These are difficult days. Global crises like Covid-19 accentuate just how fragile life on this planet is, and how much humanity needs God and his church.
Unfortunately, however, the nature of this pandemic has, ironically, required churches everywhere to scatter their flocks to their private homes instead of meeting in person. In many cases, this decision has created an alternate predicament — a crisis of faith, not in God, per se, but in our fellow brethren (the church itself!).
Some Christians have strongly denounced those churches who continue to assemble, charging them with being inconsiderate to their neighbors (cf. Rom. 13.10; Phil. 2.4; Gal. 5.14). Others, however, have reprimanded those churches who have reluctantly disbanded their public gatherings temporarily, arguing that we must put God and his kingdom first (Mt. 6.33), regardless of what our neighbors may think (cf. Mt. 22.37-39; Acts 4.19; 5.29).
Let us attempt a more measured response, in an effort to be “slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (Jms. 1.19-20; cf. Prov. 14.17; 16.32; Ecc. 7.9).
In the first place, it is well known that churches of Christ routinely meet more often than what the Scriptures require. The church is authorized to meet “daily” (Acts 2.46); yet, we are only required to meet upon “the first day of every week” (i.e., Sunday — 1 Cor. 16.1-2, ESV; Acts 20.7).
In that light, the leadership of each congregation has the right to decide whether or not to host mid-week Bible studies (e.g., Wednesday nights), as well as any extra assemblies on Sunday. If the local church conducts such ancillary assemblies, the membership ought to participate, since their leaders, to whom God expects us to “submit,” have made them available for our “advantage” (Heb. 13.17).
However, if the leadership should decide to suspend these extra assemblies, for whatever reason, that is well within their prerogative, since such gatherings are permitted but not commanded. In other words, the leadership of each congregation has a greater degree of flexibility regarding mid-week Bible study than they do the Sunday worship session.
Since that is so, we must remember that these extra assemblies, though engrained in the schedule of every faithful Christian, are nonetheless liberties we enjoy. And liberties can be relinquished when necessary.
Indeed, the Bible teaches Christians that it is better to forego our liberties, if necessary for the sake of others, than to insist upon them and damage our influence (1 Cor. 8.7-13).
With that principle in mind, surely it is right — i.e., commendable to God — to suspend these extra assemblies temporarily for the sake of our neighbors. The quarantine may last only a few weeks; but the ire of the community toward the church could endure indefinetly. Is that price worth our inflexibility?
“Beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (1 Cor. 8.7)!
However, what about Sunday assembly? Is it right to forego the first day of the week gathering temporarily, which God has “ordered” (diatasso—command; charge) his churches to “do” (imperative) (1 Cor. 16.1)?
First, let us not excoriate those congregations that have continued Sunday gatherings. Regrettably, some, in their zeal to stress the need to love our fellow man, have unwittingly forgotten their duties toward the consciences of their own brethren, who have doubts that suspending Sunday gatherings — even temporarily — is acceptable to God.
Certainly, it is good to be mindful of the physical health of our neighbors, but what about the spiritual health of God’s own people? Remember, if a brother or sister believes that missing any Sunday worship assembly is a sin, it matters not if it actually is a sin. If they think it is wrong — or, at least, doubt that it is right — and they are absent anyway, then, in violating their conscience, they are wounding their own souls (Rm. 14.23).
Thus, by shaming them for continuing to assemble, you are tempting them to sin.
“And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother [i.e., the one who has doubts] perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ” (1 Cor. 8.11-12).
Second, let us acknowledge that both sides are acting out of love and consideration for others. Those who self-quarantine, of course, act for the physical benefit of others.
On the other hand, those who continue to assemble are also “considering one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10.24). It is brash to insist that brethren who assemble during this quarantine are being selfish, especially if they are concerned about the consciences of their brethren in Christ — or their love for God, which is always paramount to their love for their fellow man (Mt. 10.37; 22.37-39)!
Third, while we should “bear with” (i.e., be accommodating toward) those who doubt the rightness of suspending Sunday gatherings (Rm. 15.1), it is also proper to “build [them] up in the most holy faith” (Jude 1.20; 1 Thess. 5.11) — to “uphold the weak” (1 Thess. 5.14) and “strengthen…the feeble knees” (Heb. 12.12).
For example, Paul wrote that some brethren may eat only “vegetables,” because they are “weak” in their conscience, not knowing whether or not it is right to consume animal flesh (Rm. 14.2). He urges us not to “despise” or “dispute” with them, but to “receive” them (Rm. 14.1, 3).
