There was an outbreak of the plague in Scotland in 1645. Roughly half the population died. There was another outbreak in 1647. The local Presbyterians organized a six-day festival of repentance. My, my how times have changed. There was an outbreak of coronavirus in 2020. Roughly 0.6% of infected Americans died. Churches of all stripes voluntarily canceled Sunday services for months at a time.
The habit of forsaking Lord’s Day worship settles and roots in the habit of Christian families. It’s one problem if tyrants forbid Christians from worshipping. It’s another problem if Christian custom, habit, and society (plus civil law) train people to forsake Sunday worship services. It’s the latter problem that needs addressing.
How is it that four hundred years ago Christians responded to horrific sickness by gathering for worshipful repentance and now they respond to sickness by hiding in homes? What accounts for this change? Or to frame the question biblically, why do Christians today assume they can disobey the Lord and neglect to publicly worship together (Heb. 10:25)? Here are two reasons to consider.
First, American evangelicals care for the physical more than the spiritual
Since the fearful are prone to exaggerate, let’s say (for sake of discussion) that Johns Hopkins doctor Amesh A. Adalja, M.D. is correct and the fatality rate is 0.6% (The exaggeration comes from the fact that there isn’t an exact count on the number of people who have contracted COVID-19 and been asymptomatic). Should churches cancel Lord’s Day services? Many are saying “Yes, the risk is too great, we must love our neighbor and cancel services.” What are they assuming? They are assuming that the risk of someone catching COVID-19 is more perilous than the danger of not attending Sunday worship.
But the assumption isn’t a fair trade-off. Yes, someone might indeed catch COVID-19 if they attend a large group gathering. But it is guaranteed that no one will attend public worship if services are canceled. When church services are canceled, no one has the choice to worship. When church services are held, the high-risk congregants have the choice to stay home.
Many American evangelical leaders are operating with the principle that they can’t be wrong to cancel public worship and keep people from getting sick. The new principle of evangelical leadership is this: Keep people from physical harm. Aversion to physical risk is now the defining principle of evangelical decision-making. Aversion to spiritual risk used to be the principle (remember the aforementioned plague outbreak of the 1640s).
“And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is.”Hebrews 10:24f
In Hebrews 10, the author anticipates Christians will be persecuted, afflicted, and imprisoned (Heb. 10:32-39). Yet they were still commanded to not neglect to assemble (Heb. 10:25). Why is it worth the risk to gather for worship and face imprisonment but it is not worth the risk to gather for worship and catch COVID-19?
Throughout the world, Christians gather for worship under direct physical threat. In Nigeria, Boko Haram looms as a threat to murder, rape, and kidnap Christians who gather for worship. In India, Hindu extremists threaten to afflict and murder Christian leaders who gather for worship. In China and Hong Kong, Christians face a threat of imprisonment and hardship for participating in public worship gatherings. In many places, the risk of being killed or raped is higher than 0.6%. Yet they still gather for public worship! And American evangelicals hold these Third World Christians up as models of faithfulness. So why is it worth the risk to gather for worship and face murder but not worth the risk to gather for worship and face COVID-19?
The seventeenth-century Scottish preacher Robert Bruce famously said, “I think it’s a great matter to believe there is a God.” Which, in turn, means it is a great spiritual activity to worship God. But according to the new principle of evangelical leadership, it isn’t spiritually great enough to risk a 0.6% physical death rate.
Second, American evangelicals live in fear rather than faith
There is not one passage in Scripture that commands Christians to live in fear of death. Cowardice is a sin (Mt. 8:26; 10:28, John 12:42, 1 Pt. 3:14, Rev. 21:8). Why? It’s a Christological reason. The mother of all fear is death, and Christ defeated death (2 Tim. 1:8-14). Through faith in Christ, believers defeat death. So, the person who lives in fear is functionally denying the power of Christ’s death-defeating power.
Practically, then, Christians ought not to suppress their fear, but overcome it. This is done not with ignorant bravado, but with the hope that overcoming fear leads to firmer faith. Christians ought to battle fear with the expectation of a more mature faith, something thicker, something tougher, something battle-hardened.
