Christianity Opinion

Thinking Through Holding Church Amidst a Pandemic

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Through the past two weeks, Christians throughout the West have had to wrestle with the problem of how to conduct the Lord’s Day Service—whether it should be held, or whether it should be postponed, or whether it ought to be even relocated online.

Considering the rising rate at which the Coronavirus, also referred to as COVID-19, is being spread, Christians must, rightly, ask as to how they can apply best practice in dealing with the virus, and how to avoid the local church being a den of malaise. Should the church shutter its doors like certain businesses, sports, and other activities, or should it continue? Is the physical gathering of the church on the Lord’s Day essential to the life of the Christian, or is it non-essential—in which it can be replaced or, possibly, cancelled?

These are all good questions that should, and must, be asked in light of a time such as ours before any decision is made, but chief must be that as Christians—how can the local body of Christ faithfully uphold its obligation to the greatest two commandments, to honour and love God first and foremost (Matt. 22:37-38) and to love our fellow man, secondly (Matt. 22:39).

Before we can rightly love our fellow image-bearer, we must understand that such a love must firstly be seen through the prism of God’s Word as to what love looks like in any and all circumstances, being that God himself is the archetypical definition of love (1 John 4:7-12).

The Coming Together of the Church

Yet, before we can jump to what, from my perspective, could be a legitimate approach (scroll down to the last heading if you would like to jump to the historical-theological framework), I believe it is crucial that we give definition to both the purpose and intention of the local church. Specifically, we recognise that the local church is a local manifestation of the universal body of believers. Individuals who are covenanted, or bonded, to each other (Rom. 5:12), consciously and physically gathering in worship and praise of the Triune God, and the building up of one another in the faith (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). From the conception of the church in the New Testament, we read that they intentionally met for these purposes. Acts 2:42 tells us that when the church gathered, they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”. This function seems to have continued being the operational cornerstone of the gathered church, to which singing was also included. Paul instructing the Colossians to keep “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col. 3:16) and to the Ephesians elsewhere in 5:19 to “speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”.

These activities, whilst being undertaken on a regular basis (Acts 2:46), were understood to reach its consummatal zenith on the Lord’s Day, vis Sunday. That the first day is specifically set apart for intentional worship implicitly undergirds the church’s’ practice in the New Testament, whereby in Acts 20:7, we read that “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight.” Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 16:2, Paul instructs the Corinthians that “On the first day of every week let each one of you put aside and save, as he may prosper, that no collections be made when I come“. That Sunday was a specific day set apart for worship was likely due to the fact that Christ had arisen on the first day of the week (Matt. 28:1; Mark. 16:2,9; Luke 24:1) establishing not only the pattern but also the phrase that it was the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10).

This was certainly the understanding of the Early Church, whereupon the earliest writings point towards this central practice of gathering on Sunday, with it clearly being understood as being the Lord’s Day. The Didache, literally the teaching, a late 1st to early 2nd Century church document, reminds Christians “on the Lord’s own day [to] gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks[1]. This is further supported by the Epistle of Barnabas, also a late 1st Century writing, whereby the writer, Barnabas, states “we keep the eighth day for rejoicing, in the which also Jesus rose from the dead, and having been manifested ascended into the heavens[2]. Such confirmation regarding the standardisation of this practice can also be traced in the writings of an array of early church fathers, including Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea.

That the church met on a Sunday is without doubt, yet where did they meet? It is likely that such venues varied depending upon both the local contextual need of the congregation as well as the availability of a suitable venue. Scripture evidences that meetings were likely first held in Synagogues (Acts 2:46 c.f. 3:1), but were also later held in homes (1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5; Col. 4:5) and other venues (Acts 19:8-9). It is likely that a shift to home-based gatherings occurred due to the increase of persecution that Christians faced, not only initially by the Jews but also later by the governing Roman authority, notably from 64 AD onwards.[3] As Christians faced open violence, it is logical to assume that homes helped facilitate a level of privacy and protection that the earlier venues could not, by their public nature, afford. Some houses were also likely chosen to due to both their size, in order to cater for larger gatherings, and the relative reputation of their tenant, ensuring a lesser chance of being disturbed.[4]

Of special consideration is 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, whereby Paul is dealing with an issue that has arisen when the Corinthians gathered in fellowship. Tackling the abuse of the Lord’s Supper, Paul states that when they ‘come together’, they are to wait for each other, and if they are hungry, they could eat at home, inferring that it was unlikely that these were relatively small meetings. It is also likely that it was in such settings that Paul’s letters would’ve been read out to those who were in attendance. Christian meetings were also likely to have occurred during hours which would’ve helped to maintain the safety of the Christians gathering. This seems to be collaborated by one of the first independent accounts of a Christian gathering which comes from the Roman Governor, Pliny, who writing to the Emperor Trajan, in 115 AD, states:

…they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds […]; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.[5]

