[Author’s note: The thoughts in this article have been expanded in a recently published book, Essential Service, available as a free PDF download.]
“We are living in unprecedented times.” If you’re like me, you’ve heard that phrase more than once this past month. Maybe you’ve even said it. In many ways, it is a true statement. With our 21st-century communication capabilities, the global aspect of this health crisis is unparalleled. Furthermore, the reaction to the virus is something none of us have seen in our lifetimes. On the other hand, this sort of thing is not new:
This is not unprecedented—either globally or in America. In the global influenza epidemic of 1918 (to use the estimates of the Centers for Disease Control), fifty million people around the world died. Over five hundred thousand of those were in the United States. People felt symptoms in the morning and were dead by nightfall. Bodies were picked up from front porches to be carted away to graves dug by bulldozers. A man was shot for not wearing a mask. Schools were closed. Ministers spoke of Armageddon. (John Piper, Coronavirus and Christ)
Regardless of the past, the coronavirus is a reality today. Christians must make decisions that are loving, wise, and faithful to Scripture. There are multiple layers to this situation. For example, we need to consider how shutting down the economy may not be the loving thing to do. On that topic (as well as on how this virus is certainly a judgment from God), Dr. Joseph Boot has written a must-read article: “COVID Calamity: When the Cure is Worse than the Disease.” But there is another area of life that has been impacted by the response to the virus: the gathering of God’s people on the Lord’s Day. It seems the majority of Christian congregations have suspended the gathering of the saints during this time. The unprecedented times have led to the temporary setting aside of the precedents that have characterized the church for generations.
When unprecedented times come, how should we respond? How important is it to follow the godly precedents that we have set? These are questions that we need to ponder. I believe the wisdom of the Bible should encourage us to maintain our precedents, even in unprecedented times. While there are always differences in situations throughout history, there are also principles that we can rely on, in normal times and in unprecedented times. One of those principles is found in the book of Daniel. It is the principle of sticking to godly precedents.
The Example of Daniel
The example of Daniel’s response to a law requiring him to abandon his godly precedents lays down a principle that applies to the current situation. The key principle comes in Daniel 6:10: “When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (emphasis added).
Verse 10 begins with Daniel becoming aware of a law that Darius had just signed. The law that Daniel reads of is this: “Whoever makes a petition of any god or man for thirty days, [other than to Darius], shall be cast into the den of lions” (Daniel 6:7). Note four things about this law: (1) First, it was not a law which only targeted God’s people. Any person who prayed to any god or man, was breaking this law. (2) Second, it was only a temporary measure. It was not as if Darius was saying Daniel could never again pray. (3) Third, it is implicit that this is referring to, at least in some measure, public prayers. And (4) fourth, the consequences were almost certain death.
The key thing to focus on is how Daniel responded to the law. Upon reading this document, Daniel is faced with an extraordinary circumstance. How do you respond to something like this? Daniel’s response reminds me of an encounter a pastor once told me about. He spoke of an old Christian farmer that he once asked this question to: “If you knew Jesus was coming back today, what would you do?” The old farmer thought for a moment, and then said, “I suppose I would get up and go milk the cows.” That is how I see Daniel here. An old man, a man of godly habits, a man characterized not by flash-in-the-pan “greatness,” but steadiness, faithfulness, year in and year out.
So, Daniel learns about the law, and he just keeps doing what he was doing. The key is at the end of verse 10: “as he had done previously.” Daniel’s response is to keep doing what he had been doing. In saying that Daniel just kept doing what he had previously done, I would note that there are a lot of things that Daniel could have done.
- Daniel could have petitioned the king and rallied support for his cause and created a big stir. There is no doubt that Daniel certainly had a group of people who would have supported him; he could have created the Medo-Persian “Moral Majority” group to seek to change the law.
- Daniel could have made a brazen show of his unwillingness to bend to the law. He could have started praying even more.
- On the other hand, Daniel could have made temporary changes (it was only 30 days, remember) to his prayer habits in order to at least try to seek some conformity to the law.
