the colors, and the carrying of the colors. Yet the colors are a note-visible of such an army: so there is a difference betwixt preaching the Word, simpliciter, and preaching the Word, tali modo, ‘in such a way’ in one material house only.
And therefore it is necessary that government which concerns many Churches consociated, be in its exercise hic & nunc [here and now], larger than preaching of the Word in its exercise, hic & nunc: which cannot be done but to a multitude which convenes epi to auto, ‘to the same material place’. And we see an act of government, Acts 15, by confession of our [Independent] Brethren, belonging to diverse consociated Churches and performed by them, and yet these cannot ordinarily meet to one and the same place in all their members for hearing of the Word.”
“1. Our [Independent] Brethren say [that] it is… another thing to say [as the presbyterians] that it was impossible that they [the Christians in Jerusalem in Acts] could be one congregation and meet in one place…
[Rutherford’s] Answer: …now the question then is… whether or no[t] was the Church at Jerusalem of such a competent number, only as that they could meet not only occasionally to hear a sermon, but in an ordinary Church-meeting, to hear the Word and communicate in the breaking of bread and seals of the Covenant; and though the want [lack] of a capacious house be also an extrinsic impediment why they could not meet… but it cannot be said that they wanted a capacious house for the ordinary meeting of a congregation, the ordinary and genuine use whereof is to be edified by the Word and sacraments; and that an ordinary house could contain such a number of thousands and multitudes as can be edified in a congregational way is denied.”
“But how can we imagine that many thousands [of Jerusalem Christians] could in one meeting communicate at one Table in the Lord’s Supper, and that ordinarily? 1. What voice could reach to so many thousands, as they did grow unto?…
3. Can we believe that seeing congregational meetings of fewer, and that in private houses, was less obnoxious to the indignation of authority, than meeting in the Temple, as is most evident, Acts 4:1-2; and seeing [that] the apostles had liberty to meet, Acts 5:26, [can we believe] that they would draw the first mold of the Christian visible-Church after the pattern of a convention [i.e. all gathering unto one place] most unfit, yea impossible for attaining the intended end, to wit, edification, especially not being compelled thereunto by an extrinsical necessity.”
“Giving and not granting that they [the Jerusalem Christians] were all convened to prayer [in Acts 4:31], it does not follow that they did meet ordinarily in one place for partaking of Word and sacraments as one congregation, for more might convene to prayer and hearing the Word than could meet ordinarily in a congregational-way.”
A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker... (London, 1658)
Bk. 3, ch. 2, p. 290
“6. All Churches to them [Independents] are visible congregations which meet in one place to hear the Word; so our [Independent] Brethren [say], Churches of Christ in New England, ch. 1. section 1, par. 1-2, and Mr. Hooker.”
Bk. 2, ch. 4, p. 209
“2. If Archippus has the same office to the whole congregation and to every single member, then as he has pastoral acts of teaching and ruling to the whole, [then] so [he has them] to the parts and single members; but this latter is denied by Mr. [Thomas] Hooker [an Independent], who says that a pastor cannot put forth pastoral acts but in the church assembly; a strange imagination!”
pp. 41-42 of ch. 3, ‘Of an Institute Visible Church’ in A Consideration of Certaine Controversies at this Time Agitated in the Kingdome of England, Concerning the Government of the Church of God (1645) Apollonius was a Dutch presbyterian, who is arguing against the English Independents.
“We reject therefore these opposite opinions following…
2. That a particular visible Church is by the Word of God limited to such bounds as that of necessity, [that] they may be ordinarily contained and ought to meet in one place for performing the public worship of God with mutual edification.
For as we have showed that the consitution of such a church, as by reason of their multitude or some other cause, cannot ordinarily meet in one place, does well agree with the Word of God and apostolical institution. For the essence and lawful constitution of a church depends not on the outward circumstance of place, but on a due profession of faith, and bond of holy communion. For as [William] Ames says, ‘that same in profession does constitute a Church-visible, which in reality and its internal nature constitutes the Church-mystical, that is, faith.’ Marrow of Theology, bk. 1, ch. 32, thesis 7.”
An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland… (1641), p. 192-94
“By Scripture also, because Acts 8:1, we read of the ‘Church’ at Jerusalem, not the ‘churches’: Howbeit there were at that instant above eight thousand Christians at Jerusalem, and all these still in the city… This great number, neither did, nor could usually assemble into one place for the worship of God, but they met [in Greek] ‘house by house’, Acts 2:46.
