With the growing concern over the coronavirus and the pressing recommendations to cease gatherings of groups of people of 10 or more, churches are being placed in the awkward position of having to decide whether or not to hold services. Some of the calls for ceasing gatherings of this size or greater are suggesting a period of at least 15 days but could be extended to 8 to 12 weeks. In the worst-case scenario, that means the public administration of the means of grace would cease for up to three months. Since the Christian faith is not an individualistic faith, but one that is chiefly expressed in and among the believing community, this poses a serious problem for the church. Pastors and sessions need to satisfy their consciences that canceling services on the Lord’s Day is the right course of action. One of the primary duties of the eldership is to gather God’s people together for public worship. For it is in the public administration of the means of grace that the Lord meets with His people.
Again, the problem that is presented to pastors and sessions is a problem of conscience. Are we justified by the information available in ceasing to minister the word, sacraments, and prayer on the recommendation of the government? Will we have a satisfactory answer on judgement day when we have to account for our actions? This article is an attempt to work through the variables and principles in a casuistic fashion. Casuistry is the practice of solving cases of conscience through the sober application of biblical principles. It recognizes that the conscience operates on rational grounds and deduces conclusions based upon information of circumstances and formation of itself through God’s Word.
The factors to consider are manifold. The duty of public worship, the nature of scientific conclusions (of which medical science is a subset), the authority of the state over the church, the duty of the church to the state, and the nature of mass media and propaganda are all factors that play into the decision of pastors and sessions in leading their flocks at this time. The overarching element in this whole discussion is the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, carnal thinking and faithful thinking. When made to wait upon the fulfillment of the promise of a son, Sarai carnally sought an expedient through Hagar. When commanded by God to sacrifice his only son, Abraham faithfully reasoned that God was able to preserve the promised heir even from death. Pastors and sessions are called to faithfulness at all times and more so in these times.
The Duty of Public Worship
That this is a duty of the covenant people of God is held out by the feasts of Israel, the calls to worship in the Psalms, and the spiritual nature of the church in the New Testament.
Leviticus 23 lays out the ceremonial provisions for the feasts of Israel. During these feasts, the Israelites are to bring an offering “unto the LORD” (Lev. 23:8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20, 25, 27, 28, 36, 37, 40). In these passages, the sacrifices are to be done “before the LORD” or “unto the LORD.” This indicates that the offerings to be performed during these feasts were to be done at the Tabernacle/Temple. That was where the altar of the Lord was located and where the Lord had made his name to dwell (Deut. 12:11). To present an offering to the Lord was to travel to the place where his name dwelt. This was commanded of all Israelites and amounts to a duty to gather corporately for public worship. This conclusion is further buttressed by the “holy convocation” that the priests are to call during the festal seasons. During those times, when the Israelites were bringing their offerings, they were gathered in a holy assembly to worship the Lord. The Hebrew word in Leviticus 23:3 and the Greek word in the LXX translation of the Hebrew text are both based upon the root which means to call. That is, these gatherings were a calling together of the people.
This principle of calling together for the sake of worship is reflected in the calls to worship found in the Psalms. In the Reformed tradition, the worship service begins with a formal call to worship read by the minister which initiates the holy assembly of God’s people for worship. This call is read from the Scriptures as they are the only warrant we have for gathering as we do, week in and week out, to worship the Lord. Some examples can be found in Psalms 95:1-2, 96:1-3; 7-6, 98:4-6. Others could be multiplied. Note that in all these examples or in the broader context of the Psalms in which these calls are found, that there is a Temple gathering in view. Phrases such as “before the Lord,” “in His courts,” and “praise His name” all imply or expressly require a gathered assembly at the Temple to fulfill. As we saw above, the place where the worship of sacrifices was to be offered was in God’s presence at the Tabernacle/Temple. Here, the praise that is to be offered is “in His courts” or “before His presence,” that is, at the Temple.