So Daniel could have done a number of things to adjust. Daniel could have spent his time deliberating as to how to respond based on a number of interconnected variables. But Daniel cared nothing for hedging his bets or playing to the whims of the current political climate. He had seen it before and he would see it again: kings rising to power and kings falling from power. Daniel was a man of simple precedents. He followed God’s Law, day in and day out. On a sunny day, follow God’s Law. On a cloudy day, follow God’s Law. In times of prosperity, follow God’s Law. In times of adversity, follow God’s Law. Nothing Daniel was going to do was going to be based on the reactions of those around him. He was concerned with one thing: faithfulness. Ordinary, every day faithfulness to his God.
Thus, we see that, in many ways, his response wasn’t extraordinary, it wasn’t unprecedented—on either end of the spectrum. I imagine Daniel, sort of like that old Christian farmer, thinking for a moment and saying, “Well, I am just going to keep doing what I have been doing. No reason to change now.” Daniel was a man established in the ordinary means of grace and not even the threat of death was going to deter him from his godly duties and habits. He was just going to keep plodding along. The extraordinary times, the unprecedented times, called forth from Daniel ordinary, precedented measures.
Remember Daniel’s three friends? There is a little line they say when they are confronted by King Nebuchadnezzar about not bowing to his image. They say, “We are not careful to answer thee in this matter” (Daniel 3:16). Their point was that there really wasn’t much of a debate. The matter is simple. I think that is how Daniel viewed this decree. The matter is simple. I am going to keep doing what I have been doing. Why would I stop? The government has no authority in this area—my duty is to God. And so, Daniel doesn’t stop. The threat of death didn’t deter Daniel: he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to God. Such was Daniel’s deportment in the midst of a challenging time.
Application from Daniel’s Example to Our Present Situation
There is no question that we should think carefully about the current coronavirus; we should not ignore it. There are biblical guidelines to follow for contagious illnesses and we can exercise caution and concern (for ourselves and others) as we continue to live out our lives. Furthermore, each local church must make their own decision before the Lord. However, the need for graciousness ought not to eliminate the need for critical thinking. If we do not seek to evaluate how we handle this whole situation, we are assuming that we have it all figured out. But we must always be willing to see if there is something we can improve upon, something we can do better….perhaps even if this is to happen again.
There are a couple things to consider in applying Daniel’s example to our own day.
First, the government can have many reasons for “targeting” Christians. They could even be inadvertent. Darius certainly had no intention of bringing harm to Daniel! The intent of the law in Daniel’s day, just as often in our day, was not the systematic suppression of the true religion; rather, it was motivated by jealousy against one man, Daniel. There have been a variety of motives throughout history for ungodly laws which hindered the faithfulness of God’s people. Many Puritan-era Christians in England faced laws against attending unauthorized church services. In that case, the gospel was even preached at many state-sponsored churches. But the non-conformists would not bend even a little, risking—and suffering much—because of their commitment to the godly habit of meeting together on their own terms, even in their homes.
There can be a number of reasons behind any law that would, in some form or fashion, disrupt faithfulness to God. In the end, the question we need to ask is this: Does it really matter what the reason for the law is? An unjust law can even be given with entirely good motives, such as to potentially slow the spread of a disease. The circumstances will always be different. But one of the lessons from Daniel’s example is that the reason for the law is not germane to the response of God’s people. Daniel didn’t need to figure out the reason for the law. He had set a precedent and no matter how unprecedented the times, he just kept going.
This leads to a second point. We need to determine ahead of time what those things are which we will not abandon, no matter what. If we know what our duty is ahead of time, there is little to figure out. Charles Spurgeon said, “When we know our duty, first thoughts are the best; if the thing is obviously right, never think about it a second time, but straightway go and do it.”
Plagues and pestilences have been a reality since the Fall and Christians (like everyone else) have been dealing with them for thousands of years. Gathering together as a body of believers is one of those godly habits that has characterized Christians for 2,000 years, even amid the threat of death from the government. Even amid the threat of death from plague and sickness. Christians still met together, realizing that part of their well-being, even their physical well-being, was strengthened by gathering as God’s people.
