For most believers, this year has been one that has challenged us in ways we haven’t been challenged before. To say that this year has been difficult is an understatement. We have found ourselves wrestling through decisions upon decisions on gathering together as a church. Questions like, what is right?, what is wrong?, what is legal?, what is illegal?, what is loving and peaceful?, and what is not? all swirl in our minds and thoughts as we seek to be people at peace with those around us and within ourselves. This seeking of peace with those around us and within ourselves has actually had the reverse affect. We have been left feeling confused and unsure of what decisions to make. Fear in the form of desiring to please the government, our jobs, our supervisors, and following ever-changing laws have pulled us from thinking through Scripture and leaving us at unrest within ourselves on specifically gathering at church. This unrest comes from a lack of confidence in making decisions according to the full counsel of God. When we allow our thoughts and consciences to be fully informed by the Word of God, then we can move forward and rest in the foundation of our faith, Jesus Christ, through deciding when to gather, and when to not.
When to Gather?
Hebrews 10:18-25 speaks directly to this. The passage is centered on the verb in verse 20. The word for inaugurated communicates this sense of making available or opening. This availability to God is because of forgiveness (v.18), gives us confidence to approach him (v. 19), gives us new life (v.20), and beckons us to look to Jesus Christ as our priest (v.21). Because of Jesus inaugurating our way to God through His death, we are called to draw near to God in faith with a clean conscience (v.22), hold true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (v.23), and stir each other in emotions, feelings, and responses to love and good works by not abandoning our gathering together (v.24). Church is not an event, but it is the point in which we gather to love each other!
Let’s follow the thought in reverse now. The writer of Hebrews says that we are to continually gather in our assembly, or what we call our church meeting, (the verb for not abandoning is a present active which denotes continuous action) because that is what actually stirs and spurs each other on to love and do good works. This points to Jesus Christ and the faith we have! Our faith is then seen as an active and real faith in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit uses one another to do good things that magnify the name of Jesus Christ, and this only happens when we gather together faithfully. When do we gather? Consistently and continually. We don’t forsake it, we don’t stop it, but we do it repeatedly because of the Gospel.
Other passages such as Ephesians 4:1-16 demonstrate the same principle, that in order for us to live Christian lives and grow, we must be in community with one another. In fact, Paul writes in verse 14 that you can’t be a mature Christian if you’re not meeting together. As we meet, we grow, and as we grow, we mature, and as we mature, we grow others, and as they grow, they mature, and as they mature, still others are impacted, and this continues to multiply! And when someone is missing, then it’s not just that person who is affected, but the whole local church is impacted. A believer making the decision to not gather together doesn’t just impact the individual’s growth, but the entire church’s growth. Choosing to abandon the church gathering isn’t loving one another based in passages like, Hebrews 10:18-25, Romans 12:9-13, 1
Corinthians 11:33, 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, Galatians 5:13-14, Colossians 3:12-17, and 1 Timothy 3:14-16.
When to Not?
Does Scripture ever allow us to not gather together? There are instances in the Bible in which we see separation from the community is allowed, even commanded. Leviticus 11-15 is a demonstration of God’s precepts in which we call the ceremonial law. These laws were given to protect the community as a whole from disease and sickness. These laws kept the people clean, healthy, and holy, separating them from the nations around them. The principle behind this is that there are times in which for the greater good of the body, sickness and disease may keep us away from gathering.
Another is for anyone who refuses to repent of sin. 1 Corinthians 5 gives an example of someone involved in gross unrepentant sin. Paul calls for this person to not gather with the believers (1 Cor. 5:13) until repentance takes place, then he could be restored to the gathering.
There are other examples of believers not gathering, such as imprisonments, being sent on a missionary journey or trip, or no local church present.
Can the Government (or anyone) Tell Us to Not Gather?
In Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 we are called to obey the government according to the Lord’s will. We read that God has placed the authorities in their positions, and to not obey them would be equivalent to not obeying God. However, both Paul and Peter qualify the obedience to government with the role of government. The role of government is designed to bring fear upon and punish evil doers, as well as to recognize those who do right (Romans 13:3; 1 Peter 2:14). Government does this through establishing law and order based on dealing with evil in the nation. We know from the context of both passages that evil is defined according to the Word of God. We also see that the jurisdiction of the government is not unlimited.
The span of the government does not cover the family or the Church. God has already declared the family structure (Gen. 2:18-25; Ephesians 5:22-6:4; Colossians 3:18-21), and Jesus Christ has been declared as the Head over the Church (Ephesians 5:23). Since Jesus is the Head of the Church and not government, then civic authorities do not hold the God-given power to dictate doctrine, church setup, or practice of the church. Similarly, the church does not have the right to manage civil matters while circumventing the government and the church does not have the right to replace the parents. Likewise, the government does not have the right to contradict the Word of God in matters of the church.
I know this may be the first time many of you have heard this. This may come across shocking, or even arrogant. The heart behind these truths is one that desires to see us as the people of God wholly love one another, serve the Lord, be devoted to prayer, and hate evil (Romans 12:9-13). Love is the driver of these truths! I’m well aware of what the consequences could be in following these biblical teachings. Our desire to live godly lives and follow the Word will result
in persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). We teach on it often, but it’s times like these that test us to produce endurance in the faith (James 1:2-4).
Could There be Conscience Issues for not Gathering Together?
Perhaps there may be other issues that can cause your conscience to choose to not gather temporarily. For instance, if there are doctrinal issues in question causing a lack of unity (Ephesians 4:1-4), you may for a time choose to leave a church to join another. Certainly, if you could not participate because of doctrinal conscience issues, then find another church!
Other issues could be a church that is racially divided and warring at each other (Eph. 2:14), a disunified church for immoral reasons (1 Cor. 5), or a church that refuses to address sin with its members (Matthew 18:15-20). In our season, another conscience issue could be if you believe you may have the virus without showing symptoms or feeling sick, and you can’t consciously go out for fear of passing COVID on. There may be more, but fear should never be the reason to decide. Chaos, confusion, and fear are not representative of God’s character and attributes, but are results of sin and a desire for something outside of Jesus Christ.
Thankfully, if we analyze our decisions and recognize fear has been the driving force, we have a great and loving God who has forgiven us, cleansed us, and given us the opportunity for repentance. We can confess, trust in the Lord and His Word, and face any type of persecution because of the Holy Spirit that dwells in us. Let us be people who are continually growing together in him (Eph. 4:14-15).