And whereas objection is made to the contrary from Acts 2:44 and 5:12 and 6:2. We have before answered [in pt. 2, ch. 3, p. 141-42] to the first of these places, for it is to be expounded by Acts 4:32, they were in one, that is, they were of one heart and of one soul… The last place proves no more but an extraordinary and occasional meeting, and it is also to be understood that they met turmatim [in squadrons] as four hundred thousand men did assemble together, Jud. 20:1…”
pp. 221-22 of ch. 18, ‘Of the Use of a Table in the Lord’s Supper. And of the Communi∣cants their Coming to & Receiving at the Table’ in A Treatise of Miscellany Questions… (1649)
“For they [the Independents] hold that although a congregation increase so much as that they cannot, or be so persecuted that they may not, meet safely in one place for the Word and sacraments, and supposing the Church of Jerusalem before the dispersion, Acts 8:1, to have been so numerous and to have accressed to so many thousands as could not receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, nor ordinarily assemble into one place for the worship of God (that they received the Lord’s Supper in several companies and several houses is ordinarily collected from Acts 2:46, and breaking bread from house to house, which the Syriac expounds expressely of the Eucharist), Yet all this (say they) breaks not the Church, but they are still one particular church.
Now if several companies of the same church assembled and receiving the Lord’s Supper in several places be not a breaking or dividing of the congregation, nor a deviation from the example of Christ, much less can they with any reason, charge our communicating by several companies at successive tables, in the same meeting place or assembly to be a breaking of the congregation or a deviation from Christ’s example.”
Aaron’s Rod Blossoming... (1646), bk. 2, ch. 9, p. 298
“Secondly, Paul requires the elders of the Church of Ephesus to take heed unto and to oversee the whole flock, which did consist of more than did or could then meet together ordinarily into one place for the worship of God, as appears by the Church in the house of Aquila and Priscilla (which was one, but not the only one church assembly at Ephesus) by the great and wonderfull increase of the Gospel at Ephesus…
Peter also writing to the churches of the strangers in several provinces, calls them the ‘flock’, not ‘flocks’, and commends unto the elders the feeding and oversight of that flock… No doubt they had the administration of the Word and sacraments partitive, or severally. Nor do I deny but they had a partitive several government: but there was also an union or association of them under one common government, which did denominate them to be one visible, ecclesiastical flock.”
A Brief Refutation of the Errors of Toleration, Erastianism, Independency & Separtation, Delivered in Sermons on 1 Jn. 4:1 (1652), section 4, pp. 156-58
“Their [the Independents’] second objection is this, say they, the Holy Ghost says expressly that they did meet all ‘at one place’ [Acts 2:1]… and that the whole mutlitude did come ‘together’, as for instance, Acts 2:1, it is said, ‘They were all with one accord in one place’, and in the same chapter, verse 46, ‘They continuing daily with one accord in the Temple, etc.’ And it is also said, Acts 6:2, ‘then the twelve called the multitude of disciples unto them, etc.’ And verse 5, ‘And the saying pleased the whole multitude.’
Now to take off this exception which seems to be the most plausible of their objections: First consider what we spoke from the Scripture of their number, and what thousands were in this Church: and let any reasonable man conceive how it could be possible that all those should meet in one place; and therefore that meeting in one place must be taken in another sense: It’s observed by the learned that the word here turned, ‘meeting together in one place’, epi to auto [Acts 2:1] does not always signify a meeting together in one room, but the agreeing of the affection and judgment in one thing:
And for the clearing of this they cite Acts 4:25-26, ‘Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, etc.’ Now it is the same word that is there turned, ‘in one place,’ which is here turned, ‘gathered together’, and certainly no place of Scripture will prove that Herod, Pontius Pilate, Jew and Gentile did meet in one place to consult about the death of Christ, but only they agreed in one judgment and hearty affection about it…
…[Acts 2] verse 46, ‘They continuing daily with one accord in the Temple.’… it is only mentioned [that] they came to the Temple to hear the Word, but not that they were all of one congregation, partaking of all ordinances in one place; for it is said afterwards, ‘They break bread from house to house’, meaning the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which they did partake of from house to house in their particular congregations.”
Physically Gathering is Not Necessary to the Essence of Public Worship
A Peaceable & Temperate Plea… (1642), ch. 7, ‘If there be No True Visible Church in the New Testa∣ment, but Only a Congregation Meeting in One Place, & No Presbyterial or Representative Church (as They Call it) at All’, p. 81 Rutherford is arguing against the novel Independent Church government. See also the chapter at large.
“1. The word ‘church’ [say the Independents] signifies always a gathered together church, or such as may gather together, Acts 11:26, a whole year they assembled with the Church, Acts 20:7, the disciples came together to break bread; so Acts 1:10; 2:44,46; Acts 5:12; 15:25.
