Before COVID-19, when I first wrote on the topic of the Gathered Church, I never thought I would one day be wrestling with this topic in light of a worldwide pandemic. I was mainly thinking about believers who refuse to gather with other believers on the Lord’s Day. This really is a good example of why we should wrestle with theological issues even when they don’t seem to be important at the time.
With the dawning of the Coronavirus, the issue has become complicated. We now have three more matters to address: Does the church have biblical ground to meet virtually during a pandemic? Also, why not just switch to a virtual meeting altogether? After all, it’s much more convenient. Even still, many are wondering if the church should cease gathering if forbidden by the government.
Here is my own practice based on my study of Scripture. Before proceeding, you should probably read my post entitled, “Does A Christian Have To Gather In-person To Be Obedient?” The truths about the “gathered church” seen in 1 Corinthians undergird my belief and practice.
Does the church have grounds to suspend gatherings (or temporarily meet virtually) during a pandemic?
I believe “yes,” if lives are truly at great risk. God commands us to gather, but he also commands us to protect life (John 15:13, Psalm 82:3-4, Romans 13:4). I would never bring my family to a Lord’s Day gathering if I knew there was a gunman ready to kill us. I would instead find safety in order to protect them. The same is true of a pandemic if (and there’s a lot wrapped up in that two-letter word) there is a clear and great danger.
Does the church have grounds to switch to a virtual meeting altogether even after the danger has passed?
I would not promote this or practice this. I believe the Gathered Church should . . . actually . . . gather. There are many things about our worship, specifically the ordinances, that cannot be accomplished apart from being in-person. Obviously, if someone is in a desperate situation (the elderly in assisted living, a member recovering from surgery, etc.), then livestream can be a powerful and helpful tool.
I believe this so much that I am willing to risk arrest and imprisonment . . . which brings me to the next question . . .
Does the church have grounds to gather even when forbidden by the government?
Since I do not want to pretend to know more than my brothers and sister who live in persecution, the remainder of what I am going to say applies to American Christians in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Referring back to the first bulleted point above and the need to keep people safe, church leaders must use wisdom to decide whether the government is oppressing the church or acting as God’s minister (Romans 13:4-5) in an attempt to protect her citizens. We must be very sure that we have the mind of Christ when leading the church into civil disobedience. If we are leading people against the government when the government is doing the right thing, according to Paul in Romans and Peter (1 Peter 2:13-17), we are actually opposing God.
Also, even if it is proven that the government is overreaching (which very well be the case during the COVID-19 pandemic), this does not give believers the liberty to disobey the government in other matters. So, for example, it would not be okay to drive 100 mph on your way to church or refuse to pay your real estate taxes because you think the government is unjustifiably forbidding your church to gather. This applies to the wearing of masks and physical distancing. Churches that choose to defy the government by gathering on the Lord’s Day should still obey the government in the other areas unless they have clear biblical grounds to disobey.