This is the second week since the coronavirus pandemic that we have not assembled with the Northwest congregation. We have not quit worshiping and working for the Lord. In fact, many are doing more of that than ever before. We are also blessed to be able to communicate by telephone, mail, email, Facebook and the many other means of social media. This has been helpful during a time when the government has issued orders to stay away from one another in order to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
No doubt many of you, just like me and others I know, have had to grapple with the question “Are we forsaking the assembly?”.
Since that first Sunday at the Feast of Pentecost after Christ’s resurrection, the church has met together every week to worship the Lord. That this was the practice of the church is seen in Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 and is confirmed by historians and the early church fathers. In 1 Corinthians Paul specifically mentions the partaking of the Lord’s Supper when they came together in the church and came together in one place (1 Cor. 11:18-20). He further emphasized the importance of edification when the whole church came together into one place (14:3-4, 12, 23, 26). The importance of assembling is emphasized in Hebrews 10:24-25. We all need the encouragement that comes from being together.
So, what are we to do when we have a pandemic like the coronavirus and the government is issuing orders not to assemble? There are several passages I want us to look at that speak to this issue and should help us as we seek to please God in everything.
Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17
First, let’s consider Romans 13:1-7 and our relationship with the government as Christians. Here we learn that we are to obey the governing authorities. Their authority comes from God and to disobey them is to disobey God. They are God’s minister to Christians for good. We are to fear and honor them.
Notice how Peter agrees with Paul in this matter. Read 1 Peter 2:13-17. We obey them for the Lord’s sake and to put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. In other words, when the world sees Christians are respecting the law, they will not have cause to speak against us and God will be glorified. If we rebel against our governing authorities, we will lose our influence in the world for Christ. In our current situation if we continue to meet some might think, and understandably so, that we do not care if we spread the virus to others.
Acts 4:18-20 and Acts 5:27-29
It is right here that some will quickly speak up and say that we must obey God rather than men. This comes from Acts 4 and 5. Peter and John were healing and preaching in the name of Jesus. The ruling Jews saw this as a threat to their own power and tried to shut them down: “And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’” (Acts 4:18-20).
The apostles made it clear that God is the highest authority and that we must first listen to Him. Jesus had commanded His apostles to go and preach the gospel and He did so by the authority of God (Mark 16:15-16; Mat. 28:18-20). They had to listen to Him even if it caused them to be punished by the Jewish authorities. Not heeding their warning, they were all imprisoned but at night an angel of the Lord set them free. Look what happened when the Jewish rulers heard they were back preaching again. “And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest asked them, saying, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this Man's blood on us!’ But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’” (Acts 5:27-29). We, too, must be willing to suffer at the hands of the government if they would try and stop us from doing what God has commanded us to do.
That brings us to Hebrews 10:24-25. What does this passage teach us about assembling as a congregation? “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). This passage clearly condemns “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”. But what does that mean?
First, let’s notice that the passage is discussing assembling with each other in general and not just on Sunday. It does not say forsaking the assembly but forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. The church met every day when it first began in Acts 2 “continuing daily with one accord in the temple” (Acts 2:46). Many churches of Christ meet regularly twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays. Sometimes we come together for gospel meetings throughout the week.
Second, the word translated “forsaking” means “to leave behind” or “to desert” and is translated “forsake, leave” (Strong’s Greek). Hebrews teaches us that some had abandoned the church because of persecution by the Jews, though not yet “unto blood” (Heb. 12:3), leaving Christ and going back to Judaism. As a result, some had, and more were in danger of falling away (cf. Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31).
Carefully considering the context, taking these two things into consideration it should be clear to all that this passage does not condemn everyone who is ever absent from any meeting of the church for any and all reasons but rather it is a warning to those who would abandon the church, in this case because of persecution. Most churches of Christ have recognized this distinction by allowing members to miss various assemblies without disciplining them (and in some cases even temporarily canceling the assembling of ourselves together) due to things like sickness and disease (like our current plague), severe weather threats (such as a hurricane), a military invasion, occupancy or lock down (making it impossible to assemble), and other emergencies of all kinds. Yes, some may use such things to excuse themselves from assembling when it is not necessary, but that does not mean that such things are never valid reasons to miss church. In such cases, we are not “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” in the manner that the Hebrew writer is warning.
