The COVID-19 global pandemic presents the world with innumerable challenges and questions many of us have never faced nor answered. Religious groups in particular grapple with the commitments of their faith and the demands thrust upon the world in the wake of the coronavirus. In the Muslim world, one of the major impediments to stopping the spread of the virus flows from the insistence of Muslims to continue their prayers and services at mosques and shrines — an environment where many human beings come together in very close proximity.
Some Islamic leaders closed mosques and shrines in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19, but pilgrimage, the Hajj, is one of the central pillars of Islam. The central tenets of the Islamic faith are, in countries like Iran and especially Indonesia, exacerbating the coronavirus situation.
Indonesian authorities announced on Wednesday that mosques would continue to remain open, though they would be thoroughly sanitized. Health authorities, however, remain alarmed at such policies because this will likely continue to spread the virus rapidly.
The perplexing collision between religious convictions and a public health crisis has not only challenged Muslims. Christians too must consider their responsibility, thinking through the importance and centrality of gathering together as God’s people to worship the one true and living triune God.
How should Christians think through the orders coming from government and the instructions from health authorities regarding gathered assemblies? Churches have been told to not meet together. How long will this go on? What does this mean theologically for Christians?
The Bible is filled with passages and commands about the gathering together of God’s people, both in the Old and New Testaments. In Hebrews 10:25 the author says that Christians ought not neglect ‘to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more, as [we] see the Day draw near.’ In Acts 2:42–47, we read of the early church that ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers.’
God’s people are a people of community and fellowship. Where you find God’s people, you find them together in worship, attending to the preaching of the Scriptures. Throughout the gospels, the word ‘synagogue’ is a central place of meeting that was crucial to the life and ministry of Jesus as well as the missiological activities of the apostle Paul. Indeed, the word synagogue in Greek means gathering together. When the Christian church emerged, it was very clear that the church, patterned after the synagogues, were to be gathered assemblies that came together in obedience to Christ.
Many other passages describe the centrality of God’s people gathered together. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said, ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ This doesn’t meant that every place where two or three Christians are gathered constitutes a church — it does mean, however, that when God’s people come together, there is a special bond, uniting Christians together in the Spirit of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 14:26 Paul gives instructions about what the church is supposed to do when it comes together for corporate worship.
Ecclesia, or the ‘called out ones’, remains the most important New Testament word that describes the church of Jesus Christ. The church, therefore, is a local assembly of those called out of the world who are called into the body of Christ — a body made up of regenerate believers who follow Christ in faith and obedience.
Moreover, the New Testament also speaks of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as formal ordinances that churches must observe in faithfulness to Christ. These are ordinances that nourish the spiritual life of individual believers but also that of the entire congregation that comes together to celebrate the newness of life represented by believers’ baptism as well as the forgiveness of sins and the promises of the new covenant represented by the Lord’s Supper.
The gathered assembly also gives attention to the centrality of God’s Word preached and to the encouragement of the saints through the singing of Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. There is, therefore, a reality that the spiritual health of Christians is inextricably tied to the life of their local church.
But evangelicals must remind ourselves as well that we do not have a sacramental view of worship and we do not believe in a sacerdotal model of ministry. Our people need fear no lack of priestly ministry, no lack of access to sacramental grace. We have all the grace we need in Jesus, and we are safe in the ministry of our Great High Priest.
All of this ought to underline that theology matters, especially in the context of this current crisis. Many churches, in light of the dangers presented by COVID-19, are not gathering together on the Lord’s Day for some time. This decision was made in light of government insistence because churches are the place where the majority of gatherings actually occur.
But this raises an important theological question for Christians to consider. Can Christians and Christian churches remain faithful by not meeting together and all that is involved in congregational worship? Can Christians be faithful in this context? The answer is yes — yes for some time with adequate justification.
