Is it Acceptable to Cancel Worship?

Pastor Michael Bowman

That’s a good question, one that Christians and Elders all over the country (and the world) are trying to answer right now. I am not a doctor, so I will not be going into the medical details surrounding the CoronaVirus. I am not a member of the Civil Government, so I will not be dealing with that aspect of the situation either. There is obviously massive debate about what is going to happen and what needs to happen in regards to Covid-19. I am a Pastor, and I want to help you think Biblically about all of life, including global pandemics. Practically, one of the first things we have to deal with is whether or not the church should still be meeting for corporate worship.

To start, you need to understand that there is not an easy answer. In our highly divided times, there are people all around you, likely on both sides of the issue, that tell you it’s all very obvious what should be done. It’s not. That simply isn’t true. If you think it’s an easy decision, then you need to keep thinking. The reality is that we are finite people, and we have a finite amount of information. We have to deal with what we do know. We don’t have God’s perfect view on the situation so we have to use what he has revealed to us in order to chart a course in the fog. So when the officers of your church or any other church make a decision contrary to what you would make, be gracious. The truth is that it can both be acceptable to cancel worship services and to continue holding them.

If you are a member of Christ Covenant Church, you are hopefully already aware that the Elders have decided to suspend all corporate gatherings, including worship, for the next three Sundays. I suspect that the vast majority of us have a very difficult time with the idea of not meeting together in corporate worship. I was almost in tears speaking with my wife about what it will look like to not see each one of you on the Lord’s Day for 3 weeks. I want to reassure you that the decision was not made lightly. Our Elders are probably the least likely of any men I have known to cancel a church service. However, that is the decision that we made. What I want to do now is give you some of the Biblical rationale for why that is acceptable in the hopes that your own conscience can be at ease. Here are 3 reasons that you can be at peace with the decision to cancel corporate worship at this time

1. Submission to the Civil Magistrates

It has been recommended by Civil Officials that there not be gatherings of more than 10 people at this time. As Christians, we are called to be in subjection to the civil magistrate (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; WCF 23). That doesn’t mean that we obey everything that Governors or Presidents tell us to do. For instance, if Governor Evers or President Trump asked us to close our worship services because Christianity was not acceptable to them or in any other way tried to hinder our worship of God, we would have a duty to resist such orders. When the Apostles were told by rulers not to keep preaching the gospel, they said they would obey God and not man (Acts 4:5-22). 

In the current situation, these recommendations (not commands) have been made, as far as we can tell, to defend the public health and not to hinder worship. That being the case, it seems well within the Biblical authority of the civil magistrate to do such a thing. Again, being Christians doesn’t mean you have to submit to anything the Civil Government tells you. You don’t have to obey something that is unlawful or unbiblical. But these authorities have been given, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, for “(God’s) glory and the public good” (Ch. 23:1). The Government should not interfere with the church when she does what God has commanded in his Word, neither should the church disregard the Government when in its proper place. 

2. Submission to the Officers of the Church

More important to the topic at hand is submission to the officers of the church (Heb. 13:17).  God has given his church leaders to bear responsibility for the people, being those who will give an account, and so it is imperative for you to submit yourself to them and trust them. Once again this doesn’t mean that you do something against the law of God or against conscience. However, you can trust that God will bless your decision to trust the leadership of the church. God is not a perfectionist. It was his decision to establish in the world a sinful institution, led by sinful men, filled with sinful people. He knows that mistakes will be made, and yet that was still his plan. So if your conscience is uneasy missing corporate worship, know that those who have the authority to suspend such a service have done so for your good and will be the ones to give an account for such a decision before the Great Shepherd. 

3. Love of Neighbor

Finally the Lord Jesus summed up the whole law in two commands, “You shall love the Lord your God… You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Matt. 22:37-40). When the Bible speaks of love, it doesn’t mean simply a passion or feeling. It doesn’t mean you should have nice thoughts about your neighbor. Love is first of all an action. You don’t feel love as much as you do love. Paul says, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). The whole law, that includes the Sabbath laws. 

This is an opportunity for us to put the love of our neighbors on display. The Sabbath was made for man not man for the Sabbath. It seems, from what we know, that by suspending corporate worship for a time we may be sparing our neighbors significant suffering. That may not be a guarantee, we are still charting a course in the fog, but it seemed a reasonable sacrifice for the time being. 

Moving forward, we don’t know what the future holds, but our God does. We have His Word, His Spirit and the Wisdom that he has given us. By his grace we want to live faithful lives in this uncertain time. Who knows, perhaps he has prepared each of us for such a time as this. Perhaps this will all blow over and we won’t remember it in the years to come. Let’s simply seek to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. 

*This is the first in a series that will hopefully be helpful in shepherding our church through this season that God has placed us in as a people seeking peace in pandemic.