Yea or Nay?
Yea or Nay?
By Paul R. Blake
A fellow evangelist recently emailed the following Bible question to me: “Facebook Live can create spiritual deaths when the assembly is neglected. Yea or nay?” I hope that my answer to him will help us to understand that, while the elders have been working with live streaming to help us keep our spiritual focus, it will never be a substitute for assembling for worship and Bible study.
(My answer) It is Nay and Yea. No, it will not cause spiritual death in the short term of this crisis, and yes it can cause spiritual death if after this crisis, members of the church who are not shutins use live streamed services in place of assembling for worship. Here is why it is both.
We are all inexperienced in dealing with an outbreak of this nature. Two factors are unprecedented in history: first, instantaneous communication that enables everyone to know what is going on within minutes and to interface with others in real time on a large scale; and second, government (federal, state, and local) that has imposed restrictions on Americans who love their rugged independence and have never been restricted by the government like this before. Enter Facebook Live, a stopgap measure that connects people who have been instructed, and in some cases required, to shelter at home. Facebook Live and Zoom enable congregations to live stream worship services and interact electronically in real time with members who are stuck at home. It is helping, but it is not substituting.
Fellowship in some cases in the New Testament can be a long distance matter; for example, Paul had fellowship with the Philippians who supported him while in prison. In one sense, Christians are in fellowship with all other faithful disciples in the world through the word. But the nature of the activity of fellowship dictates how we have fellowship under the circumstances. Fellowship in worship is face to face and in the same place. Consider 1Corinthians 11:17-34 that speaks of the Lord's Supper and fellowship in partaking of it. When talking about how to conduct the communion services, and also how not to conduct it, the apostle Paul uses the phrase "when you come together" seven times in one form or another. This is a Divine implication from which we must draw the necessary conclusion that eating the Lord’s Supper is something that is done “when you come together.” For a local congregation to truly worship God and commune at the Lord's Table, the text implies that they must be together. If we reason that it is not necessary to assemble to commune, then taken to its logical conclusion, it would also be okay for me to go play golf on Sunday mornings, and when it is time for the church to eat the Supper, I could take out my smartphone and travel communion kit, tune into the live streamed services and eat the Supper with the church online, and then go back to teeing off on the 11th hole.
This is one of the reasons I offered when the elders discussed whether or not we would live stream a communion service. In my understanding, the shelter at home orders are a temporary limit imposed on individual Christians just like being sick at home or in a hospital. If one is sick and unable to attend, the Lord understands the limits of his physical nature and does not require him to assemble to commune until he is well. The live streamed Bible classes, sermons, songs, and prayers all helped to encourage and keep the members spiritually focused while unable to attend, but they were not a substitute for assembling for worship. I think that after all of the brotherhood rhetoric is stilled and Christians study this matter calmly, we will come to the conclusion that worship takes place when Christians in a local congregation come together to pay homage to the Father and Son.
We have been hearing a great deal of talk about the “church is not a building; it’s the people”; which is true, but also misleading, because it is out of context in this discussion. We are not talking about what makes up the church; we are talking about what constitutes worship. I believe that many of the arguments being made that “we can worship apart at home” are generated by three things: 1) an attempt to rationalize a unique solution to an unusual set of circumstances, or 2), a failure to understand the New Testament teaching on what constitutes fellowship, or 3) unwillingness to assemble.
Therefore, in answer to your question: Nay, it is not dangerous for the present while stuck at home; it's like reading the Bible or a bulletin or listening to a sermon CD while sick at home; it keeps one spiritually focused until they can return. And Yea, it can lead to spiritual death, if it becomes a substitute for worship in the long term; it then becomes neglecting assembling for worship. This is why at some point in the future the elders will discuss when to discontinue the live streaming of our services. We will be patient with those who still believe they are at risk and need to shelter at home for a time, just like we would be understanding toward someone who is recovering from a sickness at home. But at some point, it would become necessary to admonish them to return to assembling if they continue to stay at home even after their recovery is over. One of the indicators that they have recovered will be when they leave the home to go to work or shopping or to visit friends. At that point, it becomes clear that they are well enough to return to worship. Likewise with sheltering at home; if they are consistent in staying at home and making no trips out for any reason, then clearly they are keeping this from an honest and clear conscience. But if they are leaving the home for other things and staying home from worship to watch live streaming instead, then it is time for the elders to remove the temptation to neglect the services by ending the live streaming. If they continue to neglect assembling after that, it will become necessary to visit them and admonish them to return.
This answer does not address those who are essential workers who, because of their constant exposure to others who may have the virus, are staying at home to avoid exposing it to others who are vulnerable. That is different question altogether to be considered, perhaps at another time.
I hope this answers your question. I am not comfortable with the outspoken extreme charges brethren have been making on both sides of this question. At the same time, I am certain of two things. First, those who are making extreme charges like: “It is a sin to shelter at home and miss church services,” or “It is a sin to put others at risk by coming to church services,” are adding to the problem and will be judged by God for it. And second, true worship of a local congregation as described in the scriptures takes place when the local congregation comes together; worshiping remotely by electronic means will not be an acceptable scriptural substitute. So, will it help us keep our spiritual focus in the crisis? Yes. Does it meet the New Testament requirements of assembling for worship? No. Let us pray fervently for a swift end to this matter so we all can return to worship the Father and Son harmoniously together.
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