Does this mean a church member might catch COVID-19 at church? Yes, that is possible. But strength comes through weakness (Rom. 8:26) and weakness comes through wounds (Heb. 11:34). It’s not that Christians should be irresponsible or cavalier. It’s that Christians need to stop being cavalier with their spiritual needs. What faith will be left when the CDC finally permits Christians to pull their head out of the quarantine?
What if the burgeoning sectarian chaos is a test from the Lord? What if the test is specifically for those who spent decades in church blithely claiming Christ and anemically singing songs? Jesus said people can either stand on a firm foundation or a sandy one. When opinions are abundant—one saying masks are a commie conspiracy, another saying that people are insane to leave their house and worship publicly—it makes church members pick sides. It’s not the job of the elders to hear all the opinions and make a decision that accommodates the spectrum. When truth and falsehood grapple, we can’t call it a tie. It’s not the job of the elders to respond to the whim of the people. It’s the job of the elders to lead the flock to solid ground. There may be causalities along the way. While evangelical leaders are worried about the physical casualties, they have all but forgotten about the spiritual casualties. What’s more important? Saving people’s lives or saving people’s souls? Is it worth it to hollow out people’s souls if it means they can preserve their physical life a while longer?
Meanwhile, the faithful will inquire after a firm foundation. Which sounds more like a house built on sand? Publicly worshipping God with the people of God OR staying home and watching other people worship God on the live stream?
The fearful aren’t supposed to influence the faithful (Dt. 20:8). When Sunday services are canceled, those at high-risk spiritually (i.e. everyone) are forced to neglect their treatment. When Sunday services are held, those at high risk physically are given the choice to stay home. The former choice harms everyone spiritually. The latter choice protects the most vulnerable physically (we understand there are complex medical decisions some people have to make that might lead them to feel conscience-bound to stay home. Maybe they should stay home. But it’s important to realize it’s “maybe” rather than “must.” There is a line and each person must ask where it is drawn). The former choice loves the mortal thing. The latter choice loves the immortal thing. The fearful have made up their minds to neglect the spiritual, and then turn with relief to state that they have protected the physical.
And so our decision is this: Just as Nigerian Christians continue to gather for worship at the risk of someone being raped and killed, churches ought to hold Sunday services and risk someone catching COVID-19 rather than neglect Sunday services and no one catch COVID-19.
It is because this decision has been neglected by many churches that fearful faith is the new normal of evangelical Christianity. Jesus said this,
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”Matthew 6:31ff
In other words, the Christian who publicly renews his soul each Sunday, as God commanded, understands righteousness. The man who despairs of the public, weekly renewal, does not understand righteousness. Worship is life’s primary activity and the Lord’s Day assembly is the primary way to worship (Ps. 87:2). When the church voluntarily forsakes assembling on the Lord’s Day, gone is the primary way souls are renewed. Gone is the primary way Christians are discipled. Gone is the primary way righteousness is established in the political, domestic, and cultural realm. Gone is the primary way to sanctify the arts and sciences.
And this leads to the pandemic’s great revelation: Christians no longer think of corporate worship as the central religious activity during the week. They see little connection between corporate worship and discipleship, little connection between corporate worship and national godliness, little connection between corporate worship and sanctifying the arts and sciences. Church leaders across the nation are worried that once the pandemic is over, church members won’t return to church. Yet by forsaking the assembly, they have taught their people that Lord’s Day worship is optional for spiritual health, and they have taught that the physical matters more than the spiritual.
Once upon a time, Christians took the physical risk to worship amid a legitimate plague pandemic. They saw the death wrought by the pandemic much like Jesus saw the death of those upon who the tower in Siloam fell, signaling the need for repentance (Luke 13:1-5). If the church today is going to turn from their sin, they must return to physical corporate worship on the Lord’s Day. That would be only the first act of repentance necessary.
Heavenly Father, we pray that you would grant us repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25).
Jason Cherry is an elder at Trinity Reformed Church, as well as a teacher and lecturer of literature, American history, and economics at Providence Classical School in Huntsville, Alabama. He graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with an MA in Religion and is the author of the book The Culture of Conversionism and the History of the Altar Call, now available on Amazon.