Editor’s note: How does the church obey God’s command to gather together during the covid-19 epidemic? This is a question Chinese churches have already struggled with for about a month, and one churches around the globe will likely be forced to confront in the near future as coronavirus continues to spread.
This letter was written in late January to a church in a major Chinese city that was not central to the initial outbreak. How are believers to exercise prudence in the face of contagious disease as they wrestle with scripture that plainly teaches the importance of corporate worship? This pastor and his church decided to temporarily pause large gatherings, but encouraged believers to continue coming together in smaller groups, with guidelines for those who should avoid all meetings. The church is also providing online meetings and worship for those who cannot physically attend a small group. Here, a pastor shares his church’s plan with his flock.
Wang Jianguo is a collective pseudonym for a group of Chinese house church pastors thinking and writing about issues related to the spread of Christianity in their nation.
Dear brothers and sisters,
In light of the epidemic, we foresee that our church will not be able to meet together for quite a long time – anywhere from one to three months. During this period, how can we fulfill the biblical command of Hebrews 10:25: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near”?
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Some say this biblical command is for ordinary times, not special circumstances. In normal times we can obey, but special circumstances demand special measures. However, is our time truly as special as when the author of Hebrews wrote this command? At that time, Christians were discriminated against and persecuted. Any meeting, even the smallest, could bring imprisonment and capital punishment. Throughout Hebrews, the author continually encouraged the letter recipients to have faith. Why? Because not only did they face persecution from authorities, they also faced persecution from society and their fellow citizens. We have reason to believe it was more difficult for believers to meet in the time of the book of Hebrews than during our own times. Therefore, this command is not just for churches during normal times, but especially for churches in “wartime.” This command not only requires Christians to continue meeting together, but also requires believers to encourage one another. Wartime situations bring a greater reminder than ordinary times that “the Day” is drawing near, therefore we should come together “all the more.”
In that case, why can’t the church meet as usual? Our primary concern should not be to avoid person-to-person infection, but to avoid causing panic and uneasiness to our neighbors, property management, neighborhood, and community. The government’s proposal is not religious persecution, but a public health warning caused by any human gathering. As we love our neighbors and carry one another’s weaknesses, and so that we may also please and build up our neighbors, we have suspended our meetings. Our church also has to consider other risks related to big gatherings, including the increased possibility of infection and the inability of many congregants to attend due to quarantine. We should pray for this epidemic, asking God not only to alleviate the pressure of the epidemic so we can resume gatherings, but also to bring reflection and transformation to our nation and society through this epidemic. The Bible promises us that the Messiah will take our illnesses and bear our diseases.
However, the church still bears the responsibility to teach. The church must make it possible for believers to obey the biblical command to gather. This is why we will make every effort to coordinate resources and provide opportunities for small group gatherings, so faithful brothers and sisters who are willing to obey the biblical command will not neglect to meet together, encourage one another, and enable the Word of God to shepherd his people. Keeping a close watch on epidemic reports and statistics or hearing slogans about presenting a united front to fight the disease will not bring spiritual growth or hope; only the Word of God can do this. Pastor Tim Keller says persecution helps you become either a better Christian or a worse one, but it does not leave you alone. Becoming a better Christian is the work of God’s Spirit, through God’s word, in the community of God’s people.
I encourage all of you to make every effort on Sundays to attend a small group meeting near your home, as long as you have no symptoms and have had no contact with infected individuals or people from infected regions. If you have a home big enough to accommodate meetings and the desire to serve, by faith open your home so the people of God can meet together. If you are willing to open your home as a venue for temporary small group meetings, please tell the elders. If you want to attend a nearby small group meeting, please register with us. On Sundays, encourage one another (rather than gossiping about the epidemic or shopping for face masks) and let the Word of God fill your spirit and family.
When you attend small group meetings, please wear facemasks in the neighborhood. Try to arrive early, and spread out your arrivals so as not to raise the attention of other residents by arriving at the same time. If you have recently returned from a domestic trip via high-speed rail or bus, please do not attend small group meetings, because railway stations and passenger transportation centers are crowded places. We suggest self-quarantine for about two weeks before you begin to attend small group meetings. Instead, you may connect with the meeting online. Attendance of those who have traveled internationally should be determined by the epidemic situation at the place of departure and individual health conditions.
If you are quarantined out-of-town and cannot return or are traveling, I encourage you to attend nearby church gatherings. Physical interactions and hearing the Word of God in person is always better than virtual meetings. This will also provide you an opportunity to encourage and build up the local saints. If you cannot find a local church, you can still participate by listening to our sermon online.
If you are in the city but cannot attend our gatherings due to a cold, fever, or suspicious symptoms; if you dare not attend because of worry and fear; or if you cannot come out of consideration for or pressure from family members, we welcome you to notify the church and invite us to pray for you. Do not feel shy or ashamed because of this; bearing each other’s weakness is the teaching of the Bible and one of the reasons the church exists. We welcome you to listen to the Word of God through remote access.
For remote access for those who do not attend a small group: while you do not belong to any group, I still hope you will attend worship by following the scripture readings, prayers, and songs according to the liturgy published on the church’s social media. Our online worship will include a pastoral prayer and preaching, and conclude with fellowship and sharing in an online meeting room.
In order to help you obey biblical teaching, to shepherd and to teach God’s people with God’s word, and to share the gospel, we encourage willing brothers and sisters to host at-home small groups. We encourage you to attend if you can. We will provide online access to brothers, sisters, and seekers who cannot attend.
Translation provided by the China Partnership translation team.