With Tim Stephens’s recent arrest in Calgary, Alberta under the charge that his holding church worship gatherings outdoors was a violation of current health regulations, many have been arguing rather vociferously that Tim and other pastors in Alberta (like James Coates) are in clear violation of Scripture and, thus, deserve their current situation. The most common argument can be presented in a syllogism:
Premise 1: Christians/churches must submit to all government regulations unless there is a clear command/prohibition in Scripture to the contrary.
Premise 2: There is no clear command in Scripture that a church must gather
Conclusion: Therefore, Christians/churches are sinning when they gather for worship in violation of government regulations (i.e., not submitting to government regulations)
The conclusion of a syllogism cannot be valid if either premise is false. In this case, I think there is good reason to doubt both premises. To demonstrate that, I want to begin with the second premise, with plans to address the first premise in a future post.
Before we start, though, a couple of caveats are in order. First, I have no intention of determining what the best or right course of action is for churches in Canada, the U.S., or anywhere else. As I have already stated, I think “we should allow different churches to reach their conclusions about the wisdom of following the guidelines (out of deference) without accusing them of rebellion or cowardice.” Second, I am going to be assuming certain biblical and theological principles rather than trying to prove or demonstrate them. My goal is not to convert someone who would be largely skeptical and antagonistic to the belief that churches gathering for worship is important, but instead to encourage those who I think are, or should, largely be in agreement on the importance of church gatherings to think more carefully about possible ramifications and application.
Argument: There is no clear command in Scripture that a church must gather
Some have tried to center this debate on Hebrews 10:24–25 and whether this is a command for the church to gather or merely a prohibition against abandoning the assembly. While not dismissing the importance of determining exactly what that passage is saying, I would suggest that the conclusion is ultimately irrelevant for the question at hand.
Suppose a government came out with the regulation that, from this time forward, Christians are not allowed to gather together for worship, full stop. Should we just never gather again for worship so that we do not violate the government restriction? I would hope that many of the pastors who are now urging churches to try to accommodate government restrictions would, in this situation, say that churches cannot comply with that requirement. In part, because it is absurd to conceptualize an “assembly” or “congregation” (i.e., what “church” actually means) that never assembles or congregates. In spite of all the bluster to the contrary, Bible-believing pastors and churches know that gathering to worship God is not ultimately optional. Whether or not it is a “command,” it is certainly an expectation of Scripture that almost all would agree is actually a requirement for a church to be a church. A church that does not gather would be violating God’s will.
(But wait: in the scenario I suggested, the government would be specifically targeting churches in prohibiting Christians to gather for worship, but that is not the case in the current situation. So perhaps the idea that current regulations are not targeting churches is why these pastors and churches would believe it is not necessary (or even permissible) to violate these current regulations. The idea of general applicability (i.e., the regulations are not specifically targeting Christians/churches) is an important principle in western and particularly American law. But where is this exception given in Scripture? You cannot argue honestly that you need to have a clear command in Scripture to the contrary in order to be allowed to violate government authority and then turn around and give an extra-biblical exception that government authority is not valid if it is targeted. At a minimum, you would need to amend Premise 1 to provide an additional exception or note that your argument is a legal one rather than a biblical one.)
I am actually surprised at how many people who should know better seem to be trumpeting the idea that the church is not required to gather: something I hope people recognize is actually a dangerous argument for the health of the church. But rather than being satisfied with showing how flawed the argument is, let’s instead steel man (opposite of straw man) the argument by refining it to its strongest position. Instead of the original premise 2, here is a better one that some have used:
Better Argument: There is no clear command in Scripture that a church must regularly gather, as a whole, in-person
Here we have added three additional elements: gathering regularly, gathering as a whole, and gathering in-person. Let’s briefly consider each, again with the caveat that I do not intend to present a developed argument for these practices in part because I think those claiming the novel Christian position bear the burden of proof, not those maintaining the historic Christian position (i.e., that churches must gather regularly, as a whole, and in-person). (For those who want to think more fully about this, see Jonathan Leeman’s recent book One Assembly),
Is the church required to gather regularly? If the church is required to gather, has it fulfilled its requirement if it only gathers once or twice a year? A few years ago I do not believe people were seriously questioning the idea that the church must gather regularly. Churches universally gathered at least weekly, and the idea that a church would choose not to gather for one week was seen as scandalous. Churches often have requirements in their constitution that members must attend regularly and will be removed from membership if they have not attended in a specified period of time (often 6 months or 1 year). Is it possible for someone to “forsake” an “assembly” that does not assemble regularly? While there may be some disagreement on what constitutes “regular” gathering (more on that later), regular gatherings seem like a biblical requirement for a church.
