(Please do not take this article as an attack on any person, persons, or eldership. It is merely meant to make us think about the decisions we have made in light of the pandemic.)
To be clear, I’m a preacher, Jim, not a microbiologist*; therefore, I am limited to listening to what the experts tell me about the Coronavirus and then drawing conclusions. This virus has been labeled a pandemic and so should be taken seriously at the least. In March, though, the government at all levels in most places, though not all, put in practice a stay-at-home order. Religious organizations have generally been exempt, though they have been strongly encouraged to limit the number gathering or not gather at all. In some places, temporary regulations have resulted in fines or threats against religious groups which the DOJ is looking into.
All of this has placed churches in a unique position in these times. No such action was ever ordered in 2009 with the Swine Flu pandemic, for example. The dilemma is seen as do we assemble physically or do we obey the government. Yes, I phrased that dilemma as I see it portrayed. It is not phrased in discussion as do we obey the will of God or do we obey men. I am not making an argument here. What I am doing is illustrating that the way the position is phrased indicates a built-in opinion. The question really should be how do we obey the will of God while conforming to the best of our ability with the government?
I also want to make clear at the outset that I am not judging those who have made other arrangements than gathering together physically. There is only one judge, Romans 14:4 and James 4:12; and I am not He. Each person and congregation must make his/its own decisions and stand by them. If done in humility, God’s grace will make them stand if they have erred. So I believe. In fact, one of the things that bothers me is the idea that a national shelter-at-home order means every church should shut its doors. Where is discernment in that? Some of the opinions online seem to indicate, however, that if elders are making decisions in good faith they must be right and should not be questioned. We know that even good-faith elders can make wrong decisions, and questioning those decisions does not necessarily mean one is casting aspersion on the elders.
There are some concerns with these decisions not to assemble, however. The main concern is there seems to be a forgetting of what the will of the Lord really is. The language of scripture is clear: “when you come together.” See Acts 20:7, 1Corinthians 5:4, 11:17, 18, 20, 33, 34, 14:23, 26, Hebrews 10:25. God instituted local groups so that we could come together to worship Him and encourage one another. Is participating in an online meeting the same as coming together? Well, the Bible is silent on Zoom or Hangouts, but I seriously doubt that God had in mind that the internet provides the same benefits that gathering does. We should all be able to agree that God’s general will is to meet physically.
The implications otherwise are serious. One preacher** writes, “However, there are those who have warned – sometimes jokingly, other times seriously – that people might begin purposely to stay at home. Instead of going to the trouble to get dressed, make the trek to the church building, … just stay home in your ‘comfy pants’ with a cup of coffee in hand and watch on your computer, phone, or smart TV. Why not!?!” He then proceeds to make the argument why not. If meeting on line is the same as gathering in person, then how can we make such an argument? This situation would be akin to arguments I have heard about the Lord’s Supper. In offering the second serving, we do not want to encourage Christians to skip the morning worship. How can we argue such? If partaking in the evening is the same as partaking in the morning, then the only real argument left is that brethren should want to gather together whenever they can. Are we arguing similarly here? Meeting online is just as good as meeting in person, but we would not want to discourage the meeting together in person. If one is just as good as the other, then the argument for meeting physically cannot be made.
But one will say, Scott, no one is saying that online is just as good as meeting in person. Is that true? “This is a very beneficial thing to those who are unable to attend the assemblies due to illness, a sick family member, weather hindrances, etc,” argues the same preacher. Beneficial in what way? Here is where we are putting aside the will of the Lord, coming together in person. If the Lord wills it, and we know He does, and it is for our good, and we know it is; then what right do we have to alter that will? By what authority? To obey the government? If we choose not to meet because the government says so, what if the government said we could never meet again? Would we listen? NO! So obeying the government is not the main concern in this matter because it runs contrary to the will of God. Psalm 118:8-9, “It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes.” Acts 5:29, “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’” (And these verses do apply if we say that we are obeying the government in this case.) All of this means that the real consideration is not submission to the government but concern over the spread of illness. This concern may be a legitimate one in many places.
But even that question is not a settled one. Number projections have been wrong and revised down at least three times. Some aspects of this virus may be worse than others and we don’t have a drug yet, but the reality is that, all told, the effects will likely not be much worse than the yearly flu. The estimated numbers for flu in 2018-19 are: 35.5MM illnesses, 16.5MM medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths. 61M died from flu in 2017-18. Compare that to 668M Corona virus illnesses and 34M deaths. Swine flu statistics were: 57MM illnesses, 257M hospitalizations and 11,690 deaths (including 1,180 children).
In addition, California has had roughly 900 deaths (23 per M population) while New York has over 16M (828 per M population). What explains this discrepancy? Some say herd immunity. We now know the virus was in CA in November of last year, but people went about their daily lives and built up immunity.
All this is to say that my personal opinion is we have let our media and government mislead us as to the degree of seriousness of this virus. We have en masse made worship decisions based on faulty data. Why have we placed so much faith in the government to the point that we do not assemble physically? What if the government said we could not come together because we would contribute to man-made global warming which is destroying the planet? Would we stay home? Why not? Because we believe the government is wrong about that and has a political agenda. Well, there is a political agenda with this virus, too.
Ultimately, let’s acknowledge that we are all doing the best we can in this time, but that meeting on Zoom is not assembly. Dividing the group in half is not assembly. Meeting in small groups is not assembly. None of this is the coming together that the Bible speaks of. At ScoC, we have elected to continue assembling in person for worship on Sundays. Older, sick, and at-risk brethren can, as they always do, make the decision to stay home, but we do not penalize the whole group and we do try to continue doing the will of God. We are small in number and take other precautions generally. Might someone get the virus? Certainly, but even so, it may not be from contact with the brethren. It may be from trips to Wal-mart or the grocery store. Psalm 4:5 says, “Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.”
So one may criticize my position as unwise and so become one who protests too much. Can’t we agree that the will of God is, without doubt, that we meet together? If we agree on that point, then the discussion becomes merely about what judgments we make in light of the situation. To be honest, the decision a congregation makes is not even any of my business. We have congregational autonomy, and I believe that the congregations I know of are trying prayerfully to make godly decisions. Hearing the various defenses of meeting online is unnecessary, and worse sometimes, vaguely unscriptural in argumentation. We all know that this is merely a stop-gap measure to fill in the best we can in a tough time. Let’s not, in our defense of the internet, act like it’s the same as it ever was.
*This is not a reply to a questioner named Jim but a corny reference to the original Star Trek show. **I am not using the name of the preacher because I have had and still do have great respect for him, and my article is not about refuting his comments (which are common) but is about discussing the reactions to this situation generally. His quotes are merely used as illustration.