The Book of Hebrews finds the fulfillment of these Old Testament types in the Person and Work of Christ and in particular our gathering together to Him in worship. In Hebrews 10:25, the author exhorts his readers to not forsake the gathering together but to encourage one another all the more as the Day draws near. The immediate context of this exhortation is worship. In 10:19-22, the summation of the benefit of Christ and his priestly mediation is that we can draw near to the Holy of Holies, heaven itself. What the Israelites enjoyed only by way of type and shadow, we in the New Testament enjoy by way of substance. This is the governing image of the exhortation not to forsake the assembling together. It is not, primarily, for fellowship with other Christians. Rather it is primarily for entering into heavenly worship through Christ and then for the mutual encouragement that we enjoy when we gather.
In Chapter 13, the author polishes off his letter with an exhortation to go out to Christ in worship. From 13:7-17, the whole paragraph is focused on the gathering of the saints, under the oversight of church officers, for the purpose of offering up the sacrifices of praise and eating from the table by which we commune with Christ. In the spiritual worship of the New Testament, Christians gather to worship the Lord in fulfillment of the Old Testament types by feeding upon the final sacrificial meal, Christ Himself.
Finally, Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul teaches us that the gathered people of the New Testament Church is the realized dwelling place of God. The New Testament Church is the New Temple, fulfilling what the Temple of Solomon only typified. From the above sketch of the biblical theology surrounding the Temple and its antitype, the Church, it is clear that corporate worship in God’s presence is a duty of the Church.
The Nature of Scientific Conclusions
The recommendations being passed down from state and federal governments are based upon scientific conclusions. Medical science is but one of the many subsets of scientific reasoning and it is medical science that is propounding the conclusions upon which we are being asked to cease gatherings of 10 or more people. Thus, to assess the part this should play in our decisions as pastors and sessions as to whether or not we should cancel our services, some attention must be paid to the nature of scientific conclusions.
It is, technically, improper to call a determination of science a conclusion. This is due to the inductive nature of scientific reasoning. In argumentation, there are two broad categories of reasoning by which one can make a case. Logic proper follows a deductive approach which draws out conclusions from premises. A deductive argument can properly produce conclusions for the nature of a deductive argument is to draw out a conclusive premise contained in supporting premises. As an example:
A: All coronaviruses are infectious.
B: Covid-19 is a coronavirus.
C: Therefore Covid-19 is infectious.
In this example, the conclusion (C), is already contained in the premises A and B. All that is required is to combine the premises by means of the middle term (coronavirus) and draw out what is already there.
Induction works otherwise. Induction observes fact and phenomena and posits an inference or supposes a hypothesis which accounts for the collected data. As an example:
A: The swans in England are white.
B: The swans in France are white.
C: The swans in Russia are white.
D: The swans in America are white.
One is tempted to conclude that all swans are white. But, the most that can be said from this data set is that all of the swans that have been observed are white. One cannot conclude that swans cannot be black. An inductive inference cannot be true or false, absolutely (as in deduction). Rather it can be weak or strong. In the swan example, the inference that all swans are white was a strong inference, but proved to be wrong in the end. Thanks Australia.
Induction is the method of medical science. And though we have a mountain of empirical data and certain sound scientific principles at work in the medical community, the best that medical research can do is provide a strong inference. But with every inductive inference, there is always the element of uncertainty. This is why medical practice and procedure always comes with a certain level of risk. Doctors do not know conclusively, since their reasoning is not done deductively. They do know inductively and probabilistically, but still with a level of uncertainty.
Why is this important? All of the recommendations are based upon inductive medical reasoning. What pastors and sessions have to weigh is the clear duty to worship God corporately against the probabilistic inference that this gathering will cause the spread of the Covid-19. We are tasked with determining if the probable danger of Covid-19 outweighs our duty to gather for worship. Another factor that is at play is the precedent that ceasing worship this Sunday will present. In all likelihood, the recommendations will be to cease these gatherings of 10 or more for up to 12 weeks. The question before us then, is it a sound decision to cease the public administration of the means of grace for three months?