Is the church required to gather as a whole? Though passages like 1 Cor 5:4; 11:33, 14:23 seem pretty clear that the church, at least in some situations, is to gather as a whole, even before the current situation this became a debated issue. So here I will simply address an argument I have seen against this idea.
If the church is required to gather as a whole, are you not fulfilling that requirement if a family is gone on vacation for a weekend or a mom stays home with her sick children? But this is not a serious argument. It is akin to the accusation against the pro-life position that argues one cannot be against abortion and for capital punishment. Both take one thing in common (not everyone in the church is present at the gathering; a life is being intentionally taken) and ignores something that clearly distinguishes the two. For the pro-life argument, the key difference is the reason the life is being taken. For the gathering of the church, the key difference is that in one situation an individual is choosing not to come to the gathering of the whole church while in the other the church leadership is deciding not to allow the whole church to gather. Anyone should be able to distinguish between the church leadership intentionally dividing the body up into multiple services/gatherings and the leadership hosting one service/gathering even though not every member may be able to attend every week. Even if some people are not able to be present, churches should work to allow the whole assembly to gather.
Is the church required to gather in-person? Some have stated that virtual meetings are functionally the same as in-person gatherings. If the requirement for the church to regularly gather as a whole can be fulfilled without being in the same location, can a “local church” be comprised of members scattered throughout the globe? What other biblical requirements can be fulfilled without ever being in the same physical location? Can a father fulfill his parental obligations by choosing to live away from his family as long as he does video chats with his kids? Does the Great Commission no longer require us to “go” since we can simply “Zoom”? If a church decided to have in-person gatherings but a member chooses to only ever “attend” virtually is that a problem? Those who understand biblical anthropology should see that our embodied existence means that being face-to-face is better than virtual interactions, even if we can be grateful to have the technology to stay in touch when we are unable to be in the same location. Churches must gather in-person.
I would like to think that most of those trying to argue there is no requirement for regular, in-person gathering of the whole congregation actually know better but feel they need to push back on the idea that a church would be sinning if they temporarily did not meet those requirements. And here we can offer an even stronger argument.
Best Argument: There is no clear prohibition in Scripture against a church deciding it is best not to gather for a time, especially if they are providentially hindered.
Since sometimes those arguing for churches to gather seem to imply that any church who does not gather is thereby sinning, some have resorted to the bad argumentation addressed above. But everyone recognizes that there are exceptions to the expectation that a church would gather, as a whole and in-person.
Perhaps weather makes it dangerous or impossible to gather, like snowstorms, floods, etc. Perhaps there are building issues that prohibit gathering, like losing electricity, outgrowing your space (so that you temporarily need two services until you can find a location with adequate spacing), etc. There may be societal or physical dangers, like wars, plagues, etc.
The reason we recognize there are exceptions to the requirement for churches to gather is because there is a difference between absolute prohibitions and general commands/exhortations. If the Bible says “you cannot/must not do x” then anytime you do x you are sinning. If the Bible says “you must do y” there may be times in which you do not do y and yet are not sinning. For example, the Bible prohibits stealing (Eph 4:28), so a Christian can never steal without sinning. In the same passage, the Bible requires people to work in order to provide for their needs, but that does mean that Christians can never take a vacation. Another example: Christians are to show hospitality (1 Peter 4:9), but that does not mean someone always needs to be in your home or sharing a meal with you.
But when would a Christian be in sin for not working, or for not showing hospitality? Or when would a church be in sin for not gathering? I do not believe we can definitively draw the line when someone moves from obedience to disobedience on matters like this, which means we need to offer grace to those who may draw the lines differently from us.
That also means we should be able to look at those who say “I want to submit to God by submitting to the government he has instituted, but I believe that our church would be failing to fulfill our requirement to gather if we continued deferring to governmental regulations and, therefore, I think in order to give glory to God we need to gather” without concluding they are rebels who are ignoring commands to submit to the government. And we should be able to look at those who say “I believe the gathering of God’s people is an essential part of our obedience to Christ, but I believe in the current situation it would give God glory for us to temporarily utilize virtual and smaller gatherings in order to do what is honorable in the sight of God and man” without concluding they are cowards who have relinquished the governing of the church to a secular state.
But what we should not do is act as though the gathering of God’s people is an inconsequential and inessential part of the Christian life.
 Full disclosure: Tim is a friend and graduate of DBTS, though we have had no discussions about the decisions he and his church have made.
 If it is only a prohibition against an individual abandoning the assembly, then the clear assumption is that there is an assembly the individual could abandon.
 A complicating factor is that there are people who are visibly doing the same things but are being driven by rebellious hearts that just want to defy government regulations or are being driven by a fear of man that is either seeking popular approval or trying to avoid potential consequences.