For years we have wondered what we would do if Christians were really persecuted. As it turns out, it didn’t take persecution at all to test our faith. Since Scriptures are being misused to justify canceling the Lord’s day assembly for worship because of fear of sickness, it is worth some time to consider these passages.
One of the strangest arguments is based on Acts 8:1. “And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” The reasoning of some preachers goes like this. These Christians worshiped at locations in Jerusalem. When they fled they stopped assembling for worship in those places. Therefore, for a few Sundays they didn’t assemble on Sunday to worship. Where is this in the text? How does the fact that they stopped assembling for worship where they had assembled before prove that they quit assembling anywhere for a time? Just because they didn’t gather to worship at the same place doesn’t mean they didn’t assemble somewhere else. The argument is not based on implication. It is built on an assumption. The Christians that scattered moved to different locations. With some congregations, especially small house churches, the membership remained the same. They just moved to a new location. With other congregations members combined with members from other churches to form new congregations in different regions. This was early church planting. The nucleus of the new congregations may have been only a household or two, but they were still autonomous churches that met on the first day of the week. This is how we often start a church in a mission field. This is no different from what happened after the church began on Pentecost day. When those new Christians went back home to various regions, they established congregations. But they didn’t say, “Under these circumstances, we have decided to suspend assembling for worship.” i
But the whole idea of comparing the fear of a virus to the fact of persecution is absurd. The Christians in Acts 8 faced actual persecution, not panic because they were afraid they might be around someone who might be sick. Whatever we may conclude about what the early disciples did or did not do or what they should or should not have done, we can’t equate the fact of persecution with the fear of illness.
The passage at the center of this controversy is Hebrews 10:25. This verse says “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another…” Some preachers are saying this really doesn’t mean elders can’t cancel assembling for worship on Sunday. Think about it. The verse says not to forsake this assembling, but they can “cancel” it. Does that even sound right?
Don’t let anyone intimidate you with Greek. There are two points preachers are making on some aspects of the Greek wording of this verse. One is that forsake means to desert or abandon. They say they’re only suspending the assembly for worship, not abandoning it. That sounds like a woman who left her husband and children for another man. About two weeks later she wanted to visit her children and did. She talked with a neighbor woman and gave her reasons for leaving with the fellow. The woman told her she understood that couples have issues but she would never abandon her children. The mother acted shocked and said she didn’t abandon her children. She just left them behind for a while! I am not putting all people who miss church services because of fear of sickness in the same category as this woman. I am saying this is the same kind of hair-splitting some preachers and elders are using.
Even if it could be sustained that this forsaking means to permanently abandon and not temporarily miss or cancel the assembly, the question remains: Do we or do we not have the obligation to assemble on the first day of the week and is it or is it not wrong to fail to assemble unless we have a biblically justified reason for doing so? Do these preachers believe that since we are commanded to eat the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:26-28), and since we are to gather together (Acts 20:7) in the assembly of the congregation (I Cor. 11:17-20) for that purpose, then it is our duty to so meet? If so, then that is our obligation. Even aside from Hebrews 10:25, this duty remains. I am not admitting that Hebrews 10:25 doesn’t apply to this controversy. I am just pointing out the broader context of this warning.
Some say the tense of the word forsaking means it is only an ongoing, not a temporary, action. The word forsaking is in the present tense (here, a participle), and that means the forsaking is continuous. Well, let’s see if this Greek argument will work with other words. In Titus 2:9-10 Paul said servants were to obey their masters, “not answering back, not pilfering.” Both “answering back” and “pilfering” are present participles. Is Paul saying servants could talk back to their masters as long as they didn’t do so continually? Is he saying they could steal as long as it didn’t become a habit? This kind of interpretational maneuver usually occurs when preachers try to make a point from the Greek which they can’t sustain from the plain English text. There are times to appeal to the Greek, but this is a misuse of it.
Some elderships are saying, “We’re not saying members can’t worship. We’re just saying we’re not worshiping at the building.” Notice the shift in wording. The issue is the assembling of the church to worship–“when you come together into one place” and when “the whole church comes together in one place” (I Cor. 11:20; 14:23). These elders avoid the word assembly or assembling. That is the issue. They are forbidding what the Lord requires. The very concept of a congregation is that it congregates. What can be more detrimental to a congregation than segregating it?
Here’s something else to consider. The Christians in the book of Hebrews had been persecuted and were living in the danger of further suffering (Heb. 10:32-34; 12:1-11). Yet he tells them not to forsake the assembly!
A word needs to be said about qualification. By this I mean that one passage in the Bible can qualify another. For instance, the Bible says to give (I Cor. 16:1-2). But if a person has nothing to give, then he is not liable because this is based on his level of prosperity, (“as he may prosper”) and in his case he has nothing. We are to obey the laws of the land (Rom. 13:1-7), but not if those laws contradict the law of God (Acts 5:29). Here is the question: What biblical passage justifies elders saying there will be no assembly for worship this Sunday because the government and the media tell us that it is possible someone might come into contact with another person who might be carrying this virus? Please bring forth the passage. It won’t work to talk about people staying at home because they are sick. That’s not the issue and these elders and preachers know the difference. Where is the passage that gives them the right to set aside for the whole congregation what God requires just because of the fear of the possibility of a disease?
