Bible Answer

Should we close our church?

In light of the COVID-19 health crisis, the Government has asked all large meetings to close down. Should the church listen and abide by this request?

Your question raises two separate issues, which we will address individually. 

First, what constitutes a biblical church gathering, and to what degree may the gathering experience change without losing its legitimacy? 

The Bible says that all believers must not forsake the gathering:

Heb. 10:24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,
Heb. 10:25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Notice the context of the writer's comments, however. He asks the body to gather together in order to minister to one another by encouraging one another and stimulating the doing of good deeds in love. This is the purpose of the gathering, so any type of gathering that accomplishes these ends is legitimate, while a gathering that doesn't accomplish these ends is insufficient. 

Secondly, the word "gathering" implies a community moment, so interactivity is important also. Experiencing something individually is not equivalent to participating in a gathering. For that reason, watching a church service online or listening to a recorded Bible study is generally not equivalent to a biblical church gathering given the purposes God intended. 

On the other hand, a gathering does not automatically require that believers enter a church building. In the early days of the church, believers gathered in open places by rivers (see Acts 16:13) or in homes or other places. Moreover, gatherings were relatively small, so large buildings were not generally needed. In times of persecution, believers often gathered 2-3 at a time, sharing copies of scriptures between groups. Finally, during times of disease, the church has generally reduced the frequency and size of its gatherings and avoided larger groups to protect believers (e.g., during the Black Plague, etc.).

In all these cases, the question is whether a believer has a heart to gather or has forsaken the gathering. If the gathering is happening but the believer has rejected it, then the believer is forsaking the gathering. But when circumstances do not allow the church to gather as usual, then the believer is not at risk of forsaking the gathering. Instead, the church body is responding in reasonable ways to the circumstances of the day, as the church has always done. 

So we have great flexibility in the way we gather and how often we gather, as well as the methods we use to achieve the gathering. The key is to provide for interactivity in the gathering, whether in a crowd in a building or online. This is the challenge the church faces at all times if it is to achieve the purpose of the gathering, as Paul says:

1Cor. 14:26  What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.


Secondly, how should churches respond to government orders to cease meeting?

The answer depends on the government's intended purpose. If the government's interest is in the safety and well-being of the church members (as is the case now during the COVID-19 outbreak), then the church should obey the government, as Paul says:

Rom. 13:1 Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.
Rom. 13:2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.
Rom. 13:3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same;

On the other hand, if the government orders churches to stop meeting because it opposes Christianity and wishes to put an end to Christian worship (such as is the case in China or North Korea), then believers are obligated to defy the order in obedience to God, Who is our higher authority:

Acts 4:18 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.
Acts 4:19 But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge;
Acts 4:20 for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

So in summary, believers may cease meeting in a church building together when necessary for the safety or health of believers. And in times of rapidly spreading disease, it may be best to avoid larger gatherings. In place of the large gathering, gatherings of 2-3 are sufficient to achieve the purpose, so long as we follow the Bible's expectation that everyone bring something to the gathering, whether teaching, prayer, songs, encouragement, etc.

Furthermore, a church may close the building when required by law assuming the government is acting in the best interest of the church body and not for the purpose of prohibiting Christianity or worship in general.