However, Paul himself still taught them that “every creature of God is good…if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4.3-4). Thus, he was accommodating toward their doubts about meat-eating, but also willing to teach them so as to alleviate those doubts. He let them remain vegetarians, if that is what they desired; but also attempted to reassure them that meat-eating is acceptable too.
Consequently, let us not reprimand those who continue to assemble on Sunday — they, too, are acting out of love and consideration for God and their brethren. But let us also reflect upon the proper role of the Sunday assembly, from a Biblical point of view.
Is It Wrong To Miss Sunday Assembly Temporarily?
Those who scold churches for suspending Sunday assembly during this quarantine are equally misguided.
In the first place, the author of Hebrews warns us against “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some” (10.25).
This passage does not prohibit occasional absences. Rather, it inveighs against the habitual abandonment or neglect of Christian gatherings. Prayerfully consider the following points:
(1) The term, "forsaking," translates the Greek word, egkataleipo (lit., leave behind in [some place]). Depending upon the context, it may mildly suggest leaving someone “who is in straits” “in the lurch” (Moulton, et al., p. 179; cf. Mt. 27.46).
However, in its most negative usage, the term and its cognates convey a sense of repudiation in the departure (2 Tim. 4.10, 16; cf. Lk. 5.28; Heb. 11.27; 2 Pt. 2.15) — i.e., to “abandon” or “desert” (Bauer, et al., p. 214). One can hardly accuse those who love the assembly, but who are unable to attend due to physical need, of turning their backs on Christian gatherings.
(2) Furthermore, “forsaking” is a present tense participle, suggesting sustained activity. Hence, the passage is an admonishment against regularly deciding to abandon Christian gatherings, due to spiritual weakness or a lack of devotion. The individual whose church attendance may best be described by the phrase, “once in a blue moon,” should take heed and repent.
(3) This meaning is further established by the term, “manner” — “as is the manner of some.” The original word denotes behavior that is based on repeated practice — a “habit” (ESV).
Greek grammarian, William Mounce, observes that it refers to
“the tendency or convention by which things are done, a ‘habit’ or ‘custom.’ This word can describe a regular practice or general personal habit, such as” the fact “that some believers did not meet regularly with the church” (p. 153).
Likewise, W.E. Vine notes that the verb form means “to be accustomed” (p. 391).
And professor Marvin Vincent remarks that the term alludes to “an often recurring act” (p. 502).
Thus, the author does not condemn the occasional absence due to genuine need. Nor does he permit those who do not want to assemble (for whatever reason) to make feeble (carnal) excuses for not convening with the brethren. Rather, he specifically addresses those who are “growing slack in the practice of their Christian fellowship” (Bruce, p. 255).
As our own brother and elder for the Bethany church of Christ, Robert Milligan (1814-1875), one-time professor at Indiana University and president of Kentucky University, wrote: “some of them had fallen into the habit of neglecting the regular meetings of the Church” (p. 283). This is not to be done.
In that light, churches that are adopting these temporary stay-at-home measures are neither disavowing Christian gatherings, nor are they asking that these proceedings become habitual mainstays of the church.
All that said: even if congregations that close their doors during this quarantine are not violating Hebrews 10.25, how can they justify failing to “do” what the Holy Spirit “orders” them to do — even once (1 Cor. 16.1-2)?
The answer is this: there is a higher principle to which Christians are amenable.
Mercy Over Sacrifice
In his confrontations with the Pharisees, our Lord was repeatedly criticized for allegedly breaking the Sabbath day (cf. Mk. 2.23ff; Mt. 12.1ff; Lk. 6.1ff; 14.1ff). Of course, he did no such thing.
Rather, since God desires “mercy” more than “sacrifice” (cf. Hos. 6.6; Mt. 12.7), Jesus insisted that it was “lawful to do good on the Sabbath” (Mt. 12.12). The principle is this: human well-being takes precedence over ritual. Love is “more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk. 12.33; cf. Mt. 23.23). For a more expansive treatment of this subject, see my article: “Lawless Legalists.”
The hypocritical Pharisees themselves recognized that it was consistent with the law to suspend worship rituals occasionally in order to tend to various needs or emergencies. They fed and watered their animals on the Sabbath (Lk. 13.15-17), and if they had a “donkey or an ox” fall “into a pit,” they “immediately pulled him out on the Sabbath day” (Lk. 14.5). In that light, Jesus effectively asked them: is not a human being worth more than a dumb animal?
Thus, our master reminded them of this:
“The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2.27).