However, due to the persecution, which came in waves and differed in severity from region to region, meeting places differed, varying from the likely holding of services in the catacombs under the city of Rome, a practice dating back to the 2nd century, as well as repurposing homes for exclusive ecclesiastical use in Roman outposts. The latter being seen through the Dura-Europos church, located in modern-day Syria, which dates to approximately 235 AD. Notably, the Dura-Europos church could fit up to approximately seventy-five individuals.[6] It must be firmly stated that during the first several centuries of the church’s existence, whilst the house-church model certainly existed, it was not an exclusive approach but, rather, it varied on the physical needs of each church in order to allow them to gather.[7]

A shift back towards gathering in public buildings occurred towards the end of the 3rd century, as some Christians must’ve felt that there was sufficient freedom to do so. New buildings were constructed for the expressed intention of public worship. Eusebius in his History of the Church describes it thus: “How could one describe those mass meetings, the enormous gatherings in every city, and the remarkable congregations in places of worship? No longer satisfied with the old buildings, they raised from the foundations in all the cities churches spacious in plan.”[8] Whilst many of these were torn down under the Diocletianic persecution which broke out in 303 AD, this shift back towards public buildings was to continue after the Edict of Milan, which had established toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire, as enacted by the emperors Constantine and Licinius in 313 AD. Christians had returned to gathering in largely public venues, a practice that has largely continued to date.[9] [10]

Facing Persecution Together

Despite the active risk of persecution that defined Pre-Constantine Christianity, the coming together, or assembly, of the church was held to be a crucial component for believers within the period between Christ and Constantine. Notwithstanding concerns for their safety, Christians continued to gather on the Lord’s Day in venues that were as suited for the physical and contextual requirements, such as being sizeable enough to host yet discreet, as was available to the congregation. The Lord’s Day gathering was seen as the principle avenue in which the teaching and proclamation of the Word and spurring of one another to grow in faith and unto good deeds (Heb. 10:24) was undertaken, as collaborated by the claims of Pliny the Younger.[11] It was also the medium in which the ordained sacraments of the church, particularly the Lord’s Supper, were carried out. It is highly probable, that it is to this context to which the writer of the Hebrews (The Epistle to Hebrews being dated to several decades prior to the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas) is writing when he exhorts the church to not cease meeting “together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:25). Undoubtedly, the Early Church took this to heart.

Subsequently, the church gathered on Sunday despite the real cost that it may have involved. Many Christians were not perturbed enough to cease gathering yet they ensured to take the proper precautions in order not to reveal or disclose the gathering to others.[12] Many were caught and martyred for their profession and unwillingness to recant the faith which was once for all delivered. Whereas, there were also some who, when caught, ended up repudiating their faith, either due to being recipients of torture or swayed by the threat of it. Those who later attempted to come back into the Christian community were faced by those who considered them as lapsed and faithless. This leading to fairly significant controversies in the history of the Early Church.[13]

Yet, despite some succumbing to apostasy, the church continued on. Martyrdom was an accepted norm for those who professed Christ, and the history books are lined with names of those who counted this cost. Of particular interest to this post, however, is that of Cyprian, who was the Bishop of Carthage between 248 AD to 258 AD. Cyprian was, I think rightly, well known for his pastoral approach as well as his abundance of helpful writings, as he sought to guide the church through a period of persecution, plague and heresy. Despite the ongoing persecution that faced the church at that time, Cyprian encouraged and exhorted the church to continue gathering.[14] Likewise, he encouraged the clergy not to abandon the assembly, stating that the sheep may not be deserted in danger by the shepherds, but that the whole flock may be gathered together into one place.”[15] The shepherds were to ensure that there was continual ministry to the flock, as they “ought to collect and cherish all the sheep which Christ by His blood and passion sought for”[16], applying full diligence in gathering together and restoring the sheep of Christ”.[17]

Yet, persecution wasn’t the only challenge that Cyprian and the church encountered. Heresy which had arisen elsewhere had also lured people from the gatherings. Cyprian, writing to Cornelius, Bishop of Rome (251-253 AD), encourages him thus: “For this, my brother, we especially both labour after, and ought to labour after, to be careful to maintain as much as we can the unity delivered by the Lord, and through His apostles to us their successors, and, as far as in us lies, to gather into the Church the dispersed and wandering sheep which the wilful faction and heretical temptation of some is separating from their Mother.”[18] Likewise, when writing to one of Cornelius’ successors to the Bishopric of Rome, Stephanus (254-257 AD), Cyprian encouraged Stephanus to excommunicate the Marcian, the Novatianist[19] Bishop of Arles, so that “Christ’s flock, which even to this day is contemned as scattered and wounded by [Marcian], may be gathered together.[20]

Evidently, Cyprian earnestly desired churches to continue gathering, despite the challenge of persecution and the encroachment of heresy. Cyprian encouraged churches, including in his own city of Carthage, to continue meeting, listening to the discourses of the clergy, and to partake of the sacraments.[21] However, he also endeavored to ensure that churches were ready for persecution and its results. Writing on behalf of the African Synod, he tells the Church: “we should be prepared and armed for the struggle which the enemy announces to us, that we should also prepare the people committed to us by divine condescension, by our exhortations, and gather together from all parts all the soldiers of Christ who desire arms, and are anxious for the battle within the Lord’s camp.[22] Whilst writing to the church at Thibaris, he tells them to be prepared for the result of prosecution, stating that if anyone beholds our people driven away and scattered by the fear of persecution, be disturbed not at seeing the brotherhood gathered together, nor the bishops discoursing. […] Wherever, in those days, each one of the brethren shall be separated from the flock for a time, by the necessity of the season, in body, not in spirit, let him not be moved at the terror of that flight; nor, if he withdraw and be concealed, let him be alarmed at the solitude of the desert place.”[23] Those who would be disheartened by people fleeing and abandoning the faith were not to lose heart, but instead to cling to their faith and to Christ.[24]

