Church sanctuaries remain empty after ten weeks of restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. In some places, drive-in church services are happening, just like when I was a kid and went to Herbie the Love Bug at the drive-in movie theater. But where I live, we are still in the “red” zone, which does not mean we are within twenty yards of the endzone. For us, the endzone seems a long way off. As long as we are in the red zone, we cannot meet together for worship.
I’m concerned about my fellow Christians. It seems some are becoming discontent, grumbling and complaining about the rules of isolation. In Pennsylvania Dutch, we call that being gretzy. I understand and have been a little gretzy myself. I don’t agree with the arbitrary nature of closing businesses and organizations, and the fear being propagated. But this week I was convicted about my attitude.
There are a handful of churches who are meeting despite the governor’s orders. The primary reason given for violating the order is that the church is “commanded to meet together by God.” They cite Hebrews 10:25, “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.” The problem is context, which indicates that the church was not forbidden to meet, but that some members were choosing not to meet.
This section of Hebrews 10 is really about encouraging one another. When the book of Hebrews was written, that would have been difficult to do without meeting in person. But today it is fairly easy to encourage someone via a phone call, a video chat, a Zoom meeting, or even good, old-fashioned snail mail. Sure, meeting together, being face-to-face, offering a hug of encouragement would be preferable. But in the age in which we live, there are alternatives. This exhortation is about being committed and intentional in encouraging the members of their church family.
And how do these churches balance this verse with the whole of Scripture? Where does obeying civil authority come in? “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1) They would counter with Acts 5:29, “…we must obey God rather than man.” But again, the context of that statement was the apostles being told they could not preach in the name of Jesus. We are not being told that. Preaching the Gospel, witnessing, praying, Bible study, none of it has been prohibited by our government. And then there is the rest of Scripture – patiently enduring suffering (2 Corinthians 1:6), loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, being a light, rejoicing when persecuted (Matthew 5). Above all things, Christians are to be known for their love, which does not insist on its own way (John 13, Colossians 3, & 1 Corinthians 13). You would have to do some Simone Biles-level gymnastics to balance all of Scripture against a verse or two taken out of context.
So, what about meeting for worship? Is the point of a worship service to gather people together or to worship God? There is something necessary about corporate worship which builds up the body of Christ. And we shouldn’t neglect it when we can be together. But it isn’t necessary to be together physically to worship God. Jesus told the Samaritan woman that true worship is not about where it takes place, but the heart of the worshipper. Right worship of God is done in spirit and in truth. (John 4)
If we are gathering because we “need to get back to church,” are we making worship about us? If our source of comfort and contentment comes from meeting together, have we made meeting together an idol?
I’m going to take that even a step further. If we are willing to violate an order because we want so much to have something that we don’t have, isn’t that the very definition of coveting? Are we fueling discontentment in our lives by longing for what was and not being content with what is? Now we’ve got coveting, discontentment, and idol worship. They don’t belong in the life of a Christian. They need to be repented of and forsaken, not fed and nurtured.
What does God really want from his church? “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Right now we can accomplish those things by waiting patiently for the time we can meet together for worship. We find much more in Scripture about waiting, patience, and longsuffering than about defying the government. I have not cultivated longsuffering in my life, proven by my reaction when the light turns green and the person in front of me doesn’t hit the gas.
COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown did not happen outside of God’s sovereignty and goodness. Individual churches may close permanently, but the Church, the Bride of Christ, will not. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18)
Let us redeem this time of waiting. Let’s learn new ways of communicating and “meeting together.” And, most importantly, let us reflect Jesus to a fearful, impatient world.