A Critical Question
To cancel or not to cancel? That is the Shakespearean question confronting churches today. It is not a question of mere expediency. The gathered worship service is central to the church’s identity, and therefore, cancellation seems to trample on more than tradition. It can feel like a threat to the church’s existence.
Government officials, medical experts, and civic leaders have all asked citizens to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by practicing physical distancing. According to leading experts, churches are one of the top places of community spread. Why? Christians shake hands, embrace one another, and kiss cheeks. Some are liturgically directed to drink from a common cup; others pass the peace with a warm touch. Our bodies do naturally what our souls do supernaturally. We connect. And we do so intergenerationally.
What are churches to do?
Our mandate as Christians to obey governing authorities (Rom. 13:1–7; 1 Pet. 2:13–17) is a good reason for churches to cancel worship services. But there are other Biblical principles that help us embrace this difficult decision.
Canceling in-person worship services is not the same as canceling worship. Christians should never stop worshiping, because God is worthy of all our praise. Those in the persecuted church have long worshiped God without buildings, because they know that church is not primarily a place but a people. And technology now gives us unprecedented options. This does not mean, of course, that place is unimportant. God himself authorized the building of a temple that would serve as a place where his name would dwell. Even with that decree, however, at the dedication of the temple, Solomon humbly acknowledged that God cannot be consigned to a place (1 Kings 8:27).
The Book of Hebrews warns we should “not forsak[e] our assembling together, as is the habit of some” (Heb. 10:25, NASB). Does closing church doors lead to direct disobedience of God’s command? The habitual practice of “missing church” may reflect a disregard of faith or a dismissive view of corporate responsibilities. Such is not the case for churches that are suspending gathered worship services in a pandemic. This decision comes out of sacrificial love, not from habitual or casual disregard for worship. The amount of angst displayed proves this point. Nor does it arise from a dismissive view of corporate responsibilities. The very reason for canceling is predicated upon a deep sense of responsibility for others. The coronavirus has reminded us that we are so interconnected that our very lives are impacted by proximity.
Sabbath and Service
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus challenged the contemporary understanding of the Sabbath. When his disciples had picked grain for food on the Sabbath, Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ criticism by saying, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27–28). Jesus later applied this statement about the Sabbath to a situation of service.
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. (Mark 3:1–5)
Jesus reminded the worshipers that a critical dimension of Sabbath involved care for the needy and vulnerable in society. He healed on the Sabbath, because healing is an appropriate thing to do on the Sabbath.
Sabbath observance was never just about what worshipers gained personally, but also what they gave communally. Sabbath encompassed the well-being of others. In Deuteronomy 5:12–15, the Israelites were instructed to observe the Sabbath by not working and also not allowing others to work. In the ancient world, it was astounding to be commanded to regularly release your household, servants, animals, and even the immigrant workers and refugees from work. Sabbath answered on a weekly basis the age-old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes! We are called to ensure the flourishing of those within our sphere of influence.
With fresh power and unique authority, the Lord of the Sabbath applied the prophetic connection between worship and service. We hear echoes of Isaiah’s declaration of true fasting in acts of justice for the hungry and poor (58:6–7), of Micah’s concern for true sacrifice in expressing mercy (6:6–8), and of Amos’ lyrical entreaty for festivals of worship to be coupled with rivers of righteousness (5:21–24).
The teachings on Sabbath as an occasion of healing and service as an aspect of worship provide guidance for us on the question of whether or not to make religious services remote. It is lawful to do good and not to do harm, to save life and not to kill. Churches for thousands of years all around the world have had to find creative ways to worship. By physical distancing, the church practices preventative healing to mitigate the spread of a deadly virus. This would seem to be not only lawful but loving. We cancel physical gatherings not because we fear a virus but because we love the vulnerable and care for the world God loves. We remember that healing—both spiritual and physical—are aspects of worship.
Love of God and Love of Neighbor
Some of our brothers and sisters have argued that shuttering in-person services elevates the love of health over the love of God. We do not share this view. Of course, as Christians we believe there are worse fates than the loss of physical health or even this earthly life. We too admire the example of Christians throughout history who have risked their lives out of devotion to the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, we are being asked temporarily to convene remotely, not to deny our faith or to cease worshiping God. It is one thing to risk your own life in order to worship together in person; it is quite another to risk the lives of countless others, when so many churches are finding creative and compelling ways to carry on in worship and community from a distance. By offering their remote services and proclaiming the hope of the gospel in troubled times, many churches are reaching audiences they have never reached before.
For those who feel called by their faith to demonstrate the love of God in the midst of the pandemic in ways that are self-sacrificial, we encourage you to do so in ways that do not endanger others. Offer to watch a neighbor’s children so she can continue to work. Distribute food to the poor and the vulnerable. Arrange remote “visits” with the elderly and the isolated. Give sacrificially to your church and to other ministries engaged in the fight. We need not fall short in either our love of God or in our love of neighbor; the church can be the church outside the walls of the sanctuary.
Even if our observance of worship is less than ideal, even if there are honest mistakes or misjudgments made in the cancellation of services, God sees the heart of faith. During the time of King Hezekiah, the people of God sought to celebrate Passover after years of neglect. But because they could not get their act together, they observed the Passover in the wrong month (2 Chron. 30:15). They compounded bad timing with bad practices: “they ate the Passover, contrary to what was written.” (v. 18). Yet, even though the people were “not clean according to the rules of the sanctuary” (v. 19), the Lord accepted their worship because it was done in good faith, albeit not in good practice.
Will the Lord show any less grace to us than he showed to his people in Hezekiah’s day? In our moment of crisis, we suspect the Lord will see the deep faith and sincere intentions of his people, and will be pleased with worship that may not follow liturgical protocols but nonetheless seeks to honor him. We will not be passing the peace with hugs, but rather with texts and phone calls. Are these modes inferior? Yes. Will they be acceptable to the Lord? We also believe, yes.
Conclusion: Next Steps
As the nation closes down non-essential businesses, the church must rise up to its essential work of prayer. Nobody is exempted from this work: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people” (Eph. 6:18). Physical distancing in household worship or online services still reflects our profound spiritual solidarity.
We can pray for Spirit-filled creativity to worship God, serve our communities, and love our neighbors. As our faithful brothers and sisters have done throughout history, we should be prepared to accept some personal risk as we look for innovative ways to serve that minimize danger to the broader community.
Let us join together in this prayer of Clement of Rome: We ask you, Master, be our helper and defender. Rescue those of our number in distress; raise up the fallen; assist the needy; heal the sick; turn back those of your people who stray; feed the hungry; release our captives; revive the weak; encourage those who lose heart. Let all the nations realize that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your Son, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture. Amen.
Dr. Walter Kim serves as pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville. He is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the president and CEO of Christianity Today.