Additionally, medical science projects potential spread of viruses using a uniformitarian assumption. In most of the projections you will see caveat phrases like “if the rate of spread continues” or “if this mortality rate keeps up.” The problem with projections of this kind is that the world is not a uniform equation. There are factors that have not yet come into play that will potentially affect the spread of this virus. The primary one is the return of more sunshine in the spring. We know that exposure to the sun produces vitamin D in the body and that vitamin D is a key vitamin in the body’s natural immune system. One of the contributing factors to the flu season and the spread of the coronavirus is that we are still coming out of winter and haven’t yet arrived at the spring. March 19th is the official beginning of spring. As of this writing, that is today. It stands to reason, given the historical downturn of the flu season when the sun returns, that when the sun returns in late March or April, that this virus will also subside. April is less than three weeks away.
The above discussion of the nature of inductive reasoning leads to another problem of certainty related to the reported numbers of the coronavirus. There is evidence that the CDC sent out faulty testing kits which returned a large proportion of false positives. Given the general nature of medical science, it is not amiss to consider that in testing for a specific strain of the coronavirus family (Covid-19), mistakes can be made. But, the reported number of cases and the rate of spread based upon those reports is one of the prime data sets used to support the recommendations from the government to cease gatherings of 10 or more people.
We are now back to our original question, does this justify canceling services? Can we make a conscientious decision to cease worshiping God corporately based upon this information?
The other side of this problem needs to be faced as well. Given that we do not know the nature of this virus, it could be worse than has been reported. Looked at in this light, can we afford to put lives at risk by gathering for public worship? If, as has been said, this virus spreads through respiration, a congregated flock is a virtual petri dish. This consideration then leads us to ask, given the probability that this virus is far worse than we can imagine, can we conscientiously hold public worship?
The Nature of Church/State Relations
The question has already been asked on several fronts during this outbreak. On one side, many have pointed out that declaring a quarantine for the nation over which a magistrate rules is within his just authority. On the other, many have argued that this call for ceasing gatherings of 10 or more is an encroachment upon the liberty of worship.
The questions before us is not whether a magistrate may call for a quarantine to protect the lives of his subjects. Rather the question is, is a quarantine justified at this time. Does the severity of the Covid-19 outbreak warrant a quarantine and the cessation of divine service in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day? The exercise this article is engaged in does not seek to question the magistrate’s just authority. Rather it seeks satisfaction of conscience in submitting to a recommendation to effectively cease public worship.
In many states, these recommendations are not law. In some, they are. It therefore becomes a misdemeanor to gather for worship in a group greater than the limit imposed by the ban. In our state, Virginia, it is not yet an official ban. Each one must make up his own conscience in regard to obeying these bans and recommendations.
It must be pointed out, however, that any bans on churches gathering currently in place are not directed at Christian worship as Christian worship but as a large public gathering. Some have been concerned about state overreach in these matters. While it is true that the church is free to gather or disperse at her own discretion, it will not do to confuse the situation as it currently stands by claiming government violation of the first amendment. The basis for any church canceling services during this time must be the desire to uphold the 6th commandment and protect life. Conversely, any churches, pastors, or sessions that are canceling services on the ground that the state has ordered it need to examine their motives and offering sound doctrine so as to maintain the liberty of the church, especially in the minds of their congregations. Our people need to know that we are working in conjunction with the magistrate and not in subordination to the state.
Mass Media and Propaganda
The final factor in determining this question is the reliability of the mass media and the nature of propaganda. All of us are limited in gaining our information from major news sources. There are reports of conditions on the ground from countries that are in quarantine. There have been reports from China from doctors who spread the warning early on about this virus. But these reports from individuals are limited in reach or in content and perspective. A report from Italy showing the conditions on the ground merely shows us the living in a state of quarantine is bad. It does not tell us anything about the severity of the outbreak. Similar for reports from China.
How are we to assess all of this information? How can the conscience process and act with the sheer amount of reports? This problem has been highlighted before. The problems that the internet solved made way for a new set of problems. Instead of not having enough information, our problem today is that we have too much.