Facing Plague Together

Yet, notwithstanding these warnings and admonishments, Cyprian’s position, echoing that of other church fathers, was that the church ought to gather, even in the face of persecution and death. Yet what about during other difficult events such as plague? It is of no special knowledge to recognise that the sanitary conditions of the 3rd century were considerably worse than what we have come to enjoy today in the modern world, specifically in the West, but despite the higher fatality rate that often accompanied plagues and other historical pandemics, the church still gathered. To think that this is simply due to the inferior medical understanding of 3rd century is to err. The Early Church still understood that to gather together was to ensure that one had the risk of catching the plague and dying. Note the words of Dionysius, the Bishop of Alexandria (248-264 AD), as recorded by Eusebius in The History of the Church, when he describes the actions of the Christians: “Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministry to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pain.[25]

Despite this real risk also, the church gathered. Recognising the sanctity of the Lord’s Day for the worship of God and fellowship of the saints, they understood that assembling was a sign of faithfulness to, and adoration of, God, particularly in light of the Scriptural mandate to gather. Subsequently, when plague, quite possibly a strain of influenza[26], broke out in around 249 AD, lasting for thirteen years, we read of the following describing Cyprian’s actions:

Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. […] On the people assembled together in one place he [Cyprian] first of all urged the benefits of mercy, teaching by examples from divine lessons, how greatly the duties of benevolence avail to deserve well of God.[27]

As for what this plague looked like, Cyprian describes it in his treatise, On the Mortality as thus:

This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened.”[28]

Cyprian, like his ecclesiastical counterpart, Dionysius, understood the danger which the plague presented. Yet, he sought to encourage the church that in the most significant of respects, this plague was fundamentally different for Christians as it was for non-Christians: “This mortality, as it is a plague to Jews and Gentiles, and enemies of Christ, so it is a departure to salvation to God’s servants. The fact that, without any difference made between one and another, the righteous die as well as the unrighteous, is no reason for you to suppose that it is a common death for the good and evil alike. The righteous are called to their place of refreshing, the unrighteous are snatched away to punishment.[29]

Indeed, for Christians, this was, Cyprian believed, a gift of time in which they were confronted with their own mortality. They were able to examine to see if they were either in the faith or lovers of this world. If it was the former, they should be able to see that the plague was not something to be fearful of, but something to recognise as a medium that the Lord may use to hasten us to his side. If it was the latter, then they were granted time to repent and turn to God for forgiveness. Cyprian continues: “That is not an ending, but a transit, and, this journey of time being traversed, a passage to eternity. Who would not hasten to better things? Who would not crave to be changed and renewed into the likeness of Christ, and to arrive more quickly to the dignity of heavenly glory, since Paul the apostle announces and says, “For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change the body of our humiliation, and conform it to the body of His glory?”[30]

Challenging those who had too much to cling onto in this life, Cyprian raises the question: “It is for him to wish to remain long in the world whom the world delights, whom this life, flattering and deceiving, invites by the enticements of earthly pleasure. Again, since the world hates the Christian, why do you love that which hates you? and why do you not rather follow Christ, who both redeemed you and loves you?”[31]

The question, Cyprian posited, was as to whether Christians firmly understood where their allegiance lay and what a true allegiance to Christ involves. Cyprian, joining the chorus of many of the other Church Fathers, wanted to ensure the church gathered through these times of difficulty in order that, in addition to the main premise of the church assembling, that they may grow together and spur each other on, not to panic but to hope. Thus, despite the difficulties that faced the church of the 3rd century, they continued to meet. Through plague, persecution, and other difficulties, they did not let these detract from gathering. They assembled on the Lord’s Day, they met mid-week[32], and they continued to partake of the elements with thankful and reverent hearts, and to hear the exposition of the Word.

We must understand that this plague, often referred to as ‘the Plague of Cyprian’, was not insignificant. In the fifteen years it circulated, it devastated the Roman Empire with millions likely perishing.[33] Yet, plagues were not uncommon throughout the history of the church. An earlier plague, called the ‘Antonine Plague’, struck in the 1st century, whereas the immensely devasting ‘Plague of Justinian’ severely impacted the Byzantine Empire between 541-542 AD, killing upwards of 25 million throughout Eurasia. However, it is to the bubonic plague, to which we turn to next. This plague dogged the churches for several centuries throughout the 14th to 17th centuries, killing millions, and frequently waning for a time, before flaring up to wreak havoc once again.

