This morning as I scanned my Facebook feed it was filled with “Church Is Essential” banners as Christians in Northern Ireland expressed their opposition to planned restrictions that will include a prohibition on churches meeting in their buildings.
I was encouraged by what I read. Most of the concern seems to be among the younger generation, but it won’t be them making the decisions in the churches.
I wrestled through this subject earlier in the year, greatly unsettled by the circumstances caused by the response to Covid-19. The decision to suspend public worship was not an easy one. It lasted for seven weeks for us, and I struggled through every one of those weeks. However, at the beginning I found it difficult to put my conflicted feelings into words, and even tried to salve my conscience and help our congregation understand our decision by arguing that it was an act of mercy. Granted, it was easier to believe at the time given the media hype and uncertainty, but I don’t think I ever really believed it was truly an act of mercy. God will judge.
Scriptural grounds for corporate worship
A friend of mine and pastor said to me that he believed the different responses to Covid-19 depended on how dangerous you viewed it. There’s an element of truth to that. If you think it’s going to kill millions of people that will influence your behavior more than if you believe it’s similar to a bad flu.
At the same time, the church has faced many dangerous circumstances in the past. Threat upon life from plagues, terrorists, governments, etc. In all cases, believers have made calculated assessments whether to gather, and have never wholesale stopped gathering. Some may have, but not all.
Thinking back to March, it’s true to say that as the weeks passed, I became more unsettled. Eventually I was driven to return to the drawing board. What are the scriptural grounds for New Testament believers meeting regularly, particularly on the Lord’s Day?
Much could be said, but I whittled it down to three reasons. These views are my own and are shared in the hope that they might give clarity to others wrestling with the challenges of these days.
1. Jesus Christ calls His people to assemble together on the Lord’s Day because it is the desire of the risen Christ to acknowledge His gathered people as brethren (Hebrews 2:12).
In Hebrews 2:12, the apostle quotes from Psalm 22:22. This is a well-known Messianic psalm and is almost universally acknowledged as such. What is particularly interesting is that the verse appears to be a pivotal point from which the psalm turns from the sufferings of the Messiah to the expressions of a risen Messiah.
It was after the resurrection when Christ first acknowledged his disciples as brethren (John 20:17) and gathered with them (John 20:19). Many commentators note this transition, but Thomas Coke (1747-1814) helpfully remarks:
Our Saviour here passes from the mournful view of his death to the comfortable prospect of his resurrection. He intimates, that after God should have delivered him from the power of death by a glorious resurrection, he would more fully publish his gospel, by which the adorable perfections of God, and especially his wisdom and mercy, would be more eminently displayed among his apostles, and among the rest of his disciples and followers, whom He is not ashamed to call his brethren, Hebrews 2:11.
The writer to the Hebrews quotes the psalm which prophesied of an event that was fulfilled on the first resurrection day, the Lord’s Day, when Christ met with His fearful disciples and encouraged and comforted them. But this He has continued to do for two millennia, meeting with His gathered saints and comforting them. A careful reading of John 20 will show that the one disciple that did not gather, Thomas, was permitted by Christ to continue in his doubt and misery for an entire week until he assembled with the saints the following Lord’s Day and met with the risen Christ and heard the medicinal Word that our Saviour had for his soul.
2. Jesus Christ calls His people to assemble together on the Lord’s Day so that He can do what He never did during His earthy ministry, namely, sing with the Gentiles (Romans 15:8-12).
This is a wonderful text, and it was only when studying the subject of the essential practice of corporate worship on the Lord’s Day that I noted it in this light. Again, in this passage there are several quotations from the Old Testament (including Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1; Isaiah 11:10), and it reflects the fact that while Jesus Christ primarily ministered to the Jews, it was always God’s intention to gather unto Him the Gentiles. Robert Haldane (1764-1842) says:
In the passage referred to, Christ is represented as confessing or acknowledging God among the Gentiles, and singing to the praise of His name. Christ did not appear personally among the Gentile nations. This prediction, then, must be fulfilled of Him in His people, as one with Him. Than this nothing more clearly proves the unity of Christ and His people.
Although Haldane rightly points out that Christ did not appear personally among Gentile nations, yet as he suggests, Christ does truly come into the Gentile nations through the ministry of His people. Ephesians 2:17 presents the case that Christ preached in Ephesus areas, yet we know this must be seen as through the ministry of the Lord’s people. But the point is, Paul argues in Romans 15 for the importance of the Gentiles singing (v9), and doing so with the Jews (v10-11) in a corporate fashion, and when they do so, Christ is with the Gentiles as they confess and sing. This is a particular blessing of corporate assembly as Jesus Christ stands in the midst of biblical and penitent churches (Rev. 1:13).
3. Jesus calls His people to assemble together on the Lord’s Day to preserve souls from apostasy (Hebrews 10:23-25).
Not much needs to be said here, since it is the most well-known text that has been used by believers during this time of state-enforced lockdowns.
John Owen (1616-1683) is worth reading on this passage. Among many helpful comments he says:
That those assemblies, those comings together in one place, were the only way whereby the church, as a church, made its profession of subjection unto the authority of Christ in the performance of all those duties of sacred worship whereby God was to be glorified under the gospel.
Are souls in danger of drifting from Christ? What is the Lord’s answer? The assembly of the saints and their interactions with one another. Christians must meet, not just for their own sakes, but for the sake of others that need their presence and encouragement.
While I am not in denial of the virus that is spreading around our communities, among the young and healthy it’s almost an irrelevance. One subsection of our communities must take precaution—the immune compromised and those that live and work with them. But every Lord’s Day the Lord’s people do not assemble, none of the above can be done. Take that in. None of the above can be done without the assembly of the saints.
Asking the wrong question
Ultimately, I realized we had faced the problem in March by asking the wrong question. Instead of asking ourselves, do we close or not? We ought to have asked, is there a way to meet safely?
This is what you do when a problem faces an immovable conviction. If we really believe Christ calls His people to worship. If we really believe that we have a King in heaven that orders His people to assemble, then like every generation in the past, you don’t stop worship, you just figure out another way to conduct it.
Within a few weeks of suspending corporate worship, I was starting to entertain in my mind any possible option to resume some level of corporate worship, being prepared to preach ten times to smaller groups of people each Lord’s Day if that’s what it would take. That’s what happens when you have convictions you can’t compromise on. You find any legitimate means to uphold your convictions.
When the government bans all assemblies
So, what do you do if the government bans all assemblies? After getting in touch with local officials and making them aware that the Magna Carta established they had no jurisdiction over the church 800 years ago, and reminding them of whatever national laws or rights I could, I would meet for worship while obeying as much as possible. Imagining the worst scenario, if the government restricts people from gathering with anyone except those outside your own household, and they won’t let anyone congregate even in their cars in a parking lot, here is what I might do.
- I’d contact my congregation and let them when and where I would be going for my government-permitted walk on the Lord’s Day. It would likely be around a particular open park or sports field.
- I’d tell them if they happen to be in the same place at the same time, they might find me singing and they should feel free to join in, as long as they keep their distance.
- I’d tell them what I plan to sing so they can print the words ahead of time.
- I’d be carrying a portable megaphone, and I’d pray, sing, and preach while walking around the park or sports field.
That is on the extreme end, but convictions that cannot be normally adhered to produce creativity.
I’m sure the above will be received with varying levels of agreement and disagreement, but if I have learned one thing this year it is that I have a King that calls me to corporate worship. I must obey Him unless there is good reason not to, and the voice of another king is, quite simply, not a good reason.