“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” (Hebrews 10:25, NASB)
As coronavirus meeting-size restrictions are extended and/or reinstituted, it seems like more churches are rebelling against what they view as government overreach. A well-known Bible preacher recently published an article that states his case for why his large church will soon begin meeting normally again despite the government mandates. To summarize his argument:
In the Bible, God ordains three institutions: the family, the government, and the church. Each institution has its own authority over certain aspects of human life. We should obey these authorities. Each institution should not usurp the authority that belongs to the other institutions.
The Bible commands us to obey the government (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). The only instance in which we are biblically allowed to disobey the government is if the government requires us to do something (or not do something) that violates God’s commands (see Acts 5:29). In such an instance, the government would be usurping the authority that belongs to the church.
The Bible commands us to not forsake assembling together as believers (Hebrews 10:25). The government is telling us not to assemble together as believers (at least not in large groups). God’s Word overrules government mandate, therefore, churches should continue meeting together, obeying God rather than men.
The above is a summary and simplification of the line of reasoning being made, but I believe it accurately captures the spirit of the argument.
At first glance, the argument seems iron-clad. It might surprise you, then, to learn that I don’t agree with it. What? How?
In the first century AD when the book of Hebrews was written, Christians were meeting in relatively small groups, usually in homes. The idea of Christians meeting together in large numbers in dedicated church buildings was a foreign concept to first century Christians. Therefore, when the author of Hebrews instructed us to not forsake gathering together, he did not mean that we have to meet together in massive groups comprising hundreds or thousands of people.
If Christians meeting together in small groups in homes could fulfill the requirements of Hebrews 10:25 in the first century, Christians meeting together in small groups fulfills the requirements of Hebrews 10:25 in the 21st century as well. Everything the church is to be about, see Acts 2:42, Ephesians 5:19, and study the “one another” passages throughout the New Testament, can be fulfilled in small groups.
As a result, it is my conviction that Christians should obey the government mandates against large public gatherings. Instead, they should meet together in smaller groups. Even while submitting to these government mandates, Christians can be in full obedience to Hebrews 10:25 without violating Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. Therefore, on this issue, Christians should submit to the government.
I get it that the government is being hypocritical and unfair, to say the least, about the large public gatherings it is allowing and banning. It is inane for the government to allow massive public protests but ban formal church services. But what those who use this particular argument to justify large church gatherings fail to realize is that it is essentially the same argument made by whiny children: “But you let _ do _, so why can’t I?” The government being ridiculously and maddeningly inconsistent does not give us the right to disobey the law.
Others claim that since the government is mistaken or even intentionally lying about the dangers of COVID-19, that we do not have to obey COVID-19 related laws. Sorry, I don’t buy this one either. Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 do not say that we can disobey the laws we think lack an adequate basis or have an ulterior-motive foundation. The only biblically approved reason for civil disobedience is if a law violates God’s Word.
I am exceedingly glad that so many Christians miss going to church. Even as an introvert, I miss fellowshipping with my brothers and sisters in Christ in corporate settings. My strong preference would be for the government to not issue these bans and instead allow churches and individuals to make their own decisions about how many people they choose to be around. But, that is not what is happening, so I adjust.
Again, the key point is this: Hebrews 10:25 can be fulfilled without believers meeting in large groups. Therefore, if the government bans meeting in large groups, we should submit to that ban.
Now, if the government bans Christians from meeting entirely, even in small numbers, that is when Acts 5:29 comes into play.
When/if that day comes, we will join our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who have been meeting “underground” for decades and, in some cases, centuries.
And, to think, we won’t even be able to complain about it online!
S. Michael Houdmann