Such outbreaks occurred throughout the period of the Reformation, where these plagues became part of the common pastoral context of the ministry of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Henry Bullinger, and the other Reformers. They had to learn how best to utilise their resources to the care of those who had been entrusted to them, particularly as plagues wrecked through the cities in which they ministered. In his, now famous, 1527 treastise, Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague, Martin Luther, echoing the Early Church Fathers, mentions that plagues were a form of punishment sent from God onto this world, so that humanity could be chastised for their sins, whereby for Christians, not only could it bring us to repentance, but also act as a test of faith and love: “faith in that we may see and experience how we should act toward God; our love in that we may recognize how we should act toward our neighbor.”[34] A sentiment overwhelmingly shared by Calvin and Bullinger.[35]

Yet how did the Reformational churches minister and act during the plague? Firstly, they ensured that those who had taken ill were looked after by the church’s officers and the greater church body. In Calvin’s Geneva, a minister was dedicated for the care of the victims, which had been separated by command of the city’s magistrate in May 1543 AD.[36] One of the first to hold that role was Pierre Blanchet, who had been in the role since at least the October of the previous year. Writing to the reformer, Pierre Viret, at the time of Pierre’s selection, Calvin notes the following: “The pestilence also begins to rage here with greater violence, and few who are at all affected by it escape its ravages. One of our colleagues was to be set apart for attendance upon the sick. Because [Pierre] offered himself, all readily acquiesced. If anything happens to him, I fear that I must take the risk upon myself, for as you observe, because we are debtors to one another, we must not be wanting to those who, more than any others, stand in need of our ministry.[37] However, by June 1543, Pierre was struck down by the illness after loving and caring for those within his charge. The magistrates specifically exempted, or relieved, Calvin from being able to take the role, considering his role of teaching and preaching too important to lose.[38] Calvin too, believed it inappropriate to forsake caring for the whole congregation in order to attend only to the needs of one portion of it.[39] Pierre’s role would eventually be replaced by another volunteer minister instead, Mathieu Geneston, who also eventually succumbed to the plague faithfully discharging his duty.

Over in Wittenberg, Martin Luther, when urged by his Patron, the Elector John, to relocate with the rest of the University faculty to Jena in order to avoid the plague, he refused. Rather, Luther, Johannes Bugenhagen, who served as the pastor of the Wittenberg church, and chaplains Georg Rorer and Johannes Mantel made the decision to stay. They sought to continue in their ministry, with Luther continuing to lecture and Bugenhagen continuing to preach to the people that still remained in Witternberg.[40] They also actively ensured to minister to the sick and dying, with Luther writing to Spalatin, that one woman had died virtually in his arms. Indeed, by actively ministering to so many people who had fallen ill, Luther once wrote that his home had become a ‘hospital’.[41]

The Reformers understood that during such times of sickness, they had a duty to be actively involved in the welfare and care of the people, both to those within their congregations, but also to the those in the greater community. Echoing the same conduct by those in Alexandria during the Bishopric of Dionysius, Luther wrote: we owe it to our neighbor to accord him the same treatment in other troubles and perils, also. If his house is on fire, love compels me to run to help him extinguish the flames. If there are enough other people around to put the fire out, I may either go home or remain to help. If he falls into the water or into a pit I dare not turn away but must hurry to help him as best I can. If there are others to do it, I am released. If I see that he is hungry or thirsty, I cannot ignore him but must offer food and drink, not considering whether I would risk impoverishing myself by doing so.” That Christians ought to extend charity and care to their neighbours, Christian or otherwise, was unsurprisingly not restricted to Luther and Calvin. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva, considered care to those who were sick, a ‘Christian duty’.[42] In Strasbourg, Martin Bucer, known well for his pastoral ability, likewise argued that care for others belonged to the Christian, to whom it was their responsibility.[43]

However, love for their neighbour did not preclude love for God. The Reformers saw that a love of God and, ultimately, love for neighbour must include the gathering of the saints on the day that had been mandated by God to meet. Like the church of the 3rd century, the Reformers knew the risk involved and knew that the plague was contagious. Beza clearly, in his Learned Treatise of the Plague, acknowledged that “the Plague, of all other diseases, is most infectious[44], further stating that “many Diseases are gotten by Handling and Touching”[45] Yet, they knew that it was during such times of calamity, more than ever, the church must meet. The gathering was instituted by God and, through its communal activities, wherein that God’s “word should be preached and expounded out of the holy scripture to his own glory and to our profit; common prayer to be made; and the sacraments to be ministered and received”[46], the gospel and all of its promises would be imparted to the hearers. Being that plagues were ultimately willed by God, the Reformers understood that such gatherings ought to lead the way in both reflection and repentance.[47] Keeping the doors open so that people may come in and be right with God.

Emphasizing this point, Luther articulated it in the following way: “First, one must admonish the people to attend church and listen to the sermon so that they learn through God’s word how to live and how to die. Second, everyone should prepare in time and get ready for death by going to confession and taking the sacrament once every week or fortnight. He should become reconciled with his neighbor and make his will so that if the Lord knocks and he departs before a pastor or chaplain can arrive, he has provided for his soul, has left nothing undone, and has committed himself to God.”[48]Calvin once noting that a gathering that has been deprived of its ministers, by plague, has, in effect, lost its ‘spiritual nourishment’.[49] It is with this understanding, that churches in Geneva, Strasbourg, Wittenberg, and Zurich, and elsewhere, continued to meet unabated. It should be noted here that this was not some abstract risk for them by deciding to continue to holding service. The Reformers lost spouses, children, and even their own lives in attempting to faithfully steward the flocks that had been entrusted to them.

