“Are we disobeying the clear command of Hebrews 10?” This question came from a member of the church I serve, in reference to this passage:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 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. (Heb. 10:24–25)
In moving our Sunday worship services online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are we neglecting to meet together? Or as popularly quoted in King James English, are we forsaking the assembly? Since March, most churches across America (and elsewhere) have not met and may not meet for an unknown number of weeks to come. But are we in sin?
For some Christians, this is a no-brainer; the quick answer is, “No, we’re not meeting, and that’s fine.” But other Christians may have a more sensitive conscience on this question. Are we simply going with what’s popular? If everyone jumps off a bridge, or in this case ceases church services, does it make it okay?
The question deserves an answer. First, I praise God that Christians would ask this question. We should never take scriptural commands lightly, and Hebrews 10:25 is one, unfortunately, that many Christians often overlook. The question arises from a heart serious about God’s Word, serious about obedience, and serious about worship.
So, are we sinning? In short, no, and for four main reasons.
1. Forsaking the assembly requires willful neglect.
“Forsake” in Hebrews 10:25 means willful neglect. In Matthew 27:46, Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This “forsaken” refers to a mysterious and horrific abandonment of the Father’s delightful presence and, in its place, the full wrath of God for sin. In 2 Timothy 4:16, Paul refers to Demas who “has forsaken me, having loved this present world.” Demas had abandoned Paul, as a matter of the will, for the fleeting pleasures of this life.
“Forsaken” is a strong word in the New Testament. It implies willfully neglecting and abandoning something or someone, often for something else.
2. Inability is not willful neglect.
Taking Hebrews 10:25 seriously, I’m not one to cancel church services easily. On snowy Sunday mornings, I half-jokingly say, “If the drug dealers are out, we’re gonna be out having church.” (I serve in a tough part of inner-city Baltimore.) We rarely close for snow. I don’t like canceling our gatherings. If we cancel, it’s only because we’re truly unable to meet.
Saints, “forsaking the assembly” is not what we’re doing right now; we’re unable to meet. A member cannot forsake an assembly if that assembly doesn’t exist. There is no gathering; therefore there is no neglect. And church leaders aren’t sinning when they cancel gatherings simply because they’re unable to host them.
3. We’re unable to meet because we’re called to glorify God.
Christians first and foremost do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). We wake up early for church on Sunday mornings to the glory of God. We normally gather under the Word every Sunday to the glory of God. In this season, strange as it is, we do not gather, and yet, it’s still for God’s glory.
How does not gathering glorify God? We glorify God in submitting to governing authorities.
Not meeting glorifies God as we seek to follow Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.” The government’s authority is limited, as verse 2 explains: “There is no authority except from God.” God’s authority trumps government structures. Some may retort that the government has no jurisdiction over our freedom to gather and should not prohibit us from doing so.
Is there a place for civil disobedience? Absolutely. If the government defies God’s authority and requires us to sin, then we must disobey the authorities. I think of countries where church planting is illegal. In these cases, we defy government.
Romans 13 explains that governing authorities are “God’s servant to you” (v. 4). With all our various theories on how to deal with the coronavirus, we’re called to trust that the authorities are in place for our good. They are God’s servant for us. Therefore, as our governing authorities have asked us to not meet, we are unable to meet, and our obedience honors God.
4. We glorify God as we love our neighbor.
We also glorify God by loving our neighbor. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus commands (Mark 12:31). If we can avoid unintentionally passing on a deadly disease, it is a loving act. Also, our Christian witness could be harmed if we meet. To the unbelieving world, it doesn’t look brave; it looks unloving. We love our neighbors well through participating in this unusual and uncommon strategy of slowing down a virus.
In summary, Romans 13 and Mark 12 call us to glorify God through honoring our authorities and loving our neighbor. For many of us, gathering now wouldn’t help us to be faithful in these areas. Therefore, we’re unable to meet. And since our cancelation is due to inability, we are not forsaking the assembly.