Note: Most of what follows is the entirety of an editorial I’ve written for the May/June issue of the Carolina Messenger. It will be published in that venue in May. I’ve also touched on this topic in another article on this blog entitled My Thoughts on Matthew 18:20. That article should be read alongside of this one in order to fully understand my thoughts on how many churches are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In light of current events, it is appropriate to discuss what the Bible says about church government and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, many local congregations’ leaderships have chosen to suspend normal worship assemblies in favor of members worshiping from their homes via the Internet. These decisions were made in the interest of slowing the spread of the virus and keeping the brethren and those in the community who are more susceptible to it from coming down with it. Some in the brotherhood have disagreed with these decisions, calling them unscriptural and those who make them in error.
Concerning the governance of the church, Jesus has all authority (Matt. 28:18; Eph. 1:22-23; 5:23). The church universally is required to submit to his teachings and commands which make up the New Testament. Much of his will is given in generalized commands and principles, thus leaving it up to us as to how to fulfill them. This is one reason he also designated that local congregations be overseen by biblically qualified shepherds or elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:17, 28-32; 1 Thess. 5:12; Heb. 13:17; cf. Phil. 1:1; Eph. 4:11). The elders of each church have the authority to decide how to best implement commands of Jesus which lack specificity.
Concerning worship assemblies, the New Testament shows that Christians assembled to worship God every Sunday (1 Cor. 11:17-33; 14:26-40; 16:1-2; Acts 20:7). God commanded that Christians avoid the habit of forsaking or deserting the assembling of themselves together (Heb. 10:25). Yet there is no specific biblical instruction concerning exactly when to meet on Sundays, how often to meet on Sundays, whether to have additional assemblies for worship or Bible study on other days, and similar questions. Thus, elderships have the authority to make those decisions. As long as their decisions fall within the parameters of what is commanded and instructed in Scripture, the shepherds of each local congregation have authority concerning those decisions and the members of those local congregations must submit to them (Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4; Acts 20:17, 28).
The question before us is whether churches and elderships have gone beyond what is scripturally authorized by suspending worship services altogether while the COVID-19 pandemic is occurring, and whether the decision to worship via the Internet is scripturally allowed. To answer the question, let’s start by examining the Hebrew writer’s exhortation, “And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25, NASB).
Several things are worth noticing. For example, the term “forsaking” (egkataleipo) literally is defined as “to abandon, desert…to desert, forsake, to leave behind…” (Thayer). Paul used the same term to describe what Demas and everyone else had done to him in his hour of need (2 Tim. 4:10, 16). Likewise, the term “habit” (ethos) literally refers to a “custom, manner, (something to) be wont (to do)” (Strong). It’s used repeatedly in the New Testament to refer to something people had the tradition of doing (cf. Lk. 22:39; John 19:40; Acts 25:16). Thus, the command in Hebrews 10:25 is against the habit or custom of abandoning and deserting the assemblies.
Are churches and elderships promoting the habit of complete abandonment and desertion of worship assemblies when they decide to temporarily suspend worship assemblies at the church building until this pandemic passes, at which time regular assembling would automatically resume? The obvious answer is no. Let’s consider why.
Before this pandemic, it had been generally recognized that missing worship assemblies temporarily under extenuating circumstances was permissible. I’ve yet to see an eldership or church rebuke a member if that member was sick, their loved one was sick, their job required them to miss a couple of worship assemblies but they regularly showed for the rest of them, or if they were out of town on vacation or business but once they returned they were regularly at worship. In the past some churches among us have called off worship services if a hurricane or large forest fire was approaching their city, or in cases of icy roads or blizzards which would make travel to the church building extremely dangerous. Was it an absolute guarantee that one’s life would be forfeit if one came to assemble to worship during such circumstances? No, but the risk was substantially greater. Thus, the assemblies were temporarily suspended. Once the danger had passed, they resumed. No habit of abandoning the assemblies was started or sustained, and thus Hebrews 10:25 was not violated. The same holds true for those churches and elderships who are temporarily suspending worship assemblies in the interest of public safety concerning this pandemic.
Concerning the interest of public safety, consider this also. While other passages show that the purpose of assembling was to worship God, Hebrews 10:24-25 shows that an additional reason behind assembling was to exhort each other to be involved in love and good deeds (v. 24). This is in keeping with other passages that call on us to do good to others and be interested in others’ well-being (cf. Gal. 6:10; Phil. 2:4; Rom. 12:10; 1 Cor. 10:24; 1 Thess. 5:14-15). Would temporarily suspending worship services be a good deed that does good for others and is in the interest of the well-being of others if all available information from experts shows that a hurricane or forest fire is coming or the roads are very icy and driver visibility is low because of a blizzard? Would a Christian’s decision to miss a few worship services to care for himself or his loved one if they are sick with a contagious disease and do not wish to infect anyone else be a good deed that puts others before themselves? Of course.
In like manner, the decision to temporarily suspend worship assemblies based on information that a deadly and infectious disease could be easily and asymptomatically spread to many if those assemblies occur is also a good deed made in the interests of the well-being of others. Thus, the leadership of these churches are completely within their scriptural rights to make such decisions and should be supported rather than criticized.
Some also criticize some elderships’ decisions to offer the members of their local congregations the opportunity to be in their homes and participate in worship services led by Christian men remotely via the Internet. The charge is made that this violates scriptural command and precedent since it was said of the early church, “Therefore when you come together in one place…” in the context of partaking of communion (1 Cor. 11:20, NKJV). This charge is also worthy of examination.
