Should churches suspend physical gatherings due to COVID-19?

In light of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, many churches, ours included, have suspended physical church gatherings. This is an unprecedented situation and leaders, church leaders included, are writing the playbook in real time. While many have argued for suspended church gatherings, others have argued against it. Here I want to argue why a church should suspend church gatherings in light of the coronavirus and COVID-19, and to provide responses to a few arguments for why a church might want to continue to gather.

First, Christians are called to love their neighbors. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). Part of loving our neighbors means seeking their peace and welfare. We are ultimately concerned for their eternal destiny with God, and we are also concerned with their life in this world. We are not of the world, but we are in the world. And in the world we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. So, if we can stop the spread of disease to those who are vulnerable in our community, then we are acting not in fear but in love.

Second, Christians are called to submit to the governing authorities. “Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). God delegates authority to government as his “servant for your good” (Romans 13:4). Of course, if the government requires us to disobey God, we are obligated to obey God rather than men. But in the case of the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19, governments are in most cases advising suspension of gatherings of any notable size (10 people or more). If a church were meeting in a building with unsafe fire exits or beyond safe capacity in a way that was dangerous for people to use, the government would have the authority to require that church to stop meeting, renovate its building, or meet with fewer people. Government can overextend its authority, and ultimately the church answers to God not government. That said, the counsel from governing authorities on how to limit the spread of the virus seem to be a way the government is acting as “God’s servant for our good.”

Third, Christians are called to walk in wisdom in uncertain situations. “Act wisely toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). In such extraordinary circumstances as the pandemic of COVID-19, the decision to gather or not to gather is a decision that does not have a clear answer. It is a “wisdom call.” There are reasons why a church might decide to gather in some physical way, and there are reasons (like I said above) for why a church would suspend physical gatherings for a season. This is the call of church leadership: to walk with God closely, listen to his Word and Spirit, and make a call in light of the best way to love neighbors and walk in wisdom.

First, the Bible says we should not neglect gathering together. Scripture commands us to gather and that we should not give up gathering with the saints: “And let us watch out for one another to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24–25). Suspending the regular gathering of Christians in physical proximity might disobey God’s command.

Response: First, the passage in Hebrews is mainly concerned with “watching out for one another” and “provoking love and good works,” and gathering is a means toward that goal. Gathering together is secondary, while encouragement and loving one another is primary. Elsewhere in Hebrews Christians are commanded to “encourage each other daily, while it is still called today” (3:13). It seems like there was some sort of daily gathering in the church addressed in Hebrews. Churches today usually meet physically once per week. Are we disobeying God? No. Because the command is daily, consistent encouragement. Likewise, a Christian who doesn’t gather with the church for one week isn’t necessarily sinning or disobeying the command “not to neglect gathering.” There are many legitimate reasons (and many more illegitimate ones!) a person might have for missing any given worship gathering. In a similar way, in the unprecedented situation of the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19 churches may legitimately suspend physical gatherings for a season.

Second, the Bible says we should be people of faith in times of fear. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Suspending the regular gathering of Christians in physical proximity might be a decision made in fearful reaction to the danger of COVID-19, walking by the sight of worldly wisdom rather than faith in God’s protection.

Response: We make decisions in wisdom often that result in our protection. We use seatbelts in our cars. Is that a lack of faith? Shouldn’t we just trust God to protect us? Doesn’t a seatbelt represent worldly protection and wisdom? No. It’s a sign of God’s common grace that car companies designed ways to make cars safer. It’s a sign of God’s common grace that the government requires people to wear seatbelts. We thank God for protecting us through the use of a seatbelt, while also recognizing that he is ultimately the one who keeps us safe. In a similar way, we can thank God for his common grace given to the medical community that can identify the way the coronavirus spreads, who is most vulnerable, and how to protect fellow church members, neighbors, friends, and family members.

Third, the Bible says Christians should be different than the world. “I am not praying that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15). “Instead, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God (the heavenly Jerusalem), to myriads of angels, a festive gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven, to a Judge, who is God of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22–23). Suspending the regular gathering of Christians in physical proximity could communicate to the world that the church is just another social group, rather than the body of Christ on earth.

Response: Being different from the world often has as much to do with our motives as it does with our actions. Christians do many of the same things the world does. We drive cars, buy houses, go grocery shopping, get medical care, and work normal jobs. But our motives are very different than the world. “Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people” (Colossians 3:23). If we suspend physical gatherings like the rest of society does, we can be doing a similar action for a very different reason. We’re doing it to love our neighbors and glorify God. Someone might say that the world will assume that the church is just following the world’s lead. But the perception could just as easily be the other way around. The world could see the church making sacrifices by losing offerings and gathering time and think, “Wow, they really do love us.”

I think the biblical reasons for suspending church gatherings for a season outweigh the reasons for continuing to gather. One thing the church needs in this season is a fresh filling of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We must love one another. We must rejoice. We must be at peace with God, in our hearts, minds, and with each other. We must be patient with others who might disagree with us. We should be kind and act for the good of others and the glory of God. We should be faithful, full of faith, gentle in all our ways, and self-controlled. May the Lord grant great grace to his church, and a great turning toward Christ in and through this season.

Walking with Jesus, @LauraSlavich, our kids, and the @CrossUnitedSFL fam in the warm breezes of sunny SoFla

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