Yet, they understood that it was only right and proper to continue to assemble in worship for God, for this was understood as the right, and Divinely instituted, way of loving God, as well as a their neighbour by holding these services. Bullinger, when describing the gathering, states that Christians are those who “by faith and obedience gather themselves into the holy assembly at limited times; who keep the ecclesiastical discipline derived out of the word of God; who hear the word of God, or the holy exposition of the sacred scriptures; who pray publicly with the church; who religiously participate the sacraments; and observe other lawful and wholesome rites or ceremonies. By this their service they glorify God among men”.[50]

To the Reformers, the worse plague was not that which physically abounded around them, it was the spiritual abuse and ignorance that existed due to sin. This was the plague that had to be dealt with more earnest than that which threatened their physical lives.[51] Thus, the Reformational churches and, specifically, the ministers, sought for people to be prepared, stirred to repentance, willing and able to express to charity towards one another, of which Lord’s Day gathering was the central medium to this end.[52]

Working out the Togetherness of the Church Today

There are also later examples, through the 17th and 18th centuries, that we could draw on, but in fear of making this far more elongated than it already is, I will bypass this in the hope that the above examples from history will suffice. However, what should be abundantly evident already is that, throughout the history of the church, there was a focus as to the continuation of the Lord’s Day gathering. Despite persecution, plague, and other calamities, the church continued to meet in spite of the very risk involved in doing so.

This was because the weekly gathering was held as being critical in the life of the believer. Due to Christianity being, by its very nature, a communal affair, believers ensured that such gatherings did not cease. Indeed, the assembly on the Lord’s Day was understood to be the main instrument which helped stir Christians to grow through physically coming together, carrying out of the ‘one anothers’, and being joint recipients of the prescribed activities, such as the sacraments, being carried out. Believers understood that when they gathered, they were spiritually nourished through the worshipping of God, by his appointed means, collectively. Drawing from Calvin and the reformational tradition, Scholars Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, put it like this: “The ministry of the church was essential to the development of the Christian life. God had given pastors to the Church, and all within the Church were to be pastored. Thus, one could not consider privatized or individualized devotion as sufficient for spiritual sustenance. Rather, to be spiritually nourished required humble submission to the ordinary means of grace in Word and Sacrament, which were regularly discharged through the liturgies of the Mother Kirk.[53]

On the gathering together of the body, John Chrysostom, the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople, helpfully has this to say:

“And” (he says) “let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works. Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is, but exhorting one another and so much the more as ye see the day approaching.” And again in other places, “The Lord is at hand; be careful for nothing.” (Phil. 4:5, 6.) “For now is our salvation nearer: Henceforth the time is short.” (Rom. 13:11.)

What is, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together”? (1 Cor. 7:29.) He knew that much strength arises from being together and assembling together. “For where two or three” (it is said) “are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20); and again, “That they may be One, as we” also are (John 17:11); and, “They had all one heart and [one] soul.” (Acts 4:32.) And not this only, but also because love is increased by the gathering [of ourselves] together; and love being increased, of necessity the things of God must follow also. “And earnest prayer” (it is said) was “made by” the people. (Acts 12:5.) “As the manner of some is.” Here he not only exhorted, but also blamed [them].[54]

 The collective testimony of the church, and undergirded by Scripture, is that by the physical coming together of individuals who are bonded, or covenanted, together, in obedience to, and the carrying out of, the Word of God, God is glorified, and his people grown in love to Him and to each other. The importance of the gathered Church on the Lord’s Day, then, cannot be overstated. One cannot read church history and, more importantly, the New Testament, specifically the Pauline Epistles, without recognising the total undergirding of a Christian’s life is as they relate to their Christ-given brethren, and as comprised in the local body, the Bride of Christ.

If we understand this to be the case, then we need to be considerably wary about cancelling or postponing these gatherings which are central to the life of the Christian. For, by doing so, Ministers face withholding God’s appointed means from those individuals in whom God has entrusted to them, and for which they will need to give an account. Yet what about during such perilous times such as these? Could postponement be warranted? Perhaps, in answering this, I should first cite Luther: “Now if a deadly epidemic strikes, we should stay where we are, make our preparations, and take courage in the fact that we are mutually bound together […] so that we cannot desert one another or flee from one another.”[55]

The predominate reality to which Luther, rightly, points is that we need to both be prepared for the context in which we face and remember that we are mutually bound with those others to whom we are collectively covenanted together in community. Consequently, we need to ensure we are not rash in our decisions and that we equip the proper precautions, as the Reformers would exhort us to do.[56] That there is a risk of infection, even death, by us continuing to gather is certainly no different than the reality that the church faced for almost two thousand years, prior to the 20th century. Many believers, both during the Early Church and the Reformational Church, understood that gathering could be risky, yet, by faith, they considered that the weekly gathering of the covenanted community to be entirely worth it.