Throughout church history there are very rare instances where the people of God did not gather together regularly. These moments represented specific, overarching cultural situations that made it advisable for people in groups of any size not to gather together. COVID-19 is another example of a culturally singular moment that necessitates the decision for Christians not to hold their weekly church services and to do so knowing that they are not being unfaithful to the commands of Christ.
But this raises a whole host of other difficult questions, especially as churches move their teaching, praying, and gathering to an online format. Is it possible for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ — for local, faithful, biblically established congregations — to gather together online rather than in the flesh?
Before the coronavirus, I have long argued that YouTube is a lousy place to go to church. No electronic or digital social media platform can replace what happens when the people of God gather together physically. The commands of the Bible are clear — we are not to neglect assembling together.
At the same time, however, we must recognise that we are in a unique situation. We are under a global emergency that parallels intense warfare. World War II is the only historical frame of reference familiar to some of us with regards to our present crisis.
Yet there are deep theological concerns about the exceptional moment. No Christian should believe that anything we do online is a fulfilment of what the Scriptures mandate about the gathering together of God’s people. No Christian should believe that meeting online offers the same spiritual benefits as if we met together physically, in time and space. Nothing can replace the people of God in one room, praising the Father, Son, and Spirit together in song; nothing can compare to the physical gathering of God’s people who together receive the preached Word. There is no substitute for this kind of gathering.
Consider, for example, the qualitative distinction between watching a movie in isolation compared to watching that same movie in a movie theatre. You are watching the same film, but the experience is entirely different. There is a communal connection that you don’t even realise as you laugh, cry, and gasp together.
We think, feel, and experience things differently when we are alone. Emotional movement is multiplied by communal experience. If this is true in a theatre, it is truer still for the church. God made us not only as spiritual creatures, but also as social creatures. He made us to be in community with one another.
Though YouTube is not church, I am still enormously thankful for the technology available to us. I am thankful for the ability to go online and hear the preaching of God’s Word — even from men now dead. There is an unfathomable repository of Christian teaching and preaching — and it is all available with just the click of a mouse.
But there is a crucial distinction — indeed, a crucial theological distinction — between listening among and listening in. Listening in is a gift of God’s common grace. To be able to listen to thousands of sermons and theological lectures online is indeed a wonderful treasure for Christians. But listening in on these gifts is not equal to what happens when we listen among God’s people, physically present together as we praise God and hear his Word proclaimed.
During this unprecedented time, I encourage local churches to do as much as you can online. Preach online, sing online, insofar as it is possible. Read the Scriptures together and pray online. But never make the mistake that you are doing the same thing online as you would be doing if you were physically present with the congregation.
For some time, under extraordinary circumstances, we understand that not meeting together in our churches is indeed the right and faithful thing to do. It is an act of love for neighbour and good stewardship to cease all physical activities in order to abate the spread of this devastating virus.
During this time, however, it is very important for churches to maintain their connection. We may not have fellowship together in one room, but there is a pastoral responsibility that must be met, especially for those whose needs are exacerbated by enforced isolation. Reach out to people through a phone call or via social media. Use any means of communication to foster, as best we can, community and fellowship. Being separated, if anything, must underline the reality and urgency of just how soon we hope to be together again.
There are other important dimensions Christians must consider in this present crisis, namely, the worship that is done through the collecting of offerings. Your local church still has financial needs to continue its gospel work. Missionaries all across the globe will continually need your financial support. Be faithful in giving when your church is not able to meet. Support your church just as generously and faithfully when you are apart as when you are together.
We must do everything possible in this moment to encourage one another to press on in faithfulness. By any means possible and by any means necessary, we must strengthen one another in the shadows of COVID-19.
I’m reminded of a song I learned as a little boy in my home church. I remember singing it together with the congregation, holding hands across the aisles. The song ended with these words: ‘God be with us till we meet again.’ Indeed, that must be the prayer of every congregation. God be with us till we meet again.
Albert Mohler is President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky, USA.