[1.] Our brother Mr. [George] Gillespie (Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland, pt. 2, ch. 3, p. 141-42) says many interpreters expound [in Greek], ‘they were together’, that is, of one accord in love and amity: and also [physical] churches not being builded, and they meeting in private houses, as in Mary’s house, Acts 12, school of Tyrranus, Acts 19:9, in an upper chamber, Acts 20:8, Paul’s lodging at Rome, Acts 28:13. What private houses (Acts 10:9) could ordinarily contain so many thousands?
2. The Scripture speaks so [as] to give us an example of the public meeting for public worship where it is not needful that all met in one place collectively; it is enough they meet all distributively.
3. Neither does the word ‘church’ always signify a meeting of one single congregation, as Acts 12:5; prayers were made [for Peter in jail] by the church, that is by all professors [throughout Jerusalem]. Herod vexed the church, Acts 8:3. Saul made havoc of the church; ‘I persecuted the Church.’ (1 Cor. 15:9) There is no necessity to expound these of people meeting ordinarily to worship God; for Herod and Saul persecuted all, whither apostles or professors in houses, not respecting their meeting in one place;
Also [that] it shall follow that prayers were not made in private, but only in the church, that is, in the convened congregation for Peter, which is absurd: And that they were a visible-church is clear, else Herod and Saul could not persecute them.”
On Circumstances & Things Indifferent in Worship
See especially, ‘On Circumstances in General’ on our webpage, Are Musical Instruments Circumstances of Worship?
A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies (1637), pt. 3, ch. 7, p. 119
“Let us then here call to mind the distinction which has been showed betwixt religious ceremonies and moral circumstances: for as touching moral circumstances which serve for common order and decency in the worship of God, they being so many and so alterable that they could not be particularly determined in Scrip∣ture, for all the different and almost infinite cases which might occur, the Jewish Synagogue had the same power for determining things of this nature which the church of Christ now has.
For the law did not define but left the[m to] be defined by the Synagogue, the set hours for all public divine service, when it should begin, how long it should last, the order [that] should be kept in the reading and expounding of the law, praying, singing, catechizing, excommunicating, censuring and absolving of delinquents, etc., the circumstances of the celebration of mariage, of the education of youth in schools and colleges, etc.”
That Holding Public Worship over Technology Preserves the Essence of Verbal, Public, Worship Ordinances & Spiritual Communion Therein
The Due Right of Presbyteries (1644), pt. 1
“1st Conclusion. To communicate with the Church ordinarily and of set purpose is an act of external Church communion:
1. Because if the preacher in preaching edify the Church convened for that effect to receive edification, and if he convince the infidel by preaching and cause him fall down and worship God, and report that God is in that meeting, then to communicate with the Church in hearing and preaching is an act of external Church communion. Because an act of worship terminated and bounded upon the Church is a Church-act.”
“5. Hearing of the Word is a worshiping of God. Therefore, the Church-hearing of the Word must be Church-worship. For all professing by their visible communion in hearing the Word, one Faith, one Lord, one Hope of glory, and that as one visible body, must thereby testify they be all joint-worshippers of Christ and of one God, whose covenant they preach and hear.”
That there is a Visible, Spiritual (as well as Mystical), Communion Amongst Those who Publicly Worship by Distance
An Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland… (1641), pt. 2
ch. 11, p. 194
“Sundry particular flocks may be called one flock, three ways:
2. Respectu pabuli [in respect of food]: So Paul Baynes (Diocesan Trial, p. 21) speaking of the Low Countries [Netherlands], where sundry congregations in one city make but one Church, says that the sheep feed together into one common pasture, though they bite not on the same individuall grass.”
[How much more is this true if the sheep, even by distance, feed on the same individual grass from that common pasture?]
A Peaceable & Temperate Plea… (1642), ch. 7, ‘If there be No True Visible Church in the New Testa∣ment, but Only a Congregation Meeting in One Place, & No Presbyterial or Representative Church (as They Call it) at All’, p. 81 Rutherford is arguing against the novel Independent Church government. See also the chapter at large.
“[1.] Our brother Mr. [George] Gillespie (Assertion of the Government of the Church of Scotland, pt. 2, ch. 3, p. 141-42) says many interpreters expound [in Greek, Acts 2:44], ‘they were together’, that is, of one accord in love and amity: and also [physical] churches not being builded, and they meeting in private houses, as in Mary’s house, Acts 12, school of Tyrranus, Acts 19:9, in an upper chamber, Acts 20:8, Paul’s lodging at Rome, Acts 28:13. What private houses (Acts 10:9) could ordinarily contain so many thousands?”
