Physical gathering, online meeting and false dichotomies

The discussion about whether meeting online is an adequate substitute for physical gathering rages on. Some insist that not meeting is a clear violation of God’s command to gather together. Others argue that meeting online represents a ‘temporarily deficient ecclesiology’ that is adequate. Are these the only two positions we might be able to take?

I’ve argued before that, in my view, we cannot do online communion (see here). I do not think there is a great case that meeting online is adequate in general. In my view, online meeting is not adequate (see here). It is very much deficient and inadequate. Aside from the biblical case for that position, those of us arguing that online is adequate will have to contend with how we convince anyone to ever return to church when they can adequately download it from home. If we have made the case that communion can be done privately too, there really is no real reason to turn up at all – everything can be downloaded! Biblically speaking, physical gathering is vital.

If that is the case (and I think it is), what do we do as the government ask us to suspend our meetings? (NB: the aren’t currently asking us to do that). Are we being forced into a situation of obeying Christ or Caesar? Isn’t that the natural consequence of a belief that physical gathering is vital?

Well, not necessarily.

Under ordinary times, without threat of lockdown and COVID-secure measures and whatnot, most churches have emphasised the importance of physical gathering. Generally speaking, everybody is signed up to Hebrews 10:25. But we all also recognise there are times when that necessarily gets set aside because of other concerns. Few pastors go round to the bedridden member at a care home and harangue them for their refusal gather together for worship. Likewise, most pastors are quite happy telling the person with D&V thanks to their bout of the flu to stay at home and not infect the rest of the congregation. The overwhelming majority of people who recognise these to be sensible measures – not unlike Old Testament measures to keep the sick outside the camp so they didn’t infect everybody too – do not take such steps as a contravention of the vital importance of physically gathering. Nobody feels the need to make arguments about ‘temporarily deficient ecclesiology’ or how those in such positions are, actually, really gathering online even though they aren’t with us. Everybody recognises that those who can’t meet for legitimate reasons are simply excused of the command.

In the midst of a lockdown, or imposed government restrictions during a pandemic, do we need to throw out the necessity of physical gathering baby with the need to preserve health bathwater? I don’t think so. It seems to me – as it seemed to me from the very start of this pandemic – we are balancing different biblical commands in the face of the circumstances we are in. We recognise the importance of physically gathering (and, no, we are not really meeting online, it is a mitigation) but we also recognise the need to love our neighbour by not passing on a virus to them and not contributing to overwhelming the health services they may need to tap into if they get it. We are balancing the call to obey the authorities (which the Lord commands us to do) against the other things we believe the Lord calls us to do. The question to be asked is not whether we obey God or man, so much as does what God commands us in this part of his Word take precedent over what God commands us there? Does the command to meet together physically take precedent over the command to love our neighbour in these practical ways, and the command to honour the authorities who are seeking to protect life, and the command to take care for our reputation as ambassadors of the gospel in the communities God has put us in?

None of these observations are very new but I do think they help us avoid a false dichotomy. I don’t think we have to accept that meeting online is adequate or being separated physically somehow equates to meaningfully gathering together as the Lord’s people. We can affirm the vital importance of physical gathering – insisting that online services are inadequate – without having to insist that if we don’t physically meet we are somehow kowtowing to Caesar. The answer lies in recognising the competing priorities and commands of God under the circumstances that he has sovereignly placed us in.

The driving force behind the question is not whether the government tell us we can or cannot do something. Theirs is, in reality, a statement of what they believe is safe (we, of course, have to ask the question whether we believe their position on the safety of a given matter. If we don’t believe them, that is an entirely different discussion altogether). Assuming that we don’t think the government are making the whole thing up for some nefarious purpose (even if we think they might be mistaken in the value of some of the measures), we are then having to ask at what point does the potential to make people sick at our gatherings (loving our neighbour) mean that we are morally excused from the command to physically meet together?

As a Baptist, this sort of question of moral excuse should be recognisable (wherever we fall on the specific question itself). There are times, because of inability or infirmity, we might wonder how we are going to baptise someone by full immersion. Some choose to opt for an irregular baptism of pouring or sprinkling in lieu of baptism while others (I am of this view) would argue the individual who is physically unable to be baptised is morally excused from the command (cf. the thief on the cross, for example). We all recognise the need to be baptised and do not think it should simply be ignored – it is a clear command of God. But we also recognise times that we may have to set it aside – whether irregularly or altogether – because the person is morally excused due to particular circumstances.

Something of this same logic is at play in respect to the command to physically meet together. We shouldn’t simply set it aside and ignore the commands of God. But nor should we be so leaden as to believe circumstances might mean that other, equally important commands of God, take precedent. If illness might be a ground for an individual to stay away from the physical gathering during normal times – not setting the command aside but being morally excused from it because of their circumstances – might it not be possible that in the midst of a pandemic, those who are unable to meet for health reasons, or who are particularly vulnerable, or whose church circumstances are such that to open would lead to significant problems that would appear to contravene other commands of Christ, they may be morally excused?

I don’t see that we have to fall for this false dichotomy. It is not the case that we either open come what may or we kowtow to Caesar. We don’t have to pretend that online meeting is really gathering (when it patently isn’t) in order to take the decision that health concerns and loving our neighbour means physical gathering may need to be suspended for a time.

It strikes me there are credible and legitimate reasons to continue meeting and similarly compelling reasons you might decide, in your context, not to meet. It is not faithful to insist on meeting if doing so is going to off half your membership who are frail and infirm. It is not more faithful to to guilt-trip people into meeting who may well get sick or who have serious caring duties to other vulnerable people. Equally, it is not more faithful to insist on closing down when there is little to no risk of harm to your members. It is not more faithful to close down because you think everybody would just prefer an online meeting because it’s a lot less hassle. We all have to be careful that we aren’t allowing our politics (whichever way they fall on the matter at hand) to drive our theological position. It’s all too easy to allow our political views on freedom, or our view of the state, to dictate what we understand the Bible to say to the issue.

There are good biblically grounded, based-in-the-commands-of-Christ reasons to continue meeting and to close down. There are bad, pragmatic, unfaithful reasons to insist on staying open and to close down too. Rather than taking pot shots at each other, let each one be convinced in his own mind. After all, it is before our own master that we stand or fall.