Forsaking the Assembly & Loving Thy Neighbor- COVID-19

We are used to arguing about the importance of the church “assembling together.” We’ve debated the importance of Bible classes, Sunday nights and Wednesday nights for years. Now we are trying to justify not meeting. Who saw that coming?

Of course, the church has ignored government bans before. Rome didn’t want Christians meeting and “advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:21). They still met. Courageous Christians in China and Iran have met underground in defiance of government regulation for years.

But this time is different. It’s not because of our conviction that “Jesus is Lord” that the government has asked us not to assemble. Instead, the government has requested we not meet out of concern for our neighbors. Ironically, they are calling on businesses, schools and churches to practice justice and mercy. We are being asked to love our neighbor. Government officials have even called for people of faith to pray.

The church is being asked to be the church. They want us to live out the meaning of our confession. And our confession is much bigger than our assembly.

That’s not to say being together is unimportant. In moments of fear, the church assembled to pray (Acts 4:23). In times of doubt, Christians were encouraged to continue meeting (Hebrews 10:25).

“Forsaking the assembly” has nothing to do with canceling meeting times out of love and concern for our neighbors, older members and others most at risk. It has nothing to do with reorganizing or repurposing times of assembly for other kinds of ministry.

“Forsaking the assembly” is a conscious effort to avoid being with other Christians, selfishly turning your back on the community of faith and refusing to live out the responsibilities of our calling. Church leaders choosing to cancel or reimagine assemblies are doing anything but “forsaking the assembly.”

Being together is not the end in itself.

The church assembles because we are saved, not to be saved. Assembling is how we encourage each other, lift each other up and blend our voices in praise to the God who saves us.

Thankfully, many of us are blessed with modern technology allowing us to accomplish some of these objectives in different ways. It is not a perfect replacement, but it is helpful. Technology allows us to receive many blessings of community without threatening to harm our broader community.

It turns out, not assembling for a short time may be the best way to be the true church in these difficult times.

God sent Jeremiah to encourage the Babylonian exiles to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile” (Jeremiah 29:7). Now is our chance to do the same.

If the Gospel is real and relevant, and the church is truly bigger than our buildings, now is the time to show it!

The religious police of Jesus’ day accused him of ignoring the sabbath when he chose to “do good” and restore a man’s withered hand (Matthew 12:13). Jesus reminded them how God desires “mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7). His desire is unchanged.

If God chooses, this crisis will pass. But this crisis has created unlimited opportunities to live out our confession. Our brothers, sisters and neighbors are sick, hungry and anxious.

If the Gospel is real and relevant, and the church is truly bigger than our buildings, now is the time to show it!

The best starting point in how we move forward is to always remember and have in our hearts spiritual awareness consciousness that we are disciples of our Lord Jesus, who commanded us “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31) and “to do until others as you would have them do unto you” (Luke 6:31). He also said that we should render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Mark 12:17). Romans 13:5 reinforces this fact that Christians are to obey the government’s law “for conscience sake” unless in conscience they cannot.

In fact, if we as Christians assume that as believers we can disregard sound medical advice and engage in inherently risky behavior, presuming that God will still protect us, we are committing the sin of presumption. Jesus Himself warned against this particular sin. When confronted by the Devil with this sin in the wilderness, Jesus replied, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matthew 4:7). If the health authorities recommend no meeting of more than ten people, is it presumption for churches to disregard these directives and assemble in person rather than through streaming online or in meeting in smaller house meetings like the early church? I fear that it indeed would be.

As Christ’s disciples we need to follow His command to pray for all of those who are in authority, that God will give them wisdom, guidance, and protection as they seek to fulfill their divinely ordained assignment to protect the citizenry (Rom. 13:1-7).

The public-health evidence makes clear that houses of worship should limit their gatherings, whether mandated or simply encouraged by government officials. And they should do so in willing partnership rather than bitter acquiescence. Love of neighbor and caring for the least of are Biblical moral imperatives. One of the best ways to demonstrate that love now is by suspending physical gatherings, including worship services—for the sake of our neighbors.

Read how the church of Christ responded to the Spanish Flu: