Church leaders have struggled: is obeying a government directive to avoid worship assemblies to stop the rapid spread of Covid-19 disobeying God? I think we have done a good job balancing these concerns (Romans 13:1-7, Acts 4:17-22).
I have read articles seeking Biblical precedent for closing the meeting house in a time of crisis. For what it’s worth, I have found these unconvincing. One suggested the “present distress” of 1 Corinthians 7 is a precedent. It is not. Paul there spoke of something optional (getting married) not something God commanded (assembling for worship). Paul would not have said in 1 Corinthians 7:26, “in view of the present distress [Roman persecution] it is good for a man to stay home from worship.”
One article suggested the rules of isolating a person who has leprosy in Leviticus 13 is a precedent. I get it, but the standard in Leviticus had more to do with being “unclean” in the sight of God than being contagious in a modern sense. Leviticus 13 as a type of New Testament reality has to do with approaching God in worship when involved in the impurity of sin.
If there is any Bible passage that speaks to me as a precedent, it’s Matthew 12:3-7. David ate the consecrated bread, appealing to wisdom and humility and “compassion,” to provide for the greater end of saving lives. Still, David was God’s anointed, and he was in extreme need. I would hate to see people apply this passage to matters of inconvenience or unpopularity.
Some Christians have pointed out that first century churches met in homes, suggesting that watching a live stream in our living rooms is somehow a welcome return to the ancient order. It is not. In Paul’s day, the whole congregation met in someone’s home, for they had no building to assemble in. First century Christians did not “worship at home” they worshiped in homes. That is a very important difference.
Look, we’re not going to find Biblical justification for not assembling. When we cite reasons not to assemble, we are asking for God in His mercy to be patient with our shortcomings due to circumstances we feel are extreme. We will always be on unsure, shaky ground. That isn’t to say we didn’t make the right call; that’s just to say we should go back to assembling, as God would have us do, as soon as possible. Meantime, we owe a huge thanks to all who produced live streams and class videos!
But let’s be careful. I fear that people will get used to the easy-going nature of a live stream, and decide that assembling for worship isn’t worth the hassle. People will not think of joining a live stream as a helpful way to get through an extreme circumstance, and start thinking of it as a legitimate, even preferable alternative. Hurricane and pandemic will become shift work and sporting events and sleepiness and traffic and vacation and house guests and pet-sitting. A live stream is like assembling, and it will serve in a pinch. But it is not assembling together. God knew what He was doing to make assembling together a non-negotiable priority.
Quickly, I present here six features of a worship assembly that a live stream can only partially provide.
An Assembly Where the Saints Present Themselves before God. I realize that in Christ we have no physical place to worship; the people of the church make up God’s dwelling place, which is one reason He “is in our midst” when we congregate (Matthew 18:20). Still, in some sense, the call to worship God is a summons to appear in His presence in reverent fear, not empty-handed (Deuteronomy 16:16). “Come let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker” (Psalm 95:6).
The Blessing of Inconvenience. Assembling for worship is a choice that reveals what priorities are in our hearts. It asks us to sacrifice what we could otherwise be doing. Bathrobe worship allows us to make God’s claim on our time even smaller than it already is. We don’t need any more drive through religion than we already have.
A Feeling of Awe. I would never be satisfied watching the next sci-fi blockbuster on my 2” smartphone screen. And there’s something missing when we try to lift up voices to the tune of a televised song leader instead of being arrayed together. “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1).
A Dialogue about Scripture. We did our best to provide video-recorded classes. We could try enabling a chat feature that some would be tech-savvy enough to use. But classes are so much better when everyone feels comfortable asking questions, adding comments, and chiming in with personal experiences.
Evangelism. David said, “Oh, give thanks to the Lord, call upon His name; Make known His deeds among the peoples. Sing to Him, sing praises to Him; Speak of all His wonders” (1 Chronicles 16:8-9). Part of gathering to worship is to let the community know there is a people still determined to serve God (1 Corinthians 11:26). Some will perhaps even attend. An unbeliever can be so convicted by worship that he “will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (1 Corinthians 14:25).
Face-to-Face Fellowship. What I miss the most is “greeting the friends by name” (3 John 15). I hope within a couple weeks to be together again, when we can cheer one another up, be together as family, serve one other’s needs. —John Guzzetta