Is Canceling Public Worship Sinful?

Question

Is it a sin to cancel public worship during the COVID-19 pandemic? We’re having video services, but it’s just not the same.

Answer

It is not a sin to cancel public worship during COVID-19.

Quarantines were practiced in Israel’s time (cf. Num. 5:1-4; 31:19-20; Deut. 23:10-14; Luke 17:12-14). Lepers had to practice social distancing and cover their mouths and cry out "Unclean, Unclean" (Lev. 13:45-46). King Uzziah was banned from the temple of the Lord and made to live in separate housing (2 Chron. 26:20-21; 2 Kings 15:5). The Bible has procedures for handling contaminated clothing, corpse contaminations and mold. The Lord provided remedies for visible infections on the body including bathing, rinsing and shaving. Cleansing remedies were also prescribed for clothing and bedding. Unclean objects required purification by water, or fire or were destroyed. So, the Word of God contains some quarantine best practices. If these quarantines overlapped the Sabbath then those people affected couldn’t attend services. While the New Testament saint is no longer under the law (Rom. 6:14), this doesn’t mean that the Christian today should dispense with God’s wisdom contained in the law (Rom. 15:4).

Luther was present during a situation similar to what we're experiencing today with COVID-19. In August 1527 a plague struck in Wittenberg, Germany, where Luther lived. On August 10, 1527, John, Elector of Saxony, ordered Luther and the university professors to leave Wittenberg. However, though public worship was cancelled, Luther and some others chose to stay to minister to those that were stricken. Luther essentially made a hospital out of his own house. In a letter entitled "Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague," Luther wrote:

You ought to think this way: Very well, by God's decree, the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.

I notice Luther’s reply included the use of social distancing, medicine, and most of all and at any cost, concern for his fellow man.

I agree with Luther’s conduct for many reasons. One should not cancel public worship except in extraordinary circumstances. According to the medical experts at CDC, etc., COVID-19 is a very contagious and life-threatening disease to many people. Needless to say, this is an extraordinary circumstance. In a matter of speaking, all of us should consider ourselves as "Unclean, Unclean." Social distancing, as we call it today, is not only wise but in many locations the law (cf. Rom. 13:1-7). So, in order to love our neighbors and help protect God’s people, public worship services should be canceled.

While the believer should follow the fourth commandment (Exod. 20:8-11) to worship God as part of normal Sabbath-keeping, they should also act responsibly and not violate the sixth commandment (Exod. 20:13) and endanger human life in the process of keeping the Sabbath. As Jesus said, " 'And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these" (Mark 12:30-31). During such circumstances as pandemics, worshipping by video or other possible means, is quite acceptable. Jesus did say, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" (Matt. 18:20). This can be done online providing we do it "in spirit and truth" (John 4:24).

As Luther demonstrated, part of genuine worship is also helping our fellow men (cf. Jas. 2:14-17; Matt. 25:31-46). How can we best do this for God’s glory today? Please see, "COVID-19: Fear vs. Hope" below.

Related Topics

COVID-19: Fear vs. Hope
Is Coronavirus the final frontier?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).