Here is another challenge. I challenge any preacher or elder to present a biblical case for canceling the Sunday assembly for worship because of this new virus from China and not canceling the Sunday assembly for the flu and other contagious and potentially fatal illnesses? Over 22,000 people in America died from the flu in 2019. Please don’t say we have medicine for it because thousands still die from the flu. To be consistent, these elders and preachers will have to call for an indefinite suspension of all church assemblies. I hesitate to say this because I don’t want to give any ideas to anyone. But brethren have bought into this media frenzy without thinking. They have been pressured by members who are manipulated by mainstream and social media. So, will you cancel church services to save lives from the flu? While thousands die from the flu this year from a disease your members unintentionally spread at church, we will wait for an answer.
If taking precautions against a remote physical risk to the congregation gives elders the right to call off worship assemblies on Sunday, then please explain the difference between this and some other situations.
What have we done in the wake of church shootings? We have taken precautions, but we haven’t stopped meeting for worship.
What do we do if it storms on Sunday? If a hurricane or tornado is headed our way, we take cover. But we don’t cancel services because there is a slight possibility of high, damaging winds. Please don’t tell me we should take cover from the new virus like we take shelter from a bad storm when you don’t take the same extreme measures with the flu.
Christians have died driving to and returning from worship services on Sunday, but we don’t call off those services because of that danger. And it is a real risk. Over 37,000 people die each year in car accidents in America. Worldwide the total is 1.25 million. Christians take precautions, but they don’t stop driving. And world leaders haven’t taken away our keys. Yet.
What is so different about the new virus? “Well,” someone says, “we don’t know yet. That’s why it’s so scary.” But we do know that the flu kills 22,000 people a year (and flu and pneumonia combined kill over 55,000 each year), and yet government leaders and church leaders haven’t shut things down because of it. The facts are showing that the new virus is not fatal most of the time. When deaths do occur, the victims are the same ones prone to dying from the flu–the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions that have left their immune system weakened. Is this cause for concern? Of course, just like there was cause for concern about SARS, H1N1, West Nile Virus, bird flu and many other diseases. The difference today is that people are so addicted to mainstream and social media that they have panicked. Sadly, church leaders have been swept away by the hysteria. My prayer is that they will give this more rational thought instead of listening to the media and following the masses out of fear. Remember that sorcerers and false prophets in the Old Testament did the same thing the media does today: they scared people by telling them something bad was going to happen in their future unless they listened.
A precedent has been set. This is a turning point both politically and religiously in this country. The effects won’t be seen instantly, but in the famous words of Julius Caesar alea iacta est, “The die is cast.” We build on precedents we set or accept and rarely do later generations go back. They usually take the direction further. The government has now seen that it can shut down schools, businesses, and even churches because of fear of an illness. What is next? Fear of climate change? Churches began several years ago cancelling even Sunday assemblies because of snow. Now they are cancelling them due to the fear that someone might get a virus. What is next? Elderships know that members today already miss services for ball games. They’re aware that some members go hunting or fishing when they ought to be assembled with the saints. They’ve probably heard members say they didn’t come to worship on Sunday because they were tired or had company. Now many of those elders have given members even more reason to set aside the assembly. Time will unfold the consequences. This shift will only further weaken God’s people.
- Look more closely at Acts 8. The apostles stayed in Jerusalem. Are preachers suggesting they stopped assembling on the first day of the week to worship? Remember, these are the men who continued to teach publicly after being threatened, imprisoned, and beaten (Acts 4 and Acts 5). Remember also that Peter was married (Matt. 8:14-15; I Cor. 9:5). Did the apostles just teach each other? Did they stop evangelizing or did they make converts? Remember that this persecution from the Jews lasted for years. For those who stayed in Jerusalem the situation was not a temporary one.
Some other questions need to be considered about those who stayed in Jerusalem. Is it certain that only the twelve apostles and no other Christians remained there? What about Peter’s wife (I Cor. 9:5)? It may be that when the verse says the apostles stayed in Jerusalem this is representative of other Christians as well. When the Bible says “all Judea” went to the Jordan River and were baptized by John the Baptist, it doesn’t mean every single individual was baptized. It is a general statement. This seems to be the case in Acts 8. Otherwise, there were only 12 Christians in Jerusalem for years.
We may have painted the picture of first century persecution with a little overtone in some verses. It was no doubt, awful. But it was not so bad that Peter and John couldn’t travel (Acts 8:14). And, even the mention of Saul arresting Christians in “every house” didn’t include where the apostles lived.