The Due Right of Presbyteries… (1644), pt. 1
“Neither need we stand much on this, that our [Independent] Brethren say that one catholic, visible Church is a night dream:
‘because no Church is visible save only a particular congregation, the external communion whereof in meeting in one materiall house ordinarily, and partaking of the same Word and sacraments, does incur in our senses, whereas a Church communion and visible fellowship with the whole Christian Churches on earth is impossible, and no ways visible.’
But I answer, [1.] if such a part of the sea, the Brittish Sea be visible, then are all the seas on earth visible also, though they cannot all come in one man’s senses at one and the same time; so if this church particular be visible, then all the Churches also in their kind are visible.
2. There be acts of Church-communion external with all the visible Churches on earth; Therefore, the whole catholic Church according to these acts is visible. I prove the antecedent, we pray in a Church-way publicly for all the visible Churches on earth, we praise Church-ways publickly for them, we fast and are humbled Church-ways before God when they are in trouble, and so ought they to do with us… all which are Church-acts of external communion with the reformed catholick visible Churches; neither to make a Church visible to us is it requisite that we should see the faces of all the members of the catholick visible Church and be in one material Church with them at once, partaking of the same visible worship:
Yea, so the Church of Judea should not be one visible Church, which our [Independent] Brethren must deny, for they had one priesthood, one Temple, one Covenant of God visibly professed by all; yet could they not all meet in one material Temple to partake together at once of all God’s Ordinances. For I partake in external worship with these of New England, who are baptized according to Christ’s institution, without the sign of the cross, though I never saw their faces.
But a national Church is taken in another sense now, for a people to whom the Lord has revealed his statutes and his testimonies, ‘Whereas He hath not dealt so with every nation, Ps. 147:19-20, which Church is also made up of many congregations and synagogues, having one worship and government that does morally concern them all.
“…for you lay down as an undeniable principle, and the basis of your whole doctrine of independent government that there are no visible Churches in the world but a congregation meeting in one place to worship God, which I have demonstrated to be most false… so, though a congregation may only be actually seen when it is convened within the four angles of a material house, yet all the congregations on earth make one visible Church, and have some visible and audible acts of external government common to all, as that all pray, praise, fast, mourn, rejoice, one with another; and are to rebuke, exhort, comfort one another and to censure one another, so far as is possible, and of right and by law meet in one council, and so by Christ’s institution are that way visible, that a single congegation is visible which meets in one house, though many be absent de facto, through sickness, callings, imprisonment and some through sinful neglect;”
“Secondly, the farther that the members or Churches, either congregational, presbyterial, or national, are removed in local distance one from another, the less is the visible and external communion of rebuking, comforting, and admonishing one another; yet the power and obligation of these duties are not removed.
So though the national Churches be locally distant one from another, yet their power of exercising duties… is not from thence concluded to be null. Yea, national duties upon occasion are still obligatory, and communion of men of sundry nations is clear to me, Isa. 2:3, ‘many nations shall flow unto the mountain of the Lord’s House,’ Zech. 8:23, ‘Ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, they even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, we will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ …the places [of Scripture] do well prove the power-lawful of performing duties, whereas the exercise of them in one place is not hic & nunc, in ordinary providence, possible.
And so this consequence must be weak: the whole catholic visible Churches in their principal guides cannot ordinarily and constantly meet, hic & nunc, for the exercise of their power; Therefore they have no such power. For if the power be exercised in parts, which, through occurrences of providence and the corruption of men’s nature, cannot be exercised in whole at once, yet it’s not hence evinced [proven] to be a power not given of Christ for edification;”
A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker... (London, 1658), Bk. 1, ch. 19
“[Margin Note:] These of sundry congregations have as visible a communion, and so make up as visible a body as those of the same congregation that meet within the same walls.
If the faithful scattered in sundry congregations have an invisible communion only by faith, and so make up an invisible communion, and an invisible, mystical-Body, then two sister-churches that cannot meet in one place, though they may do all the duties of Church-gaining one another, as Mt. 18, yet are not a visible body, not their acts, acts of Church-profession, not are they visible members of the same Body of Christ, because they partake not of the ordinances within the same walls as do members of the same single congregation: so there is no visible communion, but within the walls of one church, which is absurd and repugnant to common sense.