“One place” comes from the Greek term autos, which is a reflexive pronoun and is generally translated “himself,” “herself,” “yourselves,” and “themselves” (Strong). The Greek term generally referring to “place” as in “location” is topos (cf. Matt. 14:35; Mk. 16:6; Lk. 4:37; etc.), and is not used in 1 Corinthians 11:20. Thus, one could say that the better translation of 1 Corinthians 11:20 would be, “Therefore when you come together among yourselves.” Indeed, several translations simply have it as “come together,” omitting “in one place.”
Those who criticize online worship emphasize “in one place,” stating that God desires only that communion be observed by the whole church meeting together in one place. When one remembers God’s command against habitual abandonment of forsaking the assembly (Heb. 10:25), it is certainly the correct conclusion that God desires the normative situation for worship to be Christians assembling together in the same place. However, one must also remember that the actual divine command is against the habitual abandonment of the whole church assembling together. Thus, extenuating circumstances which would cause Christians to temporarily not assemble together would be allowed.
This is especially proven true when one takes into account a closer examination of Paul’s statement about communion in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17: “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread.” Written in the context of exhorting the Corinthian brethren to flee from idolatry by pointing out that participation in idolatry defiles their participation in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:14-21), Paul’s inspired words are also relevant to the controversy surrounding taking communion from home via the Internet. Most believe Paul wrote this letter to Corinth while staying in the city of Ephesus. Thus, he obviously was not present when the Corinthians assembled on Sundays to partake of the Lord’s Supper…and yet he still wrote of “the cup of blessing which we bless” and “the bread which we break” (v. 16). He also said that “we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (v. 17). It is clear that the “we” and “many” of whom he speaks cannot refer solely to the local congregation at Corinth, because the apostle includes himself in the “we” and he was in a completely different city when he did so. Thus, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 is referring to how the universal church all commune together when we all, in our respective different locations, partake of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of each week. Thus, brethren who are absent from the corporate assembly of their home congregation due to extenuating circumstances such as the pandemic which is upon us are still communing with their brethren, and indeed with their brethren world-wide, when they partake of the Lord’s Supper at home.
It should also be pointed out that the same phraseology of 1 Corinthians 11:20 — “if the whole church comes together in one place” — is also used in 1 Corinthians 14:23 in the context of discussing the acts of worship which are singing, praying, and the preaching of God’s Word (cf. 1 Cor. 14:15, 26ff). If “in one place” inherently requires that communion only be observed when the whole church is assembled together, then it also inherently requires that singing, praying, and preaching be done only when the whole church is assembled together. However, the rest of the New Testament shows that Christians prayed, sang praises, and preached or listened to preaching outside of the corporate worship assembly (cf. Acts 16:25; 1 Thess. 5:17; Acts 17:22ff; et al). As it is, “in one place” (autos) is better translated “among yourselves.” Thus, partaking of communion by Christians among themselves could also take place outside of the corporate worship assembly. Again, the command of Hebrews 10:25 condemning the habitual abandonment of the whole church assembling together would require that this be the exception rather than the norm. (See my article, “My Thoughts on Matthew 18:20,” for more thoughts on this.) Nonetheless, it would be allowed if unusual circumstances required it.
This also was better understood before the pandemic. I have known of members of local churches who have vacationed together on cruise ships. When Sunday came, they were away from the rest of their home congregation. Yet they still gathered together in one of their cabins and worshiped together, which included partaking of communion together. By how autos is generally used in the New Testament, they had “come together amongst themselves” (1 Cor. 11:20). Should they not have partaken of communion or worshiped at all that day due to not being with their home church?
Consider shut-ins who are either permanently or temporarily unable to assemble with the rest of their home congregation. Should the brethren who have visited them on Sunday afternoons and worshiped with them in their homes, bringing them communion in the process, not have done so because they weren’t among the whole worship assembly earlier that day? Was it not still the case that they had “come together amongst themselves” in that Christian shut-in’s home?
Consider Paul, who for two years was under house arrest in Rome and for several years had been in prison before that (Acts 21-28). Brethren had visited him in prison and while he was under house arrest. Were they not allowed to worship with him and partake communion with him because he and they were not part of the whole worship assembly in that locale? Did Paul not partake of communion for literally years because of this? Consider those who were “scattered abroad” from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1ff). It must have taken them weeks or even months to find a new place to live and a new congregation with which to worship while being fugitives from the Jews. Did they not worship together and partake of communion at all during that time? Or, among however many brethren they were, did they “come together amongst themselves” until they found a new church home? It is clear which scenario is more reasonable and likely. Extenuating circumstances allow for worshiping together outside of the normal assemblies. Thus, extenuating circumstances allow the use of technology to expedite worshiping together outside of the normal assemblies.
I’ve even seen it said that worshiping online is not actual worship. Yet I’ve observed my children watch a video which taught them about the Bible. Were they not actually taught simply because it was a video? I’ve worshiped in song while singing along to a recording of Christians singing praises. Was I not actually worshiping simply because I used an MP3 recording? To ask is to answer.
The newness or atypicality of something does not inherently make it sinful, nor is it required to permanently take the place of the norm once things return to normal. Our God is wiser than us. His wisdom is seen in wording the scriptures we’ve studied here in such a way to allow us to adapt to the unusual circumstances of life. Elders are called to lead in making those adaptations.
These days, many elders are making hard decisions. The benefit of the doubt must be given that they have studied the Scriptures and are doing their best, both during and after this pandemic, to abide within divine parameters concerning both the assembly and the care of others. They need our support, encouragement, prayers, and gratitude. Church autonomy should be respected. Righteous judgment must be given to all (John 7:24).