In addition, propaganda is a real factor in the reporting of the news media. We are all aware of the bias of news outlets and the propensity for politicians to use a crisis (real or manufactured) for political gain. How do we know that the reports and actions of state and federal governments are honest? Can we rule out an ulterior motive in calling for the cessation of gatherings of 10 or more? Are those who call the murder of abortion “reproductive health” above labeling a virus a pandemic? These are questions we must wrestle with if we are going to comply in the cessation of public worship for what may be 3 months.
This again raises the question of conscience. The term literally means “with knowledge.” A conscientious action is one done in possession of available knowledge and in light of that knowledge. This is why we feel guilt when we sin. We know we have done wrong. Conversely, this is why we feel relief when we do right. We know we have done the right thing.
Conscience will not be satisfied without due diligence. Part of our due diligence is to weigh out the various sources of information and grant credibility to them accordingly. If CNN claims that this is the end of civilization as we know it, we grant what credence they are due. If a expert epidemiologist advises certain actions, we grant him the credence he is due.
Weighing out the above factors is not an easy task. But it is the task before us today. One final principle needs to be considered before we can come to a resolution. In the exposition of the 6th commandment, the Westminster Larger Catechism explains that the duty to preserve life may be pursued with all lawful means. What this means is that in seeking to preserve life , we are require to use all means that do not violate God’s Law. We, thus, cannot serve idols in order to preserve our lives. Not can we deny Christ to save our lives. For, though the preservation of life is a duty, that duty is subordinate to the first and second commandments. To try to preserve one commandment at the expense of another is unlawful.
The above discussion of lawful and unlawful brings into focus the final piece of the puzzle, the conflict between the flesh and the Spirit. Paul teaches us that to be carnally minded is death because the carnal mind is not subject to the Law of God. The mind of the Spirit, however, is life and peace because it is subject to God’s Law. What we must be careful of in deciding the question is that we do not reason in a carnal manner. We will not be justified in upholding the 6th commandment if in holding that commandment we violate the first and second. Not will we be justified in upholding the first and second commandments if we do so as to negligently put lives at risk in violation of the 6th commandment.
Adherence to God’s Law as a rule of life is one of the acts of saving faith. Another act of saving faith is trust in God’s goodness and power; his goodness in not commanding anything that is to our harm and his power in being able to preserve us from affliction as we obey him. The antithesis of faith is fear. What needs to be guarded against is the fear of death in these circumstances. If we are motivated by the fear of death, we are not being motivated by faith. And whatsoever is not done from faith is sin.
Therefore, it seems to me that, at this time, the outbreak is not of a nature that gathering to worship is negligently risking lives. The sanitary practices employed thus far seem sufficient to protect our congregation. Given the uncertainty and unreliability of the news sources and the nature of scientific reasoning, the danger posed by Covid-19 is a probable danger whose probable effects do not warrant cessation of divine services. We should continue our current practices of caution with the elderly and sick, but with faith in God who raises the dead, we trust that he will be well pleased for us to gather in his name, bringing the sacrifices of our lips and feasting upon that peace offering, Christ the Lord.
There are several way to accomplish this. Separating the congregation into multiple services, live streaming, or some other expedient. Whatever choice is made, we must be sure that it is done from faith, in obedience to the Lord, with an eye to his glory. But whatever is chosen , it behooves us to minister the word to our flocks. For it is in the Word that we gather under the shadow of the Lord’s wings. And under his wings we find safety.
Update Post Session Meeting
All of the above was my attempt to work through the factors that have played into my thinking about the question of suspending worship services. But, I am a Presbyterian pastor. This means that the final decision on this question is not solely up to me. It is a decision of the body of elders, the session. I thank the Lord Jehovah that I do not have to pastor my flock alone. For folly comes from a lack of wise counselors.
Our session has discussed this issue and come to the decision to suspend worship for two weeks. We will then reassess the information available and move forward. But for now, worship has been suspended at Grace OPC in Lynchburg, VA.
This is not a decision made lightly. From the above, I hope it is evident that we have tried to arrive at a decision which satisfies conscience in upholding all of God’s Law.