In the first year of his ministry in London, Spurgeon faced the outbreak of the Asiatic cholera. Not only did he go from house to house, doing his duty as a pastor in visiting the sick, but he kept meeting with the church, receiving new members, pursuing inactive members, and observing the Lord’s Supper. He wrote of the “pestilence of disease,” saying that “even from that calamity our faith shall win immunity if it be of that high order which abides in God, walks on in calm serenity, and ventures all things for duty’s sake.” He also noted what is evident to many of us as we look at the panic and fear going on around us: “Faith by cheering the heart keeps it free from the fear which, in times of pestilence, kills more than the plague itself.”
In an article entitled, “Christianity Has Been Handling Epidemics for 2000 Years,” Lyman Stone traces the Christian response to plagues throughout church history, showing that from the very beginning of the church’s history, she was on the front lines, serving those during plagues. He notes how Martin Luther urged faithfulness to duty even during the plague in Germany. Stone summarized Luther’s stance: “We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.” Stone then makes this statement:
One of the more controversial elements of historic Christian plague ethics: We don’t cancel church…Some observers will view this as a kind of fanaticism: Christians are so obsessed with church-going that they’ll risk epidemic disease to show up. But it’s not that at all. The coronavirus leaves over 95 percent of its victims still breathing. But it leaves virtually every member of society afraid, anxious, isolated, alone, and wondering if anyone would even notice if they’re gone. In an increasingly atomized society, the coronavirus could rapidly mutate into an epidemic of despair. (emphasis added)
Meeting together is one of those duties which glorifies God and edifies the saints (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is an essential duty, vital to the health, both physical and spiritual, of God’s people. This is why Martin Luther, even after giving many exhortations to be wise and avoid unnecessary danger, introduced his list of instructions for Christians during the plague as follows: “First, one must admonish the people to attend church.”
Our society’s values are being brought to the surface during this time. While Planned Parenthood and other places remain open, the church buildings are closed. In Puritan times, a plague or calamity would increase the need for God’s people to gather together to pray to the Lord of that plague, that, in mercy, he might relent of his judgment. It seems that the precedents Christians have set and maintained in the past are being set aside. Should we not do as we did aforetime?
Local congregations have had to make many difficult decisions over the past two months. More difficult decisions might be ahead. This is certainly a time for grace and forbearance. But it is also a time to evaluate how we respond to situations like this. The following thoughts, compiled with the help of A.J. Slater, can challenge us to think about (and hopefully reconsider) the decision to stop meeting together as God’s people.
1. Are We Loving Neighbor By Not Allowing the Saints to Meet?
This virus is a problem that must be taken seriously. We must be circumspect. We must care for those around us by taking extra precautions. As Christians we must ask an essential question: How do we love our neighbor in times like these? This is a serious issue that is being painstakingly considered by many congregations throughout our nation and the world. Many of these same congregations, however, are essentially declaring, “this is how to best love neighbor” as the doors of the church building slowly close to the community standing outside. “We aren’t giving in to the hysteria,” but Lord’s Day worship will now take place on a laptop or phone screen. Are we truly loving others by prohibiting the meeting together of the saints?
2. Threat of Physical Harm Has Not Historically Prevented Christians From Gathering Together
Christian congregations have met for centuries in environments wherein gathering together in the name of Christ increased the threat of physical harm (both to themselves and their family members). The first century church often faced severe persecution, even death, because of their allegiance to Christ. Meeting together publicly certainly increased the threat of persecution. In 17th century England, Christians who gathered together in nonconformist churches faced arrest (and sometimes torture or death) for meeting together. Even in the 21st century, Christians are sometimes targeted specifically during times of corporate worship. For example, this past December, 14 Christians were murdered during a church service in the African country of Burkina Faso.