Yet, we are not to simply gather without any precaution at all, for to do so would be reckless and insensitive. Instead, any adapted gathering must take in consideration the best health advice regarding social interaction. This would mean that hygiene and good sanitary practices must be both adhered to and exhorted. Such an action, both exhorted and obeyed, being a testament to a love of the brethren as well as a love for God. Such would easily fall within the praxis, as witnessed, of the Reformational Churches.

Yet, what about during times of government regulations—with the now shutdown of ‘places of worship’ in Australia (or in light of restricted gatherings.) Obviously, churches will need to do what is right according to their conscience as it is held by Scripture, but the pattern of the churches throughout the history of the church is that we should not cease physically gathering. To quote Lyman Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies: “[O]ne of the more controversial elements of historic Christian plague ethics: We don’t cancel church. […] Even as we take communion from separate plates and cups to minimize risk, forgo hand-shaking or hugging, and sit at a distance from each other, we still commune.”[57]

Subsequently, we need to keep two principles in mind which must dictate, or ground, how we are to respond and effectively gather. The first is understanding the centrality of the gathering for the Christian, thus simple cancellations of the service should be rebuffed as much as possible in one’s mind. Indeed, if we are to gather, in light of governmental shutdown of local ‘places of worship’, it may be eventually more feasible for the church, for a season, to return to the format which dominated the first few centuries due to persecution. With small gatherings being facilitated throughout an area, as opposed to a singular larger gathering which would violate existing governmental mandate. Such could be argued to be done out of also a love for the community, in mitigating the further risk of outbreak, whilst at the time ensuring that physical gatherings continuing to take place, thus we are earnestly seeking to love God in a way that is “not instituted at the will and pleasure of man, but by the authority of God.[58]

Thinking about the difficulties that some may face in gathering, Bullinger opines: “For if anyone householder dwell among idolaters, which neither have, nor yet desire to have or frequent, the Christian or lawful congregations; then may he in his own several house gather a peculiar assembly to praise the Lord […] But it is a heinous sin and a detestable schism, if the congregation be assembled, either in cities or villages, for thee then to seek out byways to hide thyself, and not to come there, but to condemn the church of God and assembly of saints.”[59]

This effective ‘decentralisation’, or split to ‘mini-churches’, would need to be thought through by the church’s officers, as they would need to think through potential leaders who could adequately lead the small gatherings through teaching and preaching of the Word. Such small gatherings, of two to six individuals, could also be held during the same time throughout the different locations and be facilitated by an order of service sent from the church officers to each small group, so that on each Sunday, all of the groups could be singing the same song, praying for the same things, and also reflecting on the same text from Scripture. Collections could also be gathered and remitted to the church, or those who are part of the church can be encouraged to utilise electronic transfer. Announcements could also potentially be made by the church’s website, social media accounts, and even physical signage at church, that if individuals would like to attend church, they can contact the church and be directed to a relevant group. The administrative organisation of this may, at first, sound difficult, but if it helps to facilitate the continuation of the church physically gathering, then such difficulties should be worth overcoming.

Yet, what about live streaming? In regard to a church providing a live stream in addition to gathering, I think this is a useful tool to provide to those who are at the most at risk when gathering (primarily the elderly). But would this be an apt substitute, at least for the present time, for the gathered church? I do not think so. Watching a live stream of a sermon is not church, nor would it be considered, rightfully, as part of church. As mentioned above, and as has been understood from church history, church is the gathering of the saints, to which the exposition of the Word plays only a part, an important part, but only a part nonetheless. Put simply, watching a video on a screen cannot spiritually nourish us in the way that God designed for when the brethren gather. Mark Dever, Pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, is spot on, when he tweets that “a video of a sermon is not a substitute for a covenanted congregation assembling together and all the various means of God’s grace in that.”[60] This is not to say that such videos cannot be helpful. However, just like watching any good Christian video on Youtube, these may be helpful, and serve as an extraordinary means of grace, outside or alongside church, but is not a replacement of church. We can, though, recognise that such a medium is an attempt to help augment family worship. However, spiritual nourishment, to the fullest devised extent, can only occur in the medium in which God devised. To reference Tom Ascol, President of Founders Ministries, “You can no more go to church online than you can eat dinner at a restaurant online.[61]

But, you may ask, what about during times of total lockdown—such as has been seen in Italy? Certainly, the question may be pressed, live streaming should occur in these cases? I would still hesitate to say yes, for the same reason as has been specified above. However, during such times whereupon the church is entirely unable to meet physically, such as during a total, enforced, lockdown, such technological mediums that allow interaction between parties (as opposed to unilateral communication), can be helpful in facilitating some level of fellowship between believers. However, this should not be confused as church, or as the gathering. Church is inherently incarnational, it is inherently physical, and only a physical gathering can, and should be, treated as the collective assembly of the saints who are covenanted together.

