A Difficult Problem
As a pastor one of the pressing concerns for me, and for many that I talk to, is the difficult decision to cancel all church gatherings temporarily while we wait for the COVID-19 virus to pass. This decision is not just difficult because of our desire to meet regularly with our church family, but also because the scriptures straightforwardly teach that we are not to neglect the gathering of the assembly together (see Hebrews 10:24-25). So, the question is inevitable to ask: Are we sinning by canceling our Sunday services?
Some have said yes. As justification they turn to the book of Acts where the early church was asked by the governing authorities to stop preaching the Resurrection. In response the church reacted boldly: “But Peter and John answered them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:19).’”
Therefore, “it is wrong,” some will challenge, “to stop meeting under any circumstances, because our allegiance is to God rather than man. God told us to meet regularly; to neglect to do so would be in disobedience to God.”
While I respect the fervor and well-intentioned heart behind such a stance I’d like to offer some reasons why I think we are justified to temporarily obey the wisdom of those in authority and suspend our meetings. As the prophet Isaiah would say, “Let’s reason together.”
Acts 4 versus COVID-19
It is true that when faced with obeying God or obeying Man we as Christians are to obey God. The authorities told Daniel not to pray and yet he prayed. Nebuchadnezzar told the three Jewish boys to bow and yet they refused leading them to a fiery furnace. The religious Sanhedrin told the Apostles to stop preaching in Acts 4 and they kept preaching. So what makes our current situation different?
For one, the government is not telling us to stop preaching the Gospel. This is not a singled out persecution of the church in which the government selects a particular religion and removes their freedoms while favoring others. Rather, the COVID-19 pandemic is a universal threat to all of society. The government is asking everyone, all businesses, groups, and gatherings to stop meeting for the sake of everyone’s safety. If this was a selected attack on the church to stop preaching or meeting for worship, we would be forced to disobey their request and continue to preach and meet.
Loving God or Loving Neighbor?
Another issue revolving this topic is the seeming tension between loving God and loving our neighbor. Some insist that we are not obeying God if we don’t meet despite the situation; others say that to meet during this crisis would be unloving to our neighbor. We are familiar of Jesus’ words when asked what the greatest command was. In response he said,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).”
It seems on the surface that no matter what we do we are in a conundrum. To meet would be unloving to our neighbor; to not meet would be disobedient to God. But should this circumstance divide these two loyalties? I think not. We can Love God and love our neighbor simultaneously during our temporary absence from the corporate gathering.
Sunday for Man or Man for Sunday?
Recall the story in which Jesus was faced with a similar dilemma. One day Jesus’ disciples were picking grain from a field on the Sabbath. The Pharisees sieged this opportunity to confront Jesus’ unlawful actions. They accused him of breaking the Torah because what they were doing was “not lawful on the Sabbath (Mark 2:24).” But in response to the religious leaders legalistic take on the Law Jesus reminds them of a situation in the life of David, in which his breaking of the Law was justified due to the higher standard to love his neighbor in a time of need (see Mark 2:25-26). Then Jesus said these words: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
I wonder if the situation we are in is similar? Could it be that not meeting in order to avoid risking our loved ones harm would actually be an attempt to love both God and neighbor? Could it be that meeting at this time misses the entire point of the gathering in the first place? That meeting on Sunday is for the edification of the church, and that while the letter says “don’t neglect to meet,” the spirit of the law in this case says “not meeting is actually fulfilling one of the purposes of the meeting—namely, to edify each other?” What better way to edify each other now than to wait this thing out until we are all safe? Were we made for the Lord’s day or the Lord’s day made for us?
Faith or Wisdom?
I had a good friend say to me, “Will what are we to do in this situation? Trusting God tells me to go ahead and meet, that God will protect us if we are obedient. But wisdom seems to tell me to not meet and listen to those who know more about this virus than I do. What do we do?
I can relate to my friend’s struggle. But like the previous point this seems to be a false dichotomy. Faith and wisdom are not opposed enemies but connected friends. It is not necessarily true that trusting God only means continuing our services despite the wise precautions not to. We can trust God to faithfully guide us as we listen and discern the wisdom of those counciling us in this difficult season. Furthermore, to say that those of us who have chosen not to meet are not trusting God is simply false. Think about it. To choose not to meet is not something that will benefit the church practically. Pastors and church leaders who are choosing not to meet are having to trust that God will sustain the church financially, keep church members connected, not lose those who have recently visited prior to the virus, figure out technological ways to keep services going, and much much more. Trusting God and being wise are two essential virtues all of us must use as we cease to meet weekly.
I obviously feel that this temporary decision to cease our gathering together is justifiable. However, I want to offer a caution to not go to the other end of the spectrum. Many churches are (rightly!) utilizing technology during this time to keep the church connected and to continue services via video. This is a good thing and I thank the Lord, in His providence, for this ability. Nevertheless, we should not make this present rhythm the norm. The word church (ekklesia) means to assemble together. Online services will never replace the gathered church in worship together. We must be praying that God will move us quickly through this so that we can join each other again to do what we were commanded to do—sing, pray, fellowship, preach, read scripture, give, etc..
These are no doubt peculiar and abnormal times. I wish these things were not happening and that we could go on doing church as normal. But this is never the promise we are given in scripture. Jesus said that “in this world you will have trouble.” The church will always live in the ebb and flow of troublesome times. Nevertheless, the church can be a beacon on a hill, especially during difficult times like these. And while we are not able to meet physically together at this time, may we do all we can to stay connected and pray for each other. And may we remember that this is only temporary. We are and will always be made to do church together!