All of these situations are different from the coronavirus situation—but they are also different from each other. The point is that there is always an inherent risk in meeting with the body every Lord’s Day. The possibilities of contracted sickness, violent attacks, and travel dangers exist every Sunday for the believer. He must weigh whether assembling with others for the glory of God and edification of the saints is worth that risk. Most Christians believe that meeting every Sunday is worth that risk. Furthermore, the data also supports the fact that the hysteria and reactionary tendencies of the masses are not commensurate with the actual danger. In our current situation, depending on length of exposure, there is a 1- 5% chance of catching the virus if you come into contact with an infected individual. The severity and threat of death rate is incredibly low as well. Somehow we have allowed the possibility of contracting a sickness that is not fatal in the majority of circumstances to prohibit true congregational worship on the Lord’s Day.
3. The Government Does Not Have Authority to Suspend the Gathering of God’s People
I was somewhat surprised when I heard one pastor say that it was an “easy call” to submit to the government in cancelling all gatherings. Interestingly, he explained that the situation would have been different if the motive for the law was different:
What would have made a difference would have been if this was persecution of the church. If, all of the sudden, the government decided to shut down churches as an act of persecution against churches, we would defy that. Because now you are into Acts 5 [territory], where Peter actually says, “Do we obey God or men?” You (the government) say we don’t meet, God says we must meet…When the government gets to the point where it basically persecutes the church, the church must do what God has commanded it to do. (emphasis added)
But if God has commanded Christians to meet together, we should obey God regardless of the motives behind any governmental injunction which tells us to do otherwise. Rather than allowing the government to decide if Christians are allowed to gather together—something the government has no authority to do—it is wiser to allow individual Christians to decide whether leaving their home to gather with their local church is “worth the risk.” The church should not submit to the governing authorities when those authorities demand what is unbiblical. If the government (whether from good or ill motives) says the church cannot meet, God still says we must meet.
4. Stricter Measures Can Be Put in Place
Just as in the case of the threat of physical persecution, when churches often meet in secret, churches can alter where and when they meet without foregoing the meeting. Meeting in secret might mitigate the risk of physical harm (though it would not remove it entirely) in hostile nations. Similarly, meeting outdoors might mitigate the risk of physical harm (though it would not remove it entirely) during health crises.
5. The Response of Christians to Danger Can Demonstrate to the World That There Is Something More Precious Than Life Itself
During the second century, the Antonine Plague occurred in Asia Minor, Egypt, Greece, and Italy. Nearly five million people died. Non-Christians responded with fear and self-preservation. In a recent article, Moses Lee notes that “the non-Christian response to the plague was characterized by self-protection, self-preservation, and avoiding the sick at all costs.” The response of the Christians, he adds, “was the opposite.” Lee then remarks that Dionysius wrote of “how ‘the best’ among them honorably served the sick until they themselves caught the disease and died.” Dionysius elaborates:
Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.
Throughout church history Christians have been willing to risk much for good. This could be sharing the gospel in a hostile nation or caring for the sick during a plague. If these actions are commendable (and they are!), might it not also be commendable to continue to meet together during such times? If Christians were willing to risk life and limb in actually handling people infected with the plague, should not the church be willing to still meet together with precautionary measures in place? Some writers are rightly calling Christians to acts of “risky kindness” during this time, just like those deeds of the Christians in the early church. In fact, John Piper suggests that “one of God’s purposes in the coronavirus is that his people put to death self-pity and fear, and give themselves to good deeds in the presence of danger.” But what about meeting together? Ought we not still gather together, even in the face of danger—from either the sickness itself or the consequences of disobeying unjust laws?
6. A Video Service is Not a Replacement for the Corporate Gathering of the Church
Technology brings many blessings. The proliferation of sermons, tracts, and books should continue to abound in this time. However, the gathering of the local church can only occur when we are physically together. Online “services” cannot duplicate the gathering of the church and “all the various means of grace in [those gatherings]” (Mark Dever). Moreover, the practice conducing “services” online can give the impression that such online meetings, especially if described in terms of “meeting together,” are suitable alternatives to corporate gatherings. I do not think any congregation intends for such an impression, but it can occur nonetheless.
[Parts of this article were adapted from the message, “Doing as He Did Aforetime: Unprecedented Times Call for Precedented Measures.”]