Given the fulfillment of the typological nature of the Temple in the New Testament Church as the locus for public worship, there needs to be a corresponding example for how the people of God can still serve him in the absence of the Temple/public worship. Do we have such an example where the people of God of old were separated from the outward signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace? And was God well pleased to still visit his people in that expedient? We do, the synagogue.
During the Babylonian exile, Israel was cut off from the outward signs of the Covenant of Grace administered at the Temple. This was the context for the ascendancy of the synagogue system. This system was a gathering of at least 10 people for the reading of Scripture and prayer. During the Diaspora of Israel, synagogues sprang up all over the Near East and the Roman Empire. Though cut off from the outward signs and seals, Israel was still gathering to the Lord and communing with him through the Word and prayer. This is not an ordinary circumstance, however. After the finished work of Christ, the signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace were changed from sacrifices offered at the altar in Jerusalem to the bread and wine of Communion and the waters of Baptism. This made the gathering of God’s people to him through the signs and seals portable and unrestricted as to place. And returned to them once again the outward signs which they had lost during the Exile.
We are now in a situation were our country is afflicted with plague. Plague is one of God’s judgments upon a nation. And due to the nature of this judgment, we are hindered from gathering and partaking of the outward signs of the Covenant of Grace. But, this is not unprecedented as the synagogue system shows.
If I am correct in drawing this parallel, this carries two major implications. The first is that we are under judgment. Just as in the Exile, God in judgment removed the people from the outward signs of His covenant because they polluted them with their sins, so also, God is judging us for polluting the outward seals of the Covenant of Grace. This calls us to consider our ways. The thought overwhelms me to consider how many unrepentant fornicators, pornographers, adulterers, liars, thieves, blasphemers, rebellious children, materialistic, covetous, and flippant people have dared to reach out and touch the bread and wine of holy communion! Are you such an one? Search your hearts. At times like this we all need to take warning.
The second is the duty that heads of house are called to. You are still required to keep Sabbath. Some of you may be thinking, with the cancellation of services, “Finally, I can sleep in on Sunday.” Do not think it. If your church has suspended services, this is a time to harden yourself against laziness and to lead your family in worship. Our church is providing some helps to this end, but even if your church isn’t providing any helps, you need to find some. Pray, read, and sing morning and evening. Lead you family to commune with God through the other means he has provided, the Word and prayer. You should have been doing this already. Now is a time to learn how.
Finally, our session is well satisfied that with the example of the synagogue system we are not violating God’s Law as to administering the means of grace. The lead a father takes in leading his family in worship is not the same as the congregated worship under the oversight of the elders, but it is in keeping with the example of the synagogue. Though this may be a lawful expedient in times of judgment, let it not satisfy our souls. Rather let us pray that the Lord will send relief speedily that we may gather to him again in public, under the overseers, and feast upon that Peace Offering through the signs and seals of the Covenant of Grace, the body and blood of the Lord.
Some Practical Helps
First, technology has made our situation less desperate than it may seem in things spiritual. Use Sermon Audio. If your local pastor has been uploading sermons or will provide a live stream, it’s better to sit under his preaching. Use them. Listen again to a message you perhaps missed. I will be prerecording sermons and uploading them on Saturday for use on Sunday, continuing the series in have been preaching in Genesis and Ephesians. If you wish, you can find them at Grace OPC Lynchburg, VA on Sermon Audio.
Second, reach out to your neighbors. At times like this Christians can be a shining light to those without hope. Check up on the widow down the street. Offer to help the single mother. See if you can support the restaurant employee who has probably lost their job and their paycheck for the foreseeable future.
Third, call each other. Check in on your fellow congregants. Better is a friend close at hand than a brother far off.
Finally, in all things, give thanks. Do not let the media sour you. Be thankful for what you have in Christ and what you haven’t lost. Be thankful for the hardship as the means by which God will sanctify you. Be thankful for you loved ones who die in the Lord, knowing that they have been gathered to that perfect congregation and heavenly worship service before the throne.
May God bless us, and in the midst of judgment remember mercy.