Throughout the COVID crisis, the church has faced pressures from without and within. From without there has been an unfair restriction placed on the church. As has been seen in Nevada, casinos and the gambling industry have been granted greater leniency than churches, and the Supreme Court of the United States upheld Nevada’s law with a 5-4 decision. And that is just one example. Others, such as liquor stores, home improvement stores, and grocery stores, continue servicing their clientele, having been deemed necessities, while the church has been denied that status. The church has largely acquiesced to the executive orders of the civil magistrate based on the Biblical injunction to honor the civil magistrate and to extend love to our fellow man by protecting them from COVID. And yet, is the prevailing wisdom truly the best way to honor God and love our neighbor?
Especially at the beginning of the COVID scare back in March and April, many churches were willing to temporarily suspend in-person worship, opting for live-streamed services instead. The nation, and the world really, wrestled to understand what COVID was. Over time, as information has been gathered, and the “curve” seemed to flatten, doors were cautiously re-opened. Some members still have stayed away from in-person worship. But is it really wise and God-honoring to neglect gathering together to worship of the Lord?
The foundation of my concern rests on the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3). Here God claims the preeminent place in the hearts of His people. That unique place is reinforced in the summaries of the 10 commandments given in the gospels: “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.” (Matthew 22:37-39). Currently the church has focused on the commandments that help it love its neighbor, at the expense of the commandments that direct it to love God.
The church is failing to examine the Scriptures to see if the church is ever described as forfeiting gathering there. Perhaps there are examples in Scripture where the church ceased meeting to avoid a particular danger. COVID is not the only danger in the world. Surely there must be some instance where the New Testament church closed its doors. An examination of Acts shows this did not happen even when the church was under a danger far graver than COVID-19.
Perhaps the most pressing danger facing the apostolic church at its formation was persecution. The church was small, and people were being killed for their profession of faith in Christ. And yet Scripture testifies that persecution did not have the intended effect of suppressing the worship of God’s people.
- In John 20:19, even though the disciples were afraid of the Jews, they were still gathering.
- In Acts 4:31, after Peter and John were released from being arrested for preaching the gospel, they “went to their friends.” (v. 23), who were all “gathered together.”
- In Acts 8:4, after the disciples are scattered because of the death of Stephen and subsequent persecution, they continue to preach the word of God wherever they go. There is an identifiable group that forms in Samaria, to which the apostles send Peter and John (Act 8:15).
- In Acts 12:12, Peter’s arrest and subsequent unjust imprisonment prompts the church to “gather together” to pray for him.
In other words, even the danger of persecution does not cause the early church to forfeit meeting together. That is because the worship of God is paramount. It should supersede all other earthly activity, because it is the one activity that anticipates heaven. When a church, or members of a church, do not meet together to avoid COVID, a statement is made. Implicitly or explicitly the church, or a part of it, is saying that it is more important to avoid contracting COVID than it is to worship the Lord. And yet in Hebrews 10:24-25, it is the gathering of the saints that is seen as essential to the sanctification of the believer, and not to be neglected: “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.”
I will say it as strongly as this. When the church forsakes worship for a disease like COVID, it is showing love for self, not for God. It is recreating God in its own image, preferring the temporary physical health that isolating may provide, to the praise of the God who made and redeemed His people. This is not saying anything about modified worship, worship out of doors, the use of masks in worship. I have opinions about all those things, but they are not the focus of what is being said here. The point today is that Christians are not loving God by staying away from church because He commands the assembly of His people, and to show love for God is to walk according to His commandments (John 14:15, 1 John 5:3, 2 John 6). God must be loved more that anything in this life. But there is a second principle that flows from this central point.
One of the reasons given for suspending in-person worship is that the church must love its neighbor. However, right now the world is constantly coming face-to-face with death, the very reminder of the coming judgment. They are constantly being told that their death is just around the corner and it is terrifying the world. And yet when the church ceases to meet, these hopeless and lost souls have only the equivalent of a TV show to sustain and comfort them. No doubt they may hear truth, but they will not experience it in the context that God designed: a living, communing body of believers. It is neither loving, nor caring to close the doors of the very place where hope in times of panic can be found, where fellowship can be experience, and where the splendor of heaven is anticipated each Lord’s Day.
My dear friends, the church must consider carefully what it does today. Its actions are making a statement. The next generation of the church is watching the decisions of today. And they are seeing a church that prefers temporary, physical health over the worship of the Lord. And they are learning. The church is folding on an issue that does not pose a significant risk. And if it folds today, what will it do when a real crisis comes along.
In my county, there are 202,403 people. In this county, there has definitely been an increase of reported cases in recent weeks. As of today (August 3, 2020), the total number of people infected with COVID as reported by the Georgia Department of Public Health is 3,719, of which 1,485 (40%) were diagnosed in the last 2 weeks. And yet the number of deaths remains relatively low at 83. The church has to consider the math. A Richmond County resident has a 1.84% chance of contracting COVID. That means 98 out of 100 people will never get this disease. Even more staggering, only 4 out of 10,000 will die of this disease. That means a Richmond County resident has a 99.96% chance of living through COVID. That is not to minimize the tragedy of death, but rather to show just how low the risk is. The risk of dying from COVID is lower that many elective surgeries!
The church of Christ has been purchased for worship. It has been set apart to worship the Lord. And it is never free to cease to be what it was created by God to be: the body of Christ established on earth to sanctify the saints and call sinners to repentance. To change or deny that work is to have other gods before the Lord.