2. It is uncharitable and against the Word to teach that when a church is dissolved by no sin and scandal-visible, but by persecution or pestilence, that the dissolved members, though [they are] both real and visible converts, have no right to the ordinances [as the Independents appear to teach]: for if the formal cause, to wit, their confederacy into one visible-body, as Mr. Hooker [an Independent] says, be removed, their visible and external right is removed.”
“2. The state of trying these persons, and their seed, to be baptized only into the single body [of a local congregation] is a dream, even to Mr. [John] Robinson [an Independent]; and the engagement that gives them right to ordinances only with that single congregation, and in one place, and with no society else to partake of one bread, and of one Christ, 1 Cor. 10:16-17, is a Scriptureless imagination: for 1 Cor. 12:12-13, ‘We are baptized all, Jews and Gentiles, by one Spirit into one Body,’ (catholic, not a single congregation only)…”
p. 42 of ch. 3, ‘Of an Institute Visible Church’ in A Consideration of Certaine Controversies at this Time Agitated in the Kingdome of England, Concerning the Government of the Church of God (1645) Apollonius was a Dutch presbyterian, who is arguing against the English Independents.
“For the essence and lawful constitution of a church depends not on the outward circumstance of place, but on a due profession of faith, and bond of holy communion. For as [William] Ames says, ‘that same in profession does constitute a Church-visible, which in reality and its internal nature constitutes the Church-mystical, that is, faith.’ Marrow of Theology, bk. 1, ch. 32, thesis 7.”
On Satellite Churches (or Church Plants) in a Growing Church Due to Need, or for Greater Edification
Besides much of the material above and below, see also the following sections of our webpages:
On Extraordinary Acts of Church Government under Necessity, Superintendents & Assessor Elders, etc.
On Civil Courts Meeting by Distance: Natural Light Offered to the Church
“…there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed. (1 Cor. 11:13,14; 14:26,40)”
Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6
Many American civil courts have been meeting by distance via conference call and/or video conferencing since 2009. They have done so simply from the light of nature and for how the efficiencies and benefits of it support the work of the court (often in saving travel expenses, time, etc. and in giving greater acces to justice to persons who otherwise would not be able to receive it). The use of distance conferencing by courts has greatly escalated since the spread of the Corona Virus in 2020, so much so that now nearly all 50 states in America use some form of distance conferencing; many provide it for oral arguments and deliberations.
As meeting by distance is more useful and fair for some things than for other things, courts have often, through need and experience, set forth rules about when and how it may be used. They have also overcome certain initial drawbacks through such means by better equipment and applications of technology so that the medium better fits and serves their principles.
A Treatise of Miscellany Questions... (1649), ch. 18, ‘Of the Use of a Table in the Lord’s Supper’, pp. 220-221
“But we must not bring down our rule to our conveniences, rather bring up our conveniencies to our rule.”
Examples of Civil Courts that Use Distance Means
On the Ideal of Meeting Physically Together & Having a Session for the Well-Being of the Church
Lk. 4:16 “And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up: and, as his custom was, He went into the synagogue on the sabbath day…”
1 Cor. 11:20 “When ye come together therefore into one place…”
1 Thess. 2:17 “But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.”
2 Jn. 1:12 “Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full.”
3 Jn. 14 “But I trust I shall shortly see thee, and we shall speak face to face.”
Rev. 7:9-10 “I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.'”
Simeon Ashe, William Rathband, John Ball et al.
p. 27 of ‘The Reply made unto the Said Answer [of the New England Congregationalist Puritans], & Sent Over unto Them, Anno 1640’ in A Letter of Many Ministers in Old England, Requesting the Judgement of their Brethren in New England Concerning Nine Positions… Together with… (London, 1643) Ashe, Rathband, Ball, et al. were conforming English puritans, here arguing against the New England Independent puritans.
“For when a number is gathered in small villages, or some added to the number already gathered, it is not meet they should be neglected because small, nor divided from the body, because the number [is] not competent to make an entire and perfect body of itself [contra Independency]. The increase of the churches does require an increase of elders, and (if they grow to bigness more than ordinary) an increase of places for their assembling, when the essence of the visible Church is not changed, nor one multiplied or divided into many.”
[This is to say, having congregatings of Christians without elders and a minister is not ideal for the well-being of the Church, nor is it a normal state of the Church.]
“In that day shall there be an altar [singular] to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt… And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation [singular]…”
Isa. 19:19, 21
“In that day shall there be a great mourning [singular] in Jerusalem… and the land shall mourn, every family apart; the family of the house of David apart, and their wives apart… all the families that remain, every family apart, and their wives apart.”
“And another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers [plural] of all saints upon the golden altar [singular] which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense [singular], which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”