Shouldn’t church be gathering to meet?

Should church meet or not, in the face of greater Covid hospitalisation rates? With the NHS on the verge of being swamped, should we listen to others’ requests to minimise every contact between people? Or does the Bible compel us to meet at all costs?

At CCE we’ve taken the decision not to meet – it was difficult and Rob, Ed, the Wardens and a few others with medical insight will review this in mid-February.

There are some forthright voices saying that we should keep churches open. Garry Williams – a trusted Bible teacher – encourages us this way – here’s his view.
Garry starts where many people do: Hebrews 10v24-25:
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (NIV)

In fairness to Garry, he does not rely on this verse as a proof text and expands upon it, but it’s this verse I want to focus on in this post.

It doesn’t seem to be quite a ‘slam-dunk’ verse, though. If so, it might say something like “never give up meeting together no matter what is faced: persecution, plague, death, apathy, family and other things”. That’s not to say it’s a vague verse.

The central part of these two verses is sometimes translated “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some” (ESV). What, then is this verse trying to correct? It seems that some Christians were beginning to not bother to meet regularly with others. They were neglecting this responsibility, and therefore unable to encourage others at church.

Not much has changed. People still neglect this important responsibility. One member of a previous church – someone who had served as a leader – once said that he’d ‘rather go to a coffee shop on some Sunday mornings to enjoy a bit of a break’. For him, this neglect had become a habit – ‘there’s no need to meet with other Christians and we can do perfectly well by ourselves, thank you.’ What underlies the warning in Hebrews, then? It is that in any church, most people were in the habit of meeting together, but some absented themselves, and became at risk of losing faith altogether.

Why were some in the habit of neglecting to meet? It’s not entirely clear, but from the context of Hebrews as a whole, some were losing energy, others had apathy, and faced discrimination – even persecution. For us today – during Covid restrictions – some of these still tempt us not to meet together, even online. That is a real concern. Even so, this verse doesn’t seem directed at a whole-church decision not to meet for a limited period of time.

However, even though the focus here is on those who might be slipping away, there’s a clear imperative for all to meet. As we made our decision, we acknowledged that we must only cease meeting physically for a limited time and with great care and consideration and prayer. We must always ensure the provision of 4pm services each week, and they are led ‘live’ rather than recorded. We all must join at that time if at all possible. We try and see as many faces on screen as possible. It’s why we’re encouraging one another to meet with others – although just one other outside our families or bubbles at the moment.

Furthermore, the biblical trajectory – as we head towards Revelation 21 and 22 – is that we are increasingly gathered together in one place as God’s people, with our faces bathed in the joy of seeing our saviour, Jesus Christ, face to face. Our regular Sundays help to serve as an image of that glorious day – as Ed Clowney has written:

“Because we gather with Jesus there, we are exhorted to gather with him here”.

As ministers we should do everything we can to ensure that we as God’s people can meet face to face. As church family we should do everything to ensure we keep on meeting, however we can. So given this, why hold off on meeting face-to-face at the moment?

Firstly, it’s for a limited period of time. At the moment it might be three months, but if so, this is a shorter period than last year, where we couldn’t meet for five months. And when we can meet, we will be encouraging everyone to get along to as many services as possible. That will be important when that time comes.

Secondly, we are able to gather at 4pm, albeit not with the joy of meeting as a church fully together each Sunday. It’s dreadfully limited. But then, our 7.15pm services have also been limited: we can’t sing like we can at home; only some of us can gather and most of the church is excluded, and we can’t talk or encourage one another.

Thirdly, we’re not stopping our meetings because of risk to ourselves; it’s primarily for others: those who are most at risk of serious ill-health and death. It might not make much of a difference – church is very safe. But we act from love. Glen Scrivener looked at four plagues over history, and saw that Christians always acted in love for others first – often at risk to themselves. He concludes:

“Carers can be carriers, even when asymptomatic. In such scenarios, self-isolation can be the most loving thing to do, rather than infecting the ones we’re seeking to love. While the outworking of love may look different in different ages, love must still be the aim—a love directed by the Holy Spirit, not our self-centred flesh.”

We will meet together to sing the praise of our Lord, hear his word read out and speak words of encouragement to one another. Yet meeting together is a privilege, not always granted to Christians. Those who are sick, lonely, who are missionaries, in prison and many others all know this. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it (and was later to find out for himself):

“It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God’s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this bless­ing.”

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