To Gather or Not to Gather

To Gather or Not to Gather

Our church is built on the foundation and lives under the authority of God’s Word.  We also live in the Word as the priority of our church life together. Of course, the house analogy breaks down, but we could say that God’s Word is both the foundation under us, the roof over us, and the feast at our dinner table, all at the same time.  This means we must not make decisions as a church, however practical, normal, and reasonable they may seem at the time, without first considering how God’s Word guides us in those decisions.  In this season, the relevant question is, “How do we honor the authority of God’s Word in a season where the government has forbidden our Sunday gatherings because of the Coronavirus?”  Two verses seem uniquely relevant in this moment.

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

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. Romans 13:1-2

We are confronted in this moment with two requirements of godliness.  First, Christians are called to gather together for their mutual edification and the worship of God. Second, Christians are required to submit to governmental authorities as long as they are not requiring us to sin.

So—here is the important question—is it sinful for Christians to temporarily suspend public meetings in this moment?  If we answer with a causal or even scornful “Of course not!” it may be that we haven’t given adequate consideration or respect to the warnings given in Hebrews 10 and elsewhere about neglecting meeting with the church.  Nor would we consider it wise to view electronic communication or livestreaming as a faithful substitute in obedience to God’s command that his church gather together.

To be clear, we do not view livestreaming as a substitute for a Biblical “Sunday meeting” but rather as a means of pastoring the church and seeking to do all we can to care for our community in this moment. We DO feel that livestream provides a number of fruitful and biblical benefits, and I cannot improve on our friend Jeff Purswell’s outstanding explanation here.

But what about the real Sunday gathering? What about speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs? What about communion with the church body? What about the gifts of the Spirit operating in a public meeting? What about greeting one another with affection and service?   Should we defy the government order in order to fulfill those responsibilities? Here are a few reasons we have decided that we can temporarily suspend our Sunday meetings (and all of these normal Sunday responsibilities) in faithfulness to Scripture.

1)    This mandate by the government is not motivated by an unethical restriction on Christians, but on a reasonable desire to protect the country from a harsh illness, and it corresponds with our own Biblical responsibility to love our neighbor as ourselves.

2)    This mandate is not a permanent or long-term ban on Christian gatherings but only requires a relatively brief suspension of them.

3) The Biblical command is to not neglect meeting together—which certainly provides for some level of conscience interpretation. (i.e.  In my experience Christians may miss a Sunday for their own illness, or on an occasional traveling vacation, or during a dangerous ice storm or hurricane, and we do not think of them as sinning.)  Of course, a pattern of neglecting a Sunday meeting when it is available should be considered spiritually dangerous for every Christian.

 For these reasons, we have decided that this is a moment when Hebrews 10:24-25 should be interpreted by Romans 13:1-2. We have suspended our meeting in Biblical submission to the governing authorities that God has set in place.  We are also simultaneously seeking to love our neighbors as ourselves by minimizing the spread of the coronavirus as much as possible. Our intention is that this meeting suspension will be temporary, and we are hoping to resume meeting as quickly as possible.  In the meantime, we desire to do all we can to experience our church community through the digital means God has provided.  We also want to keep seeking God’s Word and keeping singing his truth, and so we will benefit from our Sunday livestream while we are forced to suspend our Sunday gatherings.

May the Lord give our governmental officials wisdom as they make decisions in this difficult time. And may our hearts grow in longing and gratefulness for our normal privilege and honor of gathering with God’s people every week.

I can’t wait for firm handshakes, joyful hugs, live preaching, and the sound of the church singing.  Soon please, Lord Jesus.