Government, Viruses, and On-Line Gathering

I recently saw a post in which a person asked if March 22, 2020 was the strangest Sunday in modern church history. If it is not, it is surely up there. When have there been so many believers all over the globe unable to meet together in person while at the same time able to communicate via another means? This sort of Sunday would have been unimaginable in even the fairly recent past.

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and our strong desire not to spread the disease but to, as many are saying, flatten the curve, many churches all across the United States did not hold services in their buildings. Instead, we know that many watched a live stream of prayer, music, and the teaching of the word.

I want to share a couple of thoughts on what we are doing right now, as I think keeping a biblical perspective here is crucial.

I affirm that Christians are to live in peaceful submission to our governmental authorities so long as those authorities do not call on us to violate God’s higher commands.

Romans 13:1-2 – 1 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. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

The Bible calls on all people to obey their governmental leaders. We want to live peaceably and respectfully in our community. We want to be the best citizens we can be. We should try as best we can to follow our leaders’ good-faith efforts to keep people safe.

However, we also want to be clear to say that obedience to governmental authorities is not absolute. God’s word is clear that we obey our leaders as much as is possible, but we do not obey our leaders if their orders or laws call for us to violate the word of God. The Lord and his word is our highest authority. And no earthly government has the right to supersede the Lord.

Acts 5:29 – But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men.”

So, while our church may not have physically gathered on Sunday, I deny that this is due to a governmental mandate. Why do I deny this? I deny that the government has the authority to command the church not to meet. After all, physically meeting together is part of God’s command for the church’s regular practice.

Hebrews 10:24–25 – 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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.

So, while I affirm that we obey the laws of our land as much as we can, I deny that any human government has the right to demand that the church disobey the Lord. Since meeting together is a command of the Lord, I deny that the government has the right to command the church not to meet.

Am I suggesting that our church should have met together this last Sunday? Should we have defied the request of the government? No, I do not believe so. But this is not because of the government’s authority. There is another principle at work.

Matthew 22:37–40 – 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

I believe that the call to love your neighbor as yourself, the second greatest command in the law, is the working principle that kept us from physically meeting as a church this last week. Our desire is to love the Lord well and worship him as he has commanded. However, in the current state of our community, I do not believe that meeting together and risking the spread of the COVID-19 virus would have been the most loving choice we could have made for our neighbors. Even if many of our people are not at high risk of severe illness due to the virus, we want to prevent our people from spreading the virus to others who may be at higher risk.

Let me also be clear. I do not believe that our on-line gathering is the same as a church gathered together for worship. I believe we are doing our best with the technology that we have been given. But, I know that there is something glorious and special in the gathered community of the saints. And, were there no providential hindrance to gathering, I would not affirm that meeting together on-line is a legitimate substitute for physical gathering.

I heard a person recently suggest that we should view our meetings like a Thanksgiving meal. Perhaps a family could all eat a meal at the same time from separate locations while video chatting on Skype. However, no loving family would think that this is in any way a suitable replacement for being around the same table together. If the family was providentially hindered from being around the same table, they would embrace the technology and thank God for it. But, if the family had the opportunity to be under the same roof, that is far better.

Friends, our church is doing all we can. We are trying to love our Lord and Love our neighbors. And right now, out of a desire to love the Lord, we are not meeting in person in a large group. And we are thankful for the technology we have to do what we are doing. But, the moment we believe that we can safely meet together in the same place, we will do so as we know that to meet together is far better and is a more faithful obedience to the Lord’s command.