Around the world, there have been multiple outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus, leading to the declaration that it has become a pandemic. With the high infection rate of the virus, certain precautions have been recommended included social distancing. Part of this social distancing as it pertains to the church has been societal pressure to stop corporate worship services altogether.
As Christians, what should we think about this? Before we think through the spiritual issues, first, it must be pointed out that the panic seen in many parts of the world is irrational, as the relatively low fatality rate of the virus plus the fact that is it borne by droplets makes it a relatively benign outbreak. Note that I said it was relatively benign, insofar that it is not something on the scale of Ebola or the Spanish Flu. Thus, there is absolutely no need to panic over it. Second, it can be limited by taking precautions, thus we are to be responsible and take necessary precautions in maintaining hygiene and being wise in social interaction.
More importantly, the question is asked as to the worship of God on Sunday, the Lord's Day. Christians must remind ourselves why we physically meet Sunday after Sunday together to worship God. For many Evangelicals, it is understandable that there is little understanding of this matter, with only a superficial appeal to Hebrews 10:24-25. If the focus of worship is merely to sing worship songs to God and to hear His Word, then it is understandable why some churches think that there is nothing wrong with moving church online to live streaming, and this is seen as the "socially responsible" thing to do. But that manifests a deficient doctrine of the church and an ignorance of the reason for corporate worship in the first place.
Why have Christians met together Lord's Day after Lord's Day to worship God? Is the corporate nature of the worship service merely because of the technological limitations of the First Century AD, or for that matter all of human history until the last few decades?After all, if Hebrews 10:24-25 speaks about encouraging one another, surely that can be done online or even through Whatsapp and other social media platforms? But the corporate nature of the worship service is demanded by what the worship service is, and the physical presence of the saints manifests the importance of the body. The Scriptures always declare that we are spirit and body, not a spirit inhabiting a body. When we are raised up on the Last Day, our bodies are raised anew (1 Cor. 15:44) and we will always be embodied spirits through eternity. Therefore, where the physical body is is important, which is why online church or even virtual reality church is no church at all! To denigrate the body is to embrace Gnosticism, and unfortunately, many Evangelicals fail to see that.
The nature of the worship service is that it is not a time for us to give to God, to sing songs and hear the Word preached. Bur rather, the worship service is where God is present spiritually (Mt. 18:20, 1 Cor. 4:5, 11:29-30, Rev. 2:1), meeting us covenantally (Hos. 2:23, Rom. 9:26, 1 Pet. 2:10). The worship service is God's service, not ours. For just as we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, so likewise we cannot approach God to worship Him except through His invitation only. And just as in an ancient covenant, the parties of the covenant physically meet, so likewise the reason why we must be physically present for worship is that the Lord meets us there as we are there physically. We encounter God in the corporate worship, praising Him and hearing Him speak to us through the pastor who proclaims His Word. This is why Christians ought to meet together in church services Lord's Day after Lord's Day, honoring God in our use of time and our use of space.
If that is true, how then should we respond to the secular pressure to stop the worship service? First of all, we must agree that the corporate worship service is very important in the life of the Christian. It should not be something to be cancelled at whim. It must be said that it is understandable though wrong that many think that religious worship gatherings should be the first to stop, but work is seen to be something must more important and must continue. If corporate worship is that important in the Christian life, then surely it must be treated at least as important as work and school. If the outbreak results in the cessation of work and school, then certainly there should be a cessation of corporate worship for that period. Yet, if work and school continue, then the corporate worship should likewise continue.
This does not necessarily mean that there should not be precautions taken. The necessity of corporate worship does not negate the requirement for wisdom. Rather, during an epidemic or pandemic, steps can be taken to reduce the risk of infection. Perhaps this is a good time for big churches to practice church the way the early church did so, by splitting up into many congregations of smaller numbers. Instead of halting services, why not have groups of 20 or so which can worship God corporately? This can be a good time to break up the business model of doing church, in favor of a model more in line with biblical Christianity. While not for the "house church movement," there is nothing wrong with meeting in homes per se to worship God, so why not get around to doing that?
Corporate worship is biblical mandated by Scripture. Barring a situation like the Black Death, Christians ought to continue to worship God corporately. God is still sovereign over the virus, and He calls us to worship. The paranoia over Covid-19 displays the world's fear of the unknown, but Christians ought to be better than this. While taking precautions, we must have faith and trust in God. We are not to panic as the world does, but put our faith wholly in God. After all, as it is confessed in the Heiberg Catechism:
Q1: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.
God is sovereign, and thus we should not fear this virus. We must know this and believe this. If God wants me dead through the virus, I will get it no matter what. If God wants me alive, I will stay alive no matter what. So, trust God and do not panic. Take precautions and attend to the worship service. For there is where God is, and where we receive from Him His grace and mercy, our supply for each and every week.