Indeed, whilst much of the rationale in migrating to an ‘online church’ is laudable, I want to offer several points of concern outside of the above. The first is that I fear we are too easily throwing historical-theological precedent to the wind and too rashly seeing this medium, which has defined social interaction over the past decade, as a worthy substitute or alternative. I cannot help but suspect our reasonable comfortability with technology has facilitated this drive, as we are already heavily saturated with technology and see it too readily as an ally in progress. This road of seeing ‘online church’ as an apt alternative in lieu of the weekly gathering, will have ramifications through the lending of the credibility to churches which have already been exclusively meeting online prior to the outbreak. Whilst individuals may argue that this is only for a season, it will inevitably become completely arbitrary as to the acceptable length on which a church could utilise this.

My other concern is that a decision to move to an ‘online church’ may simply be driven by a pastors’ personality, specifically in that they do not want to hand over the reins of teaching, preaching, and possibly ‘being seen’. This may be driven by a sense of insecurity, particularly in regarding drawing a stipend during such a season. However, for those who may be in this position, I would encourage you to consider that you may be withholding God’s devised means of grace to your congregation and that it may be worth thinking through other methods such as ‘decentralising’ the church for a season. Please, I do ask, prayerfully consider.

All-in-all, these are some minor concerns, and I do believe should be wrestled through. This is not an attempt to broad-brush all of those who have decided to move to an ‘online church’ and livestreaming., but rather encouraging caution in evaluating how and why we do things.

Yet also, the question may also arise—what if closing the church is better for it shows that we are loving our neighbour? To this, I would also push back, for our forefathers of the faith saw that loving our neighbour truly can only rightly occur through loving God first. Loving God, in this case, I would argue, from historical-theological precedent, is to continue faithfully gathering as we have been called to do, format varying. We need to recognise that a role of the church is that it is also charged with being a medium of God’s work on Earth, namely through the proclamation of the gospel and all that that entails (Matt. 28:16-20; Acts 1:8). In this world of darkness, the gathered church is called to be a city on a hill, actively reflecting the light of Christ into the world (John 3:19; 2 Cor. 4:4; Matt. 5:14-16). Cancellation of the assembly, or even relegating the service to ‘online’, is to the very real spiritual detriment of those to whom otherwise would have been fed through God’s appointed channel of the local body. Further, and perhaps most crucially, it ‘closes’ the main presence of gospel proclamation. This hospice of the spiritually ill shut. Indeed, it would be a sad day, if a person wanting to hear the words of eternal life was to come and find the doors of every church locked, the saints not assembling.

We do have an onus to love our neighbour, and Christians must do this, and look at ways that we can physically assist in the community that does not have us cease gathering, but the first and foremost way we can love our neighbour during this time is to call nation to repentance and the Good News of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, just perhaps, COVID-19 is an exhortation to the church to boldly preach repentance once again.

References:

[1] J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (Macmillan and Co., 1891), p. 234.

[2] Ibid, 284.

[3] Note that the decision of the Roman Emperor, Claudius to expel the Jews from Rome in approximately 49 AD, also included Jewish Christians (Acts 18:2), However, Nero’s attack on Christians in 64 AD was the first ‘targeted’ persecution (See Tacitus, The Annals, 15.44)

[4] Simon Jones, The World of the Early Church (Lion Book, 2011) p. 46.

[5] Pliny, Letters of Pliny Vol. 2 , T. E. Page, E. Capps, W. H. D. Rouse, & W. M. L. Hutchinson (Eds.), W. Melmoth, (Trans.) (The Macmillan Co, 1931), pp. 403-405.

[6] Michael Peppard, The World’s Oldest Church (Yale University Press, 2016), p. 17.

[7] For an excellent treatment of this subject, let me refer you to Edward Adams, The Earliest Christian Meeting Places (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013)

[8] Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson (Penguin Books, 1989), p. 257 (H.E. 8.1.5)

[9] Eusebius, History, p. 307 (H.E. 10.4); Rex D. Butler, Learning from Patristic Community Formation, in The Contemporary Church and the Early Church ed. Paul Hartog (Wipf and Stock, 2010), p. 62.

[10] However, it should also be clarified that some churches still gather in smaller buildings, or even houses, today mostly due to the reality of persecution existing in those countries. Thus, in this case whilst they still physically gather, the only suitable venues are those which facilitate privacy and safety, just like those who lived during the early church.

[11] Pliny, Letters, 403.

[12] Note the words of Justin Martyr in response to Rusticus, the Prefect: Rusticus the prefect said, “Where do you assemble?” Justin said, “Where each one chooses and can: for do you fancy that we all meet in the very same place? Not so; because the God of the Christians is not circumscribed by place; but being invisible, fills heaven and earth, and everywhere is worshipped and glorified by the faithful.” A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.) The Martyrdom of the Holy Martyrs, Justin, Chariton, Charites, Pæon, and Liberianus, who Suffered at Rome. In The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus Vol. 1 (Christian Literature Company, 1885), p. 305.

[13] The heresies of Novatianism (3rd century) and Donatism (4th to 6th centuries) were two schismatic heresies which questioned the reentry of individuals into the church who had earlier recanted their confession. The Shephard of Hermas (Notably in 2.2; 3.6-7) quite likely speaks to this.

[14] Of possible interest is his referral to the day of gathering: “the eighth day, that is, the first day after the Sabbath, and the Lord’s day.” Cyprian of Carthage, The Epistles of Cyprian in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company,1886), p. 354. (E. C. 58.4) c.f. E. C. 23; 32.

