I’ve been seeing a lot of posts and getting a lot of emails over a question Christians are dealing with as isolation orders grow to be indefinite: “Are we, by failing to gather together for corporate worship with other Christians, being unfaithful to the Lord?” For nonChristians, it may seem silly—even a bit reckless—to consider defying the social distance guidelines to gather for corporate worship. Even some Christians see the question as another sign that the Church is out of touch with reality.
So how do we decide? Dealing with these issues forces us to a fundamental question: on what basis do we decide right and wrong? So, to be clear, my authority is scripture. Not what someone thinks scripture means, adds to scripture or says about what scripture doesn’t say. If scripture is silent on a subject, we must be consistent with scriptural principles—but we have no right to hold our opinions on others. However, we are responsible to hold one another—Christians—accountable to scriptural teachings.
This discussion is lengthy, so let me start with my conclusions. You can decide to read the rest or not.
In the end, our response to this health crisis is quite simple:
- We are to continue to worship our Lord and King–together. However, there is nothing to indicate that doing so through electronic media is being unfaithful!
- We are to consider this life a great gift, but not the greatest gift. That gift is only realized after we die, or when Jesus returns. So, we fight to keep this life because it is God’s gift. But we do not consider this life to be more important than the eternal life lived in the Kingdom of Heaven.
- We are to continue to obey all that He commanded—including showing love to one another and to the world, not being so afraid for our own safety that we fail to take care of those who need it.
How did I arrive at these conclusions? Let’s look at some of the points that are continually popping up on social media, applying the truth of scripture to them:
Point: As Christians, we consider life to be one of our highest values, and we are seeing clear evidence that the coronavirus can endanger life. This is true, as far as it goes. But Jesus made it clear that this life is not the highest priority. That priority is faithfulness to God and the Kingdom of Heaven. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:25-26, NIV) The take away: We should try extremely hard to safeguard physical life, but in the end, it isn’t as important as eternal life. This doesn’t mean we should ignore prohibitions against worship gatherings, but we should continue to balance these extraordinarily important values and make our choices accordingly!
Point: Christians are told to obey the world’s laws unless they directly contradict the Lord’s commands. When being directed to not proclaim the gospel by the Sanhedrin, Peter and John responded: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20, NIV) The take away: We should obey the laws laid down by our governments (local, state, federal) so long as they do not cause us to disobey God. The question is then, “Are we disobeying God by doing video worship meetings instead of in-person worship?”
Point: The Church is not a building or even a gathering, but the body of Christ. This is absolutely correct. Consider: the word “Church” is a translation of the Greek word “ecclesia”, which means “those called out”. The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul said: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27, NIV) The take away: The building we worship in is not “the Church” or even “a Church”. It is just a building. The Church is the people who gather. The Church is no less the Church when the people are not physically gathered. They are still the Body of Christ, those called out of the world. And scripture does not set a minimum number of people to be able to call a group “the Church”.
Point: Scripture commands us to gather together for worship. Failing to do so is sin, a defiance of the Holy Spirit’s command. Again, this is correct as far as it goes. The Hebrew writer already had to deal with this issue in the first century, writing: “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:25, NIV) Yet, even in the first-century people stayed away from the worship gatherings when they were ill or injured. The admonition was to stop treating corporate worship as something unimportant or optional. The take away: We are commanded to gather, and intentional refusal to do so is defiance of the Holy Spirit’s command. However, there is nothing in the command that says the gatherings must be all the church together at the same time. In the first century, they often met in small home groups for safety. Today, we are able to meet together as families and through technology, meet with others as well. But, in all these situations, we are still the Church!
Point: Christians need to see and interact with the leaders the Lord has given them. This interaction is central to their faithfulness. There is no specific scriptural command stating this, but I believe it is a valid principle. However, we are not to see our leaders as our gateway to the Lord. The Holy Spirit told us through Peter: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood…” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV) and the Hebrew writer told us: “Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” (Hebrews 3:1-2, NIV) The take away: All Christians are priests, and Jesus is our High Priest. We need no one except him to allow us to come before the Father. So, we don’t have to have a leader—priest or preacher—in order to worship and follow Jesus. That said, we do need shepherds to guide and teach us as we follow Him. So, whether we are talking to them when physically together or through electronic media, our church leaders need to be personally talking with the people in the church in order to shepherd them and continue to make disciples.
Point: Important Christian practices such as communion and baptism (and for some, weddings and funerals) are traditionally considered group practices—to be conducted in the context of the gathering of the body of Christ. We can’t do this if we obey the ban on gathering. This is partly true. Communion was not a ceremony in the early church, but a simple remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice and the establishment of the new covenant as they ate their meals together—eating bread and drinking wine. As the church grew and Gentiles became Christian, they began to worship in other places than homes or the temple and observed communion together in these gatherings (see 1 Corinthians 11). The take away: Since we have established that we are all priests, we can do away with the false teaching that baptism, communion, etc. must be celebrated or conducted by some specific Christian. We don’t need priests—we are priests. Baptisms were conducted as soon as someone came to the Lord—wherever they were (see Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8). So, while we may prefer baptism and communion in more traditional settings, they are totally valid even if just conducted within a family unit.
Point: Christians are not to act like the world around us. We don’t fear death as those who have no hope. The Spirit told us through Paul: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, NIV) In fact, Paul’s attitude was: “… to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! (Philippians 1:21-2, NIV) The take away: Christians value life—it is God’s gift, and we should not denigrate it in any way. However, Christians know that, because of Christ’s sacrifice, death brings new life—eternal life with Jesus—for those who belong to Him. Our actions should reflect that we greatly value this life God has given us, but we also look forward to being with Jesus! In addition, since we know that Jesus’ forgiveness requires faith and repentance (Acts 2:38), we are to love those who do not yet belong to Jesus so that they do not die without making that choice!
I hope this discussion is useful. I welcome comments and further discussion.
Know Jesus and Be Faithful!