We can find precedent for this kind of thing throughout the Bible. For example at the death of Nadab and Abihu, their father, Aaron, who was the high priest, and their two brothers who also served as priests were all exempted from eating the sin offering which was required according to the Law of Moses, apparently because of their tremendous grief (Lev. 10:1-3, 16-20). The Law also made allowances for those who could not take the Passover in the first month because they were traveling far away or had become unclean, so that they could partake of the Passover in the second month (Num. 10:9-13). Moving from place to place in the wilderness would have made it impossible for Israel to keep the daily laws of sacrifice and the service of the tabernacle. Some laws of God were not kept by them for the entire forty years they remained in the desert and were only carried out at the end of their long journey upon entering the Promised Land, including the rite of circumcision and the annual festival of Passover (Joshua 5:1-11). For seventy years, God’s people were captives in Babylon unable to keep the feasts and the services of the Temple in Jerusalem. In Acts 8:3-4 the congregation in Jerusalem was scattered by persecution which would have canceled their assembling for at least some time, but they continued to preach the word. I can imagine there were many times and long periods of time when the apostle Paul did not make it to church because he was traveling or a prisoner on a ship on his way to Rome, stranded on an island like Malta (or in John’s case Patmos), locked up in a prison, bobbing on the water or laid up after a beating, stoning or lashing.
The orders from our government to stay at home have not been given in order to persecute Christians or anyone else. They are made to protect us from spreading the coronavirus and to prevent sickness and death in our country. As we have already learned from Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 it is their God given responsibility to take such measures. We may not always agree with their decisions, but it is their right and responsibility not ours rather it is our duty to obey them. This is only a temporary situation and the church will survive it.
Jesus uses two incidents to put some light on this whole matter in Matthew 12:1-13. The first incident is recorded in verses 1-8. The Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus for doing something unlawful by plucking grain on the Sabbath. Plucking grain from someone’s field was allowed by the law of God to help the poor and hungry and was distinguished from the work of harvesting a field (Deu. 23:25) which would have violated God’s command not to work on the Sabbath. What the disciples did may have violated the tradition of the Pharisees but not God’s law. Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the Jews in accusing His disciples this way. They condemned His disciples who did not break God’s law, but they considered David their hero who did violate God’s law taking the showbread from the Temple which belonged only to the priests. He further reminded them that God not only desires sacrifice but also mercy. The Jews may have been careful to keep the sacrifices of the law but failed in mercy toward others, especially the poor and hungry.
The second incident is found in verses 9-13. Here Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. He justified doing this with an argument from lesser to greater. If they could understand God allowing them to rescue a sheep which had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, surely, they could understand God allowing Christ to heal a human being on the Sabbath.
The Sabbath wasn’t given to Israel to burden them but to give them rest. That is what the word sabbath means – rest! Let’s not be like the Pharisees who holding to their traditions condemned the disciples of Jesus and even Jesus Himself for violating the Sabbath, by condemning one another for forsaking the assembling of ourselves together because we obey the orders of our governing authorities to help prevent spreading the coronavirus to our neighbors so that they don’t get sick and die. Such actions on the part of Christians and churches is not done out of fear of persecution or of the coronavirus but rather out of love for others, respect for those in authority and first and foremost to please God. God’s desire for mercy calls for us to heed the orders of our government and the advice of our medical community who deem it necessary for us to forgo the assembling of ourselves together during this national emergency of the coronavirus pandemic which is quickly being spread from person to person causing sickness and death to thousands of people.
Finally, I must say a word about Matthew 18:20 because it is so often misunderstood and misused regarding our assembling together. Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Mat. 18:20). Some people say, “See, I don’t have to worship with the church, I can do that home with my family.”.
Please notice that this passage isn’t even talking about assembling for worship with God’s people. It is talking about church discipline (vv. 15-20). The principle that every word is established by the mouth of two or three witnesses is found in both the Law of Moses (Deu. 19:15) and in the New Covenant of Christ (2 Cor. 13:1). Jesus is teaching that He authorizes and approves of disciplining members of the church as long as there are at least two witnesses. He is not providing an excuse for us to stay at home because we don’t want to get up and go to church.
Jesus is always with us (Mat. 28:20; Heb. 13:5). Whether you are alone or with a thousand Jesus is there and you can worship Him, but that is not the point of this passage. Nor does it excuse anyone from assembling with the congregation. God wants us to worship alone, with our family, in groups and as a congregation. God does not want us to have to live our Christian lives without the edification, exhortation, comfort, encouragement and communion that can only be experienced by assembling as a congregation.
Let me close with this. I truly hate being away from my brothers and sisters, especially my Northwest family. I’m sure you all feel the same way. When I go away on a mission trip or am off preaching a gospel meeting, I miss being with my wife and I am always so anxious to get back home to her. It makes me appreciate her even more and reminds me to never take her for granted. In the same way, I am reminded of what a blessing it is for us to come together in worship to God. Let’s never take that for granted but truly appreciate every opportunity to be together as God’s church.
In the meantime, let’s continue as you have to do all we can to stay in touch, to love, serve, help, teach and preach the gospel of Christ doing the work of the Lord and worshiping Him every day whether you are alone or with your family. Right now we want to encourage you to call upon us if you have needs, if you need prayer today, if you need to be restored to the Lord and His church, if you need to obey the gospel to be saved, whatever your need to let us know how we can help you towards heaven today.
Robert Dodson is the Preaching Minister for the Northwest Church of Christ.
6059 Azle Avenue
Fort Worth, TX 76135