[15] Ibid, 337. (E. C. 53.2)

[16] Ibid, 369. (E. C. 66)

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 321. (E. C. 41.3)

[19] See footnote 13.

[20] Cyprian of Carthage, The Epistles of Cyprian in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company, 1886), p. 268. (E. C. 66.3)

[21] Refer to footnote 14. Also, Baptism (E. C. 58; 72); Lord’s Supper (E. C. 62).

[22] Cyprian of Carthage, The Epistles of Cyprian in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company, 1886), p. 337. (E. C. 53.1)

[23] Ibid, 348. (E. C. 55.4)

[24] Ibid, 337. (E. C. 53.3)

[25] Eusebius, History, p. 307 (H.E. 22.7)

[26] Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire (Princeton University Press, 2017), p. 141.

[27] Pontius of Carthage, The Life and Passion of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company, 1886), p. 270.

[28] Cyprian of Carthage, On the Mortality in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company, 1886), p. 472.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid, 474.

[31] Ibid, 475.

[32] Cyprian of Carthage, The Epistles of Cyprian in A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. C. Coxe (Eds.), Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Novatian, Appendix Vol . 5 (Christian Literature Company, 1886), p. 319. (E. C. 40)

[33] Harper, The Fate of Rome, 139.

[34] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works: Devotional Writings II, Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Eds.), Vol. 43 (Fortress Press, 1999), p. 124.

[35] John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin, Jules Bonnet (Trans.) and M. R. Gilchrist (Ed.) Vol. 1 (Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1893), pp. 314-315 c.f. 365-366. (C. L. 88 c.f. 100); Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Fourth Decade, T. Harding (Ed.) (Cambridge University Press, 1851), p. 58.

[36] William G. Naphy, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. 90

[37] John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin, Jules Bonnet (Trans.) and M. R. Gilchrist (Ed.) Vol. 1 (Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1893), pp. 358. (C. L. 97)

[38] Naphy, Calvin, 90.

[39] Herman J. Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life (InterVarsity Press, 2009), p. 138.; Calvin, Letters, 358. (C. L. 97)

[40] Peter Elmer and Ole Peter Grell (Eds.), Protestantism, poor relief and health care in sixteeth-century Europe, in Health, Disease and Society in Europe, 1500-1800: A Sourcebook (Manchester University Press, 2004), p. 105.

[41] Martin Luther, Dr. Martin Luthers Briefe, Sendschreiben und Bedenken, W. M. L. de Wette (Ed.) Vol. 3 (G. Reimer, 1827), p. 217. (BSB 910 – “An Nie. Amsdorf”): “In domo mea coepit esse hospitale. Hanna Augustini pestem intrinsecus aluit, sed resurgit.”

[42] Theodore Beza, A Learned Treatise of the Plague (Thomas Ratcliffe, 1665), p. 4 c.f. 17.

[43] Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, P. Beale (Trans.) (Banner of Truth, 2016), p. 90; David Lawrence, Martin Bucer: Unsung Hero of the Reformation (Westview Pub., 2008), p. 191 c.f. 211.

[44] Beza, Plague, 2.

[45] Ibid, 4.

[46] Bullinger, The Fourth Decade, 227.

[47] See footnotes 34-35. See also below (48).

[48] Luther, Works, 135.

[49] Calvin, Letters, Vol. 3, 243 (C. L. 424).

[50] Bullinger, The Fourth Decade, 228.

[51] Donald Sinnema, God’s Eternal Decree and Its Temporaral Execution in Adaptions of Calvinism in Reformation Europe, M. P. Holt (Ed.) (Ashgate, 2007), pp. 74-75; Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The First and Second Decades, T. Harding (Ed.) (Cambridge University Press, 1849), p. 294; Calvin, Letters, Vol. 4, 201 c.f. 350 (C. L. 598 c.f. 663).

[52] Donald Sinnema, God’s Eternal Decree, p. 75; Luther, Works, 135.

[53] Jonathan Gibson and Mark Earngey, Reformation Worship (New Growth Press, 2018), p. 52.

[54] John Chrysostom, Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle to the Hebrews. In Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John and Epistle to the Hebrews, Vol. 14, P. Schaff (Ed.), T. Keble & F. Gardiner (Trans.), (Christian Literature Company, 1889), p. 455.

[55] Luther, Works, 132.

[56] Luther, Works, 135.

[57] Lyman Stone, Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years, Foreign Policy, 13 March 2020: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/13/christianity-epidemics-2000-years-should-i-still-go-to-church-coronavirus/ (Accessed: 17/03/2020)

[58] Henry Bullinger, The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Fifth Decade, T. Harding (Ed.) (Cambridge University Press, 1852), p. 165.

[59] Bullinger, The First and Second Decades, 262.

[60] Mark Dever, 14 March 2020: https://twitter.com/MarkDever/status/1238527208702050306 (Accessed: 20/03/2020)

[61] Tom Ascol, 21 March 2020: https://twitter.com/tomascol/status/1241130570165469185 (Accessed: 21/03/2020)


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