Certainly, Sunday, the first day of the week, is not the Sabbath (the last day), for Christians have been given a new holy day (cf. 1 Cor. 16.1-2; Acts 20.7; Rev. 1.10). Still, the principle remains.
Like the Sabbath, Sunday is given for man’s benefit — man was not made for Sunday. Christian gatherings are designed to serve “for the better” of man, not “for the worse” (1 Cor. 11.17).
Thus, in emergency situations (e.g., violent storms, public or personal health, man-made catastrophes, etc.), the law of Christ impresses upon us the fact that the occasional nature of human need permits us to suspend our collective rituals for the sake of good. In other words, loving God first means that we must put human emergency ahead of ceremony. Once we have tended to such needs, we must then return to our ceremonies and “offer [our] gift” to God (cf. Mt. 5.23f).
Finally, consider this: when Jesus warned his disciples about the impending destruction of Jerusalem (Mt. 24.1ff; Lk. 21.20ff), he counseled those who may happen to be in the area at the time to “flee to the mountains” (Mt. 24.16). Further, he told them to “pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath” (Mt. 24.20). What did he mean by this?
Ordinarily, Jews would be reluctant to travel very far on the Sabbath. In fact, every Sabbath day, the gates of Jerusalem were shut and guarded, preventing those who happened to be inside the city from easily escaping (cf. Neh. 13.19). Hence, Jesus is not so much concerned about the “keeping of days,” here, but rather about the “distress of men” in these unusual and trying circumstances (Lewis, p. 125).
In other words, Jesus does not suggest that God would not permit his people to suspend ritual observances in order to flee for their lives; to the contrary, their “flight” on that day is good. However, it would be made much more difficult to have to do so during that time, due to the impediments peculiar to the Sabbath festivities in Jerusalem.
Indeed, a pregnant woman would have trouble fleeing, as would individuals with infants (Mt. 24.19); too, winter time would make the escape more difficult, due to cold, bad weather, rising streams, etc. (Mt. 24.20a); and fleeing on the Sabbath, however right and good that might be, would be equally taxing for those still in the city, perhaps even impossible. Thus, Jesus urges Christians to pray for their deliverance; that God would grant them the means and opportunity of escaping the danger, even if that meant interrupting their usual customs.
In like manner, the church of Christ in Jerusalem experienced its own time of severe distress. After the martyrdom of Stephen, a period of “great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8.1).
The brethren, due to this extraordinary threat, dispersed (diaspeira) themselves, in keeping with the principle of human well-being (cf. Acts 8.4ff). In essence, they disbanded the congregation temporarily, until they could reestablish the community when the threat had sufficiently abated. Since this particular threat was more localized to the city of Jerusalem, many of the Jerusalem brethren went on to establish congregations in numerous other cities (Acts 11.19ff).
Hence, sometimes dispersion is done, not out of fear, but out of faith — that is, in an effort to uphold the immutable principles of the Almighty (Heb. 6.17), which are vouchsafed in his word (Rm. 10.17).
During this time of need, then, since God desires that mercy take priority over sacrifice (i.e., congregational worship), it is right for congregations to ask their membership to disperse temporarily to various locations for worship, until the dark clouds of disease have sufficiently dissipated.
This too shall pass!
Let Christians use this opportunity to serve others in need, not to disparage one another. And let us take this time to speak with our neighbors about depending upon God and turning their lives over to our Lord.
J. W. McGarvey’s words, in regard to the Christian dispersion in Acts 8, seem to be especially germane:
[T]he apparent ruin of the single church in Jerusalem resulted in the springing up of many churches throughout the province — proving, for the thousandth time in the world’s history, how impotent is the hand of man when fighting against God. As the blows of the blacksmith’s hammer upon the heated iron scatter the scintillations in every direction, so the effort of wicked Jews to crush the church of Christ only scatter its light more widely abroad (p. 89).
Bauer, Walter, William F. Ardnt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1975. Bruce, F. F. The International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984. Lewis, Jack P. The Gospel According to Matthew: Part II.2. Austin, TX: Sweet Publishing Co., 1976. McGarvey, J.W. Original Commentary on Acts. Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation, 2005. Milligan, Robert. The New Testament Commentary: Vol. 9—Epistle to the Hebrews. Des Moines, IA: Eugene S. Smith, n.d. Moulton, J. H. and G. Milligan. Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004. Mounce, William D. Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Vincent, Marvin R. Word Studies In The New Testament: Vol. IV. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973. Vine, W.E. Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1985.