Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls” (The Crisis). Indeed, the faith of many is being tested, tried and increased. The faith of others is now more than ever, if not for the first time, taking root. Though the backdrop of these trials is harsh and real and distressing, these are great opportunities for spiritual awakening and times worthy of all joy (cf. Jas. 1:2-3).
Watching souls wrestle with spiritual truths held dear for so long is an encouraging dilemma. Thinking which has become rote and routine—the norm—is now being pressed, revisited, challenged, clarified, refreshed and even restored. The discussions taking place about bible authority, lawfulness, and right and wrong on issues seemingly “settled” are indeed necessary and beneficial. We are examining ourselves. Faith is growing. Souls are being tried, and that is not a bad thing.
Disciples have been questioning the authority of cancelling church assemblies in the face of the deadly pandemic sweeping the globe. On the surface, such might seem like ignorant, “legalistic” wrangling, but we should rejoice that souls want to do only that which is lawful and biblical. Rather than push aside the need for bible authority in the present distress, we need to seek it, discuss it and embrace it. We must always welcome such questions and take heart in the fact that souls are seeking God’s glory.
That said, offering authority for the practice of cancelling services in times like these is a welcome opportunity. Our Lord has not left us without direction. Quite the contrary, He has given it abundantly and with great clarity.
Christian, it is the Sabbath, and our ox is in the ditch! What are we going to do about it? How do we view others who are doing something about it, even if what they do differs from what we might choose to do? Consider the following …
"At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!” But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Now when He had departed from there, He went into their synagogue. And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—that they might accuse Him. Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other” (Matthew 12:1–13, NKJV).
Jesus made this argument repeatedly among His detractors, and the reader is encouraged to take a moment to prayerfully consider Luke 14:1-6, Luke 13:10-17, Mark 3:1-5 and Luke 6:6-11.
Within these passages we can find no higher authority to, for a time, cancel church services as we strive to mitigate the impact of this insidious and deadly virus. What Jesus taught is an emergency provision. He showed us how to reason from scripture regarding matters which in a crisis are lawful, though they remain unlawful under normal circumstances. The ox is in the ditch.
However, when one desires to keep the ox in the ditch for an extended period, or even permanently, they do wrong. To use such social distancing measures as a permanent precedence not to physically assemble as the original disciples did (cf. Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 11:17-34) is indeed without authority and should be questioned and condemned. Let it never be deemed the rule to abandon our coming together for the convenience and ease of our living room and a computer screen. Truly, we honor the law by obeying the law. We glorify God by doing His will. While Jesus acknowledges the urgent need to get the ox out of the ditch, He never gives sanction for pushing the ox in the ditch and then keeping it there.
Anyone who loves Christ and loves his brethren deeply desires to assemble with them to worship God and encourage one another (cf. 1 John 4:20-21). To be apart, even of necessity, is a hard thing—a trial in and of itself. Yet, disciples understand what is more needful in the moment. We understand that, in the face of a trial like we face in this moment, where our presence could unintentionally lead to the death of another, the love of Christ compels us to refrain from assembling in our love and care for one another. Such consideration is good, but under the current circumstance, the necessity is indeed temporary. It is crisis management, not situational ethics. The ox is in the ditch and we must pull it out.
It is good for us to consider our assemblies as Jesus expressed regarding the Sabbath, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). It is good to realize that our assemblies and our observance of the Lord’s Supper were given for us, and that we were not given solely for these activities.
Yet, by no measure should we ever demean the importance and necessity of coming together in one place to assemble and to observe the Lord’s Supper, among other activities. Quite the opposite, as we do without, we must place even greater emphasis on why assembling is so essential, needful and desired. God gives these activities for our good. We do not merely come together from a sense of mandate and obligation. We assemble to provoke and encourage one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24-25). We observe the Lord’s Supper to remember Him (1 Cor. 11:23-25). To make these activities the end-all-be-all of Christian existence is to miss the point of why we assemble, why we follow Him and why we seek to do His will.
Make no mistake, disciples should commend those who are doing all they can to reasonably and safely find alternate means to “assemble” in this time of crisis without risking spreading the virus. Yet, considering the ox is in the ditch, to bind one means over another or declare one authorized way of handling it as more righteous than another is simply wrong. It is self-righteous. As Jesus challenged, "But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7, NKJV). Why condemn the guiltless or make those feel guilty who are making their own attempts to pull the ox from the ditch on the Sabbath?
Let us absolutely seek authority for all that we say and do as Christians (Col 3:16-17). Let us speak as the oracles of God (1 Pet. 4:11). Let us rejoice that our Lord and Savior has given us provision to handle a crisis even when it might seem to violate the law. Let us realize that He has not given us sanction to create a crisis to avoid the laws He has ordained, nor to maintain such provision when the crisis is abated. Rather than judge one another over matters the Lord has blessed, let us strive to encourage one another to pursue a deeper and more meaningful faith in times of trials such as these. God help us all to a greater love for Him and a deeper love for one another.